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Has the World Given Up on Sustainable Development?

Adam W. Parsons

In the first two weeks of May each year, diplomats from around the world gather at the United Nations to discuss the concept of ‘sustainable development'. It is a meeting that today attracts almost no attention from the media, and few journalists bother to attend, even though the themes under review this year could not be more relevant to current affairs - agriculture, Africa, desertification, drought, land use and rural development. So what's happened?  Does the world no longer care about the state of the Earth in years to come, or is there another reason for such a lack of public interest in the issue of sustainability at the UN?

It hasn't always been this way; in June 1992, headlines were dominated by stories about the ‘Earth Summit' in Rio de Janeiro, described as the world's largest ever international conference following the end of the Cold War. For the first time, ‘sustainable development' became a phrase of popular discourse, and the Summit's message was transmitted by almost 10,000 on-site journalists - that nothing less than a transformation of our attitudes and behaviour will bring about the necessary changes to ensure a sustainable future. By the end of the meeting, two of the most important documents in development policy were agreed by consensus; the Rio Declaration, comprising 27 broad principles for protecting the environment, and a complicated 300-page ‘economic blueprint' called Agenda 21. It was in this last document that hope was placed for achieving sustainable development in the 21st century, and thus was born the Commission for Sustainable Development (CSD), tasked with ensuring effective follow-up of the Rio agreements.

A lot has happened since 1992, and few of the delegates at the seventeenth CSD this year failed to point out the convergence of crises that has occurred since CSD-16 in 2007, what the Chair of the meeting described as "a crossroads, a watershed" - not just a food crisis, but a climate and financial crisis, all of which are worsening the underlying poverty crisis. Although the themes of the CSD vary in each session, the issues of the past two cycles could not have been more topical and prescient, focusing on climate change and energy in 2006/7, and agricultural in 2008/9. Agriculture, as many of the non-governmental organisations (NGOs) gathered for the event sought to make clear, is at the heart of many of the world's problems, not just in food production but also in climate change mitigation, poverty eradication, water scarcity and environmental degradation.

Noble Ideals

Clearly the relevance of the CSD's focus this year could not be questioned, nor its practical goal of fashioning global policies to address these agriculture-related themes. Neither could its noble aims be criticised in visioning a "truly sustainable green revolution" in agricultural productivity, and in reaffirming the international commitment to "provide and strengthen support to the special needs of Africa, [agreeing that] eradicating poverty, in particular in Africa, is the greatest challenge facing the world today."

When the final text of CSD-17 was agreed after two weeks of intense negotiations, however, some valid questions were asked about what the summit actually achieved. Did it put forth a "paradigm shift" in agriculture, as called for in the Chair's Shared Vision Statement? Any "clear deliverables" on how to lift millions of farmers and rural people out of abject poverty? "Practical measures" on how to revitalise developing country agriculture? "Concrete actions" for creating a green economy and tackling the food crisis? Or are the consensus positions outlined in the final text still tantamount to ‘business-as-usual', and more of the same old policies that created the multiple crises in the first place?

As the Third World Network pointed out in an op-ed during the CSD, just the estimated US$900,000 cost in airfares for CSD-17 could have fed 600,000 children for a week, or bought 180,000 goats to support rural development in semi-arid areas. Spelling out more of the uncertainties being raised by many NGOs, they asked: "Will the outcomes embedded in this document deliver anything new? Will it help secure the right to food? Will the text help feed a hungry mouth?" If these questions cannot be answered in a positive way, they said, then perhaps the spirit that brought the world together in Rio has finally been lost.

With the CSD following closely after the World Food Summit in June 2008, the FAO Food Security Committee in October 2008, the Food Security For All gathering in Madrid in January 2009, and the G8 Agriculture Ministers' Meeting in April 2009 (to mention not all of the recent high level meetings convened in response to the food crisis), more serious doubts could be raised about the UN's effectiveness in steering the world onto a sustainable path in agriculture. And with more than 100 million people joining the ranks of the world's hungry in 2008, it is perhaps no longer facetious to ask whether a non-binding and compromised document can address the critical issues facing agriculture and development, not to mention the future sustainability of the Earth.

The importance of international conferences on environmental issues is generally acknowledged by even their sternest critics, and the CSD is no exception. Although prioritising the environment is the main concern of global treaties like the Kyoto Protocol, nowhere else is sustainable development prioritised in the economic and business spheres - and arguably not in institutions like the IMF, World Bank or WTO where economic growth is the principal objective. Summits are renowned as being largely talking shops, but the significance of the Earth Summit and its ensuing yearly events cannot be underestimated in creating a shared conviction that sustainability matters. In UN-speak, the CSD is described as a process that can help construct a "confidence-building architecture" that will then facilitate negotiations in treaty bodies, and give the UN a stronger direction in the field of sustainable development in the future.

Failed Expectations

In practice, however, the CSD process has not always lived up to its expectations of rising above national self-interests in the common cause of protecting the Earth's ecosystems, while at the same time fostering economic progress in developing countries and eradicating poverty. The memory of CSD-15 still lingers over the process when in May 2007 the text was rejected in the final stages of negotiations, and widely condemned as an unprecedented failure. Almost all of the previous meetings, including the ‘Rio +5' meeting in 1997 and ‘Rio +10' in 2002 held as periodic reviews of Earth Summit progress, were decried as ‘backward steps' or ‘dismal failures' by various civil society representatives.

In this respect CSD-17 may have been nothing new in terms of public disappointment, even though the final text and its policy recommendations were agreed by all 53-member states. But with the absence of journalists and many major NGOs, political posturing and narrow self-interests were clearly displayed through a negotiating text riddled with brackets and deletions. At the end of the first week, most of the discussions that continued over the weekend reportedly focused on what ‘sustainable development' actually meant as a concept, despite it being reiterated in hundreds of UN documents for more than twenty years. If the G-77 bloc of nations had their way, the word ‘sustainable' would have been deleted from ‘sustainable agriculture', and the CSD could have been reduced to a Commission on Development. Such a degree of irony, as many commentators observed, could only be interpreted as misplaced filibustering and politics-as-usual that failed to perceive the gravitas of the world's development crisis.

As in most UN conferences on agricultural issues, CSD-17 highlighted two different paradigms for development that are antithetical in both philosophy and practice. The first and existing paradigm, reflected in many of the CSD member-states' positions, is dependent on the same industrial methods of production in agriculture that has defined the past half century; mono-cropping, large-scale production, top-down corporate control, and fossil-fuel intensive practices that have already seriously degraded the natural environment. The other vision, endorsed and lobbied for by most civil society organisations attending the UN summits on agriculture, starts with bottom-up development and the empowerment of small-scale farmers, low-input methods of production, short supply chains, and initiatives that allow local communities to set the agenda in agricultural policy. Depending on which paradigm is accepted, the meaning of ‘sustainable' in reference to farming systems is widely different in interpretation.

For this reason, one of the greatest hopes for the ongoing CSD process was a scientific study launched at the CSD itself in 2002, during the World Summit on Sustainable Development (the ‘Rio +10'). The International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD), a four-year investigation involving more than 400 leading scientists and initiated by the World Bank and five different agencies within the UN, gave a clear conclusion that the old paradigm of industrial agriculture is a concept of the past. Its core message was unequivocally in favour of re-directing agricultural science and technology towards small-scale farmers and agro-ecological methods of production, what the Report described as "non-hierarchical development models". The "new paradigm" that the IAASTD report set forth represented an evolution in the concept of agriculture that was directly relevant to the CSD's mandate of ensuring environmentally, socially and economically sustainable development.  

Ignoring the Science

Since the IAASTD report was released in April 2008, however, not only was its analysis largely absent during the CSD-17 process, but it was not even mentioned in the final negotiating text. Even though the NGO Major Group in their opening statement urged the CSD to adopt the report as a basis for international and national policy-making, and despite a number of side events that specifically endorsed the report's findings during the conference, still some governments were not aware that the IAASTD report existed. In an interview with Dr Hans Rudolf Herren, one of the Co-Chairs of the IAASTD report, he expressed his view that the lobbying strategies of the "agro-chemical interest groups" had undoubtedly achieved their objectives in having the report silenced at the CSD.

The main negotiator for the NGO Major Group, Elenita Dano, has explained that the agro-ecological practices and sustainable agricultural production promoted by the IAASTD report were presented at the CSD "as alternate farming methods to address the environmental consequences of conventional agriculture dependent on chemical inputs." In other words, the current model of industrial agriculture - highlighted by the international scientific community as needing radical reform in favour of ecological farming practices - is still assumed to be the dominant paradigm for the future. With so little consensus between civil society, governments and the United Nations as to what a truly sustainable paradigm for agricultural development should look like, it is difficult to understand how the ‘paradigm shift' called for by the CSD can happen.

It was left up to civil society organisations and the Major Group representatives at the CSD, given only one minute to make their case at the beginning and end of the two-week process, to vainly describe the guiding parameters for a new model in agricultural development. As the Indigenous Peoples put it in their opening statement, despite being cut short after 60 seconds; "Increased support for localisation in production and consumption patterns is required, rather than intensified centralisation and globalisation." Or in the words of another NGO delegate, the real question for government ministers is how to prioritise local agricultural production over export crops, how to direct investment to the most vulnerable communities in developing countries, and how to truly support small family farmers and not just benefit large multinational food and agriculture businesses. Such a radical shift in thinking on agricultural issues was predictably lacking from the CSD-17 outcome.

A New Movement

In the gear up to another UN summit for a "new world food order" in November 2009, and with the prospect of a ‘Rio +20' summit to be held again in Brazil in 2012, it is time to ask if the United Nations is achieving enough in the realm of sustainable agriculture and development. Many commentators are asking if the United Nations is starting with the right questions, including the Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Olivier de Schutter, who said during the CSD that it is "more about ‘how to help feed the world itself' than about ‘how to feed the world'". The popular author David Korten also urged the CSD in a magazine article to rethink the basic assumptions that frame its work, as the question ‘How do we make development sustainable?' is too easily translated as ‘How do we make economic growth sustainable?'; a question for which there is no answer, because sustained economic growth is not possible on a planet with finite resources.

For others, the term ‘sustainable development' is itself an oxymoron, as no development can be sustainable on a planet where 20 percent of the population consumes 80 percent of the natural resources. The starting point for sustainability, in this analysis, is in both a reduction of total material consumption, and in redistributing resources from rich to poor - what Korten describes as reallocation, not aggregrate growth, as the key to sustainable prosperity for all. What's clear is that the United Nations is still a long way from challenging the old political and economic paradigms that stand in the way of making poverty history, and it will take a lot more than the CSD process to steer the world onto a sustainable course. Now more than ever, the burden of responsibility rests on the shoulders of civil society, and in the possibilities of creating a new grassroots movement that can pressure governments to share their vision. 

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Adam W. Parsons is the editor at Share The World's Resources, and can be contacted at editor(at)stwr(dot)org.

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