THE EARTH TIMES
Now the hard part
THE EARTH COUNCIL: SPECIAL FROM COSTA RICA
BY ASHALI VARMA
SAN JOSE, Costa Rica—After a year-and-a-half of painstaking preparations, Maurice F. Strong’s Earth Council was formally inaugurated here in a fitting tribute to his vision for advancing the accomplishments of the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), widely known as the Earth Summit. Amid ceremonies featuring delegates from every continent, and three days of extended discussions on the implementation of the 1992 Rio Accords, the Council unveiled a three-point “plan of action” that would establish the new organization as a genuinely global body to monitor how governments and private-sector parties carry out the Earth Summit mandate.
The need to keep alive the “spirit of Rio” was highlighted in a message sent to the Council by President Rafael Angel Calderon of Costa Rica: “We want that all the principles, ideas and plans of action of the Council be converted to reality—we are part of a great experience and now we are on a path that must guarantee a more sustainable, sure and equitable future for all of humanity.” The message was read out at the National Theater on November 29, where hundreds of guests gathered for the formal opening of the Earth Council. Many guests had been committed participants in the Earth Summit process.
Tommy T. B. Koh a Council member and chairman of UNCED’s Preparatory Committee said: “From East Asia I bring a message of hope. Not very long ago, we too were poor and backward. It is possible for developing countries to take themselves out of poverty and catch up with the First World. But we must never prosper at the expense of the Earth. I regard the Earth Council as the custodian of the results of Rio.” Many in the audience seemed moved by Koh’s eloquence.
The private-sector Council represents an effort to “facilitate and support peoples’ initiative in behalf of the Earth,” according ’10 Alicia Barcena of Mexico, executive director of the 20-member body. In addition 10 the Council’s members, the organization named a panel of “eminent advisors,” who include former Presidents Jimmy Carter of the US and Julius K. Nyerere of Tanzania.
The Council’s objectives were set forth by its chairman-and moving spirit-Maurice Strong: “We will foster links between local, sectoral and global agendas. We will not speak for but seek to amplify the voices and the influence of those who are too often unheard or unheeded in the policy and decision-making processes which affect them.”
In an interview later with The Earth Times, Strong added: “The idea of the Earth Council came during the Rio process, when it became apparent that even if governments agreed at Rio, they will have so many other preoccupations, that unless we have some basis for continuing to keep these issues in front of them, their commitment would wane.”
Strong said that the very fact that the Council came into being in a developing country-Costa Rica-and had been given diplomatic status by the Costa Rican Congress (and a pledge of 100 million Costa Rican colons, or the equivalent of US$500,000 for an office), suggested that developing countries that had taken the lead in taking the message of Rio seriously.
The hospitality of the Costa Rican government, and local people, was apparent to all visitors who showed up in this Central American city for the Earth Council inaugural. The three days that participants from governments, business and non- governmental organizations spent here were marked net only by day-long discussions and drafting sessions. Numerous social gatherings were hosted as well. Many participants had come from as far away as Africa, Australia, India, Philippines, China, Singapore and Japan to be part of the process, and despite their jet-lag they enthusiastically plunged into the relentless work sessions.
The backgrounds of participants for the inaugural session of the Council reflected the major concerns of Agenda 21.
Among those attending were: Justice Elizabeth Evatt of Australia, President of Australia’s Law Reform Commission and member of the UN Human Rights Committee; Gordon Goodman of Britain, former Chairman of the Stockholm Environment Institute; Jim MacNeill of Canada, former Secretary General of the World Commission on Environment and Development (and editorial chairman of The Earth Times); Mahbub UI Haq of Pakistan, the chief architect of UNDP’s annual Human Development Reports; Saburo Kawai of Japan, President of the International Development Center of Japan; Chief Bisi Ogunleye of Nigeria, Executive Director of the Country Women Association of Nigeria; Maximo T. Kalaw of the Philippines, President ofthe Green Forum; Khethiwe Moyo Mhlanga of Zimbabwe, National Coordinator of Africa 2000.
Participants decided that the Earth Council would not duplicate activities but would act as a catalyst for NGOs and other agencies. It would also take on the task of disseminating information to NGO groups around the world by supporting national and community networks for sustainable development
Strong said: “The main priority is to do two things. One, to produce some very short-term products that can make a useful impact. We need some new thinking in the area of finance, and one of the proposals we’re working on is to actually expose the vast misuse of funds in the existing fiscal system which belies the idea that there is no money available. There are vast amounts of money being wasted to subsidize activities that are not sustainable. We are going to try and expose this in a very specific way which hopefully will make a difference in the way governments allocate budgets. Two, we will create a system to help the grassroots NGOs to have access to each other, because they have very little basis for communicating with each other.”
Strong said that the Council was creating alliances with existing agencies which are already involved with sustainable development and have been especially helpful to the Earth Council-such as the Inter American Institute on Cooperation for Agriculture, the World Conservation Union, the Society the International Development and the Stockholm Environment Institute, and Earth Day International.
Task forces were created to review the Council’s role and activities.
Even while the Council members were engaged in their discussions, the Earth Council was faced with its first challenge. The indigenous peoples of Costa Rica made a formal request for the Council to intervene in their behalf in a matter that would threaten their lands. The government was planning to build a hydro-electric plantwhich could flood 8,000 hectares of their land and also give mining rights to companies which wouldaffect their forests. Jose Carlos Morales, the President of the World Council for Indigenous People, said: “ We know that as a specialized agency to protect the environment, the Earth Council will take up our cause.”
The issue was taken up by the Council participants and it was decided that the Council would intervene in this case. As Strong later said to The Earth Times, “We have offered our good offices to try and resolve a local issue. We have to be careful not to generalize on that, because we don’t have the capacity to do this on a vast scale throughout the world, but in our own country headquarters there is perhaps a special reason to do so.”