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Number: 67
Year: 1999
Author: Eloísa Trellez Solís and Gustavo Wilches Chaux
Title: Education for a Sustainable Future in the Americas

Sustainable Development: From Intention to Reality

The preamble to the Declaration of Heads of State and Government, issued from Santa Cruz de la Sierra, Bolivia, in 1996, asserts that, in spite of the regional and subregional efforts made in the Americas to pursue sustainable development,
...there still prevail modes of exploitation, production and consumption of goods and services that respond primarily to short-term objectives, and therefore cause the inappropriate exploitation of our natural resources and the deterioration of the environment. Consequently, a disproportionate share of the related costs must be borne by the poor.13
Eight years before, the United Nations Development Program had published a report entitled “Education – XXI Century Agenda,”14 which expressed much the same view at a global level. The report stated that
...economic globalization is not reducing inequality in living standards. On the contrary, between 1960 and the beginning of this decade, the income share of the richest 20 per cent of the population jumped from 70 percent to 87 percent, while the Gini index –a measure of inequality- deteriorated from a painful 0.69 to a disturbing 0.87. Therefore, contrasts are still abysmal; life expectancy at birth ranges form 33.6 years in Sierra Leone to 79.8 years in Japan. Adult literacy ranges from 13 percent in Niger to nearly 100 percent in developed countries, and per capita income adjusted in accordance with local living costs continues to range from US$352 in Rwanda to US$34,155 in Luxembourg.
With respect to consumption and quality of life in Latin America and the Caribbean, the Document “Our Own Agenda,” summarizes the region’s conditions:
Even though the situation varies between countries, it is estimated that, in 1960, the population living below the poverty line in Latin America and the Caribbean reached 110 million people, representing 51 percent of the population. The percentage decreased to 40 percent in 1970 and to 35 percent in 1980. However, the trend reversed itself during the past decade, and it is estimated that the region’s poor (163 million people) again represent not less than 40 percent of the population. Of these, 61 million are estimated to be extremely poor. In 1985, the absolute number of poor people was nearly 50 percent higher than it had been in 1960 and 25 percent higher than the number of people who were officially poor in 1980. In 1990, this figure reached 204 million people. With respect to basic needs, it is estimated that 40 percent of households do not consume the minimum calories required: that more than 700,000 of 12 million infants born each year, die before they are 12 months old; that the primary school drop out rate reaches 15 percent (higher than Africa and Asia); unemployment and underemployment affect 44 percent of the labor force and 68 percent of dwellings could be classified as inadequate”. 15
Moreover, in terms of atmospheric quality in Latin America and the Caribbean, it is estimated that 81 million people living in urban areas are permanently exposed to inadequate atmospheric conditions, while 38 million people live in cities where pollution is officially “only intermittent.” Both conditions, however, translate into chronic respiratory diseases and loss of labor capacity. In Mexico City, deaths due to cancer and respiratory diseases have multiplied six times since 1956, while cardiovascular diseases have quadrupled. In terms of water and environmental health, the document refers to the fact that
the region shows all the drawbacks of the industrial development model, albeit without the advantages that this implies for developed countries. Some of the region’s main rivers show biological and chemical pollution problems, caused by urban centers, industry and agriculture (fertilizers, pesticides, etc).16
Meanwhile, the drawbacks of the industrial development model are coming home to the developed countries, themselves. In the United States, over 60,000 people die each year from air pollution alone. Nearly 500,000 people living in the most polluted areas of 151 U.S. cities face a risk of death 15 times higher than those living in the least polluted areas, and some 164 million people are now at risk for respiratory and other health problems as a result of exposure to excessive air pollution. At the same time, over 41 million people in the United States live within four miles of one of the nation’s 1,500 most dangerous toxic waste dump sites. Since the 1950s, the country has registered dramatic increases in cancer of the testis, prostate gland, kidney, breast, skin and lung. By most reliable accounts, incidents of these and other environmentally-related diseases are increasing.17

Finally, a 1984 study showed that, “…the number of people affected by floods, cyclones, earthquakes and droughts, had risen from 27 million during the 1960s to more than 48 million people during the next decade, and no geological or climatic changes had occurred that could account for this increase”.18 Although natural dynamics have not changed substantially, hazardous phenomena capable of unleashing disaster have strengthened, causing increasing economic losses and human casualties. The worsening effects of El Niño during the last years, confirms the planet’s increasing loss of its ability to self-regulate the climate.

These data show clearly that the gap between governments’ rhetoric concerning sustainable development and the actual manner in which state planners continue thinking and pursuing development, becomes wider everyday. This is true not only in strictly environmental terms, but also in social and economic terms.

In short, the way in which the physical world is currently managed is increasingly unsustainable. At the 1992 Rio Meeting on the Environment and Development, decisions were taken at the highest level for the purpose of reversing these destructive trends. However, seven years after the meeting took place, the effectiveness of these decisions is not only far below expectations, but the contradiction between environment and development at the global level continues to increase steadily. We must therefore conclude that human socioeconomic organization, including the way in which we interact with the environment and the notion we have of development, aggravates vulnerability. At the same time, prevailing forms of social organization are actually changing the ecosystems in which we live in such a way as to render them both more fragile and more threatening.

Challenge for the Future
  • To encourage Heads of State and Government to assume, with meaningful political commitment, the responsibility for effecting socioeconomic reform with a view to achieving greater sustainability. Without this pressure, it will be impossible to convert international declarations into concrete actions.