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La Educación
Número: (115) II
Año: 1993


Turning the fusion of economic and environmental ends known as “sustainable development” from a slogan into a global reality is the crucial task of the 1990s. The two-year process that culminated in the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in Rio de Janeiro last June represents the first steps toward a sustainable future. UNCED, popularly known as the “Earth Summit,” was by far the largest, most comprehensive, most inclusive international negotiation in history, and its preparatory process was equally complicated. Some 20,000 people converged on Rio for this event, representing governments, multinational corporations, environment and development organizations, women’s and youth groups, indigenous forest dwellers, and many other constituencies; 117 heads of state participated in the final UNCED meeting and endorsed some precedent-setting documents.

Three important documents were agreed to in Rio. Two were treaties—a climate treaty to curtail global warming and a biological diversity convention to conserve the rapidly disappearing biological heritage found in such richness in the tropical forests of the Americas. The third is a lengthy agreement called “Agenda 21,” a blueprint to guide the governments that endorsed it through the difficult tasks of managing natural resources, controlling pollution, combatting poverty, slowing population growth, developing and transferring technologies, and financing the nations’ collective transition to sustainable development.

The greatest single accomplishment of UNCED, in our opinion, is the universal recognition by most of the world’s governments of the shared goal of “sustainable development,” defined by the Brundtland Commission as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (World Commission on Environment and Development 1987). The almost universal adherence to this principle signified an astonishing admission, unheard of until a few years ago (Latin American and Caribbean Commission on Development and Environment 1990): that the development model created in the highly industrialized nations of the West and widely emulated across the world is not sustainable. This recognition led to the promise to turn our nations onto a sustainable development path, which has implications for every sector of our economies and every corner of our lives, most especially for educational priorities and institutions.

The Rio agreements reflect the sobering realization that the world’s natural resources and systems are in trouble—and so are its inhabitants, especially the nearly one billion people so poor that hunger and malnutrition are a daily reality. It was clear to summit-goers that dealing with the closely linked problems of environmental degradation and underdevelopment will demand actions that go beyond the usual environment or development agendas. In the post-UNCED decade, it is crucial to maintain the momentum gained at Rio, to get the peoples of the world through a difficult set of transitions to sustainable development.

The Western Hemisphere is as well equipped by the accidents of geography and history as any region of the world to lead the way in this quest for sustainable development. Although our lands range from the Yukon to Tierra del Fuego, we speak only four major languages, and we share many cultural and economic ties. Compared to other continents, our lands are sparsely populated. We are still rich in natural resources, though we are everywhere using them up as though there were no tomorrow. Our extremes of wealth and poverty demonstrate that unfettered greed and desperation both lead to environmental ruin. Sustainability clearly demands sharing the earth’s bounty more equitably among and within nations—and among generations now living and those yet to come. Our political future also hinges on a successful transition to sustainability since whether we can summon the vision and courage to make needed changes may well determine the fate of the hemisphere’s resurgence of democratic rule.

Implementing Agenda 21 will require unprecedented levels of international cooperation, especially North-South cooperation. There is no way that the industrial countries of the North can solve the global environmental problems of climate change and loss of biological resources without the cooperation of the South, any more than the developing countries can overcome poverty, curb population growth, and defeat their own health-threatening pollution problems without the cooperation of the wealthy industrial nations.

With UNCED in mind as its first target, the New World Dialogue on Environment and Development in the Western Hemisphere began to explore what it would take to shift the Western Hemisphere toward sustainable development. Besides the authors of this paper, the Dialogue includes 26 private citizen leaders from throughout the hemisphere: Brazilian and Canadian mayors, a Mexican university president, an Argentine energy expert, a Chilean economist, a Panamanian demographer, Brazilian and U.S. legislators and a former governor, two former ministers, investment bankers and businessmen—men and women who come from different cultures, speak different languages, and hold different political views. Despite our differences, we managed in six months of intense negotiations via meetings, phone calls, and a flurry of faxes to come to terms on a Compact for a New World (New World Dialogue 1991). The Compact was written in the form of an open letter to the heads of state and the legislators of the hemsiphere, telling them what we expected them to bargain for in Rio.

Surprisingly, the Dialogue group seldom divided along North-South lines, though left-right political clashes and North-North or South-South arguments flared from time to time. This general goodwill sprang from shared recognition of the threats that poverty and environmental degradation pose to our hopes for prosperity and democracy. We also shared a belief that the Western Hemisphere is well situated to stake out a new and ecologically sound development path, and that building the regional agreement needed to bring about this new kind of development in the Americas could catalyze similar efforts in the rest of the world.

Dialogue members faced controversial issues head-on, and each made some extraordinary concessions to achieve the necessary trade-offs. North Americans acknowledged the deadening weight of the debt burden and agreed that debt should be used in a variety of ways to pay for sustainable development. Caribbeans and Latin Americans conceded that even at current rates, population growth puts a terrible drag on development, and they agreed to a goal of achieving population stability by mid-century. North Americans conceded that excessive consumption in Canada and the United States—especially of energy—must be sharply curbed to allow for increased energy use in developing countries without causing further damage to global climate. All of us agreed that assaults on primary forests in North and South America must be stopped and that vulnerable deforested areas must be reforested. And we all recognized that the welcome moves to liberalize trade, stimulate investment, and revive growth in the hemisphere must be accompanied by equally powerful social, economic, and environmental initiatives.

Central to the New World Dialogue’s Compact is the concept of a bargain in which each nation gives something in order to get something for the benefit of all. The Compact‘s proposed eight initiatives are so interconnected that they can succeed only if negotiated as a package—and only if it is clear that each nation is doing its part to match the actions taken by others. For instance, Canadian and U.S. voters are likely to find increased debt reduction and development assistance more palatable if these moves are linked to Latin American and Caribbean efforts to protect forests and species and to curb population growth. Similarly, the peoples of developing countries are more likely to respond to their northern neighbors’ concerns about global warming if they know that they will have access to needed technology and financing, that meeting such challenges will not obstruct sustainable economic development at home, and that Canada and the United States are bearing their full share of hemispheric responsibility.