Who Will Care for the Earth?


In last year's Annual Report, the President drew attention to a dominant feature of environmental issues in the l990s: politicians have accepted the need to protect the environment as an essential part of sustainable development, but have not yet matched their rhetoric with appropriate action. Despite the continued efforts of a growing environmental movement, the gap seems as wide in 1993 as it did in earlier years. What will be the consequences? Who will care for the Earth?

The situation in the world continues to deteriorate. In many of the countries where IUCN is working, economies are slipping further behind, soils and shores wash away, habitats are degraded and the capacity of the environment to sustain the variety of life is further reduced. Governments deplore what is happening, but seem incapable of responding adequately to the problem.

Did not the Earth Summit in Rio address these concerns? Yes, it did. On the credit side, Heads of State at Rio accepted the inseparable link between conservation and development. They agreed to Agenda 21, which is a checklist of the environmental actions which need to be taken. They concluded important agreements on climate change and biodiversity. And perhaps most important, the massive press coverage brought environmental issues into the homes of hundreds of millions of people around the world.

But Rio side-stepped the fundamental issues that cause environmental degradation and lack of development in the first place--the distorted world economic and trading system, the crippling burden of international debt, the resources sucked into the arms race, and the lack of effective government in some countries. In particular Rio evaded the central issue of how to bring human populations into balance with the natural systems that sustain them. Agenda 21 deals with symptoms--pollution and habitat loss, for example--rather than causes. The follow-up to Rio has been disappointing, with the developed countries committing little if any of the additional money and human resources that are so desperately needed.

It is sobering to realize that after four decades of hard work, and despite many successes, the world conservation movement has not yet established a global commitment to care for the Earth and its people.

The fundamental problem is that the policy-makers themselves are boxed in. In the North, they are caught by recession and by the unrealistic expectations of their electorates. In the South, governments are hamstrung by external debt, poor terms of trade and a global economic infrastructure stacked against them. Their development options. are limited, and frequently they have had to concede the initiative to aid donors and the international monetary organizations. Politicians have been dealt a weak hand, and yet we call on them to deliver a winning game.

National governments have been under severe pressures over the last decade and have been pulled in two directions at once. On the one hand, many governments have delegated more control to local communities, where, it is increasingly recognized, the focus of action to build a sustainable future must lie. On the other hand, they have conceded power to supranational groupings, like the European Union, the Group of 7 and the Group of 77. They have also conceded authority on numerous specific issues by subscribing to international agreements, each defensible in its own right but together creating a maze of obligations and reducing the scope for innovation and choice. As Rio clearly showed, the UN system alone will not save us.

At the same time, the world of business and industry continues to dominate global investment and financial flows. The sustained rapid evolution of information technology, satellite communications and global media allow whole nations to watch events live--as they happen. The media may sometimes exaggerate or confuse issues, but it is no longer possible for regimes to hide disasters and tragedies from the rest of the world. In this sense we are all part of the global village.

IUCN's prescription to address these issues is Caring for the Earth: A Strategy for Sustainable Living. It is both a statement of principles and a set of precise actions needed to achieve results. And, unlike other international documents, it both recognizes the need for social advance and reaffirms the need for conservation of nature and natural resources.

Caring for the Earth starts with an ethical foundation. We have to respect and care for the community of life. On this basis it argues that change has to begin with each and every one of us, above all in our attitudes and our patterns of consumption. As guardians of the Earth, we have to be sensitive to the needs of our fellow citizens, of our descendants and of the natural world. There is no other place to begin. Only when individuals feel both involved and able to make a difference can the cycle of apathy and indifference be broken.

Caring for the Earth recommends that the main decisions on use of nature and natural resources should be taken at the community level. This idea has developed into the approach known as Primary Environmental Care (PEC), analogous to the well-known strategy of Primary Health Care. Based on lessons learnt in community development, PEC is an integrated approach involving conservation, meeting human needs and community empowerment. According to PEC, communities will only conserve their local environment if by doing so they contribute to meeting human needs--such as providing incomes, jobs, food and health care--and if they have sufficient organizational capacity to do so. Of course this approach has been the unwritten rule of rural life for centuries, adopted by, for example, Scottish crofters and Australian aborigines. But in its new form it is a refreshingly simple restatement of fundamental environmental values, and it provides a basis for revitalizing both the cultural and the environmental fabric of society.

At national level, IUCN proposes the approach of the National Conservation Strategy (NCS), in which, of course, "conservation" includes the idea of sustainable development. The NCS approach is based on the principle that environment and development issues are cross-sectoral, they are not just the preserve of one department of government. Under the NCS process, all relevant departments work together to develop a set of integrated policies for conservation and sustainable living, whether at national or at local level. The examples in this report show its value.

At international level, Caring for the Earth insists we must create a global alliance. This does not mean another international organization or superstructure, but rather an effective commitment to shared goals across a wide range of political and social groups. Only international commitment will safeguard the atmosphere and the seas. Only teamwork among nations will address the imbalance between rich and poor, seeking to eliminate human poverty and to respect human dignity while conserving the bounty of nature.

It is becoming increasingly clear that the starting point for much of what has to be done must be in the developed countries--the so-called "North." They are the source of the world's most serious pollutants. They control global terms of trade. Yet they also have the power to allow accelerated--but sustainable--development in the rest of the world. They must urgently adjust their own values and reduce their impact on the world's resources. IUCN has been remiss in giving too little attention to underlying policy issues in the North.

It is perhaps surprising that as an international organization IUCN is not calling for new international structures nor is it putting primary emphasis on developing new global agreements. Of course we accept the importance of international alliances and agencies. But we also believe that decisions on resource use should be pushed down as far as possible to the community level. We are asking governments and others to provide the conditions, incentives and support that would allow communities to choose their environmental destiny, rather than remove this power to far-flung bureaucracies. IUCN is putting this idea into practice through the decentralization and regionalization of its own Programme.

Success in bringing people back into harmony within nature and conserving this wonderful planet for our descendants will ultimately come from action at the level of local communities in both North and South--respecting nature, controlling its use, valuing diversity and enhancing culture. What has to be done is terribly simple to describe, but immensely hard to orchestrate. This Annual Report describes IUCN's contribution to this vital task.