In 1992 representatives of the world’s governments came together at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) held in Rio de Janeiro. Referred to as the Rio Earth Summit, this conference marked the beginning of a new era in human history. Jacquie Tarr, a free-lance writer on environmental issues, summarises the important shifts in thought and action regarding environmental issues and the progress made in Namibia since UNCED 10 years ago.
As a result of impressive technological development, people’s ability to ensure greater agricultural and industrial productivity increased dramatically during the 20th century. While the extensive use of agrochemicals, mechanised land clearing, improved transportation and industrial methods have enhanced efficiency in food production and refined our lifestyles, these technological advancements have been accompanied by many social and environmental problems.
These problems, which include rapid rates of species extinction, creeping desertification, holes in the atmosphere’s ozone layer, unexpected changes to global climates and escalating human health problems were, for the first time, addressed by the world’s governments at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992.
It was within this forum that governments formally adopted the concept of sustainable development, which is most often described as “development that meets the needs of the present without limiting the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”.
The World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD), to be held in Johannesburg, South Africa, in August 2002, will mark the ten-year anniversary of the Rio Earth Summit. This summit provides an ideal opportunity for countries to review their progress regarding the implementation of sustainable development options and to redirect action towards the goals originally laid down at the Rio Earth Summit.
The Johannesburg Summit will be attended by at least 110 Heads of State, an estimated 6 000 United Nations delegates, 1 000 global business leaders, 50 000 delegates and 1 000 journalists.
Discussions will focus on building commitment at the highest levels of government and society for implementing action plans that aim to achieve sustainable development. Ultimately these plans will focus on ways to improve the quality of life for all the world’s people but without threatening the ability of the earth’s natural systems to provide resources (essential for our economies) and maintain life support systems (essential for human health).
The slogan for the summit, “People, Planet and Prosperity”, puts this concept most succinctly. Furthermore it encapsulates the fact that a three-pronged approach is essential – thus, not only must economic and social issues be considered when aiming for human development, but also ecological issues, for without them sustainability is unattainable.
Despite the efforts made at the Rio Earth Summit, tackling the root causes of unsustainable activities remains a huge challenge for all the world’s nations, including Namibia. Poverty alleviation is central to this challenge.
Narrowing the gap between the very rich and the very poor demands not only embracing innovative environmentally friendly approaches to improving the quality of life of the world’s poorest, but also creating incentives for the very rich (who make up only 15% of the world’s population, but account for approximately 60% of global consumption) to reduce their highly resource-intensive lifestyles.
Shift towards sustainable development
Namibia’s past 10-year review period since UNCED closely corresponds with the country’s period of independence. During this period Namibia had a particularly large challenge to face. Not only was there pressure to shift towards sustainable development. There was also the strong need to overcome a 100-year history of colonialism and apartheid, which, through biased development objectives, had succeeded in establishing a plethora of social ills. The extent of this social “debt” was evidenced by rural and urban poverty, huge disparities in income distribution, unequal access to land and natural resources, and poor education, health and housing.
Less known are the environmental liabilities that Namibia inherited due to a lack of environmental awareness and colonial policies. For instance, the marine fisheries sector had partly collapsed in the 1970s through over-fishing, and the productivity of agricultural rangelands had shown a steady decline, as had biological diversity, in many areas of the country. The use of wood fuel for an estimated 70% of all Namibians had become a major cause of deforestation in the more heavily populated communal areas and the rapidly growing informal settlements on the outskirts of towns. In addition, overgrazing, soil erosion and declining water and wetland quality had become issues of major concern, which in today’s value system were costing Namibia well over N$300 million per year in lost productivity.
In 1998 the key threats to sustainable development in Namibia (see box) and options for their mitigation were identified in preparation for Namibia’s 2nd National Development Plan. Although mentioned separately, most of the threats to sustainable development are interlinked – reflecting the complex and integrated nature of Namibia’s sustainable development challenge.
Since 1990 progress has been made with regard to meeting Namibia’s social and environmental challenges. After independence Namibia became one of the first countries worldwide to incorporate environmental and sustainable development clauses within its National Constitution. It complemented these clauses by enabling Namibians to raise issues of environmental concern via the Office of the Ombudsman. In 1992, through Namibia’s Green Plan, the Government created a national common vision for sustainable development.
President Sam Nujoma formally tabled this document at UNCED on behalf of the Nation. The Green Plan led, in turn, to Namibia’s 12 Point Plan for Integrated and Sustainable Environmental Management, a short strategic implementation document, which was tabled and adopted by Parliament in 1993. Namibia’s portfolio of environmental programmes and projects established over the next 10 years arose from this process, and was designed as a complementary set of activities to address the country’s environmental challenges.
Policy improvement, decentralisation and local empowerment are all evidence of the progress made in Namibia since independence and UNCED. Multi-stakeholder consultation has become the norm and there has been a steady move towards designing policies within a broader sustainable development framework rather than following the traditional sectoral approach.
Several new policies that adequately reflect sustainable development objectives have been formulated, including the Environ-mental Management Bill, the Pollution and Waste Manage-ment Bill, the Community Based Natural Resource Management Policy, the most recent marine fisheries management policies, the Mineral Policy, the National Drought Policy and Strategy and Namibia’s Energy Policy White Paper.
In addition, a much more systematic decision-making process has developed at the political and technical levels. The adoption and widespread use of tools such as Environmental Assessment, which encourages a full ap-praisal of the expected environmental and social impacts that may be associated with development plans, programmes and projects, help to promote a culture of public consultation and participation in decision making at the national and local level. In addition the emerging State of Environment Reporting (SER) programme will help Namibia to track the positive and negative impacts of key decisions.
The devolution of rights and responsibilities over natural resources to community-based organisations (for example, the establishment of water-point committees, and wildlife conservancies), and the establishment of multi-stakeholder (Govern-ment and NGO) steering committees to guide national programmes are evidence that there has been a noticeable shift from the old colonial style of administration to a far more democratic approach that embraces decentralisation and local empowerment.
In addition there has been steady progress in testing and applying technological solutions to sustainable development challenges in Namibia, including wind and solar energy, fuel-efficient stoves, and water-saving devices. Local NGOs have strengthened during the past 10 years and several make a positive contribution to sustainable development – most noticeably the Namibia Nature Foundation (NNF), Namibia’s Community Based Tourism Association (NACOBTA), the Desert Research Foundation (DRFN) and Integrated Rural Development and Nature Conservation (IRDNC).
Despite these improvements many people in Namibia still have negative perceptions of environmentalism, believing that it equates directly to preservation at the cost of social and economic development. One way to improve this situation is to focus on improving environmental education at all levels of society, and progress in this field, albeit slow, has been made.
Avoid others’ mistakes
An important message that emerged from the National Assessment and 10-year review since the Rio Earth Summit is that developing countries like Namibia are in an excellent position to avoid the damaging impacts of development that other nations have suffered in the past. However, to achieve this, there is an urgent need to:
Summary of the key threats to sustainable development in Namibia
• Poverty and inequality
• The loss of biodiversity
• Namibia’s high dependence on natural resources
• The need to improve access to existing knowledge and fill knowledge gaps
• Increasing water stress
• Human health issues and the HIV/AIDS epidemic
• Population growth and settlement patterns
• Governance issues
• Land issues, particularly equitable access to land and natural resources, but including desertification
• The need for a stable macroeconomic environment and stimulating private entrepreneurship
• Increasing competition with neighbouring countries for shared natural resources
• Global atmospheric change
Economic instruments that can be used to stimulate and finance sustainable development options (UNEP 1999).
Many economic instruments can be used to help finance sustainable development and/or discourage environmentally unfriendly practices that threaten human health and limit long-term economic prosperity. These economic instruments include:
Adapted from Namibia’s National Assessment for the World Summit on Sustainable Development 2002 by J Tarr & CJ Brown.
This article appeared in the 2002 edition of Conservation and the Environment in Namibia.