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environment9_19_2000.gif Bergen meeting seeks to revitalize environmental agenda
redarrow.gif - 0.1 K By TAMAR HAHN
© Earth Times News Service


ERGEN, Norway--For three rainy days environment ministers from over 20 countries gathered for an informal meeting at this city enfolded at the crook of seven mountains and fish-boned by seven fjords. Their informal discussions on the most pressing issues on the global environmental agenda took place at the Radisson SAS Royal Hotel, alongside 14th century Hanseatic buildings neatly topped with triangular cookie-cutter roofs and scrupulously painted red, blue, yellow, and green (they are on the UNESCO World Heritage List).

The lovely surroundings offered a stark contrast to the the testing issues being discussed behind closed doors: global warming, massive flooding, land degradation, toxic gas emissions, polluted water resources, and the list goes on. To make things worse, the momentum achieved following the 1992 Earth Summit has largely worn off and environmental concerns seem to have dropped way down on the global agenda.

"Rio + 10 is coming up in two years and the conference on climate change will take place in two months,” Mohamed T. El-Ashry, chief executive officer and chairman of the Global Environment Facility (GEF) told The Earth Times. "We need to wake up!"

The need to take stock of what has been achieved so far was palpable. "Many beautiful words have been said since the Rio summit," said Ghana’s environment minister and co-chair of the meeting Cletus A. Avoka. "Now we need to see some action. Rio + 10 should not be taken as a business as usual activity. It should have achievable objectives aimed at addressing the challenges of sustainable development in the new millennium."

One of the main topics of discussion regarding the Rio + 10 process was the need to incorporate environmental issues into the broader agenda of poverty eradication and sustainable development. "It is impossible to have a fruitful discussion on how to improve our ecosystems without addressing poverty," said Klaus Toepfer, executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme, during a brief coffee brake. "In 1992 most developed countries pledged to donate 0.7 percent of their GNP, but only a few did. So there is a need for re-commitment, a huge necessity to re-establish the spirit of Rio."

Despite the criticism, many feel that environmental issues have made some important strides since 1992. "I feel that a lot has been achieved since the Earth Summit," said Jan-Gustav Strandenaes, international coordinator for the Norwegian forum for environment and development, a national NGO. "We have conventions, such as the one dealing with Biological Diversity and the one on Climate Change that we didn’t have before, we have Agenda 21 with its programs of action to be undertaken by the global community, we have unprecedented commitment from the private sector. So if you put this in a historical perspective you realize that, while a lot remains to be done, a lot has been achieved in a relatively short period of time."

Strandenaes, who participated in a dialogue session between the ministers and civil society representatives, was pleased at the opportunity to share his views with global policy-makers. "It was the first time that such a session was held in these informal ministerial meetings and it was a very positive experience," he told The Earth Times. "We came here to show that civil society can make substantial contributions to the discussion and from talking to individual ministers we know that some of the suggestions we made during the dialogue session will be carried into the Rio + 10 process."

Despite the disparities in the evaluation of environmental achievements since the Earth Summit, there was unanimous consent on the need to revitalize the agenda and regain momentum. “I suggested that instead of reinventing the wheel all over again at Rio + 10 we should focus on three main issues from Agenda 21 which are equally important to developed and developing countries,” Mohamed El-Ashry told The Earth Times."Those issues are land and water, deforestation and energy. Those topics, together with the cross-sectional issues of poverty and financial support can bring about some real achievements.”

Another area of agreement was the positive value of this informal meeting. "This form was a good place for reflection and for the assessment of our global environmental strategy," said Jose Luis Samaniego Leyva, coordinator of international affairs for Mexico’s secretariat of environment, natural resources and fisheries. “The exchange between ministers was very useful because we were able to discuss our different perspectives without the pressure of negotiations. This is a very important element, because when we meet during a summit the positions are already set in stone and there is little room or time to reflect and have a dialogue free of political pressures."

The most concrete discussion during the informal meeting in Bergen centered on the institutional issues. "The most concrete achievement of these three days was the strengthening of UNEP," said Philippe Roch, state secretary of the Swiss Agency for the environment, forests and landscape to The Earth Times. "In the past, some countries were interested in creating a new world environment organization but during this meeting we all agreed that UNEP should remain the main organization for this purpose. The organization recently underwent extensive internal reforms and thanks to the efforts of Klaus Toepfer, its executive director, it has been able to gather considerable political support. Clearly, UNEP still needs more financial backing but I believe that it is important that it remains the coordinating body on environment issues. The ministers in this meeting seemed to agree that instead of wasting time and energy in creating a new organization we should find ways of strengthening this one."

Outside the meeting rooms in Bergen people in all nations ? rich and poor ? are experiencing the effects of ecosystem decline in one guise or another: from water shortages in the Punjab, India to soil erosion in Tuva, Russia and fish kills off the coast of North Carolina in the United States.

Whether the discussions here and those at the conferences on the environment that are soon to follow will be able to stop the deterioration of our planet is still an open question. At the very least, we can hope that the participants at the Bergen meeting left Norway with a renewed commitment to do something about it.