The environmental movement has come a long way from the days when Greenpeace activists hugged trees to demonstrate their commitment towards preserving forests. However, the job of harmonising economic growth with social progress, protection of the environment and natural resources remains a daunting one.
Said UN Secretary General Koffi in his World Environment Day message last week: "In 1992 at Rio de Janeiro, the international community achieved a conceptual breakthrough. No longer, it was hoped, would environmental issues be regarded as a luxury or afterthought. Rather, they would become a central part of the policy making process, integrated with social and economic development."
Malawi's President Bakili Muluzi did not attend the Rio meeting to hear the message. Had he done so, he may have found ways of managing famine and the vagaries of weather patterns that are now afflicting his country.
Instead, he blamed the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for a food crisis and a reform agenda that has failed to improve the lives of his people.
Muluzi was echoing comments made by two of his ministers who claimed the IMF asked his government to sell maize from strategic reserves to enable the state food agency to meet obligations on a commercial loan.
"If the IMF policies had not failed, we would not be where we are," said Muluzi. Too bad he missed Rio and its message regarding the need to integrate environmental issues like rainfall patterns with policies that address social and economic development.
Former Prime Minister of Norway Gro Harlem Brundtland defined Muluzi's predicament more concisely in her report, Our common future.
Africa, she said, tragically illustrated the ways in which economics and ecology interact destructively. However, she added, triggered by drought, its real causes lay deeper.
"They are to be found in part in national policies that gave too little attention too late to the needs of smallholder agriculture and to the threats posed by rapidly rising populations."
Brundtland's report mooted the sustainable development concept. It noted that in the end, sustainable development was not a fixed state of harmony but rather, a process of change in which the exploitation of resources, the direction of investments, the orientation of technological development and institutional change are made consistent with future as well as present needs. Painful choices have to be made but in the final analysis, the report notes, sustainable development must rest on political will.
In the political will department, Muluzi could probably have done better for his people. When bargaining with IMF, he probably should have been more pragmatic. When states and stakeholders come together at the World Summit on Sustainable Development to be held in South Africa later this year, he should be there aggressively negotiating a position for his country. So too should other African leaders.
Many of the environmental problems Africa faces today are unlike the ones which confronted the continent at independence. However they are of concern when one realises how since the 1950s and 1960s more people have fewer resources and are living out increasingly poverty riddled scenarios.
It used to be that rapid world-wide economic development realised over the past 200 years was based on classic economic concepts which assumed air and water were free resources and land together with minerals were inexhaustible.
Today, it is said that the increasing toxicity of the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the earth we walk on is so critical to the lives and well being of all of us that political bargaining is nothing less than an exercise in negotiating the survival of society.
Several stumbling blocks loom in the path towards sustainable development. Says Gunnar Sjostedt of the Swedish Institute of International Affairs, Stockholm.
One has to do with the rise in potential for mass destruction- overtly through military means and, subtly, through the effect that economic development can have on environment.
A second drawback says the editor of a book, International Environmental Negotiation, lies in the growing disparity in social, political, economic and technological disparity between the North and the South.
If this trend continues, within 50 years, 80 per cent of the world1s population will live in grossly underdeveloped areas. The remaining 20 per centy will be morally choking on human poverty and physically choking on a degraded environment.
The main actors in international negotiations are national government and their agents. It is true that African governments could not actively negotiate with colonial powers in establishing development patterns focused mainly on economic growth, with the export of key commodities and natural resources as a major feature. It is also true that reinforcement in a post independence era came in the form of aid programmes from industrialized countries and the lending policies of the World Bank and IMF.
However, in the year 2002, African governments should be capable of developing sustainable national environment policies. They should take advantage of their right to participate in treaty-making processes which codify measures that control the process.
While the basic treaty making elements usually involve lawyers, it is scientists who ring the alarm when new threats to the environment manifest themselves.
In the year 2002, Africa has many who can make valuable inputs at the pre-negotiation phase.
Can Muluzi along with other African leaders make use of these resources? Can they make their presence felt at the forthcoming World Summit on Sustainable Development? Political will is critical. Can they muster enough to negotiate a way forward that takes Africa beyond famine, drought, poverty, HIV/Aid and the range of chronic environmental problems beleaguering this continent? It is not good form to complain and blame others after the fact.