Celebrating Biology Diversity: The quest for global sustainable development

25 May 2002
May 22 is the National Day for Biology Diversity and Monday Paper's focus this week is on two articles allied to the subject: UCT's newest Skye Foundation grant recipient, Kathy Calf, whose studies of energy expenditure in shorebird chicks will take her to the Russian tundra in July, and Professor Jan Glazewski's views on sustainable development.

THE HOSTING of the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg later this year is a major coup for South Africa. But what does sustainable development mean? How do we achieve it? Will developing countries' needs, as reflected in President Thabo Mbeki's New Partnership for African Development initiative, be accommodated?

The initiative to hold the World Summit should be seen as a progressive development which began in 1972 with the UN Conference of the Human Environment. The conference's most important outcome was the Stockholm Declaration, which delivered 26 general environmental principles to be considered for national implementation. In 1992 there was the UN's Rio Summit, which saw a fundamental shift towards development considerations including sustainable development. Now, 10 years later in Johannesburg, the emphasis is on sustainable development.

The 1983 World Commission on Environment and Development describes the concept as "development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their owns needs". The main aim of the Johannesburg summit, therefore, should be to focus on how to operationalise the integration of social, environmental and economic objectives in decision making by private and public centre entities. More specifically the challenge now is how to practically address poverty.

In the context of international environmental law, it should be noted that some contemporary conventions, for example, the Convention of Biodiversity adopted at the Rio Summit, are underpinned by the notion that there should be a more equitable sharing of benefits between rich and poor nations arising from the exploitation of genetic resources.

This can be achieved in a number of ways, including the delivery of non-monetary benefits such as technology transfer and sharing scientific information from North to South. But careful and skilled drafting of specific bio-prospecting contracts is needed to ensure such notions are met contractually. Geoff Budlender of UCT's Legal Resource Centre points out that 71% of rural South Africans live below the poverty line. However, he also says that the legal system can and should be invoked to combat and alleviate poverty through capacity building, legal representation and ultimately more equitable access and efficient use of land.

SA has embraced sustainable development in its pioneering National Environmental Management Act of 1998. The forthcoming summit should therefore be used to turn the words into concrete action and to truly ensure that development serves present and future generations.

Jan Glazewski is professor in the Institute of Marine and Environmental Law at UCT and author of Environmental Law in South Africa. This article is an extract of an editorial he wrote recently for Business Day.

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