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Getting beyond Rio.

To no one's surprise, the two-week Earth Summit in Rio de Janiero last June ended in frustration and a flurry of recrimination. Much of the blame was attributed to U.S. equivocation in its support for agreements on global warming, biodiversity, and tropical forests. President Bush's hesitancy in committing himself to attend and an embarrassing flap over a leaked memo to the White House from the head of the U.S. delegation further discredited U.S. intentions.

But the furor should not be seen as an indictment of all U.S. international environmental efforts or policies. In fact, the lesson from Rio might be that comprehensive global agreements are not the way to preserve the environment, that attempts to overcome the deep-rooted differences between the wealthy industrialized North and the impoverished developing South are most likely to lead to antagonistic grandstanding. To some extent, the quest for elusive grand compromises on global problems at Rio diverted attention from the responsibility of individual nations to make hard choices and real investments to solve pressing environmental problems. For some self-serving national leaders, toothless treaties can even serve their narrow political interests at the expense of the environment by enabling them to substitute symbolic action for practical efforts.

The U.S. error was not so much its positions on specific treaty language as its willingness to be drawn into a no-win predicament. No imaginable environmental agreement that could have been signed at Rio would have helped solve the underlying problems between North and South that are at the root of environmental issues. As Canada's Maurice Strong, the conference secretary-general, noted, "Poverty, inequality, the terms of trade, external debt, the flow of resources out from the South--today these issues have become a crucial part of the equation when the environment is talked about."

But the fact that environmental problems are linked to wider economic and social concerns does not absolve governments from the responsibility of finding workable, short-run technical and policy solutions. Instead, greater efforts must be made by governments and international agencies to deal incrementally with specific environmental problems at local, regional, and national, as well as global, levels. New institutional relationships between local groups and government bureaucracies can be developed to help achieve common goals in resource use. It is here that the U.S. has made and can continue to make significant contributions.

What the United States could have done at Rio and should do now is to shift the focus to a discussion of how to develop practical targeted mechanisms to correct pressing problems identified by the countries of the South. The United States has a two-decade record of bilateral programs that have produced sound results and that can serve as a model for future efforts. By taking an approach that avoids political pressure points, the United States can provide renewed leadership in fighting the world's environmental problems.

The fundamental economic and political issues that characterize North-South relations undoubtedly need attention, and progress on this front will make it easier to deal with environmental problems. But this will be a long, slow process. In the meantime, U.S. international environmental efforts should emphasize helping developing countries deal with the specific local and regional environmental effects that inevitably accompany economic development.

A record to build on

Since the early 1970s, the United States has taken the lead in forging a consensus on the critical importance of environmental sustainability to human welfare. U.S. initiatives delineated the moral grounds for international policy initiatives relating to resource conservation, pollution control, and protection and preservation of common areas such as the oceans and Antarctica. Creative technical-assistance and diplomatic strategies have been developed jointly by the Congress, the White House, foreign aid organizations, and research and regulatory agencies. The environmental community has played a constructive research and watchdog role.

Although the Reagan and Bush administrations introduced many political, financial, and administrative obstacles to environmental program development and implementation, the United States has continued to play the major role in international environmental activities that it first assumed over 20 years ago.

In 1992, the United States spent about $14 billion on foreign economic, humanitarian, and development aid. Of this, roughly $750 million went for projects that are specifically designated as having environmental components or deemed directly supportive of environmental goals. (This figure excludes other foreign assistance programs, such as food aid and public health programs, that may indirectly benefit the environment but are not specified as "environmental" programs.) This was roughly 60 percent more than the amount spent in 1990.

Still, the United States was criticized at the Rio summit because it spends a smaller percentage of its gross domestic product on international environmental assistance than do many other industrialized nations. But this is a simplistic and possibly misleading measure that fails to take into account the range and effectiveness of the activities these funds support. Many U.S. efforts are low-cost programs that directly benefit people and the environment in developing countries. The critical question is how the money is spent.

The United States should seize this moment to evaluate its accomplishments, shortcomings, and opportunities in international environmental affairs. Even with reduced financial resources, it can take steps to deal more effectively with smaller-scale problems. By strengthening and improving coordination among existing training, applied-research, technical-assistance, and information-exchange programs, and by reducing funding for research on long-range problems that have limited short-term policy relevance, the U.S. can move ahead in a variety of productive directions in the post-Rio period.

U.S. agencies such as the Agency for International Development (AID) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have wide-ranging--and widely respected--technical expertise in environmental research, monitoring, training and management, and institution building. These agencies, along with units in nearly every department of the federal government, participate in a variety of international environmental programs. Some are administered bilaterally, others through a variety of multilateral mechanisms, including regional intergovernmental or nongovernmental organizations, the United Nations, private research bodies, and international development banks.

With programs operating in about 90 countries, AID has been the major player in foreign environmental assistance since the 1970s. In fiscal 1991, AID spent roughly $500 million (out of its total appropriation of over $6 billion) on environment-related foreign aid. A 1990 AID Environment Initiative mission statement identifies five priority problem areas: tropical forest loss and biodiversity, environmentally unsound energy production and use, urban and industrial pollution, degradation and mismanagement of water resources, and unsustainable agricultural practices. Forestry and biodiversity programs, which consume about 40 percent of AID's environment-related budget, support some outstanding work. For many years AID has been a worldwide leader in promoting new approaches to forest conservation and management. These strategies include buffer-zone and extractive reserve development, investment in biodiversity research to help identify new products for use in medicine and industry, and establishment of gene sanctuaries and scientific research reserves.

The effectiveness of these programs has been limited, however, because most forest planning and policy development activities are carried out in the host country at the national government level, with insufficient local input. A recent Congressional Research Service report points out that there has been considerable progress over the past 30 years in developing national forest action plans and improving linkages among relevant national programs focusing on a particular sector, such as rural development, population, or agriculture. There has been less success, however, in identifying workable methods for forest and biodiversity management that can be applied in diverse settings.

Recently, AID has tried to address the discrepancies between the needs of local forest users and of government logging bureaucracies. Conflicts can be overcome by convincing both groups that, as the resource base declines, there are good reasons to find ways to compromise in order to promote mutually beneficial and sustainable forest use. AID staff in a variety of programs have been working to improve communications among various interest groups and develop resource-management strategies that reconcile their conflicting goals.

There are negative lessons to be learned from AID's experience as well. The agency's record illustrates the harmful effects of politicization on foreign environmental assistance. For instance, funds are not equitably distributed among programs in AID's five priority areas in accordance with an overall program plan. Instead, many programs are funded at disproportionately high levels in response to specific politically favored initiatives of members of Congress and/or the administration.

About half of AID's budget is allocated to global climate change/energy-related research and technical assistance--for example, helping developing countries conduct inventories of greenhouse gas emissions. These climate change programs are part of the $1 billion federal Global Change Research Program (GCRP) initiative. The GCRP seeks better basic understanding of economic, scientific, and social aspects of global climate change to facilitate long-range policy development, but not to suggest short-term actions. The Bush administration claims that this is the largest single environment-related expenditure of any country. Justification for the high level of research support for this study of long-range problems is questionable, however, given the pressing need to address the immediate ecological and social costs of development, especially in poor countries.

Shifting political interests also threaten some of AID's long-term investments. In southern Africa, AID has worked for 10 years to improve range management by identifying strategies that will enable capital-intensive grazing interests and local communities to sustain the grazing potential of their lands. The two interest groups are on the verge of agreeing to modify grazing practices to their mutual advantage. Unfortunately, AID officials have proposed that the scope of the project be reduced and key technical personnel shifted to support environmental remediation projects in Eastern Europe--a more politically popular and commercially attractive arena.

The beneficial results of AID's operations in many countries have also been undermined because of the agency's ties to intelligence organizations. In the 1980s, for example, the Mexican government terminated AID's missions because they were known to be fronts for intelligence agencies seeking to destabilize Central American governments.

Many within and outside the federal government feel that the agency could be more effective if was better shielded from political influence. Outside observers, including congressional staff, also maintain that AID's programs could be more effective if technically competent professionals in the agency, rather than less-qualified political appointees or consultants, had firmer control over program development and implementation. They also endorse independent external assessment and evaluation of AID's policies and programs.

Funding "bottom-up" development

Many other U.S. agencies have responded to the growing consensus that development projects provide more lasting benefits when they integrate features such as local education, technologies for environmental cleanup and protection, and health care, along with human "capacity building" and institutional strengthening. Funding "bottom-up" development need not be expensive to be successful. The Inter-American Foundation (with an annual budget of about $40 million) and the African Development Foundation (with an annual budget of less than $20 million), for example, support projects that help grassroots groups in developing countries build family income through agriculture while maintaining environmental sustainability. The foundations support resource conservation activities, environmental education workshops, and technical projects such as biogas digester construction in Guinea and Tanzania.

The Peace Corps is also taking steps to strengthen bottom-up capabilities in host countries by increasing the number of professionals working in natural-resource management and environmental protection. In FY 1990, the Peace Corps, in cooperation with EPA, had over 600 volunteers in about 50 countries working with local people in forest, watershed, and wildlife management, as well as in environmental education. In 1992, the Peace Corps claimed that it had more natural-resource professionals in foreign countries than any other conservation organization in the world.

In Mexico, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) sponsors 25 highly effective, low-cost environmental projects to restore and protect natural areas. These efforts are unique because they are administered jointly with local chapters of Mexican nongovernmental organizations, local educational institutions, and local offices of Mexican government agencies. Local organizations are involved in disseminating information about the projects, implementing them, and publicizing the results. In addition, FWS's mission gets a boost from President Carlos Salinas's support for habitat preservation.

Through these projects, FWS aims to strengthen local and national awareness of the social, economic, and ecological benefits of conservation. The agency coordinates joint U.S.-Mexican research on endangered plants and animals, natural-area preservation, and the protection of migratory birds. Some of the projects build on joint research and information-exchange efforts underway since 1975, under the aegis of the U.S.-Mexico Joint Commission for Wildlife Conservation. The FWS also strives to ensure the cooperative enforcement of international and U.S. and Mexican laws protecting endangered plants and animals. Finally, the projects seek to improve economic opportunities for local people while strengthening conservation initiatives. For example, villagers on the west coast of Mexico, whose livelihood depends on harvesting endangered sea turtles, have been involved in projects aimed at developing alternative sources of income, such as ecotourism.

FWS activities are also designed to help Mexican and other Latin American conservation workers establish their own educational and training programs, which are then implemented through local educational institutions. For example, the FWS and the U.S. Forest Service sponsor a cycle of three-month, graduate-level training courses that are conducted annually in Monterey and the Yucatan. Participants, drawn from countries throughout Latin America, are trained as park and natural-refuge managers and as conservation planners for government conservation agencies. The FWS also supports graduate-level wildlife conservation and environmental education programs in Venezuela, Costa Rica, Brazil, and Argentina. Taught by local professionals, they focus on local problems. Such programs generate a powerful multiplier effect by fostering region-wide networking among participants and succeed in quickly getting the most benefits to local areas at the lowest cost. Programs such as these should be replicated by other U.S. agencies that have technical assistance programs.

Building two-way ties

Bilateral programs that inform policy at the national as well as local level are another way to focus U.S. and host country expertise on addressing current problems while insulating environmental efforts from political stress. Long-term programs of this kind build strong professional ties among U.S. and foreign officials, academics, and private-sector experts. They are relatively cheap, and they often lead to tangible results in the short term by helping to reduce pollution, improve public health and safety, protect living resources, and refine policy options in response to changing environmental conditions. The success of this incremental approach to environmental problems creates a strong mutual incentive for continued cooperation.

The EPA's U.S.-China cooperative research program demonstrates the value of bilateral efforts in addressing environmental issues. The program is run by dedicated and competent program officials and has weathered the ups and downs of U.S.-China political relations since the early 1980s.

EPA's activities in China were initiated under the terms of the U.S.-China Environmental Protection Protocol. The objectives of the agreement, most of which have been realized, were to use Chinese facilities, populations, and natural settings to obtain scientific data unavailable in the U.S.; to work with Chinese scientists to help solve environmental problems in both countries; to build ties between U.S. and Chinese environmental professionals in academic and government institutions; to help China develop environmental quality standards appropriate to local needs; and to facilitate commercial opportunities in China for U.S. companies. Projects were initially developed in three areas: environmental health, environmental processes and effects, and environmental management.

A research program on the health effects of indoor coal burning, for example, has been carried out by Chinese and American researchers in Xuan Wei County, Yunnan Province, since the early 1980s. This study allows epidemiologists and environmental health scientists to identify the short-term health effects of inhaling the smoke and gases produced by burning coal. It analyzes several variables in a stable, nonmobile Chinese population. These findings were extrapolated to assess the effects of indoor air pollution in the U.S. population--a more difficult group to study because Americans move so often.

The study helped Chinese scientists to promote local awareness of the health advantages of using better-ventilated stoves and chimneys, and there has been a marked increase in the use of these stoves and chimneys since the study began. Epidemiologic data from the study can also be used to better target environmental standards. Local officials can now draft regulations that respond more precisely to the specific health characteristics of the populations they serve.

Scientists from both countries also cooperated on a project modelling the effects of water pollution. Field studies in China were used to verify the model. These studies were carried out at a much lower cost than would have been possible in the United States.

More recently, a 1990 agreement with China outlined principles for cooperative ozone-protection projects. The agreement established guidelines for research on the causes and effects of ozone depletion and the development of alternatives to ozone-destroying chemicals, along with ways to overcome technical and institutional obstacles to the use of these alternative chemicals in refrigerators and other products.

The positive results of EPA's China programs are impressive. Similar programs in China and other countries have been sponsored by a variety of U.S. agencies, on problems including monitoring marine pollution, weather prediction, forest genetics, hydrology, and nature conservation. The success of these programs suggests that more federal support should be given to bilateral programs that deal with specific local problems.

Long-term bilateral programs can also benefit U.S. business by providing better access to the growing worldwide market for environmental equipment and know-how. For instance, the United States is a leader in pollution control technology, and U.S. environmental engineering and consulting firms operate worldwide. Yet we lag far behind Japan in aggressively exploiting this expertise. Through its bilateral programs, the U.S. government could promote foreign sales of U.S. pollution-control technology and dissemination of U.S. corporations' environmental management skills.

Prospects and remedies

What needs to be done to build creatively on this solid base of international environmental achievement? First of all, the White House and the Congress must reorder their spending priorities. Too much time and money are now absorbed in futile quests for weak global agreements. And too much funding is devoted to long-term research on global issues such as ozone depletion and climate change, an imbalance that primarily serves the interests of the scientific establishment.

At the same time, the intensifying pressure to cut the federal budget has taken a drastic toll on international environmental programs. Federal agencies that try to maintain modest but successful programs are at a serious disadvantage in the competition for funds. For example, EPA's Office of International Activities, a highly effective player for about 20 years, may have to reduce its China programs because of severe budget cuts.

One way to redefine federal environmental priorities would be to establish an independent body to oversee federal planning and program development in international environmental affairs. This is the role originally played by the White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ), When it was set up in the early 1970s, this small unit had a highly competent staff of about 50 scientists, lawyers, and policy experts. Working closely with the State Department, it was instrumental in coordinating international environmental activities with the Congress and technical agencies.

The CEQ became less effective in the early 1980s when the Reagan administration reduced its staff as part of a larger effort to deemphasize environmental programs. Since then, only congressional support has sustained many U.S. overseas environmental initiatives.

The new administration can quickly reassert U.S. leadership on international environmental issues by giving CEQ or another body the responsibility to coordinate program priorities. This could prevent the politicization of environmental programs and deter funding inequities by helping to ensure that funding decisions are based on fair evaluation of relative progress toward measurable short-term goals.

The lack of firm direction and support for environmental protection during the Reagan and Bush administrations has also taken the teeth out of many international environmental programs. Legislation authorizing agency appropriations is often less specific about program goals and time frames than many advocates of an active U.S. international environmental policy would like. Over the past decade, legislative specificity has commonly been sacrificed to allow for flexibility in bargaining between Congress and the White House in order to maintain minimally adequate funding levels for as many programs as possible. Under the Clinton administration, funding levels will likely increase, perhaps allowing legislators and agency officials to establish clearer criteria for the achievement of their stated objectives.

As the Reagan-Bush era draws to a close, the U.S. record on the international environment is tarnished, but it remains a record to be proud of. The United States is making significant contributions in helping to preserve and improve the global environment, and there is real potential for wider and more beneficial involvement. However, the increasing competition for funds among agencies makes it difficult to objectively determine which programs are most deserving of support and threatens the survival of many excellent programs. There must be wider recognition by the White House, Congress, and the public of the substantial economic and political benefits for the U.S. from programs that target immediate pollution-control, health-protection, and resource-protection needs around the world. By setting measurable, short-term goals and working closely with local communities or individual governments to achieve them, international environmental programs can begin to lay the groundwork for economic development we can be proud of.

Recommended reading

Executive Office of the President, Council on Environmental Quality, Environmental Quality. Twenty-Second Annual Report of the Council on Environmental Quality together with the President's Message to the Congress. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1992.

Library of Congress, Congressional Research Service. Financing New International Environmental Commitments. Report prepared for the Committee on Foreign Affairs, U.S. House of Representatives, and the Committee on Foreign Relations, U.S. Senate. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1992.

Juan Martinez-Alier and Eric Hershberg, "Environmentalism and the Poor." Social Science Research Council Items 46, no. 1 (March 1992): 1-5.

U.S. Congress, Office of Technology Assessment, Combined Summaries: Technologies to Sustain Tropical Forest Resources and Biological Diversity. OTA-F-515. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, May 1992.

U.S. Congress, Office of Technology Assessment, Trade and Environment: Conflicts and Opportunities. TA-BP-ITE-94. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, May 1992.

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Actions for a Better Environment: A Sustained Commitment. Washington, D.C., 1992.

Baruch Boxer is chair of the Department of Human Ecology at Cook College, Rutgers University, and has served as a consultant to the World Bank, the UN Environment Program, and the White House Council on Environmental Quality.
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Title Annotation:Rio de Janeiro, Brazil's 1992 UN Conference on Environment and Development
Author:Boxer, Baruch
Publication:Issues in Science and Technology
Date:Dec 22, 1992
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