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Human influence on environmental change is undeniable.  In spite of the fact that humans are governed by the laws and cycles of nature, just like other species that inhabit the planet, the use we make of it is different.  Since the time when man began to use intelligence before instinct to survive, he has placed himself in a dominant position over other living beings, causing a gradual impact on ecosystems.

From a balanced use and a subsistence economy, over the past centuries we graduated to an excessive use and abuse of natural resources, ignorant of the consequences that, in the future, our actions would bring us.  Recently, in 1972, the first United Nations conference on the Environment was held in Stockholm, in which 113 countries participated.  The celebration of this meeting demonstrated a global recognition of the seriousness of environmental problems. Here, a plan of action was adopted in order to safeguard and improve the environment, benefiting current and future human generations.

Since the 80’s, the need for a global strategy that addresses the regulation of exploitation and the consumption of natural resources has become even more obvious.  This problem had to be considered not only environmental, but as a global crisis that had effects on environmental as much as social and economic levels.  In 1987 an important report was published that would change the perceptions of some ecologists, economists and sociologists, who didn’t consider the important relationships between the objects of their study.

Thinking in the future

The concept of sustainable development began to be used beginning with a socioeconomic report created by the United Nations World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED) in 1987, also known as “Our Common Future” or the “Brundtland Report” (named after the Norwegian who presided over the commission, Gro Harlem Brundtland).  The report refers directly to the efficient, equitable and environmentally responsible use of all of society’s scarce resources – that is, natural, human and economic.  What’s more, this didn’t only imply quantifiable matters, but was also linked to the quality of life of people and their surroundings.

It also addresses reasonable use and a future vision of resources, because, as indicated by the report itself, sustainable development can “satisfy the needs of current generations without compromising the possibility of future generations to attend to their own needs.”

Democracy, internal peace, technological development, equality and the participation of citizens are also important parts of a society that aspires to achieve sustainable development, as it not only requires an adequate handling of the environment and its resources, but is also intended to achieve a socially and economically stable climate that facilitates the care of nature.

Convention for change

In the beginning of the 90’s, one of the most important meetings regarding the topic of development and the environment was held in the city of Rio de Janeiro (Brazil).  The United Nations Conference on the Environment and Development, better known as the “Earth Summit” or “Rio Summit” took place from June 3rd to 14th of 1992, and united 172 countries and more than 2 thousand representatives of non-government organizations looking for possible alternatives for each nation to adopt models of economic and social growth, basing the status of nature conservation on the same level as economic wealth or political stability.

Among the main points agreed upon and explained in the “Rio Declaration on Environment and Development” are found:

– States should cooperate with a spirit of global solidarity to conserve, protect and reestablish the health and integrity of Earth’s ecosystem.

– States have the sovereign right to use their own resources according to their own environmental policies, at the same time they should to ensure that activities carried out under their jurisdiction or control do not cause damage to other States or zones that are outside of national jurisdiction.

– all States and people should cooperate in the essential task of eradicating poverty as an indispensable requirement of sustainable development.

– special attention should be paid to the needs of developing countries, in particular to those that are less advanced and most vulnerable in environmental terms.

– States should develop a favorable and open international economic system that brings about the growth and sustainable development of all countries, as well as national legislation relative to responsibility and indemnity for victims of contamination and other environmental damage.

– women, youth, indigenous populations and local communities have a fundamental role in the maintenance of environmental balance and development.  For this reason they should be active participants in the sustainable development of their communities.

The Rio Summit also generated important agreements and regulatory guidelines for each country to take on the challenge of integrating concern for the environment and its resources into the population and economy.  Among the most important agreements are:

1. Agenda 21: social and economic action program that is directly related to sustainable development.  It is not legally obligatory, but draws up a plan for countries to orient their development according to the proposals made.

2. Convention on Biological Diversity: a legally obligatory agreement whose final objective is to protect the planet’s biological heritage, promote its sustainable use and achieve an equal distribution of the benefits of its use.  It was signed by 153 countries, with the opposition of the United States.

3. United Nations Framework on Climate Change: an agreement created to avoid the warming of the atmosphere as a consequence of the accumulation of greenhouse gasses.  The Kyoto Protocol was generated based on this convention and establishes a specific plan of action and goals to be accomplished for the different signing countries.

4. Declaration on forests: a document without legal force that is a guideline for protection and sustainable development measures for forests.

5. Earth Setter: establishes 27 general principles about the natural environment and development in which the concept of sustainable development is adopted.

From words to action

Ten years after the Rio Summit, different UN commissions evaluated the proposed goals and accomplishments made by the countries participating in the summit in regards to the topic of sustainable development.  This was done on the basis of economic, social and environmental statistics worldwide.  However, the results were not very encouraging, as many of the agreed-upon points stayed only on paper, and very few nations integrated into their policies anything about environmental care and management and the education of the population in terms of social and economic growth
In a report written by the UN Secretary of that time, Koffi Annan, it was indicated that the environment worldwide continued to be vulnerable and that the degradation of ecosystems seemed not to be receding.
In terms of economic development of countries, athough in the 90’s the majority of these attained some degree of growth, important inequality persisted. Named after the south African city of the same name.
One of the goals of this meeting was adopting concrete commitments related to topics such as pollution, poverty, integration of communities, among others.  In addition to the commitment of countries to implement effective plans and validate agreements such as the Kyoto protocol, new concepts arose, such as international cooperation and integration, seen not in economic terms, but in the repercussions of environmental actions between different points on the planet.
The documents approved in this summit were a political declaration and a plan of action, both with the final objective of taking concrete actions in regards to sustainable development.
It’s for this reason that among the main points addressed were: the making of plans for worldwide energy efficiency, regulating the use of chemicals harmful to health, protecting biodiversity, favouring country governability and reducing by half the number of people without access to health care by the year 2015. 

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