Global Warming and the Caribbean

The Caribbean made a strong contribution to the earth Summit in Brazil; but only time will tell what the results will be.

Golden beaches: major Caribbean assets would be at risk from climate change, forest loss or pollution. Photograph taken by Chris HuxleyJamaican Prime Minister P. J. Patterson after signing the Convention on Climate Change; on his right is the Jamaican environment minister John JunorLove is the answer? Haiti’s exiled leader Ft Jean Bertrand Aristide with author Eden ShandMeeting of minds: Cuban President Fidel Castro is congratulated after his speech by Grenada’s Ambassador Eugene Pursoo. Photograph by Eden ShandScarlet Ibis over Trinidad’s Caroni Swamp: every country needs to protect the diversity of its wild life

For the Caribbean, there was much at stake when the Earth Summit — the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development–convened in Brazil back in June. The rising sea levels predicted by climate change experts would threaten its low-lying islands. Deforestation already threatens fragile island ecosystems. Caribbean tourism depends heavily on the protection of beaches, coastal waters and reefs.

Every region of the world is under some sort of pressure from the major problems in the environment: changing climate, the thinning ozone layer, the drift towards desert, large-scale pollution, species loss, a world population already well past 5,000 million and likely to double in less than 60 years, poverty, hunger.

The urgency of the issues brought to Rio de Janeiro — a city of eight million — 50,000 visitors and about 100 world leaders, protected by 24,000 policemen and each allocated a six-car motorcade and a helicopter escort. They came from every corner of the political spectrum. The tall, bushy-bearded figure of Cuba’s Fidel Castro strode past American President George Bush at Rio Centro, the conference site.

And there was no mistaking the mood of the conference; it applauded Castro’s speech in favour of global solutions as long and as hard as it criticised Bush’s insistence on preserving American self-interest.

There were really two summits. Government delegates struggled to forge consensus from conflicting national interests in suburban Rio; while Flamengo Park, under the watchful eyes of the dramatic statue of Christ the Redeemer perched on top of the Corcovado, was host to the Global Forum, a colourful and less formal gathering of international non-governmental organisations. Its 17,000 participants, casually dressed for an unusually warm Rio autumn, were housed in green and white booths and tents, took a planetary view and confidently offered solutions to the problems of environmental degradation

Brazil handled the conference well, and in so doing set the stage for the main debate. As the visitors prepared to fill the former Brazilian capital for the two weeks of the conference the city leaders embarked on a $100 million clean-up; they swept up most of Rio’s litter and its street children, painted buildings and stationed military personnel at strategic points throughout the city. But despite their best efforts, evidence of the basic environmental problems of the developing world showed through: vagrant families bedded down in Copacabana, the favelas hung on to the hillsides above the city, and the street vendors hustled to squeeze out a living.

The contrasting lifestyles of the developed and developing nations was the subject of Castro’s short and electrifying address. He argued that “the greatest damage to the global ecosystem has been caused by emulating the consumption-based development models of the industrialised countries” He placed the burden of rehabilitation squarely on the developed world’s shoulders. Before a hushed assembly he proposed that, since the threat of communism and the cold war no.longer required huge investment, industrialised countries should now divert those funds to address global problems and support sustainable development worldwide.

Castro’s was a hard act to follow. Other Caribbean speakers included Dr Kennedy Simmonds, the Prime Minister of St Kitts and Nevis and then Chairman of Caricom (the Caribbean Community), who outlined the position of small island states vulnerable to the consequences of climate change. Jamaica Prime Minister, PJ Patterson, urged the international community to recognise the Caribbean as a special area for environmental support; he showed that the region was particularly susceptible to the consequences of global warming, especially sea-level rise and increasingly powerful hurricanes.

Of the five agreements that came out of the conference, the one on climate change was of strongest relevance to the Caribbean. Erskine Sandiford, Prime Minister of the low-lying island of Barbados, acknowledged that the Convention was imperfect, but saw it as a basis for future negotiations. He urged early attention to the stabilisation of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, and ended with an Ode to the Environment, a poem he had written specially for the Summit.

The grim prospect of rising sea levels has already triggered a lively lobby group in which the Caribbean is involved, and it was strengthened during the Rio conference. AOSIS, the Alliance of Small Island States, bonds together areas as diverse as the Maldives, the Caribbean and the Seychelles. Trinidad and Tobago, a prime mover in the formation of AOSIS in 1990, received special tribute, and a bouquet of Brazilian flowers was presented to Trinidadian Angela Cropper, now with the World Conservation Union, for her role.

There was a powerful contingent of Caribbean women in Rio, especially at the Global Forum. Dame Nita Barrow, Governor-General of Barbados, warned that officials were too preoccupied with such issues as global warming, and had forgotten the people factor in environment and development. Trinidadian Rosina Wiltshire of the Caribbean Conservation Association lamented that the official deliberations did not sufficiently address poverty and women in development. The vocal American feminist Bella Abzug, conspicuous in her straw hat, was the star of the women’s forum, and paid special tribute to the work of Peggy Antrobus of the Barbados-based DAWN (Development Alternatives with Women) and Jocelyn Dow of Guyana. Antrobus took the opportunity to announce a Declaration on Environment and Development by Women.

The Caribbean also played a useful diplomatic role at the summit. The Guyanese delegation, led by President Desmond Hoyte, figured prominently in contentious negotiations on a Statement of Forest Principles. Guyana’s permanent representative to the UN Environment Programme, the suave Ambassador Charles Lihurd, chaired these difficult proceedings, during which North and South locked horns ferociously over sovereignty. By steering the meeting to a consensus he did the Caribbean proud.

The Rio conference finalised the world’s first treaty to combat global warming–much less rigorous than many environmentalists wanted, but still more than was thought possible a year ago. It also produced a world treaty on the protection of plants and animals in danger of extinction, though the United States refused to sign it. The conference produced statements on the principles of environmental policy and forest management, and issued an enormous, 800-page blueprint for combining environmental action with economic development: Agenda 21.

This non-binding document is the key to what the Earth Summit was all about. Although the sections on over-consumption in the north and population growth in the south were weakened in final negotiations and no firm funding targets were included, it did contain strategies for action on all fronts, from desertification to waste management. Its theme is the idea of “sustainable development”: the idea that uncontrolled development has brought the world to a turning-point at which it has to change its lifestyle or risk breakdown. As the 1987 UN report Our Common Future argued, uncontrolled population growth and industrial development are putting intolerable pressure on the planet and its systems; we are all facing a crisis which could destroy “the security, well-being and very survival of the planet”

The Rio conference was seen by its organisers as a way of persuading the world to change to a sustainable development path, to adopt a lifestyle which would relieve the pressure. It was an astoundingly ambitious goal, and the real results, for better or worse, will only show up in years to come as nations and communities show whether they grasp the issues and are prepared to adopt the solutions.

Guyana’s indefatigable Sir Shridath Ramphal, former Commonwealth Secretary-General and now President of the World Conservation Union, was very much present at the conference. In spite of the many constraints and disappointments, he saw the Summit as the beginning of a new and more hopeful journey towards sustainable lifestyles. “The morning after Rio is a time of hope,” he concluded, “not one of complacency.”

Perhaps the most remarkable Caribbean contribution of all came from the exiled President of Haiti, the gentle Fr Jean-Bertrand Aristide, whose status was officially recognised by the conference. In easily the most magnanimous and poetic presentation of the whole Summit, he called upon world leaders to remember the essential ingredient for overcoming global environment problems. Love, he said, must be extended not merely to the earth with all its living organisms, but to all persons, even one’s political enemies, if there was to be a long-term harmonious future for the planet.