Bakary Kante of UNEP
For the common good
Bakary Kante, director of the Division of Environmental Law and Conventions (DELC) of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) gives his viewpoint on how and why common resources should be protected and shared.
I come from Senegal. We are a family of 12: my parents and my ten brothers and sisters. How did my dad, without earning a single penny as a salary, succeed in bringing us up? Thanks to common goods; the natural resources, the biodiversity around us provided all that we needed to survive.
Biodiversity is the capital of the poor. In my family we had three meals each day thanks to these biological resources. I could go fishing in the river and bring a big fish for a meal without paying a single penny. We could go in the forest and collect fruits, or my brother could go hunting and bring us a wonderful animal, no problem; we would have meat for a week. When we needed to drink we could go to the river because the water was safe.
I believe that devising better ways of governing our natural resource systems is one of the major challenges of this century. Climate change, loss of biodiversity, ozone depletion and most other environmental problems involve the commons in some way. If you look, in every single ecosystem today, we are facing a crisis: water quality and availability is in crisis; there is a forest crisis; a wetlands crisis; the oceans are in crisis; desertification, land degradation…I believe the commons are the backbone of sustainability and governments have to address this.
Sharing resources fairly
We need to share our resources. This need is exemplified by the outbreak of a parasitic bug in Africa in the 1980s. The bug was destroying cassava plants, a staple crop, and a food crisis was looming. Fortunately, this bug was contained and controlled - but only by the introduction of a predator bug from Paraguay. It saved millions of dollars-worth of food crops, and prevented a local food crisis spreading to other parts of Africa.
But now the situation is different. At the moment, African farmers are facing an attack from a fruit fly that feeds on soft fruits including mangoes, an important source of micronutrients and an important cash crop. This fly is devastating mango crops across Africa. Its natural enemy is found in Sri Lanka, but taking this insect out of Sri Lanka seems almost impossible due to strict regulations on sovereign rights over genetic resources, as per the Convention on Biological Diversity.
I firmly believe these rules need to change. In situations like this, what types of rights are important? We must ask, if genetic resources are for the good of humankind, why are we grappling with the problem of countries not wanting to share them when livelihoods are threatened? I believe a new approach is needed, one that is based on assessing the value of common resources for the benefit of all citizens.
Trade rules and environmental governance
If we all recognise natural resources and biodiversity as global public goods, we all have a responsibility to educate our trade negotiators to incorporate this into terms-of-trade. Our collective failure to negotiate and come to an agreement on the Doha Development Agenda of the World Trade Organization has been going on for a decade. Why? Because arguments that are not based on the principle of equity, thus creating havoc with regard to food security.
We are all familiar with the idea of 'think global, act local'. Global environmental governance systems are based on this principle, but the time has come for us to revisit its relevance in the world. I think that instead we should be saying 'think local and act global'. The local level is where it is most important to tackle environmental challenges and it is where people suffer most from environmental problems.
But the challenge is now to bring about the right kinds of change to the environmental governance agenda at all levels. Governance is concerned with making informed decisions and environmental governance is about sustainability. There is a need to focus on knowledge generation and its management and there is scope to transfer knowledge about institutional change between commons. We have to bring the commons to the centre of international debate. Only then will we be able to protect them.
Date published: September 2008
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- This Perspective is adapted from the keynote speech given at the IASC Conference 2008: Governing shared resources: connecting local experience to global challenges.
- Division of Environmental Law and Conventions, UNEP
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