22 April 2013
General Assembly
GA/11362

Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York

Sixty-seventh General Assembly

Interactive Dialogue on Harmony

 with Nature (AM)


Marking International Mother Earth Day, General Assembly President Urges Rapid


Action on Sustainable Development to Rescue Planet from Humankind’s Excesses

 


‘Our Planet is Under Attack,’ Says Secretary-General

Dialogue on Harmony with Nature Hears Ministers from Bolivia, Ecuador


With an “irreversible torrent” of physical and ecological transformations threatening to profoundly alter human existence, senior United Nations officials joined Government delegations today urging rapid progress on the Organization’s objectives for sustainable development, as well as in the design of new approaches for protecting and healing the finite resources of our embattled planet.


“We have a common duty to maintain the Earth’s health and integrity, as our very existence is fully dependent on it,” said General Assembly President Vuk Jeremić (Serbia), as he opened the interactive dialogue on “Harmony with Nature”, convened by the Assembly to mark International Mother Earth Day.  Along with high-level political statements, the special meeting also featured an expert panel discussion on “different economic approaches to further a more ethical basis for the relationship between humanity and the Earth”.


President Jeremić said that climate change, deforestation, pollution, the melting of the ice caps, land degradation and the exponential increase of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere were all consequences of the harm humanity was causing to the environment.  And with natural resources being consumed much more quickly than they could be replenished, public policy demanded that humanity’s future material advancement be consistent with the tenets of sustainable development.  Facing the post-2015 agenda, he stressed:  “What we do over the next thousand days will frame much of the United Nations work for decades to come.”


In his address, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon declared:  “Right now we have to confront the hard truth that our planet is under attack.”  The exploitation of nature, often driven by greed, was causing environmental degradation and loss of biodiversity, depletion of fishery stocks and acidity in the water, which threatened the very food chain humanity depended on.  Because sustainable development was the most fundamental challenge facing the world today, achieving the Millennium Development Goals was critical.


The current model of capitalism was completely destroying life on Earth, Luis Arce, Minister of Economy and Finance of Bolivia, said in opening remarks.  It was critical to seek models of consumption and productivity that were in harmony with nature.  However, “it’s easy to talk about harmony with Mother Earth for those who eat every day”, he pointed out.  Many developing countries did not have the technical or financial resources to encourage a different model.  Calling on developed countries to not shirk their responsibilities, he urged that advanced technologies be transferred to developing countries at a reduced cost.  “We are fighting for life and we must all join that fight,” he stated.


“Recognizing the rights of nature is a prerequisite to recognizing human rights,” said Maria Belen Moncayo, Minister for Coordination of Heritage, Ecuador.  The constitutional acknowledgement of nature included respecting its existence and evolution, as well as its right to recovery and its cycles of life.  It also included the responsibility of Governments to repay communities who had been devastated by climate change.  Respecting nature did not preventing it from being used for humanity’s benefit; rather, it meant redefining its use and ending unsustainable consumerism which would lead to devastation.


In closing remarks, Ismael Abraão Gaspar Martins ( Angola), Assembly Vice-President, said that the call to live harmoniously with nature was a warning to the situation humanity faced.  It was essential to integrate the focus on nature in deliberations in order for sustainable development to become more and more of a reality.  Sustainable development was a top priority of the United Nations system, as emphasized earlier by the Secretary-General and the President of the General Assembly.  Today’s dialogue was “timely”, particularly as it preceded upcoming deliberations on key sustainable development issues.  He hoped that there was more time to discuss such pressing concerns, but, just like nature’s resources, he said, time was also finite.


During the panel discussion that followed those statements, presenters explored a variety of modalities and strategies that would promote sustainable development.  Moderating the panel was Andrew Revkin, Environmental Journalist for The New York Times and Senior Fellow at the Academy for Applied Environment Studies, Pace University.


Taking part in the ensuing interactive dialogue were the representatives of Cuba (on behalf of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States), Brazil, Uzbekistan, Benin and Nicaragua.  Also speaking was a representative of the Delegation of the European Union.


The General Assembly will meet again at 10 a.m. Thursday, 25 April, to hold a thematic debate on “Peaceful resolutions of conflicts in Africa”.


Background


The General Assembly convened today for an interactive dialogue and panel on harmony with nature, which aims to support the goals set out in resolution 67/214 (2012), and to advance discussions on different economic approaches in the context of sustainable development and for a more ethical basis for the relationship between humanity and the Earth.


Opening Remarks


VUK JEREMIĆ ( Serbia), President of the General Assembly President, said that living harmoniously with nature required fostering a balanced, ethical and non-exploitative relationship with the planet.  “We have a common duty to maintain the Earth’s health and integrity, as our very existence is fully dependent on it,” he said.  Climate change, deforestation, pollution, desertification, the melting of the ice caps, degradation of land and the exponential increase of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere were all consequences of the harm humanity was causing to the environment.


“The irreversible torrent of physical and ecological transformations across the globe is threatening us with a future reality that is profoundly different from anything we have experienced until now,” he said.  As natural resources were consumed at an increasingly faster rate than they could be replenished, humanity had unwittingly begun a massive experiment with the planet’s ability to support continued existence, he said, recalling the words of the late United Kingdom Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.  It had become a widely accepted public-policy paradigm that humanity’s future material advancement must be consistent with the tenets of sustainable development.


Last June, at the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20), world leaders agreed that it was necessary to promote harmony with nature to achieve balance among the economic, social, and environmental needs of present and future generations.  That historic summit had tasked the General Assembly with defining the sustainable development goals, putting forth options for financing them, and laying out a workable intergovernmental arrangement for monitoring their implementation.


Those three work streams were in the service of conceptualizing the post-2015 agenda, Mr. Jeremić said, adding that:  “What we do over the next thousand days will frame much of the United Nations work for decades to come.”  Therefore, it was essential that those and other activities were mutually reinforcing and complementary.


He looked forward to the Assembly’s 16 May thematic debate on sustainable development and climate change.  Environmental degradation, growing populations, and increasing consumption needs were putting increasing stress on water supplies and energy production, which were becoming more interrelated.  In the time ahead, that nexus would need to be managed in a more sustainable way, urgently requiring practical and cost-effective solutions.


BAN KI-MOON, United Nations Secretary-General, expressing condolences to the victims of the recent earthquake in China’s Sichuan Province, said he was “deeply saddened” by the event and was prepared to mobilize international support to help with the recovery efforts.  Calling natural disasters a growing and serious problem, he said that International Mother Earth Day served as a reminder that the Earth sustained all life.  “Right now we have to confront the hard truth that our planet is under attack,” he said.


The exploitation of nature, often driven by greed, was causing degradation of the environment and loss of biodiversity.  Short-sighted fishing practices were depleting fishery stocks and acidity in the water was threatening the very food chain humanity depended on.  “When we undermine the climate, we undermine our very own survival,” he said.  Lauding countries like Bolivia and Ecuador for integrating into their national constitutions the need to respect nature, he called on other Member States to do the same.


Sustainable development was the most fundamental challenge facing the world today.  Hence, it was crucial and critical for the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals and to improve living conditions by the 2015 due date.  Secretary-General Ban called on Member States to ensure that sustainable development became an important part of their future development models.  (end)


LUIS ARCE, Minister of Economy and Finance, Bolivia, in celebrating “Pachamama” — Mother Earth, called for all Member States, all organizations, all stakeholders and all interested people to take action towards building an economy and society in harmony with nature.  That would require models of consumption and productivity that were equally in such harmony.  The current model of capitalism was completely destroying life on Earth and, therefore, it was critical to seek a more equitable foundation between humans and Mother Nature.


Continuing, he said that the many crises facing the world, including, among others, the 2008 financial meltdown, climate change, food insecurity, tumult in the energy sector and ill-conceived and inequitable macroeconomic policies, all illustrated the failure of the capitalist system.  In particular, the recent financial crisis had impacted national economies, allowing the wealthiest to benefit and leaving the poorest people to pay the highest price.  “An awful lot of people lose [and] Mother Earth is a real loser, in this system,” he said.


As well, many economists and scientists, he said, were investigating the “antagonism” between capitalism and nature spurred by the unlimited accumulation of wealth and the limited resources of nature.  Under the leadership of President Evo Morales, Bolivia was establishing a new human-centred production economy, where poverty would be eliminated and access to all services through national ownership would be ensured.


However, he stressed that developing countries were still struggling.  “It’s easy to talk about harmony with Mother Earth for those who eat every day,” he said.  Further, Bolivia — and all developing countries — should not be used as the “backyards” for developed countries or merely the providers of raw materials.  Yet, many developing countries did not have the technical or financial resources to encourage a different model.  In that regard, developed countries could not shirk their responsibilities, and he urged that advanced technologies be transferred to developing countries at a reduced cost.


A balance needed to be found in the search for new economic models, he said.  Such models must meet the requirements of each country.  Noting the complexity of such a model, he pointed out that his country has made a contribution to building an “economy for life”, one that was in harmony with Mother Nature.  There were huge challenges, particularly where there was poverty and there was no one individual solution, but a collective one.  “We are fighting for life and we must all join that fight,” he stated.


MARIA BELEN MONCAYO, Minister for Coordination of Heritage of Ecuador, said that Rio+20 was a good opportunity for Governments to back the measures required so “we could move towards change”,  which was needed in the current crisis-ridden economic model.  However, rather than a collective expression of the political will of States, the outcome of the summit was instead a “cosmetic approach” that did not tackle the crises facing civilization.


Countries that had completed their development earlier wanted to perpetuate their continued exploitation of Earth.  Therefore, Southern nations were challenging that viewpoint, she said, stressing the need to change the current pattern of consumption, which, if left unchecked, would lead the world to collapse.  “We must organize life and live together in a different way,” she urged.  Declaring that external debt was a “hateful tool” used to dominate countries of the South, she said that money used to pay foreign debt rather than invest in social services resulted in social and political unrest.  It was essential for democracy to guarantee a separation between the power of the elites and power of the people.


She said that Ecuador had renegotiated its servicing options and, since 2006, had “brought back” its money from other countries and had invested it in Ecuadorians in the form of loans.  In that regard, the public bank was currently serving as a fundamental tool in the country’s economic recovery.  Petroleum, water and energy sectors could not be used to enrich the few, she continued, but should rather serve as powerful drivers for production and growth benefiting the people.  Currently, Ecuador was investing some $5 million into its energy sector with hopes of producing one of the cleanest energy models around.


Despite the international financial and economic crisis, Ecuador had one of the lowest urban unemployment rates in the world, at 4.6 per cent.  Additionally, with an approach based in human rights, Ecuadorians acknowledged each other as “different but equal” — free of discrimination based on faith, sexual orientation, race, and gender.  In unequal societies, it was necessary to give priority to the redistribution of wealth, she said, adding that in 2011, the gap between the rich and poor in Ecuador had been reduced tenfold.  Poverty had also been reduced through a taxation policy that was strengthened by a sense of citizenship that promoted the idea that “we all belong to the same community”.  Further, social security benefits had been improved and access to education had been increased.  The Government provided higher education scholarships and encouraged technology transfer and innovation.


As culture was the fourth pillar of sustainable development, Ms. Moncayo said that “development without acknowledgement of identity is not what we want”.  Planet Earth was our home, she continued, lauding the efforts of some countries in recognizing nature in the context of promoting sustainable development.  “Recognizing the rights of nature is a prerequisite to recognizing human rights,” she said.  The constitutional acknowledgement of nature included respecting its existence and evolution, as well as its right to recovery and its cycles of life.  It also included the responsibility of Government to repay communities who had been devastated by a change in climate.  Respecting nature did not mean not using it for humanity’s benefit; rather it meant redefining its use and ending unsustainable consumerism which would lead to devastation.


Having taken up that challenge in the post-Rio period, Ecuador was collaborating with the media, justice sector, non-governmental organizations and civil society to “build a map that will lead us forward”.  The country’s President had called for a million and a half signatures of the Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth.  While Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) and the Alliance of the Americas (ALBA) had acknowledged that initiative, she renewed appeal for others to move ahead to consider the matter.  In that regard, she proposed the establishment of a working group that would set the international framework to include civil society groups, the work to be reflected in the Secretary-General’s relevant report and the creation of its link to the post 2015 sustainable development goals.


Interactive Panel


Andrew Revkin, Environmental Journalist for The New York Times and Senior Fellow at the Academy for Applied Environment Studies, Pace University, moderated the Assembly’s panel on “different economic approaches to further a more ethical approach to the relationship between humanity and Earth”.  The panel featured:  Fander Falconi, Ecological Economics, Autonomous University of Barcelona, Spain; Ian Mason, Head of Law and Economics, School of Economic Science, London, United Kingdom; Jon Rosales, Associate Professor, St. Lawrence University, New York City; and Linda Sheehan, Executive Director, Earth Law Center.


In his opening remarks, Mr. REVKIN said that the separation between nature and people had long been acknowledged.  However, through “a slow learning process for the human species”, it was now understood that human beings were indeed part of nature.  Further, although there had been incredible accomplishments over the last two centuries, such changes had come at an increasingly high cost, sparking ominous “signals from the natural world”, which had finite resources.


The panel, he said, would cover, among other relevant topics, policy, social and science, beginning with the concept of externalization.  He informed participants that the proceedings would not only be covered at Headquarters, but that participation on Twitter would also be included via the hashtag “#hwn”.


The first panellist, Mr. MASON, said that at the London School of Economic Science the focus was on the oneness of humanity with creation itself — Pachamama — and through that, an aim to develop economics reflecting that oneness.  What was evident was that nature had laws that governed relationships between human beings, and between human beings and the planetary system.  In that, economics and justice were companions.  “Add a sense of justice and you have a different measure of outcomes,” he said.


In addressing the issues of poverty and wealth, he said that the root of looking at economics itself, and how it was taught, called for a complete revision.  In economy books, land and capital were lumped together, a significant error, as they were not the same thing.  Capital was what was made out of land.  Thus, land became an abstraction; it could be bought and sold as if it had no life of its own.


Ancient wisdom said otherwise, he continued, recalling Indian philosophy and Greek tradition that offered examples in which descriptions of nature were like those of human interactions and as intimate as human relationships.  It was, he stressed, not abstract.  Quoting Homer he said, “Gaia, mother of all, I shall sing to Earth, she feeds everyone in the Earth […] whoever you are, it is she who nourishes from her pleasure store.”


That approach, he noted, was not what he saw in textbooks or heard in lectures.  Thus, there were devastating consequences from treating the Earth as something human beings could use as they wished — like a commodity to be bought and sold.  But land was not like a commodity; it was finite and fixed.  As demand increased, price increased.  That spurred demand to become unsustainable, which then caused the economy to collapse.


The world, he said, was being bought up by private concerns.   However, land was not an abstract commodity, but the supporter of all life for all creatures and the source of all material wealth.  Therefore, because whoever owned the land owned the environment, privatization must be taken with extreme care.  He urged that the present situation demanded that mistakes be looked at and learned from.


“Part of being human is caring for the land we occupy so that future generations may also benefit,” he said.  In his country, the “duty of care” law ensured that land was looked after.  He pointed out that the global community, by recognizing individual rights, had been able to restrain Governments and advance the rule of law.  Thus, there was a need for a universal call for the rights of nature — a simple duty of care for the Earth.


He then offered three proposals, including introducing the test of justice to all economic outcomes.  If a system manifested injustice to the Earth and people, then it required re-examination and investigation.  Another was the recognition and development of a “duty of care” instrument whereby the rights of nature were formalized and enforced.  His last suggestion was that all ownership, whether public or private, be understood as only temporary possession and a privilege.  The duty to keep the land well and pass it on in good condition to future generations recognized the consequences of such care on all people.


Stressing that nature must be taken into account in both economic and social processes, Mr. FALCONI said that it was essential to know about the dynamic elements involved in natural cycles moving production.  Energy was used in a way that had irreversible environmental effects.  Looking at nature within a context of economic and social processes included scrutinizing social and psychological behaviour, particularly of those countries in the global North.


It was essential to consider mankind as a species that knew when “we can act and when to refrain” in order to achieve greater sustainability as society, he said.  High rates of growth and redistribution was desperately needed in Southern countries in terms of development and human capacity so that sustainable development could take root.  Public policy, as well as the physical element of nature, had to be taken into account.  Breaking away from myths was necessary, as it was no longer just environmentalists, economists and politicians but wider society who was responsible for the well-being of nature.  “We are on a planet where some humans have more rights than others, due to an unfair order,” he said.  More so, there were also rights of animals and other living creatures and nature that deserved respect as well.


Ecuador, which had accorded “nature rights” also had a Government plan for “living well” with a series of indicators for monitoring people’s ecological footprint based on their levels of consumption and capacity.  That created a different sort of metric system that pointed towards sustainability and highlighted whether society had progressed or regressed.  Nobody could disagree with such noble principles, he said, but there also needed to be some practical ways regarding how people were inserted in that system.


Indeed, he continued, there had to be real spaces of transition and the construction of human capacity to profoundly impact on education and development.  Ecuador’s oil reserves, although less than 1 per cent of total global reserves, were important in the scale of the country’s economy and development — about $800 million worth of crude oil.  With regards to mining, Ecuador had implemented a policy which would ensure that it would not pollute the environment when extracting the oil.


The deterioration of the physical condition of Earth challenged the very survival of mankind, he said, adding that it was urgently necessary to adopt a new structure of economy.  There were certain countries that were major consumers of wealth, dragging down the entire planet economically and contaminating Earth.  Re-establishing a different international order should lead to fairer trade and domestic policy that dealt with growth efficiency and distribution.


Mr. ROSALES pointed out that the intersection of the human body with nature occurred in the endocrine system, offering an example where certain toxic pollutants mimicked or blocked hormones, causing unhealthy growth or impeding healthy communication within the body.  That was how science illustrated the fact that human bodies were coupled with nature.  Thus, the economy was where humanity met nature.


“Top-down environmental structures”, he said, which created wealth also produces “illth” in the form of environmental pollution, degradation and risk.  Sustainable science provided a foundation that could investigate and study those issues.  Only a decade old, sustainable science had already established and identified the environmental thresholds and limits for economic activities.  It was estimated that the world had exceeded three times its economic threshold, as well as its ecological threshold.  There was also evidence that as long as thresholds were not crossed, humanity could pursue development, he added.


Sustainable science was inquiry with intent, he continued.  Mother Earth was finite, but there were societies that did not surpass their threshold and lived in a sustainable system, continuing the symbiotic relationship once present between ancient society and nature.  It was a “bottom-up” approach, one seen in several villages in Alaska where indigenous communities lived in subsistent cultures, drawing from the land their food, meaning and identity.  Their lives were dictated by nature, by animal migration and seasonable growth.   They were economically rich as long as the land was abundant.


Such communities were prime examples of living in nature.  “They are for the future, not museums,” he underscored.  Such subsistence cooperated with nature, with short-lived action that allowed nature to recover.  Markets were localized or regional, with a diversity of products, with bartering and with long-established economies.  Even one of the synonyms for subsistence was “life”.  Also embedded in every aspect, was the core concept of sharing, binding communities into one “super household” which people could tap into when times were hard.  When such cultural systems — also recognized as “the moral economy” — were diminished, communities were more impacted by climate change and more dependent on disaster relief.  The villages he studied were “hotspots” of examples of how to live in harmony with nature.


He urged Member States to consider several approaches, including incorporating sustainable science in policy development and strategies, and enabling and supporting those already living sustainable lives.  With a focus on what was already working, developed countries could pull themselves back before they crossed thresholds, he said, pointing out that such actions were not just in a rural setting, but also unfolding across urban areas as well.


For her part, Ms. SHEEHAN flagged as outdated economic models that supported the notion that “wealth concentrated in the hands of the few enriches us all”.  Mother Earth was in visible decline and an alarming number of species were on the path of extinction.  “There is no planet B,” she said, “What we do to the world, we do to ourselves.”  The current economic system was causing a divide which threatened the very fabric of society.  A system that separated people from each other and from the environment was not the right system for humanity.  Moreover, environmental terminology limited our thinking and imprisoned imagination and ingenuity, she said.


A fundamental restructuring was needed and the well-being of the Earth had to be the overarching element upon which that system would be based.  Privatizing the environment was causing entrapment, she said, adding that the term sustainable development could be changed to sustainable community.  Adam Smith, credited with the creation of neo-classical theory, had recognized the importance of community and had believed that the greatest profits were in countries fastest headed towards ruin.  Ecological economics focused on human well-being, as well as environmental well-being; something indigenous communities were already doing.  Current economic systems drove separation between wealth disparities and did not promote human relationships.


Acknowledgment of the rights of nature was spreading, she said, adding that Ecuador had included the rights of Mother Earth in its Constitution.  With the Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth, other countries were also beginning to take up the initiative, which was essential to building a new economic model.  In the United States, three dozen communities had begun passing laws that recognized the rights of nature and rejected the exploitative acts of corporations.


States were moving proactively to address the rights of nature.  For example, she said that people in Vermont were urging their local government to amend the constitution to recognize nature.  Further, Santa Monica, California, had recently passed a sustainability ordinance giving the people of the city the power to protect nature.  That model, rejecting the current economic paradigm and pledging commitment to specific action, was something communities all over the world could adopt.


She said that with local communities empowered and linked, rights-based initiatives to care for “our shared home” could extend to the international level.  In order to be successful, the proposed sustainable development goals in the post-2015 era needed to accept the ecological model and reject the neo-liberal model.  She encouraged that humanity get back to the root of economics, which in Latin means “to care for the home”, in order for Mother Nature to care for us.


Interactive Dialogue


During the interactive session, representatives of regional groups and Member States shared strategies and actions being taken on national and international fronts that contributed to a sustainable future, with several speakers calling for stronger global involvement and for commitments to be made towards ecological protection and sustainable development.


The delegate of Cuba, speaking on behalf of CELAC, noted that in the recent first meeting of the Community’s Environment Working Group, the drafting of its Regional Environmental Agenda would include coordination and common actions regarding environmental concerns, including how to achieve a better quality of life for people while, at the same time, respecting nature and its life cycle.


The representative of the Delegation of the European Union echoed one of the panellists regarding the power of words, stating that the term “green economy” had evolved from merely an expression to a tool fuelling the achievement of sustainable development.  Emphasizing the need to evaluate natural resources, he said that humanity could not continue to use resources free of charge.  Ecosystems must have economical value.  In addition, he called for a stronger link between science, policy and decision-making based on solid evidence, rather than rhetorical arguments.


Sustainable development was the “foundation of action”, said Brazil’s delegate.  However, the international community was far from the goal set out 20 years ago in Rio at the Earth Summit.  Numerous crises, caused by the unregulated approach to economic growth, had disproportionately affected poor people.  Therefore, it was essential to seek other paths to achieve harmony with nature that utilized available knowledge, including technology and science, as well as traditional knowledge.  Rio+20 had given the international community the tools to contribute significantly to ensuring that all countries, developed and developing, would be involved in the process.  In that regard, international cooperation was key to promoting a global approach to sustainable development.


Highlighting several national projects and initiatives focused on renewable energy, solar power and conservation of fossil fuel and natural gas, the delegate of Uzbekistan invited Member States to the international conference for renewable energy, which his country would be hosting this year. “It is time for all of us to get to work to get our economies to work in harmony with nature,” he told participants.


“The Earth never lies,” Benin’s representative stated, quoting an old proverb from her country.  Forests in Benin had survived despite deforestation from colonialism because they were seen as sacred and crucial to the culture of her country’s people.  Home to their gods and ancestors, those woodlands provided medicinal plants, water and fruits and access was limited.  To offset the negative impact of climate change, her Government, would, with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), plant 9 million trees for 9 million people over five years.  “It is time to stop attacking nature just to meet our needs,” she said.


Mother Earth was in danger and hence so were human beings, said the representative of Nicaragua.  Solutions had to come from discussions between all stakeholders.  She also questioned what was being celebrated on Earth Day — the negative impact of human activities or confirmation of a commitment to the earth, emphasizing that Governments of developed countries needed to act responsibly, fulfil commitments and change their consumption patterns.


On a national level, she continued, Nicaragua had changed its energy matrix over the past five years, with 50 per cent of energy from renewable sources.  There was hope to raise that to 94 per cent by 2017.  “Never forget that Mother Earth can live without us.  But we can’t live without her,” she pointed out.


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