Vol. 5 Num 1101 Fri. July 06, 2007  

Sustainable development needs to be environment-friendly

Mankind is a part of nature and life depends on the uninterrupted functioning of natural systems which ensure the supply of energy and nutrients. Civilisation is rooted in nature, which has shaped human culture and influenced all artistic and scientific achievements, and living in harmony with nature gives man the best opportunities for the development of his creativity, and for rest and recreation.

World Charter for Nature
Although offsprings of nature, human beings can alter nature and exhaust natural resources by their action or its consequences. Therefore, we must have to recognise the urgency of maintaining the stability and quality of nature and of conserving natural resources. At the same time we must have to recognise the role of natural resources in our continued economic, political and social development. The role of natural resources as natural capital should not be undervalued. We should appreciate the role of mineral, plant, and animal, formations of the Earth's biosphere as means of production of oxygen, water filter, erosion preventer, or provider of other environmental services.

For the betterment of present and future generations we must have to marry the principle of sustainable development, with sustainable utilisation of natural resources and environmental sustainability. The notion of sustainable development, in some sense, includes within its ambit the concept of sustainable utilisation of natural resources and concept of environmental sustainability.

Defining sustainable development, however, is a difficult task. Over the years researchers from varied backgrounds tried to define the term while the most commonly cited definition comes from the Report of the United Nations World Commission of Environment and Development, popularly known as "Our Common Future Report". The report states that sustainable development is development that "meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs". In 1987, this report, which is also known as Brundtland Report, brought the concept of sustainable development to the forefront of international agenda. Sustainable development was the central feature of the 1992 Rio Declaration on Environment and Development. Moreover it has been a focus of attention in all discourses relating to development in the developing countries.

The focus of the sustainable development, however, does not solely fall on environmental issues. Sustainable development equally deals with economic, environmental and social issues. The elements of sustainable development may include sustainable utilisation of natural resources, integration of environmental protection and economic development, the right to development, inter-generational equity, intra-generational equity and some procedural elements such as environmental impact assessment and public participation in decision-making.

Over the years, through its universal recognition, sustainable development becomes a globally accepted norm of international law. As the former Vice President of International Court of Justice Judge Christopher Gregory Weermantry observed in his celebrated separate opinion in the case concerning Gabčíkovo-Nagymaros Dam (Hungary/Slovakia): ..................... I consider it [sustainable development] to be more than a mere concept, [it is] ......... a principle with normative value.

He also observed:
After the early formulations of the concept of development, it has been recognised that development cannot be pursued to such a point as to result in substantial damage to the environment within which it is to occur. Therefore development can only be prosecuted in harmony with the reasonable demands of environmental protection. Whether development is sustainable by reason of its impact on the environment will, of course, be a question to be answered in the context of the particular situation involved.

It is now well established that sustainable development is a fundamental principle of international law, widely accepted in multilateral treaties, international declarations, establishment documents of international organisations, practice of international financial and other institutions and state practice. As Judge Weermantry observed:

The principle of sustainable development is thus a part of modern international law by reason not only of its inescapable logical necessity, but also by reason of its wide and general acceptance by the global community.

Economic development of many developing countries is still directly dependent on utilisation of natural resources. In some cases natural resources are the main driving force for economic, social and political development. Although, in recent years, some of the developing countries' achievement in economic development is remarkable, their environmental initiative is not unquestionable and rather mixed. Sometimes these nations responded to the global environmental protection movement with several reservations which can be easily understood from a comment of the former Malaysian Prime Minister Dr. Mahathir Mohamad. He observed:

"[now] the developed countries have sacrificed their own forests in the race for higher standards of living, they want to preserve other countries' rain forests -- citing a global heritage -- which could indirectly keep countries like Malaysia from achieving the same levels of development."

Apart from the pressure of unplanned development it is a common phenomenon for many developing countries that high-level corruption has plundered the natural resources where resources are badly needed for reconstruction and development of states. Corruption, poverty, human rights abuses and destruction of natural resources are indivisibly interlinked with each other. Most people in the developing countries suffer from the effects of environmental degradation resulting from poor environmental management practices and inadequate governance rather than utilisation of natural resources for development activities. Several institutional and legal factors are hindering the domestic compliance of internationally recognised environmental management norms in developing countries.

Undoubtly, in the 21st century natural resource will be one of the main driving forces for development of the least developed countries. For wellbeing and welfare of the millions of poor people in these countries' process of economic development cannot be stopped or halted. At the same time environment cannot be destroyed, otherwise the very existence of human civilisation will be jeopardized. We must have to find an amicable solution to this problem. Ensuring sustainable development may be the answer to this problem.

The global ecosystem is under stress and strain. Natural resources are already burdened with sustaining a rapidly growing world population. The most rapid population growth is occurring in the third world, in Asia, Africa and Latin America where a huge number of people live in a condition of absolute poverty. These people are often deprived of basic human needs, caught in the every day struggle for survival. Situation forced them to cut the tress for firewood, clear the forest for agriculture, over-fish in seas and rivers, over-hunt wildlife, practise unsustainable agricultural process. A vicious circle of overpopulation, poverty and illiteracy is the catalyst for the third world's contribution to global natural resources degradation. As the World Commission on Environment and Development stated in "Our Common Future Report":

"The Commission believes that widespread poverty is no longer inevitable. Poverty is not only an evil in itself, but sustainable development requires meeting the basic needs of all and extending to all the opportunities to fulfil their aspiration for better life. A world in which poverty is endemic will always be prone to ecological and other catastrophes"

On the other hand, contribution of rich developed countries in the process of degradation of global natural resources is hundred times higher than that of third world countries. The emissions of the industries and their effluent, the release of greenhouse gases from transportation and disposal of huge amount of nuclear and other wastes are contributing to global warming, and damaging biosphere.

Humans have changed the natural environment from the very beginning of civilisation through uncontrolled and unplanned utilisation of natural resources. For the sake of very existence of human civilisation on earth we have to ensure that development process is carried out in a sustainable manner through sustainable utilisation of natural resources. In this juncture I may venture to conclude with some words from the Nobel Lecture of 2004 (Nobel Peace Prize) Wangari Muta Maathai:

"I reflect on my childhood experience when I would visit a stream next to our home to fetch water for my mother. I would drink water straight from the stream. Playing among the arrowroot leaves I tried in vain to pick up the strands of frogs' eggs, believing they were beads. But every time I put my little fingers under them they would break. Later, I saw thousands of tadpoles: black, energetic and wriggling through the clear water against the background of the brown earth. This is the world I inherited from my parents. Today, over 50 years later, the stream has dried up, women walk long distances for water, which is not always clean, and children will never know what they have lost. The challenge is to restore the home of the tadpoles and give back to our children a world of beauty and wonder."

The writer is presently a Research Scholar in the Faculty of Law at the National University of Singapore (NUS)