Saturday, March 24, 2012

Agenda 21 is not new and not dangerous

Lake Fontana in Great Smokey Mountains National Park
On my recent trip to the Great Smokey Mountains National Park I was stopped by a local resident who seemed very concerned about  Agenda 21, which he ascribed to President Obama. A little searching on the Internet led to a number of links filled with misinformation. I doubt that I can do much to reassure those concerned with potential threats of Agenda 21 to rural America, but I will try to explain in the following paragraphs why they should not be worried.

Southern Appalachian timber harvest in the 1900s
Americans should be worried about environmental problems. The Great Smokey Mountains National Park was in fact created to restore a greatly depleted region of the southern Appalachians and to preserve what little was left of its pre-Colombian native forest. It is a beautiful place, but the American Chestnut trees that represented some 60 percent of the Park's forests 60 years ago are now gone, killed by a chestnut blight introduced from abroad. The Fraser Firs in the Park are now threatened by an introduced insect. Air pollution is increasing and acid rain is causing problems in the Park. If we want our children and our grandchildren to have the Park to enjoy in relatively pristine state, we have to act to protect it.

Agenda 21 is "a comprehensive plan of action to be taken globally, nationally and locally by organizations of the United Nations System, Governments, and Major Groups in every area in which human impacts on the environment." It, together with the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development, and the Statement of principles for the Sustainable Management of Forests, was adopted by more than 178 Governments at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) held in Rio de Janerio, Brazil, 3 to 14 June 1992. UNCED, also known as the Earth Summit, was  held during the period in which George H. W. Bush was president of the United States.

"Ghost" Fraser Firs killed by the Balsam woolly adelgid on Clingmans Dome,
Great Smoky Mountain National Park
The United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD) was established by the UN General Assembly in December 1992 to ensure effective follow-up of the Earth Summit. Indeed, Agenda 21 can be seen as the benchmark for the addition of environmental concerns to the global agenda that had once focused on economic growth and the reduction of poverty.

 I find it hard to imagine people really concerned with the concept of "sustainable development". "Development" is intended to mean both social and economic development, and in the context in which the word is used internationally, to imply a broad process of social and economic development, including the reduction of poverty, the improvement of health and wellbeing, and the increase of participation in political processes.

Haiti-Dominican Republic border from the air, showing Haitian deforestation
Global warming, deforestation, desertification, loss of biodiversity, water pollution, loss of top soil, air pollution, depletion of water resources, coastal zone degradation, destruction of fisheries, depletion of oil resources and the list goes on. The depletion of natural resources, which after all form a significant portion of the capital that countries use for economic development, has been a problem in the past in now developed countries, and is today an increasingly visible problem in developing nations. These problems seem to most gravely affect the poor, both rural and urban, in the poorest countries.

There is also an increasing understanding that there may well be problems of resource depletion arising at a global level that may in a few generations create development problems on a global scale. The Earth Summit resulted in a consensus of the nations of the world that there is a responsibility now to take reasonable measures to assure that the rapid development that we have enjoyed for so many decades can be sustained into the indefinite future. The intent of Agenda 21 was to begin that process of assuring sustainable development.

There have been follow up meetings to the Earth Summit and another major meeting is scheduled for this year, Rio +20, marking the 20th anniversary of the initial UN conference. Of course, the United States Government will send a delegation to this important event, and of course the United States Government is planning its positions for the conference now, including developing a set of initiatives to announce in Rio (where Rio +20 will be held).

It would seem that the Obama administration's decision to create a White House Rural Council has been linked in the minds of some with Agenda 21. The mandate for that Council seems to make clear that the purpose of the Council is to improve coordination among federal government agencies in order to improve the cost-effectiveness of government programs in rural areas and "to promote economic prosperity and quality of life in rural America".

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