New trade and environmental agreements alone won't alleviate poverty and unbridled consumption, which are wreaking ecological havoc and deepening economic inequalities the world over.
Any serious efforts to balance human and ecological needs must include education and cultural diversity, both of which will be at the heart of UNESCO's contribution to the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg (South Africa), from August 26 to September 4.
"At Johannesburg, we must take a major leap forward by recognizing that culturally diverse visions of human well-being are essential to truly understand and protect the environment while meeting the needs of this generation and those of the future," says Koïchiro Matsuura, Director-General of UNESCO. "Indigenous and traditional communities around the world have developed extraordinarily sophisticated understandings of biodiversity, the fruit of a rich base of knowledge and a set of values for respecting it. We can no longer afford to neglect the knowledge that links cultural and biological diversity."
This focus on knowledge highlights a key UNESCO priority, education. Scientists and decision-makers alone cannot bring about the changes required to curb emissions of greenhouse gases, for example, or the destruction of coral reefs. "Education has a critical role to play in addressing the thinking, values and practices in social, economic and political affairs that have put the world on an unsustainable path," says the Director-General. However, traditional classroom approaches are not enough. UNESCO is therefore focusing on original ways of learning to encourage the necessary lifestyle changes and mobilize the support required for a new ecological vision grounded in a sense of global solidarity.
UNESCO will organize a major event on "Educating for a Sustainable Future" during the Summit with the South African Ministry of Education on September 2 and 3 at Summer Place, close to the Summit venue. The Director-General and Prof. Kader Asmal, the host country's Minister of Education, will lead the discussions along with several Heads of State and Government. A wide range of experts - from non-governmental organizations, academia and business - will also take part in the presentations on diverse subjects such as AIDS prevention, literacy, the needs of rural African women, teacher-training and university curricula.
At the summit, cultural diversity will also be at the centre of another major event (September 3 at the Intercontinental Hotel), organized by UNESCO, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the French government. Several Heads of State and Government will take part, including President Jacques Chirac of France, President Joaquim Chissano of Mozambique, the Vice President of Iran, Massoumeh Ebtekarm, and Chief Oren Lions, head of the Permanent Indigenous Peoples Forum. Nobel Prize laureates Rigoberta Menchu of Guatemala and Wole Soyinka of Nigeria will also participate.
Discussions and debates over biodiversity are generally marked by a narrow technical perspective, which often overlooks the cultural, political and ecological contexts. "It is not enough to simply classify and quantify the number of plant and animal species," says the Mr Matsuura. "We must grasp the links between how different cultures shape the environment and vice versa."
The roundtable will examine the links between cultural and biological diversity and the common threats facing them. For example, seven out of nine top countries for linguistic diversity are also among the top 17 countries for biological diversity, according to the UNESCO publication, Sharing a World of Difference, produced with the non-governmental organizations World Wide Fund for Nature and Terralingua. The publication, to be released in September, also found that 13 out of the 17 biological megadiversity countries - Papua New Guinea, Indonesia, India, Australia, Mexico, Brazil, Democratic Republic of Congo, the Philippines, the United States, Malaysia, China, Peru and Colombia - also figure among the top 25 countries for endemic languages spoken exclusively within their respective borders, generally spoken by indigenous peoples and minorities with a wealth of information concerning the surrounding ecosystem. However, these communities are increasingly impoverished by the very same market forces that threaten biodiversity.
The controversy surrounding indigenous knowledge and intellectual property rights will be the subject of another major UNESCO event, scheduled for August 29 at the Ubuntu Village. A wide range of scientific and legal experts from Ethiopia to Thailand will lead the discussions. The event will be organized jointly with the International Council for Science (ICSU), Tebtebba Foundation (an indigenous institute for international research and policy based in the Philippines) and in cooperation with the International Chamber of Commerce.
UNESCO will also launch the largest and most comprehensive encyclopaedia ever published on sustainable development (September 3, Ubuntu Village). The web-based Encyclopaedia of Life Support Systems (EOLSS) is the result of an unprecedented global effort and will be available for free to the least developed countries. Never before has an encyclopaedia gone beyond the ecological sciences to cover all aspects of sustainable development. EOLSS is the only series to examine the origins and threats facing all of the systems that support life on earth comprehensively - from the climate to the world's oceans, forests, water cycle and atmosphere. EOLSS also covers a diverse range of social issues - from international human rights law and poverty eradication to the psychology of religion.
A series of UNESCO roundtables (see attached list for more details) will also cover such critical issues as global water supplies, the health of the oceans and the use of satellites to monitor the environment. A major exhibition on the Organization's programmes, priorities and activities will be on display at the Ubuntu Village in addition to more specialized exhibits on the oceans, solar energy, and the International Year of Freshwater, which UNESCO will lead in 2003.
The Summit will also serve as a platform for the launch of new partnership initiatives, by and between governments, non-governmental organizations and businesses, to tackle specific problems - from the preservation of biodiversity to the alleviation of poverty. UNESCO will present about 15 partnership initiatives in diverse fields. For example, the Organization will join forces with the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in a new project designed to improve education for rural communities around the world. Another partnership with three of the largest university associations in the world will work to make sustainable development a major issue in academic curricula. The private sector will also be involved. The American advertising giant J. Walter Thompson, for example, will work with UNESCO to launch a major public awareness campaign on diverse aspects of sustainable development.
Amy Otchet, Bureau of Public Information
in Johannesburg, cell phone: (+27) (0)828 580
Isabelle Le Fournis, Bureau of Public Information
cell phone: (+33) (0) 614 6953 72