Friday, 26 Mar 2004

New York, N.Y.

Action is stalled today at the U.N. Commission on Population and Development, so I thought I’d take this opportunity to explain a little about the U.N. process and why these meetings are important from an environmental standpoint.

During the week-long meeting, there are formal sessions where governments make recorded statements on their position and informal sessions where governments negotiate resolutions. Like the U.S. Congress, most of the real work happens outside the main chamber. These informal sessions are only open to government delegations. Non-governmental organization (NGO) representatives lobby government delegations between meetings. Today, governments are meeting in informal sessions to hammer out a resolution on the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development Program of Action in Cairo.

Country delegations have broken up into three main groups — the European Union and like-minded countries, the G77 (a coalition of developing countries), and the U.S. Within the groups there are some disagreements. For instance, the G77 countries are negotiating amongst themselves to form a coalition position. If the G77 breaks apart, that will make it easier for the U.S. to lobby individual delegations. If the G77 stays together, the U.S. will be on its own. So the U.S. is instigating dissent between Latin American and Arab countries. The Europeans and others are meeting to strategize how to negotiate with the G77 and the U.S. so that the Cairo Consensus will be reaffirmed.

However, all the groups are running out of time. Tomorrow is the last day and countries are just starting to look at specific language. In principle, the U.N. Commission on Population and Development operates on consensus. If consensus cannot be reached, it is possible for one country to push for a vote. Most countries prefer consensus because then they do not have to declare themselves and risk isolating themselves from allies or their governments back home. On this issue, votes have happened at two out of three regional meetings — once in Bangkok, Thailand, and once in Santiago, Chile. At both, the U.S. alone did not reaffirm Cairo, in votes of 32-1 and 38-1 respectively.

At the global level, population growth drives climate change, deforestation, the expansion of agricultural land, and the pollution of air, water, and soil — problems that can make poor people destitute. At the local level, even as communities try to adopt sustainable practices, if people cannot choose the size of their families, the impact on the environment and resulting poverty will make progress impossible. And on the individual level, it is difficult for a woman to care and become involved in her community, or feel she can make a difference in the world, when she cannot control her own fertility.

At the original Cairo conference, several environmental groups from around the world participated. Groups from the developed countries, like the National Wildlife Federation, sponsored environmental groups from the developing world to ensure global representation. Because of this presence, the links between population growth, environmental degradation, and sustainable development are discussed and highlighted in the Cairo Consensus. At the five-year anniversary of Cairo, countries signed a forward-looking resolution reaffirming Cairo and including the connection between natural resource degradation and increasing population. The document calls on the global community to protect and restore healthy ecosystems.

Unfortunately, this year the discussion about Cairo — including the agenda for this meeting — has stalled. The meeting is focused almost exclusively on the language of the 1994 Conference and not on plans for the future. Because of this focus, it is unlikely that anything that comes out of this commission meeting will discuss the links between population and environmental health. The best we can hope for is a reaffirmation of the 1994 document in its entirety. This is a step backwards in the fight for a healthy global environment.

While it is true that the population growth rate is slowing — which shows that population assistance is working — we are still adding over 73 million people to the world each year. The best way for U.S. environmentalists to reduce stress from population growth is to urge the U.S. government to reaffirm the promises and financial commitments it made at Cairo.

Regardless of what happens here tomorrow, NWF will continue to lobby the U.S. administration and Congress to meet its commitments made at Cairo.

The National Wildlife Federation is one of two dozen organizations that have passed a resolution endorsing the Cairo Consensus and calling for the U.S. to fulfill its Cairo commitments. Please join us by signing onto the “A Mother’s Promise the World Must Keep” campaign. A Mother’s Promise calls on the U.S. government to reaffirm the promises made at Cairo, so that mothers around the world can keep the promises they make to their children — one of education, health care, a clean environment, and a sustainable future.

For more information, please visit the Mother’s Promise Campaign website.