Serie “Rio 92 what did it lead to? Rio +20 what will it lead to?”

Posted on 28 May 2012
Ignacy Sachs - Economist
© Cedida por el entrevistado
Interview Economist Ignacy Sachs

Polish-born economist Ignacy Sachs (85) of French nationality is a major reference when the subject is sustainable development. Since the 1980s Sachs has been discussing the possibilities of a new development paradigm based on a convergence of economy and ecology, in view of the way mankind has been acting since the beginning of the industrial revolution.

Ignacy Sachs began his academic career in Brazil where he lived during the 1940s and 50s and he went on to take a doctorate in India. He also worked in socialist Poland and taught in France where he created the Centre for Studies on Contemporary Brazil.

Acquiring a cosmopolitan experience is one of the recommendations Sachs makes to young people. “I have lived off that particular capital for many years now” he declared at the end of the interview he granted to WWF. Sachs particularly recommends that Brazil should send students to other countries with similar environmental problems and receive students from those countries in turn. In his view, confronting the different experiences could propitiate “a fantastic advance towards finding concrete solutions to the problems faced by the various countries that make up the bloc of emergent countries”. The highlights of the interview he gave are set out below.

What were you engaged in at the time of the Rio 92 event? Can you remember any episode of the conference that left its mark?

At the Rio 92 I took part in various parallel events. As I remember, there was a highly interesting Seminar held in Curitiba and we also took a trip to the Amazon and a seminar held in Manaus. I took part in various activities associated to the Conference, within it and outside of it, but I would say that the most vibrant and most important part of the Rio conference was what was going on at the Flamengo beach and various other places in the city.

Which countries had the most outstanding participation in the Rio 92? What was the participation of Latin American countries like?

I cannot really say because 20 years have gone by and that was not the focus of our analysis. What was most important in Rio was everything that took place outside of the official conference. The conference was there, a long way off in the Gávea surrounded by a ring of tanks and very strict security to make sure that no one could get inside, but at the Flamengo beach there was a series of highly diversified and important activities going on. In that aspect, the Rio 90 followed the tradition begun in Stockholm in 72 when, in the environs of the official United Nations conference, there was another conference of organised civil society taking place. I am quite sure that is going to happen again, but I cannot imagine in what way, how big it will be and even less, to what extent the events taking place on the fringe of it will influence the official conference or what it all will lead to afterwards. That is the great question, and also our ability to head towards an open political dialogue in which organised civil society plays a relevant role.

What was the main legacy resulting from the Rio 92?

The Agenda 21 sprang from the Rio 92 conference and it was certainly an important document. But there was also a lot of frustration stemming from the conference because it took place in opposition to the tide of history at the time. We were at a moment that was right after the implosion of the Soviet Union when there was a huge neo-liberal offensive in course. I think that is why many of the Rio 92’s conclusions never prospered in the way they deserved to, because of a whole constellation of unfavourable political forces.

The direction Capitalism took at the end of the last century led an increase in the pressures on the environment?

Obviously, if after the Rio 92 we had entered into a phase of planned economies that explicitly took into account, not only social impacts but environmental ones too, then we would be far better off today; but that is not what happened. We did not come out of the Rio 92 with the kind of mega social contract that we needed. It is worth remembering that the Rio + 20 is going to take place on a special date, the anniversary of the birth of Jean-Jacques Rousseau [1712] and it is also a commemorative date for the publication of the social contract [1762]. So the great problem is whether we will manage to make the Rio + 20 our consciously assumed entry point into a new geological era: the anthropocene, which actually began with the industrial revolution. Subjacent to this entry into a new era we should be thinking about a mega social contract whereby the developmentist States, workers, businessmen and organised civil society are explicitly articulated with one another.

The BRICS countries could be good players in the field of environmental issues, or do they tend to repeat outdated models?

I believe less in the BRICS than in the IBAs (India, Brazil, South Africa) because Russia, just as much as China has a vision that does not necessarily coincide with that of the emergent countries, of which Brazil and India are the two forerunners.

Aren't Brazil and India two of the biggest 'sinners'?

All the bipeds that walk on this planet are sinners and dreamers at the same time. I am not saying that just because Brazil and India have drawn together as forerunners of the emerging nations bloc, the two countries will automatically be able to solve their internal problems overnight. First we need to think in terms of the green economy, but an economy that does not lose track of the problem’s social dimension. Second, we need to think about the question of a political pact structured around the objectives of a form of development that is ‘including’ rather than ‘inclusive’. The Indian Nobel prizewinner Amartya Sen used the term in English ‘inclusioner’. We need a reference framework for our action towards constructing an including economy which is, at the same time, environmentally sustainable. That needs to be at the heart of a political pact drawn up between the different vibrant forces within each nation and an international pact among the states that embraces that philosophy. So that is the challenge before the Rio + 20, how to set off along this pathway, recognise the fact that we are living in a new era, the anthropocene, and that we have been in it ever since the industrial revolution, only we have taken a long time to recognise the fact and based on it, to define national development strategies with that proper concern for the sustainability of the environment and for social progress. To that end, I believe we must go back to planning again. In other words we must place the question of planning high on the list of priorities; but it must be democratic planning, that involves a high degree of planning of the living forces of each nation in the formulation of the plans. We need to undertake planning based on this concept of socially ‘including’ environmentally sustainable development and organised on the basis of a quadripartite dialogue among the developmentist State, the corporate businessmen, workers and organised civil society. If it were up to me, I would allow the United Nations member nations a reasonable time, say two or three years, in which to bring their ‘including’, sustainable development plans to the table and at the same time I would redouble efforts and reinforcements in the sphere of the United Nations, to generate a true and important ‘including’ sustainable development fund.

How could that Fund be financed?

It could be financed in the following way: first, go back to the commitments, which have repeatedly been mouthed but never seriously put into effect by the rich countries and add to them a tax on financial speculation. We could also add a tax on carbon emissions that would have the double function of checking exaggerated carbon emissions that are provoking global warming and generating a development fund. Lastly, we would have to start charging a toll on ships and aircraft for their use of the space over the oceans that they cross based on the principle that the oceans are a universal human heritage. Whoever uses them needs to pay. With those four sources we would be able to develop a huge including sustainable development fund administered by the United Nations. Another indispensable tool is the networks of scientific and technical cooperation that are being formed on the basis of a new geography; no longer a question of North-South meridian-based cooperation, but rather of South-South parallel-based cooperation, designed to generate a maximum of scientific and technical cooperation around similar biomes shared by countries on different continents. In that way there would be a cooperation network for tropical rainforests like the Amazon but it would include the Congo forests, the forests of Indonesia and India and so on. That means we would be forming a scientific and technical cooperation geography based on biomes and including in that vision, an issue that is of the greatest importance to many countries, which is the soil-water interface, that is to say, along the seashores, along the courses of rivers, in the natural and artificial lakes; and always with a shared view of the issue and differentiated solution. How can we ensure that the green revolution advances on the soil side and conjugate it with the blue revolution on the water side, that is to say, integrated systems to produce, at that land-water interface?

What is your opinion regarding the basic text for the Rio+20?

I do not have a position on that and I would rather not make a statement because I believe that it is the tone that has been set for the conference, in other words, we already have a lot of international organisations. To my mind the priority must be to define a strategy and take the necessary steps to see that the existing organisations change whatever needs to be changed internally for them to able to work in the desired direction. Closing down agencies or opening others, generally speaking, leads to a great waste of time, effort and money. That is to say, we have the regional agencies, the substantive agencies; you have just elected José Graziano to the FAO (Food and Agriculture Organisation) – a worthy successor (doctor and geographer) in the tradition of Josué de Castro (author of the book ‘The Geography of Hunger’, 1946’); let us make use of the existing institutions by adapting them. What is more important is to define a strategy with concrete objectives, stating who does what, rather than be thinking about new institutions that will necessarily collide with existing institutions and give way to a tremendous institutional attrition.

What do you hope will come out of the Rio+20 in regard to the Amazon and what role could Brazil and the other Amazonian countries perform at this conference?

First of all, there is clearly no single solution. From the energy point of view we need to work with three concepts: first, sobriety, that is, not foolishly wasting energy; second, efficiency, learning how to produce it well; and third, looking for alternatives in regard to sources of energy and in my opinion looking for ways to get out of using fossil energy, not only because of global warming but because of the exhaustion of petroleum reserves that is going to drive us to using, at least for some time, the deep pre-salt deposits (submarine petroleum) etc. I am not saying we should abstain from using them but merely that they offer solutions that are relatively limited by their time scale. So we need to attribute the greatest importance to renewable energies. Among the renewable energies we have the sea-driven energy (which we do not yet know how to use properly) and some lesser examples like wind energy, which is coming in now, but which is incapable of solving the situation on its own. We cannot fail to make use of bio-energy. When we think about bio-energy production we should also be thinking about food production and examine to what extent the objective of increasing food production can be harmonised with use of the residues from that same production to produce bio-energy. In short, how can the two objectives manage to keep in step, hand in hand? The answer is that there is no single solution available and we will have to explore all the problems involved.

Apart from Brazil, do you expect any other Amazonian countries to play a protagonist role?

I believe that the Amazon Pact is here to stay and that Brazil has an extremely important role given the size of the Brazilian Amazon. As for protagonist roles at the conference as such, I am not in a position to say. I would not like to abandon the idea that the Amazonian countries should work together on the question of how they could make better use of their enormous renewable natural resources, without forgetting the fact that there are enormous mineral reserves in the Amazon and they are far off from the those exploited lands that have natural assets. The question is how to do all of this without disregarding the social objectives, without forgetting the indigenous populations that live in the Amazon. We need to always think in terms of the trio: social objectives, environmental prudence and economic viability. Viability is constructed by the actions of the State and the peoples, except that in constructing economic viability we must take care to see that the social cost is not excessive and also ensure that it is not done through the predatory incorporation of natural wealth. If we manage to stay aware of those three intertwined objectives, I believe that you, here in Brazil and Latin America will be able, not only to advance considerably but also to create models that will have a highly positive impact on what is going to happen in the future in Africa and certain Asian countries, always keeping your eyes open and placing importance on the permanent exchanging of concrete experiences and that leads me to repeat my suggestion about making a great effort to create a student exchange process.
Ignacy Sachs - Economist
© Cedida por el entrevistado Enlarge