Media Center



September 14, 2006 - Washington, DC

I would just begin by saying that we are very grateful to the outstanding panelists for taking the time to join us. And to the representatives from non-governmental organizations and indigenous communities that are here and we look forward to your input and your advice during the discussions. I also welcome the members from the various OAS missions who I can recognize in the room.

The background for this panel discussion is two-fold. First, it is part of the preparatory process towards an OAS Ministerial Meeting on Sustainable Development in Santa Cruz de Sierra, Bolivia.

The meeting is really relevant because it comes a decade after the OAS Summit on Sustainable Development held in Santa Cruz also. It is called, in OAS jargon, Santa Cruz plus ten. It provides an opportunity to revise the extent of the unfinished agenda to take stock of progress made in the past ten years, if we have made progress, and to identify new challenges as they arise.

It is a chance especially for the 34 countries of the OAS to define a focused and clear cooperative agenda. We don’t need another general and normative political declaration about environmental priorities. That has been done several many times and our archives full of papers that were very carefully crafted and discussed to the last word, and then forgotten and put aside.

We want to offer the governments of the Bolivia meeting, and the governments of civil society and the private sector to set out some very specific, tangible and cooperative measures that can make a difference.

There is a second goal of course to this panel– to underscore the absolute urgency of mainstreaming environmental protection, risk reduction in natural disasters, and sustainable development, within the broader political context of an organization such as the OAS.

Our mandate entails supporting hemispheric cooperation and integration within the context of promoting democracy, human rights, hemispheric security and poverty alleviation integral development. And we feel that we are making progress in many of those areas.

We truly believe that environmental degradation can affect the tenacity and fabric of democratic foundations. Certainly democracy cannot be sustained when we are 140 million people in the hemisphere with no access to sanitation services.

75 million people in the hemisphere lack access to clean drinking water. Over 80 million of the people in Latin America breath air-pollutant levels that exceed WHO guidelines. And the vast majority of those exposed to dirty air and dirty water are the poorest communities in the region, plagued by generations of injustice and exclusion.

Unfortunately, environmental protection and sustainable development many times are not regarded as a priority in most organizations or countries. Rather, they remain on the policy periphery – regarded as technical issues, or worse, a luxury to be attained after we obtain some key targets of economic growth.

And it is clear that we need to change these perceptions. Environmental degradation and increased frequency and severity of climate-related natural disasters cannot be separated from the core developmental priorities we have.

And one of the contributions of the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment – which we will be hearing about in a moment – is its linking of robust scientific diagnostic that tracks the scale of environmental destruction, with the economic implications of environmental loss.

There are several things that can be said about how these economic implications do take place. For example, the loss of production top-soils, coupled with deforestation and the alarming loss of biological diversity have profound economic and development implications. Changes in average temperatures and rainfall patterns relate to soil loss and to water scarcity, and they affect the livelihoods of tens of thousands of farm workers.

By every account, these and other environmental-related human health affects will worsen. We already know that last year, some parts of the wider Amazon River basin, suffered its worst drought in 100 years. Many scientists have concluded that the drought caused by record-high temperatures which formed over the mid-Atlantic basin and also caused the highest number of hurricanes and tropical storms ever recorded in the Caribbean, Central America and in the eastern US seaboard.

We have other impacts. For example, such as the impact of the Amazon drought, and the record rise in the cases of malaria. And this, as I say again, usually affects the poorest communities in the region.

Now, what we are learning, although too slowly, is that environmental instability leads to instability in relations among countries. We have had disputes among countries recently which have led to diplomatic institutes; one of them is in front of the International Court of The Hague. And it is important that institutions such as the OAS focus on core issues related to conflict avoidances, especially in light of the changes already underway.

One of the remarkable areas of progress in the past decade has been in the area of governance and this is not surprising. The environmental agenda took shape from the grass-roots activism and demand for accountability and change from community groups and civil society organizations.

We must use the ministerial meeting to support and push the governance agenda in environmental matters.

Let me just identify, to finish, three priorities.

First, we need to improve the information available to governments to help them identify environmental problems, understand the consequences of those problems if they have been ignored, and establish a common regional platform upon which to coordinate responses.

Second, the ministerial meeting should advance the manner in which civil society is assured full access to environmental information. Five years ago this week we signed the Democratic Charter of the Americas – an unfortunate coincidence with the tragic events of September 11, 2001 – in this Democratic Charter the 34 OAS member countries committed themselves to support meaningful public participation and to advance institutional transparency. And we should build upon this with the Bolivia meeting, and set out a plan that brings about comparable standards with regards to access to environmental information.

And finally, we have opportunity to advance on-the-ground cooperation in the effective monitoring and enforcement of environmental and conservation laws. In too many instances, environmental destruction is caused not because of gaps in regulations and laws, but rather by weak monitoring and enforcement. This is, by the way, a common feature of Latin America where the laws are well done and well drafted, but the enforcement and monitoring is very weak.

I know that one meeting will not solve the problems. But it provides a platform to push for change. Above all it provides also a possibility of showing many of the governments south of the hemisphere that what they do is relevant. There is a feeling of fatalism in many of our governments who feel that unless things change in other parts of the world, whatever they do isn’t going to be relevant to change the course of events in matters of climate change and environmental destruction. And I think this meeting can provide a useful tool to continue pushing our organizations and our countries to articulate change.

I think that this seminary is a very good start and I thank very much all for being here. Thank you.