Past, present and future perspectives


United Nations Conference on Environment and Development

The major environmental highlight of the past decade was the 1992 UNCED, or Earth Summit, held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Africa played a major role both during the process leading up to UNCED and at the conference itself. The region, through the OAU, presented the African Common Position on Environment and Development, which highlighted the region's environment and development priorities. The environmental challenges facing Africa and the rest of the world were articulated by the then UN Secretary-General, Butros Butros Ghali, at the opening of UNCED (see Box 1.4).

Perhaps the most defining decision of the 1992 Earth Summit was the granting of equal footing, in the Rio Declaration, to both the environment and to development. This was a significant departure from the 1972 Stockholm Conference, which gave prominence to the environment, despite its groundbreaking decisions on political, social and economic issues. While the Stockholm Conference defined an environmental right, the Earth Summit not only reaffirmed this right, but also balanced it with 'the right to development', which it said must be fulfilled 'to equitably meet developmental and environmental needs of present and future generations'. This reaffirmation echoes the 1991 Abuja Treaty Establishing the African Economic Community (see Box 1.5), which sets out Africa's obligations towards natural resources and development.

Box 1.4 A turning point in global environment and development

'It is indeed an historic conference. Possibly, future generations will call it a turning point, a moment in history when a major correction was introduced in the process of the industrial revolution which started, less than 200 years ago, to transform so profoundly conditions on our planet ... While the environment is an emerging new and very serious problem, we must not forget that development is still the highest priority and an unreached objective.'

UN Secretary-General, Butros Butros Ghali, opening the 1992 Earth Summit

Box 1.5 Abuja Treaty-Article 58 (Environment)

'Member states undertake to promote a healthy environment. To this end, they shall adopt national, regional and continental policies, strategies and programmes and establish appropriate institutions for the protection and enhancement of the environment. For purposes of paragraph 1 of this article, member states shall take the necessary measures to accelerate the reform and innovation process leading to ecologically rational, economically sound and socially acceptable development policies and programmes.'

Source: OAU 1991


At the Earth Summit, the eradication of poverty was identified as an indispensable requirement for sustainable development, in order to decrease the disparities in standards of living and to better meet the needs of most people in the world. The Earth Summit also called for:

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