María Espinosa and Izabella Teixeira: Humankind Needs to Promote Inclusive Development with Nature, Address Social Inequalities

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Common Home Conversations – Pathway to 2022

July 14, 2021

Kimberly White
Hello and welcome back to Common Home Conversations for part II of our discussion with María Espinosa, President of the 73rd Session of the United Nations General Assembly and former Ecuadorian Minister of Foreign Affairs, and Izabella Teixeira, Co-Chair of the United Nations Environment Programme’s International Resource Panel and former Minister for the Environment of Brazil. Thank you both so much for joining us again today!

Now, we were talking about intergenerational equity and climate justice. One other thing I’d like to go into just a little bit further, and you both touched on this a little bit, is you’re both from countries that house the Amazon rainforest. What could this declaration mean for Indigenous communities?

María Espinosa
Yet again, Kimberly and Izabella, we both come from Amazonian countries, as you said. In the early stages of my career, I devoted so many years to working and living in the Amazon and working with Indigenous peoples myself. And what I can tell you is that they have incredibly sophisticated knowledge about how to manage tropical ecosystems that are so sensitive, so vulnerable. You see a lot of green and a powerful primary tropical rainforest, but you know, any minor disruption can really alter the very sophisticated life cycle of a tropical rainforest. Indigenous peoples have lived there for thousands of years, and they know how to take care of the Amazon. And I don’t want to be an essentialist, but basically, I think that there is a lot to learn. The Amazon is at a crossroads right now if you look at the deforestation patterns, at the land use, dramatic changes in the Amazon, but also the living conditions of Indigenous peoples. It’s extremely worrisome in terms of the rights in terms of access to basic services.

Unfortunately, the Amazon, in our respective countries, continues to be our internal colonies. Look at Ecuador, but there are more cases like Ecuador. Ecuador’s income mainly comes from oil exports. I would say practically every barrel of oil that Ecuador exports come from the Amazon. And that brings, depending on the oil prices, but let’s say 50 to 60 percent of our revenue. And if you look at the living conditions of Indigenous peoples, and not only in Ecuador but in the Amazon, they are the poorest of the poor. This has been so evident, so obvious with the COVID-19 pandemic, in terms of access to health care, in terms of water and sanitation, in terms of food security. And I would say thank God that Indigenous peoples have their own organization mechanisms, their own solidarity networks, their own intellectual capacity to gather data to do their own assessments. There is a platform that was organized by COICA, which is the Confederation of Indigenous Organizations of the Amazon, you know, really being self-sufficient because of the lack of concern, commitment, and responsibility from their respective governments.

And with that said, I think that, of course, Indigenous peoples are key players in finding a new way to manage the Amazon. They are key players; their presence is a transboundary presence. They have families across borders. They understand the ecological dynamics of tropical rainforests. And they also have to be at the decision-making table. They have the voice, they have the knowledge, they have the experience, but they are also subjects of a tremendous profound rights deficit. You name it; I mentioned that in terms of food security, in terms of access to health, in terms of quality education. So there is a lot that our societies need to do.

There is, very soon hopefully, a significant report produced by the Science Panel for the Amazon, which is hundreds of scientists, mostly from Amazonian countries, that have come together to produce this state of the art situation of the Amazon. I have the privilege to serve on their Advisory Committee. I share that also, Izabella, with Sebastião Salgado. We are both part of the Strategic Committee of the Science Panel for the Amazon. And we are working closely, very much looking forward to their report, and it is going to be, in my opinion, a game-changer. But I say that these are strong words, but we need to decolonize the Amazon, and the way to decolonize is to work closely with Indigenous peoples but also with Amazonian citizens in general. The situation of Amazonian urban settings and cities, for example, is one of the most challenging situations.

Well, I can speak about the Amazon for hours and hours. It’s obviously one of my passions, but your question about Indigenous peoples, their roles, and Indigenous peoples from the Amazon, they need to have, they are entitled to have a seat at the decision-making table. But beyond that, Indigenous peoples have made a tremendous contribution to the Paris Agreement in crafting climate-related agreements. They have a strong voice when dealing with agriculture and multilateral decisions etc. Well, to make it short, they are strong, articulate, intelligent, and much-needed voices in the global governance arrangements and in the decision-making processes not only at national but also at international levels.

Izabella Teixeira
Yes, I fully agree with you. I would like to add two or three comments because my first perspective is something that you mentioned as a critical issue. We need to decolonize Amazonia. And for this, it’s not only the national interest with national perspectives; we need to know Amazonia or the Amazon region. My feeling is that the world also does not know or has different ways to approach Amazonia without necessarily understanding all the dimensions of the Amazon’s regions. Indigenous people connect almost all of the dimensions of the Amazon region. This is something very important to pay attention to because, politically, I used to say that Amazon puts Brazil in the world, and today Amazon keeps Brazil out of the world. Because we need to have a common understanding not all about the importance to protect for climate security, for example- climate stability of Amazon protection- but we need to understand much better what the Amazon means. And you go into the international community, and you know this better than I, that when you go into our countries that are part of Amazon regions, we are seen as middle-income countries. But when you go into the Amazon region, you have low-income countries. This is a huge mistake for the international community when you go to address funds, for example. International funds- “No, I cannot support you because you are from Peru, from Brazil, middle-income countries, etc.” It’s not true.

We need a new lens to approach Amazon regions, and in my perspective, I believe that you need to specialize in Amazon diplomacy to understand how to address common goods. This is very important to pay attention to politically and geopolitically because everyone’s allowed to discuss Amazonia- even Brazilians- without necessarily knowing a lot about Amazonia. I’d like to mark this because you have your passion for Amazonia as I have my own. And but we cannot forget that in Brazil, 80 percent of people that live in Amazonia live in cities. I’m talking about 27 million people that live in the Brazilian Amazon. It’s not one million people; it’s 27 million people. So it’s absolutely important to understand that that’s why I mentioned so much about local needs. And Indigenous people are part of this because we also have a diversity that is so rich. The diversity of Indigenous people that you have in the Amazon region- you need to understand how to address not only their needs but their political role, or their innovative political role, as you mentioned. I fully agree that they must have a seat at the international tables. But we need to understand how we will approach the diversity of interests and knowledge and also the legitimacy of these Indigenous people not only in the Amazon region but also in South America.

And you know, to have the privilege to have the origin of our society based exactly on Indigenous people. This is fascinating because this means that it’s a civilizatory trace for our societies that is exactly based on Indigenous people. That’s why I do believe that you need to use this global debate, or this global commons debate, to make clear for our national society the importance of the Indigenous people for our national ID- as Brazilians, as Amazon people, etc. We need to understand better the role of Indigenous people for our future but also to recognize, as you mentioned, how our prejudice, our political prejudice, to understand their importance and to recognize the political space that they need to assume. My feeling is that we need to learn the importance of Indigenous people if you want to have this new perspective of the world, a new perspective of our region considering the challenge of development. It’s not something that’s like a part of our society that is distant of us- no, these are our roots, and they need to be closer, we need to recognize that you don’t have all the elements to dialogue with them and even to bring them on board. We need to address, for us, the new political rules to learn with their experience and their knowledge. And more than this, in my perspective, we need to understand how they will share solutions and innovative perspectives for our sustainable and inclusive development.

My feeling is that not only the international community but in my country, most Brazilians don’t know a lot about how to come together with Indigenous people. And I think that as you mentioned, the new report that is coming will be very illustrative about our challenges. And this is an innovative political perspective considering Indigenous people not only in the Amazon region but around the world. My feeling is that this is one of the critical political challenges we need to face if we want to go forward considering the global commons agenda and planetary boundaries. Without their knowledge, without their political role, without their political presence, it will be very tough to address concrete solutions for humankind in the next years. So it’s again, a lesson from the Amazon region, something that’s like a password, okay? If we’re able to come with them, if we’re able to learn with them, if you’re able to address solutions based on their knowledge, and if you’re able to understand our political role to move forward in this contemporary age, we need Indigenous people together with us.

So I think that for Amazonia, it’s not only to stop deforestation but also stop the setbacks of environmental degradation and fragmentation and understand the role of environmental service. We need to go into the future, and we need to understand how the Amazon region will bring our countries into the new global development agenda. This is very fascinating politically. For this, we need to recognize the lack of abilities in our political domain to face the challenges and ask for the Indigenous people to support us and to be close to us.

Kimberly White
Thank you so much for your insights on that important topic. Now, unfortunately, human development appears to give value to nature only after it has been destroyed for resources and commodities and fails to recognize the true value of the intangible work of nature. Our natural world has been plagued by overexploitation throughout the years, and a 2019 report from the intergovernmental science-policy platform on biodiversity and ecosystem services states, “The biosphere upon which humanity as a whole depends, is being altered to an unparalleled degree across all spatial scales. Biodiversity, the diversity within species between species and ecosystems, is declining faster than any time in human history”. Furthermore, the recent statement for the Finance for Nature report highlights that the interrelated crises of widespread biodiversity loss, climate change, and land degradation require immediate action. A planetary system that supports life on earth is our most valuable asset. I mean, what could be more important and valuable to us, the intangible work performed by forests to stabilize climate or the cutting of trees to extract timber?

Maria, can recognizing our global commons as a common good without borders be the conceptual solution to trigger the paradigm shift we need to help us realize the true value of nature?

María Espinosa
Thank you for this question, Kimberly. And I think that there are perhaps three critical issues. Number one is when we were discussing the Amazon, and what to do about the future of the Amazon, there is a critical issue that we need to discuss and rethink, which is the very concept of sovereignty. Basically, most countries argue that we have to respect the sovereign right of states to use and exploit their natural resources as they deem necessary, which is fair enough. This is also embedded in principle 26 of the Stockholm declaration; it is true. And countries and states have, you know, the authority to decide what is best for its citizens. But it so happens that ecosystems, oceans, and climate, do not respect borders. Even if you look at the Amazon, it’s not an Amazonian ecosystem because there are multiple ecosystems within the Amazon. One tends to think that it’s a very homogeneous ecosystem; it is not. But even then, the diversity of ecosystems that formed the Amazon do not respect national borders. The same goes for oceans, as mentioned. The same goes for any ecosystem, wetlands, mountains, etc. There are so many mountains that are shared by multiple countries sometimes. So it means that to manage, wisely and responsibly, ecosystems and the earth system, we need to rethink sovereignty and sovereignty in terms of perhaps shared sovereignty in concerted decision making to manage a particular ecosystem, a particular service, for example, water resources. There are so many sources of water that are critical to the development of particular communities shared by multiple countries. Water basins do not respect borders. So, with that said, I think- without going into the details- we need to sit down and think carefully about resignifying sovereignty and also resignifying the common good and the public good. These are concepts that are critical if we are thinking about a new pact between nature, society, the economy, and politics- this new contract that we are talking about.

The second issue is about defining the commons, defining the difference between public goods and common goods. I won’t enter into the exercise of concrete definitions, but there is a difference between public goods and common goods and the very concept of a common heritage and what are the governance designs that make it possible to manage our shared and common heritage for the benefit of humankind and how to go about it. A very interesting example that can be used for this analysis is oceans and the different conventions. Look at the Convention on the Law of the Sea and access to genetic resources beyond national jurisdiction, which is one of the critical negotiations that are happening at the international level, at the UN level. So what to do with that, and also the shared responsibility for the health of our oceans that are shared among so many countries.

Number three is if you resignify and you agree on a 21st-century definition of sovereignty or 21st-century definition of what is a common heritage for humankind, then the third question that we need to answer is, what is the governance, the framework under which we need to operate under a shared responsibility, concerted action, kind of governance model? So, this is, in my opinion, is one of the critical challenges of the 21st century. If we do not come to grips with these very fundamental questions, we are going to put at risk our very survival. I’m a stubborn optimist, as the late Kofi Annan used to say. I think that if we do not solve these critical issues, we are going to be in serious trouble. You know you name it, hunger, access to food, and health. Also, equally important is the issue of this trust deficit in institutions, including democratic institutions. This uncertainty that everybody’s living under. This lack of direction and leadership that we are experiencing. So there is a lot of homework ahead of us. And, as I said, the declaration is very promising. This pre-declaration from civil society, Stockholm+49 that seriously considers the principles under which we are working, which is the issue of common public goods, the right to a healthy environment, and what are the governance arrangements we need. I think this is a key part of the conversation, and that should include, for example, our collective responsibility on dealing with pandemics, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, and what it means in terms of the health of our ecosystems and our Earth system.

Kimberly White
So, Izabella, this is the decade of action. How can the redefinition of the global commons help us do what is needed in the next ten years to address the world’s environmental challenges better?

Izabella Teixeira
Thank you very much, Kimberly. First of all, I’d like to fully agree with the three points that Maria highlighted. I think that the critical political issue must be fully debated and solved considering the strategic perspectives if you want to go with the global commons agenda and how we’ll face the challenge of this century. The combination of the global commons and this agenda that Maria mentioned before, on the other side of the coin, I think should help us to understand better how we are interconnected. Global commons will make clear what are the global new economy challenges that we need to put into practice if we want to have well-being, if we want to improve our lifestyles and if we want to have a better relationship between humankind and nature.

As a Co-Chair of the International Resource Panel, together with Janez Potočnik, the other Co-Chair launched the think piece on biodiversity challenges considering natural resource management around the world. But this is something easy to understand. You have four steps to make clear how we need to come together.

First of all, we need to know our true impact. The global commons will help us to do this; I do believe this. We need to be conscious- look to better understand the local realities and how fair and balanced global development is today. And also what it means- if I can use this expression- know about your true impact, “Yes, it’s also in my backyard.” We need to make sure that we know what happens with our life, our lifestyles, our countries, our way to live on this planet.

The second step is planning together. It means all on board. If you have a global common, you better understand how interconnected we are and what those responsibilities are. We need to understand the importance of planning together, to plan the future together, to understand the challenge, to review routes, and then to improve the ways that we want to promote development around the world.

The third step is growth with nature. This is something very important that was discussed the last time here in this interview. We need to grow. So we need to promote inclusive development but with nature. So finally, humankind is back to nature. If I can say this, we recognize that we are part of nature- this is what global commons means. Homosapiens are part of nature; we cannot forget it.

The last one is value nature. You need to value nature in different ways. You have the economic ways- this will come in with a multicolor economy, and I’m sure that will bring things in an innovative way. But to value nature, we need to understand its role in our life. We cannot value anything that we don’t know. We cannot value anything if we cannot recognize its importance in our lives. We cannot value something that we don’t know. So I think that when you go with the global commons agenda, I hope that you can make it clear not only that we have responsibilities and that we are interconnected, but that we can understand. We can learn how nature is important for our lives and how we are part of nature and that, as the human species, we do not have the right to destroy the ecosystems and other lives around the world. My feeling is that when you go into this agenda, I hope that I’ve mentioned before that you can have a new momentum of humanism around the world and that you can probably have a new “path forward” to bring new enlightenment for humankind in this century.

Kimberly White
Absolutely. And I would just like to add that I think much of the intangible work of nature is often undervalued because it’s just taken for granted. Much of it is done silently or goes unseen. We can’t see the atmosphere we breathe that is vital to our survival. We can’t hear the work of the forest or the soils sequestering carbon from our atmosphere. And nature does this work 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year, and it does this vital work for free, and you know, recognizing a stable climate as an intangible asset, a common heritage of humankind can certainly be the way to give value to the work of nature without destroying it.

Izabella Teixeira
Yes, you’re absolutely right. My hope is that the new generations understand this better than my generation. So I think that we can hope that we will change some, I do believe this.

María Espinosa
Yeah, and I think that also this very classical distinction between price and value. It’s not that we are going to solve the destructive and dysfunctional behavior of human societies towards nature by putting a price tag, and that is going to be it. We have seen this, for example, in international carbon markets and how they are working. If nature is not part of the value system of a society, then the pricing is irrelevant because if it doesn’t work. We’re not going to stabilize the climate because we are going to put a price tag on carbon. Unfortunately, it’s not as simple as that. And just thinking, you were saying, Kimberly, that nature does its work 24/7 because of the ecosystem services and all of that. But at the end of the day, nature can very well and, perhaps much better, live without humans- but humans, we cannot live without nature. Yes, it is as simple as that. Nature could not care less about us, we are one more of the species, of the millions of species, but we cannot live without nature, without the services that nature provides. But also, I think there is a moral, spiritual responsibility to ensure the existence and the continuity of life on earth.

Kimberly White
Absolutely, I think you both make excellent points. And it’s just so important that we understand the work of nature, and that we recognize the value of that. I think as we’re approaching this decade of action, this decade of ambition, what better time to do it than now?

María Espinosa
Well, indeed, you know, everybody’s repeating the word action, and we need action, and we need action. And of course, we need to walk the talk. And, of course, we need action. And I think that peer pressure helps in terms of making sure that we are making the right decisions at the right time. Unfortunately, the cycles of nature differ from the cycles of politics. There is a mismatch between the times of nature and the times of politics. Basically, our responsibility is to bring the two cycles closer together; otherwise, it’s going to be very difficult. But for us, you know, the voices of civil society, of academia, of science, of young people, of Indigenous peoples are more needed than ever.

Kimberly White
Absolutely, I couldn’t agree more. Now, it has been nearly 50 years since the 1972 UN Conference on the Environment in Stockholm, the first global conference to prioritize environmental issues. The 1972 conference represents a historic turning point in the development of international environmental politics. Currently, we are facing converging crises with climate change and widespread biodiversity loss. Given the emergencies we face, do you believe that the 50th anniversary of this landmark conference could be a new turning point for multilateral environmental solutions to our shared problems? Maria, let’s start with you.

María Espinosa
Of course, sometimes, when you sit at the UN, you hear governments saying, well, we don’t need another summit, we don’t need another conference, we really need to act and implement and deliver. It’s partially true because I strongly believe that one of the challenges of the multilateral system is the implementation deficit. We have said and repeated over and over again, of this action, the need for action. So conferences are seen as talk shops, as mirages to solve real problems, etc. But in this case, I have to say that this Stockholm+49 and the Stockholm+50 is going to be an opportunity to rediscuss, to recommit, to rethink, because of the profound changes that our world has experienced in the last 50 years. I would say that Stockholm+50 has to be shaped and built into moments. A moment for analysis and assessment of what we have done with the declaration of 50 years ago, and what is the state of the world in. And the second part is action-oriented, an accountability framework, a commitment for the present and the future.

So I think these are political moments that need to be used in full by civil society, by governments themselves, and to recommit. I think it is time for recommitment, for a reflection, for analyses of what we have done wrong at the end of the day because the numbers and science- the science is telling us that we are not going in the right direction. And this is pretty obvious when you look at the climate; what we have mentioned during this conversation, look at the state of our ecosystems, oceans, forests, you name it, the extinction crisis. So basically, what is the model of society? What are the governance arrangements? What are the action-oriented commitments that are going to emerge from this Stockholm+50 conference? I think this is extremely important. At this point in time, we should make sure- societies, citizens- we should make sure that the Stockholm+50 really translates into commitment, into action, into accountability frameworks, into societal change. I think that the COVID-19 pandemic is going to help to do that. Because we have seen that the way we are living, the way we are facing the pandemic, it’s really not the best.

It is not only about the environment, as I mentioned before, it is a civilizatory crisis, a planetary crisis that needs to be seriously addressed by world leaders but by societies as a whole. I really hope that Stockholm+50 also engages conversation in dialogue at the regional level, at the local level, that cities have a say because it’s extremely important. The majority of people live in urban settings right now. So what is the voice of local authorities, of mayors of cities, of the feminist movement about these issues? So it is going to be a golden opportunity to unleash a global conversation in dialogue to recommit, to reflect, and assess, but also to commit to action-oriented, transparent, and accountable actions regarding our environment, the care for our environment. And we also hope that Stockholm +50 is going to give political backing and a push to the Global Pact for the Environment.

Kimberly White
Thank you, Maria. And now, Izabella, I’d like to ask you the same question. Given the emergencies we face, do you believe that the 50th anniversary of this landmark conference could be a new turning point for multilateral environmental solutions to our shared problems?

Izabella Teixeira
First of all, we cannot forget that when we had the Stockholm Conference fifty years ago, we had a momentum in the world that is completely different than what we have today. So I agree that we don’t need conferences around the world; we need political rooms to bring people together to discuss the present and the future. And learning with our experience considering the past. If fifty years ago, it was important to join the countries around the world to discuss environment and development- or development and environment because it was a decision that was taken not based on other issues but based on development. I do believe that we need to rediscuss what development means in this century because we have different countries and have different requirements- political, economic, and social ones. Inequalities are one peak of this iceberg that you need to understand better in how you address this. There is no future for humankind if you’re not able to address social inequality in the short-term perspective, be sure about this. And pandemics, again- the COVID pandemic- showed us that this is a critical issue. A really critical issue.

My second point here that I also think is very important is to have civil society engagement and commitment. It’s absolutely important that you can have new political rooms to understand what civil society means around the world today, and also what is the role of civil society for the transformative change needed for multilateral environmental solutions. This is something very important to be observed because our experience shows that we cannot realize civil society in the international community, we can bring civil society with us, but we cannot necessarily share all the tools or mechanisms at the same level with civil society around the world. It’s so unequal how we put into practice our recommendations and how indeed we can have international cooperation to play strategic roles considering the diversity of situations of civil society around the world. So something it’s very important to be observed here. This is the quality of democracy around the world. Without democracy, it’s impossible to address the solution that we’re looking to address, considering the global challenges that nature is bringing to us now.

So it’s absolutely important when you go into the international process that society must be recognized- who they are, what their needs are. This is something very important when you go into the past and go to 1972; it was part of the state members. It didn’t have civil society there. In Rio in 1992, it was an open gate. It was really important. Rio+20 and the Paris Agreement also. But we have this movement around the world about global society engagement, and we need to understand that when we go to European countries, this engagement is completely different than when you go to the United States, Ecuador, or Brazil. Or in China, where you have some difficulties considering civil society engagement. So it’s absolutely important that you understand how we will facilitate, how we will host the diversity of civil society around the world if you want to consider the challenge that the multilateral environmental system demands if you want to not only share the problems but share solutions. Diversity in multiple and creative solutions means bringing all on board with different dynamics and the same points of interest. Pay attention because politics are not easy. We can convince people, we can bring people together, but if you’re not able to convince people to act based on their realities, forget it. The challenge is not based on small-scale projects. The challenge that we’re facing now, the solution that we need, requires a really ambitious project.

And as Maria mentioned, we need accountability; we need transparency. It’s very important to understand how we recognize that the multilateral international system today is, unfortunately, not enough to address the problems that must be solved considering common global issues.

We need a new way to believe in humankind, and that’s why I fully believe that a green enlightenment, with political solidarity, is probably a really good path forward to move beyond Stockholm+50. And be sure that we’re able to be part of this planet with new perspectives- sustainable ones- and bring really important inputs for international order and also for the multilateral system. We know what the problems are that we have today. What is not clear is how we want to be together and how we like to share not only responsibilities but hope. I do believe that we can do this. And I hope that this movement will bring the new generations, the new players, the new stakeholders to understand that if you are not in the past, you are today with us and will be in the future. So let’s do it together. Let’s manage this better. Let’s reshape our interests more than this. I think that you really have a huge opportunity, I think that Maria mentioned this, we have to resignify our existence on this planet. Only we can do this. Nobody else can do this, only humankind. This is a moment that we need to be smart and ambitious. But we need to look for solidarity.

Kimberly White
Alright, Izabella and Maria- thank you both so much for joining us again today- it has been such a pleasure!

Izabella Teixeira
Thank you very much. Let’s fight for a better world.

María Espinosa
Wonderful, I have enjoyed this conversation very much and very much looking forward to seeing the world, you know, wake up. And like you, Izabella, I’m a stubborn optimist, and I think that we can make it happen together with vision and commitment, of course.

Kimberly White
All right, and there you have it. We will not solve human societies’ destructive and dysfunctional behavior towards nature by putting a price tag on it. We are not going to stabilize the climate by putting a price tag on carbon. If nature is not part of the value system of society, then the pricing is irrelevant. It’s time to give value to nature. The Declaration for Stockholm +49 is the opportunity for civil society to spark a global conversation. It’s a chance to recognize a shared common heritage for the benefit of humankind. It’s a chance to recommit, to reflect and assess, and to commit to transparent and accountable actions for our environment. We have a responsibility to ensure the existence and the continuity of life on earth for future generations. Remember, nature can live without humans, but humans cannot live without nature. It’s as simple as that.

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