log book - Rio+20: the tide is turning gently in favor of the ocean
Rio+20: the tide is turning gently – in favor of the ocean
After 3 years of work and negotiations, the United Nations Conference on sustainable development – Rio+20 – is already over. The summit belongs to the past, a chapter on sustainable development that will probably not make a mark in our memories. No concrete results, no surprises, and little negotiation. But in a setting of global crisis and presidential elections, few people expected the 193 participating states to make any major decisions.
Nevertheless, the scenario was not as bad as one might think: Compared to previous Earth summits, the oceans and seas were accorded a role that better corresponds to their huge size and vital functions. 20 paragraphs in the final text were devoted to the Ocean. Of course, as with the rest of this document, this section entitled "Oceans and Seas", gives the reader the unfortunate impression of drowning in a bottomless sea of evasive intentions. Filtration of information is therefore necessary!
"158: We recognize that oceans, seas and coastal areas are an essential part of the terrestrial ecosystem...We emphasize the importance of conservation and sustainable use of oceans, seas and their resources ... " (from the final text of Rio +20).
The importance of the oceans for the planet and for humans, and the need to protect the ocean are no longer ignored by states. These ideas even seem to be approved by everyone. The Geneva Conference of 1958, and then the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) in Montego Bay in 1982, already marked the beginnings of global recognition of the need to preserve the oceans. However, we must point out that to date 18 countries have still not signed the UNCLOS, and 19 countries, including the United States, have signed, but not ratified it.
Nevertheless, some nations present at Rio +20 still hoped to reinforce measures protecting international waters – about 45% of the surface of the globe. A proposal dating from the Montego Bay Convention – to establish an international governance of high seas – was again submitted, and would have allowed for defining a legal framework for such international areas. But the proposal quickly sank under the weight of opposition from a handful of states – a powerful handful – consisting of the United States, Canada, Japan, Russia and Venezuela. To understand their reluctance, we must be aware of the great economic potential of the oceans, and also the complex political issues linked to different economic players who, in each country, protect their own specific interests.
First, there are the fishing resources, and we can understand why Japan for example has not wanted to support the idea of governance of high seas.
Second, the seabed beneath the oceans contains hydrocarbon and mineral resources coveted by many industries. Only the technical complexity of these deep-sea extractions slows the process of exploitation, which has now become economically advantageous due to the rising cost of oil and other natural resources.
Third, the genetic resources of the oceans represent a promising raw material for industry, particularly in the field of health. And it's primarily this potential market for pharmaceutical patents which prevented the United States from agreeing to the proposition.
However, the participating countries did agree to renegotiate this point as soon as possible. A deadline was set for 2015. By that time, the U.S. will have emerged from their electoral period. And we can expect that policy makers will have found solutions to the economic crisis, and will be ready to tackle the environmental crisis threatening not the planet, but "the passengers of the Earth" that we are.
In addition to the governance of high seas, a large number of considerations were taken into account at Rio+20. The states agreed to promote sustainable and responsible fishing by: targeting subsidies, fighting against illegal and over-fishing, and encouraging environmentally-friendly fishing practices. Finally, they agreed to guarantee access to marine resources for artisanal fishermen, especially indigenous people. Even if the Rio+20 text does not cite exact numbers, it's certainly the first time that subsidies accorded to industrial fishing operations are designated as being responsible for overfishing and illegal fishing.
At the same time, the text states that nations agree to take action to reduce the incidence and impacts of pollution of marine ecosystems, which includes the fight against pollution of large rivers and estuaries, against plastic debris, against chemical run-off from agriculture. A concern for prevention against invasive species also appears in the text.
Another major subject which made real progress at Rio is ocean acidification – a recent challenge linked to climate change and increase in the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere. The final text includes a concrete proposal for the creation of an Observatory of Ocean Acidification.
On the theme of conservation of the oceans by creating protected marine areas, the commitment for 2020 remains below our expectations. We can only hope that voluntary initiatives will follow the example of Australia, who announced, on the occasion of RIO+20, the creation of the largest network of protected marine areas in the world, an area of 500,000 km2 or the equivalent of Spain, where no fishing activity or extraction can be performed.
Although future actions remain vague, broad guidelines important for ocean conservation have indeed been launched. And as pointed out by Ban Ki-moon, Secretary General of the United Nations during his speech at the Earth Summit: "I promised the team of Tara I would continue my work to help our planet Ocean."
Promises were made. Now we need only to take action!
As for the Tara Expeditions team, we worked for several months preparing this global gathering, and conducted a real information campaign to raise peoples' awareness about the Ocean. More than 10,000 visitors attended conferences about water and the oceans organized at the Peoples' Summit. Tara project directors participating in Rio+20 appeared in all the media and in several venues around the the city, bringing the message that “the future we want depends on Planet Ocean”.
Faithful to the vision of agnès b and Etienne Bourgois since the beginning of the project, Tara Expeditions continues an educational mission aimed at bringing to the general public's attention vital issues concerning the oceans. We are convinced that without mobilization and pressure from citizens of the world, our cause will not move forward.