CONTACT: Stanford University News Service (650) 723-2558

Environment, human rights challenges face the Americas

STANFORD -- Population growth may have been oversold as the world's worst environmental problem, several speakers said Wednesday, May 4, at a Stanford University conference to explore environmental, human rights and economic integration issues in the Americas.

Political scientists, legal scholars, economists and biologists who spoke also generally agreed that the university is one of the institutions that needs reform if problems of hemispheric interaction are to be better addressed. The division of the university into highly specialized disciplines leads to piecemeal proposed solutions to highly interrelated problems, they said.

"We need multidisciplinary, multinational, multisectoral and multiscaled approaches," said zoologist Jane Lubchenco of the University of Oregon.

One issue that needs to be looked at from a more interdisciplinary perspective is what drives environmental destruction, many speakers said.

"Contrary to the popular view, those countries where population growth is slowest are contributing the most stress on the global environment today," said economist and mathematician Graciela Chichilnisky, a visiting professor at Stanford and a professor at Columbia University. "We have a case of overproduction from natural resources in one group of countries and overconsumption in another group."

Similarly, Lubchenco called attention to exponential growth in world energy consumption, which she said was above the rate of human population growth. Lubchenco is co-chair of the international Sustainable Biosphere Project, an interdisciplinary initiative to evaluate the ecological, economic and social limits of seven ecological systems around the world. Stanford biological sciences Professor Harold Mooney is one of an international group of scientists advising the four-year project, which is designed to develop options for sustainable management of resources for those regions with local as well as national and international scientific input.

"It's our bias that sustainable systems must be socially just, economically viable and ecologically sound," Lubchenco said.

Rapid human population growth will remain an issue, said Stanford biological anthropologist William Durham, "but I think it's incumbent on us to correct this kind of overemphasis on population growth" as the main source of environmental stress.

The export of cash crops for Northern markets encourages overuse of marginal land, he said, and pushes "ethnic minorities and indigenous populations" into previously unsettled lands. Durham, the Bing Professor in Human Biology, has worked extensively with native peoples and on environmental preservation projects in several Latin American countries.

Too often, he said, North American environmental organizations and businesses work with central governments in Southern countries with no involvement of the local people.

Democracy is also of key importance to environmental and human rights protection, said Stanford Professors Tom Heller, law, and Terry Karl, political science. Rapid depletion of resources often occurs in authoritarian countries.

"We've seen that the time horizons of governments are very short in non-democratic situations," Heller said.

In terms of protecting the South's biodiversity and using it to engineer new products, Heller warned that economics is more of a stumbling block than law. "We are probably going to underprice many of these assets even after we work out the best legal arrangements possible."

Bruce Wilcox, president of the Institute for Sustainable Development in Menlo Park, Calif., found the concept of biodiversity even more problematic. "Biodiversity is a Western scientific construct based entirely on our academic belief system," he said.

Chemists, medical researchers and drug companies talk about sharing the profits from biotechnology with countries where germplasm is collected, he said, but they ignore that "the value to indigenous people is for their own indigenous use." In the Philippines, for example, he said, people make their own cough syrups from local ingredients because Western cough syrups cost a month's income.

Chichilnisky urged international organizations to "change the incentives" to Latin American and African countries that are overexploiting their natural resources. Instead of being told "they can only grow bananas," she said, the loan and aid agencies should be encouraging these countries to develop "knowledge-intensive" economies.

"The economic sectors with the most dynamic growth have been knowledge based, and the successful regions are the Asian tigers," she said, which have developed human capital through education, rather than intensifying use of natural resources.

"There are two ways of looking at development," she said, but the World Bank and International Monetary Fund have only pushed one. These organizations have contributed to environmental destruction, not deliberately but out of ignorance of the consequences, she said, which she partly blamed on overspecialization in the production of knowledge.

The university version of "think globally, act locally," Durham suggested, should be to "team teach more courses across disciplines. There is still a major gulf in the curriculum," he said, with biologists and other natural scientists needing to learn more social science and vice versa.

Former Environmental Protection Agency administrator William Reilly, a visiting scholar at the Institute for International Studies, stressed the importance of training public servants in Southern countries to cope with mounting development pressures. As a result of the North American Free Trade Agreement, he said, Mexican public servants need training in land-use planning and environmental protection in order to prevent the spread of pollution around urban areas and to protect natural systems in pristine areas.

Mexican land-use decisions, he said, are "in the hands of people who are short-term political officers, poorly paid and with very little sense of reinforcement by the community or professional organizations." He encouraged international support for a project by several Mexican philanthropists to develop a training program at a 350-acre former private club.

Major economic development is coming to Latin America, said Eduardo Viola, a professor of political ecology at the University of Brasilia and a visiting professor at the Stanford Center for Latin American Studies. "I don't perceive enough awareness among North American environmentalists about the transnational capital alliances that are coming."

In Latin America, he said, the interests of environmental and human rights are on a "convergent" path. "Both are interested in redefining the state, and not just by reducing it as you hear in the business community," Viola said.

The two movements conflict, however, on human reproduction and economic goals, he said. Environmentalists want to see more emphasis on family planning, while human rights advocates "are either indifferent or support traditional cultural values."

Eric Frothingham, a Stanford law student, reported on a project by students in law Professor John Barton's seminar on indigenous peoples and conservation. The group attempted to conceive of a methodology for negotiating a balance between conservation and human rights in the border regions of Mexico, Guatemala and Belize, and some of the students traveled to the region as part of the project.

"We found that it is less a matter of balancing and seeking tradeoffs between human rights and conservation than seeking a synergy between them," Frothingham said. To do that, he said, the class became convinced that unorganized local people must be helped to organize so they can negotiate for local interests with international agencies and government officials.

"Self-organizing is not a notion the Guatemalan government would accept," warned Karl. Proposed solutions must take into account political realities, she said, such as attaching environmental and human rights issues onto negotiating processes that begin for other purposes.

The conference, which was held at the law school, was co-sponsored by the Stanford Center for Latin American Studies and the Stanford Institute for International Studies.



This is an archived release.

This release is not available in any other form. Images mentioned in this release are not available online.
Stanford News Service has an extensive library of images, some of which may be available to you online. Direct your request by EMail to newslibrary@stanford.edu.