I've been back from Rio+20, the U.N.'s once-in-a-decade sustainable development conference, for a little more than a month now. Many in the conservation community had hoped that the meeting would help steer the world onto a trajectory of "greener" economic and development policies, as well as better ways of managing the loss of Earth's natural resources because of human activities.
Yet, as the summit drew to a close, the disappointment and frustration of many attendees, including some governments, was palpable. Media pundits lamented the conference's lack of ambition, and critics in the NGO community accused delegates of failing to commit to anything truly new. Indeed, the youth representative who addressed the Heads of State, governments and ministers in attendance asked, "Are you here to save the world, or to save face?"
In contrast to the picture that was painted in the press, however, I believe there is reason to be hopeful about progress that was made on ocean conservation issues, the policy priority for the Pew Environment Group at Rio+20.
At the original 1992 Earth Summit in Rio, very little attention was given to marine issues. Ten years later in Johannesburg, discussion on the matter still was not as prominent as it could or should have been. As governments prepared to return to Rio, it was unclear whether ocean matters would even be featured on the agenda.
But this time around, in no small measure because of the concerted advocacy work of Pew and other organizations, there was a clear shift in the discussion about ocean conservation imperatives and the deteriorating status of marine fisheries globally. Delegates at the summit recognized that sustainable development cannot happen without a healthy ocean and that well-managed fisheries and secure ocean ecosystems are critical to the livelihoods and food security of hundreds of millions of people.
So just what did world leaders agree to in June? Looking past the sometimes-convoluted technical jargon, the Rio+20 declaration stressed that:
- Overexploitation of fish stocks has to end, as does illegal fishing, both of which deprive communities and countries of billions of dollars of revenue each year and damage marine biodiversity.
- Harmful government subsidies that support an unsustainable global fishing industry must be phased out.
- Vulnerable marine ecosystems should be protected, particularly by stopping destructive fishing practices.