Media urged to sensitise public on environmental issues By Linda Rutherford
Guyana Chronicle
May 15, 2002

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WITH the tenth anniversary and review of the historic ‘Earth Summit’ just around the corner, Agriculture Minister Mr Navin Chandarpal feels the time is opportune for the local media to devote the same energies and time they expend on other inconsequential matters to sensitising the public to critical issues pertaining to the environment.

Among those issues is one he feels so strongly about, that it has become a hobbyhorse of his in recent years. That issue is the recalcitrance of those of the developed nations that are yet to honour their obligations as agreed in Agenda 21.

One such obligation is the promised annual commitment of 0.7 per cent of their Gross Domestic Product (GDP) to aid developing countries like Guyana with their developmental problems.

Touching briefly on the perceived dearth of environment-related news in both the print and electronic media during the opening of an environmental awareness workshop for media practitioners at Le Meridien Pegasus hotel last week Chandarpal said: “We are seeing more interest in the media, if we look at the letters column, of people writing on all types of issues but unfortunately, the references to environmental issues are a very, very small portion of what we observe.”

This same state of affairs, he said, prevails with the regular news items in that “there are times when some issues are given much more importance than they really deserve, but very important environmental issues - issues related to our natural resources and their development - are not given the same level of dominance.”

With the objective of the workshop being to build capacity among media operatives, particularly in the area of reporting and developing stories around Guyana’s rich biodiversity, the Minister said: “I’d like us on this occasion to reflect on that fact and to consider ways in which we might be able to move from here with a resolve to correct that imbalance, and to go in a very positive way to ensure that we’re able to lift the level of debate on environmental issues to a much higher plane.”

On the upcoming World Summit on Sustainable Development, also referred to as ‘Rio + 10’ or ‘Johannesburg Summit’, billed for August 26 - September 4 in Johannesburg, South Africa, Chandarpal noted that this was an occasion when the entire world, Guyana included, will be reflecting on how well the objectives set out in the ‘Rio Declaration’ and ‘Agenda 21’ have been achieved.

Both the ‘Rio Declaration’ and ‘Agenda 21’ came out of the first ever UN Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) held in June 1992 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, with the former being a set of principles adopted by the 178 countries in attendance to guide future development.

‘Agenda 21’ on the other hand can best be described as a statement of willingness by said 178 countries to strive for a better form of development that recognises the essential links between economic growth, social equity and environmental protection.

Continuing, the Minister said: “A lot of what we are experiencing in Guyana, as, indeed, in developing countries around the world, has to do with the way in which the more developed countries are responding to their responsibilities under Agenda 21.”

“And this is, therefore,” he said, “an occasion for the entire nation to be made aware of what these issues are, and for us as a people to lend our voices to the efforts of our national team in approaching the ‘Rio + 10’ to express frankly the fact that we are disappointed at the way in which Agenda 21 is being fulfilled, [and] that the countries with the resources; those who are in a position to assist countries like ours without the resources; are not fulfilling their obligations...”

Chandarpal is of the opinion also that “this is an issue on which we need to pull the forces together; where especially the media, NGOs ought in the least with their colleagues across the world to make that point more strongly and to ensure that their voices are heard in trying to make a case for those who have made the obligations ten years ago to move to fulfill it.”

UNDP Deputy Representative, Mr Thomas Gass, who shares the Minister’s view about sensitising the public on critical environmental issues, said in his brief presentation that it would be useful to remember that a number of countries which have become champions of biodiversity, not just the big ones like Brazil and Colombia but small ones like Costa Rica for example - have done so, “not just because the government believed in it or because a few bright minds are pushing this thing; or being obstructive at international conferences.”

“No! That’s not enough!” Chandarpal said, adding that “in the same way as a cricket team cannot win if it doesn’t have a nation behind it, the same way a government cannot champion biodiversity if it doesn’t have a public opinion behind it that knows what biodiversity is and that knows that it has a responsibility as a nation to maintain and make available this biodiversity.”

And, touching lightly on the subject of the paucity of environmental news here, Gass, who is a natural resource specialist by profession, said: “Let’s face it, news about biodiversity is quite difficult to sell; it is all about a lot of abbreviations; a lot of technical terms; where the action seems to take place in large and never-ending conferences somewhere as far away.”

By way of explaining the complexity of biodiversity matters, he used as an analogy the quandary he found himself in as a Swiss national trying to make sense of what he described as “technical terms” being used in the last test series between the West Indies and India.

Executive Director of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Mr Bal Persaud, spoke about the mandate of his organisation among other matters, which is the effective management of the natural resources so as to ensure conservation and protection and the sustainable use, and prevent and control pollution.

He said it is because they at the EPA are under no illusion as to how wide and extensive nor how challenging this mandate could be, particularly in an environment such as Guyana’s, that they are determined not to act alone, which is why they have embarked on “active collaboration and partnerships” with a number of key institutions in society.

Persaud said too that “it is patently clear to us that an approach to environmental management, focusing mainly on laws, regulations, regulatory frameworks and prescribed processes like EIAs (Environmental Impact Assessments), the so-called command and control of which is at the core in the provisions of the Environment and Protection Act, can only take us to a certain point.”

“Yes, we need the stick sometimes when it matters,” he said, “but what is probably the greater challenge, and what we think can lead to higher levels of achievement, is the involvement of people through education, information and awareness.”

Both the ‘command and control’ and ‘economic instruments’ approach, tend to be very costly, long drawn out, bureaucratic, and time-consuming. “A number of resources have to be committed to these; and you have to labour for results,” Persaud said.

“And even then,” he said, “when you attempt to move in that direction, you recognise that unless you build a certain amount of awareness; unless a certain amount of information is imparted; and unless there is a heightened consciousness in environmental issues; you will not go very far.”

Convinced that “this is the approach that can work for the nation and build on the foundation to sustain and enable the other approaches,” Persaud said: “We are very confident that your role as media practitioners is indeed very crucial and central to this.”

Adding: “I think we have a pretty active media in the country; a very dynamic media in some instances and I think if we can enlist some of your efforts and involve you in what we are doing, in this kind of collaborative way, and partnership, we will indeed go a very far way.”

He said even though the EPA is positioned as the lead agency, it doesn’t necessarily want to lead from the front. “We want to lead right along with partners who are also in leadership positions. And this puts the media very prominently on the agenda.”

In closing, Persaud said: “We hope that this seminar will indeed give you some insights, in this case, specifically into biodiversity management, and will whet your appetites for more investigation, research and more writings. We’re sure that this is the way we ought to go; we welcome you to a partnership which we greatly desire.”

Among issues addressed at the seminar were: ‘The Importance and Uses of Biodiversity’; ‘Guyana’s Obligation under the CDB (Convention on Biological Diversity) and other Related Biodiversity Conventions’; and ‘Packaging Environmental Information for Media Presentation’.

Presenters comprised wildlife biologist, Dr Graham Watkins; Director of the EPA Natural Resources Management Division (NRMD), Dr Indarjit Ramdass; EPA Director of Education Information Training (EIT), Dr Rovin Deodat; Sustainable Development Networking Programme (SDNP) Coordinator, Mr Vidya Kissoon; and former EPA Director Operations Division turned consultant, Ms Denise Fraser.