Clarissa Hughes

It’s All In A Word

An event that represents a milestone in the affairs of men and the planet Earth occurred late last week. It took place in Gaborone, Botswana, under the mantle of the Summit for Sustainability in Africa.

Over the 24th and 25th May, the latter being Africa Day and the conclusion of the UN climate talks in Bonn is no coincidence I feel sure, the summit attracted leaders from across the continent. Presidents Khama, Sirleaf, Pohamba and Ali attended, as did Vice President Bilal. Gabon, Kenya, Rwanda and South Africa sent Ministers as representatives.

Supported by institutions and corporations such as UNEP, Government of Norway, Conservation International, Wal-Mart and a host of others, the conference attracted future thinkers of the highest calibre.

What was it about?

In the face of the planet’s rapidly depleting natural bounty participants reaffirmed their commitment to the sustainable use of Nature’s capital in a Declaration. To my knowledge this is the first time African leaders have collectively indicated their promise to preserve the earth’s eco-systems.

Africa’s abundance has improved the balance sheets of many a developed nation, and continues to do so. It’s no exaggeration to say that African resources are vital to the continued development of the entire world.  Now Africans are saying: “Wait a minute this can’t go on.  Even though it’s our turn at the development table we want judicious oversight for ours’ and our children’s futures.”

It seems ironic that the continent that has been the victim of centuries of uncontrolled exploitation is now at the forefront of setting the sustainability benchmark for the globe. African leaders indicated at this summit that they will not be led down a path of overconsumption. They are determined not to follow the trends of the past.

As Africa is to bear the brunt of climate change (a further irony is that climate change is not of its own doing) provides additional impetus to the adoption of sustainable practices especially in light of mass desforestation and water scarcity.

In a world that has, to date, exhibited an adolescent insouciance with regards to its natural resources Africa is showing a maturity that will provide direction to all continents.

In President Khama’s words: “Africa is determined to show leadership in the wise use of its natural resources and mineral wealth.”

This united front will inform the Africa position at the Rio+20 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development next month and will, hopefully, influence other nations to act in the interests of future generations.

President Sirleaf put it succinctly. “As we go from referring to our commodities as resources to calling them capital we are placing a monetary value on everything in the ecosystem – from trees to water to sand to rocks.”

That word ‘capital’ changes everything.  It’s in the use of that word that we realise the earth’s resources are finite and cannot be extracted indefinitely at a rate beyond their renewal. That word changes our perception from one of exploitation, without regard for the future, to one of husbandry and stewardship. As investors well know the preservation of capital is the most important principle when building wealth. The same applies to developing nations. And improving life. That seven letter word is the fulcrum upon which the future of humanity rests.

Mr Achim Steiner, UN Under-Secretary General and Executive Director UN Environment Programme reminded the gathering that valuation does not mean monetisation, the inference being that it is not only extractable commodities that have value, but everything that supports the ecosystem that produces those commodities.

Someone (Laurens van der Post or C.G. Jung, I think) predicted that a new world ethos would emerge from Africa. The first Summit for Sustainability in Africa marks its birth.

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