"Eco-management is optimum use of resources"

economist, is the recipient of the 1995 Sasakawa International Environmental Prize, instituted by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). He spoke to NALAKA GUNA WARDENE in Colombo, shortly after receiving his award

Published: Saturday 04 July 2015

On his role as an economist serving the UN set-up which helped developing economies in Asia:
I joined the UN in 1963 as an international civil servant with the Economic Commission for Asia and the Far East (ECAFE, which later became ESCAp}. I was first attached to the cen- tral office in charge of policy. The assignment was frighteningly multi-disciplinary: there were 14 major disciplines under ECAFE'S purview. The job involved full responsibility for policy formulation, advocacy and promo- tion, and called for administrative, managerial, diplomatic and professional qualities.

I was involved in some of the most iriteresting activities, which led to the creation of a series of regional initiatives and insti- tutions. These include the Asian Development Bank, the Mekong Project, the Asian Highway, the Asian Coconut Community, the Asian Clearing Union, the Bangkok Trade Agree- ment and the Asian Institute for Economic Development and Planning, among others.

On the initial challenges that UNEP faced:
The challenges at UNEP were radically different from those at ECAFE. UNEP was a new inter-governmental body witli a cross-sectoral and multi-sectoral mandate. It was not conceived as an org!lnisation to implement projects, but rather to catalyse, encourage and enable governments, non-governmental organisations and the private sector to carry out environmental activities at all levels. In the early '7Os, environmental concerns were yet to receive the international and national pro- minence that they receive today. An environ- mental problem was being regarded largely as a case of 'pollution', of limited interest and relevance to developing countries. Even though the first UN conference on environment ( Stockholm, 1972) had explicitly recOgnised that poverty was indeed one of the worst threats to the environment, it remained a daunting task to take this message to the national governments, international organisa- tions, professionals, mass media aDd the gen- eral public. That was the challenge.

On his main achievements at UNEP:
My main achievement through the UNEP in Asia was the setting up of a series of sub-regional cooperative environment programmes: the Asian Environment Pro- gramme, the South Pacific Regional Environ. ment Programme and the South Asia Cooperative Environment Programme.

On what influenced him to take up environmental causes as early as the '&Os, when few spoke about it:
Having been closely associated withECAFE, I was able to gain an insider's knowledge and understanding of the inter-play of different sectors,' and the conflicts between development activities and environmental conservation. From my early days in national planning in Sri Lanka, I had sought out ways of marrying the development needs of the country with the parallel need to conserve the environment and natural resources.

Through ill this exposure, I realised that there W!,S no way one could cut down or hold back economic development. Development is the first priority and the only way out, Environmentally sound solutions, strategies and approaches had to be found within the framework of development and not outside it.

On why the traditional approach to development often fails to serve a majority of the poor:
ThiS is one of the big mistakes of our times. To believe that increased resource use alone would lead to 'development' and alleviation of poverty is dangerous. We have seen that devel- opment in the classical sense has not improved the quality of life of many people, who are often worse off due to the adverse social and environmental impacts of such development.

We do not need the kind of development which only benefits a few at the cost of many. We have to find new models of develop- ment that are socially, culturally and environ- mentally sound and sustainable, and we also need to ensure that the benefits of develop- ment are shared more equitably by all sections of our societies. I am reminded of what the King of Thailand has said on this matter - that development is the creation of a livable environment. That, in a nutshell, is what development is all about- or should be.

On the definition of environmental management:
I would defme 'environment' broadly as the total planetary inheritance and the totality of all .our resources. Resources of the environment are the resources for develop- ment and development cannot afford to destroy the very base on which it depends. That, simply, is the nexus between,environ- ment and development. Environmental man- agement is not about the non-use of resources; it is about optimum -as against maximum -use of resources. It involves the restoration of degraded resources; maintenance of prO- ductive resources; and the enlargement of resources by s,trong policies of planning out non-renewable resources and the wise use of renewable resources. In short, good environ- mental management is not just the conser- vation of resources, but also the conservation of development, thus leading to the creation of a livable' environment.

On the current craze about environmental impact assessments (EIAs):
I am not too happy about the current over-emphasis on BIAS and excessive reliance on them. BIAS as they are carried out today are essentially project-specific, and try to look at the likely environmental impacts of a single project. BIAS are a good first step towards more rational environmental management, but I see them being used for irrelevant purposes. For one thing, there is too much emphasis on costs in the BIA process right now. WJiatthe experts often forget is that every cost also has an out- put, direct or indirect. The current concept of the BIA tends to look at environmental impacts of development as !legative. This illusion has helped instigate a 'western' concept that pollution is an excrescence to be suppressed rather than a resource to be converted.

I think we need to progress beyond just BIAS. I have advocated the preparation of resource balance sheets as a very useful environmental management toolor methodology. BIAS should be allowed for projects only where resource balance sheets have been first pre- pared. A good BIA should; in my view, fit into macrole){el national requirements as well as microlevel ones.

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