22 April 1996

Press Briefing



Elizabeth Dowdeswell, Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), told a Headquarters briefing this afternoon that in marking "Earth Day", 22 April, several environmental initiatives had been launched since last Thursday, 18 April. On that day, the "World Resources Report" was released in Washington, D.C. jointly by UNEP, the World Resources Institute, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the World Bank. The report painted a picture of the state of the planet as of 1996. While some of its contents could be depressing, the report's other message was that the world had the ability to act on its environmental problems. The purpose of today's briefing was to discuss three initiatives designed at taking action to mobilize citizens and their governments to be able to be empowered to actually do something about the environmental problems being faced.

Ms. Dowdeswell introduced three other panellists to the correspondents. The first was Adam Rogers, an environmental writer who had just produced for UNEP a guide book for citizens in their communities, entitled "Taking Action". Next was Arsenio Rodriguez, Director of UNEP's Regional Office for Latin America and the Caribbean, whose office had created a successful, award- winning publication called "Tierramerica". Also on the rostrum was Alicia Barcena, former executive director of the Earth Council in Costa Rica and now Special Adviser to UNEP's environmental citizenship campaign.

Speaking to the reporters, Mr. Rogers said that his book addressed the environmental indicators and suggested specific actions that communities and individuals could take to deal with environmental problems. Unfortunately, environmental solutions rarely made the front pages of the news media. When people addressed problems, the end results were often a decrease in factors contributing to global warming or the preservation of biodiversity. There were lots of environmental citizens in the world and an increasing number of people getting involved in solutions. The book, "Taking Action," would help that momentum.

Mr. Rodriguez, for his part, described "Tierramerica" as a concept for engaging the media, particularly newspapers, in Latin America to make citizens aware of the environmental agenda. It was probably the editorial product with the largest regional circulation. At the end of the year, it would reach about 3 to 4 million in circulation every two months and later turn into a

Earth Day Briefing - 2 - 22 April 1996

monthly. Its editorial board included such luminaries as Carlos Fuentes, Nobel laureate Rigoberta Menchu and former presidents. The newspaper was a platform for communicating ideas, not a pamphlet that told people what to do but a forum for citizens to speak up about their problems. Newspapers were engaged by the project, which participated in "social journalism".

Ms. Barcena, Director of the UNEP environmental citizenship campaign, said that globalization was disempowering people. Therefore, people needed tools to make them feel empowered enough to make choices and select how they would live their lives. The environment was an excellent area where citizens could start making changes. Citizenship meant rights and obligations to UNEP, it wanted to engage people in informed voluntary action that would make a difference. The UNEP reached people through global networks of organizations. One such network was that of consumers, which had led to the creation of "Consumers International", with 215 organizations all over the world. The UNEP and that network had produced a tool kit to provide information tailor- made for the needs of people in various localities.

The 1996 agenda of Consumers International was "safe food for all", with the aim of informing consumers on the safety of the food they bought, she said. The UNEP then produced simple publications that would guide consumers about what to look out for in food labels. For instance, the agency published information it had about some chemicals that consumers should avoid. Another issue that UNEP raised was about bio-safety. People, for instance, should be informed about the contents of the diets of some British cows which had made some of those animals "mad". The tool kit, containing publications, video tapes and diskettes, would be given to Consumers International for its campaigns. It was a new form of UNEP communication, which could be given to other groups such as local authorities, parliamentarians, religious groups and educators.

"The bottom line is that the messages are clear that, although we talk a lot about improving the environment, our behaviour is still a long way from achieving that", Ms. Dowdeswell said. Environmental issues would be on the agenda for some time to come. Success stories had been achieved, and they should be used to mobilize more efforts, as the three examples presented today were meant to do. On "Earth Day", which should be observed every day, it was important to reflect on the state of the earth and on each other's responsibility for a safer and cleaner planet.

In response to a question as to whether the chosen channels of communication would work, Ms. Dowdeswell said that the best approach would be to mix several of them. The media had to be targeted to suit particular cultures, localities and groups. Efforts to reach people with positive stories and developments would be made.

Earth Day Briefing - 3 - 22 April 1996

Asked what was being done to use the broadcast media and its powerful reach, Mr. Rodriguez, of the UNEP Latin American office, said that different media would be targeted at different audiences. The UNEP was negotiating with a Latin America-wide television chain to produce televised versions of Tierramerica. Similarly, negotiations were going on to use radio to reach greater numbers of people and to engage them in dialogue or even polemics.

Ms. Barcena added that her group was trying to get in touch with the Association of Radio Producers, which could help produce a kit to bolster efforts to protect the environment. To that, Ms. Dowdeswell added that UNEP was using radio, particularly in Africa.

In response to a question as to how the United Nations financial crisis could affect her organization, Ms. Dowdeswell said that UNEP was affected by the crisis like all other members of the United Nations system. Its programmes were affected a little differently since UNEP did not get the bulk of its resources from assessed contributions. About 94 per cent of its budget was funded voluntarily and "we have to hustle and we are doing that". Between 1994-1995 and 1996-1997, UNEP had cut staff by 10 per cent and further cuts should not be necessary.

A reporter suggested that the environmental issue was seen as radical and asked Ms. Dowdeswell if she had experienced negative responses to her work. In response, she said that most people believed in a clean and sound environment, especially when it related to their health. However, when it came to legislating or negotiating treaty obligations, differences of opinion might emerge over, for instance, the issue of climate change. That was all the more true when the issue impinged on the economic activities of some countries. Overall, she had not come across any country which had said that UNEP should not work with its citizens or that it should stop the work it was doing.

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For information media. Not an official record.