'Poverty Is the Most Toxic Element'
By Felipe Jaime Vázquez*
International trade and the environment
are closely related, evidenced by rich countries' high subsidies
for agriculture, says Klaus Toepfer, executive director of the United
Nations Environment Program, in an exclusive dialogue with Tierramérica.
MEXICO CITY - International trade should contribute
to development and the elimination of poverty, and the upcoming
World Trade Organization ministerial conference should express a
spirit of cooperation between industrialized and developing countries,
says Klaus Toepfer, executive director of the United Nations Environment
Trade and the environment are profoundly linked,
as proved by the perverse distortions caused by the high subsidies
rich countries grant agriculture and fisheries, Toepfer said in
a dialogue with Tierramérica.
At the helm of the UNEP since 1998, Toepfer
previously enjoyed an extensive academic and political career in
his native Germany, where he served as federal minister of environment,
nature conservation and nuclear safety from 1987 to 1994.
- The environment is among the key issues at the WTO. What can be
achieved at the fifth ministerial conference to be held in the Mexican
resort city of Cancun in September?
- The most toxic element for the environment is poverty. Our major
objective with regard to the WTO is for trade to serve as a way
to achieve development and to eliminate poverty. There is a very
specific relationship between the environment and trade. If we look
at the situation of subsidies in the developed countries, particularly
in the agricultural and fishing sector, we can see that it turns
into a somewhat perverse relationship. One of the first initiatives
would be to reduce or eliminate them. We also note the profound
relationship between trade and the various multilateral environmental
agreements, for example, those for protecting the ozone layer or
about toxic waste, or the agreements related to climate change.
We must be realistic. We know that all countries must contribute,
developed and developing countries alike, in order to end poverty
and to ensure that trade is a positive factor. That would be a realistic
form of optimism.
- What significance does Europe's decision to open its markets to
transgenic products have?
- The United Nations did not want to intervene in the dispute between
the United States and the European Union about genetically modified
organisms. But I am convinced that we made a big contribution to
the matter by negotiating the Cartagena Protocol, which enters into
force in September and will serve to protect biodiversity and specifically
address the safe management of genetically modified organisms.
- Do you think the recent heat wave in Europe could be related to
- Climate change is not some kind of weather forecast, it is something
we are already experiencing. It is not a thing of the future. We
have sufficient scientific data on indicators that climate change
is already here. It is difficult to establish a linear relationship
between an extreme climate phenomenon and climate change. But these
phenomena are occurring with increasing frequency, and the heat
wave in Europe could be related to climate change, as could the
floods of last summer. We must take action in two directions: mitigate
or reduce greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide and find ways to
adapt to these changes. The Kyoto Protocol, which seeks to curb
greenhouse gas emissions, is of vital importance. We know that the
United States has refused to ratify it, and Russia has not yet done
so. But President Vladimir Putin has expressed willingness, and
the Russian ratification is expected this year.
- What is your perception of the environmental situation in Iraq
following the U.S. invasion and military occupation?
- UNEP conducted an evaluation prior to the war, in February and
March, regarding the environmental situation in Iraq over the last
20 years. We are talking about a country whose environment has been
devastated since the war with Iran, in the 1980s, then came the
Gulf War in 1991, in addition to the poor environmental management
by the Saddam Hussein government. Today there are three UNEP officials
in Baghdad who are preparing an analysis about the impacts of the
latest war, a field study that will compare them with the previously
evaluated areas. We hope to conduct a study as soon as possible
about the environmental impacts of the weapons used in the war.
* Felipe Jaime Vázquez
is a Tierramérica contributor.