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The public should have much more say in governmental decisions that affect the environment, according to a report released today.

World Resources 2002-2004: Decisions for the Earth – Balance, Voice and Power calls on governments across the world to seek greater community input into such decisions, and to integrate assessments of environmental impacts better into economic decision making. These changes are urgently needed to stop the accelerating deterioration of the world's environment and to address global poverty, it says.

The report, issued jointly by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), the World Bank and the World Resources Institute, also urges governments to improve public access to environmental information, and provide more access to justice in environmental decision making.

"Democratisation of environmental decision making is one of the most direct routes to better environmental decisions," said WRI president Jonathan Lash at the launch of the report today in London. "Where there is consultation and inclusion, and where people have a voice, you rarely get an environmentally catastrophic outcome."

Figures presented in the report indicate the extent of human dependence on rapidly deteriorating ecosystems. One out of every six humans depends on fish for their protein, yet 75 per cent of the world's fisheries are over-fished or fished to capacity. And some 350 million people are directly dependent on rapidly depleting forests for their survival.

"Poor communities are particularly vulnerable to failed environmental governance, since they rely more heavily on natural resources for subsistence and income", says Kristal Georgieva, director of the environment department of the World Bank. "They are less likely to share in property rights that give them legal control over these resources."

But engaging poor communities in the decision-making process is not always straightforward, according to Jake Werksman, adviser for environmental institutions and governments at UNDP. "It's expensive to gather information and to respond to queries from the public and to make information accessible," he says. "And capacity needs to be built not just on the governmental level, but we also need to empower people to ask the right questions."

The Rio Declaration on Environment and Development, signed by world leaders at the world summit in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in 1992, includes a commitment to increased public participation in decision making that affects the environment. Since then, according to the report, there has been a shift towards more public participation in environmental decision making. But, says Lash, "progress on paper has moved faster than progress in reality".

© SciDev.Net 2003

Link to World Resources 2002-2004: Decisions for the Earth – Balance, Voice and Power

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