New Leadership From the South

International environmental leadership is a scarce commodity at the moment. The vacuum was evidenced most dramatically by the U.S. rejection of the Kyoto Protocol in 2001, and then by the complicity of many governments in the weakening of environmental and social commitments being negotiated during the run-up to the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg in 2002.

Against this backdrop, the world's environment ministers gathered in Nairobi, Kenya, in early February for the UN Environment Programme's Global Ministerial Environment Forum. Although the official agenda of the meeting was a post-mortem on the Johannesburg conference, this topic generated less enthusiasm than did some recent political developments right in Kenya.

In late December, the Kenyan people had unseated President Daniel arap Moi's Kenya African National Union Party, which had been in power since the country's independence from Great Britain in 1963, in a peaceful political transformation via the ballot box. Wangari Maatthai, founder of Kenya's famed Green Belt Movement, was named assistant environment minister. Beaten and jailed just a few years earlier for her efforts to protect the country's threatened forests, Maatthai is now a key figure in the new Kenyan government's efforts to protect the country's ecologically rich forests by cracking down on illegal logging, charcoal production, and other harmful activities.

Encouragingly, recent events in Kenya appear to be part of a larger pattern in which democratization in the South is bringing to power a new generation of environmentally minded leaders. In Brazil, the 2002 victory of Luiz ("Lula")  da Silva's Worker's Party led to the appointment of Marina Silva as environment minister. Silva is a Senator representing the Amazonian state of Acre. She rose to this position after a childhood spent as a rubber tapper in the heart of the Amazon, where she worked with the late Chico Mendez to fight against forest destruction by creating extractive reserves where rubber-tapping and other activities would provide livelihoods for local people based on protecting rather than decimating the surrounding forests.

These two recent appointments follow on the heels of events in Mexico in 2000, when the victory of President Vincente Fox's National Action Party ended 71 years of rule by the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). Fox appointed Victor Lichtinger, who helped found the "Group of Like-Minded Megadiverse Countries" in February 2002, as environment minister. The Group, consisting  of 15 developing countries that are collectively home to over 70 percent of the world's biological diversity, is pooling its political clout to push for stronger protection of the planet's ecological wealth and for fairer international rules to protect traditional knowledge.

All of these new environmental leaders face great obstacles, including entrenched opposition from other ministries with more power, such as those dedicated to finance, trade, and construction. Nonetheless, their emergence on the international stage is a hopeful sign.


Hilary F. French Director, Global Governance Project