Jose Ramos-Horta in After Rio+20: Asia Should Lead in Sustainable Development

A commentary by Jose Ramos-Horta, Nobel Peace laureate and Gaia Discovery honorary advisor

Rio de Janeiro, 27 June 2012. We gathered in Rio from 190 countries, to review what we have done since the historic Earth Summit in Rio in 1992 and what our world should look like in the coming decades. There was no cause for celebration and much to regret and fear as we continue to lack vision and leadership.

I did not travel to Rio with much optimism. Actually I must have been the only Head of State who did not attend the previous conferences in Copenhagen, Monterey and Durban which as I had feared had not reached a substantial, binding agreement that could meet the challenges of climate change.

We are still in the midst of an unprecedented financial, economic and social crisis that began in the U.S. in 2008, spread into Europe, and is still affecting countless world economies.

Again as I feared we emerged from the Rio+20 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, June 20-22, with a Declaration entitled "The World We Want," and lacking in substance and solid financial commitments.

We all knew it would be impossible to bring all parties to agree on a binding international agreement entailing deadlines and costs. So pragmatism and realism cautioned U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon and President Dilma Rousseff of Brazil that to avoid abject failure we must lower our expectations to the lowest possible common denominator.

The truth is that the financial, economic and social crises that affect the U.S. and almost all of Europe have tempered the political willingness of the rich countries of the North regarding substantial contribution to any bold sustainable development program to achieve the Millennium Development Goals.

Even before the 2008 crisis, most rich countries were never able to mobilize the political and human will to allocate 0.7 percent of their GDP for development aid.

Aid pledges made in international conferences have been rarely kept. When they are, the funding has not always been effective in achieving the intended benefit for the receiving countries.

Rio+20 Meeting in 2012 - a far cry from the historic Earth Summit in 1992.

Rio+20 Meeting in 2012 - a far cry from the historic Earth Summit in 1992.

The path taken over the past decades in the relationship between rich and poor countries, between North and South, had ups and downs, with much waste and mismanagement, programs based on wrong concepts, wrong assumptions and wrong policies. The mistakes were not only on one side of the relationship. Donors and recipients shared in the mistakes, and share the responsibility for the lost decades.

So where do we go from here? I believe that rather than attempting to forge the one agreement that will change the course of the world, or being satisfied with one without much substance, it may be more realistic, practical and effective to think of agreements and plans on a regional level.

For instance, shouldn't Asia consider an Asian Road Map for 20-30 years for an integrated, equitable, sustainable Human Development, targeting eradication of poverty, illiteracy, TB, malaria, HIV/Aids, etc. and restoration of our forests, rivers and seas?

Asia, with half the world population, extracts a lot more from our planet to satisfy our needs of survival and development than any other region in the world. For our own survival, and in solidarity with our brothers and sisters from other parts of the world, we must act with vision and determination. We must do more to free our people from extreme poverty and save our common planet.

China, India, Pakistan, Japan, Republic of Korea, Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf countries, together have an unparalleled pool of know-how. They have enough financial resources to transform Asia into a prosperous, peaceful and happy region for our four billion citizens.

Africa, the Middle East and Latin America should and could do the same. Each region in the world should adopt its own road map for sustainable, equitable, integrated development, adapted to the conditions of each region and sub-region, and mobilizing regional resources and seeking additional funding from other partners if and as needed.

The U.S. and Europe still lead in science and technology and they should invest even more on education, research and new technologies for the benefit of their own peoples and the world.

The U.S. and Europe should contribute with know-how, technology and financially to the programs in each region or sub-region. But Asia should create its own fund, the Asian Fund for Sustainable Development, that can be managed by an existing institution such as the Asian Development Bank, in partnership with U.N. Specialized Agencies such as UNDP, UNICEF, WHO or NGO's with solid regional or international reputation such as OXFAM.

Each country should mandatorily contribute to such a fund, according to its GDP. The leading Asian economies can easily mobilize $100 billion to be invested during the next decade. Asia's industrialized nations such as Japan, Korea, Singapore, China, India or natural resource-rich countries, i.e. the oil, gas, gold, and diamond producers should lead by example and contribute 0.7 percent of their GDP to this fund. The Asian private sector would also be invited to contribute.

Asia's poor, low income countries with little or no mineral resources, vulnerable to climate change, would qualify to benefit from this fund, to develop programs targeting extreme poverty, illiteracy, TB, malaria, HIV/Aids, etc. and reforestation as well as cleaning up their rivers, lakes and seas.

Asia, the most populous region in the world, represents half of all mankind. The largest, oldest, richest civilizations appeared and met in Asia. Fifty years ago the region was extremely poor. Today it is emerging as a center of world power. But the challenges it faces are immense and complex. The region is the most dangerous in the world, the most militarized, the most nuclearized, with complex land and maritime border disputes, regional rivalries, ethnic and religious conflicts that have exploded frequently in and among states.

It cannot, however, continue to demand from the aging and impoverished Europeans and from today's less powerful U.S. to come to our rescue and lead or to continue the blame game.

If it is an established and obvious truth that Europe and the U.S. have contributed the most to the environmental degradation of our planet in the last 100 years, it must also be noted that they also contributed the most towards advances in medicine, science and technology, to the benefit of all humanity.

It is now Asia's turn to unite and act responsibly to correct the mistakes inherited from the past and those of the present, and adopt a road map to build the future we want.

My country, Timor-Leste, although young and with modest resources has given examples of solidarity. In the past 5 years we have contributed a total of about 10 million dollars in aid to some countries affected by natural disasters such as Cuba, Brazil, China, Portugal, Australia, Japan, Indonesia, Myanmar, and to some U.N. specialized agencies.

Our people have shown that we are and will be ready to contribute as much as possible to make the Asian Road Map a reality, through a Fund for Sustainable Development.

Meanwhile, as we have waited with great expectation for a Global Agreement and Plan to come out of Rio +20 or any Regional Agreement and Plan, in Timor-Leste we are already implementing our Strategic Development Plan 2011-2030.

We are determined to achieve all of the Millennium Development Goals and become a high-income country in the next 10-20 years with a per capita income of $10,000.

Since independence in 2002, Timor-Leste has ratified the three Rio Conventions: the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity (UNCBD) and the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD).

We have produced three strategies and Action Plans in response to these conventions, namely, the National Adaptation Plan of Action for Climate Change (NAPA) approved by the Council of Ministers in 2011, the National Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan (NBSAP) approved by the Council of Ministers in February 2012, and the National Action Plan for Sustainable Land Management (SLM), currently awaiting approval of the Council of Ministers.

We have established a new Directorate to support and strengthen the traditional custom of Tara Bandu to protect and conserve natural resources in order to achieve environmental sustainability, as well as a means to build trust within communities, and resolve conflicts.

A green and sustainable development model, based on peaceful cooperation from the local communities up, enables economically viable growth that works hand in hand with environmental sustainability, protecting the inheritance of future generations.

It is our hope that this young country and new democracy may well become a model for sustainable growth that can be emulated in other parts of our region, and other parts of the world, as we all seek the compassion, wisdom and courage necessary to face the challenges of the 21st Century.

José Ramos-Horta is the former President, Prime Minister, Foreign Minister of Timor-Leste. He is the 1996 Nobel Peace Prize winner. This article was first posted on Huffington Post.