|Environment, Biodiversity and Agricultural Change in West Africa (UNU, 1997, 141 pages)|
|2: People, land management and environmental change: Conceptual background, with focus on Africa|
In the early 1990s, the issues pertaining to the population-environment nexus moved into the forefront of international attention. Yet, systematic and rigorous scientific analysis based on a solid theory has been sporadic. Despite a growing literature on the topic, much of the discussion is based on somewhat simplistic, linear notions of the relationship between population growth and environmental degradation.
Agenda 21, the major outcome of the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) organized in Brazil in June 1992, outlines the main issues, objectives and actions required to achieve, or at least move towards, sustainable development as we approach the next century (UN 1992). Chapter 5 of Agenda 21, on "Demographic Dynamics and Sustainability," identifies the strengthening of research programmes that integrate population, environment and development as a central means of implementation of the international agenda. Enhancement of research by international institutions and networks of experts, as well as a multidisciplinary approach in linking this research to action, are needed in order to achieve this goal. Furthermore, chapters 14 and 15, on "Promoting Sustainable Agriculture and Rural Development" and "Conservation of Biological Diversity," are central to our concerns here.
Agenda 21 also provides guiding principles for the United Nations and its agencies, including the United Nations University (UNU), for devising plans for follow-up to UNCED and for planning their environmental programmes. Following UNCED, UNU appointed a high-level advisory team, consisting of representatives of key UN agencies, NGOs, academia and the international community, to take a critical look at how the University could best devote its resources, taking into account its strengths and comparative advantages, and play a role in fulfilling the recommendations of the Earth Summit. This resulted in the development of the University's programme on environmentally sustainable development, the "UNU Agenda 21" (UNU 1993).
The "UNU Agenda 21" emphasizes, i.a., the importance of local and regional sustainability through appropriate environmental and resource management. It aggregates issues of environmentally sustainable development from the entry point of the capacity of ecosystems and their ability to support, resist or recuperate from the long-term impact of human activities. An essential approach is to focus on integrated studies of geographically delineated fragile ecosystems and vulnerable regions. The work encompasses research into both the natural and social sciences.
A central objective of UNU's work is to promote institution and capacity building in developing countries. The collaboration of academic institutions and scholars from both the North and the South within UNU's research programmes, as well as the University's postgraduate education and training activities, are geared towards reaching these goals.
As a response to the need for a systematic study of the management of land and biological resources in the tropical and subtropical areas of the world, which are facing growing production and population pressures, the international collaborative project on "People, Land Management and Environmental Change" (PLEC) was initiated.