1963-2013 - 50 years of Research for Social Change

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New Report Reviews 15 Years of UNRISD Research on the Environment

21 Aug 2002



The upsurge in international concern for environmental issues in the years leading up to the 1992 Earth Summit sparked a vast debate on conservation and natural resource management. New terminology, concepts, policies and analytical approaches emerged. Yet 10 years later, the global inquiry that preceded the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development, has revealed that many environmental conditions appear to have worsened since then. Moreover, levels of absolute poverty across the world have not declined.

There are several reasons for what has gone wrong. These include tensions between environmental protection and human welfare; limited attention to social relations and institutions; issues of power; contradictions in national and international policies; and structural constraints on natural resource management and development at the local level. There has also been a tendency to emphasize complementarities between economic, social and environmental aspects of development, which may not always exist; and to assume that everyone can agree on what constitutes environmental protection, and benefit from it. Furthermore, there are contradictions inherent in development policies and processes, trade-offs between protection of the environment and the well-being of individuals, and winners and losers from conservation initiatives—yet such complex realities are often overlooked.

Such issues have been central to UNRISD’s research in the field of sustainable development over the past 15 years. This body of work has encompassed 13 projects in nearly 40 countries. UNRISD research has identified and analysed many areas where mainstream approaches to sustainable development have failed to adequately address the social and political dimensions of environmental change. These include the impacts of conservation schemes on local livelihoods and cultural rights; the role of different actors and institutions in environmental change; the forms of social mobilization and participation that can influence policy and resource management; patterns of local resistance to top-down interventions; and elite resistance to reform.

Some overarching conclusions have emerged from UNRISD’s research. At the most basic level, it is necessary to better integrate environmental and livelihood objectives so that they address the social and environmental impacts of policies associated with economic growth and liberalization. And it is imperative to enable low-income groups to influence the decision-making processes that have an impact on their lives.

A new report, People, Power and the Environment: 15 Years of UNRISD Research, published for the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development, summarizes UNRISD’s research findings related to the theory and practice of environmental and social change. It also provides an annotated bibliography of the Institute’s 70 publications, grouped into five main themes:
  • people's participation in conservation and sustainable development;
  • population, gender and the environment;
  • social dynamics of deforestation;
  • social and environmental dimensions of protected areas and tourism; and
  • business responsibility for sustainable development.

The report can be downloaded from this site (in PDF), or requested from UNRISD. Please use the link on the right to access these options.