Out of Africa: What the Gaborone Declaration Could Mean for Rio+20

Madagascar's Baobab Alley

Madagascar's Baobab Alley. This species of baobab is endemic to Madagascar; local people collect seeds, fruit, oil and wood from the trees. (© Art Wolfe/ www.artwolfe.com)

Which environmental economist said the following? “We need to take stock and attach value to our natural resources and ecosystems such that we may include their value in planning and decision-making processes, as well as in our national accounts and balance sheets.”

The answer is: none. In fact, that was President Ian Khama of the Republic of Botswana speaking at last week’s Summit for Sustainability in Africa, which was hosted in the capital city of Gaborone by his government and Conservation International. Other participants at this meeting included the heads of state and government of Liberia, Namibia and Mozambique and the vice president of Tanzania.

Geographically, Botswana is the size of France, but it has just 2.2 million people. It is Africa’s largest beef exporter. It also has a huge population of 150,000 wild elephants and is a growing ecotourism destination. Although it may not seem like the most obvious location to hold a sustainable development conference, the summit held here in Gaborone was remarkable for four reasons:

  1. Who participated: Ten African nations who are all interested in transitioning toward a green economy in their respective countries. This is especially significant considering that other developing nations still think “green economy” is a devious Western capitalist plot to hold back development.
  2. When it was held: Less than a month before the United Nations’ Rio+20 conference. This was planned so that the Gaborone Declaration (PDF322.74 KB) can feed into the discourse at Rio+20 and actually help deliver a serious outcome at the global conference — provided other nations endorse it.
  3. What was agreed: The signatories agreed to incorporate the value of natural ecosystems into their national accounting systems. They also agreed to annual reporting of progress on these fronts.
  4. Why participants made these commitments: Because these nations all see natural capital as their biggest “asset for development” (in the words of President Khama) and believe that its historic economic invisibility has been a reason for past economic failures.

Another participant at the Summit for Sustainability in Africa — President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia — summarized the challenge as follows:

“Natural capital — our ecosystems, biodiversity, and natural resources — underpins economies, societies and individual well-being. The values of its myriad benefits are, however, often overlooked or poorly understood. They are rarely taken fully into account through economic signals in markets, or in day-to-day decisions by business and citizens, nor indeed reflected adequately in the accounts of society.”

Pavan Sukhdev

Pavan Sukhdev

If these discussions continue to progress — at Rio+20 and beyond — the unsustainable economic models of today may eventually be a distant memory.

Pavan Sukhdev, an ex-banker, led the United Nation’s Environment Programme’s Green Economy Initiative and its study called The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB). He is now a McCluskey Fellow at Yale University, where he is writing his book, “Corporation 2020.” Pavan is also a CI board member.


  1. Pingback: A Declaration in Gabarone on the Road to Rio | Landscapes for People, Food, and Nature Blog

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