What prompted your early interest in the environment?
I grew up on the Kenyan shores of Lake Victoria at the mouth of two rivers (Nzoia and Yala) that flooded regularly and often twice a year. Living on the edge of Africa’s largest lake and watching truly glorious sunsets over it, is sufficient to inspire and awaken even the sleepiest of souls. My earliest experiences were shaped by societal interest to balance between environmental risks and benefits. The flows and ebbs of the two rivers were directly linked to discernible changes in population and economic fortunes. Ecological drama was an integral part of my early childhood and it was then that I developed interest in responding to challenges through creativity and innovation. It was also then that I learned that innovation, like introducing new crops, is not risk free. Doing nothing is not a choice when you live an area that is constantly undergoing change. These were not just ordinary lessons for me but they directly shaped my personality and outlook.
What is your view on the COP 17 outcome?
The outcomes of COP-17 show clearly that governments prefer to adopt more flexible approaches that reflect diverse pathways for achieving the same goals. They pave the way for more pragmatic strategies that differentiate between wishful thinking (assuming that if it is desirable it is therefore feasible) and technical determinism (taking the view that if it's technically feasible it is therefore desirable). So far the negotiations have been conducted based on the force of scientific evidence. The scientific community played a key role shaping the structure and process of negotiations. The way ahead will have to involve more people from the engineering and business communities. It is still open to question the extent to which pragmatic approaches lend themselves to legally-binding commitments. It is not a surprise to find that a compromise was reached when the language offered room for flexibility in pathways. Some may interpret this as failure. Solving the climate challenge is a journey into the unknown and will require considerable space for experimentation. Maybe the next phase in the life of the climate regime will be how to accommodate the openness about the future that is required for innovation with the rigid commitment demanded by international law. Maybe COP-17 has been the turning point in efforts to bring international law in line with technological realities and not the other way round.
What do you believe should be achieved at Rio+20?
Rio+20 is a moment in history when the international community should make a distinctive transition from collective decision-making to decentralised actions. Agenda 21 was just that: a period for setting the agenda. This should have been followed by less global conferencing and more action at the national and local levels. International environmental forums are needed but for a different purpose. They should serve as venues where government, business, academia, civil society and independent actors come to share lessons and experiences. They should function more like open colleges and less like legislative bodies.
What is your role in this process?
I was quite involved in the Rio process and helped to increase Africa’s participation in the Earth Summit. After that I focused on the African Centre for Technology Studies (ACTS) which I had founded in Nairobi on promoting the implementation of the outcomes of the conference. Later I headed the UN Convention on Biological Diversity that was adopted at Rio. Today the most urgent task is providing hope to the global community by highlighting success stories in the field of sustainable development. It is for this reason that I recently published The New Harvest: Agricultural Innovation in Africa (Oxford University Press, 2011). I hope that the book will inspire others to come forward and share lessons from other fields. My contribution to the process is therefore helping to inspire future generations by giving them examples of success stories.
How important is the Rio+20 process?
The Rio+20 process is an important reminder of the urgency to guide global production and consumption patterns with sustainability principles. Sadly, there is really no genuine global institution that is championing sustainable development. The vision that inspired Rio has been supplanted by two extreme positions. The first is a group that believes economic growth will have trickle-down benefits for the environment. The environmental camp has successfully replaced the spirit of Rio with a one-sided agenda that leaves little room for recognising the central role that human wellbeing plays in natural resource management.
What do you think the priorities for action should be in 2012 in the run up to Rio+20?
My best hope is that Rio+20 will be a moment for the global community to shift its focus from acrimonious negotiations to sharing experiences on what works and what doesn’t. It is only through an open learning process that the international community will be able to build the trust needed to foster action. In a way, Rio+20 should be the Rio we should have had 20 years ago and didn’t: an opportunity for global learning without the burden of painful negotiations.