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African economies are critically dependent on the environment and natural resources. Renewable natural resources exploitation (forests, aquatic life, wildlife, and land) in agriculture, forestry and fisheries sectors contributes more to the GDP of many African economies than manufacturing. Tourism is the fastest growing sector in many of these economies, and it is based on the environment and natural resources (ecotourism, nature- based tourism, safari hunting etc). In addition to the significant contributions to national economies, natural resources sustain rural livelihoods through the provisions of a wide range of products and services.
At the same time as environment and natural resources assume greater significance in the human and economic development process, humanity has been depleting the life systems on which the wellbeing of the planet depends. This depletion has accelerated in the last century, largely as a result of accelerated industrial growth, prompting a search for models of growth and development that would still ensure that the fundamental life systems remain intact while supporting fundamental human and other needs. Environmental degradation and associated challenges have given rise to concerns with ‘sustainable development’.
Although there is no exact definition, the concept of ‘sustainable development’ is used to refer to a pattern of resource use that aims to meet human needs while preserving the environment so that these needs can be met not only in the present, but also for generations to come. While it has become increasingly widely used, there is considerable inconsistency in the application of the concept, and many different definitions of sustainable development abound. The concept of sustainability is continually evolving since it was first popularized in the 1987 report of the Brundtland Commission.
The environment is increasingly recognized as a value whose preservation and protection are critical preconditions for the survival of humanity. There have been phenomenal developments in national and international environmental law over the past few decades in response to these challenges. Environmental law draws from and is influenced by principles of environmentalism, including ecology, conservation, stewardship, responsibility and sustainability. While environmental regulation continues to evolve in the 21st century as evidenced by the phenomenal developments in law, the social sciences have been slow and fragmented in their engagement with the challenges of reconciling environmental protection with the needs of human development.
The quest for solutions that provide a sustainable future become more urgent as ever increasing evidence of environmental degradation continues to be discovered. Concern for environmental problems is usually voiced by interest groups such as businesses, consumers, Civil Society Organizations or community based groups. Such groups will typically advocate for appropriate state responses to the experienced or imminent environmental challenges. States have responded with policies and programmes with limited social sciences engagement and support.
Concerns with environmental degradation, scarcity, pollution and related challenges have led to the proliferation of environmental management policies, laws and programs. Environmental management in turn has become an arena of cooperation and conflict, and hence an arena of social and political-economic interaction. As such it is an arena of justice and injustice that cannot be separated from the larger context of government and governance. Contemporary debates in environmental politics focus on a wide range of issues such as the relationship between global political forces and environmental change; environmental security; environmental justice; environmental management, policy and governance; environmental movements and political parties; local-global interactions; multi-lateral environmental agreements; and so on. African participation in these issues is limited and fragmented. Yet African societies are increasingly confronted with inter-related environmental challenges arising from trade, climate change, biodiversity loss, conservation, land-use conflicts; waste management and so on.
Through the Environmental Politics Institute, CODESRIA proposes to focus scholarly attention on social sciences engagement with environmental governance issues in the context of sustainable development. The Institute will explore the various environmental governance dimensions of sustainable development policies and programmes in Africa, the character and extent of current social science research engagement with these policies and programmes, identify key issues for social science researchers, and encourage laureates to take up longitudinal engagement with environmental governance issues on the continent.