Meeting from 16-18 November at the headquarters of the United States Environmental Protection Agency in Washington, D.C., the eighth session of the Advisory Committee called for reform of the INFOTERRA programme based on the concepts of the public's right-to-know, on the principles of the recently adopted Aarhus Convention on access to information, and in the spirit of the recommendations of the United Nations Secretary General's Task Force on Environment and Human Settlements.
In a message to the meeting, the Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), Klaus Toepfer, emphasized the right of all citizens to know about their environment. Stressing INFOTERRA's new role as UNEP's global advocate on this important issue, he added that "UNEP, through its INFOTERRA Programme, is ready to work in partnership with Governments and other stakeholders to improve public access to environmental information". This, he said, "is the logical starting point towards engaging civil society in a meaningful participatory process resulting in sound environmental decision-making".
The Committee, made up of governmental and non-governmental representatives, called for reform of INFOTERRA on three levels. First, at the national level, it recommended greater stakeholder participation in the provision of an integrated environmental information service. This would be accomplished through the establishment of a networking partnership of major environmental information service providers and user groups.
It is envisaged that this consortium structure would involve stakeholders from government, business, academia, centres of excellence and non-governmental organizations. It would be flexible in size and in subject coverage depending on national priorities and local conditions, while also being adaptable globally throughout the INFOTERRA network of 178 member countries. There would be heavy emphasis on new technologies for information dissemination with a capacity building programme to assist developing countries and countries in transition. The government-designated INFOTERRA National Focal Point would be the primary liaison between the consortium and UNEP under a new agreement to be negotiated between UNEP and national host governments.
Welcoming the new consortium idea, Mr. Harjit Singh, Director of India's Environmental Information System (ENVIS), said the decentralized multi-sectoral structure reflected the ENVIS approach which worked well in a large, diverse country such as India but was flexible enough to be adapted to other countries. "Citizens of all countries, large and small, have a right-to-know about their environment and a flexible system was needed in each country to guarantee public access to the information required for better decision-making", he added.
Secondly, at the regional level, the Advisory Committee called for partnership building, with an expanded role for INFOTERRA's Regional Service Centres. The main focus of this initiative would be to share information and experience on global and issues. The INFOTERRA Secretariat was requested to re-examine the role, location and organization of these Centres in consultation with the Advisory Committee. North-South partnerships among INFOTERRA member countries was also recommended in order to strengthen the capacities of Southern members.
Thirdly, the Advisory Committee recommended that UNEP strengthen its INFOTERRA Secretariat to manage this revitalized global programme. A business plan to implement the reform measures and the new structure was required and should be developed in consultation with the Advisory Committee. It was also recommended that the proposals for INFOTERRA's reform be submitted to UNEP's Governing Council for approval when it meets 1-5 February 1999 in Nairobi.
Mr. Jeremy Wates of the European Environmental Bureau (EEB) highlighted the key role that INFOTERRA could play in implementing the information provisions in the Aarhus Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision-Making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters, which was adopted this June by the member countries of the UN Economic Commission for Europe. "Being a global network, INFOTERRA can also carry the good practices required under the Convention into other parts of the world", he added.
The meeting was attended by representatives of the Governments of Austria, Botswana, Chile, China, Denmark, India, Ireland, Malaysia, Samoa, Senegal and the United States, and non-governmental participants from EEB, Development Alternatives and Environment Liaison Centre International (ELCI). The Organization of American States, the US-EPA and the US Department of State also sent observers. The meeting was chaired by US-EPA environmental information specialist, Dr. Linda Spencer, representing INFOTERRA-USA.
For more information, please contact:
Ms. Beth Ingraham,
UNEP Division of Environmental Information, Assessment and Early Warning,
Tel: (254-2) 624299, Fax: (254-2) 624269,
UNEP Information Note 1998/27