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5. Sustainable Development: “Precautionary Principle / Approach”.


This is a phrase essential to sustainable development. It captures a positively-focussed “preventative” approach for human development activities and the environment over the current human tendency to only “react” when negative environmental consequences arise from our actions (such as is currently happening with humans and our significant contributions to global warming).

The most common definition for the term is found in Principle 15 of the United Nations’ Rio Declaration (as also agreed to at the Earth Summit by 178 national governments, including the Government of México), which speaks to a “precautionary approach” as being:

  • “Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation”. [7]

In a brief to the NAFTA’s (North American Free Trade Agreement) Commission for Environmental Cooperation (CEC), Greenpeace defines the term as being where:

  • “...in the face of serious or irreversible threats to the environment, and in situations of scientific uncertainty, we should take action to minimise or prevent those threats”.[8]

Admittedly, this is a controversial term. Difference in interpretation seems to arise depending on whether precaution favours ecosystem health or industrial activity. As the CEC has found:

  • “...Industry presenters emphasized balance, noting that environmental viability or "benefits" must be weighed against economic (trade) viability and possibilities for continued development.....Presenters from environmental NGOs placed greater weight on long-term ecological viability, which they view as the key factor in “sustainability...”[9]

For a sustainable México, we think that the precautionary principle / approach must be practiced in some manner as defined by Mexicans and our elected leaders. We are of the view that Principle 15 of the Rio Declaration puts the emphasis on ecosystem health.[10]



[7] UNEP - United Nations Environment Programme. (1992). Rio Declaration on Environment and Development [online]. Available from: http://www.unep.org/Documents.multilingual/Default.asp?DocumentID=78&ArticleID=1163 [Accessed: 21 April 2008].
[8] Greenpeace. (2004). Comments to the NAFTA Commission for Environmental Cooperation Article 13 Report - Maize and Biodiversity: The effects of transgenic maize in Mexico [online]. Available from: http://www.cec.org/files/PDFGreenpeace-comments_en.pdf (page 1). [Accessed: 21 April 2008].
[9] CEC - Commission for Environmental Cooperation. (1996).
Report to Council: Who We Are / Joint Public Advisory Committee [online]. As found at:
http://www.cec.org/who_we_are/jpac/reports/1996/sec2_1.cfm?varlan=english [Accessed: 21 April 2008].
[10] Readers interested in learning more about the precautionary principle / approach can read:
CEC - Commission for Environmental Cooperation. (2003). The Precautionary Principle in North American and International Law,
North American Environmental Law and Policy// [online], Vol 10, pp.197-276. Available from: http://www.cec.org/pubs_docs/documents/index.cfm?varlan=ENGLISH&ID=1027. [Re-accessed: 03 May 2008].

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