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When Rio hosted the first Earth Summit in 1992, there was so much
goodwill surrounding the event that it was nicknamed, without irony, the
Summit to Save the World. This week in Johannesburg, at the follow-up
conference known as Rio + 10, nobody is claiming that the World Summit
on Sustainable Development can save the world--the question is whether
the summit can even save itself.
The sticking point is what UN bureaucrats call "implementation" and the
rest of us call "doing something." Much of the blame for the
"implementation gap" is being placed at the doorstep of the United
States. It was George W. Bush who abandoned the only significant
environmental regulations that came out of the Rio conference, the Kyoto
Protocol on climate change. It was Bush who decided not to come to
Johannesburg (even his father showed up in Rio), signaling that the
issues being discussed here--from basic sanitation to clean energy--are
low priorities for his Administration. And it is the US delegation that
is most belligerently blocking all proposals that involve either
directly regulating multinational corporations or dedicating significant
new funds to sustainable development.
But the Bush-bashing is too easy: The summit isn't failing because of
anything happening now in Johannesburg. It's failing because the entire
process was booby-trapped from the start.
When Canadian entrepreneur and diplomat Maurice Strong was appointed to
chair the Rio summit ten years ago, his vision was of a massive
gathering that brought all the "stakeholders" to the table--not just
governments but also nongovernmental organizations (environmentalists,
indigenous and lobby groups) as well as multinational corporations.
Strong's vision allowed for more participation from civil society than
any UN conference before, at the same time as it raised unprecedented
amounts of corporate funds for the summit (it helped that Coca-Cola
donated its marketing team and Swatch produced a limited-edition Earth
Summit watch). But the sponsorship had a price. Corporations came to Rio
with clear conditions: They'd embrace ecologically sustainable practices
but only voluntarily--through nonbinding codes and "best practices"
partnerships with NGOs and governments. In other words, when the
business sector came to the table in Rio, direct regulation of business
was pushed off.
In Johannesburg, these "partnerships" have passed into self-parody, with
the conference center chock-a-block with displays for BMW "clean cars"
and billboards for De Beers diamonds announcing Water Is Forever. The
summit's main sponsor is Eskom, South Africa's soon-to-be-privatized
national energy company. According to a recent study, under Eskom's
restructuring 40,000 households are losing access to electricity each
And this cuts to the heart of the real debate about the summit. The
World Business Council for Sustainable Development, a corporate lobby
group founded in Rio, is insisting that the route to sustainability is
the same trickle-down formula already being imposed by the World Trade
Organization and the International Monetary Fund: Poor countries must
make themselves hospitable to foreign investment, usually by privatizing
basic services, from water to electricity to healthcare. As in Rio,
these corporations are pushing for voluntary "partnerships" rather than
"command and control" regulations.
But these arguments sound different from a decade ago. Post-Enron, it's
difficult to believe that companies can be trusted even to keep their
own books, let alone save the world. And unlike a decade ago, the
economic model of laissez-faire development is being militantly rejected
by popular movements around the world, particularly in Latin America but
also here in South Africa.
This time around, many of the "stakeholders" aren't at the official
table but out in the streets or organizing countersummit conferences to
plot very different routes to development: debt cancellation, an end to
the privatization of water and electricity, reparations for apartheid
abuses, affordable housing, land reform. The most ambitious is the Week
of the Landless, a parallel event arguing that unfulfilled promises to
introduce substantive land reform--in South Africa and across the
postcolonial developing world--have been the single greatest barrier to
sustainable development globally.
Key to these movements is that they are no longer willing simply to talk
about their demands--they're acting on them. In the past two years,
South Africa has experienced a surge in direct action, with groups like
the Soweto Electricity Crisis Committee, the Landless People's Movement,
Durban's Concerned Citizens' Forum and the Western Cape Anti-Eviction
Campaign organizing to resist evictions, to claim unproductive land and
to reconnect cut-off water and electricity in the townships.
A mass demonstration is planned for August 31, but the fate of the march
is by no means certain. The South African government appears to have
decided that if nothing else comes of it, the summit is at least an
opportunity "to change misconceptions about safety and security in South
Africa...[and] attract the attention of foreign tourists and investors,"
in the words of Provincial Police Commissioner Perumal Naidoo.
What this means in practice is that while street signs welcome delegates
to "feel the pulse" of "the Sensational City," Sandton, the ultrarich
suburb where the conference is being held, has been transformed into a
military zone, complete with "mega search park" and remote spy planes
patrolling the skies. All protests are confined to a 1.8-kilometer
"struggle pen," as many are calling it, and even there, only
police-permitted marches are allowed.
Vendors and beggars have been swept from the streets, residents of
squatter camps have been evicted (many have been relocated to less
visible sites, far from busy roads). Moss Moya, a township resident
facing eviction from his home of eighteen years, holds out little hope
that the summit will help South Africa's poor. "If they are going to
help us," he said, "they need to see us."
But when Moya and his neighbors held a rally to resist the attempts to
relocate them behind a grove of trees, the police cracked down, and
Moya, a former ANC supporter, was shot in the mouth with a rubber
bullet, knocking out six of his teeth. When he went to file a complaint
with the police, he was thrown in jail.
Moya and some 1,000 other township residents decided to take their
struggle to downtown Johannesburg, holding a peaceful rally outside the
offices of the Premier of Gauteng, the province in which Johannesburg is
located. Right underneath a sign that announces, The People of Gauteng
Welcome WSSD Delegates to the Smart Province, seventy-seven
demonstrators were arrested, including the entire leadership of the
Landless People's Movement. (All but one--a US citizen, still facing
deportation--have since been released.)
On August 24, police even attacked a candlelight "freedom of expression
march," held to protest these and other mass arrests. The spontaneously
organized march was headed to a downtown prison, but before the crowd of
1,000 local and international activists had walked a block, riot police
surrounded them and barricaded the road. Without warning, stun grenades
were fired at the marchers, injuring three.
The World Summit on Sustainable Development isn't going to save the
world; it merely offers an exaggerated mirror of it. In the gourmet
restaurants of Sandton, delegates are literally dining out on their
concern for the poor. Meanwhile, outside the gates, poor people are
being hidden away, assaulted and imprisoned for what has become the
iconic act of resistance in an unsustainable world: refusing to
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Organic farming critic Dennis Avery is supported by generous contributions from several chemical companies, all of whom profit from the sale of products prohibited in organic production.
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