Earth summit hits poverty, pollution

JOHANNESBURG – Delegates to the third Earth Summit reached a minimal agreement on policies aimed at lifting four billion people from poverty and curbing threats to the global environment.

However, a handful of countries led by the United States weakened the final plan to reduce by half, by the year 2015, the proportion of the world’s people whose income is less than a dollar a day and the proportion of people who suffer from hunger and, by the same date, to cut by half the proportion of people without access to safe drinking water.

The U.S. succeeded in blocking a propossal by the European Union to increase to 15 percent the percentage of total energy derived from renewable sources by 2010.

The summit adjourned Sept. 4 with the Bush administration virtually alone in promoting corporate globalization as the answer, an isolation made clear when delegates angrily jeered U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell as he defended Bush policies.

The U.S. threat of a war on Iraq loomed over the summit. Former South African president Nelson Mandela, winner of the 1993 Nobel Peace Prize told reporters during the summit that he is “appalled” at Bush’s threats of a unilateral invasion of Iraq with 250,000 U.S. troops to forcibly impose a “regime change” on Iraq.

“No country should be allowed to take the law into their own hands,” Mandela said. The Bush-Cheney administration “has introduced chaos into international affairs and we condemn that in the strongest terms,” he added.

He was echoed by other leaders at the summit including South African President Thabo Mbeki, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and French President Jacques Chirac who spoke of their opposition to war on Iraq. More than 100 chiefs of state attended. There was widespread anger that George W. Bush refused to attend.

A few days before the Earth Summit ended, residents of nearby Alexandra township erected a huge protest sculpture of a metallic robot against a banner reading “Don’t Let Big Business Rule.” The desperately poor township of over 500,000 residents is known as a stronghold of the African National Congress (ANC).

Thousands of demonstrators marched on the summit Aug. 31 with red flags flying, calling the attention of government heads gathering at the summit to a range of issues including clean water, land for the landless, Palestinian statehood and renewable energy.

Speaking at an ANC-sponsored rally in Alexandra before the march, Mbeki asked, “If the summit doesn’t speak to the needs of the poor, what use is it?”

He added, “The people of Alexandra want the same thing as people all over the globe: healthcare, jobs, water, sanitation, and good education.” Alexandra still lacks basic waste disposal facilities.

Mbeki commented, “There is no reason why the poor of the world should be poor forever. It is very important that those who sit in powerful positions must never forget their first responsibility is to the masses.”

Heads of state should produce “specific decisions and time frames,” he said, and a “practical program of action to address real issues … the time for action has come.”

Speaker after speaker at the rally, including Mbeki, called for self-determination for Palestine and ending the blockade against Cuba.

Deadlines and timetables for implementing decisions were hot issues at the summit. For example, the Bush administration resisted setting guidelines for reducing by half the numbers of people without sanitation worldwide. Corporate lobbyists steadfastly rejected such goals, insisting they were “barriers to free trade.”

In a compromise, delegates from developing countries dropped a demand for deadlines on ending subsidies for U.S. agricultural products, agreeing to language that “encouraged reform” of the subsidies, which are criticized as promoting the spread of controversial genetically modified crops and hurting local sustainable development.”

Bush administration representatives wanted to define globalization as benefiting all, while developing countries and the European Union argued that not all countries are reaping the benefits. Globalization must be made equitable, they said.

The U.S. and European Union proposed a “compromise” offering developing nations increased market access in exchange for “good governance.” Cuba and other countries objected strongly to such language, seeing it as directed against their sovereignty.

Japan, the Bush administration and some others rejected a long-standing United Nations goal of having industrially developed countries dedicate 0.7 percent of their gross domestic product to finance sustainable development. The Bush representatives also opposed proposals that 15 percent of energy come from renewable resources by 2010.

Many community and environmental groups strongly protested what they saw as a Big Business and World Trade Organization (WTO) hijacking of the summit agenda.

Tony Juniper of Friends of the Earth said, “Instead of developing a new momentum at the summit, civil society has a very hard job of defending the summit from a takeover by the WTO. The powerful idea of eradicating poverty and protecting the environment is being subordinated by ‘free trade’.”

The U.S., Australia, Japan and others attempted to force the summit to abandon the “Precautionary Principle” agreed to at the 1992 Rio summit, which stated that, where there is a threat of irreversible damage, action to save the environment should not be postponed even if complete scientific certainty is lacking. For example, a country could object to importing genetically modified foods, but WTO rules, clearly helpful to corporate agricultural interests, would require importation unless there is incontrovertible scientific proof of such foods’ harmfulness.

To avoid binding governmental agreements, Bush officials, led by Secretary of State Colin Powell, proposed “partnerships” between business, local governments and community groups. In the view of most, such partnerships would do little to help either the environment or sustainable development, particularly with the skimpy $1 billion funding.

Considering such developments, activist Vanda Shiva exclaimed, “The earth has disappeared in the Earth Summit.”

Despite these problems, areas which promised progress were in reducing harmful chemicals by 2020; a 10-year deadline for achieving sustainable consumption and production goals; a reduction on subsidies for fossil fuels, and efforts to reverse biodiversity loss.

Joe Sims is the editor of Political Affairs. The author can be reached at jsims@cpusa.org