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What A Difference A Decade Makes

Earth Summit Opens With a Bang
by Kenny BrunoCorpWatch
August 26th, 2002

An Anti Privatization Forum protestor marches in Johannesburg. Photo: Reuters/Howard Burditt
An Anti Privatization Forum protestor marches in Johannesburg. Reuters/Howard Burditt

Johannesburg -- For about 500 people in Johannesburg, the biggest Summit of all time started with a big bang. Literally.

By 6:00 P.M. on Saturday August 24th, marchers from the Anti-Privatization Forum had been building their spirits for several hours with songs, chants and dance in the inimitable South African style. They were amassing outside the Witswaterand University auditorium, where the International Forum on Globalization's teach-in on globalization and sustainable development, one of many pre-Summit events, was in session.

The spirit was peaceful, warm and musical, as several hundred demonstrators left the campus to march to the police station. Their purpose was to protest the arrest of 100 demonstrators from the landless movement, and the threatened deportation of an American supporter of the movement.

Scarcely a block from the campus gate, police suddenly detonated a deafening concussion grenade and several smaller explosives, without warning. The warm spirit of the march became a sudden panic, as we ran back toward campus. By the time we realized there was no live fire or any immediate danger, one older woman had fallen and broke her wrist, and one journalist had been arrested for insisting on crossing the police line.

Within 15 minutes or so, about half of the marchers gathered again at the police line, where, in a pattern familiar to veterans of anti-globalization protests in Washington, Prague, Quebec, they spent the next hour in a stand-off with police.

Canadian global justice activists Maude Barlow, Tony Clarke and Naomi Klein made sure that international participation was highly obvious, in the hope this would deter maltreatment of the South Africans. March leader Trevor Ngwane asked people to disperse at about 7:15, so that they could "fight another day," and the march ended without further incident.

There was no serious violence this time round, but with mass marches planned for August 31st, the decision to repress protests does not bode well for the next two weeks. The arrests of the landless movement protestors and the harsh police reaction to the anti-privatization marchers is part of a policy which seems, as Naomi Klein put it, "to keep the poor away from a Summit about poverty."

Nor are the poor the only ones having trouble gaining access. Although access for citizen groups to UN processes has increased in the last 10 years, a process started in Rio, this Summit's arrangements leave a lot to be desired. The People's Forum, the alternative Summit, is about an hour away from the official Convention Centre, and buses are unreliable. NGOs already registered for the official Summit were forced today to wait hours to register a second time, just for the day.

"Non-Paper" Circulates

For those who did get inside the Summit, the big issue of the first day was the emergence of a "non-paper" advocating that trade be the centerpiece of the Summit's outcomes, with WTO as the enforcement mechanism for trade-related environmental agreements. The "non-paper" -- UNese for a discussion paper, rather than official policy -- was authored mainly by the US and EU, and confirmed the suspicion of many that the rich Northern countries have come to Johannesburg with a free trade agenda, rather than a sustainability agenda.

Charles Secrett of Friends of the Earth said that the US is using the seductive language of sustainability to cloak a business as usual agenda. "Off the record, developing country delegates share the same concern, and are fed up US bullying."

The mini-scandal around the "non-paper" does reflect one of the major concerns of the Summit, which was summarized at the preparatory meeting in Bali as, "What are we going to do about the US?" On South Africa's largest talk radio show this morning, most of the listener questions revolved around the US role, with callers seeming deeply interested, if perplexed, by the George Bush's disdain for the Summit and the US' notorious arrogance in general.

The People's Forum

For those who cannot or do not want to attend the Summit proper, about an hour from the Summit is the Global People's Forum, where civil society bursts with diversity. At the Forum, the vast exposition hall has a bewildering diversity of exhibits -- but almost no visitors.

The Ubonya Farmers Association, Korean Council for Local Agenda 21, Norwegian Forum for Environment and Development, Jane Goodall Institute, and the Jewish National Fund are among the hundreds of booths with almost no visitors visible. Even the People's Forum is semi-privatized though, with a cost of $150 for registration.

This may explain why the Forum has been lightly attended so far. This morning, just 50 people were on hand to see legend Miriam Makeba sing, even after Nelson Mandela himself cancelled an appearance at a nearby competing locale.

At the Forum deep rifts around Israel and Palestine, that characterized the Durban World Conference Against Racism last year, have emerged. They were most notable at a press conference held by Palestinian supporters at the People's Summit.

Before, during and after the press conference, intense arguments broke out between South Africa Jewish Youth and Palestinian support activists. Some of the confrontations were ugly, but no violence broke out, and the stand-off petered out after dueling chants of "Free Palestine" and "Give Peace a Chance." That the two slogans were presumably seen as mutually exclusive, shows how far civil society groups have to go in helping to settle the Middle East crisis.

Since the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will not be resolved here, the main question raised by these confrontations is whether the the issue of Palestine will dominate mass protest marches and over power an anti-neoliberal, anti-globalization, "another world is possible" message.

Low Expectations

The simple plea that Johannesburg not be "Durbanized," that is, turned into a fruitless argument about the Middle East, is symbolic of the atmosphere of reduced expectations here. At the 1992 Earth Summit, for the all the contentiousness, hope permeated host city Rio de Janeiro, as new understandings about how to save the earth emerged and thousands dedicated themselves to doing just that.

This time around, the high hopes are to avoid utter failure and violence. What a difference a decade makes.

In the intervening ten years, we ran smack into the sobering reality that the world's most powerful governments and corporations weren't all that interested in sustainable development after all. Rather they are interested in free trade and big business-friendly investment rules, leading to debt and dependency for the South, with environmental protection and poverty alleviation strictly at the margins.

The theme of corporate accountability, pushed by leading environment and development groups, has no chance at the Summit, except in so far as business may co-opt the phrase to mean something similar to voluntary corporate social responsibility. In fact, Summit organizers see corporate partnerships --not democratic control of corporations -- as the "innovative" agreements that will save face. That is, at least enough that the Summit will not be declared a fiasco.

It is still two weeks too early to declare that the Summit should not have taken place. But it is clear that the political conditions are not right for an advancement of the Rio agenda. Swallowed in the mire of North-South responsibilities, poverty and investment was one of the original purposes of Rio: to tackle unsustainable production and consumption patterns in the North. The unending arguments over how to finance sustainability in the South have left almost no attention to the most critical issues for the saving the planet.

For environment and development campaigners that means Johannesburg is primarily a chance to restate our message for the world, to network, and plan our strategies. Ardiel Soeker, of groundWork, a South African grassroots environmental group, sees Johannesburg as an opportunity. "From our own meeting, a new movement was born, which will be coordinated internationally. That movement doesn't come from the Summit, but it shows what the Summit should have been about. It is the movement for Corporate Accountability."

Amen.

Kenny Bruno coordinates the Corporate-Free UN Campaign for CorpWatch and was a mover and shaker behind the ""Greenwash Academy Awards" presented at the World Summit for Sustainable Development in Johannesburg.