W$$D does nothing for the oppressed

FRFI 169 October / November 2002

Ten years after the Rio Earth Summit, Johannesburg, South Africa played host to the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) in August. Delegates from 190 countries gathered in the formerly whites-only suburb of Sandton for what was claimed to be a major event aimed at reducing poverty and environmental destruction.

Ten years on from Rio things are deteriorating. The forests and coral reefs are disappearing while poverty increases. Climate change has already gone from being a possibility to a disastrous reality. Perversely, climate change means that both floods and droughts increase, as will storms and hurricanes. Even while the WSSD was taking place, flooding in Central and Eastern Europe left over 90 people dead and millions of pounds worth of damage.

The UN warns that 14 million people in Southern Africa are facing starvation and also that smoke from forest fires burning out of control in South East Asia is blotting out the sun and could damage the rice crops on which many of the continent’s 3bn people depend.

All this comes after four years of unprecedented natural disasters. Hurricane Mitch, the worst storm in Central America for centuries, killed 18,000 in October 1998; in 1999 about 10,000 were killed when a year’s worth of rain fell in Venezuela in 24 hours; half of Bangladesh was covered in water and India’s Orissa state wrecked by a cyclone; in 2000 flooding added to Mozambique’s already severe miseries. The list goes on…

US and EU subsidies to farmers, who form an insignificant fraction of their populations, are greater than the total aid to underdeveloped nations; each EU cow receives $2 a day in subsidies, more than the average daily income of the poorest half of the world. 2bn people have no access to clean drinking water or sanitation. The oppressed nations are being forced to emulate modes of production and consumption that are wiping out our environment and the resources humans depend on.

It was against this bleak backdrop that the WSSD took place. But you wouldn’t have known it: at Sandton it was business as usual. The summit looked more like a trade fair with pavilions advertising companies like BP-Amoco who are responsible for much of the pollution. The Kyoto agreement on climate change had already been scuppered by the US government’s objections to cuts in the use of fossil fuels. The US, with less than 5% of the world’s people, produces 25% of the carbon dioxide emissions, and US emissions have increased by a fifth in the last decade alone.

The dispute is not about environmental concern. It is an inter-imperialist row over resources, markets and profits with the EU continuing its competition with the US in the environmental field. This was demonstrated by the presence amongst Blair’s entourage of representatives of multinational corporations such as the world’s largest mining conglomerate, Rio Tinto Zinc.

So what did the WSSD come up with? Firstly there was nothing new on trade, just reiteration of the previously agreed neoliberal model that has promoted poverty. There was nothing serious on reducing subsidies. There was nothing on providing electricity to the 2bn people who lack it. Delegates committed themselves to halving the number of people without basic sanitation to 1.2bn, but only by 2015. The agreement was not legally binding and is unlikely to be met. Rio’s promise of halting the loss of biodiversity by 2010 was eroded to merely slowing it down. The private sector is exhorted to be more ‘responsible’, with BP – which fuels fascism in Turkey and Colombia – held up as a model.

The only positive thing that came out of the summit was the role it played in bringing together the new South African people’s organisations to protest against privatisation, service cut-offs, landlessness, poverty and environmental destruction.
Just when capitalism is racing down a dead end street, it is jamming its foot on the accelerator harder than ever. It is up to us to stop capitalism because it will not let anything, even the Earth, stand in the way of profit.

Ed Ralph


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