Published on Tuesday, August 27, 2002 in the Toronto Globe & Mail
Blame it on Johannesburg
The World Summit on Sustainable Development Will Be a Backward Step from Rio
The Agenda Has Been Hijacked by Big Business
by Maude Barlow
Sixty-five thousand people and more than 100 heads of state, including Prime Minister Jean Chrétien, have come together to assess the promises made 10 years ago at the Rio Earth summit and confront the fact that our planet is on the brink of environmental collapse. Yet already many activists are dubbing the World Summit on Sustainable Development "Rio minus 10," instead of the hoped for "Rio plus 10," in anticipation of a major sellout by our governments and the United Nations.
This sellout takes several forms. First, U.S. President George W. Bush (who is not in attendance) has instructed his negotiators to roll back two key principles agreed to by his father in the Rio framework: an international commitment to both the Precautionary Principle, whereby governments are supposed to err on the side of caution where there is the danger of environmental harm, and to an understanding that powerful nations of the industrialized North -- who played the biggest role in causing a problem -- should take the lead in addressing it.
As well, the U.S. government remains steadfastly opposed to any ceremony that would bring the Kyoto Protocol on climate change into effect at the summit. And the United States is touting what Mr. Bush calls a new "global Marshall Plan" -- the Millennium Challenge Account. The plan would tie aid only to those nations that open their economies to unregulated U.S. trade and investment.
Secondly, the United States, Canada and Europe are working hand in glove with the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the World Trade Organization to subsume environmental and development agendas into their larger agenda of economic globalization, which includes unlimited growth, free trade, liberalized investment, privatization and a reduced role for government. The UN is being pressured to adopt as its overarching framework the text that came out of the WTO's ministerial meeting in Doha, Qatar, last December. The text contains, among other anti-environmental provisions, the clarification that WTO rules trump multilateral environment agreements and offer up "environmental services," including water, to the control of the market.
It is crucial to remember that in the 10 years since Rio, globalization has made powerful inroads. World output has risen by 50 per cent, with trade and investment driving economic growth. Only three years after Rio, the WTO was created with binding enforcement rules ready to quash the soft and unenforceable promises made there. Together with the World Bank and the IMF -- in a holy trinity overseeing globalization -- the WTO has now hijacked the UN and the summit agenda.
The final threat lies with the transnational corporations that are poised to take advantage of this government retreat. Through the Business Action for Sustainable Development -- an amalgam of business created in part by the International Chamber of Commerce -- transnational corporations are working to block efforts to frame a regulatory mechanism to govern their activities. They are poised to take advantage of "private-public" partnerships being offered by the UN at the summit, and especially want access to the lucrative services sectors of water, energy and health.
One looming fight at the summit will center around the world's declining freshwater resources. As Fortune magazine says, "Water promises to be to the 21st century what oil was to the 20th century -- the precious commodity that determines the wealth of nations."
On one side will be the WTO, the World Bank, First World governments and the huge water transnationals, arguing that the only way to save water will be to put it in private hands and sell it like energy on the open market.
On the other side will be international environmentalists, public-sector workers and human-rights groups working with local South African activists who insist that water is a fundamental human right that must be maintained as part of the global "commons." This is a life-and-death issue in this country. Since the African National Congress adopted World Bank privatization plans, more than 10 million South Africans have had their water turned off because they cannot afford the newly privatized water.
The setting of the summit tells the story. Government, WTO and corporate delegates gather in the lavish hotels and convention facilities of Sandton, the fabulously wealthy Johannesburg suburb that houses huge estates, English gardens and swimming pools, and has become South Africa's new financial epicenter.
At the same time, activists will gather in places such as nearby Alexandra township, a poverty-stricken community where sanitation, electricity and water services have been cut and which is divided from Sandton only by a river so polluted that it has cholera warning signs on its banks.
The summit presents an unparalleled opportunity to stop the Earth's ecological decline. Alas, other interests are at play. What will Canada's delegation do?
Maude Barlow is national chairperson of the Council of Canadians and is in Alexandra township, not Sandton, during the summit.
© 2002 Bell Globemedia Interactive Inc