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
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