Booby Traps at Rio + 10

When Rio hosted the first Earth Summit in 1992, there was so much goodwill
surrounding the event that it was nicknamed, without irony, the Summit to Save
the World. This week in Johannesburg, at the follow-up conference known as Rio
+ 10, nobody is claiming that the World Summit on Sustainable Development can
save the world–the question is whether the summit can even save itself.

When Rio hosted the first Earth Summit in 1992, there was so much goodwill
surrounding the event that it was nicknamed, without irony, the Summit to Save
the World. This week in Johannesburg, at the follow-up conference known as Rio
+ 10, nobody is claiming that the World Summit on Sustainable Development can
save the world–the question is whether the summit can even save itself.

The sticking point is what UN bureaucrats call “implementation” and the rest
of us call “doing something.” Much of the blame for the “implementation gap” is
being placed at the doorstep of the United States. It was George W. Bush who abandoned
the only significant environmental regulations that came out of the Rio conference,
the Kyoto Protocol on climate change. It was Bush who decided not to come to Johannesburg
(even his father showed up in Rio), signaling that the issues being discussed
here–from basic sanitation to clean energy–are low priorities for his Administration.
And it is the US delegation that is most belligerently blocking all proposals
that involve either directly regulating multinational corporations or dedicating
significant new funds to sustainable development.

But the Bush-bashing is too easy: The summit isn’t failing because of anything
happening now in Johannesburg. It’s failing because the entire process was booby-trapped
from the start.

When Canadian entrepreneur and diplomat Maurice Strong was appointed to chair
the Rio summit ten years ago, his vision was of a massive gathering that brought
all the “stakeholders” to the table–not just governments but also nongovernmental
organizations (environmentalists, indigenous and lobby groups) as well as multinational
corporations. Strong’s vision allowed for more participation from civil society
than any UN conference before, at the same time as it raised unprecedented amounts
of corporate funds for the summit (it helped that Coca-Cola donated its marketing
team and Swatch produced a limited-edition Earth Summit watch). But the sponsorship
had a price. Corporations came to Rio with clear conditions: They’d embrace ecologically
sustainable practices but only voluntarily–through nonbinding codes and “best
practices” partnerships with NGOs and governments. In other words, when the business
sector came to the table in Rio, direct regulation of business was pushed off.

In Johannesburg, these “partnerships” have passed into self-parody, with the
conference center chock-a-block with displays for BMW “clean cars” and billboards
for De Beers diamonds announcing Water Is Forever. The summit’s main sponsor is
Eskom, South Africa’s soon-to-be-privatized national energy company. According
to a recent study, under Eskom’s restructuring 40,000 households are losing access
to electricity each month.

And this cuts to the heart of the real debate about the summit. The World
Business Council for Sustainable Development, a corporate lobby group founded
in Rio, is insisting that the route to sustainability is the same trickle-down
formula already being imposed by the World Trade Organization and the International
Monetary Fund: Poor countries must make themselves hospitable to foreign investment,
usually by privatizing basic services, from water to electricity to healthcare.
As in Rio, these corporations are pushing for voluntary “partnerships” rather
than “command and control” regulations.

But these arguments sound different from a decade ago. Post-Enron, it’s difficult
to believe that companies can be trusted even to keep their own books, let alone
save the world. And unlike a decade ago, the economic model of laissez-faire development
is being militantly rejected by popular movements around the world, particularly
in Latin America but also here in South Africa.

This time around, many of the “stakeholders” aren’t at the official table
but out in the streets or organizing countersummit conferences to plot very different
routes to development: debt cancellation, an end to the privatization of water
and electricity, reparations for apartheid abuses, affordable housing, land reform.
The most ambitious is the Week of the Landless, a parallel event arguing that
unfulfilled promises to introduce substantive land reform–in South Africa and
across the postcolonial developing world–have been the single greatest barrier
to sustainable development globally.

Key to these movements is that they are no longer willing simply to talk about
their demands–they’re acting on them. In the past two years, South Africa has
experienced a surge in direct action, with groups like the Soweto Electricity
Crisis Committee, the Landless People’s Movement, Durban’s Concerned Citizens’
Forum and the Western Cape Anti-Eviction Campaign organizing to resist evictions,
to claim unproductive land and to reconnect cut-off water and electricity in the

A mass demonstration is planned for August 31, but the fate of the march is
by no means certain. The South African government appears to have decided that
if nothing else comes of it, the summit is at least an opportunity “to change
misconceptions about safety and security in South Africa…[and] attract the attention
of foreign tourists and investors,” in the words of Provincial Police Commissioner
Perumal Naidoo.

What this means in practice is that while street signs welcome delegates to
“feel the pulse” of “the Sensational City,” Sandton, the ultrarich suburb where
the conference is being held, has been transformed into a military zone, complete
with “mega search park” and remote spy planes patrolling the skies. All protests
are confined to a 1.8-kilometer “struggle pen,” as many are calling it, and even
there, only police-permitted marches are allowed.

Vendors and beggars have been swept from the streets, residents of squatter
camps have been evicted (many have been relocated to less visible sites, far from
busy roads). Moss Moya, a township resident facing eviction from his home of eighteen
years, holds out little hope that the summit will help South Africa’s poor. “If
they are going to help us,” he said, “they need to see us.”

But when Moya and his neighbors held a rally to resist the attempts to relocate
them behind a grove of trees, the police cracked down, and Moya, a former ANC
supporter, was shot in the mouth with a rubber bullet, knocking out six of his
teeth. When he went to file a complaint with the police, he was thrown in jail.

Moya and some 1,000 other township residents decided to take their struggle
to downtown Johannesburg, holding a peaceful rally outside the offices of the
Premier of Gauteng, the province in which Johannesburg is located. Right underneath
a sign that announces, The People of Gauteng Welcome WSSD Delegates to the Smart
Province, seventy-seven demonstrators were arrested, including the entire leadership
of the Landless People’s Movement. (All but one–a US citizen, still facing deportation–have
since been released.)

On August 24, police even attacked a candlelight “freedom of expression march,”
held to protest these and other mass arrests. The spontaneously organized march
was headed to a downtown prison, but before the crowd of 1,000 local and international
activists had walked a block, riot police surrounded them and barricaded the road.
Without warning, stun grenades were fired at the marchers, injuring three.

The World Summit on Sustainable Development isn’t going to save the world;
it merely offers an exaggerated mirror of it. In the gourmet restaurants of Sandton,
delegates are literally dining out on their concern for the poor. Meanwhile, outside
the gates, poor people are being hidden away, assaulted and imprisoned for what
has become the iconic act of resistance in an unsustainable world: refusing to

Author: Naomi Klein

News Service: The Nation


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