Soenke Zehle on Sat, 7 Sep 2002 08:55:25 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> Sad Day at Jo'Burg: UN becomes Target of Seattle People


Sustainable Development: R.I.P.

The Earth Summit's Deathblow to Sustainable Development

By Kenny Bruno
September 4, 2002

Johannesburg -- Sustainable Development is dead. It's demise came,
ironically, at the World Summit on Sustainable Development.

It's not that the phrase wasn't invoked. It was, ad nauseum. But it was
hardly discussed.
Instead, sustainable development was deemed to be whatever compromise
governments happen to reach on trade, subsidies, investment and aid, and
whatever projects corporations see fit to finance.
"Sustainable Development" is now officially meaningless.

A Sad Day for the United Nations

Saturday, August 31 was an historic day for the United Nations, for the
wrong reasons. It marked the first ever major anti-globalization protest
against the UN itself. Previous major anti-globalization protests took aim
at the WTO, World Bank, IMF, G-8, NAFTA and specific companies or brands.
Many anti-globalization leaders have looked to the UN as the counterbalance
to the WTO, and argued that we must support it as the last bastion of
democracy, albeit very imperfect, in the inter-governmental system. Some
anti-globalization campaigners, including CorpWatch, have repeatedly tried
to warn the UN that if it allied too closely with the corporate agenda over
human rights and environment, it would become the target of the Seattle

Secretary General Kofi Annan expressed relief that there were no major
anti-UN demonstrations at the Millennium Summit in September 2001. Many
activists hoped he would wish to avoid placing the UN in the same line of
fire as the WTO.

He had a chance to do so. Civil society has been ambivalent, caught between
the "positive visioning" of the UN as the voice of "We the Peoples," and the
reality of its tightening embrace of global corporations. The ambivalence
was still evident in Johannesburg, as two marches were organized for last
Saturday -- one pro-Summit, and one anti-Summit. But the pro-Summit march,
endorsed by the ANC, flopped, while the anti-Summit demonstration was well
attended, peaceful and militant.

The Social Movements Indaba, the umbrella organization for the successful
anti-Summit march, included this depressing line in its platform: "The
United Nations has fallen into line in creating the conditions for the giant
transnational corporations to increase their plunder and profit. It is now
seen together with the World Bank, IMF and WTO as illegitimate." That
position is the Secretary General's worst nightmare. But even for pro-UN
activists, it was hard to disagree.

Endless Partnership

At the mid-level bureaucracy, the UN had allowed some dissent against the
failing globalization paradigm. But at the Summit level, that became
impossible. With the world's most powerful governments fully behind the
corporate globalization agenda, it was agreed even before the Summit that
there would no new mandatory agreements. Rather the focus was to be on
implementation of old agreements, mainly through partnerships with the
private sector. In other words, those aspects of sustainability that are
convenient for private sector would be implemented.

Not surprisingly, this piecemeal approach suits global business quite well.
At a giant, swanky business conference called Lekgotla, which means
something like "dialogue of leaders," panelist after panelist discussed the
ways in which business was committed to sustainable development. Kofi Annan
endorsed this vision of sustainable development as "an era of partnership,"
and evinced a deep trust of business, calling on it to do what governments
had not done. (He did not address the mass mobilizations of poor people.)

It is true that partnership requires trust. That's why, during the press
conference of Lekgotla Business Day, CorpWatch asked the former and current
Chairs of Shell, both of whom were on the podium representing Business
Action for Sustainable Development, whether they still believed that Shell's
behavior in Nigeria represented "best practices," as they had claimed in

If Shell could admit they had been wrong about Nigeria, that common
understanding could be a basis for the beginning of trust. After reluctantly
accepting a green Oscar statuette from Greenwash Academy (CorpWatch, Friends
of the Earth International and the South African environmental justice group
groundWork,) Board Chair Philip Watts replied that he was "proud" of the
case study Shell had done in 1992. That study focused on building capacity
among local staff in the Niger Delta, not on human rights or environmental
abuses. Furthermore, he was "quite proud" of Shell's overall behavior in

"How can we begin to trust business leaders that cannot even recognize the
most blatant case of corporate crime? How can we even think of partnering
with such organizations?" asked an incredulous Isaac Osuoka of Nigeria's
Environmental Rights Action.

Osuoka's group has been fighting for the very lives of the people of the
Niger Delta for years, and the conflict between the oil companies and the
communities is as intense today as it was when environmental rights activist
Ken Saro Wiwa and eight others were hanged in 1994. In general, civil
society is stunned by Shell's attitude toward Nigeria, especially because
Shell claims to be one of the corporations most committed to social and
environmental issues.

But to spend the day at Lekgotla was to visit a parallel universe in which
"we're all in it together." In this happy land everyone understands
sustainable development, and everyone is struggling to achieve it.

This was also the message at Ubuntu village, a mega-mall of sustainability,
where the slick booths of France, Norway and the US EPA blended with even
slicker booths of CropLife (GMO promoters), BP, Chevron Texaco, and small
farmer groups, solar village builders, and others. One small women's farm
project had such a beautiful display that I couldn't help but ask how they
were funded. By Nestle, was their unembarrassed reply.

The crux of the problem is not just that small-scale farmers are cornered
into accepting support from Nestle when government assistance is not
forthcoming. At issue is the fact that the UN is unabashedly -- anxiously --
partnering with corporations that define sustainability to suit themselves.

Blaming governments was the other big theme at Lekgotla and elsewhere around
the Summit. Bad governance in the South is the true impediment to
sustainability, according to one business leader after another.

Funny they should mention governance at a time when corporate governance is
in such tatters. Even more to the point: Those same corporations are
responsible in significant measure for governmental weakness.

In South Africa, for example, global corporations like Shell, Caltex, and BP
joined with national companies like Sasol to push for voluntary agreements
rather than legislation on environmental matters. Nearly four years later,
the voluntary agreements are still not in place, and South Africa has
virtually no pollution standards and just five air pollution officers for
the entire country. Environmental governance is weaker than it was before
industry's campaign for voluntary agreements.

This is What Democracy Sounds Like

The Lekgotla participants' approach was as far from the poor -- on whose
behalf they were supposedly partnering -- as Soweto is from Beverly Hills.
Yet less than an hour away was the encampment of the Landless People's
Movement (LPM). These current and expelled tenant farmers had come from
around the country to hand President Thabo Mbeki a memo about his failure to
address their plight, while Mbeki was in the global spotlight.

77 landless protestors were arrested over a week earlier, and then released,
as the police threatened to crack down on any and all marches in
Johannesburg. On Saturday, they sang, marched and danced for nine kilometers
from the worst slums of Alexandra Township past luxury malls to Sandton,
where the Summit was in session. After all the fears of violence and
confrontation, the protest was completely peaceful, with both marchers and
police on exemplary behavior. At the final rally, Mbeki sent a Minister to
receive the memo, but the Minister was booed and escorted off the podium.
For days landless activists have been encamped near Soweto at a decrepit and
ruined theme park, where they have been holding leadership elections. Their
election process, which took place last Friday, is remarkable. It started
with a group of about 20 singing, some of them almost in religious ecstasy.
The group grew gradually to about 100, and then moved inside to a small
indoor stadium, where their polyphonic call and response songs reverberated
magnificently. Speeches were made, often interrupted by more singing.

When an impasse in the process was reached, the speaker urged everyone to
remember what united them, and they sang once more before going to province
caucuses. Each province sent 50 representatives back to the stadium as
electors. One province, possibly infiltrated by government agents, dissented
from the process and began shouting, but somehow this was eventually
resolved, new leadership was elected, and the singing took over again later
in the evening.

The songs were in the spirit of the anti-apartheid movement, but eight years
into the ANC government the lyrics reflect a profound disappointment in the
ANC's failure to make good on its promises of land reform. They also express
a clear opposition to the ANC's neoliberal policies in general and its
commitment to privatization in particular.

Privatization and Resistance

Another pocket of resistance to South Africa's neo-liberal policies is the
in-your-face Soweto Electricity Crisis Committee.

Andrew Daniels is a slight, friendly, 32 year old who spent the last eight
years of apartheid in Tanzania, Angola and Mozambique training and fighting,
and has served in the South African Army. He lives in Soweto, where some
20,000 houses per month have power disconnected for non-payment by the
energy parastatal Eskom.

Andrew spends his days reconnecting the wires, switch boxes, and even
underground cables of these houses, in a direct action that restores light
to the pensioners, unemployed and working poor of Soweto's vast slums, many
of whom pay higher rates than rich suburbanites.

Thirty minutes beyond Soweto is Orange Farm, which, despite its name, is a
sprawling settlement in a not very rural setting. Here, an experiment in
water privatization by French water giant Suez has caused controversy akin
to the Soweto electricity crisis.

Local water meters are stamped with the logo of the Rio Earth Summit's
leading corporate environmentalist, ABB. The residents, who look to be
mostly unemployed (the national unemployment rate is 41%), pay $10 to hook
up the water, get a key to the spigot, and then receive just 6 free liters
per day. After that they pay per liter. If they don't, they get cut off.

Is that affordable? The workers installing the meters are earning just 50
cents per man per meter, or about a dollar a day.

One of the meters is obviously broken, and is running even though the water
is not. The broken meter serves the Ksona family, who will refuse to pay for
the water they are not getting, and will probably get their service cut off.

Lance Veotte of the South African Municipal Workers Union says that broken
meters are the least of the problem, and that what South Africa really needs
to bring water to the townships are public-public partnerships, not
public-private partnerships. He speaks for many in resenting the foreign
ownership and commodification of water.

NGOs Never Say Die

Back at the Summit negotiations, activists are frantic. Even a quick stop in
the "Major Groups" rooms (for NGOs, indigenous people, and other members of
civil society), leads to requests for urgent lobbying and paragraph

At stake is language in the Johannesburg Action Plan text. The insider NGO
activism reaches a climax in Sunday's theater of the absurd protest outside
the negotiating rooms. About 30 NGO representatives are greeting the
negotiators with leaflets that say "Para 17 - Take Out 'While Ensuring WTO
Consistency.'" The UN security will not allow even this ultra-esoteric
protest, and threatens to take the badges of anyone -- no matter how
respectable -- giving out the leaflets to EU negotiators.
The heroic efforts of the NGOs have paid off, albeit within the confines of
a very weak Summit document. Early Monday the offending language in
paragraph 17 was deleted. In addition, the phrase "corporate
accountability," is included elsewhere in the Action Plan, though it's
located in an ambiguous paragraph that will require several more years of
campaigning by Friends of the Earth and allies to see any legal instrument
on corporate accountability born at the UN.

Meaningful corporate accountability to the UN seems a long shot, because
those who would be held accountable are the UN's primary partners. Despite
all the lofty rhetoric about poverty alleviation, poor people's voices were
kept out of the official Summit.

Northern production and consumption patterns -- originally a major topic at
Rio and the most important factor in global environmental problems -- are
virtually untouched. As the Summit closes, there are no targets or
timetables for growth of renewable energy sources, a pre-requisite for
slowing global warming, our most serious environmental challenge.

Born in Stockholm in 1972, sustainable development came of age twenty years
later at the Earth Summit in Rio. But just two years on, it came down with a
horrible disease in Marrakech, during the meeting that established the WTO.
That contagious disease, known variously as the Washington Consensus,
neoliberalism, or corporate-led globalization, spread a big business, free
trade agenda to government after government, finally leaving almost no part
of the world uninfected.
After an eight-year illness, Sustainable Development at the
inter-governmental level succumbed this week in Johannesburg.

A few die-hard NGOs will fight to revive it inside the halls of UN meetings.
In South Africa, and elsewhere, most of the resisters will fight on the

Kenny Bruno coordinates the Campaign for a Corporate-Free UN. He is
co-author of Earth

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