5 June 2002

South Africa: World Summit Not More Hot Air


Johannesburg — A decade after the Rio Summit, SA is hosting the United Nations' World Summit on Sustainable Development. Undoubtedly, Johannesburg being the venue for the summit is significant for all South Africans because the project of ensuring "a better life for all" is developmental in nature.

Improving the lot of our citizens is an imperative inextricably bound to the global agenda of sustainable development. It is disturbing to see more attention being lavished on the soccer World Cup than on an event aimed at preventing the extinction of humankind.

The fact that 1,2-billion people, mainly in the developing south, live in abject poverty and have to eke out a living in conditions of worsening ecological crises is no exaggeration. The goal of ensuring sustainable development "meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs" might become a mirage if ordinary citizens continue being treated as spectators.

Urgent action on the part of ordinary citizens is needed if the negative effect of globalisation and economic liberalisation is to be arrested and ultimately reversed.

Several theories have been put forward to try to explain our citizens' apparent lack of interest in environmental affairs. Some have even suggested black South Africans, unlike their white counterparts, do not care about the environment. Of course, this is as ludicrous as the opinion of some that whites are racist tree huggers with too much money, who care more about animals than the plight of the poor.

Both views miss the point. A majority of South Africans has become alienated from the land, and so the environment, as a result of colonisation and apartheid. This alienation has been deepened by the tension between profit-making of transnational firms and the need for forms of sustainable development to ease conditions for poverty-hit people in the developing world.

Ten years after the Rio summit, the gap between the wealthiest and poorest countries is still not lower than the 72 to 1 measured in 1992.

The consumption patterns of the world's richest countries reflect this inequality more starkly. The World Conservation Union says 20% of the people of the highest-income nations are responsible for 86% of total global private consumption, while the poorest 20% account for 1,3%.

The environmental devastation seen in many a developing nation is a direct result of such consumption patterns. Developing countries, on the other hand, are constantly encouraged to green parts of their environment for the benefit of tourists.

It is this state of affairs which may have spawned the apathy and cynicism of many about the Johannesburg Summit. The road from Rio to Johannesburg has been characterised by what some in the nongovernmental organisation (NGO) sector have called a crisis of implementation. The balance of power between governments and international private corporations has seldom advanced environmental justice and the interests of the poor.

Popular, as opposed to populist, participation by masses of the environmentally disenfranchised has been the exception rather than the norm. This means governments, the NGO sector and social movements have inadequately mobilised global and local resistance to the pernicious effects of economic liberalisation which, in many cases, has led to the globalisation of poverty.

Does this mean the summit is nothing to enthuse about? The answer lies between two choices we, as South Africans, must make. We can wallow in cynicism, or commit ourselves to Agenda 21's overall aims.

Agenda 21, a product of the previous Earth Summit in Rio, commits us all to finding a path to poverty eradication and economic growth which strikes a healthy balance between humanity's needs and those of the very environment on which sustainable development depends.

Success on this score demands that we, as ordinary citizens, refuse to be pushed to the sidelines of environmental security and sustainable development. We must demand access to governmental processes to make sure we influence the decisions and actions of all institutions of international environmental governance.

If this summit delivers nothing more than a reaffirmation of prior agreements, that should still not be an excuse for apathy. There must come a time when no political party can achieve electoral success unless it is able to link a better life to sustainable development and environmental justice.

There can be no greater love than bequeathing a healthy environment to our children.

Matshiqi is an independent political analyst.

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