14 August 2002

Africa: Earth Summit Dubbed the Biggest Talk Shop Ever

Even before the World Summit on Sustainable Development gets underway in South Africa later this month, there are more scepticism than hope about its ability to address environmental problems and the plight of the poor people.

Those sceptical about the whole process argue that ten years since the 1992 Rio Earth Summit promised a better world, little or no achievements have been made. More than 55,000 people are expected to attend the summit.

"It is going to be the biggest talk-shop ever, which will not offer any substantive outcome for the environment, the poor people and their poor nations," says Andile Mngxitama, land rights co-ordinator at the National Land Committee, South Africa.

"The agenda of the United Nations has been taken over and is now being directed by multi-lateral organisations such as the World Bank, International Monetary Fund and World Trade Organisations," he adds.

Like Mngxitama, other cynics say governments especially those in developed countries have failed to meet the commitments they made after the Rio summit.

"Developed countries have not ratified crucial environmental protection protocols developed after the Rio summit. We spend so much money and time discussing these documents, and when it comes to implementation, nothing happens," a frustrated environmentalist from a local NGO says.

Environmentalists claim that countries such as United States, Australia and New Zealand are even pushing for the weakening of targets set on various environmental commitments.

They say developed countries dominate World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD), and developing countries are therefore unlikely to get much out of the Johannesburg meeting.

This is the kind of frustration facing some people especially after the goals of reducing poverty, implementation of Biosafety and Kyoto protocols have moved no where near the practical realm.

Analyst say although these protocols have been developed, Third World countries are not going to benefit as their developed partners who call the shots, are not willing to ratify them.

The biosafety protocol, which is expected to help developing countries protect the health of their people and environment from any consequences of genetically modified foods and associated technologies, is yet to come into force.

It has not done so because developed countries such as the United States, the leading producer of GMO foods, have not ratified it. Up to now, less than 15 countries of which over 70 per cent are from developing countries have ratified the protocol.

And yet, 50 ratifications are required before it comes into force.

Observers argue that countries like USA do not want to ratify it because it fears the move might impact negatively on its farmers.

This has left many countries like Kenya and those in Southern Africa to grapple with the issue of GMO foods, because they cannot enforce the protocol or afford to implement it.

Scientists say one of the spin-offs to developing countries if the protocol comes into force, is the possibility of capacity building to deal with biotechnology issues. Another is the transfer of technology to bridge the gap between north and south.

While the scenario on the biosafety protocol remains gloomy, matters are even worse with the Kyoto protocol, which deals with climate change matters.

The instrument is yet to come into force since countries such as the United States, the biggest emitter of carbon monoxide, and Australia, have refused to ratify it. Instead, they want their industries to be given leeway to develop their own guidelines.

In fact, it is understood that the United States and a few developed countries threaten that discussions at the Johannesburg summit might breakdown if the Kyoto issue is discussed.

So powerful is its interest that the issue had to be relegated on the Johannesburg WSSD agenda.

According to the Kyoto protocol developed countries agreed to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by at least 5.2 per cent by the year 2008 to 2012.

This is based on the fact that industrialised countries are the leading emitters of carbon monoxide from fossil fuels, which is responsible for global warming. But only a few of them have agreed to ratify the protocol.

Instead they propose that developing countries plant more trees to absorb the excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. And they are even ready to fund such projects.

Although some developed countries have promised to ratify the protocol before the Johannesburg meeting, the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) thinks the chances of it coming into force soon are slim.

On the country level, governments like the Kenya one have abused the environment despite committing themselves to protecting it.

The decision by former minister for environment, Mr Francis Nyenze, to excise 167,000 forests land was a slap in the face to the commitments the government made at the Rio summit.

Environmentalists argue that as long as there is no mechanism in place to make countries accountable to such commitments, then meetings of WSSD nature will be waste of time and taxpayers money.

Apart from these shortcomings, failure by developed countries to avail 0.7 per cent of their Gross National Product (GNP) as official development assistance to developing countries is another area that is creating cynicism.

"In spite of rich countries promising to increase their aid levels to 0.7 per cent of GDP, this have decreased since Rio, and are now as low as 0.24 per cent of GDP," notes WWF in a press statement.

The assistance is intended to help developing countries reduce poverty levels by the year 2015.

"One of the biggest problem is when it comes to implementation of resolutions and commitments passed at this meetings. Most of the developed countries are still haggling on how agreements at WSSD will be implemented,"

During the preparatory meetings meant to thrush out issues to be discussed in Johannesburg, Angie Kapelianis of South African Broadcasting Corporation, says the issue of the implementation of WSSD agreements was a stormy one.

"It is difficult to understand whether the developed countries think they are the most to pay or to loss in the whole deal," she says.

Despite three preparatory conferences on implementing the outcome of WSSD, no agreement has been reached on how several nicely worded recommendations are to be to be funded.

Plans are underway to set a side a few days to thrush out the issue before the head of states arrive at the meeting to sigh the Johannesburg WSSD global deal.

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