By LAURENT MENGHINI
The UN Earth Summit took place in Johannesburg from Aug. 26 to Sept. 4. While the agreements made at the 1992 Rio Convention have still not been applied, the big powers, in collusion with the biggest multinationals, have been claiming to want to promote sustainable development.
“Sustainable development” has become a happy hunting ground for political marketing, but also an angle for extending the market. In Johannesburg, capital was king. The multinationals were everywhere. Two hundred board chairmen from the big companies made the trip.
Tony Blair, who is as green as he is left, insisted that the British delegation include several big capitalist bosses, including the chiefs of Thames Water, a water treatment company that that been condemned by violating environmental rights even in England, and Rio Tinto, the world’s number one mining trust, which is currently trying to get rights to tap the uranium in Australia’s Kakadu nature preserve.
As for the poor, they were kept away from the summit. The South African landless (who rallied outside the meeting hall in the tens of thousands) were kept under overwhelming police vigilance and threatened with ruthless repression if they ever took it into their heads to come to disturb the summit.
This picture is symptomatic of the evolution since the first Earth Summit in Rio 10 years ago. It may be remembered that Rio was often touted as a hope. After the victories for democracy proclaimed at the time of the fall of the bureaucratic regimes in Eastern Europe and the so-called triumph of law at the time of the Gulf War, the Rio summit was seen by some as proof that by making a few adjustments, world capitalism could prosper without harming the environment.
Ten years later, the balance sheet is as negative for the environment as the results of Putin’s “democracy” for the Chechens or of the “war for international law” for the starving Iraqis. These hopes were a total deception. Curiously, everyone seems to recognize this but without wanting to see the cause-that is, imperialism.
In order to understand what has happened, we really have to rehabilitate the intimidating word “imperialism,” since it makes it possible to evaluate the contending forces. The Soviet collapse was an opportunity for the U.S. to redeploy its power on a world scale. The so-called war on terror is only the latest episode of this.
This reorganization has benefited fully from the dynamic of capitalist globalization that was set in motion 20 years ago, with its chain of trade liberalizations and privatizations. The result has been a spectacular increase in inequalities on a world scale and a reinforcement of the hierarchies that defend them. In this evolution, the environment has not been spared, neither in the developed nor the underdeveloped world.
No action on global warming
What happened to the firewalls erected in Rio, in particular the conventions on global warming and biodiversity, to take the examples most often cited? Everywhere they have been undermined by market forces.
While the grim predictions about global warming seem to have been confirmed both by the results of scientific research and by an accumulation of spectacular meterological events, the Kyoto Protocol for application of the 1992 Rio Convention has not been ratified, much less applied. In order to facilitate its formal ratification it has been interpreted virtually out of existence in the recent conferences in Bonn and Marrakesh.
The market for rights to pollute, which at the start was only an option, has now become the alpha and omega of the convention, with the rich polluters being able to buy rights to pollute the underdeveloped countries.
Above all, the oil and petroleum lobbies, which arrived in the center of power in the baggage of Bush Junior, have imposed a rejection of the protocol by the world’s main polluter, compounded by a relaunching of oil and uranium prospecting. Thus, Australia has refused to ratify the protocol on global warming.
In any case, the objectives of the protocol are entirely insufficient to stop the accumulation of gases that cause a greenhouse effect. Its application would only be a limited step forward, and even that seems unattainable today. But global warming was not an official subject of discussion in Johannesburg.
Biodiversity, on the other hand, was on the summit agenda. Far from facilitating the conservation of biodiversity and its sustainable use, the 1992 Rio convention set in place mechanisms for commercial exploitation of its genetic resources in particular. Recognizing every country’s sovereignty over its natural resources, the convention aimed at regulating trade between the developed and underdeveloped countries by preventing biopiracy.
Ten years later, the result is hardly conclusive. In the absence of financial resources and methods to transfer technology, the richest sources of biodiversity-including the Brazilian, African, and Indonesian tropical rain forests-are continuing to be extensively exploited and are disappearing at a rapid rate.
Thus, every year, thousands of unknown plant and animal species are disappearing forever, and we are losing an immense body of knowledge that could have incalculable results.
The World Environmental Fund (WEF), which is supposed to finance sustainable energy products, has been given ridiculously meager resources. Moreover, its objective is to finance the additional costs required for protecting the environment.
The result is that it is paying for repairing the damage done to the environment by projects that are often “sustainable” only in name.
Although they have sovereignty over their resources, the underdeveloped countries often have no choice but to make deals with multinationals that give them the right to exploit these resources at a minimum cost.
The transfers of technology involved often do not make it possible to improve the conditions for this utilization, whose benefit goes to the richer partner.
Green label put on big business
No new convention came out of the Johannesburg Summit. The only thing on offer is an action plan that is at the center of negotiations among the various governments. The proposed plan is put in the context of an explicitly free-trade perspective in the light of the commitments made at the WTO conference in Qatar earlier this year.
After the resounding failure of Agenda 21, an interminable list of recommendations approved in Rio, the flavor of the month is “type-1 and type-2 initiatives,” to use the UN jargon.
“Type-2 initiatives” are schemes for sustainable development involving the “civil society,” which includes the multinationals. The latter are being strongly encouraged by the UN to participate in the vast “Global Compact” scheme” launched in 1999.
The multinationals seem to have quite a taste for these projects, which enable them to pin a green label on themselves, or even get state cofinancing or approval for operations that are basically money makers with dubious environmental objectives. Thus, Shell has involved itself in prospecting for natural gas in the Philippines, Croplife International -a group of companies making pesticides and herbicides-is setting up a program for training in the use of pesticides, and so forth.
There is not even a requirement for financing a genuinely “sustainable” project. “Sustainable development” has become an angle for legitimatizing penetration of the markets of underdeveloped countries by companies, including some of the worst polluters.
Type-1 initiatives, which involve public institutions, are not necessarily any better. Here also the various governments aim to set up operations that serve their industrial or commercial interests immediately or ultimately. Thus, the United States has just announced that it will participate in an operation to preserve the Congo basin forest. If course, there is absolutely no connection with perspectives for exploiting the rich oil resources in the area!
Johannesburg marked the advent of a hypocritical “green capitalism” designed to make us think that it can save the planet. There is no chance that the commitments made about water or cleaning up energy production will be kept, just as the Rio commitments have not been kept or those of the FAO summits on world hunger.
As long the total liberalization of trade is not challenged, as long as the WTO accords take precedence over preserving the environment, the environment is going to continue to be devastated.
This is a slightly abridged version of an article in the Sept. 5 issue of Rouge, the weekly paper of the Ligue Communiste Revolutionnnaire, the French section of the Fourth International and Socialist Action’s sister organization.