‘Rio+10’: Let the People Be Heard

World Sustainability Hearing Project

Earth Island News

World Sustainability Hearing Project

In August, delegates from governments around the world will gather at the United Nations’ World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) in Johannesburg, South Africa, to review the successes and failures of the “sustainable development” agenda launched at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, known as Agenda 21. Based on that assessment, the “Rio+10” summit plans to initiate new steps toward a sustainable and socially just world.

The Summit agenda began to come into focus during the second summit preparatory meeting (Prepcom II) at the UN’s New York Headquarters in January. According to Prepcom Chairman Emil Salim of Indonesia, the four main issues on the agenda will be poverty eradication, eliminating unsustainable patterns of consumption and production, sustainable management of natural resources and the underpinning need to make globalization work to promote sustainable development.

But the underlying questions the Summit must address in Johannesburg are more to the point: Does the UN really have the political mandate to take effective action on critical global issues? Will its environmental and social justice agenda continue to remain subservient to the free-trade agenda of the World Trade Organization?

In his recently released forward to Worldwatch’s State of the World 2002 report, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan said that the great promises governments made at Rio haven’t been kept and that business-as-usual has ruled the past 10 years.

An assessment by Friends of the Earth International argues that governments have shown “reckless disregard for safeguarding the planet and its poorest inhabitants” since Rio, noting that 1.2 billion people still lack access to clean drinking water, 35 percent of the world’s fisheries suffer from declining yields, and that (as of 1998) none of the European Union nations had approached their waste and materials reduction targets.

A key commitment in Rio’s Agenda 21 included increasing aid from developed countries to developing countries. However, annual aid has dropped from $69 billion in 1992 to $53 billion in 2000. Moreover, the Kyoto accord on CO2 reductions hasn’t been implemented. Meanwhile, the scientific consensus has confirmed that climate change is accelerating. The list goes on.

At the recent Prepcom conference, a delegation from two Earth Island projects, the World Sustainability Hearings Project (WoSH) and Grassroots Globalization Network (GGN), met with individual civil society participants and members of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). A consensus emerged that, with the rise of corporate-led economic globalization, progress toward a truly sustainable world has, in many instances, either halted or reversed.

Rather than making crucial progress over the past decade, we instead find ourselves frozen in inaction, at the epicenter of a crisis in world governance. As Martin Khor of the Third World Network observed: “In the 1990s, the WTO overwrote the Rio accords. Its free-trade-agenda policy, which has also been supported by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, often ran counter to… sustainable development. And while the WTO and related institutions have had the funds and the detailed, enforceable rules to move their agenda forward, the UN plan was loosely drawn, underfunded and did not include agreement on monitoring or compliance. The result: lots of words from Rio, but no progress towards a sustainable world.”

In reaction to this sobering reality, NGOs and their civil society allies at the Prepcom called for an agreement on corporate accountability that could monitor and enforce adherence to world guidelines that would ensure progress toward sustainable development. Meanwhile, a crisis in world governance is leaving most of the world’s peoples without effective representation in critical decision-making processes.

What’s also been lost is the question how development - “sustainable” or otherwise - has affected the lives of everyday people. Noticeably absent from the international conference circuit are the very people who live where development projects and the forces of global commerce are felt most directly. These include the fisherfolk in North America whose livelihoods are threatened by unfettered global markets, forest communities in Southeast Asia whose future is threatened by their governments’ conversion of timber into hard currency, and farmers whose land has become the testing-ground for agricultural biotechnology.

Also excluded from the official debate are many communities that have found innovative, local solutions to ensure their economic, social, cultural and ecological survival in the face of globalization. These contributions deserve a place in the global debate about the social and ecological future of the planet.

Giving a Voice to Everyday People
To increase effective participation of ordinary people at the Johannesburg summit, WoSH, GGN and more than 40 other civil society organizations have teamed up to provide a stage for their testimony - the World Sustainability Hearing. The Hearing will be held near the official Summit and will feature day-long explorations of critical issues, including a Day of Energy and Climate Justice, a Day of Forests and Logging and a Day of Corporate Accountability and Global Governance. The Hearing has four major goals:

  • To provide a sense of reality and urgency to the Summit by bringing delegates face to face with the people enmeshed in the problems that need to be addressed.
  • To provide an independent, civil society accounting of what has and has not been done by governments and corporations over the last 10 years.
  • To give real views, from the ground level, of the state of the world - particularly how critical global issues are affecting people’s lives and communities.
  • To hear about which international and local approaches have worked - and which haven’t - to clearly identify lingering problems and highlight promising solutions.

Even when indigenous groups, environmentalists or other “grassroots” civil society representatives manage to wrestle their way into these global conferences, their effectiveness is often impeded by a lack of finances, logistical support, interpreters and other assistance. Their voice is muted by the scramble for resources and by their need to “ride on the coattails” of northern NGOs, who are principally concerned with their own agendas.

By bringing the vital reality of people’s everyday lives to the Summit, the World Sustainability Hearings will help decisionmakers fashion a binding plan that moves all nations toward a just, sustainable planet. We already have the words from Rio. We’re still waiting for the action.

Kelly Jones and Astrid Scholz are co-directors of the World Sustainability Hearings Project (www.wosh.org) and Aaron G. Lehmer is director of Grassroots Globalization Network (www.earthisland.org/ggn). To learn more about the events in Johannesburg, visit www.wosh.org, email info@wosh.org or call 415-927-6636 x101.

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