World Sustainability Hearing special report: Grassroots Globalization Network

Earth Island News

Grassroots Globalization Network

Real results from Jo’burg

At the recent World Sustainability Hearing in Johannesburg, South Africa, regular civilians and civic leaders from around the globe warned of stalled progress toward the sustainable society envisioned at the first Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro.

Running parallel to the United Nations World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD), August 26-31, 2002, the Hearing took testimony from over 100 grassroots witnesses and eminent panelists from more than 40 countries, including 12 Goldman Environmental Prize winners, climate change expert Dr. Robert Watson, Dr. Jane Goodall, Dr. Vandana Shiva and many others.

Six days of hearings were held on such critical global issues as energy and climate justice, forest stewardship, ocean and waterway protection, sustainable agriculture, water, hunger, poverty, the roles of women and youth in development, and democratic governance in a corporate-dominated economy. Here are some highlights:

Global warming is here now

The effects of climate change are being felt now, as rising sea levels and intensified storm activity pose continuing threats to island nations and coastal communities, participants said. Dr. Robert Watson, former chair of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, declared that “climate change is absolutely inevitable,” but insisted that cost-effective means exist to address it, if political will can be generated.

In stark contrast to the Rio summit, which produced four legally-binding conventions, the WSSD produced no such agreements, noted Greenpeace’s Matthew Gianni. Bobby Peek of GroundWork, South Africa, explained this was because governments were under intense pressure from big business to push for voluntary, non-binding agreements, which he described as “negotiated non-compliance.”

Still, alternative energy paths are available. According to Chris Flavin, president of WorldWatch Institute, switching to a renewable energy system would provide a tremendous opportunity to reduce pollution and improve local health while creating millions of jobs in developing countries.

Tree farms are not forests

Hearing participants expressed grave concern over threats to forest biodiversity from industrial tree plantations. Speakers noted that forest products companies are not being held accountable for their impacts on indigenous people and others who depend on the many ecological services of intact forests.

Ricardo Carrere of the World Rainforest Movement explained that a forest is not merely the sum of its board feet, it is the “entire ecosystem on the land.” By that definition, he said, a “tree plantation is a dead forest that kills everything.”

Indeed, the rapid expansion of industrial tree plantations is threatening the livelihoods of forest-dependent people. Panamanian indigenous leader Onel Arias related this conflict through the story of a Kuna leader, who was asked, “Why do you insist on conserving your forests?” He responded, “How can you ask me to destroy my house, my supermarket, my pharmacy?”

As a solution to such dilemmas, Dr. Jane Goodall said people must be provided with opportunities to take personal care of the forests where they live. She said her institute is becoming increasingly involved with different indigenous groups in Ecuador to set up a Forest Academy, where people will study, practice, and teach local knowledge of plants, environmental processes, and sustainable resource use.

Impacted waters, declining fisheries

Ten years after Rio, oceans, seas, and river basins continue to be severely exploited and polluted due to prevailing economic interests, said Jorge Varela of the Committee for the Defense and Development of Flora and Fauna of the Gulf of Fonseca, Honduras.

Moreover, small fishers are being left out of policy-making processes, which are increasingly dominated by corporate interests, said Andrew Johnson of the South African chapter of the World Forum of Fisher Peoples. “Governments use conservation to justify getting us out of the way, and only support big business, which inflates the numbers of its catches to justify their own ends, yet we fisher people know very well the catches are getting smaller,” he said.

Poverty and environment are related

According to Hearing participants, poverty reduction and environmental protection are critically related. Jonathan Lash, president of the US-based World Resources Institute, says the world’s poor are most affected by environmental pollution and injustices.

“Four out of ten people are already subject to water scarcity; there are widespread problems separating sewage from drinking water; 2.2 billion have no adequate access to sanitation; and climate change is disrupting water cycles, changing agricultural growing periods and boundaries,” said Lash.

June Zeitlin, executive director of the Women’s Environment and Development Organization, agreed, noting that poverty is exacting a heavy price on women. Despite some progress since Rio, “women are still at the bottom of the economic ladder,” she said. “And the gender gap, along with the wealth gap, is still widening.”

To address such challenges, Bremley Lyngdoh, co-founder of India’s Global Youth Action Network, also stressed that sustainable development efforts must include the energy and participation of young people.

The limits of industrial agriculture

In the face of increasing corporate rule over agriculture, presenters argued that farmers must have greater control over seeds, agricultural markets, and product development so that communities can better achieve food security and protect biodiversity.

Dr. Vandana Shiva, founder of India’s Research Foundation for Science, Technology, and Ecology, cautioned that replacing farm labor with high-tech methods only increases the use of energy, fossil fuels, and chemicals. This in turn forces small farmers to go hungry, as they cannot compete with the many advantages and subsidies given to corporate producers, she said.

Resistance to the corporate model is taking root. Frances Moore Lapp$B!&(B author of Hope’s Edge and Diet for a Small Planet, recounted the success of the Brazilian city of Belo Horizonte, which recently declared good food a right of citizenship. “This commitment unleashed all kinds of social innovations and unforeseen collaborations: plots of city land were made available for growing food with the condition that produce prices must be kept within reach of the poorest,” she said.

Corporate rule vs. democracy

In order for grassroots solutions to gain the prominence they deserve in policy debates over sustainable development, participants argued that UN processes must become freed of the overwhelming influence of large corporations and global trade and investment institutions.

According to Hilary French, director of WorldWatch Institute’s Global Governance Project, “[T]he forces of globalization unleashed in the last decade are one of the major transformations since the Rio Summit.” Some recent World Trade Organization agreements, which unlike most environmental treaties have binding mechanisms for enforcement, directly cancel out environmental rules, she said.

Joan Russow, former head of Canada’s Green Party, urged people to challenge corporate control over our democracy. “There has to be a network where civil society in each country knows what the corporations are doing around the world,” she said. “We also need to call for the prohibition of corporate money in the functioning of our democracies.”

Throughout the proceedings, official UN declarations were viewed with great skepticism, given that they seemed to reflect the priorities of narrow private interests to the exclusion of the general public.

If the UN is to regain the legitimacy it has lost since Rio, participants argued that the world body urgently needs to implement enforceable agreements that ensure universal human rights, comprehensive environmental and resource protection, and binding corporate accountability.

Aaron G. Lehmer is director and James L. Phelan is program coordinator of Grassroots Globalization Network, which helped coordinate the World Sustainability Hearing. To contact GGN, call (415) 788-3666 ext. 162 or visit

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