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Corporations have ensured that real regulation is off the agenda

(Thursday, Sept. 5, 2002 -- CropChoice guest commentary) -- Two pieces here, one by Naomi Klein and the other by George Monbiot.

1. The summit that couldn't save itself: Corporations have ensured that real regulation is off the agenda

Naomi Klein

When Rio hosted the first earth summit in 1992, there was so much goodwill surrounding the event that it was nicknamed, without irony, the Summit to Save the World. This week in Johannesburg, nobody has claimed that the follow-up World Summit on Sustainable Development could save the world. The question has been whether the summit could even save itself.

The sticking point has been what UN bureaucrats call "implementation" and the rest of us call "doing something". Much of the blame for the "implementation gap" has been placed at the doorstep of the US. It was George W Bush who abandoned the only significant environmental regulations that came out of the Rio conference: the Kyoto protocol on climate change. It was Bush who decided not to come to Johannesburg, signalling that the issues being discussed here - from basic sanitation to clean energy - are low priorities for his administration. And the US delegation has blocked all proposals that involve either directly regulating multinational corporations or dedicating significant new funds to sustainable development.

But the Bush-bashing is too easy: the summit hasn't failed because of anything that happened in Johannesburg. It has failed because the entire process was booby-trapped from the start.

When Canadian entrepreneur and diplomat Maurice Strong was appointed to chair the Rio summit, his vision was of a gathering that brought all the "stakeholders" to the table - not just governments, but also environmentalists, indigenous groups and lobby groups, as well as multinational corporations.

Strong's vision allowed for more participation from civil society than any previous UN conference, at the same time as it raised unprecedented amounts of corporate funds for the summit. But the sponsorship had a price. Corporations came to Rio with clear conditions: they would embrace ecologically sustainable practices, but only voluntarily, through non-binding codes and "best practice" partnerships with NGOs and governments. In other words, when the business sector came to the table in Rio, direct regulation of business was pushed off.

In Johannesburg, these "partnerships" have passed into self-parody, with the conference centre chock-a-block with displays for BMW "clean cars" and billboards for De Beers diamonds announcing "Water is Forever". The summit's chief sponsor was Eskom, South Africa's soon-to-be-privatised national energy company. A recent study stated that under Eskom's restructuring, 40,000 households are losing access to electricity each month.

This cuts to the heart of the real debate about the summit. The World Business Council for Sustainable Development, a corporate lobby group founded in Rio, insists the route to sustainability is the same trickle-down formula being imposed by the WTO and IMF: poor countries must make themselves hospitable to foreign investment, usually by privatising basic services, from water to electricity to healthcare.

But post-Enron, it's hard to believe that companies can be trusted to keep their own books, let alone save the world. And unlike a decade ago, the economic model of laissez-faire development is being rejected by popular movements around the world.

This time, many of the "stakeholders" weren't at the official table, but out in the streets, or organising counter-summit conferences to plot very different routes to development: debt cancellation, an end to the privatisation of water and electricity, reparations for apartheid abuses, affordable housing, land reform.

These movements are no longer willing simply to talk about their demands; they are acting on them. In the past two years, South Africa has experienced a surge in direct action, with groups organising to resist evictions, claim unproductive land and reconnect cut-off water and electricity in the townships.

The fact that a world summit on poverty has been unfolding in their backyard has also created serious obstacles. Sandton, the ultra-rich suburb where the conference is being held, has been transformed into a military zone. There have been arrests and police attacks on protest marches. On Monday, at a pro-Palestinian demonstration staged outside a speech by Shimon Peres, the Israeli Foreign Minister, soldiers fired rubber bullets and water cannon, severely injuring several protesters.

The World Summit on Sustainable Development isn't going to save the world; it merely offers an exaggerated mirror of it. In the gourmet restaurants of Sandton, delegates have dined out on their concern for the poor. Outside the gates, poor people have been hidden away, assaulted and imprisoned for what has become the iconic act of resistance in an unsustainable world: refusing to disappear.

Wednesday September 4, 2002, The Guardian

[An earlier version of this article appeared in The Nation. Naomi Klein's latest book, Fences and Windows: Dispatches From the Front Lines of the Globalisation Debate (HarperCollins) is being published next month http://www.nologo.org]

------------------------------------ 2. Corporate Take-over MeansLittle Hope for the WSSD
Date: 20th August 2002
By: George Monbiot

The German election could be the second this year to be won or lost on the environment. In New Zealand, the Labour Party failed to win its anticipated overall majority, partly because of its determination to approve the planting of genetically modified crops. The Greens, who did better than expected, have threatened to bring the government down if it lets the plantings go ahead. In Germany, Edmund Stoiber seemed certain of victory, until the floods exposed the fact that his shadow cabinet contains no environment spokesman. Now that the Germans are rediscovering their dependency upon the natural world, Stoiber's anti-environmentalism could be fatal. As the Indian proverb says, if you drive Nature out of the door with a broom, she will come back through the window with a pitchfork.

The environment is a long-term issue which has always suffered from the short-term imperatives of the political cycle. It has been treated, by governments all over the world, as a problem which can be endlessly deferred to the next administration. Now the problem is catching up with the politicians, but most of them have yet to notice. The fourth earth summit, which begins at the end of this week, looks certain to be a catastrophe.

It's not just that the summit will fail to resolve the earth's existing problems. The decisions it makes are likely to become a major cause of environmental destruction in their own right. The solution to the slow collapse of the earth's capacity to support human life, both the United Nations and most of the governments of the rich world have decided, is more of the problem.

The UN hopes for two kinds of "outcome" from the summit, which it calls "type I" and "type II". Type I outcomes are the agreements brokered by governments. These negotiations, like those at all the previous earth summits, have so far been dominated by the European Union and the United States. While poorer nations have called for the rich countries to recognise their ecological debt to the rest of the world, to cough up the money they promised and failed to deliver ten years ago and to find ways of holding big business to account, the rich world has insisted instead that the interests of the poor and the environment take second place to free trade.

Sections of the world trade agreement have simply been pasted into the draft negotiating text, ensuring that corporate freedom overrides environmental protection. The world's water supplies, climate, health and biodiversity will, from now on, the rich nations insist, be defended by means of "public private partnerships": the US and EU want to do to the environment what the British government wants to do to the London Underground. To defend the world from the destruction brokered by multinational capital, governments will tie a ribbon round it and hand it to multinational capital.

But if the "type I outcomes" are likely to harm both the poor and the environment, the "type II outcomes" could be devastating. The UN has permitted big business to capture not just the results of the negotiations, but also the negotiating process itself. The corporations are moving into the vacuum left by the heads of state, and asserting their claim to global governance.

In principle, type II outcomes are voluntary agreements negotiated by governments, businesses and people's organisations. In practice, the corporations, being better funded and more powerful than the people's groups, are running the circus. They propose to regulate themselves through "codes of practice" which in reality amount to little more than the re-branding of destructive activities as beneficial ones. As the Corporate Europe Observatory has shown, for example, the original purpose of the "Responsible Care" programme submitted by the chemical industry was to prevent the introduction of new health and safety laws after the Bhopal disaster. This and the other schemes proposed by business are likely to be listed as official outcomes of the summit.

These agreements, in other words, will reclassify some of the world's most destructive corporations as the officially-sanctioned saviours of the environment. They will sow confusion among the people with whom these corporations engage, and undermine effective regulation. In the wake of the Enron and WorldCom scandals, the UN is helping companies to argue that voluntary self-auditing is an effective substitute for democratic control.

All this makes the presence of corporate executives on the United Kingdom's official delegation a matter of pressing public interest. In line with the principles of open government, Tony Blair's office refuses to reveal just how many businesspeople are being flown to Johannesburg at public expense to represent us. But two weeks ago we learnt that while Mr Blair was intending to leave Michael Meacher, the environment minister, behind, he would be travelling with the directors of Rio Tinto, Anglo-American and Thames Water. Meacher, thanks to a public outcry, has been permitted to go to the ball, but nothing would induce the prime minister to throw the ugly sisters off the plane.

Rio Tinto is the mining company which has attracted more complaints of environmental destruction and abuse of indigenous people's rights than any other. Anglo-American has been described as the economic pillar of South Africa's apartheid regime. Just two days after we discovered that Thames Water had become an official defender of the global environment, the head of its parent company, RWE, threatened to cancel the creation of 4000 jobs unless the European Commission dropped its plans to impose stricter controls on the production of carbon dioxide.

The governments of the world, in other words, appear to be coming together in Johannesburg to conspire against the interests of their people. This perception contributes, paradoxically, to the problem: the less people feel they can trust their governments, the more political space is cleared for the corporations to colonise.

But the organisation which is likely to suffer most is the United Nations. The 4th earth summit -- the biggest-ever meeting of heads of state -- should enhance the UN's prestige. Instead, it could destroy it. Already the "global compact" the UN has struck with big corporations, lending them credibility in return for unenforceable voluntary commitments, has alienated it from the very people who once sprang to its defence. Now the United Nations is seen, especially in the poor world, in the same light as the World Bank, the IMF and the World Trade Organisation: as an instrument of power, deployed against the powerless. Its willingness to help the wreckers of the environment to reposition themselves as the saviours of the world will reinforce this impression. Next time the United States seeks to cut the UN budget, the people who would once have protested will be more inclined to cheer.

The protection of the environment is the definitive test of statesmanship. While the powerful people who wish to acquire for themselves the common property of humankind have always to be flattered and appeased, the long-term survival of humanity is in no politician's immediate interest; until, that is, the environment bites back. Perhaps the only hope we have is that Nature, as she has done in Germany, casts her vote much sooner than the politicians guessed.

Source: http://www.agbioindia.org/archive.asp