Trouble Ahead For Earth Summit

Updated: Aug 31 2002, 05:30am hrs
Not unexpectedly, countries continue to bicker over contentious paras on trade, finance and subsidies in the draft plan of implementation. Among other issues, this continues to agitate the civil society, who hope that delegates will be more forthcoming than before. No one is interested in the summit becoming another failed talkfest. To put pressure on governments, the civil society plans to march through the streets of Johannesburg on Saturday. This has taken an interesting turn.

Civil society groups, which are meeting at the Global Forum, about 35 kms away from the official summit at Sandton Convention Centre, are gearing up to put pressure on negotiators to agree, or face the wrath of people. An old Rio hand like Sunita Narain of the Delhi-based Centre for Science and Environment feels, this meeting is worse than Rio. She does capture the sentiments of a large number of participants here.

Street marches are allowed in Joburg but they need permission from authorities under the old apartheid-regime draconian laws. While the organisers are being grilled by intelligence agencies about the march, clearly afraid that it may become violent, the ruling Africa National Congress has decided to organise another march. Ministers, including Summit convenor and South Africas environment minister Vali Moosa will also take part in the march. It is not yet clear whether the ANC-lead 20,000-strong rally will join the march by Social Movements Indaba. As the matter is still unclear, the activists have also organised sympathy rallies in, among other places, Japan, Netherlands, Croatia, Spain, Togo, Ghana, Denmark, UK, France, Poland, Romania, Australia, USA, Colombia and possibly India.

In a scathing speech, the noted economist, Jeffrey Sachs, came down heavily on rich nations for abrogating their responsibility. Mr Sachs is here in the capacity of special adviser on globalisation and development to UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan.

With fewer than half of the contentious clauses agreed, or close to a deal, delegates were pleased that agreements over some issues have been hammered out. For example, a deal on fisheries was arrived with commitments by rich countries to replenish the depleting stocks in oceans by 2015. A deal on renewable energy also appears to be possible, after Saudi Arabia has been convinced that it will not affect its oil revenues. The same situation had blocked any deal at the 1992 Earth Summit too. Something on water and sanitation is also likely to be ironed out.

One jack-in-the-box issue, which threatens to mire the draft plan is the paragraph on land reforms. Australia has taken issue on the text, in the background of the Zimbabwean situation, where white farmers are being dispossessed of their land through force and other unlawful means. The scene might get dirty when the Zimbabwean President, Robert Mugabe arrives on Monday to speak at the Summit. Australias discomfort is more due to the fact that it is the head of the troika set up by the Commonwealth to sort out the Zimbabwean mess. On the other hand, the host nation South Africa has to take care of its backyard problems, which will get exacerbated by what is ultimately resolved on Zimbabwe. It is trying hard to ensure that there is no distraction from the main agenda, due to this small problem.

The battle over basic economic issues continued to hold up major progress on the plan.

In the overall, there is the pressure to ensure that nothing more than what was agreed at Doha should be done. But thats not the way forward. On the other hand, the rich are trying to get the poor countries to agree on governance, so that they could move ahead on the issues which are going to be the deal breaker (as it was at the June prepcom at Bali).

The World Bank is also not far behind in activism to get things moving in the quest for a fairer world. Reducing agricultural subsidies is the single most important area where rich countries can do something, said Ian Gldin, World Banks director for Development Policy. In a welcome alliance with big NGOs, the Bank has mounted a challenge to the continued payouts of subsidies, an issue that has emerged as the thorniest at the Joburg summit. The Bank has organised several events at the Summit to hit hard at this matter.

All rich countries must look to the spectre of the 13 million people facing disaster just a few hundred kilometers from Joburg. They can agree to eliminate the absurd subsidies and export dumping that denies long-term development opportunities for previously self-sufficient peoples in southern Africa, said the powerful coalition of seven NGOs, calling themselves: Ecoquity. This alliance includes Oxfam, Greenpeace and Friends of Earth. At the launch of another NGO-lead campaign: Jubilee 2010/2020 at the Joburg Summit, several activists asked not only for elimination of all agricultural subsidies, but tariff barriers on labour-intensive goods and agricultural goods by 2010 and 2020, respectively. There is growing disillusionment with trade liberalisation in the South, said Dr Hafiz Pasha, assistant secretary general of the United Nations speaking at the launch. These countries may retreat from liberalisation if the North maintains protection in all areas of where Southern producers are competitive.

The Jaipur-based NGO, CUTS, publishers of Economiquity, which has launched this campaign, noted that there are problems of high tariffs and supply side constraints in developing countries, but the rich country protectionism only exacerbates the problem of market access for the poor countries.

As was noted earlier, the Joburg summit is closely intertwined with the outcomes of the WTO Doha meeting held in November, 2001 and the UN development for financing meeting held at Monterrey in March 2001. The rich are seeing this summit as another opportunity to push for a liberalisation agenda in the South, but are very hesitant to address their own policies on subsidies.