Earth Summit: No solution for the masses just a lot of hot air

Mick Brooks reports on the Earth Summit in Johannesburg, where representatives of governments, big business and NGOs met to discuss the laudable aims of eradicating poverty and environmental destruction. The fundamental flaw behind the Summit is that it relies on market forces to deal with the problems of poverty and the environment. But market forces are not the solution - they are the problem.

The World Bank sent each delegate to the Earth Summit a letter with the following appeal:

"When 1.2 billion remain in absolute poverty
When 800 million go to bed hungry
When over 1 billion people don't have access to safe water nor adequate sanitation,
there must be no doubt that eliminating poverty is the cornerstone of sustainable development."

It's true that this is breathtaking hypocrisy coming from the World Bank, but the statement correctly outlines the scale of the tasks facing the assembly - and the world.

As the 60,000 delegates pack up and leave Johannesburg, we assess what has been achieved. Putting a brave face on it, Margaret Beckett described the Earth Summit as "a victory for everyone". Charities involved in South Africa in campaigning on the fringe on behalf of the world's poor had a different take. Oxfam said that "it is a triumph for greed and self interest, a tragedy for poor people and the environment." Friends of the Earth felt it was "the worst political sellout for decades".

Corporate takeover

Who were these 60,000 on the Jo'burg junket? Many were not representatives of the governments who were there to hammer out agreements. The Earth Summit was more like a vast trade fair with a conference attached. The British delegation included representatives of Rio Tinto and Thames Water. Rio Tinto has an appalling environmental record. They were most recently in the news for getting a wigging from the Australian government for allowing uranium leaks from one of their mines, set in aboriginal land. Thames Water has been denounced by the Environment Agency as the biggest polluter in Britain. These delegates were not there to represent you and me - they serve the companies who pay their salaries. Why were they in "our" delegation? Why should we pay for them to pursue their own murky ends? This is like selecting drug dealers to attend an anti-drugs conference. Charles Secrett of Friends of the Earth was right to denounce the trend as "no more than the world trade takeover of the Earth Summit political process."

The Summit was unable to come up with targets or timetables on most of the important issues it discussed, for instance on carbon emissions. This is a step back even compared with the Kyoto accords. We have explained in the past that the Kyoto targets are completely inadequate to deal with the problem of global warming. In any case most countries are a long way from achieving them. Nevertheless the fact that targets and timetables were practically abandoned at Johannesburg speaks for itself. The statement from Johannesburg on emissions, as on most of the other issues it was summoned to solve, was meaningless waffle. In fact the only practical commitments to come out of the Summit were on water supply, fish stocks and biodiversity and all these targets are set way out in the middle distance.

Though the Summit was notably light on public commitments to alleviate poverty and protect the environment, behind the scenes 192 "partnerships" were fixed up involving big business, often involving selling off basic services to the corporate vultures.

For Tony Blair, the big business takeover of the Earth Summit is the "third way" in action, with big business working in harmony with government to solve the world's problems. For the rest of us that was the reason the Summit was a miserable failure.

An example of corporate control of the agenda is the deal struck between UNICEF and McDonalds. The good news is that we are to have a world children's day. The bad news is that it is sponsored by McDonalds! They pay into a fund according to how many burgers they've sold. This after a summer of stories about "couch potatoes" and obesity amongst children in rich countries. Save the Children comments despairingly: "It is a sad day to see an United Nations body linked to a company which sells junk food."


One of the few firm commitments to come out of the Summit was a promise to halve the number of people without clean water or sanitation in the world by 2015. At present there are 1.2 billion with no access to clean water and twice that number (nearly half the world's population) without proper sanitation. Water is the most basic requirement of human existence. We don't think twice when we turn the taps on. Most of us would surely regard it as a basic right, as part of the right to life. Dirty water means disease. It means people dying from simple, preventable illnesses that were wiped out here over a century ago. So while we support this initiative we have to ask - why can we only halve the number of those without access - why not eliminate it altogether? Why is that going to take until 2015, assuming it all goes according to plan? The rich countries can spend a fortune on a "task force against terror". Why not a task force against poverty? Actually the United Nations reckons that the whole of Asia will not have access to safe water till 2025, Latin America till 2040 and Africa till 2050. Meanwhile 7 million people a year are dying of water shortage.

Blair would argue that governments in the third world cannot give their citizens clean water and sanitation. He is right. There are two reasons for this. The first is that these governments are run by and on behalf of the rich, who couldn't care less what happens to the poor. The second is that in any case these states are being bled dry by huge debt repayments to the banks in rich countries such as Britain.

Tony therefore argues that corporations can lend a hand by handing over the water supply to them. After all, they have the money to invest. This misses the point that big business functions for only one reason - to make a profit - so the price of water goes up beyond what poor people can afford.

This is not wild socialist conjecture. It has already happened. Earlier articles have reported on the uprising that took place in Cochabamba in Bolivia, where privatising the water supply led to a situation where households were spending up to a fifth of their income on water. Privatisation was reversed, but only after five poor Bolivians were shot dead by police. More recently there has been an inspiring movement in Arequipa in Peru against water privatisation. Privatising the water supply is always and everywhere a disaster for the poor.

Opening the Summit, President Mbeki declared that the world is "characterised by islands of wealth surrounded by a sea of poverty". Nowhere is this truer than in his own country, South Africa. Just up the way from the well-watered lawns of the prosperous suburb of Sandton where the Summit was held, 22,000 people in Johannesburg are disconnected from the water supply every month. 10 million of 42 million South Africans have been cut off last year. This is part of the preparation for the privatisation of the water supply. As a result 43,000 died of diarrhoea and 135,000 contracted cholera. This is the third way in action!

Why is the ANC government damaging the health of its own supporters in this manner? Actually Mbeki's ministers want to allocate a minimum standard of six hectolitres (600 litres) per household. (To give a comparison, each delegate used 200 litres a day at the Summit. We use 80 litres when we take a bath and 35 when we switch a dishwasher on.) The World Bank doesn't like the idea of a minimum standard of water. As Nick Mathiason's Observer article points out: "The Bank feared the consequences of a 'universal right' philosophy at a time when international companies ranging from Goldman Sachs…through to Suez, owner of Northumbria Water, and PriceWaterhouseCoopers stand to make billions of pounds selling South Africans their services." And what the World Bank doesn't like doesn't get implemented. There you have it. You can have human rights. You can have water for all who need it. Or you can have market provision of essential services. You cannot have both.

Trade and the environment

The delegates didn't talk much about the environment. The Summit was dominated by trade issues, which might be expected to preoccupy the corporate masters of the universe. They decided to hand development and environmental issues over to the protection of the World Trade Organisation. This is equivalent to putting Dracula in charge of a blood bank. This is a taste of the WTO's record on environmental issues so far.

The US Congress passed an act requiring all shrimp sold in America to be caught using a Turtle Excluder Device (150,000 turtles drown every year in shrimp nets). The WTO decided that this act was an infringement of free trade and had to go. Congress is elected. Nobody votes for the WTO. But the WTO got what it wanted.

The European Union ban on hormone treated beef was struck down "because it's protectionism". Actually it was seen as a health measure. According to the WTO, people have to start dying like flies before imports can be banned. Isn't that a little late?

The US clean air act was intended to restrict noxious emissions into the atmosphere. The WTO judged it was (guess what?) protectionism in disguise.

The rules of the World Trade Organisation make it unfit to adjudicate over environmental issues. In their book trade is everything, the environment and the livelihood of the poor nothing. The WTO is a catspaw of big business.


What about free trade? As Oxfam points out, free trade "would be a good idea". The rich countries in the OECD subsidise farming by $350 billion so poor countries can't export food and farm products that they actually produce cheaper.

Here's an example. The European Union spends £1 billion in handouts to sugar beet farmers. It costs them £430 to produce a tonne of sugar. The same sugar can be grown for about £175 by a cane producer in the less developed countries. So we have to levy import duties on imported cane sugar of up to 140% to protect European beet farmers. Since we don't actually want all this sugar they produce, we "dump" it (sell it at a loss) in the third world, driving the cane farmers out of business.Earlier in the article we suggested it would be a good idea if there was a task force to provide water for all. Under capitalism, that task force will never be set up. But how much would it cost to provide clean water and sewage provision for all? $170 billion - less than half the $350 billion we waste in subsidies to advanced capitalist country farmers.

Each cow in the European Union gets $2.20 a day from us. Meanwhile nearly half the world's population makes do on $2 a day or less. These are the crazy priorities that were defended and perpetuated by the inaction of the Summiteers. None of this advanced country protectionism has been touched by the Summit.

The role of the USA

Apart from corporate chicanery, the Summit's progress was halted by the US wrecking ball. The Bush administration is government by big business for big business. Any attempt to get corporations to be accountable to ruining the environment or the livelihood of the poor was vetoed by the American delegation. Here is an example. Exxon is being sued in Washington by the International Labour Organisation on behalf of the people of Aceh in Sumatra. Exxon hired the local police to beat up protestors demonstrating against their property being forcibly handed over to big oil. The Bush administration's position is that this is an example of "interference in the foreign affairs of the US". It's official, then. Not a single American citizen stands to benefit from baton wielding thugs in Sumatra. But for Bush and the other millionaires in charge, the interests of the US are the interests of its multinationals. Human rights lawyer Chip Pitts comments: "You can see where the administration is coming from - putting the private interests of the big corporations before the public interest."

The fundamental flaw behind the Summit is that it relies on market forces to deal with the problems of poverty and the environment. We live in a world of increasing poverty and environmental degradation. We also live in a world dominated by capitalist corporations. These two facts are connected. Market forces are not the solution - they are the problem. Take poverty and inequality. An economist called Pritchett did a survey of inequality between rich and poor countries, published in the Journal of Economic Perspectives. Rich countries were 2.4 times as rich as the rest in 1870. By 1990 they were four and a half times richer. But the period his survey covers is that of the unfettered triumph of the capitalist mode of production all over the globe. Inequality and pollution are alike generated by the capitalist system, by "market forces". The rich and privileged who gathered at Sandton have done very well out of that system. They were unwilling and incapable of acting to save the planet. That's our job.