Johannesburg 2002: Few Gains for the Poor and the Environment

Resources »Eapr »East Asian Pastoral Review 2003 »Volume 40 2003 Number 3 »Johannesburg 2002 Few Gains For The Poor And The Environment

Sean McDonagh, S.S.C.

Sean McDonagh, S.S.C. is consultant to the General Council of the Columban Fathers on ecology and environment. Among his many writings are Care for the Earth: A Call to A New Theology, Geoffrey Chapman, London and The Greening of the Church, Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books. He worked among the T’boli people of Mindanao, Philippines for 20 years and has regularly lectured at the Pacific Institute, Sydney, Australia.

In May 2002 the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) published a hefty tome entitled The Global Environment Outlook. This study, which drew on the work of almost 1,100 scientists looked backwards and forwards. It assessed what had happened since the first global environment and development conference in Stockholm in 1972 and looked forward to predict how the global environment might look in 2032. The message was chilling for everyone especially for young people. It stated that if we continue with a business-as-usual approach, by 2032 one quarter of the mammals would be extinct. Over 11,000 species of plants and 1,200 species of birds would be heading over the abyss of extinction.

The UNEP report was written to help the 60,000 government delegates and non-government organizational (NGO) representatives who gathered in Johannesburg in late August 2002 to discuss the theme of sustainable development and the environment. The delegates had to attempt to address the fact that over one quarter of the population of the world lived on less than one dollar a day in appalling misery and that any initiatives to help them out of the poverty trap ought not to damage irreversibly their local environment or the global environment.

The Johannesburg Earth Summit took place 10 years after a similar conference in Rio De Janeiro in June 1992.  Once again, a huge number of delegates attended that meeting and the Summit captured the first item on the news across the globe for over one week in late August and early September 2002.  However, some of the main causes of poverty like Third World debt or the horrendous waste of resources on the armaments industry were not aired on floor of the Johannesburg Summit.

 Rio in June 1992

Three concrete initiatives came out of the Rio summit.  There was a general agreement that greenhouse gas emission needed to be drastically reduced to avert global warming.  Five years later, the nations of the world reached an agreement at Kyoto in Japan to reduce ‘greenhouse’ gas emissions by 5.2 to 7 percent on a 1990 baseline by the year 2010. Rio also began the process that led to the setting up of the Convention on Bio-diversity to protect vulnerable species.  Finally, Rio drew up a plan of action called Agenda 21 which was supposed to be a blueprint to guide governments and civil society groups who are involved in a host of development and environmental initiatives at the local, national and global levels. In the following 10 years, few countries bothered either to promote the ideas involved in Agenda 21 or to implement any of the proposals.

Johannesburg August/September 2002

There were hopes that the Johannesburg Summit might be more realistic and effective than Rio. This unfortunately did not happen. In fact, many people in the development and environment communities feel that the situation in regard to effective policies to promote sustainable develop-ment post-Johannesburg is worse than ever. One of the main reasons is that, during the preparatory conferences and at Johannesburg itself, there was no real critique of the neo-liberal economic policies that have wreaked so much damage on the poor and the earth in the past 30 years. 

How do You Turn Poachers into Gamekeepers?

Furthermore, no framework was established to monitor, assess and control the behavior of large transnational corporations (TNCs). These have been the dominant actors in the present global economic system. They have been involved in the fossil fuel business and resolutely set their faces against any reduction in greenhouse gas emission.  On the extractive side they logged tropical forests in unsustainable ways and promoted mining operations in unsuitable places. The agribusiness TNCs have made billions of dollars out of cornering agricultural activity globally and shaping it in a way that benefits the corporations rather than the farmers or consumers. Chemical companies have flooded the world with over 100,000 synthetic chemicals, many of which cause cancer or interfere with the endocrine and immune systems. Advertising companies have fanned the flames of consumerism in the First World and among the elite in the Third World.  Both Rio and Johannesburg only briefly acknowledged that unbridled consumerism and a throw-away industrial mentality are totally unsustainable and need to be abandoned as quickly as possible if we are to avoid the scenario painted in Global Environment Outlook. 

But no effective analysis  or concrete program of action emerged at Johannesburg.  I know of no TNC that is actively campaigning to reduce consumption in the First World.  Yet, according to many of the political leaders who spoke at Johannesburg, including Tony Blair, the British Prime Minister, TNCs are now supposed to be seen as the potential saviors of the poor and the environment, even though no effective regulatory regime has been put in place. If a person complained to his doctor about chest pains and was told that due to his  poor diet and lack of exercise he/she had a serious heart disease, I think we would  be flabbergasted if, in answer to a question by the patient about how he/she might proceed from here, the doctor suggested that the patient continue and increase his/her unhealthy diet and do even less exercise. And yet this is precisely the economic message that went out from Johannesburg.  Increase the role of the TNCs in delivering anti-poverty programs and environmental targets like the provision of clean, potable water for an extra one billion people by the year 2015.

All the international financial and trade agencies—The World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Trade Organization (WTO)—have been vigorously promoting neo-liberal economic policies for the past decade. They have forced Third World countries to reduce tariffs and open up their economies to the global market. Just before the Rio Summit, a Cambridge economist, Ha Joon Chang, published a book calledKicking Away the Ladder.1 It is a historical analysis of how First World countries improved their economies over the past 500 years.  Ha Joon Chang’s historical analysis showed that virtually all of the countries surveyed used tariff protection and subsidies to develop their industries in the earlier phase of their development. Chang accuses the IMF, WB and WTO as well as the G7 nations of hypocrisy by “kicking away the ladder” and not allowing developing countries to use the same route of develop-ment that they themselves used in the past.

If First World countries really cared about the environment they would be interested in setting up an agency which the New Scientist  (September 7, 2002) called The World Environment Agency. This organiza-tion would be empowered to hand down rulings in the interest of global sustainability. It would be able to fine countries or corporations that were involved in plundering the seas, raping forests, polluting the atmosphere or creating chemicals that were poisoning the planet.  According to The New Scientist (September 7, 2002) “cynics might say that the governments would never give up such powers to an international body. But look at what they gave to the World Trade Organization in the interests of free-trade. It can be done, but this week (in Johannesburg) world leaders missed the chance to create such a body.”

There was one significant victory at Johannesburg. Despite a strong lobby from the U.S. it was decided that major environmental treaties like the Montreal Protocol on CFCs and the Kyoto agreement do not have to be submitted to the WTO to ascertain whether they were “inconsistent” with the rules of free trade.  The Rio Summit had recognized that ‘international trade and environmental policies must be mutually supportive in favor of sustainable development.’ This aspiration cut no ice with those who were finalizing the Uruguay Round of the General Agreement on Trade and Development (GATT). The GATT round was completed and the new entity, the WTO, came into existence two years after Rio without any attempt to include development and environmental issues. This shows how little interest TNCs and the First World govern-ments which they control, through powerful lobbying mechanisms, have in either eliminating global poverty or promoting environmental sustaina-bility. All that the WTO cared about was promoting so-called “free-trade,” which would benefit powerful companies and rich countries. The WTO was given vastly increased powers to punish those who did not conform to its rules.  It was also able to railroad through a global regime on Trade Related Intellectual Powers (TRIPs). This will guarantee that Third World countries are permanently dependent on First World corporations in the area of finance, computer software and agriculture. This is a prime example of just how unfair the present global trading system is. Even the World Bank’s Development Report for 2002 admits that TRIPs has strengthened the hand of Western Corporations at the expense of poor countries. In what must be the understatement of the decade the Bank considers that the potential for unequal outcomes is ‘worrisome” (Elliot 2002:10). 

Breakthrough on Water and Sanitation

One would have to agree that there were breakthroughs on water and sanitation at Johannesburg. The Summit committed the international community to halve the number of people not connected to potable water supplies to 550 million by the year 2015 and to halve the number without proper sanitation to 1.2 billion by the same year. Such initiatives could save tens of thousands of lives. It is estimated that over 6000 children die each day from diseases caused by poor sanitation and hygiene.  But typical of the woolly nature of the Summit’s thinking, there are no clear guidelines or effective strategies for achieving such laudable targets. In fact, according to The New Scientist (September 7, 2002, p. 7-8) individual countries and even corporations are “left free to pursue approaches to managing water that are either wasteful or damaging to the environment.” According to Jamie Pittock, water director of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), “summit agree-ments to improve water will not work if natural sources of water are not conserved and water used more efficiently.” TNCs would like to promote large building projects like dams and piping systems. The Summit, playing into the hands of the big building corporations according to Torkil Jonch-Clausen of the global water partnership; “this summit has reduced the debate on water supply to arguing about money and pipes. There is no discussion about managing our river systems. It is a step back to the 1980s, before Rio. It is a prime example of how the development lobby (TNCs) have snatched back the sustainable agenda from environmentalists” (cited in The New Scientist  September 7, 2002, p. 11).  I am always annoyed and appalled at statisticians who would have us believe that reducing the number of people without clean water by half to 550 by 2015 is something that we should be proud of. Why not provide clean water for every person on the planet? The Guardian newspaper brought out a supplement in preparation for the Summit entitled Earth.  An article on “Food and Trade” estimates that it would cost $170 billion to provide clean water and healthy sewage for all. Surely that should not be beyond the resources of our present global economy. The Gulf war in 1991 cost $80 billion and I am sure the war against Iraq which is being talked up by President George Bush will cost at least twice that amount.  Why not divert that to improving the quality of water and sanitation and improving the health and nutrition for all the world’s people?

Public, Private, Partnerships (PPPs)

Tony Blair and many other political leaders came to Johannesburg singing the praises of how Public, Private, Partnerships would collaborate with communities in poor countries and help deliver them from the misery of poverty and yet not destroy the environment. How the poachers might be persuaded to become gamekeepers was never really spelled out.  But Fred Pearce, researching for the New Scientist, found what most develop-ment people know is “that many of the claims being made for the scheme are false.”  The New Scientistlooked at 172 such partnerships and found that only a handful mentioned community groups. This does not mean that the other projects were bad, but it does mean the rhetoric of working with the poor has no substance. It also allows governments in the First and Third World countries to abdicate their responsibility for common good services like education, healthcare, water and sanitation (Pearce 2002a: 8-9). Aid ought to be made available to governments to meet realistic targets rather than siphoning resources off to increase the profits of TNCs. Finally, as one who has watched mining companies like Rio Tinto attempting to woo tribal leaders among the Subanons in Mindanao in order to gain access to mining rights in ancestral lands, I would fear that many PPPs will be nothing more than public relations exercises at the best and bribes at the worst.

Defeat on Renewable Energy Targets

The greatest disappointment at the Summit was its unwillingness to tackle global warming and promote cleaner energy options.  Global warming is now recognized as one of the most enormous environmental challenges facing humankind and the earth. The atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide, methane, chloroflourocarbons (CFCs) and other “greenhouse” gases is expected to increase by 30 percent during the next 50 years.  Global warming will cause major, and in the main, deleterious climate changes. In Northern latitudes, winters will probably be shorter and wetter. The sub-tropical areas might become drier and more arid while the tropics will be wetter. There will also be casualties as rising oceans flood lowlying lands and more severe storms wreak havoc.

Rio set in motion an international process to confront the global warming problem. This culminated in a meeting in Kyoto in December 1997. The scientists from the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) called for a 60 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions to stabilize global climate. All that the politicians could agree to at Kyoto was a miserly 5.2 to 7 percent reduction below the 1990 level by the year 2010.  One of the first acts of President George Bush was to withdraw the United States from the Kyoto agreement in April 2001. This week (September 18th 2002), an adviser to President Bush, Dr. Lindsey, estimated that it would cost between $100 billion to $200 billion to wage a war now. According to him, it would be about 1-2 percent of GDP—an amount he characterized as “nothing” (Hartcher 2002:12). He declared that it was not in the best interests of the United States by which he meant the oil barons who had funded his election.

Little wonder then that, although President Bush did not attend the Johannesburg Summit,  the U.S. delegates were instructed to do everything to “bury” the Kyoto Protocol. Bowing to U.S. and OPEC pressure the Johannesburg Summit failed to set targets and a timetable for increasing the fraction of the world’s energy supplied by renewable sources. Brazil wanted a target of 10 percent of energy from clean renewable sources like wind, solar and wave movements.  Instead the final text was quite inno-cuous. It exhorted all countries to act with “a sense of urgency” to “sub-stantially increase the global share of renewable energy sources.” Environmentalists reacted angrily to this defeat. Kate Hampton from the environmental organization, Friends of the Earth, caught the mood when she stated that “we are bitterly angry that the OPEC countries, Japan and the United States have combined to wreck the world’s environment” (Pearce 2002b: 9) .

Extinction not Addressed

The massive extinction of species which is now underway is one of the most frightening of all environmental statistics.  Life is about 3.8 billion years old. During all that period there have been five major extinction spasms.  The last one ended the era of the dinosaur at the end of the Mesozoic period over 60 million years ago. At this precise moment we are in the throes of another extinction spasm mainly because human activity has destroyed areas of the globe that are species-rich, like the tropical rainforests and coral reefs. If we continue with a business-as-usual approach, half the species of the planet could be extinct within 50 years. This would be a catastrophe for life. The Rio Summit addressed this issue and led to a number of meetings on biodiversity. The most recent Biodiversity Convention met earlier in the year and called for a ‘halt’ to extinctions. The Johannesburg text waters this commitment down. The reason of course is that the convention on biodiversity is opposed by large agribusiness corporations who have used the TRIPs provisions of the WTO to patent living organisms.  These corporations see the possibility of making megabucks from patenting seeds and potential drugs so they do not want to cede any authority to the Convention on Biodiversity. Which brings us back to the hypocrisy of pretending that these large corporations, whose bottom line is making profits, have any genuine interest in alleviating poverty and protecting the environment.

Poor Grade for Johannesburg

Despite a few small gains, the Johannesburg meeting failed to deliver for the poor and the earth. People like the UN Secretary General Kofi Annan tried to put a positive spin on the meeting. “We had Dohar, Monterrey and the Millennium goals. Johannesburg is part of the process. We are creating a framework for sustainable development. This is an area of partnerships. We must keep the momentum going,” he said. Charles Secrett, a director of Friends of the Earth, saw things differently. He indicted world leaders who “publicly preach the message of sustainable development but instruct their negotiators to do trade deals above all else. This is the worst political sellout in decades.” Andrew Hewett of the development NGO Oxfam was equally scathing about the unwillingness of the First World to face the challenges of global poverty. “After nine days of bluster the world gets some gains on a few issues like water and sanitation. But overall the deal is feeble. It is a triumph for greed and self-interest, a tragedy for poor people and the environment” (Vidal and Brown 2002).


1. Chang Ha Joon, Kicking Away the Ladder, Anthem Press.

Elliot, Larry
2002 “World Bank Paints Picture of Catastrophic Global Future,” Guardian Weekly, August 29—September 4, 2002, page 10.
Hartcher, Peter
2002 “US Counts on Boost From War,” The Australian Financial Review, September 18, 2002.
Pearce, Fred
2002a “Partnerships Don’t Live Up to the Hype” The New Scientist, September 7, 2002, pages 8-9.
2002b “Green Energy Targets Blown Away,” The New Scientist, September 7, 2002, page 9.
Vidal, John and Paul Brown
2002 “Meeting a Sellout, Charities,” The Guardian, website uk , September 4, 2002.
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