earth summit at johannesburg

  People’s Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of
India (Marxist)




Johannesburg Summit—Corporate
Governance For Sustainable Trade

Amit Sen Gupta

than 100 heads of states and 15000 delegates representing the governments,
private sector, and non-governmental organisations participated in the World
Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD), from August 26 to September 4, in the
South African city of Johannesburg.

years ago, in 1992, the city of Rio de Janeiro in Brazil had hosted the
Conference on Environment and Development. The Rio conference may well be
remembered in posterity for putting the concept of “sustainable
development” on the global agenda. It wasn’t as if the concept was coined
in Rio. It would be difficult to claim that the Rio conference defined in all
its complexities what lay behind the two words. But for a large number of
people, Rio symbolises sustainable development. The conference in Rio generated
an expectation that global resources would be used more prudently in the future.
In retrospect, we may say that such expectations were naïve to start with, but
Rio was all about hope for a better world.

perhaps is the key difference between Rio and the World Summit on Sustainable
Development, which concluded in Johannesburg on September 4. If Rio was about
hope, Johannesburg is all about cynicism. The defining emotions that
Johannesburg conjures are cynicism and surrender to corporate control of global
resources. It is not as if corporate interests were not present in Rio. But they
were present in much larger numbers in Johannesburg, more visible, and much more



journey from Rio to Johannesburg has been long and tortuous. In these ten years
the situation has deteriorated appreciably across the globe. There has been a
secular decline in precisely the areas in which targets were sought to be set at
Rio, both as regards environment and as regards development. The world is a
less healthy place to live in than it was ten years back. Forests have dwindled
further, greenhouse gas emissions that promote global warming have increased.
Water resources have become scarcer and more polluted.

the same time absolute poverty has increased and so have disparities within
nations and between nations. The rich-poor divide has seldom been as stark as it
is today. Resource flows to the poorest countries have actually reversed, and
debt servicing has resulted in negative flows to rich countries from poor
developing countries. The WTO agreement that has led to strengthening of Patent
protection has in fact reversed the flow of technology to less developed corners
of the globe.

of what has been lost in the last decade has been sacrificed at the altar of
globalisation. Trade liberalisation and neo-liberal economic policies have
gnawed into the entrails of national sovereignty. Corporates and finance capital
wield greater power than sovereign governments, hitting at the very basis of
democratic governance. The diabolic notion of “coherence”—an
euphemism for the three institutions of globalisation, the IMF, World Bank and
WTO working in tandem—has provided untrammeled opportunities to global capital
under the leadership of US imperialism.



very notion of sustainable development was premised on the notion of common but
differentiated responsibilities. It was recognised that it is the developed
countries which are responsible for putting the maximum stress on the resources
of the globe and hence have the major responsibility in remedying the situation.
To quote and oft cited example, an average American is responsible for as much
greenhouse gas emission as 19 Indians, 30 Pakistanis, 49 Sri Lankans, 107
Bangladeshis, 134 Bhutanese, and 269 Nepalis. Clearly the crass consumerist
culture which typifies societies under capitalism and which, arguably, allows
capitalism to thrive, is today responsible for putting pressures on global
resources that cannot be sustained over a long period of time. Capitalism has
responded to this in two ways—both of which do not even touch the basic
problem. It has sought to pass on the blame to the impoverished nations of the
world by claiming that rising populations in the global South is responsible for
making this planet resource poor. This is clearly a ridiculous attempt to deny
reality. If this logic is to be true, for India to match the consumption load of
the US its population would have to be 20 times and not just 2 ½ times that of
the US. The other ploy has been to off-load environmentally degrading activities
on to developing countries. By this capitalist nations have sought to silence
domestic critics. Japanese consumption, for instance, was responsible for up to
70 per cent of timber logged—most of it illegally — in the Philippines from
the fifties to the nineties.

global capitalism is not prepared to accept is the fact that unsustainable
lifestyles of the developed global North has brought the planet to the brink of
a disaster. Instead President George W Bush Sr responded to the Rio Summit of
1992 by saying “America’s lifestyle is not up for negotiation.” If
that was the case in 1992, the situation is far worse in 2002. The Johannesburg
Summit may well be classified as an attempt to redefine sustainable development
as sustainable free trade!



US has been the most consistent barrier to an advancement of the sustainable
development agenda since the Rio summit. Its intransigence culminated in its
refusal to be a part of the Kyoto Climate Change protocol about a year back. The
Kyoto protocol, among other things, required countries to set targets for
greenhouse gas emissions. The US, concerned about the impact it would have on
its domestic industry, withdraw citing the pathetic plea that it did not believe
in targets! In the run up to the Johannesburg summit the US continued to thumb
its nose at the rest of the world, and made it clear well in advance that the US
president would not attend the summit. But perish the thought if you think that
this means less US involvement in the proceedings at Johannesburg. The mailed
fist and the velvet claws of US imperialism are both clearly being felt at the



US has chosen to push through a three point agenda. First, obstruct and
frustrate attempts at implementing the commitments made in Rio ten years back.
Second, convert sustainable development to sustainable free trade by insisting
that the two are synonymous! And, three, promote the notion that sustainable
development will be facilitated by partnerships with the private sector. Such
partnerships are being touted in the five identified “WEHAB” areas –
water, energy, health, agriculture and biodiversity. This move has the potential
to snowball into a big opportunity for corporates to become crucial players in
critical areas of human needs and enterprise. Conversely it has the potential to
reduce the role of both the UN as well as national governments in these areas.

importance that corporates have assumed in the Johannesburg process is clear
from the following excerpt from the draft declaration: “We recognise that
the process of globalisation is accompanied by the emergence of leading private
sector corporations which have a responsibility to contribute to the evolution
of equitable and sustainable communities and societies, even as they pursue
their legitimate activities.”

in all, the Johannesburg summit concluded with a charade played out to
legitimise corporate governance for sustainable trade. Small wonder that media
reports from the summit focused less on the final declaration and more on the
public snub that Tony Blair received from Robert Mugabe at the summit!