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, at the follow-up conference known as Rio + 10, nobody is claiming that the World Summit on Sustainable Development can save the world—the question is whether the summit can even save itself.
The sticking point is what UN bureaucrats call "implementation" and the rest of us call "doing something." Much of the blame for the "implementation gap" is being placed at the doorstep of the United States. 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 (even his father showed up in Rio), signaling that the issues being discussed here-from basic sanitation to clean energy-are low priorities for his Administration. And it is the US delegation that is most belligerently blocking 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 isn't failing because of anything happening now in Johannesburg. It's failing because the entire process was booby-trapped from the start.
When Canadian entrepreneur and diplomat Maurice Strong was appointed to chair the Rio summit ten years ago, his vision was of a massive gathering that brought all the "stakeholders" to the table-not just governments but also non-governmental organizations (environmentalists, indigenous groups, lobby groups) as well as multinational corporations.
Strong's vision allowed for more participation from civil society than any UN conference before, at the same time as it raised unprecedented amounts of corporate funds for the summit (it helped that Coca-Cola donated its marketing team and Swatch produced a limited-edition Earth Summit watch). But the sponsorship had a price. Corporations came to Rio with clear conditions: They'd embrace ecologically sustainable practices but only voluntarily—through non-binding codes and "best practices" 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 center chock-a-block with displays for BMW "clean cars" and billboards for De Beers diamonds announcing Water is Forever. The summit's main sponsor is Eskom, South Africa's soon-to-be-privatized national energy company. According to a recent study, under Eskom's restructuring 40,000 households are losing access to electricity each month.
And 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, is insisting that the route to sustainability is the same trickle-down formula already being imposed by the World Trade Organization and the International Monetary Fund: poor countries must make themselves hospitable to foreign investment, usually by privatizing basic services, from water to electricity to healthcare. As in Rio, these corporations are pushing for voluntary "partnerships" rather than "command and control" regulations.
But these arguments sound different today from a decade ago. Post-Enron, it's difficult enough 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 militantly rejected by popular movements around the world, particularly in Latin America but also here in South Africa. This time around, many of the "stakeholders" aren't at the official table, but out in the streets or organizing countersummit conferences to plot very different routes to development: debt cancellation, an end to the privatization of water and electricity, reparations for apartheid abuses, affordable housing, land reform. The most ambitious is the Week of the Landless, a parallel event arguing that unfulfilled promises to introduce substantive land reform-in South Africa and across the postcolonial developing world-has been the single greatest barrier to sustainable development globally.
Key to these movements is that they are no longer willing to simply 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 like the Soweto Electricity Crisis Committee, the Landless People's Movement, Durban's Concerned Citizens Forum and the Cape Town Anti-Eviction Campaign organizing to resist evictions, to claim unproductive land and to reconnect cut off water and electricity in the townships.
A mass demonstration is planned for August 31, but the fate of the march is by no means certain. The South African government appears to have decided that if nothing else comes of it, the summit is at least an opportunity "to change misconceptions about safety and security in South Africa [and] attract the attention of foreign tourists and investors," in the words of Provincial Police Commissioner Perumal Naidoo.
What this means in practice is that while street signs welcome delegates to "feel the pulse" of "the Sensational City," Sandton, the ultra-rich suburb where the conference is being held, has been transformed into a military zone, complete with "mega search park" and remote spy planes patrolling the skies. All protests are confined to a 1.8 kilometer "struggle pen," as many are calling it, and even there, only police-permitted marches are allowed.
Vendors and beggars have been swept from the streets, residents of squatter camps have been evicted (many have been relocated to less visible sites, far from busy roads). Moss Moya, a township resident facing eviction from his home of eighteen years, holds out little hope that the summit will help South Africa's poor. "If they are going to help us," he said, "they need to see us." But when Moya and his neighbors held a rally to resist the attempts to relocate them behind a grove of trees, the police cracked down and Moya, a former ANC supporter, was shot in the mouth with a rubber bullet, knocking out six of his teeth. When he went to file a complaint with the police, he was thrown in jail. Moya and some 1,000 other township residents decided to take their struggle to downtown Johannesburg, holding a peaceful rally outside the offices of the Premier of Gauteng, the province in which Johannesburg is located. Right underneath a sign that announces, The People of Gauteng Welcome WSSD Delegates to the Smart Province, seventy-seven demonstrators were arrested, including the entire leadership of the Landless People's Movement. (All but one—a US citizen, still facing deportation—have since been released.)
On August 24, police even attacked a candle-light "freedom of expression march," held to protest these and other mass arrests. The spontaneously organized march was headed to a downtown prison, but before the crowd of 1,000 local and international activists had walked a block, riot police surrounded them and barricaded the road. Without warning, stun grenades were fired at the marchers, injuring three.
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 super-rich Sandton, delegates are literally dining out on their concern for the poor. Meanwhile, outside the gates, poor people are being hidden away, assaulted and imprisoned for what has become the iconic act of resistance in an unsustainable world: refusing to disappear.
A version of this article first appeared in The Nation.