WSSD Report from Johannesburg
Report from Johannesburg:
Exposing the Trojan Horse of Corporate Globalization
at the World Summit on Sustainable Development

by Ruth Caplan, Co-chair,
Corporate Globalization, Positive Alternatives Campaign

The August-September World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD), held under UN auspices in Johannesburg, South Africa, might have been a pushover for the free-traders if not for the voices of protest rising from representatives of citizens' organizations around the world.

Billed as the 10-year review of the historic Earth Summit in Rio, the WSSD was supposed to reach agreement on policies "to promote sustainable development for all." The ostensible goal was to guide and support economic development in ways that would protect the environment and address social inequality.

Even in the face of the failure of countries over the last 10 years to carry out the vision of the first Earth Summit and clear evidence that the environment has gotten worse not better, delegates turned a blind eye to the major responsibility corporations have for this outcome. Under the leadership of Maurice Strong, industrialist of Canada, the corporations got off scott free at the 1992 Earth Summit.

The WSSD went further and embraced voluntary public/private partnerships for implementing the WSSD goals, giving corporations a huge opening to pursue their agenda of profiting from privatization of essential services like water and sewage. This is a formula for growth in corporate power, greater social inequality, and environmental degradation, rather than for creating a sustainable world grounded in environmental justice for all people.

"What are we going to do about the United States?"

Developing countries, sometimes supported by the European Union, were more outspoken in Johannesburg after having been steamrolled at the WTO summit in Doha. Tensions were high at the summit as the U.S. was seen as blocking key provisions supported by the developing world, including: language designed to hold corporations accountable; "common and differentiated responsibilities," which recognizes the special challenges faced by developing countries; and the "precautionary principle," which says corporations must prove a product safe being putting it on the market.

With the refrain "What are we going to do about the United States?" having gathered steam at the final preparatory meeting in Bali, the U.S. delegates found that they did not always get their way in Johannesburg.

The U.S. failed to kill the precautionary principle. Nor, despite heavy lobbying, could they prevent key language on corporate accountability from being included. The final text calls for promotion of corporate accountability "through full development and effective implementation of intergovernmental agreements and national regulations." The next morning, the U.S. was booed by NGOs as it unsuccessfully tried to re interpret the corporate accountability language to refer only to existing agreements. The inclusion of this language was a major victory for NGOs who have been calling for a UN-sponsored corporate accountability convention.

But like most global initiatives of the last thirty years, the best-prepared and most expensively-connected bureaucrats were working in droves for governments dedicated to free-trade and supporting the World Trade Organization. Corporations like Suez, the French water privatizer, were even on some of the national delegations. (The U.S. refused to reveal the members of its delegation despite repeated requests!) So it is no surprise that the language they drafted favored so-called public/private partnerships and rules of the WTO, giving the edge to market-driven ventures.

Yet here too the U.S. and its allies did not always prevail. Martin Khor, reporting for Third World Network, puts it this way.

"Attempts during the World Summit on Sustainable Development
(WSSD) to place WTO rules on a superior position vis-a-vis other
international agencies and treaties was averted at almost the
last hour when NGOs and a few countries fought what looked at one
stage like a 'losing battle.'

"In the end, the phrase 'while ensuring WTO consistency' was
deleted in an important sentence dealing with the need for mutual
supportiveness between trade, environment and development. If it
had not been eliminated, this would have become a disastrous
outcome of WSSD.

"The deletion was agreed to (despite a general ruling that nothing
in the text should be changed) after an impassioned plea by the
Ethiopian delegation, and after a spirited and intense lobbying
effort by many NGOs."

Charge of the Alliance Brigade

While attending a pre-summit global conference on corporate accountability under the banner of a trojan horse carrying the corporate profiteers into the WSSD, Ruth sparked a demonstration against the South African ISCOR corporation whose steel mills have polluted the drinking water and farms of Steel Valley, a small farming community south of Jo'burg. Joined by dozens of local residents, activists from around the world marched to the hotel where ISCOR was holding its stockholders meeting and held a lively demonstration. Although the company officials refused to meet with the protestors, the very next day they asked the court to lift the gag order against local plaintiffs which ISCOR had gotten the court to issue in the first place. Guess they didn't like the publicity of having one of the plaintiffs at the demo stand silently with a red scarf over his mouth.

During the Summit , Ruth joined Maude Barlow and several other activists in embarrassing Vivendi with questions about their corporate malfeasance until they simply shut down their meeting which had been intended to launch the Vivendi Environmental Institute. From there they rushed across town to the corporate dominated Water Dome where the European Union/Suez water partnership was being touted. Joined by 30 activists from around the world, they marched to the front of the room chanting "Water is a Human Right. Water is Not for Sale." They were given the microphone. Activists from many countries including Ghana, Bolivia, Canada, and the U.S. challenged the panelists who were partnering with Suez. Ruth challenged them to remove water from the GATS (General Agreement on Trade in Services), knowing full well the EU has requested that countries put water under the GATS rules. She heard later that the rest of the discussion was devoted to GATS, not "partnerships".

The People March

As the Summit negotiations got underway, the people took to the streets. Led by the South African Anti-Privatization Network, 30.000 people gathered in Alexandra -- landless farmers, fisher people, unemployed workers, activists from around the world. Forming a sea of APN red shirts, they marched the 9 kilometers into Sandton -- a stark contrast between a poverty-stricken township where people live in jerry-rigged shacks without sewage and sparse water and the glitter of wealth in Sandton. The cry of "water is a human right" resonated in Alexandra.

The tragedy of the ANC adopting a neo-liberal agenda of privatizing essential services is that this party of the anti-apartheid struggle saw the march as a threat to its sovereignty and organized a poorly attended counter march from Alexandra two hours later. Indeed, many anti-apartheid freedom fighters feel bitterly betrayed by the ANC.

In marching through Alexandra and visiting informal settlements still separated by color around Capetown, Ruth saw first hand that economic apartheid abounds. While subsidized housing is being built to replace the shacks made of scraps, the corporate banks are charging outrageous interest rates on mortgages and when people miss payments they are downsized to very small houses with just a toilet and tiny sink. Private contractors scrimp on materials, building inside walls you can put your fist through, while professional bricklayers are without work and live in shacks when they could be provided with bricks to build sturdy homes.

The widespread tapping of electric wires from exposed feeder lines is becoming a cottage industry where there is no electric service. Where this is power, pre-paid electricity meters are becoming standard. Now Suez with government approval is following with pre-paid water meters. This despite the South African constitution guaranteeing everyone access to water.

Steeped in the recent anti-apartheid struggle, organizers are working in the townships to protest the housing evictions and pre-paid water meters. One organizer with whom Ruth visited was recently arrested by the government on bogus charges. The struggle for environmental justice and human rights means we must join hands across the oceans to stand in solidarity with those suffering for speaking out.

Note: Ruth attended the summit as part of the Sierra Club's delegation and also represented AfD at the civil society forum. She thanks Dave Lewit, campaign co-chair, for working with her on this article.