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Tropical rainforest

by Vandana Shiva

Will the World Summit in Johannesburg be a global party for corporate interests? Indian environmentalist Vandana Shiva sees big problems with life on Planet Earth, Inc.

Adecade ago, the nations of the world met in Rio de Janeiro for the Earth Summit and embraced an ideal: sustainable development -- an ecologically sound route to lasting economic health, a way of improving living conditions without harming the environment.

This August in Johannesburg, we will have the follow-up to Rio: the World Summit on Sustainable Development. The summit is being organized at a time when the world is in chaos, violence rules, and governance structures are breaking down or are being used to break down societies and ecosystems. Non-sustainability is the defining feature of our times.

As negotiations have moved forward throughout the year to draft the resolutions that will be finalized at Johannesburg, it has become clear that there are two conflicting, incommensurable paradigms at work.

One paradigm is ecologically based -- people-centered and earth-centered. This is the paradigm that inspired the Earth Summit and the documents it produced: the Agenda 21 commitments and the Conventions on Biological Diversity and Climate Change.

The other paradigm is financially based, corporate centered, and trade led. This is the paradigm underlying the World Trade Organization's rules of trade and the economic restructuring required of developing countries by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund.

An attempt is being made to reduce the World Summit on Sustainable Development to a corporate- and trade-centered event. For example: In the chairman's paper prepared early in the process, there is a paragraph on globalization that promotes free trade and the international "Doha agenda" on trade liberalization. One of the recommendations of the Doha talks was free trade of all environmental goods and services, such as water.

This is in direct conflict with another paragraph that asks states to "promote access by the poor to land, water resources, and other agricultural inputs, and promote land tenure modifications that recognize and protect indigenous and common property resource management systems."

If water is a commons, it cannot be commoditized. If it is forcibly made a globally traded commodity, it ceases to be a commons.

Since two-thirds of humanity depend directly on land, water, and biodiversity for their livelihoods, the destruction -- or privatization -- of land, water, and biodiversity creates poverty for the people who are left without food, water, and means of livelihood. However, in the commercial economy, this destruction registers as "growth": Major dams, highways, and ports are "development" projects in the commercial paradigm. These projects are, however, systematically resisted by local communities because they push people into underdevelopment. By destroying the ecosystems that support their livelihoods, this version of "development" robs them not only of their economic well-being but also of their homes and cultural security.

The vibrant and strong ecology movements in the Third World are movements to resist this creation of poverty and underdevelopment. They are an expression of the universal socio-ecological impacts of narrowly conceived development based only on short-term commercial criteria.

The impact of the ecology movements is not limited to the particular development projects they are opposing. They also point to a re-evaluation of the very conception and paradigm of development that generates such projects. Ultimately, they are redefining the concepts of development and economic values, of technological efficiency, of scientific rationality. They are creating a new economics for a new civilization.

The issue at the World Summit on Sustainable Development is therefore not a choice between environment or development, ecology or poverty. These are false dichotomies. The real dichotomy is between resource-destructive economies based on privatization of resources versus resource-conserving economies based on sharing of the earth's gifts of land, water, and biodiversity.

The challenge Third World ecology movements pose to the World Summit is simple: Will the earth's resources sustain the livelihoods of the poor, or will they generate profits for corporations? Will water and biodiversity be recognized as the common property of local communities, or will they become the private possession of global corporations?

It is time to bring the economy back to its roots in ecology. Peace, justice, and sustainability demand it. Johannesburg could be a time for homecoming, a celebration of the end of another apartheid -- the environmental apartheid based on unequal sharing of resources that is at the root of poverty and under-development in South Africa and across the world.

Report Card

At the Earth Summit in 1992, the nations of the world reached consensus on a statement of environmental goals called "Agenda 21."

Agenda 21 was a beautiful thing. "Urgent and decisive action is needed to conserve and maintain genes, species, and ecosystems," it declared. "Protected forest areas must be expanded worldwide.... There must be a much greater effort to develop and promote ...mass transit systems" -- on and on for hundreds of pages.

But the world has not kept its promises. The UN sees the Johannesburg conference as a chance to get nations to recommit to concrete programs for progress. --Don Hinrichsen

Rio to Johannesburg:
Losing ground...
PEOPLE who lack safe drinking water:
1 billion then
1.2 billion now

ACRES of tropical forests left standing:
4.7 billion then
4.3 billion now

TONS of carbon emitted each year:
5.9 billion then
6.3 billion now

PERCENT of the world's coral reefs severely damaged:
10 percent then
27 percent now

PEOPLE who live in poverty:
2 billion then
3 billion now

...except on population
INCREASE in the human population every year:
90 million then
77 million now

Rio dates range from 1990-1992; Johannesburg dates range from 2000-2002.

U.S. environmentalists have called on President Bush to attend the summit and to take concrete environmental action (see NRDC's media center).

To add your voice, write to President George W. Bush, 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., Washington, D.C. 20050; fax 202-456-2461; or email via

UN: World Summit on
Sustainable Development

Vandana Shiva's Research Foundation for Science, Technology, and Ecology

Before gaining an international reputation speaking out about the environmental issues that affect developing nations, Vandana Shiva was one of India's leading physicists. She won the Alternative Nobel Peace Prize in 1993.

Photo: Frans Lanting

OnEarth. Summer 2002
Copyright 2002 by the Natural Resources Defense Council