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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Earth Summit Prep

Air Date: Week of

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The last preparatory meeting to set the agenda for the upcoming World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg recently wrapped up in Bali. Host Steve Curwood talks with John Vidal of the Guardian newspaper about what was, and what was not, accomplished in Bali and what to expect in South Africa.


CURWOOD: In late August, officials from world’s governments will gather in South Africa for the Johannesburg World Summit on Sustainable Development. At least that’s the plan. The last preparatory meeting for the Summit recently wrapped up in Bali, Indonesia. It was meant to put the finishing touches on the Summit’s agenda, hammering out how to address such issues as water quality, sanitation, and clean energy. But little was resolved. John Vidal joins me now from London. He’s the environment editor at the Guardian newspaper, and is covering the World Summit. So John, what happened in Bali?

VIDAL: Well, the thing is, what we’re trying to do is to get this broad agreement before they go to Johannesburg on the need for certain things. They wanted to put down on paper government commitments over the next five or ten years. But the point is, they couldn’t do it. They started off with a 60 page text and they ended up with a hundred page text. In other words, it got more complicated. Instead of resolving the issues and finding agreement between countries, it actually got worse and worse.

CURWOOD: A number of environmental groups blame the U.S. for what they’ve called, quote, "hijacking" the meeting in Bali. What were the sticking points?

VIDAL: Well now, in global real politic today the U.S. is the only big player. So when things go wrong, people automatically blame the United States for good or for bad. I don’t know necessarily the answers. But certainly at Bali they took teams of, I mean, two, three hundred people, and the environment groups accused them of trying to wreck it or trying to actually start to renegotiate the treaties which were made in Rio 10 years ago. And they would say "We’re going backwards."

Now, it didn’t end up quite like that, but certainly the United States, backed by OECD countries-- especially Canada, Australia, to a lesser extent Europe-- refused really to negotiate on these key points. They were finance and trade. And so, no agreement could be made on how to finance any of these great plans which they might have, and absolutely nothing was given away at all on the trade issue.

CURWOOD: Now, out of the Rio Conference there were a number of treaties and agreements. The Framework Convention on Climate Change which led to the Kyoto Process is one; there was a biodiversity treaty; there was deforestation-- a number of agreements. As I understand it, there’s no intention this time to have major international treaties, but what could mean something, coming out of this? I mean, for instance, what would it mean if this conference somehow dealt with the water issue question?

VIDAL: You see, I think we have to put all these big questions into the context of what’s happening in global politics at the moment. Now with water, everybody admits there is a massive problem, and it’s growing, and it’s going to get much, much worse. Now, already you see the United Nations and the World Bank and the individual governments going straight down the road for the privatization of water supplies and distribution around the world.

And so I think that just since Rio there’s been more than 300 agreements which the World Bank has lined up with water companies. These things are going to be accelerated. You’re going to see more privatization. The sub-text of the rich countries, certainly, at Johannesburg will be privatization, will be the liberalization of economies, will be the opening up of markets. And we’re going to see this pressed over and over again, and they will be supported massively by business.

CURWOOD: And the developing countries?

VIDAL: Developing countries are in a fix. They can’t talk as one grouping at all, and they’re split, they’re disorganized, and so on and so forth. So some countries, they realize- -the reality of world politics today is if you do not sign up to the big time agendas of liberalization and whatever, then you are not going to get the aid money, because aid, as Secretary O’Neil and others have made very, very clear, and made clear at Bali, was that aid is going to be conditional on basically good governance, and good governance means signing up to the principles of opening your markets and liberalizing your economies.

CURWOOD: What would you think would be the best possible outcome from Johannesburg? What kind of resolutions or outcomes could make it successful?

VIDAL: The point is the Johannesburg meeting is historic in the sense that I think the United Nations and governments have realized they cannot do it on their own. So, what you’re going to see for the first time is big business really brought into the equation of how to solve the world problems and how to focus on serious poverty in Africa or wherever it is. And so I think what you are going to see is bilateral agreements between industries and governments to, for instance, provide enormous electricity or water agreements which will help communities in different places. So, it will be individual initiatives. It won’t be the great sort of global sweep which we had before. It’s going to be very much "Let’s bring business as a partner into the whole development issue."

CURWOOD: Who do you think among the world leaders is going to be there?

VIDAL: Ah ha, big question. Well, it’s a big story if President Bush goes. It’s an even bigger story, in a way, if he doesn’t go. If he doesn’t go, that will be read by the rest of the world, frankly, that America doesn’t care. It doesn’t matter whether he sends Secretary O’Neil and dozens of other cabinet ranking ministers. If Bush himself doesn’t go, then it will be interpreted that he doesn’t care. His father did go to Rio to give them his due.

I think there will be a celebration, as well. I think there’s going to be a very large element of the celebration of alternatives. I think the non-governmental groups and all this myriad of grassroots organizations and whatever will say "Look, we don’t need governments. We’re just going to get on with it ourselves." And I think that we will see a sort of revivalist spirit, which happened actually after Rio, as well, with people just saying, "Look, we can do this. We have the knowledge. We may not have the money, but we can certainly do an awful lot." And I think that that would be one spirit where civil society may come of age and really start celebrating its own power as another force in the world today.

CURWOOD: John Vidal is the environment editor for the Guardian newspaper, based in London. Thanks for filling us in, John.

VIDAL: Good bye, and thank you.

[MUSIC: The Lonesome Organist "The Storm Past By" CALVALCADE (Thrill Jockey—1999)]



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