Survival of the fittest Editorial
Stabroek News
September 7, 2002

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The much-touted Earth Summit has ended on what appears to be a sour note for developing nations, environmental and non-governmental organisations. The strides which they had expected to be made turned out to be baby steps; the issues they fought for remain on the agenda for another day, another summit.

While summit documents laud the agreements reached, many NGOs have released bitter statements. They feel that a lack of political will was shown at the World Summit on Sustainable Development, which places the earth in clear and present danger, not just from climate change and environmental degradation, but also from AIDS, poverty, ignorance and other such ills.

The agreements reached include halving the number of people without access to proper water and sanitation by 2015; improving access to affordable energy; restoring depleted fish stocks by 2015 at the latest and promoting sound management of hazardous wastes.

With regard to health, it was agreed that the World Trade Organisation (WTO) accord on patents should not prevent poor countries providing medicines for all and that access to health care (particularly for women) should be consistent with basic human rights as well as religious and cultural values.

To address poverty, the summit reaffirmed the 1970 tenet that rich countries should give 0.7% of national income; agreed to set up a solidarity fund to wipe out poverty; that poor countries should be included in globalisation and it did not say that WTO rules should override global environmental treaties. It was also agreed that the rate of extinction of endangered flora and fauna would be cut significantly by 2010.

Jo’burg 2002 also resolved that good governance was essential for sustainable development and that by 2005, countries should initiate strategies to preserve resources for posterity.

World leaders reaffirmed the principle to act to protect the environment even if evidence of potential future damage to Earth’s ecosystem is not conclusive and that all nations must try and save the planet, but rich countries are expected to shoulder more of the financial burden than poor nations.

But international aid agency Oxfam said the deal offered only “crumbs for the poor” and that the majority of the world’s leaders “lacked the guts and will” to reach an effective agreement on fighting poverty and conserving the environment.

It noted that the deal made no new commitment or timetable to end rich countries’ agricultural export subsidies in order to help poor countries develop, nor any international plan to address the crisis in commodity prices.

There was no rise in overseas aid levels, nor was there any commitment to further cancellation of poor countries’ debts.

And according to Christian Aid: “Political leaders have made it clear they lack the vision and courage needed to tackle the problems of poverty and environmental degradation.

“From Rio to Johannesburg, the real shift has been in giving a more influential role to business, particularly big business. More than ever, companies are centre stage in sustainable development, yet the summit as a whole has failed to provide a sufficiently strong regulatory framework to ensure their activities genuinely serve the interests of poor people.”

The NGOs said too that while a little progress has been made with regard to the WTO accord on drug patents, commitments on HIV and AIDS have been almost non-existent. They noted that the Global Fund for AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria was still massively under funded. (To date just US$2 billion has been pledged over five years when what is needed is in the region of US$7 billion to US$10 billion.) They said, too, that while a host of Type II agreements have been announced, these dealt with a limited number of problems in small, specific geographical areas. The US and the Caribbean have signed one such initiative, the US ‘White Water to Blue Water’ partnership, which will address biodiversity conservation and sustainable management, disaster preparedness and capacity building in climate change response. However, cautions have been raised against such partnerships replacing government commitments to global sustainable development, especially since there was no clear resolution on how they would be monitored.

The environmental groups have scored some points, but a huge disappointment was that the summit failed to agree on specific targets to increase the share of world energy produced from renewable “green” sources such as solar or wind power. The earth may not be as far along, the path to annihilation as the ‘hell-fire and damnation’ environmentalists preach, but the responsibility for acceleration/cessation of movement along that path lies with us - the human race. The half-hearted agreements reached at the WSSD should be taken as a clear sign that governments are not accepting that responsibility.

South African President Thabo Mbeki summed it up best during his speech at the summit: “It is as though we are determined to regress to the most primitive condition of existence in the animal world, of the survival of the fittest. It is as though we have decided to spurn what the human intellect tells us: that the survival of the fittest only presages the destruction of all humanity.”