To mark the 20th anniversary of the original “Earth Summit” in Rio de Janeiro, here is what I wrote about it at the time (from the July 1992 News & Letters):
Ideological pollution at ‘Earth Summit’
by Franklin Dmitryev
The UN Conference on Environment and Development (or Earth Summit) in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, began June 3 with official delegations from 178 countries aiming to subdue worldwide discontent over ecological degradation by promising bold action. When it ended eleven days later, the “world leaders” had only managed to prove their own incapability of doing more than fiddling while Rome burns.
At the alternative meeting, Global Forum, a reported 25,000 people converged to protest, to put pressure on the official conference, to forge 30 treaties of their own, to make sure that at least some voices from below could be heard. They came from 165 countries, telling stories that showed the global scope of both environmental devastation and the opposition to it.
That opposition appeared in diverse forms. Women from North and South joined to demand legal, affordable access to safe, voluntary family planning, including contraception. Representatives from Green parties of 30 countries met at the First Planetary Green Meeting. The World Conference of Indigenous Peoples, hosted by the Intertribal Committee-500 Years of Resistance, questioned the very meaning of development, and of wealth and poverty, and demanded their own territories, where they, not the national governments, would be recognized as the stewards of the land and ecosystems.
The many demonstrations held outside the well-guarded halls of Rio Centro revealed that, however divided North and South may seem, the absolute opposites remain the two worlds within each country.
As if to underscore whose voices would not be welcome, 35,000 security troops patrolled the streets. Tanks were posted next to favelas (slums), with helicopters buzzing overhead. One thousand street children mysteriously disappeared. At the summit itself, when a Canadian youth delegate’s microphone was cut off as soon as he started criticizing the U.S., 40 other delegates began protesting and were thrown out of Rio Centro.
EMPTINESS OF THE SUMMIT
The authoritarian insularity of the official summit was manifested in the total emptiness of its accomplishments. The treaty on protecting the world’s besieged forests was already dead last year, and in its place a non-binding “statement of principles” was adopted, which environmentalists declared “a step backward” from programs already in place. Another treaty was supposed to reduce the threat of catastrophic global warming by limiting carbon dioxide emissions, but the goals and deadlines were removed due to U.S. arm-twisting. In fact, President Bush kept trying to be the world’s boss, and did succeed in vitiating most of the summit’s agreements, but ended up as the world’s outcast instead.
The other treaty, on biodiversity, is supposed to slow the increasingly massive rate of extinctions of living species (which the rulers call “biological resources”). The U.S. was the only country that publicly refused to sign, but in the negotiating process it tried to gut every meaningful provision in the treaty. Undoubtedly Vice President Quayle’s Council on Competitiveness correctly stated the foremost consideration as “the President’s initiative to speed up biotechnology developments,” though no other industrial powers felt the treaty held inordinate obstacles to the commodification of life.
The Indian delegate, speaking for the bourgeoisie of the Third World, showed it was not concerned that genes will become commodities owned by multinationals, but only that it should get its cut: “The value of our genetic resources will be appreciated. Until now it seemed genetic resources were considered free like water and air.”
The alternative treaty worked out at Global Forum exhibited a totally different attitude, saying that genes and organisms “shall not be the object of restrictions, or in any way be considered as intellectual property,” and that “no patenting should be allowed on any living thing or a product derived from it.”
One of the official summit’s sticking points was the question of financial aid to the Third World. With the whole world in economic crisis, the most some of the industrialized powers promised was–without committing to any timetable–to keep their unkept 20- year-old promise to raise aid to 0.7% of gross domestic product. The U.S. wouldn’t even go that far. The stated goal of “eradicating poverty” remains an empty promise, precisely because the inherent tendency of capitalism is to develop more poverty, both in the Third World and in the “advanced” countries.
The biggest accomplishment of the rulers was that they–with a few exceptions, like Bush–adopted the rhetoric of sustainable development (defined as “development which meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”). They succeeded in projecting it as something thoroughly capitalistic, even though capitalism has proved itself capable of developing (sustainably or otherwise) only poverty, misery, unemployment–and the revolt against it.
For instance, UN Secretary General Boutros-Ghali posed humanity’s task as the protection of “ecological capital.” This precisely when it is clearer than ever how capital degrades and destroys whatever it subsumes, whether that is trees or workers!
The Earth Summit thus revealed the rulers’ powerlessness to resist capitalism’s inherent drive to reduce everything, even life itself, to commodities. Global Forum reflected the deep dissatisfaction of the masses in the face of the urgency of halting the despoliation of the planet, and their refusal to trust the rulers to take care of it.