Positive Environment News

FEATURE - Ten years on, the Rio "circus" heads for South Africa

Date: 16-Aug-02
Country: UK
Author: Jeremy Gaunt

A relatively obscure U.S. senator called Al Gore swung into town and looked impressed at a symbolic "Tree of Life".

John Denver sang for a spiritual parliament. Hollywood star Shirley MacLaine meditated with the Dalai Lama. Amazon Indians, Greenpeace activists and the Beach Boys rubbed shoulders near the legendary Copacabana Beach.

Ten years ago, the Brazilian city of Rio de Janeiro teemed with politicians, celebrities and environmentalists as the United Nations hosted what was at the time its largest meeting, the Conference on Environment and Development, better known as the Earth Summit.

One hundred and eight heads of state and government, supported by delegations from 172 countries, made speeches and negotiated in a conference centre out of town on treaties to save the world.

Buzzwords like sustainable development, chlorofluorocarbons, biodiversity and NGO bounced around the halls where an army of journalists tried to make sense of them.

The NGOs, or non-governmental organisations, lobbied in their hundreds, adding to the blizzard of position papers, speeches and statements.

Some miles away, on the Rio beachfront, thousands of Green activists gathered at an environmental fair, a rainbow of posters and tee-shirts that was part '60s hippie love-in and part anti-globalisation rally.

In the shadow of Corcovado's towering figure of Christ the Redeemer and Sugar Loaf's massive outcrop, activists demanded protection for rain forests and endangered species, an end to fossil fuels and the nuclear industry and the general scaling back of the ravages of capitalism.

One U.S. official described the whole event as "a circus". It was not meant as a compliment.


Ten years on, and the Earth Summit - this time called the World Summit on Sustainable Development - moves to South Africa, where it will open in Johannesburg on August 26.

The issues will be water and sanitation, energy, agricultural productivity and food security, biodiversity and ecosystem management, and health.

All will be wrapped under the rubric of sustainable development - or, roughly, how to manage global economic growth without environmental loss.

A decade ago, the leaders also had far-reaching plans.

They agreed treaties to combat climate change and to protect plants and animals, the rich said they would help the poor develop, and they all adopted a huge blueprint to guide themselves through it.

But there are few today who would argue that the promises of Rio have been met.

"There was really quite a buzz at Rio," said Tony Carritt, who attended the summit as a reporter and is now media relations manager for the European Environment Agency in Copenhagen.

"There was a feeling that things would actually happen. Then as soon as Rio was over the momentum went out of it."

Most, if not all, of the major issues facing the Earth Summit - pollution, environmental destruction, poverty - are still around. Indeed, many of the clashes between competing interests that dominated Rio are expected to be on display once again.

The U.S. official's comments about a "circus" in 1992, for example, reflected Washington's dismay at hearing a drumbeat of demands that the rich West share its wealth with the poor and adopt policies that it did not necessarily see as being in its interests.

Then-President George Bush refused to sign the Earth Summit's biodiversity treaty, fearing it would hurt U.S. pharmaceutical interests, and generally found himself cast in the role of Rio party-pooper.

A decade later, his son, President George W. Bush, may not even attend and has been lambasted for pulling out of the Kyoto agreement, a follow-on pact from Rio's treaty on climate change.


Veterans of Rio say, however, that the Earth Summit did have one huge effect - it put many issues that only environmentalists seemed to care about on the world agenda.

"Rio changed a lot in terms of attitude," Nitin Desai,

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