The Earth Summit Debacle
The United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, the self-styled Earth Summit, finished where it began. After ten days of press conferences, tree-planting ceremonies and behind-the-scenes wheeling and dealing, the diplomats went home to their various other assignments and the politicians to their next round of international talks. Rio gave way to the Munich conference and the more familiar territory of GATT, G-7power politics and interest rates.
For the major players, the Summit was a phenomenal success. The World Bank emerged in control of an expanded Global Environmental Facility, a prize that it had worked for two years to achieve. The US got the biodiversity convention it sought simply by not signing the convention on offer. The corporate sector, which throughout the UNCED process enjoyed special access to the secretariat, was confirmed as the key actor in the "battle to save the planet". Free-market environmentalism — the philoso phy that transnational corporations brought to Rio through the Business Council on Sustainable Development — has become the order of the day, uniting Southern and Northern leaders alike. For many environmental groups, too, the Summit was a success: credibility has been achieved (some even having seats on government delegations) and their concerns are no longer marginalized. They are now recognized as major players themselves.
The Summit, in fact, went according to plan: indeed the outcome was inevitable from the start. Unwilling to question the desirability of economic growth, the market economy or the development process itself, UNCED never had a chance of addressing the real problems of "environment and development". Its secretariat provided delegates with materials for a convention on biodiversity but not on free trade; on forests but not on logging; on climate but not on automobiles. Agenda 21 — the Summit's "action plan" — featured clauses on "enabling the poor to achieve sustainable livelihoods" but none on enabling the rich to do so; a section on women but none on men. By such deliberate evasion of the central issues which economic expansion poses for human societies, UNCED condemned itself to irrelevance even before the first preparatory meeting got under way.
The best that can be said for the Earth Summit is that it made visible the vested interests standing in the way of the moral economies which local people, who daily face the consequences of environmental degradation, are seeking to re-establish. The spectacle of the great and the good at UNCED casting about for "solutions" that will keep their power and standards of living intact has confirmed the scepticism of those whose fate and liveli hoods were being determined. The demands from many grassroots groups around the world are not for more "management" — a fashionable word at Rio — but for agrarian reform, local control over local resources, and power to veto developments and to run their own affairs. For them, the question is not how their environment should be managed — they have the experience of the past as their guide — but who will manage it and in whose interest. They reject UNCED's rhetoric of a world where all humanity is united by a common interest in survival, and in which conflicts of race, class, gender and culture are characterized as of secondary importance to humanity's supposedly common goal. Although they acknowledge that a peasant in Bihar shares the same planet as a corporate executive, they view the suggestion that the two share a common future as farcical. Instead, they ask, "Whose common future is to be sustained?" Their struggle is not to win greater power for the market or the state, but to reinstate their communities as sources of social and political authority. This special issue of The Ecologist is an attempt to describe the background to that struggle.
The Ecologist, Vol. 22, No. 4, July/August 1992