Rio Plus Ten: Politics, Poverty and the Environment

Rio Plus Ten: Politics, Poverty and the Environment

by Neil Middleton, Phil O'Keefe




The World Summit on Sustainable Development took place in Johannesburg, South Africa in September 2002. In this book, the authors look at the agenda established since the original Rio conference in 1992 and cover the events of the intervening years: global warming and the unfolding arguments over climate change, energy, water and sanitation, patents and many other issues. They examine what progress-- if any--has been made. Offering a critical analysis of the links between neo-liberal economics and transnational organisations, the authors expose the poverty of so-called international protocols and resolutions which claim to offer solutions. They show how, in virtually every case, these resolutions remain part of the problem of continuing poverty and environmental degradation in the non-Western world.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780745319544
Publisher: Pluto Press
Publication date: 08/20/2003
Pages: 216
Product dimensions: 5.32(w) x 8.46(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Neil Middleton has written widely on development and aid and is a consultant with ETC-UK. He is the co-author, with Phil O’Keefe, of Tears of the Crocodile: From Rio to Reality in the Developing World , Redefining Sustainable Development, Disaster and Development: the Politics of Humanitarian Aid and Negotiating Poverty, published by Pluto Press. Phil O’Keefe teaches Economic Development and Environmental Management at the University of Northumbria. He is also the Director of ETC-UK.

Read an Excerpt



The World Summit on Sustainable Development, held at the end of August 2002 in Johannesburg, is the most recent irruption in a lengthy chain of events. These events emerged from a complex history following the Second World War and the establishment of what became known as the 'Keynesian compromise' between industry, government and people; they were extensively conditioned by the subsequent Cold War waged by the US and its allies against the now vanished Soviet Union. For our purposes we may take the publication, in 1962, of Rachel Carson's The Silent Spring as a starting point – it was the first book to bring to the notice of a general public the alarming extent of environmental degradation. Pollution had been seen as an unfortunate, but inevitable, by-product of necessary economic development, particularly in a post-bellum world. Carson drew attention to the worldwide scale of it and to its dangers and she advocated a system of environmental monitoring and protection. Subsequent public awareness of those issues and the consequent political pressure on governments to take some action owe much to her work.

The roots of the other, and later, consciousness – that of unequal development – are even more tangled. They include the final collapse of the British Empire and the ability of many of the newly independent political leaders to publicise their causes, the emergence of welfare-ism, the growing influence of non-governmental organisations (NGOs), the rise of neo-colonialism (especially on the part of the US) and, particularly in Britain, the recruitment of selected populations, from what became known as the Third World, as cheap labour to fill unpopular jobs. Few voices, in the decade or so following the Second World War, were raised in making the now relatively commonplace connection between environmental degradation and poverty. Nonetheless, the growing consciousness in the developed world that, on the one hand, relations between the older and richer states and the new, mostly poor nations were increasingly unjust and, on the other, that all was not well environmentally, finally led to international action.

In 1972, the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment was held in Stockholm and was expected to address the issue of the degradation of the environment and the deterioration of living conditions in the developing world; it ended with a declaration of twenty-six common principles. The first of these endorsed the universal right to freedom, equality and adequate conditions for life, but the main weight of that endorsement rested on the parallel 'solemn responsibility' for the protection of the environment. The remaining twenty-five were unequivocally environmental. At the time, few people recognised the extent to which this was an important shift in priorities. Concern for the environment and the effects of its destruction on human lives and not, directly, concern for the manifold causes of poverty, now headed the agenda. This order of business has affected all subsequent debate about development and has produced a peculiarly environmentalist approach to what are, essentially, human and humanly created difficulties. Since the Stockholm Conference (as it is more generally known) most effort has been devoted to fixing a damaged environment, rather than attacking the causes of the damage, many of which are also the causes of poverty.

Three years later, in 1975, a Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) was held in Helsinki and produced a declaration (known as the Helsinki Declaration) in which, among other things, the thirty-five nations present (including the USSR) agreed to cooperate on matters to do with the environment. Geopolitics prevented much in the way of follow-up and a suspicious Soviet Union refused to cooperate; fifteen years passed before the Conference became an organisation of importance, and security seemed to have ousted the environment as a matter in which it was concerned. In 1977, the Independent Commission on International Development Issues was created; chaired by Willy Brandt, a former Chancellor of the then Federal Republic of Germany, it is better known as the Brandt Commission. Its purpose was to examine the issues involved in the rapidly increasing inequalities between rich and poor countries and to suggest ways of overcoming them – it was probably the last major attempt at asking the right questions. Entitled North–South: a Programme for Survival, its report was published in 1980: aid to the least developed countries should be increased by a minimum of US$4 billion per annum over a period of about twenty years; it should made easier for developing countries to get to the funds available from the global financial institutions and these funds should be provided on preferential terms. The report also called for expenditure on agricultural development to be increased by US$8 billion over the same period; it proposed that protectionist barriers, erected by the states of the 'North' against agricultural products from the 'South', should be removed. In matters of trade, the Commission again called for the ending of the North's protectionist regulations. Long-term financing for the development of energy supplies in developing countries was also suggested. The report and its proposals received widespread publicity and acclaim, but was resolutely ignored by the governments and institutions of the North. Prior to its disbandment in 1983, the Commission published another report entitled Common Crisis which the governments of the wealthy world neglected as enthusiastically as they had neglected North–South, though both reports played a part in other events taking place in the UN.

The issues would not go away. Disparities between rich and poor nations increased, inevitably accompanied by greater international instability. Both sides in the Cold War supported client governments throughout the developing world and turned a blind eye to, when not actually encouraging, predatory oligarchies and dictatorships which not only sequestered vast sums of international 'aid', but also preyed on their own people. The price of this bounty was permission for international corporations to help themselves to the resources and assets in the countries of these vassal governments – countries in which the welfare of workers and care for the environment were not serious considerations and where the further impoverishment of the already poor could be ignored. That tale is well-known and for the most infamous examples we have only to remember Union Carbide's activity in India or Shell's performance in Ogoniland in Nigeria, but there are countless others. Continued impoverishment and massive environmental destruction were the price paid by the poor for the Cold War and for the growth of the 'free' market. The need to address these problems became apparent to the wealthier governments and to the UN, partly because they added to international instability and partly because public clamour became increasingly insistent.

In the same year that the Brandt Commission published Common Crisis, the UN General Assembly set up the World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED), chaired by Gro Harlem Brundtland who was then Prime Minister of Norway. Its brief was to examine environmental and developmental crises and to make proposals for 'a global agenda of change'. Our Common Future, its report (commonly referred to as the Brundtland Report), was published in 1987 and caused a not inconsiderable stir. In her foreword, Brundtland set out what it was that the General Assembly had asked for:

• to propose long-term environmental strategies for achieving sustainable development by the year 2000 and beyond;

• to recommend ways concern for the environment may be translated into greater cooperation among developing countries ... that take account of the interrelationships between people, resources, environment and development;

• to consider ways and means by which the international community can deal more effectively with environment concerns;

• to help define shared perceptions of long-term environmental issues and the appropriate efforts needed to deal successfully with the problems of protecting and enhancing the environment.

Commentaries on the Brundtland Report are legion, including one by the present authors, so it is unnecessary to cover the ground again, the point here is to recognise that the phrasing of the call by the General Assembly conformed to the priorities first laid out in Stockholm.

Both Stockholm and Brundtland were the progenitors of the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, held in Rio de Janeiro in June 1992 (referred to, variously, as the UNCED, the Earth Summit or Rio: see Dodds and Middleton, 2001). Klaus Töpfer, formerly a minister of the environment in Germany and now Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), has remarked on its huge importance. To an extent previously undreamt of, it thrust the environment into the centre of politics. It was an extraordinary achievement and one with which many of the world's most powerful governments are still struggling to come to terms. Neither Rio nor its outcome were ever a direct challenge to the objectives of what has been called the 'overdeveloped world', but the Conference was a political phenomenon and, to use Bismarck's cliché, politics is the art of the possible.

Rio produced some remarkable, if largely aspirational, documents. Principles were enunciated in the Rio Declaration based on the Stockholm Declaration. It is important to note that both declarations, and subsequent modifications of them, are glosses on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, a point to which we shall return. Agenda 21 was the framework, constructed by UNCED, for an ambitious programme for sustainable development: both a guideline for governments, INGOs and multilateral agencies, and a basic document for local initiatives, particularly among municipal authorities. It has led to the foundation of over 2,000 groups throughout the world known as 'LA21s' (Local Agenda 21). The Agenda is totally committed to the proposition that: 'Economic conditions ... that encourage free trade and access to markets will help make economic growth and environmental protection mutually supportive for all countries, particularly for developing countries and countries undergoing the process of transition to market economies.' Another less than world-shaking document produced by the Rio Summit was the cumbersomely entitled 'Non-legally Binding Authoritative Statement of Principles for a Global Consensus on the Management, Conservation and Sustainable Development of All Types of Forests'; this was the nearest that the Conference could get to an agreement on forests in the face of the intransigence of the overdeveloped nations' determination to continue to see them as an essential resource for their own industries. It was a depressing document, if only because the needs, livelihoods, rights and the societies of the arboreal and peri-arboreal dwellers were resolutely ignored.

Two agreements were reached: the Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). 'Framework' conventions are skeletons, given flesh by a series of subsequent protocols – in the case of the UNFCCC, the only protocol, so far, is that made at Kyoto in December, 1997, but there is a case for seeing the Montreal Protocol as an agreement affecting the Convention. The CBD was a sorry affair since it was agreed in the face of powerful and well-established transnational corporations (TNCs) busily exploiting the profitability of, on the one hand, the biological attributes of the natural world and, on the other, the extension of monoculture and genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Powerful states closed ranks with the TNCs and refused to countenance much more than an admonitory role for the Convention. Nonetheless, in their different ways, both conventions have prompted some movement, no matter how minimal, in those wealthy states least in thrall to their lumpen right. They have also become points of departure for that contemporary phenomenon of widespread, single issue political protest.

Two other influential bodies came into being as a consequence of what was achieved at Rio: the UN Commission on Sustainable Development and the Inter-Agency Committee on Sustainable Development (IACSD). The former was created, under the wing of the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations (ECOSOC), to oversee the implementation of Agenda 21, but, among many other tasks, it also set up the International Panel on Forests and the International Forum on Forests. Towards the end of the century, it was instrumental in creating a mechanism through which the UN General Assembly could discuss oceans. Another of its achievements was to bring the threats to the environment posed by tourism into official discussion by forming the International Work Programme on Sustainable Tourism. The IACSD is essentially a management structure designed to ensure the coordination of the various bodies overseeing the implementation of Agenda 21, but it has two other important organisations responsible to it: the committees on Oceans and Coastal Areas and on Water Resources. Both are areas of increasing international political concern.

This abbreviated account of some of the products of UNCED is to reinforce our point that the Conference did succeed in politicising environmental issues. We cannot be surprised that its politics were a supine surrender to the agendas of neo-liberal capital and that, by concentrating on the problems of the environment rather than of people within the environment, it enabled venal world leaders to evade many of the issues. The most publicised of the agreements, the UNFCCC, was given some content by the Kyoto Protocol. It is widely recognised that the success of the Protocol lay not in any serious effect it might have on the environment, that could only be minimal, but on the fact that it was reached at all. Its principal consequence has been the creation of a profitable new international market in trading emission permits which has been led by Richard Sandor working with, among others, BP, DuPont and Ford – a cynic might see in this the only hope of rescuing that tattered agreement from the rejectionist position taken by the far right, particularly in the US and Australia.

Apart from politicising environmental concerns, UNCED also prompted substantial developments in thinking about the relationship between poverty and the environment – not the least because it put the equivocal, but invaluable, concept of sustainability, at the centre of the debate. It is equivocal since a consensus about its meaning is assumed to a point where its user seems to invoke a moral authority in its use, yet exactly what is to be sustained and by what means are rarely carefully defined and, with very few exceptions, the word is used in portmanteau fashion to carry quite specific political and economic programmes. In any discussion of poverty and development, we may discount ludicrous extremes like the argument that sustainable development is possible only through the complete liberation of the market, but we should bear in mind some of the baggage of apparently more benign proposals. The encouragement of artisanal livelihoods in places where the overall economic situation inhibits them (as in areas where migration to industrial centres offers greater returns) is an instance and seems to have emerged from a view of how things ought to be, rather than how they are. Another may be seen in the clumsy and largely ineffectual apparatus of much of the targeting of aid. In the case of environmental issues, the once fashionable debt for nature swaps, which were, in effect, forms of colonisation, provide an instance of the triumph of a particular ideology in the understanding of sustainability.

In recent years the intimate connections between poverty and the environment have become central to any discussion of sustainable development and this shift has made the criticism of past practice possible. More importantly it provides space for the analysis of the baggage contained in any use of the term 'sustainability'. Analysis itself cannot be entirely neutral since it must derive from a set of assumptions and its outcome will be conditioned by the expectations of the analysts; indeed, where the process leads to prescription, it would be deficient if it lacked ideological drive. What matters is the recognition and consequent judgement of the nature of the ideology, itself an ideological process. Ideology is at issue in the most central question of all: what is sustainable development? If it is the achievement of some equilibrium between human action and ecological possibility, how is that to be measured, if it is ever achieved, and what would be its effect on human inequity and inequality? In practice, since we may be faced with humanly induced ecological disruption or even catastrophe, the question of what it might mean is put aside in favour of argument about how best to keep identifiable and present dangers at bay.


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Copyright © 2003 ETC (UK) Ltd.
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Table of Contents

Acronyms and abbreviations
List of Tables and boxes
1. Introduction
2. What did they agree?
3. Cold water
4. Hot air
5. Other business
6. Development and duplicity
Appendix a: The Johannesburg Declaration on Sustainable Development
Appendix b: World Summit on Sustainable Development Plan of Implementation

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