Southerners win the Rio round

For many southern groups, the greater cause at Rio was to align with their governments against the West's "green imperialism"

By Fred Pearce
Published: Wednesday 15 July 1992

THE EARTH Summit in Rio in June this year ended in defeat for those trying to establish some form of "global governance" over the planet's natural resources. This brought profound gloom among most western environmentalists. But it came as a relief to many in the South, who saw more risk than respite for their forests in a system of oversight involving agencies like the World Bank and the UNDP.

The summit saw the emergence, for the first time as a serious international force, of the G-77 group of developing nations. At the summit, the G-77 became an effective counter to the force of the G-7 industrialised nations. With Indian environment minister Kamal Nath playing a leading role, the G-77 fought off determined efforts by the rich nations to push the developing nations towards a Forest Convention. And, in the name of defending national sovereignty, they rebuffed similar efforts to give the proposed UN Commission for Sustainable Development powers to demand and scrutinise nation reports on progress towards "sustainable development".

This followed a similar successful effort by the G-77 nations to prevent the biodiversity convention from including a detailed list of endangered species and threatened habitats that need protection.

Western groups arrived in Rio angry that the "lists" clauses had been lost from the biodiversity convention. They were determined to join western governments in pushing for tough international oversight and reporting in all resolutions made in Rio. Yet, a fortnight later, they departed in some disarray. The WWF, Greenpeace, the US Sierra Club and others no longer publicly backed a forest convention, apparently because of the vehemence with which their southern counterparts had opposed the idea.

Rio had seen a new twist in the continuing disputes between northern and southern environmentalists, and it was clear that on this occasion, the southerners had won the argument.

What made southern groups back their governments in what, from a western perspective, often seemed an anti-green cause? Partly, of course, there was "real politik". It gave them influence within their national delegations to bolster their case for national sovereignty. But the southern greens were not "bought". They had equity and practicality on their side, too.

The equity question was especially striking. In the days before the summit, US President George Bush unveiled plans to increase his overseas aid for forestry. In so doing, he underlined that one of his prime concerns was to preserve rainforests as a "sink" to absorb some of the carbon dioxide put out by American power plants and automobiles.

Bush appeared to have calculated that investment in tropical forests abroad was cheaper than investment at home in energy conservation. Not surprisingly, this was seen in the South as a new and crude example of "green imperialism".

The G-77 was in no mood to accept this. "We understand the global importance of forests," Nath told a briefing for journalists in Rio. But how about other nations making their share of commitments? Only weeks before the summit, the US had refused to accept a climate convention if it contained any firm requirements to stabilise, let alone reduce, its carbon dioxide emissions.

In Rio itself, the US lobbied hard and long to prevent European countries circulating a round-robin declaration under which individual nations would proclaim their intention to stabilise their emissions. America's friends, such as Britain, argued privately against such a move.

Nath wondered at a proposed system of global governance that put international oversight on carbon sinks, but not carbon emissions. "We do not talk about the globalisation of oil. Yet oil has a greater impact than forests on the global environment," he said. The question of why this might be so was left hanging in the air.

Equity takes another form, too. Few activists in the South relish the nationalisation of natural resources that has taken place both before and since the colonial era. Their view is that only community control of such resources can ensure that they are both conserved and properly used for the benefit of rural populations.

This approach is now increasingly heard in the West under the phrase Primary Environmental Care, which holds that environmental protection, the meeting of the basic needs of the poor and empowerment of local communities are indivisible and mutually reinforcing goals.

Thus, the argument goes, to "globalise" natural resources, even in the name of conservation, is to take them yet further away from the people who depend on them for their day-to-day lives. And, paradoxical as it may seem, make their conservation even less likely.

For many southern groups, therefore -- even for those with a history of conflict with their native governments -- the greater cause at Rio was to ally themselves with their governments against the western "green grab" of the South's resources.

---Fred Pearce is a noted journalist, who contributes regularly to the New Scientist on issues of global environmental politics.

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