Diary of a political carnival

UNCED saw the largest ever gathering of heads of government in history. Ceremony, glitter and pomp were played out against a backdrop of demonstrations, haggling and scandal. The Down to Earth team, which witnessed the entire pageant, records its impressions

Published: Wednesday 15 July 1992

Diary of a political carnival

-- June 1
Confusion reigns on the eve of the 12-day summit -- the biggest gathering of world leaders ever. Delegates start arriving to a spruced up city. A 35,000 strong security force has swept the city clean of the beggars, urchins and vendors who swarm the streets. Rio, possibly the most violent city in the world, is now peaceful. Logistical nightmares delay proceedings as 7,000 press people, over 2000 NGOs and many more government delegates stand impatiently in line to get a picture-pasted identity card.

The conference has not started officially, but pre-conference consultations have. The agenda, among other procedural items, includes the election of the president of the conference, 39 vice-presidents, an ex-officio vice-president from the host country, a rapporteur general and a chairperson for the main committee. As expected, Brazilian President Fernando Collor de Mello is elected chairperson, and his foreign minister Celso Lafer ex-officio vice-president. But the trouble begins when nominations are tabled for the vice-presidents as Asians and Africans have too many nominations for their limited seats. Asians table 12 names for their eight seats, while Africans have 11 nominations for their nine.

The meeting also discusses how much time each head of government will get during the 'summit segment' of the conference. A total of 96 speakers need to be accommodated in a matter of two days. The issue becomes contentious as delegates do not accept a five-minute time limit. Some even suggest a system of tradeable talking permits. One delegate murmurs under his breath, the US President could then buy all the time.

In Rio city, the Global Forum -- the conference of the NGOs -- opens to more than 12,000 people from 164 countries and thousands of non-governmental organisations. On the road to the summit, young people create a monument of rubbish bags and junk pulled up from a polluted lagoon. The sculpture in the shape of the globe is christened "Garbage Planet", symbolising the effect of the Earth Summit on the future. Security forces nip the effort and force the creators to dump the material back in the lagoon.

The Greenpeace ship, Rainbow Warrior, docks in Rio harbour, abandoning its blockade of the Brazilian port used by a paper and pulp manufacturer, Aracruz Celulose, S.A. whose factory and eucalyptus trees have been hailed as an example of sustainable development.

The media focussing attention on the key issues of the conference highlights the North-South conflict and the issue of funds. The New York Times editorialises that "miserliness (of the rich nations) is misguided. It is unjust and unrealistic to put the principal financial burden on developing countries themselves". But it also says, "Developing countries have weakened their own cause by demanding that staggering sums be put at the disposal of a new international bureaucracy .... Too many Third World leaders have treated the conference as a prod to win new aid commitments rather than to protect natural resources."

In the US, the administration's anti-environment paranoia reaches a new pitch. Its decision not to sign the biodiversity convention clouds the summit. The EC environment commissioner, Carlo Ripa de Meana, says that the Earth Summit "has been betrayed before it has begun". The rift between the EC and the US becomes apparent. The head of the EC delegation to Rio, Laurens Jan Brinkhorst, says that the developed world has bent over backwards to please the US, but "we are not seeing an appropriate response". Saying that it was important for the EC to make itself credible to developing countries by "not just offering words, but also taking steps to put our own house in order", he adds that "it is not a beauty contest, but while we in the EC have increased development aid to 0.5 per cent of GNP, the US has cut its from 0.3 to 0.2 per cent."

In India, the CPI(M) politburo comes out with its very first statement on the conference which warns that proposed conventions were attempts of the West to pass on the burden of cleaning the earth on Third World countries and demands a firm stand from the government of India.

June 2
Maurice Strong, secretary general of the conference, amends his earlier statement -- " This is the last chance to save the earth" -- by telling journalists that "We won't save the world in one stroke". He adds that there "are no quick fixes".

In Rio's Flamengo beach, thousands welcome the arrival of the sailing ship Gaia, a replica of a Viking boat named after the Greek goddess of the earth. The ship sailed 17,000 nautical miles from Norway with a cargo of messages to the world's leaders from thousands of children. The master of ceremonies is film star Roger Moore who -- rather inappropriately -- makes references to his past exploits in Rio as Agent 007. Banners in Portuguese display anger against Brazilian neglect of its own street children and underfunding of education, and read, "Gaia go home. Five million rich men show off. Give money to the favelas (slums)."

The final event of the ceremony is the symbolic launching of a 80-foot hot air balloon, "The drop of hope". The balloon, say the organisers, will travel around the world during the next two years, carrying many of the resolutions adopted in Rio.

June 3
The conference is officially opened. UN secretary general Boutros Boutros-Ghali begins with a two-minute silence for the earth. He says, "Never in history will so much depend on what you do or do not do." Strong and Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland continue, both drawing attention to the vital need for differences between the developed and developing world to be resolved. Brundtland, who had chaired the World Commission on Environment and Development, is sharp in her words, saying, "We should not be surprised that the developing nations are approaching the Rio summit with open economic demands. For them it is essentially a conference about development and justice.... The time has come for a mass attack on mass poverty."

The growing isolation of the US is clear. Chief US negotiator and head of its Environmental Protection Agency, William K Reilly, receives a bare minimum and tepid applause to his speech. Reilly says that President George Bush's chief priority at the summit is the preservation of the world's forests.

The NGOs continue to jolt and prod the dreary proceedings with colourful events. The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) launches a massive hot air balloon which says "Action, not hot words." Thousands of women participate in an all-night vigil on the beach.

June 4
The conference has started in earnest. Many items on the agenda remain bracketed -- the UN jargon for items which have not been agreed upon -- and diplomats are hardpressed to negotiate to take a 'clean' text to the summit. The most contentious issues are funds, technology transfer, atmosphere and forest principles. Tommy Koh of Singapore, chairperson of the main committee, is a hard taskmaster and deals firmly with any outstanding issue.

At the same time, negotiations on the relatively less bracketed parts of Agenda 21 -- the global action programme to protect the environment -- begin on a stormy note. The US delegation wants entire portions of the agreed text to be reopened for discussion, forcing chairperson Koh to point out, "This is no longer the prepcom."

The changes sought are intensely political. One such issue is indebtedness of developing countries. In the past, the US had resisted attempts to focus attention on this problem and had managed to dilute any action on it. The text before negotiators in Rio merely reads: "In this context (of growing debt burden), additional financial resources in favour of developing countries are essential."

Now it wants to make this transfer of resources conditional to the control that the North should have on actions in developing countries. Their text reads, "The availability of additional external resources will increase as foreign entities are convinced that such resources will generate a positive result." As can be expected, the G-77 protests strongly and finally a compromise text is included, which, while accepting that additional financial resources are essential, also states that "the efficient utilisation of such resources is essential".

The day continues with many such bumps. The very next item relates to the paragraph which calls for the need to restrain consumption in developed countries. The US, which has been the leading proponent fighting for the American way of life, comes up with an original theory to defend its massive overconsumption. It says that changes in its consumption patterns will "reduce incomes" in the South as it will result in a reduction of export earnings. This drives Koh to respond, "Why don't you let the G-77 look after the interests of the developing countries?"

While world politics is rearing its ugly head in the official conference, NGOs, carving out their own world at the Global Forum, are faced with the hard reality of the world of money. The forum, with a debt of US $2 million -- a shortfall on its total US $11.6 million bill -- is fighting to fend off angry contractors who have demanded payment within 48 hours or will take away their equipment. Coordinator Warren Lindner tells journalists that he is "frightened and worried" and does not want to "leave behind a legacy of broken words". The forum organisers appeal for help as veteran NGO Bella Abzug from the US passes her big hat around to reporters in the room. About US $20 is collected. But many others promise assistance.

There is much happening at the Global Forum. Each day there are almost 300 separate meetings, some on regional issues, some country-specific and some on the cross-cutting political elements of the world we live in. The programme is crammed and an atmosphere of festivity prevails.

In Rio city, the conference is leaving its impression. One restaurant has started serving a new dish: Steak Eco-92. When asked what is was, the waiter replied, "A steak served with broccoli."

June 5
The controversy over the US decision to not sign the biodiversity treaty is heating up. Brazilian President Fernando Collor is the first to sign the convention and says with obvious reference to the US, "The protection of biodiversity cannot be a divisive issue. It is a cause that unites all of us." One by one, other heads of government come to sign. France, which had earlier sided with the US, also avows its commitment to the convention, leaving the Bush administration totally isolated.

And the "released leak" of a confidential memo from the head of the US delegation, William Reilly, to President George Bush creates ripples. In the memo, Reilly had appealed to the White House to end opposition to the biodiversity convention, saying that the Brazilians "had offered to fix the biodiversity convention so that the United States could sign it". The memo was published on the front page of The New York Times which said that it had got the memo from "an official opposed to Reilly's position" on biodiversity. The move obviously embarrasses Reilly. It also brings a sharp rejection to any compromise and a White House official says, "The response was what you would expect. A flat no."

But other countries are coming to help the US. Talks on the "Like-Minded Countries Declaration" -- proposed by Austria, Switzerland and the Netherlands with the aim to stabilise carbon dioxide emissions at 1990 levels by the year 2000 -- is running into trouble primarily because of the UK which is refusing to agree to any binding commitments. This would further embarrass the US which does not want any commitments. A British environmentalist coins an anagram for his country's delegation -- CREEP -- the Committee to Re-Elect the Environment President.

US-bashing is, however, getting some Americans down. At a meeting on global warming, a remark by Bangladeshi economist, Atiq Rahman, that "the US is beyond embarrassment" leads to strife. Peter K Mueller of the Electric Power Research Institute in California says he is "chagrined" to be in Rio because "there is so much US-bashing going on here". Mueller then adds, "What government we Americans have is our business.... the US does not have 1000 per cent inflation, like some countries. We have our own set of problems, but we are also very generous about helping the rest of the world." Referring to developing countries that attack the US, while demanding access to American technology, he says, "Why can't these countries clean up their water so their children don't die?.... You don't hear any criticism at all of the undeveloped countries, but people feel free to make all kinds of wild charges against the US." Others at the meeting, however, say that the most criticism was coming from fellow Americans.

A group of young protesters attempt to suggest the need for forward thinking by marching backwards down the streets of Rio. Their message is that world military budgets should be donated to social and environmental needs. There is total chaos on Rio's streets as over 500,000 people gather, not to save the planet but to participate in an ecumenical rally. God is still more important than the environment.

June 6
Despite Saturday, negotiations continue. Meeting in the main committee, delegates clear as much of the bracketed portions of Agenda 21 as they can. Every time Koh runs into a block, he sets up a committee to bash out the compromise language. The G-77 insistence that it wants to fix the year 2000 as the deadline for the rich nations to increase aid budgets to 0.7 per cent of their GNP is being met with enormous resistance. Sub-chief of the US delegation, Curtis Bohlen, criticises other rich countries for going back on their promises by agreeing to increase their aid budgets to 0.7 per cent without planning to stick to it. "We are the only honest ones," Bohlen says. He, therefore, cheerfully accepts a resolution proposed by the G-77 which calls for a reaffirmation of the goal.

The one breakthrough comes on the institutional framework as governments agree to set up a sustainable development commission to monitor the implementation of Agenda 21.

The Global Forum is shaken by allegations of a financial scandal. Unnamed European and North American groups file a report with the Brazilian police alleging that Coordinator Warren Lindner had transferred US $1.7 million meant for the Global Forum to his own organisation, Centre for Our Common Future. A visibly upset Lindner refutes the allegations saying that a completely audited financial report is being prepared to show that "every cent destined for the meeting was spent in the event's organisation".

June 7
Sunday is the day for protest. The morning starts with an ecological walk where environmentalists, angry with the US, are joined by film stars, Olivia Newton John and Shirley Maclaine and soccer star Pele. Maclaine says, "We are not victims of the world we live in. We are victims of the way we make the world."

Meanwhile, George Bush and the British prime minister, John Major, finish their two days of talks at Camp David. While it was expected that Major would concede to Bush's point of view on the biodiversity treaty in this pre-summit meeting, everyone was relieved to hear that Britain would go ahead on the convention. But it is speculated that a conciliatory deal has been struck.

At the Global Forum, US senators, led by democrat Al Gore, make personal apologies for the treatment given to native Americans by the US administration. Gore claims that "we have a lot to learn from indigenous cultures" as he and his colleagues commit themselves to convince Bush to sign the biodiversity convention.

The former Soviet president, Mikhail Gorbachev, agrees to become the president of the International Green Cross -- an organisation which seeks to protect the environment in many ways, including using specially trained "shock troops" to move into a country suffering from environmental damage.

June 8
On Monday, there are no meetings open to the press or the NGOs as governments huddle to haggle over how to save the earth. Frantic negotiations are said to be taking place in contact groups, sub-contact groups and sub-sub contact groups.

In yet another diplomatic humiliation for the US, Germany announces that it is backing a campaign in which the 12-member European Community and other countries would use the signing of the global warming treaty to reaffirm their binding commitment to stabilising -- and ultimately reducing -- greenhouse gas emissions. Germany also announces its plan to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by up to 30 per cent by the year 2005. The German announcement comes in the face of what European envoys report as intense US pressure to dissuade them from going ahead.

The fight over the forest principles is also hotting up. Indian minister Kamal Nath comes out strongly against globalisation of forests, saying, "It is inconceivable why forests alone should be a globalised commodity, while crude oil, which is the most crucial resource, should not be similarly globalised."

The finances of the Global Forum continue to be troubled. A meeting between Maurice Strong, William Draper, the head of UNDP, and delegates from several nations ends without any solution. The owner of the company which supplies the sound and simultaneous translation equipment threatens to totally disconnect his services. Meanwhile, countering the allegations of financial fraud, auditors of the Global Forum submit the income statement.

At this parallel conference, everything seems to be on the agenda. Inside tents, groups discuss diverse topics like: breast-feeding is an ecological act, mental pollution in the inhabitants of large cities, culturing of worms, Zambian women and energy-efficient cook stoves and the environment of China.

An Amazonian Indian chief shocks environmentalists as he comes draped in a large leopard skin which he offers to sell for US $600. Chief Jurana of the Xavantes community says, "I would like to know why an Indian who lives in the middle of the forest should not sell the skin of a leopard. This is an Indian's right, nobody can take it away from me.... What should Indians do? Let themselves be eaten by the leopard to keep the foreigners happy?" Representatives of the International Indigenous Commission do everything to keep the chief away from being photographed and from speaking. But he had his way. In obvious anger against the northern environmentalists, he says, "To the First World, we're like the cinema, like clowns, a fantasy. We don't want to live like creatures in the jungle. We want comfort, houses, salaries."

June 9
Today seven presidents have arrived, tomorrow 13 and, on Thursday, 32. The French President's stay will be the shortest, lasting 8 hours and 20 minutes, while the Tanzanian President will hold the record for the longest stay -- early 8 days.

The official paper, Earth Summit Times, reports that the US is "pulling out all stops to win support for its proposals on forest conservation which President George Bush has called the paramount American priority at the conference."

With the US hogging the news, the conference seems to be forgetting the Japanese. Despite the largest government delegation (100 as compared to America's 45) and definitely the largest, poshest and best-equipped delegation room, the Japanese have kept in the background. But now, with the issue of funds heating up, everyone wants to know how much will the Japanese give? Reports suggest that whereas Japan had earlier announced a five-year package of US $7.5 billion for environment-related aid, this will now be delayed, largely in order not to further humiliate Bush.

There is much excitement -- perhaps more than all other times -- as actress Jane Fonda and her husband who is the founder of CNN, Ted Turner, come to Riocentro to sign the Earth Pledge. NGO protesters invade the conference joining hands in the shape of a heart.

June 10
Starting today security has been tightened. Officials fear demonstrations against Bush.

At the plenary session, Maurice Strong says, "We are very close to agreement on Agenda 21." The first split of the morning comes with the EC rejecting the proposal to convene a world conference on desertification, angering the Africans. They put pressure from every corner of the globe on the EC, including the US, to resolve the matter. In return, the US is expected to demand support for its forest initiative.

The forests issue continues to simmer as William Reilly, without explaining why, maintains that "there is an undeniable relation between the Rio declaration and the forest principles". Obviously, the US is keeping alive its option of opening up the Rio declaration in response to the intransigence of the South over the forest issue. The Saudis also put a spanner in the works by refusing to accept the chapter on atmosphere, saying that the concept of energy efficiency goes against their interests.

The NGOs award the US, Saudi Arabia and the UK the Ostrich Prize for the worst performances at the summit. UK gets it for claiming the role of the leader, while running after Bush.

On the streets of Rio, a 50,000-strong demonstration, organised by Brazil's main trade union federation, chants slogans against the Brazilian government, the US and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Anger with UNCED is obvious as banners read: "What is the use of all this ecology if our people are oppressed and massacred?".

The drug store in Riocentro is running out of tranquilisers and vitamins as diplomats are beginning to show signs of stress.

June 11
The negotiations continue. While discussing the fate of the world, governments run into problems over a comma. The group discussing technology transfer adjourns because the US insists that a comma in the middle of a particular sentence should be left in as it believes that the comma restricts technology transfer and protects intellectual property laws. Delegates spend half of a three-hour meeting on the comma. Finally, when they reconvene, developing countries agree to the US demand to keep the comma. But the US is not content and now, comma or no comma, it rejects the entire paragraph.

At Riocentro, the diplomatic calm is broken as police take strong-armed -- and allegedly unwarranted -- action against young protesters. Broken glass and bloodied arms of protesters who are forcibly dragged away by UN guards -- especially imported from New York -- are to be seen after the struggle. Trouble began when Canadian student Wagaki Mwangi began to speak at the plenary on behalf of the world's youth. But her speech is interrupted, allegedly censored, on the internal TV circuit as she criticises the US and other industrialised countries.

As expected, the US asks for African support for its forestry proposal, in return for its endorsement yesterday for a desertification convention. "They are not openly saying it's a trade-off, but they are implying so," says a West African delegate.

At the Global Forum, things are looking up. The multi-country, multi-agency fund-raising effort, which took the personal involvement of Maurice Strong, is paying off. Coordinators now say they may even get a surplus.

Meeting in their tent, Planet Femmea, some 1,500 women approve of two treaties and a declaration on themes which they say "have been ignored" in the official conference. The treaties emphasise the right of women to control their own lives, which "is the basis of all action on population, environment and development". The women stand for the right to abortion in the case of unwanted pregnancies -- a delicate issue in many parts of the world, especially the US. And for the participation of women in all decision-making positions. Meanwhile, a female headcount finds that, of the 178 official delegations present, only 10 are headed by women.

The victory for the South comes at 3 am in the forest negotiations. It manages to check northern attempts to move towards a legally binding convention.

June 12
Today is the big day: 56 speeches by heads of government. Rio city traffic is turned upside down. India's P V Narasimha Rao tamely points out, "Each seems obsessed with the facet that concerns it, in disregard of the larger dimension."

The star of the day is clearly Fidel Castro whose brief speech brims with passion. Even old enemy Bush is caught clapping. Castro, in his element, reserves many broadsides against the industrial powers. He blames high consumption societies for the "atrocious destruction of the environment" and demands to know how Third World countries, "exploited and sacked by an unjust world economic order", can be blamed for attempting to survive?

The big names roll on. Germany's Helmut Kohl commends George Bush's forest initiative. He hopes, inspite of the resistance from the South, "we will be able to adopt a forest protection convention". Britain's John Major concurs: "I welcome President Bush's forestry initiative." Both mention funds, but much below expectations.

The world is waiting expectantly for Bush. Rumours abound that he might make major concessions in a dramatic bid to gain leadership. Finally when he speaks, it is a grand let-down. He says, "It is never easy to stand alone on principle, but sometimes leadership requires that you do." On the biodiversity convention, he repeats his disagreement.

But for the South, there is some respite: there is no mention of new forest initiatives. The reason for this omission is not clear. US delegation member, democrat senator, Tim Wirth, tells reporters that "there was a lot of skirmishing about that at the White House and the proposal disappeared last night". Others link the backtracking to the G-77 position on the forest principles finalised late last night.

In terms of money, Bush puts creative book-keepers to shame. He talks about increasing US environmental aid by "66 per cent over the 1990 levels". Nobody quite knows what this means in dollars and cents. But Bush is aware that his stock amongst his NGOs is not high. The President spends a good part of the day meeting them.

Negotiations for funds and atmosphere are still sticky and delegates meet once again in the evening, to bash out a solution over a good part of the night.

June 13
There is a serious diplomatic flap. Japanese Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa's address to the plenary via satellite transmission is cancelled by UN secretary general Boutros Boutros-Ghali. Miyazawa is not able to attend the meeting because of a crucial parliamentary debate in Japan. His speech, previously recorded, is successfully transmitted, but not aired. This means that any hopes of major financial breakthroughs are diminished even further.

Today, another 47 heads of government speak. But now that the big ones are done with and most importantly, George Bush, the conference has a strange anti-climax atmosphere.

But the show goes on. Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland says, "We are disappointed by the lack of adequate financial commitments made. The 20-year-old target of 0.7 per cent of GNP as official development assistance must be reached before the year 2000." But who is listening?

The highlight of the day is the post-lunch round-table. This is the largest banquet of heads of state and government in history.

Last night's negotiations have concluded unsuccessfully, even though they stretched to the early hours. The negotiations which are to start again by 4 pm are delayed as last minute consultations continue. On the question of funds, though, some kind of a compromise has been bashed out. The French are reported to have difficulties and reach out to check with their President who is back home.

The struggle over the atmosphere chapter appears to be headed for an emotion-charged showdown between the majority of the conference participants on one side and Saudi Arabia and other oil-producing nations on the other. The meeting begins late in the evening. Finally, a few hours later, the world bashes out a solution.

June 14
On this last day of the "first day of the world", as Roger Moore called it, everything is over. The leaders are leaving. Diplomats, exhausted by their marathon haggle, are sleeping. Secretaries are clearing their papers. The only thing that continues is speeches. Brazilian President Collor, Boutros-Ghali and Strong make impassioned statements. While Collor declares that "the world is now aware that questions of environment and development cannot be treated separately", Strong pronounces judgement: UNCED was "a great success.... but whether it will eventually succeed in achieving its objectives, is left to be seen."

Inspite of all the controversy they generated, both the biodiversity convention as well as the climate convention have managed to tally 154 signatures each.

The NGOs are turning their backs on governments. In a bid to create their own world, and to reject the watered-down governmental treaties, they have put forward their own alternative treaties. Says Kamarakafego, who heads a Bermudan NGO, "The treaties will be something around with which we can mobilise NGOs to have a major influence on the restructuring of the United Nations in 1995 -- its 50th anniversary."

Now is the time for the editorial writers to take over.

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