It was something that nobody would have expected to hear at a global environment conference. The scene: the last preparatory committee meeting for the Rio conference. The US delegation suddenly threw a bombshell. It demanded that all references to control of overconsumption be deleted as these had -very low priority" in industrialised countries.
Developing countries immediately retaliated by asking for all references to the environmental impact of population growth to be deleted.
Finally, USA had its way. While references to pop ulation stayed in, two key paragraphs on unsustainable patterns of consumption and production were bracketed - UN procedure to denote an area of disagreement open for further negotiations - under US insistence.
THIS exchange between the North and South, which took place at the last preparatory committee (prepcom) meeting held in March in New York, is a good example of the antagonistic and often farcical debate that the UN Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) - billed by its high profile secretary general, Maurice Strong, as "the last chance to save the earth" has been reduced to. And it also shows how little developing countries have been able to achieve at the conference.
With just a few weeks to go before UNCED begins in the Brazilian city of Rio de Janeiro, the fate of the earth looks bleak. No agreement has yet been reached on any of the critical issues before the conference and the North-South divide has only sharpened.
The US President, George Bush, has stated categoricalty that he will not attend the conference if it will mean@ less American jobs. Faced with the prospect of writing what has been called the largest cheque for environmental damages, the US government has tried to divert attention towards environmental problem in the South. When talks on global warming began to heat up in 1990, Bush conveniently told the Group of Seven (G-7) Summit in Houston that it was not possible to argue with any certainty that high carbon dioxide emissions would cause global warming. But in the same breath he argued for a global tropical forest convention so that the South can protect its forest resources better and reduce carbon emissions arising out of deforestation. In one stroke, the US President changed the global warming concern from one relating to too much energy use in USA to too much logging in the South.
The Southern leaders, in turn, have failed to seize this opportunity to become the environmental spokespersons for the world. Their insistence that they will participate in the global environmental clean-up only if they are assured additional aid and technology transfer at preferential terms, has largely met with derision. The suggestion of a Green Fund by the Group of 77 (G-77) has been described by western diplomats as the Greed Fund. Western environmentalists have unabashedly criticised the Southern position as "blackmail": "For once, we want something from you, and now you are holding us to ransom." This stand-off notwithstanding, UNCED will most probably grind its way to what the North will finally describe as a "modest success". Worried that Bush's absence from Rio could destroy UNCED, his Brazilian counterpart, President Fernando Collor has reportedly requested him on phone to come, saying his presence is critical. Northern leaders themselves are under public pressure to make the conference a success, which mainly means that the proposed treaties on global warming and biodiversity should get signed in Rio.
Therefore, the last two months in the run-up to Rio have been spent on hammering out compromises and watering down commitments. Strong recently admitted, "Weasel words are creeping in."
The South, battered by foreign debt and adverse economic conditions, is not keen to lose any of the green dollars and yens that may come its way. A high-level Brazilian delegation despatched by Collor to meet Prime Minister Li Peng of China and P V Narasimha Rao of India told them that even a fund of a few billion dollars should be good enough for the South to accept.
There is no doubt that the world faces an enormous environmental challenge. The world's rich have been living well beyond the means of global ecology. There are serious threats io the ozone layer, global climate and the oceans. Simultaneously, vast areas of croplands, grasslands and forests in the South are being degraded to produce luxury biomass goods and mineral products to meet the needs of the rich.
The world's market systems are failing to set prices in a way that they include the ecological costs of production. In this entire process, developing countries are getting shortchanged and the worst impact of environmenta *I destruction is getting passed onto the world's poor. Products ranging from tea, coffee and cocoa to peanuts, prawns and pineapples - all of which are produced by developing countries at heavy ecological costs - have been suffering from declining terms of trade. This results in increased distortion of local land use systems. An FAO estimate claims that 14 per cent of the South's croplands are devoted to cash crop production for the rich nations.
Developing countries cannot e4ly opt out of this vicious cycle. The 'international monetary policies set by the IMF and the World Bank have led to a crushing debt burden. This forces developing countries to put their land and water resources at the service of the world market. In fact, the devaluation of local currencies enforced by IMF's structural adjustment policies has made local ecological resources increasingly cheaper on the world market.
But UNCED has made no attempt to address such issues. The agenda before the conference is, thus, largely North- determined and intensely political. It makes no attempt to deal with the issues of survival or the global economic and cultural processes that,cause the problem.
An example of UNCED's brave attempt to deal with such issues is contained in one subpara in its 700- page-long Agenda 21, which asks for coordinated action to reduce the debt owed to commercial banks by developing countries. But even that paragraph has been opposed by USA and it now merely refers to the need for negotiations between debtor countries and the creditor banks - a weasel statement indeed!
So what are the earih-shaking things that UNCED will'be discussing? The conference is tied into knots discussing, at one level, everything under the sun, from soil erosion and drinking water to war and disease. But underlying the apparent confusion of tonnes of papers and four prepcoms, there are, at another level, about half a dozen, political issues that mark the ecological deadlock.
The first bone of contention is the Earth Charter, which has now been renamed the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development at the insistence of the South because it is wary of the very environmental connotation of the name. The declaration contains a non-legally binding set of principles. But the South sees this declaration as soft law which could get used to govern economic aid.
The debate centres around a key choice: earth first or people first. The North wants a poetic and inspirational document. But the G-71 wants a political declaration which firmly asserts the sovereignty of nations and puts the onus on the North to change its unsustainable consumption. The most vitriolic discussions have centred around the G-77's insistence on underlining each nation's "right to development".
At the New York prepcom, talks broke down completely. Finally, the chairperson of the conference, Tommy Koh of Singapore, desperate to get at least one thing whole and without brackets to Rio, steamrollered an extremely fragile consensus. He shepherded a core group of countries into a room; a rough draft of the declaration was put before them; two contending factions were identified and each entitled to put forward a "trade-off package" on each controversial issue; and, each was allowed only 50 per cent of the principles they favoured.
just a few hours before Koh caught his plane back home, the chairperson's draft declaration was accepted by all countries, except Israel whose objections to the mention of occupied territories were swept aside. But most Northern delegations see it largely as a G-77 draft. Therefore, while agreeing to support the draft declaration in deference to the chairperson's wishes, they recorded their unhappiness with the "unbalanced" character of the draft. The US delegation particularly objected to the principle which linked unsus- tainable consumption patterns to environment degradation. The fight will now be taken up again in Rio.
The most copious document before the conference is Agenda 21 - Agenda for the 21st century - prepared bv the secretariat as a global checklist of programme areas for saving the world's environment. The 700-page draft contains details of over 110 programme areas focussing on anything under the sun, from land to war and from poverty to consumption.
The New York prepcom saw frantic efforts to negotiate the document before it closed. Delegates managed-tv wade through the leaQ contentious bits, which gave Strong a chance to hail this progress as "Herculean". But Strong also admitted that "this most extensive and comprehensive international programme ever developed" was useless until it had the requisite means - money, technology, laws and institutions - to get it implemented.
Not surprisingly, the hottest issue in UNCED is money. By the end of the last prepcom there was a total deadlock. The UNCED secretariat has costed each item to estimate the full price of implementing a global programme for sustainable development - from green villages to a green globe. According to the secretariat, the quantum of foreign aid needed to implement Agenda 2l is US $125 billion annually - more than double the present aid transfers from the North to the South. In addition, developing countries will need over US $600 billion from their own coffers. The secretariat hds estimated that the investment needed for the amelioration of global environmental issues is about US $15 billion a year.
The contentious issue is how much aid will actually be given and how the funds will be managed. The G- 77 wants clear commitments from the North that it will share the cost of- change to a sustainable future; the funds will be compeVsatory in nature and additional to the present aid budgets; each global convention will have a separate fund; and, in addition, there will be a Green Fund to pay for the implementation of Agenda 21. The G-77 has asked for 0.7 per cent of GNP to be given as ODA by the end of the century.
The G-77 does not want the funds to be managed by the Global Environmental Facility (GEF) which is administered by the World Bank. It wants a new democratic organisation to manage these funds.
The financial discussions have not gone anywhere. The North has dismissed the concept of compensation - that is, paying for the environmental damages caused. When a compromise paper was presented by the North at the last prepcom, the G-77 found it vague on the concept of additionality and without any time-frame for reaching the 0.7 per cent target. Worse still, it included a wide loophole for the reluctant by adding a weasel sentence, that only industrialised countries "in a position to do so" would reach the target. The North also insisted that the GEF is "the appropriate multilateral mechanism" for financial transfer but added a sweetener by accepting the need for equal participation of donor and recipient countries in the fund.
The G-77 instantly rejected the proposal as "non-serious" and stopped any further negotiations.
Discussions on this tricky item were resumed again in mid-April when a meeting of "eminent persons" was convened by former Japanese Prime Minister Noboru Takeshita to craft a strategy for green funds. For Japan, which has long been regarded an ecological outlaw, this was an opportunity to get a slice of the global green glory. The meeting endorsed the proposal to increase development assistance to 0.7 per cent of the GNP but refased to give a timeframe. But the idea: of a tax for global cooperation, proposed at the meeting, has since been opposed by a section of Japanese business arguing that that could dampen the Japanese economy.
It is difficult to say how many cheques will be signed in Brazil - corridor rumours speak of a total of about US $5 billion to US $8 billion. Clearly, compared to the need or the level of environmental damages caused, the amount is miserly, especially when seen in the context of current South-North financial flows. A report prepared by the South Centru in Geneva, headed by Julius Nyerere, former President of Tanzania, states, "Since the mid-1980s, the flow of resources between North and South has been reversed and the South has become an important supplier of capital to the North. In 1990, there was a net outflow of US $40 billion from the South due to debt servicing alone." If financial losses due to the declining terms of trade, protectionism, brain drain and transfer pricing by the major transnationals are included - all of which greatly reduce the financial capacity of the South to invest in environmental problems - the total annual losses suffered by the South probably run into US $300 billion to US $400 billion a year.
A world economic system which first pulls hundreds of billion of dollars out of the South and then provides a few billions as aid to apply an environmental poultice does not add up to much.
But given the desperate financial straits that the South finds itself in, it will compromise on this issue. Within India, the ministry of finance has advocated a soft approach and there is growing pressure from India's embassy in USA not to take stands that may be construed as anti-USA. In May, the 32 member-nations of the GEF, including India, agreed that the GEF should be offered to UNCED as a possible multilateral funding mechanism. The meeting agreed, according to GEF chairperson Mohammed T EI-Ashry, that membership to the facility should be made universal and its decision-making structure should be so balanced that developing countries get adequate representation while donor countries get adequate weightage for their fund- ing efforts. This latter point will probably remain a sticky issue in Rio.
The fourth major issue in UNCED concerns transfer of environmentally sound technology - technologies for cleaner and more efficient production; for prevention of pollution; and for waste disposal and management. But the North has found it difficult to accede to these proposals because of private ownership of technology.
A fragile consensus was reached on the phrase that the North would promote, facilitate and finance where appropriate, the access to and the transfer of environmentally sound technologies on favourable, concessional and preferential terms as mutually agreed. Given that the phrase "mutually agreed" distorts the entire meaning of the otherwise magnanimous concession, the meetihg saw antagonistic discussions last for over a week on whether a comma could be introduced before the phrase "as mutually agreed". The fight over the comma ended when USA, which. had initially agreed to the text without the comma, dej(led to withdraw its consent. With USA saying no, ill the negotiations over the fate of the comma went waste.
The most persistent demand from the North has been for a legally binding convention to manage the world's forests. The convention has been bitterly opposed by the South - in particular, India and Malaysia - which sees it as an assault on its sovereignty and a ploy of the West to pass on the buck of sustainable development.
But in spite of the Southern anger against the proposed global policing of forests, the efforts of the North to ram down the forest convention have been unending. Even though the idea of a legal convention was shelved at the insistence of the South as early as the second prepcom in March 1991, the Northern delegates at the New York prepcom were able to sneak in a para arguing for the convention yet again. Fully aware that the South would fight the idea, the move was done in an underhand manner. The Swedish chairperson of the working group, Bo Kjellen, inserted a fresh para on the need for a legally binding international arrangement on forests leaving the Southern delegates appalled.
The discussions will now continue in Rio. Many diplomats from developing countries fear that in Rio, Southern leaders will,be under pressure to agree to a new negotiating process'for a forest convention. With several northern NGOsIike the Sierra Club and Friends of the Earth campaigning for the convention and European public opinion against tropical timber logging mounting, the forest convention looks like a possibility.
The proposed convention to limit greenhouse gases and thus prevent climate change is being negotiated separately. This is a legal document that Northern governments and environmental NGOs would like to see definitely signed in Rio. The climate convention has run into rough weather as USA is dead set against any bad deal and constraints on its energy use. At the New York prepcom, during discus sions on the atmosphere sec tion of Agenda 21, USA succeeded in getting even proposals for nationally determined targets for reduction in energy consumption deleted from the text.
But there has been considerable movement in recent weeks towards a compromise with the US position and the chances of a climate convention, how soever X+eak, now look much brighter. A 10-page memo prepared by four US government agencies was circulated recently to a'few governments which shows that USA can achieve seven per cent to 11 per cent reductions in its projected carb6 ioxide emissions by the year 2000 with the help federal energy conservation programmes already proposed or underway. But USA is still not keen to make specific commitments. It apparently wants a two-step approach. In the first stage, it wants governments to do the best they can while periodically reviewing new scientific data as it emerges. And when and if the US becomes convinced that global warming is a major, imminent threat, it could go into the second stage - steep carbon taxes to force energy conservation.
A quiet meeting was held in April within the OECD - the Paris-based think tank of the Northern countries - to thrash out a common Northern position. The deliberations of this meeting, little known to the outside world, will definitely have an impact upon the last meeting to be held in New York to finalise the draft of the proposed climate convention. If Europeans are prepared to accept a text which says "countries will try to stabilise emissions" instead of "countries will stabilise emissions", then nothing can stop the treaty from going ahead.
Whether any Southern condition like "equal human rights to the benefits of the atmosphere" will get incorporated at this stage looks extremely remote. The South will get some concessions in the form of an allowance to increase its emissions by a limited amount - something along the lines of the Montreal Protocol, which allows developing countries to phase out their CFC consumption 10 years after the industrialised countries. But the treaty will surely freeze global inequalities in per capita energy consumption levels. It is unlikely that the South will stand united against this assault on human dignity.
The proposed biodiversity convention has also run into extremely contentious issues because the convention is trying to deal not just with the conservation of the world's life forms, but also with access to the world's biological resources. This has given the convention a strong commercial character and has seen strong North-South conflicts emerge. Though developing countries had earlier agreed in the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) to biological resources being described as "common heritage" of humankind, they now find that this position only opens up access to the South's biological resources without any corresponding access to the new seeds, life forms and industrial products developed by the North using the South's genes and the tribals' knowledge of biological resources.
The South has, therefore, asserted its sovereign rights over its biological resources and has argued for access to biotechnological products in exchange for its genes. Numerous NGOs in the South see the biodiversity negotiations as extremely perverse. A joint statement issued by South Asian NGOs categorically demands that Southern governments refuse to sign the convention until major contradictions are resolved. The rights of local communities to their biological resources and the knowledge of their use raise another set of vexing issues. The draft convention recognises the role that local farmers, herbalists and tribal communities have traditionally played in improving the world's knowledge of biological resources. But the con- vention is vague on the rights of local innovators. Article 7 of the present draft states, "Subject to its national legislation, respect, record, protect and promote the wider application of knowledge, innovations and practices of indigenous and local communities ..." The phrase "Subject to its national legislation" was added to accommodate the interests of the US government, which makes this article extremely weak.
Despite their extreme contentiousness, there has been almost no public debate on the implications of the biodiversity convention in the South. The intergovern- mental committee negotiating the draft is meeting again soon to finalise the draft before Rio. Little is known about the rabbits that may get pulled out of this global hat. Last but not the least, UNCED will. decide what now institutions should be set up or old ones strengthened to watch over everyone's environmental behaviour. This question has been the least discussed till now. The last prepcom has sent two separate proposals to Rio: one, a high-level Sustainable Development Commission which reports directly to the General Assembly of the United Nations; two, a subsidiary committee under the Economic and Social Council of the UN, a far weaker alternative.
But'Rio may change all this. Northern political lead- ers may well find that to convince their voters back home, they could demand a tronger institution for global environmental policy.
It is vital that the South negotiates well at UNCED as it could easily mortgage its future. Latin Americans, especially the Mexicans and Brazilians, have already started adopting soft positions. There is no dearth of officials in India advocating a soft approach. After all, why annoy the North!
The biggest weakness of the South is its own lack of unity. With respect to global warming, the South is essentially divided into four informal camps. Firstly, the OPEC countries do not want any reduction in oil consumption or carbon taxes in the North because they believe ihis will hurt their economies. Secondly, countries which have large forest areas but relatively small populations like Brazil and several Latin American countries are more interested in forest-related issues. The Central American countries, for instance, have opposed the idea of "equal human rights to the benefits of the atmosphere", which several populations of Asian countries have been advocating. Thirdly, countries like India and China and several African nations which have large and poor populations, are more interested in the quantum of aid received. Lastly, there are numerous island nations which feel very threatened by global warming and want'the North to reassure them about their future. They are not too interested in poverty or forest related issues.
Julius Nyerere took a statement specially prepared by the South Centre in Geneva to the Group of 15 (G- 15) meeting of developing countries held in Caracas, Venezuela in November 1991. The meeting spent a whole day discussing the need for a common Southern position, but failed to bring the leaders together.
At a time when most Southern nations are getting restructured under the dictates of the IMF, they have no common position beyond rhetorical words. Each country is afraid that the other will make private deals. No country, therefore, wants to be caught out on a limb and "isolate itself" to a point that it becomes a target of the powerful North.
What then can the world's people expect to get out of a bunch of ragtag, penurious and indebted nations from the South and another group of nations, which wants to determine the destiny of the world? Whatever happens, or does not happen in Rio, the South and its people are going to be the loser.
We are a voice to you; you have been a support to us. Together we build journalism that is independent, credible and fearless. You can further help us by making a donation. This will mean a lot for our ability to bring you news, perspectives and analysis from the ground so that we can make change together.