Wednesday, 28 Aug 2002

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa

The most dire predictions about U.S. plans to sabotage the World Summit on Sustainable Development seem to be coming true. Late last night, American negotiators began to systematically disembowel the language that will govern the “System of Implementation,” which is where the rubber meets the road. Even if the summit adopts high-flying language about goals and commitments, not much will actually get done if the System of Implementation is gutted. Perhaps there will be a backlash.

The actions of the U.S. negotiators came hand-in-hand with the news that U.S. Trade Commissioner Robert Zoellick is about to file a complaint with the World Trade Organization alleging that the European Union ban on genetically modified food imports from the U.S. violates WTO rules. This is sure to spark another trade battle and keep relations frosty. While the U.S. and the E.U. may scuffle over the details, trade does seem to be the force driving the negotiations here so far. As reported in today’s Eco, “There is more about this summit that is reminiscent of Seattle than the circling helicopters and searchlights. Increasingly, it seems, we are negotiating a trade text, with other issues relegated to the periphery. Are environmental and poverty-reduction interests once again being hijacked by the short-term demands of trade ministries and special-interest lobbyists?” We’ll keep an eye out.

Meanwhile, working in the nerve center of the Eco-Equity coalition is quite an amazing experience. The space, just across from the entrance to the conference center, consists of a small suite of offices meant to house six to eight people; it’s currently home to a floating contingent that averages 15 or 20 at a time. We hail from the U.S., Britain, the Antipodes, and Europe (an inordinate number of Aussies and Danes), as well as Greece, Lebanon, Brazil, Chile, Japan, South Africa, Canada, the Philippines, and include people who travel so much they hardly have a place to call home. Everyone has at least one cell phone. Many have one for local calls, another for overseas calls. Phone calls flood in from reporters all over the world, and at any minute you can hear radio interviews being conducted in three or four languages. When these people aren’t talking to the press, they’re out lobbying delegates, plotting press conferences and political strategies.

The energy level here is of Kilomanjarian proportions, and people feed off each other’s adrenalin. And their influence is quite remarkable. This is a group that has been together since the global-warming meetings in Kyoto, and people know the territory and each other well. They may not be able to match the bigwigs’ budgets, but they make up for it with passion and the knowledge that they’re on the side of the angels. I feel honored to be part of the group.