Citizen Summit

by Robert Weissman

RIO DE JANEIRO - The thousands of government officials and journalists who swarmed into Rio for the Earth Summit were outnumbered by an even larger number of non-governmental environmental and developmental activists who converged on the city, hoping to witness and influence the official meeting or to participate in a parallel non- governmental conference called the Global Forum.

 Many of the non-governmental activists, especially from larger environmental groups in the industrialized countries, sought to play an active role in the official meeting. Thousands procured credentials for the official United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED). Although they were not permitted to participate as actively in the negotiations as they were at the four preparatory negotiating conferences held before the official summit, non-governmental activists sat in on negotiating sessions in an attempt to prevent deals from being cut "behind closed doors." They lobbied government officials and sought to provide the news-starved media with comments on every turn of the negotiations. A few activists were invited by their governments to be members of their country's official delegation.

 Most of the non-governmental activists, however, did not make the daily 30-mile trek from downtown Rio to Rio Centro, the convention center at which the Earth Summit was held. Instead, they attended the Global Forum, a non-governmental parallel conference.

Political carnival

 The purpose of the Global Forum, according to its two co-chairs, Tony Smith and Warren Linder, was to create "political space" for non-governmental activists and interested parties to exchange ideas and express their views.

Central to the effort to create political space was the creation of a physical space for tens of thousands of people to come together. The Global Forum organizers situated the event in Flamengo Park, near downtown Rio. Nearly 700 booths lined the perimeter of the Global Forum grounds, and 39 large tents - which became sweltering during the abnormally hot Rio days - served as meeting rooms. The physical contrast to the imposing, modern Rio Centro was stark.

 Any organization which wanted to use that space - from Greenpeace to a Canadian logging industry association to the International Inspiration University of Leonard Orr - was free to do so. The Global Forum organizers did not impose a central theme, or even an agenda, on the event. Individual groups or coalitions of groups scheduled their own meetings and debates.

 To a large extent, the Global Forum had the air of a political carnival. Participants could visit booths selling batiks from Africa or promoting revolutionary communism or the Baha'i religion as the key to environmental sustainability; attend debates on the effects of free trade or presentations on New Age computer networks, and go to evening dance and music performances or prayer sessions held by a dozen different religious groups. This breadth of activity infused the Forum with a free-wheeling atmosphere, but also a sense of directionlessness and chaos.

Part of the disorganized feeling was probably somewhat inevitable given the huge numbers of people involved; 15,000 non-governmental activists registered to participate in the Global Forum, and an estimated 15,000 local Brazilians visited each day.

A temporary monetary shortfall, leading to a half-day vendor cut off of audio, translation and other electronically provided services, as well as completely unsubstantiated - and angrily denied - charges in the Brazilian press that one of the organizers of the event had embezzled money, added to the chaotic feeling.

 So did the disparate political messages voiced at the Global Forum. The event's organizers did not screen participants in the Global Forum, so organizations like the International Chlorine Generators and the World Bank - which are non-governmental, but not citizens' groups - were free to set up booths and actively participate in the event. For some activists, these entities' presence at an event allegedly promoting ecological sustainability was intolerable. Friends of the Earth International posted signs warning "toxic information" on several booths, including that of the Brazilian mining company Companhia Vale do Rio Doce (CVRD). A group of youth from dozens of countries took even more militant action, tearing down posters and other material from the World Bank booth and burning them.

Progressive protocols

 The majority of the most focused work at the Global Forum took place under the auspices of the Forum of International Non-Governmental Organizations and Social Movements (FINGO), a grouping which emerged out of NGOs' efforts to influence UNCED negotiations in the period leading up to the Earth Summit.

 The focus of much of their activity in Rio was negotiating a set of alternative environmental and development treaties and an Earth Charter alternative to UNCED's Rio Declaration.

 At international meetings, supplemented by telephone and fax communications, non-governmental activists produced more than two dozen draft treaties. Some of the treaties addressed issues covered by UNCED, such as biodiversity and global warming. Others dealt with topics UNCED neglected - multinational corporations, trade, nuclear power, the international waste trade. The early drafts of the treaties were discussed, debated, refined and finalized in the tents of the Global Forum.

 The final product, said one of the FINGO coordinators, constituted "an alternative development model" - an alternative to both the dominant existing model and the reformed, more environmentally concerned one implicit in Agenda 21, the Earth Summit's agenda for the next century, and other UNCED documents. Many of the treaties, which were not negotiated in a coordinated fashion, insist on the importance of reducing Northern consumption of goods and directing resources to the world's poor in order to ensure that they have access to food and clean water, and can live healthy lives with adequate shelter and clothing.

An overarching document, the People's Earth Declaration, rejects the current prevailing development model and global allocation of resources. "The path of deepening international debt, structural adjustment, market deregulation, free trade and the monopolization of intellectual property rights that currently dominates policy thought and action is a path to collective self-destruction, not to sustainable development."

A new set of principles should guide economic activity, the Declaration says: "The fundamental purpose of economic organization is to meet the community's basic needs, such as for food, shelter, clothing, education, health and the enjoyment of culture." Toward this end, the world must pursue new economic policies: "Organizing economic life around decentralized relatively self-reliant local economies that control and manage their own productive resources, provide all people an equitable share in the control and benefits of productive resources and have the right to safeguard their own environmental and social standards is essential to sustainability."

The Declaration also stresses the important role of women and indigenous people in achieving ecological sustainability, and the necessity of all public institutions, including international ones, operating in an open and democratic fashion.

 Within this general sort of framework, the separate treaties were hashed out. According to Liszt Viera, a FINGO co-chair, the treaties not only critique existing economic and social institutions, relations and patterns, but will also serve as the basis for new international networks and campaigns.

 The networks, formal and informal, established at the Global Forum will undoubtedly be the event's most enduring and important legacy. Even harsh non- governmental critics of the Global Forum, who questioned the usefulness of an eco-fair as well as the negotiation of treaties by NGOs which are not accountable to any constituency and which cannot follow through on agreements, for example, to curb carbon dioxide emissions, conceded the value of the newly created networks. Northern groups will certainly help their Southern colleagues, by sharing information and providing financial assistance. The Southern NGOs are likely to provide as much assistance to their Northern partners, teaching them that environmental questions cannot be separated from issues of social justice, both within nations and internationally.