Issue of August, 25, 2002
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Report
Out of Synch as Sustainable Development Summit Opens
By Anthony Stoppard

The Global Forum of NGOs at the Rio+10 Summit is a Tower of Babel in which thousands of activists seek a common voice for their demands to fight poverty and preserve the environment.

JOHANNESBURG, (Tierramérica).- Contradictory positions and even their own diversity are posing big challenges for the anti-poverty, pro-environment activists gathered here until Sep 4 as they seek to leave their imprint on the World Summit for Sustainable Development (WSSD).

The Civil Society Global Forum is an opportunity for non-governmental organizations (NGOs) from around the world to meet and exchange ideas while exerting pressure on the decision-making process at the United Nations-sponsored Summit, being held a decade after the World Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro.

But the NGOs, which began their own sessions Aug 20, have presented contradictory stances on the meeting's principal themes.

"The immediate challenge is to overcome the physical fragmentation between delegates, and then see which of their differences are tactical -- and can be overcome -- and which are principled," says Victor Munnik, a policy analyst with the Civil Society Secretariat, which is charged with organizing the Forum.

Because of political differences and practical difficulties, different organizations have set up camp in different places.

The coalition Social Movements Indaba, for example, has set up its own meeting place, right next to the venue for the UN-endorsed Global Forum, and is planning its own meetings and protests. It does not want anything to do with the official UN process as they believe it is dominated and controlled by governments and big business and will not be able to come up with solutions to the challenge of sustainable development.

A bit further down the road, the South African-based Landless People's Movement (LPM) has set up camp for those who want to focus on a single issue: the right of ordinary people to have access to land. They are trying to keep both the Global Forum and the Social Movements Indaba at an arm's length to prevent them taking the focus off the land campaign.

Tens of thousands of activists face the task of summarizing their proposals in a declaration addressed to the heads of state meeting at the WSSD. The document is intended to be taken into consideration in drawing up the official political statement and plan of action for the UN summit.

"It is very difficult to see if we will be able to reach agreement," said Munnik. We must maintain "diversity in solidarity, and solidarity in diversity" and accept as much compromise "as much as they can live with" so that the Global Forum can come up with a united, broadly supported political declaration, he added

Agreement is not impossible, even with the diverse collection of NGOs, which are focused on the environment, communities or development, he said, pointing out that organizations as politically diverse as Greenpeace, the World Wildlife Fund and the Environmental Justice Network "are working together in a way that I have not seen before."

Important groupings like youth, women and indigenous peoples met ahead of the Global Forum to come up with positions that will reflect their common interests and concerns. These will be proposed for inclusion in the Forum's final declaration.

The big issue facing civil society here is deciding if they can work with global political and financial institutions like the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF).

They must also find ways of defending existing agreements on the protection of the global environment and the alleviation of world poverty; and pushing for increases in international development aid and environmental protection standards, say some activists.

Then there are the divisions between those organizations that want the forum to rally to the cause of protecting natural resources, while others believe that the only way to protect the environment is to make social and economic development of communities the top priority.

Activists from all sides say that even if civil society manages to hammer out a broadly acceptable political declaration, it is likely that it will demand more in terms of development and environmental protection programs than governments attending the WSSD are going to be ready to concede.

Despite the divisions and the difficulties, World Conservation Union (IUCN) South African representative, Saliem Fakir, says the Global Forum and other events being held around the WSSD will give activists a chance to debate issues in a way that diplomatic protocols of the official meetings will not allow.

That alone makes the gathering vital for coming up with solutions to the challenges of sustainable development, he says.

* Anthony Stoppard is an IPS correspondent.

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