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Article from Green Christians 50 (Winter 2002/2003)
A BRITON IN JOHANNESBURG
- The Personal Story Of A Delegate At The World Summit
We've heard about targets and achievements, disappointments and missed opportunities. But what was it actually like to attend such a vast and potentially confusing conference? Terry Miller steers us through the complexities and gives the human story both of the Anglican Congress (which took place in Johannesburgy one week prior to the World Summit) and of the Summit itself.
The Congress participants stood on the brink of a series of fetid pools which divide the 'iinformal settlement' of Diepsloot. Thousands of people have collected here from various places - rural poor seeking a better life in the city, refugees from neighbouring countries, people moved on from other overcrowded suburbs of Johannesburg. They live in corrugated iron and board homes, with no electricity, no running water and no sanitation except a few portaloos. |
This visit to Diepsloot was a good preparation for the World Summit. It was the first of two visits participants of theGlobal Anglican Congress on the Stewardship of Creation undertook in the five day conference. The Congress met at Hartebeestspoort near Pretoria, about an hour north of Johannesburg by road, in the Roman Catholic Good Shepherd Retreat Centre. Housed in beautiful thatched lodges and rondavels we overlooked the dam and lake, and beyond to the ancient and unusual Magaliesburg hills, some of the oldest rocks on earth.|
The area has also been home to our ancient ancestors: early hominid remains have been found in nearby caves. Here, then, the long journey to dominate the planet may have begun. It was significant, therefore, that our second visit was to a Bush School in the heart of these hills, that aims to bring young people to learn together and to restore land degraded under Apartheid back to biodiversity. The 400-hectare farm had been overfarmed, the watercourses exploited, all the bushgame shot out, a microcosm of our global crisis. Now, a retired senior judge has set himself the task of bringing this land back to health, to reintroduce indigenous species, and to set up a school here where children from all kinds of backgrounds may learn together and so avert the 'sixth extinction' - the one humankind is bringing about*. (*after the five previous 'natural' extinctions.)
At the Summit|
Accounts of attendance at the World Summit have been greatly exaggerated. Apparently there were 21,385, and not 40 or 60,000. Most of us did not know what to expect as it was the first time we had been involved in such a huge conference. We knew that there had been four preparatory committees (Prepcoms) in New York and in Bali in May, and a WTO conference on trade in Doha, and a conference on finance and development in Monterrey. So, much of the talking had already been done and many NGOs had followed and made representations throughout the whole process. We were able to participate in the parallel events, listen in on the plenaries and engage with our national delegations. I met with the UK delegation daily for open briefings which I found helpful and friendly, and gave us a chance to keep up with events, as intergovernmental agreements were reached behind closed doors. We were able to hand our Joint Declaration formally to Michael Meacher, Minister for the Environment, and he gave us a chance to explain the environmental engagement of the Churches in the UK. It was informal meetings such as these that were so valuable.
The NGOs were really only able to impact on the process informally and this caused some frustration, especially when numbers to the plenary meetings were restricted arbitrarily. Nevertheless, the presence of NGOs was important. The IUCN - The World Conservation Union - had set up shop in the vast atrium of the Nedcor bank near to the centre of Sandton and the Convention centre and here a large number of conservation organisations exhibited. Here new projects were launched and senior politicians gave speeches. One memorable packed event in the auditorium was the day Greenpeace sat on the same platform as BP and the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, and they pledged to work together, especially when they had differences. A full programme of events, of bewildering array, took place here daily throughout the Summit and the IUCN was able often to act as go-between for those projects seeking funding and the potential funders. Another important event here was the launch of the Earth Charter, which has a powerful faith base. UN Envoy Pronk, himself a Christian, the organiser of the WEHAB plenaries was the keynote speaker.
The Summit events, official and unofficial were split between many sites. The NGO Forum was in the south of the city at Nasrec, the city exhibition centre. Here key presentations were made by a wide range of organisations including the Anglican delegation. The main exhibition area was the Ubuntu Village, where many cultural events took place, and some governments had set up pavilions. The UN Summit itself was at Sandton, a small city within the city of Johannesburg comprising wealthy businesses, shopping arcades, hotels and the convention centre itself. In the heart of Sandton square, car company BMW held court amongst the cafe tables, proudly showing off its hydrogen future.
This seemed to symbolise the underlying tension of the Summit. Johannesburg is a city of over six million people, superheated economically with multinationals jostling for place in new steel and glass corporate headquarters. Just down the road from Sandton's wealth is the poor suburb of Alexandra, reminiscent of Diepsloot. Prime Minister Tony Blair visited here, and significantly the World Council of Churches had its inaugural service here in a URC church. Even so, the WCC staff were transported in an air-conditioned Volvo bus, and whisked away afterwards. For most of the Summit I drove a 'bukkie' - a covered pickup provided to the Anglicans. I was told not to look lost in Alexandra and to keep the doors locked, but of course I did exactly the opposite. I staggered through the crowded narrow streets of this shanty town from church to church trying to find the right one, when at last I came upon the Mothers' Union, brightly uniformed, emerging from the Anglican church, and with much laughter they directed us. Johannesburg is a place of such contrasts. It was from Alexandra that the protest march wound its way the three kilometres to Sandton, from deep poverty to extraordinary wealth.
The air-conditioned Volvo buses were timetabled between the main centres but only occasionally visited the more prominent 'alternative' events. One was the alternative People's Earth Summit held at St Stithian's College. The New Economics Foundation, Positive News and others held conferences, discussions and hearings here. Many of our delegation dipped in and out of this fascinating parallel event, hearing Vandana Shiva, Jane Goodall and many other luminaries, as well as the stories of indigenous peoples. The school was given over to exhibitions, alternative eating venues and conference halls and attempted an holistic version of the Summit. Memorable are the sayings spread about the walls, such as 'You cannot solve a problem with the same mindset that created it' from Einstein.
Some have felt betrayed by the WSSD, some feel it was a missed opportunity, many have called it a failure. It was clear to me that development was the aim - to tackle the disparity between the developing world and the rich nations. All the glossy publications which proposed and advocated a better and more humane world could not wrest from the rich their advantages. Many hopes foundered on this agenda - with the G77 of developing nations making alliance with the US and others to thwart targets on energy renewables, for both felt that this would slow down their economies.
We could easily be cynical about these developments, yet there is a global consensus growing. Tony Blair in his speech to the Summit said, 'We know the problems, ...and we know the solutions. So the issue for this Summit is the political will'. I did not go to the Summit with the belief that governments would save the planet. I hoped for a framework, and the chance of partnerships to put flesh on it. Many things were achieved, some very hard-fought. Funding was put to a huge range of commitments, but of course nowhere near enough. I was deeply disappointed that the linkage between poverty and biodiversity was not clearly made even though we all know that most of the endangered habitats are in the poorest areas. How can we hand on a world poor of species even if we were to solve human poverty?
I sought the spiritual dimension, but though stronger than ever before, the voice was still weak because of being too unco-ordinated, both among the faiths and among the different Christian groups. I think that is an opportunity missed, maybe it is because we ourselves are so compromised. I am sure that from now on all peoples of faith need to make their stand clear, and work together from the grass roots to the highest levels to gather momentum. A key idea from Johannesburg which the media are reluctant to mention as it is not headline material is that of 'civil society'. Thabo Mbeki said, 'As governments we should not hesitate to interact with civil society'. This interaction is building capacity and forming partnerships with all the associations of society in the widest democratic sense possible, in the realisation that governments alone cannot achieve the aim of sustainable development, but only the people of Planet Earth can do this, if we have the will.
For me, the clear example of the possibilities lay to hand. For our Summit stay in Johannesburg the delegation resided at St Peter's Lodge, the old Community of the Resurrection theological college and house, in Rosettenville. It was here that Trevor Huddleston lived, and here that Desmond Tutu was trained, two men who gave hope in dark times and, with vision, created a capacity for change in numerous people and in governments too.
Terry Miller is Churches Rural Officer and Environment Officer for Lincolnshire. He is a member of CEL.
Article from Green Christians 50 (Winter 2002/2003)
Copyright © 2003-2007 Terry Miller and Christian Ecology Link
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