S. Africa summit takes on global ills

Concrete goals, plans sought to curtail poverty, environmental damage

August 26, 2002|By John Murphy | John Murphy,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa - Thabo Ntisana has been responsible for the destruction of thousands of acres of vegetation across South Africa. Armed with chain saws, machetes and herbicides, his legions of workers have chopped down eucalyptus trees, tugged water hyacinths out of ponds and poisoned castor oil plants.

When more than 100 world leaders gather this week in Johannesburg for the largest-ever international meeting to save the planet, Ntisana wants to teach their countries to do the same.

Ntisana works for an innovative program to rid South Africa of invasive, water-guzzling foreign plants that siphon off an estimated 7 percent of the country's limited water supply, destroy rivers, reduce farmland and lead to the extinction of indigenous plants and animals. The government program employs more than 20,000 people nationwide, combating poverty in a country where one-third of the population is out of work.

"We are making a difference in people's lives, and in the bigger picture we are making a difference to the environment," says Ntisana, a regional director of the Working for Water program.

Simply put, that is the theme of the United Nations World Summit on Sustainable Development, a 10-day conference that seeks to save the planet from environmental destruction and lift billions of people out of hopeless poverty.

It's a tall order. Even before the meeting begins, there are plenty of doubts whether, in a week and a half, world leaders can agree on such ambitious goals as halving world poverty by 2015, reducing car emissions and combating AIDS.

Organizers say they expect more than 40,000 people to come to Johannesburg for the summit, the largest international event the country has been host to since the end of apartheid in 1994. Visitors include British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and Col. Muammar el Kadafi of Libya, as well as 101 other world leaders, thousands of delegates, thousands more environmental activists from across the globe, a fair share of rowdy protesters and a gaggle of journalists.

Noticeably absent will be President Bush, who has chosen to skip the summit, drawing criticism from environmental groups and summit leaders that the United States lacks the commitment to tackle these global problems.

Even without the leader of the world's richest nation, the summit will go on, organizers say. And if the outcome of the event is unknown, one thing is certain: People will talk. Delegates will debate ideas as lofty as saving the fish in the sea and as tedious as the placement of a comma or semicolon in an agreement. There will be discussions on organic farming, threats to coral reefs and the 1.2 billion people who live on less than a dollar a day.

Dubbed "Rio+10" or "Earth Summit II," the conference will build on the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, a groundbreaking meeting that forged agreements to protect the atmosphere, preserve endangered species and respect biodiversity.

As much as the meeting awakened the world to the ailing state of the Earth, however, it has done little to change the destructive habits of the world.

An environmental report released this month by the United Nations traces some disturbing trends:

At present, 40 percent of the world's population faces water shortages. Global sea levels are rising, evidence of the impact of global warming.

Many plant and animal species are at risk of extinction, including half of the large primates.

2.4 percent of the world's forests were destroyed during the 1990s.

Every year, more than 3 million people die from the effects of air pollution.

Organizers of the Johannesburg summit want world leaders to reverse those trends by committing to action plans.

"The Rio summit was focused very much on trying to change the way people talk about development. In Johannesburg, the focus will be trying to change the way people act," Nitin Desai, secretary-general of the summit, said during one of several news conferences yesterday in Johannesberg.

"This really is an historic opportunity and one that must be seized by the government leaders," Christopher Flavin, president of the Washington-based Worldwatch Institute, said during one of the news conferences.

But getting the world to agree to timetables, target dates and solid goals will be difficult.

There has never been an environmental conference so complicated and far-reaching as this one. The conference theme is "sustainable development" - development that can meet the needs of people now and in future generations. The 71-page discussion document that delegates will haggle over starting today focuses on five main areas: water and sanitation, energy, agricultural productivity, biodiversity and human health.

Delegates have failed to hammer out their differences on these issues during four meetings in recent months. They remain divided over specific targets, farm subsidies and aid to poor countries.

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