Commodification: Kyoto threatens, WSF inspires resistance

The surgical counter-attack from the international left which impressed me most last month at Porto Alegre, was bullshit detection in relation to two Kyoto deals: the 1997 Protocol of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change; and the upcoming World Water Forum.

Next month, the UN and World Bank go to Japan in search of an impossible consensus between multinational corporations, neoliberal state officials and water-sector activists. I’ll devote my March column to multiple water wars which reveal how the progressive international eco-social movement weighs up responsibilities and opportunities.

First, however, what are we learning about the commodification of air, via various Kyoto “emissions-trading” mechanisms? Several WSF seminars were sponsored by progressive groups like Carbon Trade Watch, the Sustainable Energy and Economy Network, Oilwatch and the Energy Project, joined by coal-face activists from labour, community, women’s, indigenous-peoples and environmental justice campaigns across the South.

A booklet just published–”The Sky is Not the Limit: The Emerging Market in Greenhouse Gases” (TransNational Institute briefing series)–does a brilliant job explaining the problem and accusing various enemies, including coopted green groups. The five Carbon Trade Watch authors warn, “events have been set in motion which are likely to have devastating impacts on people and planet if allowed to continue”.

At issue is how to halt global warming by controlling greenhouse gases from industrial, agricultural and consumer emissions: carbon dioxide (C02), methane, nitrous oxide, hydrofluorocarbons, perfluorocarbons and sulphur hexafluoride. Kyoto ultimately leaves emissions reduction to corporate profit-seeking, as opposed to the administrative command-and-control powers that, in my view, must urgently be constructed.

This is dangerous terrain on which to compromise. At the Johannesburg World Summit on Sustainable Development last August, Greenpeace sold out, Carbon Trade Watch alleges, by implicitly endorsing “market-based corporatist approaches to environmental and social policy… Greenpeace’s increasingly muted opposition to emissions trading and its tacit and active endorsement of companies that support the Kyoto Protocol has been a major ideological victory for sophisticated corporate lobby groups such as the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, and has paved the way for further expansion and development of the market-based mechanisms. Many image-conscious corporations seek to show off their environmental credentials and thereby allay public concern by teaming up with a trusted major environmental brand such as World Wildlife Fund or Greenpeace.”

These finger-pointing authors are central to a “Rising Tide” network of militant climate-change activists from the more sophisticated circuits of Washington, London and Amsterdam–many are in their 20s and as sharp as I’ve ever met–but also blessed with fantastic allies in the Third World, especially Latin America. At a Delhi meeting where UN energy bureaucrats gathered last November, thousands of protesters turned out to fight emissions trading.

Closer to home, comrades in the Soweto Electricity Crisis Committee, who illegally reconnect electricity in Robin Hood mode, are making these links. South Africa is one of the world’s very worst C02 generators, when corrected for both per capita and per/GDP unit emissions (the latter so as to measure the energy-efficiency of output). We emit 8.2 tonnes of C02 per person per year compared to 20.5 by the US–however, for each $ of per capita GDP, the SA figure is 20 times higher than the US.

The reason is simple: the huge corporations which mine and smelt minerals–and then transfer most profits/dividends to their London financial headquarters–are getting the world’s cheapest electricity, while ten million low-income South Africans pay roughly eight times more per kiloWatt hour and, unable to afford the bills, suffer electricity disconnections. Soweto activists are making these “red-green” links, and beginning to generate demands for an entirely different macroeconomic strategy, U-turning from the African National Congress (ANC) government’s current export-at-any-cost philosophy.

Another local catalyst is the World Bank’s allegedly “environmentally progressive” pilot emissions-trading project in Durban–the Bisasar landfill gas extraction project–described in “The Sky is Not the Limit”. Community activist Sajida Khan, diagnosed with cancer along with family members of 70% of her immediate neighbours, is leading the campaign against methane extraction generated by waste decomposition. Instead, she insists, the dump should be shut and waste-generation practices changed. Khan cites broken municipal promises to this end seven years ago and ongoing violations of dumping permits (e.g., luring dangerous medical waste).

Against all evidence to the contrary, the Bank insists Bisasar Road is “a world-class site”. Perhaps the increasingly politicised case will focus more attention on Kyoto’s pro-corporate strategy, whereby those responsible for pollution can simply pay a bit more for the privilege, dumping the mess on poor and working people, while in the process gaining carbon trading credits to pollute elsewhere.

Back home in Johannesburg, I’m sensing a new wave of hope emerging in various struggles against commodification. Part of that comes from the rise in anti-war/imperialism sentiment and the way that radical community groups threw themselves into organising protests on February 15.

The two large activist blocs in the country–first, the vibrant independent social movements which marched against the World Summit on Sustainable Development, and second, the traditional ANC/labour/communist/left-church alliance–agreed just before the march on a rare non-aggression pact, so as to combine forces against the Bush/Blair regimes.

Before doing so, however, the leftist formations known as “Social Movements Indaba” also took the opportunity to condemn the ANC government for “allowing SA arms companies to export weapons components that will be used to maim and kill more Iraqis and Palestinians [and] allowing US and British ships, laden with weapons of war, to dock at SA’s ports”.

Moreover, the more durable problem of official neoliberalism remains. The Treatment Action Campaign marched on the opening of parliament on February 14, demanding wider access to life-saving medicines, promising a campaign of civil disobedience if government doesn’t change policy urgently.

The same day, Western Cape Anti-Eviction Committee activists went to court to fight disconnections and housing evictions. Supporters protested in solidarity on February 13 at the SA consulate at Trafalgar Square in London. Meanwhile, the “Kensington 87″ demonstrators from Soweto who were arrested at a protest outside Jo’burg major Amos Masondo’s house last April will appear in court for public disorder one last time on March 5. After a farcical prosecution case on January 22, they expect victory against what has become obvious ruling party harassment (keep abreast of the struggles at http://southafrica.indymedia.org).

Why are these challenges to local neoliberalism gaining momentum and building grassroots confidence? One indication is the variable treatment that two SA delegations received in their respective Forums at the end of January: Soweto was embraced by Brazil while Pretoria was shunned in Switzerland. This is the story I told to readers of the Sowetan newspaper recently (“Battle of the Trevors”):

“Africa didn’t really shine here,” finance minister Trevor Manuel told a press conference in snowy Davos, Switzerland at the World Economic Forum last week. “There is a complete dearth of panels on Africa.”

Nevertheless, in any five-star hotel gathering of powerbrokers, backslapping is crucial, no matter how artificial the camaraderie. Former Johannesburg Star newspaper editor Peter Sullivan witlessly described the Davos experience for Sunday Independent readers: “The SA contingent worked hard to get investment but partied equally hard: a real ‘jol’ was had by all with great jiving from Kader Asmal, Trevor Manuel and Alec Irwin (sic), while Bertie Lubner and his wife boogied the night away. We also drank a few bottles of KWV’s best red.” (Too many, apparently, to subsequently spell trade minister Erwin’s name correctly.)

Sullivan regaled with stories of meeting “the beautiful Queen Rania of Jordan”, Bill Gates and Bill Clinton. But as one shrewd journalist–not the social-climber Sullivan–reported on January 28, “Among the many snubs Africa received here was the decision by former US president Bill Clinton to cancel his presence at a press conference on Africa today to discuss the New Partnership for Africa’s Development. Forum officials said Clinton did not give reasons for not attending.”

The ingratitude!

Recall that over the previous eighteen months, Thabo Mbeki, Manuel and Erwin had either hosted, chaired or played a crucial backroom role on globalisation’s equivalent of a big-five hunting safari–mainly for the benefit of the Davos club:

* At the World Conference Against Racism in Durban, Mbeki shot down NGOs and African leaders who argued in favour of reparations for slavery/colonialism/apartheid.

* Ten weeks later at the World Trade Organisation’s Doha ministerial summit, Erwin split his continent’s delegation to prevent a Seattle-style denial of consensus by African trade ministers, in the process promoting multinational corporate interests.

* Then, at the UN’s Financing for Development conference in Monterrey, Mexico last March, Manuel was summit co-chair and endorsed the World Bank and IMF “Washington Consensus”, relegating debt relief to the status of a dead duck.

* A few months later, at the Kananaskis, Canada Summit of the G8 powers, a grovelling Mbeki departed with a handful of peanuts for his hungry and now badly wounded African elephant–and yet, against all evidence to the contrary, declared that the meeting “signifies the end of the epoch of colonialism and neo-colonialism”.

* Finally, at Johannesburg’s World Summit on Sustainable Development, Mbeki undermined standard UN democratic procedure, advanced the privatisation of nature, and did virtually nothing to genuinely address the plight of the world’s majority.

A little sympathy from the world’s ruling class for Pretoria’s men in kneepads would surely have been in order–even if just the face-saving sort, for the cameras, as is normally the case.

So let’s leave the grey, monied set in favour of a hot, sunny, colourful place crowded with ordinary grassroots activists who took the world’s problems rather more seriously last week. In Porto Alegre, Brazil, the World Social Forum attracted 100,000 leftist delegates from across the globe who insisted, “Another World is Possible!”

Several times in Porto Alegre, I witnessed the passion with which former Soweto city councillor Trevor Ngwane addressed the crowds, moving the agenda from basic human rights, to continent-wide organising in the year-old Africa Social Forum, to Afro-Brazilian solidarity, to his widely-applauded declaration that the World Bank must now be defunded and decommissioned.

“Weakening the power of Washington is our main challenge,” Ngwane announced, “especially now that Bush is in heat after Middle Eastern oil, and because the IMF and World Bank show they will not reform.”

The World Social Forum has spawned a variety of localised social forums of labour, women, environmentalists, community militants, church activists, and youth. In conjunction with the African Social Forum which met last month in Addis Ababa, Ngwane has been mandated to help get a Southern African Social Forum off the ground.

Icy Davos and friendly Porto Alegre will clash again. On two previous occasions, South Africa’s famous two Trevors–Manuel and Ngwane–have seen their respective teams square off. Once, during an April 2000 clash recorded in a cult documentary film (“Two Trevors go to Washington”), Manuel chaired the World Bank board of governors for two days while Ngwane taught 30,000 protesters outside to toyi-toyi.

And again last August, when Manuel was negotiating some meaningless treaty or other at the Sandton Convention Centre, Ngwane and 20,000 demonstrators marched over from Alexandra to demand that the elites pack up and end their charade.

With the world’s environmental and developmental crises worsening ever more rapidly, lubricated by petro-warrior George Bush, what conclusion can we reach about the latest confrontation? Perhaps only this: one Trevor was cold and lonely fighting a battle he can never win; the other was flush with the warmth of solidarity, basking in the resurgence of a humanistic but uncompromising international left.


(Patrick’s latest book, Unsustainable South Africa: Environment, Development and Social Protest, is available internationally through http://www.merlinpress.co.uk)

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