World Sustainability Conference

August, UN delegates from governments around the world will gather
in Johannesburg, South Africa to review the successes and failures
of the “sustainable development” agenda launched at the
then celebrated Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. 

official Summit agenda embraces four main issues: poverty eradication,
eliminating unsustainable patterns of consumption and production,
sustainable management of natural resources, and the need to make
globalization work to promote sustainable development. The conference
has certainly embraced language that implies they are prepared to
address the issues of sustainability that are affecting individuals
and communities worldwide. 

in his recently released forward to WorldWatch’s State of the
World 2002 report, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan flatly stated
that the promises governments made at Rio haven’t been kept
and that business-as-usual has ruled the past ten years. 

of the Earth International reports that governments have shown “reckless
disregard for safeguarding the planet and its poorest inhabitants”
since Rio, noting that 1.2 billion people still lack access to clean
drinking water, 35 percent of the world’s fisheries suffer
from declining yields, and none of the European Union nations reporting
(as of 1998) had approached their waste and materials reduction

key commitment in Rio’s Agenda included increasing aid from
developed countries to developing countries. However, annual aid
dropped rather than increased, from $69 billion in 1992 to $53 billion
in 2000. Moreover, the Kyoto accord on carbon emissions that grew
out of Rio has yet to be ratified by the U.S., despite being the
world’s largest emitter of carbon dioxide and a growing scientific
consensus confirming that climate change is now accelerating. The
list goes on. 

light of this, a consensus is emerging among international NGOs,
including Earth Island Institute, the World Sustainability Hearings
Project, Citizens Network for Sustainable Development, Grassroots
Globalization Network, Friends of the Earth International, Third
World Network, and many others that progress toward a sustainable
world has, in many instances, either halted or reversed due to corporate-led

Martin Khor of the Third World Network observed: “In the 1990s,
the WTO overwrote the Rio accords. Its free trade agenda, which
has also been supported by the World Bank and International Monetary
Fund, often ran counter to…sustainable development. While the
WTO and related institutions have had the funds and the detailed,
enforceable rules to move their agenda forward, the UN plan was
loosely drawn, under-funded, and did not include agreement on monitoring
or compliance. The result: lots of words from Rio, but no progress
towards a sustainable world.” 

reaction to this sobering reality, NGOs and their civil society
allies have called for an agreement on corporate accountability
that could monitor and enforce adherence to world guidelines and
help ensure progress toward sustainable development. Many remain
concerned that this crisis in world governance is leaving most of
the world’s people without effective representation in critical
decision-making processes. 

has been lost in all the dialogue is the question how development—“sustainable”
or otherwise—has affected the lives of everyday people. Noticeably
absent from the international conference circuit are the voices
of people who live where development projects and the forces of
globalization are felt most directly. Fisher folk in North America
whose livelihoods are threatened by unfettered global markets, forest
communities in South East Asia whose future is threatened by their
governments’ rapid and destructive conversion of timber into
hard currency, and farmers worldwide whose land has become the testing
ground for agricultural biotechnology—all have first-hand experience
with the promises and pitfalls of globalization and development.
Also excluded from the official debate are the many communities
that have found innovative, local solutions to ensure their economic,
social, cultural, and ecological survival in the face of globalization. 

In an effort to
increase effective participation in global governance, the World
Sustainability Hearings Project and more than 40 other civil society
organizations have teamed up to provide a stage for their testimony
to be heard at the Johannesburg summit—the World Sustainability

in a separate venue near the Summit, the hearing will feature day-long
explorations of critical issues, including: a Day of Energy and
Climate Justice; a Day of Oceans, Fisheries and Fisher Folk; a Day
of Forests, Logging, and Timber-Dependent Communities; and a Day
of Corporate Accountability and Global Governance, among others.
The Hearing will yield both a video record of the testimonials and
a series of position papers outlining a grassroots citizens’
assessment of critical sustainability and social justice issues
that have been so poorly addressed by the UN over the past 10 years.
The overall goals of the hearing are: 

  • To bring delegates
    face-to-face with the people enmeshed in the problems that need
    to be addressed 
  • To provide an
    independent, civil society accounting of what has and has not
    been done by governments and corporations over the last ten years 
  • To give views,
    from the ground level, of the state of the world 
  • To hear about
    international and local approaches that have worked, to identify
    problems and highlight solutions 

when indigenous groups, environmentalists or other “grassroots”
civil society representatives manage to wrestle their way into these
global conferences, their effectiveness is often impeded by a lack
of finances, logistical support, interpreters, and other assistance.
Their voice is muted by their scramble for resources and their need
to “ride on the coattails” of northern NGOs. 

contrast, the World Sustain- ability Hearing will provide a central
organizing and coordinating site for amplifying the voice of people
in a venue that encourages dialogue with UN delegates and major
stakeholder groups, increases their accessibility to the media,
and facilitates opportunities for strategizing and networking. By
showcasing the vital reality of people’s everyday lives at
the Summit, the Hearing will help decision makers fashion a binding
implementation plan that moves all nations toward a just, sustainable
planet.                               Z 

Scholz and Kelly Jones are co-directors of the World Sustainability
Hearings Project ( and Aaron G. Lehmer is director
of Grassroots Globalization Network (www.