The difference is the spirit

Feature story - 31 August, 2002
Within the halls of Sandton, non-governmental organisations and press have been effectively excluded from all deliberations of the Earth Summit's now as they work late into the night. The mood is dark, as we watch commitment after commitment fall victim to the slow, soporific process of largely elderly men turning firm targets into watered down recommendations, calls for action into loophole-infested statements of intent. Heads of State arrive tomorrow, and none of them want to do the embarrassing dirty work of undermining the Earth Summit. Many would prefer to have that done well before they arrive.

The Landless Peoples' Movement converges on the Earth summit to demand land, food and jobs.

Out in the streets of Johannesburg, however, the thousands of protestors who gathered to call for Land, Food, Jobs, and a clean environment were an angry and jubilant force of hope. The day was non-violent, though the fear of violence and the fear of police reaction certainly kept many away. Last week, police broke up a demonstration by landless people with stun grenades and tear gas.

Today, police surrounded Sandton conference centre and shopping mall with watercannon, razorwire, tanks, armored vehicles, machine guns, and helicopters. Inside Sandton, Saturday shopping and luxury dining by the public and delegates to the World Summit continued unabated. Delegates from inside the conference who went to join the march passed through armed checkpoints into another world. "I've seen now the white marble opulence of Standton and the shack and dirt poverty of Alexandra" said one protestor. "The disparity that this summit needs to address is illustrated perfectly within a five mile radius of the meeting."

"There were a lot of angry people," said Janos Maté of Greenpeace. "And there was an amazing spirit. It was great to be there. The colour, the camaraderie, the drumbeats, people on the sidewalks were cheering and dancing to the rhythm -- there was a feeling of everybody being together for the right reasons: land, food, jobs, the environment and human rights. Amazing Spirit."

One banner dubbed the Earth Summit the "World $ummit on $ustainable Destruction," and a deep cynicism prevailed among the marchers about the likelihood that meaningful results would be agreed.

The march was part of a global day of action, A31, against the corporatization of the United Nations. "CEOs of major corporations such as Dow Chemical, Monsanto, and their industry organisations are wandering the halls of the convention centre and joining in the official negotiations, while civil society is locked out and marching the streets" said Doreen Stabinsky, science advisor to Greenpeace.

"The United Nations needs to represent the needs of more of the world's people, and fewer of the world's economic forces."

Deliberations are expected to go late into the night tonight, as delegates consider a range of compromises on such issues as renewable energy targets, measures to protect the Earth's biodiversity, and efforts to make global trade agreements more environmentally accountable.

Annette Cotter of New Zealand said "If the people who were marching today were inside the meeting room representing our planet, there'd be laughter, fun, dancing, and real action."