US jeered, Summit denounced

Inaction by governments prompts action by protestors

Feature story - September 4, 2002
While the Earth Summit has been a disaster in its official conclusions, it's at least rewarding to see that the international community hasn't been fooled by rhetoric. Today was another day of action in protest of inaction. Inside and outside the halls of Sandton, there has been a rousing challenge to US claims that it has behaved as a responsible planetary citizen here in Johannesburg.

Greenpeace activist hangs from a bridge spanning oil pipes from the Sapref oil facility operated by Shell and BP. The activists deployed small banners demanding clean energy on the last day of the Earth Summit meeting in Johannesburg.

"Governments failed to do the job" said Greenpeace Climate Policy Director Steve Sawyer. "Now it's up to all of us." Greenpeace's report card on the Summit's performance gave it failing marks overall against nearly every benchmark we had set for success. The US delegation's backroom strong-arm tactics were primarily responsible for the failures. The US position consistently resisted new measures to ensure corporate accountability and opposed meaningful targets to spur the development of renewable energy.

On the Summit's closing day, Secretary of State Colin Powell addressed the packed plenary session around noon on behalf of the United States. Greenpeace and other groups have widely criticised the US for the lion's share of responsibility for this Summit's failure to adopt clear renewable energy targets.

"There were probably groups from more than a hundred countries in there" said Greenpeace delegate Matt Gianni. "There were no organised plans to have a demonstration... But when Colin Powell chastised countries for saying "no" to US genetically modified food, the room simply erupted in boos and catcalls. And when he tried to claim that the US was defending biodiversity and promoting renewables, there was this incredible roar of disbelief -- nobody was silent."

Powell was unable to continue for several minutes as the gallery of the conference room voiced its protest: "Shame on Bush" was among the chants, a banner saying "Betrayed by Governments" was unfurled, and several representatives were escorted out by security, still voicing their disbelief. Chairwoman Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma called for order, saying "This is totally unacceptable," but the spontaneous outpouring of protest simply would not be silenced.

Gianni said "as an American, I was proud to see the US position here challenged. It's important for the world to know that the US delegation was not here speaking on behalf of all Americans -- they were speaking on behalf of multinational corporations. The US behaviour at this summit was appalling."

Very few non-governmental organisations were allowed inside the official plenary session. Those who were had to queue for several hours on Sunday, and then draw a ticket in an impromptu lottery for the few plenary tickets that were made available.

Many groups protested the exclusion of community representatives and the voices of the environment and the poor from the conference. Oxfam has called the Summit a "triumph of greed and self-interest, a tragedy for the poor and the environment."

There was also protest outside the official plenary session. In Sandton Square, dozens of protestors wore stickers that said "No More Shameful Summits" and refused to be moved until South African police, in what has come to a familiar scene, roughly herded them into a group and pushed and shoved people out of the Plaza, which is littered with exhibits by BMW. The German automaker bought exclusive rights to convey their environmental message in the square. (BMW's latest car engine, now under development, will boast more than 460 horsepower of climate-killing petroleum consumption. On exhibit in the square were only their lesser-polluting models.)

Powell was sent as the United States' official representative to the Summit while George Bush vacationed in Texas. Greenpeace and the Danish 92 Group sent a postcard to the US President hoping that he was enjoying his holiday while the rest of the world met to try and save the planet.

A report by AFP inaccurately stated that Greenpeace had walked out of the summit. "We have a responsibility to expose what's going on behind closed doors here" said Sawyer, "and we're not going to walk away from that responsibility -- even if it would be an accurate expression of our disgust." Greenpeace Executive Director Gerd Leipold added that "Being here is like going to the dentist. Nobody likes it, but not going would be worse."

This morning in Durban, Greenpeace activists did what governments have failed to do at the Johannesburg meeting and took action to demand "Clean Energy Now" at a notorious oil refinery jointly operated by Shell and BP.

Five activists climbed a thirty-meter bridge which spanned oil pipes leading from the refinery, and dropped huge banners over the pipes. The poorly maintained pipes run right through the middle of the local communities. The plant and surroundings are notorious for oil leaks and toxic air emissions, although neither company has accepted any responsibility for the poor health of local people.

This event follows a week of world wide actions protesting the dominance of big business interests over the true benefits of sustainable development. Demanding that governments at the Earth Summit adopt a policy of new renewable energy, activists kicked off the Summit by dropping "Nuclear Power - out of Africa" banners from top of the nuclear reactor at Koeberg, protesting its use of such an unsafe and polluting medium. "Since the protest at Koeberg it has become apparent that the Greenpeace activists are not the only people who have broken the law. The total failure of the plant owners, Eskom, to provide safety, security and evacuation plans should be investigated by the authorities and is yet another reason why this first nuclear facility in Africa should be the last," said Mike Townsley of Greenpeace.

In other actions, (Click here for pictures) Greenpeace was out in the streets, the fields and the skies all over the world to try to communicate that delegates are failing to meet the needs and expectations of the people of the world. In Thailand, Greenpeace launched a Stop Global Warming balloon over the Mae Moh coal plant in Lampang. On the seas off Cape Town we tracked down a plutonium ship carrying a deadly cargo and put them on the run. On the streets of Manila we collected signatures to petition the Philippine's Board of Investors not to invest in dirty fossil fuels. In the political heart of Australia, climbers hung huge banners from the nation's flagpole saying 'Stop climate change'. In Chile we launched a balloon over the crude oil refineries plant at Vina Del Mar. And outside the halls of Sandton in Johannesburg, Greenpeace's youth delegation were herded away by security for daring to make a stand about climate change in front of BMW's exhibition space.

The longer governments fail to take action on poverty and climate change, the more the international community will rise up in protest and action of its own.