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Salute to the grassroots fighters of sustainable development!

For the first time ever, the United Nations invited representatives of non-governmental groups to participate in and to address a session of the UN General Assembly. The General Assembly President, Ambassador Razali Ismail, invited nine representatives of 'major groups' (such as indigenous peoples, trade unions, women's groups and NGOs) to address the General Assembly special session on the review of Agenda 21. The Third World Network was one of the two NGOs chosen by the NGO community to speak (the other NGO being Greenpeace International). Below is the speech presented at the General Assembly by TWN director, Martin Khor, on 27 June.


FIRST of all, on behalf of the NGO community, I would like to thank the President and Members of the General Assembly for giving the NGOs for the first time ever an opportunity to address the plenary of the UN General Assembly and participate in the working groups. We hope this is the start of greater and more fruitful participation of NGOs in the General Assembly.

Five years ago at Rio, global civil society looked at the Earth Summit as a source of hope for a new global partnership that would bring us back from the brink of ecological catastrophe and at the same time help developing countries and local communities to develop in sustainable ways.

Today, the world's citizens are alarmed that the world is hurtling even nearer that brink of ecological disaster as the old production systems and lifestyles persist, the forests and lands are mined, the atmosphere polluted, as if the Earth Summit never happened.

We are also deeply disappointed that the spirit of Rio seems to have vanished. Aid has fallen. Financial resources continue to be sucked out from developing countries through debt servicing and declining terms of trade. At the end of the 1980s for example, countries of Sub-Sahara Africa were losing 15% of their GDP through the fall in their terms of trade, and even more through debt servicing. In all US$300- 500 billion flows out from the South to the North each year, creating a huge financial vacuum that the small and fast declining volume of aid is unable to offset.

Instead of the promised technology transfer, the new intellectual property rights agreement at the WTO is creating new barriers to the South's access to environmentally sound technology. It also threatens to accelerate the practice of bio-piracy, in which genetic resources and the knowledge of local communities on the sustainable use of biodiversity are hijacked and transformed into patents and patented products that are the new source of enormous profit for the big corporations.

The main victims are the poor communities and ordinary people who endure the destruction of their environment and the indignities of poverty.

And yet today, even as we survey the extra environmental destruction that the last five years has brought, which are so well captured in the many papers of the CSD and even more eloquently in the many hundreds of NGO documents displayed during this Special Session, we stand and salute the hundreds and thousands of local community leaders and the millions of ordinary people around the world, who have provided us the hope that something is being done to save the Earth.

We salute the indigenous peoples of the rainforests, who are desperately guarding, sometimes with their very lives, the remainder of the world's rainforests.

We salute the local communities and environmental activists of the North and the South who too are fighting to save the remnants of their old growth forests from the logger's axe, who are bravely battling the toxic dumps and hazardous industries located in their neighbourhoods.

We salute the communities in every region that have had to bravely defend their lands, their farms, their seas, their homes and resources from the encroachment of commercial interests and big billion-dollar projects that all too often turn out to be economically unviable and ecologically destructive and that create millions of environmental refugees.

We salute the thousands of farmers around the world who, having suffered from the ill effects of chemical-based agriculture, have switched to organic farming on their own, and are re-building the land, despite the lack of support of the agriculture establishment.

We salute the consumers and consumer movements that are fighting against unhealthy products and unsustainable consumption patterns, who campaign for breastfeeding instead of baby foods, who raise the alarm over hazardous pesticides and pharmaceutical drugs dumped onto the Third World, and who have taken the tobacco industry to court and forced it, in the United States at least, to admit its liability, to pay billions of dollars in compensation, and to agree to request that government regulate their behaviour.

We salute the individuals, the campaigners and the scientists who are exposing the dark side of genetic engineering in the midst of the industry's media hype, and who are waging a campaign against the patenting of life and the cloning of nature's creation.

We salute the women, who are all too often in the forefront of the communities' fight for survival, hugging the trees to prevent their being chopped, standing with the men in facing the bulldozer, fighting against toxic industries and dumps to prevent the poisoning of the children.

These brave, ordinary, people, often the poorest and most humble of their societies, are the true practitioners and the real heroes of the sustainable development that the rest of us only talk about. They are in the forefront of the battle to defend their rights and to save not only their world but our world, and on our behalf, always with hardship and bravery, and sometimes paying with their very lives.

We also salute the many development NGOs and environment NGOs, the new breed of environmental journalists, the public servants in local authorities, the planners at national level, and the precious few political leaders, who have in their own way put out their necks on behalf of sustainable development. They include many of you present in this hall and in the outside rooms of this building, who are going against the status quo and pioneering the way ahead.

Big business

We owe it to the public, and especially to those people in the local communities, to do our part to challenge the old and unsustainable ways and patterns of production, technology, consumption and lifestyles.

Even as we do so, we realise increasingly that the millions of battles waged at local level are all linked to the growing power of globalisation. The kind of globalisation prevailing today is inequitable, benefitting a few but marginalising the many. It is based on and it is rapidly spreading the same consumption and production patterns that we have already proclaimed unsustainable.

It represents the growing power of big business that is increasing its monopoly of the economy and extending its reach to policy-making bodies.

In the five years after Rio, globalisation is undermining the sustainable development agenda. Commerce and the need to be competitive in the global market have become the top priority in many countries. The environment, welfare of the poor and global partnership have been downgraded on the agenda.

In particular, the 1994 Marrakesh Agreements of the WTO appear to be overriding the 1992 Rio Agreements of UNCED and the WTO is now institutionalising globalisation. This globalisation process seems to reward the strong and is ruthless in marginalising the weak. Its paradigm emphasises the gaining of more market share, profits and greed above all else, values that are opposite to sustainable development and global partnership.

The NGOs are also concerned that due to the rise of this private sector approach, the role of the UN in social, economic and environmental issues is being steadily eroded and instead transferred to the Bretton Woods institutions and the WTO, which represent a different model of international cooperation.

We therefore call on the political leaders to take control of the globalisation process, and channel it towards the goals of sustainability. As many NGOs see it, this should be the first priority of the actions needed in the next five years.

The CSD and other agencies of the UN should deal with the issue of globalisation and sustainable development. As a start it should be a cross-sectoral issue to be discussed each year.

In dealing with globalisation, it is vital to reassert the principles at the heart of the Spirit of Rio: that the poor have the right to development, the rich have the duty to change their lifestyles and to help the poor, and that the common but differentiated responsibilities to save the Earth should be put into practice.

In the next five years, the following 10 other actions are urgently needed:

* We must make the private sector, and especially the transational corporations, more accountable and subject to regulation. The recent developments in the tobacco industry are a good example of why and how regulations are needed to curb marketing and eventually production of a harmful product. The lesson learnt should lead to similar regulation in other areas.

* We must make the world trading and financial systems, including the WTO, more transparent and accountable to the public and to the goals of sustainable development.

* We must greatly strengthen the resources, role and capacity of the UN and in ways that enable it to be true to its mission of serving the social, developmental and environmental needs of the people, especially the weak and poor.

* We must create more opportunities and access for NGOs to participate in the UN's activities. At national level, more space must be given to NGOs and social groups to function and to participate in policy consultation and development.

* We must integrate social, equity and environmental concerns in national economic policy and development planning, and in the design of international policies (such as structural adjustment programmes) and in trade rules and agreements, so as to prevent social polarisation, increase social equity, eradicate poverty and protect the environment.

* We must rigorously assess new technologies, such as genetic engineering, for ecological, safety and social impacts, before allowing them to operate and spread.

* We must quickly conclude effective treaties preventing the export of hazardous chemical and other substances.

* We must, in the development planning process, give top priority to the need to protect watersheds and hill regions, to prevent further forest loss and to secure water supplies for the future.

* We must take much more seriously the task of phasing out unsustainable agriculture, and vigorously promote sustainable agriculture.

* We must organise a new North-South dialogue for reforms in international economic relations, starting with meeting the aid and technology transfer commitments of Rio, and moving on also to a comprehensive scheme for debt relief, and fairer terms of trade and finance for developing countries.

NGOs realise that these tasks are hard to achieve, and also that they be done only if citizens themselves actively participate and campaign for them.

In the next five years, even as we pressurise our policy- makers and politicians to meet their commitments to sustainability, the NGOs, citizen groups and social movements will also intensify the pressure on ourselves to fight for people's rights, for the local and global environment and for the future of the Earth. Thank you. (TWR No. 83, July 1997)

Martin Khor is the Director of Third World Network.

 

 

 

 


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