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In Rio's footsteps?

DESPITE the fact that the conference has just begun, it is now more or less certain that the Johannesburg Earth Summit on sustainable development will not be able to break the ice that has formed between the world's rich and poor on how to go about the task. This is because there is as yet no sign of any fundamental rapprochement among nations on the issue of sharing the cost of the effort.

This view is based on, among other things, the experience of negotiating nations on the environment threat that is facing our planet. Indeed, the Montreal Protocol has reached practically a dead-end because of the unwillingness of some industrialised nations to foot a part of bill for the changeover in the poor economies from old, atmosphere-polluting technology to environment-friendly processes.

If one goes back a decade to the Rio Conference, the benchmark of 0.7 per cent of GDP assistance by the rich to the poor to aid the changeover to a regime of sustainable development has been honoured only in the breach — which, of course, is not surprising to those who have followed the course of the munificence of the rich as regards efforts to help the poor two-thirds of the world to develop rapidly, general speaking.

This is not to suggest that the effort to promote sustainable development will come a cropper because of the unwillingness of the rich to consider and accept the fact that the planet we live in is inhabited by both the rich and the poor, and that any damage to it will affect the prospects of survival of the entire human race.

Indeed, this is precisely what Barbara Ward told us decades ago in her book Spaceship Earth, which effectively emphasised the fact that if the planet perished it would do so equitably, that is, it would not make any distinction between the rich and poor, black and white.

The element of optimism hinted at above stems from the fact that while the generality of leaders of the industrialised world will probably succumb to the "us-versus-they" syndrome, thereby ignoring the big picture, going by experience one can always expect the emergence of visionaries who will not only have the strength of conviction to project forcefully what they believe in but will have the political savvy and acumen to persuade others ultimately to share their views.

The only point of concern is that since, basically, natural processes are at work, success in framing a widely accepted policy may be attained after the damage done to the planet's ecology has become irreversible, which can only spell doom for the future of mankind much earlier than would otherwise have been the case.

Next week, the world's leaders will be congregating in Johannesburg to sign a declaration on which frenetic work is being done at the moment.

Clearly, strong currents of optimism are swirling in the convention centre where the conference is being held: one bit of early "proof" is the statement by one delegate that "99 per cent of the text on finance" has been agreed on, and that there has been "progress between the rich and the poor states on demands by Third World countries for more aid finance and fairer trade.

This, without doubt, is good news but, again, experience with such promises underlines the fact that caution should be exercised in jumping to conclusions.

Indeed, there is every likelihood that Johannesburg will follow in the footsteps of Rio, its message being translated into action in bits and pieces somewhat later. For the sake of our descendants, one prays and hopes that the action will come not too late.

Ranabir Ray Choudhury

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