Not This Time

Photograph by Jason Houston, used with permission

Johannesburg, South Africa.

Human feeling is a strange magnifier. Most lifetimes of work are devoted to supporting a few people: oneself, one’s family, individuals whose well-being swells to epic importance in our heart’s eye. A slogan like Think globally, Act locally resonates not only because it asserts that global change is simply the sum of enough local change, but because it is actually very difficult to feel globally.

As a student observer, I hoped that the Johannesburg Summit would elucidate planetary need on a different scale. I have spent very little time in developing countries, and I know that a trip to a Summit is not the same as seeing the pain of the world. But if there’s any place to scan conversations for clues about how to take a stand against the gangsters of poverty and environmental collapse, this is it.

It’s impossible to understand the need for a World Summit without entertaining the madness of global statistics. Half of the world’s population lives on less than $2 per day. Almost 20% of the adult population of South Africa has HIV, while AIDS and a host of curable diseases kill millions annually throughout the developing world. 70% of the world’s fisheries are fished to capacity or overexploited. 25% of the world’s bird species are estimated to have gone extinct in the last century. A 1- 4 degree F rise in global temperature is predicted in the next 50 years without a drastic turnaround in our current CO2 emissions — a change that would result in the drowning of small island nations, flooding of coastal cities, increased storms, and a re-shuffling, with highly uncertain results, of the world’s major biomes. Efforts up to this point have not been at the scale necessary to transform a world’s worth of burning, slashing, and catching, designed to keep our bulging human numbers warmed and fed. All this I had read; all these facts I could pretend to hold comfortably under my seat belt as the Atlantic slipped under my reclining airplane seat.

DAY ONE. The UN World Summit on Sustainable Development will start in a couple of days at the Sandton Convention Center in the heart of Johannesburg’s ritziest suburb. At the Nasrec Expo Center, next to a massive gold mining dump on the rim of Soweto, the Civil Society Global Forum is holding a parallel event. I pass through the metal detector and start looking for a schedule, but get swept up in a crowd of people moving back out toward the gate. Last night, 72 landless activists were arrested while peacefully protesting in front of a police station in downtown Johannesburg. I approach two people heading to support the arrested and try to hear a little more. A look of consternation on the face of one woman, Elise, is suddenly turned on me.

“They’re protesting because they have nothing, no land, no jobs, they want a place to live. Where are you from?”

I’m a student from the U.S., I offer, hoping she’ll elaborate for me on this category, “landless,” that we don’t seem to have, or at least have a name for, back home.

“What is your country doing here?” she shoots at me. “You want to take over the world, to have everything. People here have nothing.”

I try to ask her who, in particular, she’s talking about.

“You are the oppressor. We are oppressed. You want to sell us everything and keep us out of the markets. An American company is trying to put a patent on roibos tea – South African tea! And your president isn’t even coming?”

I am rescued by Andrew, a young student from Soweto, who objects to the woman’s self-categorization as “oppressed.”

“How are you oppressed?” he jumps in with a lilting accent, putting her on the defensive. “You’re here, you can do something.”

THERE ARE MANY REASONS to come to a World Summit. Some people come because they want to have input into the official Summit outcomes: the Plan of Implementation, the Political Declaration, and a host of Type II initiatives. Some people are pretty sure they already know what the Plan will say and have just come to protest.

“Type II” is the title given to a range of sustainable development projects being launched at the Summit. They often involve collaborations between governments, non-governmental organizations and corporations. But many here believe that this procedural innovation serves to distract from the expected failure of governments to make more global commitments. In addition to the Civil Society Forum at Nasrec, almost a dozen parallel events are taking place in and around Joburg, timed to coincide with the official UN summit — the Youth Summit, the Women’s Summit, the Indigenous People”s Summit, the Earth Charter Initiative — all representing clusters of striving folk, nestings of passion, hope for collaboration.

Andrew and I are the same age. He works for a local AIDS education group and sees this as a chance to learn more about global poverty and development, and to meet other people interested in youth empowerment. He has a second job in the evenings and dreams of one day buying his mother a small house that will probably cost less than my plane ticket.

At Nasrec we participate in debates about how best to influence the UN talks, about articulating the important challenges to “implementation.” We stumble upon an almost revivalesque meeting of world fisherpeople — small fishing communities that feel threatened equally by development, overfishing, competition from large corporations and certain kinds of fishing regulations. We sit in on talks by heads of major non-governmental organization. We meet a young woman from Kenya named Vincho, who hopes to start an international network of youth interested in reforming the UN. When Vincho and Andrew start to talk about African youth, about the need to inspire and organize, about the understanding and talent lying dormant in millions of young people here lacking opportunities for education and advancement, I just sit back and listen.

Vincho describes her trip through starving Zimbabwe, where families of twelve ration a few loaves of bread for an entire week. She recalls her graduating class at a private high school in Nairobi. 90% will study and move abroad, she asserts. At least half of those remaining will die of AIDS, leaving only 5% home to improve life in Kenya. “Africa is going extinct,” she says sadly.

Life in Johannesburg feels like a continual rescue effort. My primary hosts, cousins of a best friend from college, live in a spacious house with a maid. A 12-foot cement wall crowned with barbed wire surrounds their complex. I am told not to trust anyone I meet unless introduced by someone I already trust. I hear stories, like the neighbors who were hijacked in their driveway with their six-month old daughter in the backseat. Their house is a short walk away from the convention center where I report dutifully at first opportunity.

DAY TWO. Many of the people I met at Nasrec, including Andrew, Elise and Vincho, are not accredited to attend the official UN Summit. The excitement here is a bit more hushed. Everyone’s eyes seem to tingle with the expectation that something big will happen today. (Perhaps in a closed meeting between countries? Perhaps between two delegates at the snack bar?) All signs indicate that this is the center of power: increased security, free internet, TV cameras, everyone wearing suits. I listen for a few hours to government delegates slowly removing the brackets around the yet unfinished Plan of Implementation. Debate toggles over seemingly trivial differences in wording, “if possible” vs. “where appropriate.” It’s a painfully dull process, giving off the unmistakable odor of futility. Still, it is this document more than any other outcome that might encourage world-scale action on poverty, health, biodiversity, energy, desertification, etc.

In this building I listen, despondent as delegates of my own government pull back from commitments and understandings reached at the last Earth Summit ten years ago in Rio: no targets for the use of renewable resources; no new structures for monitoring and enforcing commitments made in UN agreements; no commitment to reduce perverse subsidies that keep unsustainable industries alive and keep developing countries out of international markets; no debt relief.

The US delegates fight to strike language on human rights protection from the Plan; along with other developed countries, they work to include language that could make all future environmental agreements subservient to the decisions of the World Trade Organization. I follow it all, I read it all in daily printouts the morning after as I watch lists of closed meetings scroll by on television monitors in the hall.

DAY THREE. Along with literally thousands of other accredited representatives, I am kept out of the convention center today due to a last minute decision to issue only 1500 temporary day passes for entry, despite the fact that thousands more had already been granted. In the basement of a nearby theatre, people gather to express their outrage over being excluded. A woman from Somalia, who claims she is the only non-governmental representative of her country, says she was chased out of the building by police dogs. Someone remarks that many corporate representatives are included on their government delegations, meaning they would have no problem accessing the building. The longer I’m at the Summit, the more it seems that people are on the lookout for a secret. But the secret is not how to fix the world; it’s how to get to the power to do it.

Just a few blocks from the convention center, the World Conservation Union has rented out an entire office building, replete with glass-roofed atrium and a week full of their own theme days — Africa Day, Water Day, Parks Day, Globalization with Equity — many of which include catered receptions and free evening music. Its seduction is as real for me as was the rush to protest for the landless arrested back at Nasrec. Every session I attend has detailed, practical accounts of projects and mechanisms, from new national parks promoting ecotourism, to panels rethinking international labor markets.

DAY FOUR. I decide to volunteer at World Conservation’s Business and Biodiversity Day, taking photos and writing up little blurbs about the panels I attend. I go into shorthand as an audience member stands up to question a panelist on whether his development of a private eco-reserve in Mozambique actually represented an opportunity for advancement for the local people or whether it was just another process of land seizure. I watch the panelist answer each of his questions and later I watch them shake hands and exchange business cards in hopes of future collaborations.

A Summit is a short window of opportunity. You do whatever seems like it could work. At least 15,000 people march 9 kilometers from Alexandra Township to Sandton today. After a carnival week of talk and shows, people join for a day in the simplest of all mass actions: walking together down the street. First world students like myself, on an extended and costly field trip, amble alongside green-businessmen and impoverished firebrands from throughout the developing world, slowly, peacefully, toward the center of power. We finally look as big as we are. It feels as if it could be a way to change the whole world for those lacking the tools to do it directly.

But not this time. The marchers are kept away from the convention center by a human shield of at least as many armed police. The New York Times doesn’t report the numbers.

DAY FIVE. I’m back at the convention center, on the last full day of the Summit, watching as United States Secretary of State Colin Powell approaches the podium. The man sitting next to me works on tropical rainforest protection with a California based group. In three minutes we will stand up holding a large banner aimed toward the cameras in the middle of the room and reading “BUSH: PEOPLE AND PLANET, NOT BIG BUSINESS.” The slogan seems aimed to make sense in an instant to Americans — the only people in the world with a direct electoral line to the government that acted as the major stumbling block at this Summit. But it is this man next to me, not the sign, who will be pictured in the New York Times being dragged out of the plenary by an armed guard. The crowd winds into a slow clap punctuated by shouts of “SHAME.” Two other banners with the same slogan, and one reading “BETRAYED” are raised for the cameras and snapped away by guards.

The World Summit on Sustainable Development, the Earth Summit, the Joburg Bash, is poorly organized, overly hyped, sheltered beyond usefulness, puffed up in pure offense to the real needs of the world it has no intention of meeting, a fortress within a fortress, hostile, and frightened equally by the poor and the diseased, as by insects in its backyard. But it is also as massive a display of readiness to work, to get together, to redefine and to re-commit to worldwide love and mindfulness as history has ever seen. It’s tempting to believe that governments will take some of the good advice that’s been tucked away into the Plan, the non-binding Plan, the Plan that is more like a list of suggestions than a strategy for decisive action. When you look into eyes you had to cross an ocean to meet, it is tempting to believe that the agitation of just two people thinking can shake loose centuries of oppression, of lopsided, billowing, dirty progress. But the atmospheric facts, the planetary facts, show that time and size are living numbers, oblivious to good human intention.

Jonathan Braman graduated from Yale College this spring with a degree in ecology and was able to attend the World Summit on Sustainable Development under the auspices of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. {encode=”” title=””}

Jason Houston is staff photographer for Orion magazine. His photographs have appeared in publications worldwide. The images in this article were taken in and around Johannesburg during the Summit in September. {encode=”” title=””}.