Agenda of

Thabo Mbeki calls on the world’s leaders to build on the successes of the previous summits and to eradicate poverty

Ten years ago, the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, the ‘Rio Earth Summit’, brought together leaders and nations of the world to change the course of history.

The world declared with one voice: ‘Human beings are at the centre of concerns for sustainable development. They are entitled to a healthy and productive life in harmony with nature.’

In the opening lines of Agenda 21, the nations of the world pronounced that:

‘Humanity stands at a defining moment in history. We are confronted with a perpetuation of disparities between and within nations, a worsening of poverty, hunger, ill health and illiteracy, and the continuing deterioration of ecosystems on which we depend for our well-being. However, integration of environment and development concerns and greater attention to them will lead to the fulfilment of basic needs, improved living standards for all, better protected and managed ecosystems and a safer, more prosperous future. No nation can achieve this on its own; but together we can – in a global partnership for sustainable development.’

Global consensus
A global consensus was established that sustainable development rests on three interdependent pillars: the protection of the Earth, social development and economic prosperity.

Agenda 21 was a seminal global achievement. It will forever stand out as a shining beacon pointing the direction to sustainable development. It is a towering monument to the spirit of the people of this age. It is as valid today as it was ten years ago.

As the torch is passed on to the World Summit on Sustainable Development – the ‘Johannesburg World Summit’ – the enormity of the responsibility and challenge becomes tangible. We receive it on behalf of the victims of unsustainable development, concerned citizens of the world, and our children and future generations, to whom the Earth really belongs.

The umbilical link between Johannesburg and Rio extends to Stockholm. The United Nations Conference on the Human Environment, which took place there, resulted in three decades of unprecedented global concern about the negative impact of human activity on Mother Earth.

Power to transform
Let us recall that in Stockholm the world declared: ‘Man is both creature and moulder of his environment, which gives him physical sustenance and affords him the opportunity for intellectual, moral, social and spiritual growth. In the long and tortuous evolution of the human race on this planet, a stage has been reached when, through the rapid acceleration of science and technology, man has acquired the power to transform his environment in countless ways and on an unprecedented scale. Both aspects of man’s environment, the natural and the man-made, are essential to his well-being and to the enjoyment of basic human rights, the right to life itself.’

Today, 30 years later, we have fewer fish in the seas, more carbon dioxide being pumped into the atmosphere, more desertification, more soil erosion and more species extinction.

Our very development model is questioned daily by the Earth’s ecosystem on which all life and all economic activity is dependent. Our patterns of consumption and production cannot be left unchecked.

If the Chinese citizen is to consume the same quantity of crude oil as his or her United States counterpart, China would need over 80 million barrels of oil a day – slightly more than the 74 million barrels a day the world now produces. If annual paper use in China of 35 kilograms per person were to climb to the United States level of 342 kilograms, China would need more paper than the world currently produces.
A global partnership for sustainable development and for the eradication of poverty is within reach
The period since the Rio Earth Summit has been one of unprecedented global economic growth. Growth in the world economy in the year 2000 alone exceeded that during the entire 19th century.

Yet people continue to die of hunger; babies are born, grow up and die without being able to read or write; many fellow humans do not have clean water to drink; and people die of curable diseases. The gulf between rich and poor members of the human race widens as we speak.

The Johannesburg World Summit must take further our pledge at the Millennium Summit to eradicate poverty. It must focus on implementation and action. Its outcome must make sense to she who has to walk for kilometres to fetch drinking water and to she who spends hours gathering firewood for energy. It must also speak to he who consumes more than the Earth can give.

Triumph of spirit
When leaders of the world gathered in Rio in 1992, my country was still under apartheid rule. I did not enjoy the right to vote. Uncertainty and conflict loomed.

But the human spirit triumphed. South Africa is now a democracy in which we live in harmony as we struggle to eradicate the legacy of over 300 years of colonialism and apartheid. Since the victory in 1994, 7 million people have access to clean water, over 1 million homes for poor people have been built, over 2 million more homes now have electricity and every child has a place in school.

And South Africa is acting as host to the World Summit on Sustainable Development.

At the time of Rio this was all a dream.

We all know that people can change and that it is possible to change the lives of the poor. We also must believe that it is possible for us to live in harmony with nature.

A global partnership for sustainable development and for the eradication of poverty is within reach. Genuine human solidarity is both possible and necessary.

On behalf of the people of Johannesburg and South Africans in general, I invite leaders of the world and representatives of people from all walks of life to join us in the pursuit of this agenda of hope. Let us decide on a programme to change the lives of people, to protect the planet and to build prosperity.

Human society disposes of the means and the know-how to achieve these goals. Nobody can truthfully argue that the global community of nations is too poor to defeat global poverty.

Nobody can truthfully argue that there is a larger human imperative or decisive constraint that makes it obligatory that we must destroy the environment. Together we must give real meaning to the solemn pledge that was made in Rio ten years ago:

‘Human beings are at the centre of concerns for sustainable development. They are entitled to a healthy and productive life in harmony with nature.’

Together let us, in action, repeat the words of the African poet, Ben Okri:

‘Break this cycle
Break this madness
Let new fevers rise in this
Radiant act of faith
Destroy this temple of living hell
Let us join our angers together
Forge a new joy for the age.
Before our lives disintegrate
New breaks.’

From Stockholm to Rio de Janeiro to Johannesburg let us continue to forge a new joy for the age 

Thabo Mbeki is President of the Republic of South Africa.

PHOTOGRAPH: Pablo Alfredo De Luca/UNEP/Topham

This issue:
Contents | Editorial K. Toepfer | Agenda of hope | Changing the paradigm | Only one Earth | Beyond brackets | African renaissance | Unmissable opportunity | At a glance: GEO-3 | Asking the people | Recapturing momentum | Taking the measure of unsustainability | Breaking the grid lock | Training for transformation | Bring big business to account | Out of the changing room | ‘Dear delegates...’ | We need a dream | Two sides of the same coin: before and after Johannesburg| Quality environmental data for all

Complementary articles in other issues:
Klaus Toepfer: Prospects for WSSD: Towards Johannesburg
(Mountains and Ecotourism) 2002
Mohammed Valli Moosa: Achieving the vision
(Chemicals and the environment) 2002
Juan Mayr Maldonado: Open doors
(Chemicals and the environment) June 2000

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