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Sunday, 18 August, 2002, 08:20 GMT 09:20 UK
Business presence fuels summit tempers
Gather your placards. Practice your chants. Revise your list of threatened tribes.
The suits are coming.
Did you think the Johannesburg World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) would be the preserve of the Arran sweatered and besandalled?
The event will also place traditional environmentalists beard by jowl with coiffured corporate bosses.
Indeed, the strong executive presence at the summit threatens to devalue it, campaigners have warned.
With all that smarm, spin and power PR, business chiefs are poised to hijack an event which is meant to talk about corporations, rather than to them.
How can the summit progress an agenda of holding business to account for despoiling the environment and destroying communities when firms are there pressing political flesh, inviting selected delegates on edited day trips around mines and factories?
"Business people are going to have the ear of ministers," Friends of the Earth spokesman Ed Matthew told BBC News Online.
"They are going to dine with them, be in a position where they can have a lot of influence.
"That is not a privilege that can be enjoyed by the communities these businesses are harming."
Having spent decades asking corporations to consider environmental issues, the green lobby is now worried they are taking too much notice.
This is perhaps little wonder when oil giant Exxon is alleged to have lobbied US President George W Bush to boycott the event because it is "anti-freedom, anti-people, anti-globalisation and anti-Western".
"We applaud your decision not to attend in person," said a letter signed by 31 leading Republican parties and conservative lobbyists, many of which are funded by Exxon.
"The summit will provide a global media stage for many of the most irresponsible and destructive elements in critical economic and environmental issues," the letter, leaked to Friends of the Earth in the US, is reported as saying.
An ExxonMobil spokesman dismissed as "ridiculous" the allegation that its support of the lobbyists had led to the letter being sent.
British environmentalists wonder what pressure has been placed on Prime Minister Tony Blair.
The UK's official delegation to the summit includes figures such as Bill Alexander, chief executive of Thames Water and Sir Robert Wilson, chairman of mining giant Rio Tinto, one of the major corporate targets of environmental protest.
"These kind of people have to be kept in check," one campaigner told BBC News Online.
"Otherwise, if they get too much influence, it's like having Al Capone helping you draft criminal justice laws."
While Mr Blair is believed to be attending the summit for only one day - his office is proving particularly cagey over delegation details - the swiftness of his visit is said to reflect a scepticism of summits rather than of environmental matters.
Yet isn't it fair for firms to have a say at a summit which could have severe repercussions for their profitability?
Many campaigners, for instance, are calling for international regulation to cover the mining industry, an alleged repeat offender of environmental and sociological crimes.
"It is breathtaking the amount of damage mining firms have caused in, say, Indonesia," Mr Matthew said.
But Rio Tinto said the industry was already making huge strides in adopting the green mantle, setting up a three year research programme into industry practices, a project which culminated in a conference in Toronto in May.
The project highlighted weaknesses in waste disposal, and in the problem posed by abandoned mines which were operating in the industry's dark ages.
"We are anyway already just about the most regulated industry in the world," Rio spokesman Hugh Leggatt said.
"Think of the processes involved in opening a new mine."
Blanket regulation could even fail the environment, he added, pointing to laws designed to protect sandalwood forests in the Philippines.
"When you get there, you can find the locals have chopped all the trees down. So perhaps it would be advantageous to allow in a mining firm which could then in return promise to do regeneration work."
If Mr Leggatt has a point, Friends of the Earth seems little prepared to hear it.
"We are not going to talk to a firm which is threatening to start extraction in Sulawesi, a protected area of Indonesia," Mr Matthew said.
According to Mr Leggatt, Rio decided in 1999 not to pursue the Sulawesi plan.
So with ingredients including claim and counter claim, communication breakdown and 60,000 delegates, the scene is set for an eventful, if not fruitful, summit.
Enemy number one
Still, Rio Tinto and Friends of the Earth at least agree there are bad guys.
"We don't want to be lumped with chemicals firms again," Mr Leggatt said, haughtily.
"Chemicals firms have been at the top of our list of polluting industries," Mr Matthew said.
"We have been particularly concerned about them."
Consider it wrong for the likes of Shell, ICI and Bayer to attend the Johannesburg summit?
They could hardly afford not to.
12 Aug 02 | Politics
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