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Johannesburg Summit Ends with Compromise - 2002-09-04

After 10 days of sometime-hostile negotiations, nations attending the so-called Earth Summit have agreed on a plan designed to fight poverty and save the environment. But many grassroots activists are unhappy with the end product.

It was with obvious relief that South African President Thabo Mbeki called for approval of the final conference declaration, known as the Implementation Plan.

The Johannesburg summit aimed to find concrete ways of implementing the ideals discussed 10 years ago at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. Only after nearly two weeks of intense negotiations did delegates manage to agree on how to do that.

The result is a compromise, and it is hard to find anyone at the summit that is entirely happy with it.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan says delegates at the summit have agreed on what he calls "an impressive range" of commitments. He said he believes they will make a difference in the fight to wipe out poverty and save the environment. "I know there are those who are disappointed, and we did not get everything we expected in Johannesburg," said Mr. Annan. "But I think we have achieved a success and I am satisfied with the results. Sustainable development is firmly back on agenda."

Environmental activists are complaining the loudest about the Implementation Plan. Tony Juniper of Friends of the Earth says it was more a matter of not losing ground than actually gaining ground.

"So in summary [it was] a disappointing outcome, [with] one or two things to be pleased about. But the Johannesburg action plan is massively insufficient to deal with the scale of problems at hand," he said. "For example climate change, loss of biodiversity and growing inequality around the world. Much, much more needs to be done, and we will be pressing government around the world to come back and finish the job as soon as possible."

The Implementation Plan commits world governments to reduce by half the number of people living without clean water and sanitation, by the year 2015.

One sore point for many environmentalists is the lack of a similarly solid goal for increasing the use of renewable energy sources, such as solar power.

But Secretary-General Annan said the real test will be whether governments, businesses, communities, and activists follow up on the summit with real action after everyone goes home.

"It is on the ground that we will have to test how really successful we are. But we have started off well," said Mr. Annan. "If we maintain the momentum and we all keep pressure on the stakeholders with the ability and capacity, and we play our role, I think this conference will have made major contribution."

Some environmentalist groups are trying to take a longer-term view as well.

Irene Dankelman of the Women's Environment and Development Organization said she does not think the summit did enough for key issues, including poverty eradication, free trade, and environmental protection. But she is trying not to be too pessimistic.

"There are many things to reflect upon," she said. "I think the outcome of summits, such as this one, you can only see after a few months, or even after 10 years. Like we did with Rio. When we ended up Rio, we were disappointed as well. And now when I look back I think Rio really was a landmark."

Ms. Dankelman said she is pleased that the summit brought together so many people who came from different backgrounds, but shared the same passion about making the world a better place.