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Thousands Protest Against World Summit in Johannesburg - 2002-08-31

Thousands of protesters took to the streets Saturday in Johannesburg, South Africa, to demonstrate against the World Summit on Sustainable Development. Four separate marches were held by groups who complain their voices are not being heard at the summit. The two largest groups marched to the convention center from the impoverished township of Alexandra.

Two competing marches started in Alexandra, known locally as Alex. The organizers wanted to highlight the gap between rich and poor, both here in South Africa and in the rest of the world.

Police took great pains to keep the two groups away from each other. One march was sponsored by South Africa's ruling party, the African National Congress. The other was organized by the Social Movement Indaba, a collection of groups largely critical of the ANC and the South African government.

In the end, both protests went peacefully. But police were taking no chances. They lined the streets with officers clad in full riot gear. Military armored vehicles rumbled through the streets of Alex ahead of the protesters.

As police helicopters buzzed overhead, a member of the South African Landless People's Movement railed against the government's policies on land reform and privatization. "We are landless people! Our government has declared war on its own very poor people! We do not need helicopters! We want land! We want jobs! We want food," chanted protesters.

Although the vast majority of demonstrators were South Africans, both protests did draw groups from elsewhere in Africa, as well as Asia, Europe and the Americas. Marchers sported T-shirts calling for a free Palestine, indigenous peoples' rights, debt cancellation, environmental justice and everything in between.

Barry Coates heads a British-based advocacy group, the World Development Movement. "We are hoping this march is going to send a message to say it's crunch time for this summit," he said. "Either they start to deliver on some of the core economic and trade and development issues, or it's just going to be a waste of time."

Some protesters came for very personal reasons. A group of fishermen and women from India called for the protection of fish reserves and an end to pollution of the oceans from which they make their living.

Sarah James is an indigenous Alaskan who came to protest oil and gas drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Reserve. "There's 15 villages that are against the oil and gas development," said Sarah James. "And we've been fighting that since 1988... I'm here to tell the world that that place needs to be protected. It's a sacred place. We call it 'where the light begins'."

Police say about 3,000 people started out with the ANC march, and about 8,000 at the one sponsored the Social Movement Indaba. But the crowds for both marches had dwindled dramatically by the time they actually arrived at the Sandton Convention Center, where the summit was taking place. On a hot day, the crowds moved slowly though the streets of Alex, and it took them roughly five hours to travel less than 10 kilometers.

At least one major international activist group decided not to participate in either march because it did not want to make a political decision about which one to join.