Summit fails the world’s indigent

The cow seems annoyed. Kicking at the dead roots and digging away with its nose, it is having a hard time getting nutrition from the dead yellow grass. A scrawny goat looks at this struggle and urinates next to the muddy dam. Some birds hop about, but soon give up and stick to perching on the myriad power lines overhead.
 
“This place is good for cattle but not for people,” said Obed Sambo.

He is philosophical. Yes, people get sick in Secunda all the time, but he has a job. And in spring the whole valley will burst into green. The rest is out of his hands and so he gets on with the task of surviving.

His friend, Joel Masondo, is worried. Clutching a homemade cigarette between his fingers, he says members of his family are often sick: “People are always having problems in the chest, the stomach, or the knees.”

Standing on a small hill, overlooking the dull-yellow valley where their cattle are grazing, they point to the giant Sasol plant on the horizon. Clouds of smoke from its towering smokestacks weave their way into the sky, blending into tiny shapes that float over the whole area. With its rhythmic mechanical noises, the plant forms the beating heart of the entire area. Everyone either works there, or has worked there.

Gun-toting children
Behind the two men is the township of Embalenhle. If the gun-toting children living in favelas on the outskirts of the Rio+20 gathering had to come here, they would find themselves walking down streets as shabby as their own.

Air pollution over Secunda and other towns on the Gauteng-Mpumalanga border is so bad that the department of environmental affairs has declared them pollution “hot spots”. “They are considered to exceed ambient air quality standards and cause a significant negative impact on air quality and human health,” it said.

To understand what was creating this pollution, the department set up monitoring stations across the region. The latest report for Secunda concludes: “It is clear that the major source [of pollution] in the sector is resultant from industrial sources.” It also said that pollution from using open fires for cooking and heating in the community was detrimental to air quality.

At midday the streets of Embalenhle are teeming with people. Every dusty yard is a hive of activity and there are people sitting on the few patches of grass. Jonathan Gaobetla is sitting inside his house with some friends, a bottle of beer in one hand and a remote in the other. The blare of wrestling from his television barely competes with the sounds of Mandoza pumping from his antiquated hi-fi.

“Sometimes we have contract work, but normally not. And we are always sick, especially the children. People blame the plant, but it is because they throw rubbish in the street and we have sewage everywhere. We live with so much pollution.” Rubbing his chest, he summed it up: “Life here is shit.”

Subdued feel
Every dip in the earth is filled with household rubbish and the odd copse of trees that still stand are beacons for dumped appliances. Driving down the dusty streets is a special challenge – a misplaced wheel will spray sewage over pedestrians. Although the overall feel is subdued, it is when crossing the streams of sewage that people become animated – a spring comes into their step as they leap over. The process is hardest on the children and their parents tend to hoist them over the streams.

While braiding a friend’s hair, Nonkaluleko Nkoza says children are always sick. Laughing at her daughter’s posing for the camera, she said: “She now has eye problems, but there is nothing the doctor can do. At the hospital they just give you pills and tell you to go home.” She does not know what to do, but hopes her daughter will grow stronger – at least she eats her vegetables.

Lukas Moutela has no such hope. For the moment he can protect his child, who has taken refuge behind his father’s leg. Talking with a sad smile, he says he does not see a future for his generation, let alone their children. “Our children will die of hunger, or fight for food. So I do not have hope. All we can do is pray hard.”

Leaving Secunda for the smog of Johannesburg, the photographer stretches back and lights a cigarette – “It is healthier than living there,” he said.

These are the people international non-governmental organisations say the finalised Rio+20 text has betrayed. A comparison between the original text, which was released in January for discussion, and the final version shows that most of the paragraphs that would have required countries to do anything within a set time frame have been removed or softened.
The concept that the developed world takes responsibility for the damage it has done, something that underpinned the whole Rio process, has been pushed aside.

Future tense
Although the summit started with stern warnings about the future in a world that has grown by 1.4-billion people since the original meeting in 1992, they have been ignored.
Achim Steiner, executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme, gave the starkest warning. “In 1992 we talked about the future that was likely to occur. Twenty years later, a number of things we talked about in the future tense have arrived.”

Although Rio 1992 was hailed as a revolutionary step in driving sustainable development – three international treaties were produced as well as Agenda 21, an epic road map for tackling environmental issues this even larger meeting has been all about compromise.

Oxfam’s spokesperson, Carlos Zarco, was outspoken about the failures. “Leaders have failed to keep the world’s poorest in their sights, despite the fact that more than half of these live in G20 countries.” Nearly one billion people go to sleep hungry every day, he said. “This collective failure of political will is shocking. Poor people and poor countries deserve more,” he said.

The wording of the document is telling. The World Wide Fund for Nature and Oxfam say they have done everything they can to ensure that nobody is bound to do anything. WWF’s head honcho in Rio, Lasse Gustavsson, said the word “encourage” was used 50 times, “support” 99 times. But “must” only pops up three times and “we will” five times, he said.

The reaction from the European delegation – which is trying to force through a pollution tax on air travel that would make any airline that flies into the continent pay for emissions – has been furious.

Connie Hedegaard, the delegation’s commissioner for climate action, was scathing after the text of the Rio declaration was finalised: “[It is] telling that nobody in that room adopting the text was happy. That is how weak it is. And they all knew. Disappointing Rio+20.”

Sipho Kings
Sipho is the Mail & Guardian's News Editor. He also does investigative environment journalism.
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