Mis à jour : 5 mars 2019
By a strange set of happenings and circumstance during June 1992 I found myself editing, co-ordinating and finally publishing the Alternative Treaties from the first Earth Summit at Rio.
This strange and somewhat mysterious story has never been published before now – so read on!
You can find the text of the Alternative Treaties HERE.
But the story begins a couple of years before Rio when I began the publication of a small bi-monthly magazine called “Ideas for Tomorrow Today!”
Ya Wananchi – in Paris 1991
The aim of my magazine was to provide the established business community with sensible objective information and analysis about alternative political thinking and especially the work of important environmental NGOs. The NGO environmental movement had grown from very small beginnings in the early 1970s to become important influential players on the national scene. At first nobody in the “establishment” really took protest organisations like Green Peace or Friends of the Earth seriously. They might tie themselves to trees or throw bags of flour at politicians and business leaders but they were still fringe activist with relatively few resources. People in business and government did not really know much about the thinking of the “weirdos” with the beards, rucksacks and sandals.
I thought that some of the “alternative” thinking was important and that these new ecological radicals might have important lessons for us all to learn. This was the mission of my magazine – to provide summary analysis of ideas, books, speeches and meetings which I thought might be significant. By doing this in a few pages every couple of months I hoped to find an audience in the main stream and break down the barriers of prejudice and ignorance. I had seen for myself when I worked in Whitehall how Ministers had simply failed to grasp the importance of the new environmental NGOs (particularly Friends of the Earth). They failed to realise that these annoying “hippies” actually represented a powerful emerging public concern about the environment. In the end, with a lot of battles and legal hassle, the government was forced to radically change the way it planned the construction of new roads. People demanded much more consultation and a complex Inquiry system was developed.
In order to produce the magazine I made it my business to get to know a wide circle of activists, read their writings and go to their meetings. So, one way or another, I not only heard about the French government's initiative to hold a global conference of NGOs in Paris but I also was able to get a journalists pass to attend.
So what was all this about? Already in 1991 the news media were beginning to take interest in what would be the first Earth Summit to be hosted by the United Nations in Rio during 1992. This had come about as a result of an initiative by a leading Swiss businessman (Schmidheiny) who had co-ordinated the interests (and money) of a powerful group of 40 international corporations. The corporate world was becoming concerned about growing public pressures for businesses to be regulated to protect the environment. This pressure seemed likely to become manifest in different ways in different countries – and a complex set of different rules would place a serious obstacle in the way of global trading. If the United Nations could be persuaded to bring countries together then some of the major environmental issues could be dealt with in a co-ordinated system of global treaties. The problem was that the United Nations had no money – very few of its member states actually paid their annual due, leaving the United States picking up most of the bill. Schmidheiny knew Maurice Strong, one of the senior UN officials, and together they hatched a plan to host an Earth Summit which would be financed by the consortium of 40 corporations co-ordinated by Schmidheiny. So the plan for the 1992 Rio Earth Summit was launched and negotiators began the long process of gearing themselves up to present their various country's cases.
All this was all fine and good but, as so often in the past, the French did not like a situation where the United States (via the UN) appeared to be taking a dominant role in global affairs. So the French government came up with a plan to “muddy the waters” by sponsoring and energising the global NGO movements in order to create some kind of “counterweight” to what they saw as a US initiative. In order to do this the French commissioned a “tame” African NGO and provided money and resources for this NGO to invite NGOs from all over the world to a special global conference. This would take place in Paris in the year (1991) before Rio. The organisers were instructed to choose NGOs in each country so that the number of representatives would reflect the population of that country (as opposed, for example, to the size of its economy). All representatives attending the conference would have their air fares and expenses paid by the French government.
As a result of this French initiative about 5000 representatives of the global NGO community descended on Paris and gathered in a huge conference centre. The aim was to debate what they saw as key issues for Rio. Lots of Press and Media were in attendance – including myself for my magazine IfTT.
The name of the conference – Ya Wananchi – is a Swahili language term meaning “Brothers of the Earth”. Generally there was a strong feeling of optimism and excitement running through the delegations. For the very first time in the history of Earth it seemed possible that the ordinary people of the Earth could make an effective input into the policy deliberations of their governments. Certainly the sea of brown, black, yellow and white faces gathered in the conference room made a big impression. But events did not get off to a very good start. The very first issue raised had nothing to do with saving the environment, instead we were subjected to several bad tempered tirades from the 3 or 4 people who represented the United States. They were furious to find themselves in such a minority position amidst the thousands of brown, black and yellow faces. “Did the organisers not realise that it was a travesty of sense and justice to reduce the role of such a dominant economic power as the US to what seemed like merely a token appearance?”
The French organisers had scored a bulls-eye here right at the outset. Their decision to chose representation by population size showed the US just how unrepresentative their country was of the true pattern of citizenship of the Earth. Various other delegates attempted to persuade the US people to accept the fairness and the reality of their situation, but to no avail – the argument persisted for what seemed like hours. Finally a very young (teenage) girl from one of the South American countries (it could well have been Venezuela) took the stage. She ticked off the other delegates who she said had shown a disgraceful lack of appreciation for the true reasons the NGOs were gathered together. All this petty argument was simply wasting valuable time which should be better spent discussing the real environmental challenges facing the Earth. The meeting finally began to focus on more relevant issues.
I met some interesting people at the conference. First of all it took some time and research for me to discover just how all this had come about, who had initiated it and who had paid for it? Once again, dear reader, you have to remember that even in 1991 the use of email and the internet was still at a relatively undeveloped stage. One person who was convinced that the power of the internet to bring people together was going to be central to future social developments was an american computer wizard called Robert Pollard. I found him tapping away on his little black Apple Mac computer and soon got into an interesting conversation. I did not know then that I would find myself working with Robert when he would be living in my home during the year after Rio. Together we would follow up, co-ordinate and finally publish the Alternative Treaties from Rio. But all that comes at the end of this story.
The main outcome of the Ya Wananchi conference was that various groups of international NGOs got together to form working groups. The aim of these groups was to prepare policy papers which could be brought to the Rio summit in the following year. These papers would set out key environmental policy objectives as seen by the world's NGOs. Policy groups were set up for more than 30 policy areas – such as air, water, women, money, trade.....etc.etc.. Although I did not know it then I would meet all these groups in Rio in the year that followed.
The Rio Earth Summit and the Alternative Treaties 1992
The Rio Earth Summit marked a major watershed in my life's story. My first feelings about the Summit were entirely negative – I thought it seemed likely to be yet another talking shop where men and women in smart suits worked up one compromise or another to avoid making much change to the status quo. Rio was also a very long way away – it was not the kind of trip you could make in a weekend. Altogether I felt that my going there would be a crazy waste of time and money – there were more important things to be done at home. But some of my friends took the opposite point of view. In their view Rio was a unique event in the Earth's history with the possibility of actually making progress on important environmental issues. I had the background and the interest in these issues so surely I must go!
Eventually a group of friends told me “you must go to Rio....” So I began to make tentative enquiries about flights and accommodation. To my surprise it turned out that the Brazilian Grandmother of my daughter's best friend lived in a small apartment very close to the Rio conference headquarters. She did have a tiny back room which I could camp down in without any problems. So this was duly arranged and I booked my flights.
Bear in mind that I had no idea what was going to happen, who I might meet or what I might do there. I had met one or two of the key NGO people at Ya Wananchi in Paris but I did not know if they would be there or how things would be organised. It was (is) a long flight to Rio and I remember the plane filling with steam when the doors are finally opened to a hot humid Brazilian afternoon. I found the Granny's flat and began to get to know cheerful noisy Brazilians! Next I headed off to find the “office” for the so-called Alternative Summit which was being organised in the big public park next to the beach. The park had been rented by a local entrepreneur who had sold off hundreds of show stands for individual NGOs to promote their activites – all the usual suspect are there and it is a big hot and dusty scene. As a “quid pro quo” the NGO organisers have also set up more than 30 large “Treaty” tents. Each tent is kitted out with seating so that the various Alternative Treaty conference groups have their own space where debate and policy development can take place. In each conference tent there are microphones plus sets of earphones so that all contributions can be simultaneously translated into one of the 4 major colonial languages – english, french, portugese and spanish. It's an amazing logistical feat to have all this infrastructure ready and in place in time for the conference. How it was all done I never found out – some wealthy benefactors must certainly have been involved.
One mysterious and perhaps magical feature of my trip to Rio was the huge crystal stone I was asked to take with me by friend Paget during our supper together just before I left. We were enjoying our meal around her beautiful table with her daughters and a generally positive atmosphere. In the centre of Paget's dining table there was always this huge volcanic crystal stone – it must have been at least 18 inches long and 12 inches wide – very impressive. Suddenly Paget turned to me, picked up the big chunk of crystals and gave it to me. Very composed she said - “This came from Rio and you must take this back to Rio. You will know what to do with it when you get there!” I protested that I could not possibly take such an important family ornament on what seemed like a 'wild goosechase' mission to Rio. Anyway the large heavy crystal would take up almost all my baggage allowance. But Paget was adamant - so early next day I found myself lugging a heavy bag into Gatwick airport with absolutely no idea why or what I was supposed to do with the huge crystal inside it.
So here I was in hot noisy Rio (dance music blasting out all night long through open windows) with the crystal under the bed and no idea what I was going to be doing over the next few days. I had been sitting next to an important lady from the Quaker movement during my flight and she had been lamenting how the quakers were no longer in the vanguard of protest against the ecological vandalism which now ravaged the Earth. Gone were the days of front line protests such as those against atomic war. And so it was at the Alternative Summit; none of the quakers nor the conventional religions had a visible presence except for the Bahai who I knew nothing about. They had many well dressed attendants and a “peace centre” where anyone could go to relax and meditate in calm surroundings. The Bahai were there, they said, to help facilitate good accord and postive debate – often there would be one or two Bahai people in each of the 30 or so separate large conference tents. (There was one tent for each of the Treaty groups.)
I spent my time exploring the numerous NGO stands which filled the extensive public park beside the beach. I tried to find out what organisations were doing and attended two or three of the more important debates in the various Treaty tents. The entire scene was hot, busy and dusty. The park spread over about 4 or 5 acres and was the centre of “alternative” conference activity for probably 10,000 people from virtually every country on Earth. Naturally there was a multiplicity of languages and a wonderful variety of clothing. Relatively rich people from the NGOs of western industrialised countries wore cheap T shirts, shorts and sandals. People from “poorer” countries wore smarter clothes to befit this great event. The most beautifully dressed people were tribal people's, whether from Africa or the Americas, whose wonderful embroidered hand-made clothes would have been completely unaffordable for those of us (rich?) from the west. So the cost and quality of people's clothing was in inverse relationship to their conventional “wealth” - a rather interesting fact!
The other very striking feature (to me at any rate) of the Rio Earth summit was the clothing and environment of the “official” delegates – including the representatives of the big “corporate” western NGOs. These people wore dark business suits - with shirts and ties for the men. Of course all of their working environment was fully air conditioned – both in their official cars and in their hotels and conference centres. Their clothing was absolutely unsuitable for the hot humid climate of Rio. In fact they had cut themselves off from any contact whatever with the real natural world around them. This was, of course, a perfect match for the “make believe” world of infinite resources which our dominant consumer cultures (especially economists) believe can be exploited indefinitely by an all-powerful human species. I realised then that the “business suit” is a uniform which seems to gives men the “right to plunder!”
In the Alternative Treaty tents themselves I was very struck by the unwritten formalities which were observed quite naturally in all debates. Generally there was no time limit set on the length of each contribution. There was an absolute rule that nobody should interrupt another speaker and, probably because of the delays inherent in simultaneous translation, most people actually seem to have been listening to what the previous speaker had been saying. Of course there were arguments and forceful debate – sometimes to the point of personality battles which were not helpful to progressing debate. I had learned from the writings of Star Hawk and the experiences of Bio-regionalists that ritual and ceremony could be more powerful than argument. I took to carrying about with me a number of small smooth stones which I had found on the beach. When delegates sometimes became locked in arguments which had become very emotionally charged, I took it upon myself to come forward to the dais and place one of the small stones on it. I would then bow to the “contestants” and begin to return to my seat. Invariably one or other of the participants would ask what the stone was there for? I would simply reply that it was a magic stone which would help them resolve the arguments which had, until then, seemed insurmountable. Usually there was then some huffing and puffing – sighs of “ridiculous!” or “nonsense” but invariably the argument ended and discussion moved on. The stone and its intervention simply broke the difficult emotional tensions.
I suppose my unconventional behaviour did attract some attention – this strange man with the stones! Of course nobody knew then that I had an even larger stone under my bed nearby! But I still had no idea how and when Paget's big crystal would find its purpose. I did not have to wait long to find out!
Every morning at around 9 am the Alternative Treaties delegates would gather in plenary assembly – again in a very large conference auditorium which was actually a distance away from the tented park. Several hundred people would come each day to hear the news, venues for planned demonstrations, times of information talks and anything else anybody thought useful. Slides with information and announcements would be projected onto large screens as delegates with something to say queued at 3 separate microphones to take their turns. Again this was an impressive example of “good” human behaviour – generally people made sensible and brief statements. If it was necessary or useful to respond to some contribution then the assembly simply left this to be the responsibility of the following speaker (who may have been planning to speak about something completely different). I was particularly impressed after hearing a tragic and passionate speech from a native Brazilian whose land and village had been taken away by a large and aggressive corporation with the connivance of the Brazilian government. He urged delegates to join them to make a violent protest, blocking roads and smashing government buildings. The whole gathering became tense with emotion. I wondered what would happen next. The following speaker was a small and fragile looking indian lady who had been hoping to speak about tree planting in the Himalayas. After the passionate tale we had all just heard, I wondered what she would do. In the event she was brilliant – extremely sympathetic on the one hand but cautioning her “brother” to take great care in case their demonstration collapsed into violence, losing them public support and putting them in the wrong just as the corporation and government had been in the wrong. It was heartwarming to see how humans could behave in such an unselfish and responsive way.
As the days went by there was one question which kept coming up in the morning plenary session without any resolution. This was the tricky question of whether the global NGO movement should now accept a formal invitation to have seats allocated for NGOs within the the United Nations. Some delegates, particularly those from the US, said this would be a one-off opportunity for NGOs to assert their right to be part of the collection of government representatives who could really make changes in global policies. Others, particularly those from Malaysia, saw the invitation as a plot to wrap up the often umcomfortable campaigning of NGOs in smart suits and comfortable rhetoric. The outcome would simply bury NGO concerns within the carefully orchestrated corridors of power. After 4 days of inconclusive debate the plenary Assembly decided that this important but controversial issue should be passed on for decision to a group of 12 delegates – 2 to be chosen by each of the 6 continental areas of the Earth. This was agreed. Each continental region held its own meetings every evening so that evening each would chose its 2 representatives. The 12 representatives would then meet in a special conference tent in 2 days time. Whatever conclusion the 12 reached would be accepted as binding on the global NGO movement.
I was impressed that, yet again, the assembly seemed to have found a positive way to handle a tricky question. Strong feelings had already been expressed by many delegates – some even imagining that the entire proposal was simply a plot by the CIA to bring NGOs within the conventional fold. That evening when I attended the meeting of the European region there were about 30 people present – a few I had already met at earlier gatherings in Europe either at Paris or at ANPED. There was a fairly brief discussion of this burning issue (the group strongly opposed accepting the UN invitation) and then the question arose as to who would be the 2 chosen representatives from Europe. Although I had hardly spoken several of the leading personalities immediate turned to me to ask if I would be prepared to be one of the European representatives. They had liked both what I had said and the way I had said it. I protested that they hardly knew me – no , they said but we know enough and we are sure you will do a good job. ( We were all of the view that accepting the UN invitation would end the powerful independent role which NGOs now held outside the formal mechanisms of government. Many of us had already seen how the big established NGOs were already wearing their suits and ties within the air conditioned corporate sponsored official conference spaces – seduced by the trappings of power.)
So there it was - I began to think how I would make an impact on the forthcoming “crunch” debate with the other 11 representatives.
Paget's big crystal was my answer. On the day of the big debate I put the glittering crystal into my bag and lugged it with me to the tent where the debate would take place. It was a bright hot day; the tent crowded with spectators and TV crews. How were things going to unfold? Nobody knew I had the big crystal in my bag but I had to choose my moment carefully so that revealing the crystal would make the most impact – there would only be one chance. As I expected, the debate dragged on with the US delegates slugging it out with those from Malaysia. After an hour or so no consensus had been reached. Finally I decided that the moment had come when I would make my (dramatic) contribution. I rose from my seat, taking the big crystal from my bag and walked forward into the centre of the small circle as everyone gazed on in amazement. Slowly I put the crystal in the centre and returned to my seat. The TV cameras loved it – the other delegates were puzzled as to what would happen next. I sat down and made my small speech - just saying that when the molecules came together to make those beautiful crystals nobody told them what to do – they just knew what to do. We would be wrong to give up our independence by becoming any part of the formal machinery of governments that we did not believe in. This intervention immediately brought the debate to an end as a big majority of the delegates agreed to refuse the invitation. The 'magic' crystal had indeed found a use in a way that I could never have imagined – perhaps Paget had some intuition or instinct that I did not know of. It was one of the strangest experiences of my life.
For reasons I do not to this day understand, I felt I should keep the story of my intervention in the history of the global NGO movement a secret. Somehow the strange 'magic' of that crystal had to be protected so it could never again simply become an expensive trinklet on a wealthy sideboard. I told nobody what had happened – not for more than 15 years – and it's a strange story to look back on with all the “ifs” and “maybe's” which might have prevented it ever happening. Quietly and alone I put the crystal back into my bag and walked slowly down to the Rio harbour where I knew the Greenpeace boat was moored. There was nobody about when I took the crystal out of my bag and threw it far out into the Rio harbour beside the Greenpeace ship. As far as I know, it must still be there today – a silent witness to what had been a monumental day. It felt very strange to have found myself acting as a “tool” for the fates on that unique day in Rio when all the peoples of the Earth had come together for the first time to talk about a viable future.
So by this time after a week in the heat of Rio, I had gone from being an anonymous nobody to somebody who everybody in the Alternative Treaty camp talked about in the whispered corridors of gossip. “The man with the stones!” As the days available for finishing work on the Alternative Treaties ran out, it became clear that the NGOs would not be able to finish their task at Rio. So what could be done? I had already met Robert Pollard (my contact from Ya Wananchi) beavering away again at his computers in Rio. I discussed with him the possibility of us working together to help the NGOs complete their work after Rio had ended. Surely we could do this via email and regular liason with all the groups involved. He was excited by this. I agreed to provide him with board and lodging at my home in England where I now had a big office and plenty of spare room. We went together to see the movers and shakers in the NGO co-ordinating office and they were happy to say 'just do it!”. So we did. Robert took up residence with me as planned and used bis computer enthusiasm to keep in touch with (and chase when necessary) over 170 different NGOs all over the world. For the next 12 months we worked together on this ambitious project – he did the chasing and communicating, I did the editing and policy feedback. Eventually we had all the treaties agreed and completed. We circulated the electronic version to all our NGO contributors but I also had a thousand copies printed at my own expense. Despite their strongly opposing views, it is strange to see that the United Nations has now accepted the validity of these Alternative Treaties from 1992.
Altogether the Rio experience had unfolded like some pre-scripted storybook saga. It was truly extra-ordinary that my strong initial misgivings had eventually led to my taking such a central role in the whole Alternative Treaty scene. I had met many wonderful people – especially those from places where even the most basic elements of life were extremely hard to find – water and fuel for example. I had seen that the air conditioned world of suits and ties was a world of profit and corporate power which had become totally disconnected from the natural world. For the most part our elected governments simply pandered to this “make believe” world of apparently infinite resources in their attempts to boost consumerism and employment. I had seen that it was the people (tribal and indigenous) who had least in terms of modern resources who held their heads up highest and wore the most beautifully hand made clothes. Clothes so fine that none of us westerners would ever have been able to afford to buy them! I had been sad to see the cheap sweaty T shirts and shorts worn by most of the western NGO delegates – as if they were apologising for their very existence. I resolved in my own mind that I could never again “preach” to others as to what they should or should not do unless I could myself move towards a lifestyle more in harmony with the natural world. Many of the other westoners I had met at Rio felt the same – and they too would make huge changes in their lifestyles. It was this imperative which led me to Ireland to join John Seymour and Angela Ashe on their (more or less) self-sufficient smallholding. It was this imperative which led me to begin the teaching of self-sufficiency.
Post-script to Rio
5 years after Rio the French again took steps to try and “throw dust” in the face of the United States. As with Ya Wananchi in 1991, the French set up a big NGO (Dutch this time) with funds to organise a 5 year follow-up to Rio that would bring together NGOs from all over the world. Clearly the hope was that such a meeting would lead to a global outcry about the lack of progress being made. One objective was clearly to irritate the US!
About 2 weeks before the follow-up conference was scheduled to take place (in Copenhagen) I received a phone call “out of the blue” from the Dutch NGO responsible for arranging the event. I was told that the NGO now found itself in great difficulty the French had informed them that they would only provide funds for the event on condition that each representative received a printed copy of the Alternative Treaties! So the question was – could I provide 500 copies and get them to Copenhagen within 10 days?
I very much wanted to support the Conference so I told the organisers that I would do my best to produce the Treaties. Of course it would not be cheap – each printed Treaty would cost about £2.50 at such short notice and I would need to be re-imbursed for my fuel and ferry expenses (4 ferry trips – Ireland/UK and UK/Holland). I sent them my invoice and made my arrangements to rush over to the UK, get the Treaties printed and then take the big boxes over to Holland in my small van. Everything did work out and I duly arrived in Copenhagen where the organisers met me with sighs of relief. The Treaties were duly distributed and the conference got under way.
This was a very different event to alternative Rio Summit because it was only attended by delegates from the larger NGOs. True they had arrived from all over the Earth and they did represent many thousands of their members but there were none of the smaller NGOs and certainly no tribal or ethnic peoples. All the delegates were professional salaried staff from what had become large corporate NGOs – the “bleeding heart” organisations as I had come to call them. Of course such organisations raise huge sums in charitable donations as they promote their work through dramatic advertising and skilful fund raising. But the idealists who founded them have long since retired or moved on leaving hard-nosed business people in charge.
I was very depressed by the attitudes I found when talking to the delegates. They were certainly interested in whether their fellow delegates had better salaries, retirement packages and working conditions than their own. And had they been able to fly business class? But none of them seemed keen to “rock the boat” by being controversial. Many of the journalists I talked to shared my views. Then, to cap it all, the Dutch NGO organisers never the payments which I had been promised – they simply disappeared leaving me several thousand pounds out of pocket. It was not a good experience.