South African President Thabo Mbeki told delegates in the opening session of the ten-day meeting, “A global human society based on poverty for many and prosperity for a few, characterized by islands of wealth, surrounded by a sea of poverty, is unsustainable.”
Representatives from more than 100 nations gathered in Johannesburg for the summit, which will focus on connections between poverty and environmental degradation. The conference’s main themes include improving health care and access to non-polluting energy sources, as well as reversing the decay of agricultural land and protecting the global environment.
The summit, billed as the largest in U.N. history, aimed to reduce by half the more than one billion people without access to potable water and the two billion without adequate sanitation by 2015.
Nearly 40,000 participants will spend the week trying to reach common strategies for current and future world development, which will be presented as a broader “implementation plan” to some 100 world leaders next week.
U.N. organizers hope to build upon the ambitious agreements adopted at the 1992 Earth Summit in Brazil, but the schisms between less-developed countries and wealthier nations will likely pose a challenge.
Delegates from developing nations say they cannot protect their natural resources unless their economies are strengthened. They have called on wealthy nations to guarantee fairer access to world markets — chiefly by abolishing or reducing tariffs on agricultural products from poor countries — and to commit 0.7 percent of their gross national product to aid developing countries.
Many wealthier nations, like the U.S., have been reluctant to sign agreements with specific timetables. Officials say the U.S. has already promised to increase aid to developing nations, provided their governments undertake democratic reforms and eliminate corruption.
The U.S., already the world’s largest economy and biggest polluter, has resisted any time frame for reducing greenhouse gas emissions and converting to renewable energy sources.
President George W. Bush, who already riled activists last year when he refused to endorse the Kyoto accord to reduce air pollution believed to contribute to global warming, has endured additional criticism after deciding not to attend this week’s conference. Instead, Secretary of State Colin Powell will join the U.S. delegation in Johannesburg next week.
Thousands of activists were expected to protest outside the summit calling for world leaders to take immediate action to help the poor and reduce pollution. Security officials told reporters they would be quick to clamp down on activists protesting without government approval.