Environmental Voices: The politics of international environmental negotiations Part II

The following article is part of Al-Masry Al-Youm's weekly "Environmental Voices" series, in which issues related to the environment–whether local, regional or international in nature–are discussed from the point of view of environmental experts.

This week, in a two-part series, Ossama al-Tayeb, Professor Emeritus of microbiology and immunology, founding director of the Microbial Biotechnology Center at Cairo University, and adviser to the Egyptian Biosafety Clearing House, discusses the politics that lie behind international negotiations on the environment.

Among significant advantages, the North has accumulated wealth from the masses of their own peoples living under a feudal economic system, as well as invading others and building mercantile naval might. With this in mind, it is useful to look into the origin of accumulated wealth in the North.  

The origin of the capitalist era is deeply embedded in the history of serfdom in the feudal North. Invasion of other lands was required to adequately equip armies and to build navies. Wealthy nobles, along with the church, financed military build ups. Navies were established by almost all countries of the North. Their target was international trade routes and sources of raw material. One of the most infamous was the navy owned and operated by the East India Company, which became a quasi-state.  

This led them to the coasts of Africa, Arabia, South Asia, Southeast Asia and, of course, the Americas. By the 19th century, almost every European country had colonies, garrisons or puppet rulers in one spot or another across the globe.  With steam boats, distances became less of a problem, but with spots as far as China and India, logistics and finances were further refined and linkages between the state and the financier were formalized. Many present day capitalist families have roots in the 19th century and beyond.
They are the backbone of present day "capitalist's club" which has the final say in shaping our environment. When Adam Smith, the Scottish moralist and political economist who theorized about capitalism and the "free market" economy in the eighteenth century wrote his treatise on "The Wealth of Nations," he referred to colonies as places with sparse populations which "made room" for foreign settlers with superior technologies.

His model was more focused on the Americas than on other contemporary civilizations. He ignored the "morality" of the process as well as the historical facts of invasion followed by oppression or extermination, despite being the author of another treatise called "The Theory of Moral Sentiments." It is understandable but revealing that he spoke from a northern perspective of superiority. His theories are the basis of present day "globalization" and are now reflected in the "corporatocracy," where the revolving door phenomenon facilitates an alliance between corporations and political and media bureaucracy.  This alliance is a new form of the earlier pact between the church and the kings.
Issues relating to the integrity of the environment, the carrying capacity of the planet and the inter-dependence between humans and the environment did not figure into Smith's theories.   

With the environment impacting almost every possible field of human endeavor such as business, trade, technology, intellectual property rights, businessmen and owners of capital were keen on avoiding any possible negative impact of an international environmental agreement on their finances.

As such, they are present in force during environmental negotiations.  They try to participate as NGOs along with the usual NGOs which are not for profit civil society organizations. In most cases, only governments are allowed full participation and decision-making in environmental negotiations. However, NGOs make a difference in exploring issues, arguing cases, proposing compromises, and providing material facts.

It is often difficult for business and trade enterprises to qualify for not for profit NGO status in negotiations. In such cases there is an alternative: establishing a special "front" organization specifically for the purpose. With funds available and with finances of NGOs not always very transparent it is not a problem at all to move an industry or trade person from the payroll of its parent organization to a front organization posing under a fancy NGO banner. More commonly, business and trade interests actually sit as northern delegates because they are granted that status by their governments.
In all cases, business and trade enterprises arrange "side events" in which their interests are aired by hired "experts." Corridor lobbying and evening events are also common practices. More direct efforts at "bribing" delegates are uncommon. Attempts to influence decision making in the south by governments of the north are acceptable practices where the delegate is approached by a representative of the embassy of the northern country for a meeting to present that country's position.

As a sphere of engagement, the environment is a rich medium for managing negotiations. In the area of "natural biodiversity" we witness a very strange situation. While biodiversity forms the basis of life on earth and of all economic bio-productive systems, its role in human welfare is rarely appreciated or understood by the public. Even climate change enjoys a better place, in general terms, by the public, since it is directly sensed.

Biodiversity provides ecological services to the planet. Climate and water resource management services have an added value to humanity worth trillions of dollars every year and help keep the planet in balance. It is present almost exclusively in the South, while its commercial exploitation requires funding, knowledge and technologies available mainly to the North.  

The logical arrangement is cooperation between the two sides with the benefits shared equitably. The North is used to admiring the South's role as custodian, but not owner, of biodiversity, and takes for granted whatever benefits of biodiversity they are able to commercially exploit. The South, watching business and trade of the North reaping billions of dollars annually with no return to the custodians, complained and asked for a fair share.   

This led to an international treaty: the Convention of Biological Diversity, to which almost 200 countries are parties. While quite logical, this treaty was rejected outright by business and trade. They further risked the integrity of biodiversity by releasing un-regulated biotechnology plants, animals and microorganisms into the environment. This pure greed does not benefit the people even in the North. Business attempts to sooth fears of future risks by assuring us that they will develop remedies when problems arise. But their refusal to confront problems that do occur, however, constitutes the ultimate crime against humanity.  

The picture may not be that bleak: There are people in the North who recognize and defend common human values and have the courage to face the monsters and pay the price for challenging the system. While the Tea Party marches on, there are countless people who are willing to stand and be counted in support of a better environment.

Related Articles

Back to top button