South Africa Grooms for Sequel to 1992 Earth Summit in Rio

Leon Marshall
for National Geographic News
April 23, 2001

Ten years after the historic United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro, world leaders will meet again next year to assess progress—or the lack of it—since that first "Earth Summit" and to plot a course for the new millennium.

As Johannesburg, South Africa, prepares to host the huge event, officials see it as an opportunity for the world to witness firsthand the threat that poverty, disease, and illiteracy pose to humanity and the environment. They also welcome the chance to showcase the region's natural attractions and the dramatic changes the country has experienced in the past decade.

More than 170 countries were represented at the original Earth Summit, which sought to put nations on a more sustainable track of economic growth and conservation. Subsequently, it led to the development of major global agreements on climate change, biological diversity, and other environmental issues, as well as an ambitious action plan, known as Agenda 21, for protecting global resources.

The Earth Summit scheduled for September 2002 is expected to attract about 65,000 people, including 130 heads of state and their entourages, along with 2,000 members of the media.

That they will congregate in Johannesburg is a point of pride for South Africans and others across the continent, who think it could not have come at a better time.

At the time of the Rio conference, South Africa was in the throes of transition from suppressive minority rule to an all-race democracy. Now the country—the economic powerhouse of the subcontinent—is leading the drive for change throughout the continent.

New Resolve for Africa

South Africa's current president, Thabo Mbeki, has made an "African Renaissance" the central theme of his term of office. In cooperation with other African leaders, notably those who have been democratically elected, he is pushing hard for an end to the continent's debilitating and destructive wars, and for a shift toward accountable government.

He wants more attention, particularly from the developed world, directed to helping Africa overcome the plight of poverty, unemployment, illiteracy, and the rampant HIV/AIDS epidemic.

Hosting the global conference will offer an immediate, if temporary, boost to efforts to relieve unemployment and poverty. The event is expected to create 12,500 jobs in the Greater Johannesburg Metropolitan area alone, where the various meetings affiliated with the Earth Summit will be held.

The conference could also provide short- and longer-term economic benefits in the form of increased tourism, which government and business have earmarked as the sector with the highest potential for growth, and consequently for poverty relief. Officials see it as one of the best opportunities the region will ever have to display its spectacular natural attractions to the rest of the world.

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