The Rio Farce – “Revolt” magazine, 1992

The Rio farce

Revolt number 2 (1992), South Africa.

The Rio Earth Summit was dominated by the very people responsible for the global ecological crisis in the first place. Solutions were not, cannot, and never will be, found by such groups. Grass roots action is the only answer.

As far as the Greens go, 1992 is being heralded as a turning point. The Rio Earth Summit managed to assemble the “leaders” of over 100 countries at a single place at a single time, to discuss the doomsday cause that the planet is on… but is it all a farce.

For a start, the individuals that sat around the table to discuss environmental degradation are the very same individuals who have caused the problem (ie. the state leaders backed, no doubt, by campaign contributing multinational bosses) . How can the cause of a problem dish out a solution … the only logical solution is the elimination of the cause.

To understand why we are in the situation where the environment is being threatened at allfronts, one needs to investigate and address the issue of the global economy, since environmental degradation is in most, if not all, ways related to the capitalist production and consumption of material goods.

Economically linked multinational enterprises, transnationals (TNC’s) control 70% of world trade, 50% of foreign investment and 30% of global gross domestic product. As they control the markets of almost all industries ( from the petrochemical, to pharmaceutical to food) they control the pollution, and associated environmental damage.

20 of the largest pesticide makers control 94% of the world’s agro-chemical sales, a majority of which is sold to debt ridden third world countries who have no choice but to purchase due to the mechanisation policies of the west. In some cases, banned substances like the dreaded DDT are still being used in third world countries. I comes as no surprise since the third world is seen as dumping ground for dangerous products, like drugs, that the west has banned.

TNC’s are responsible for 50% of the world’s greenhouse gas emmisions in the 6 biggest industrial sectors that together account for more than 80% of the problem. It is clear why, even after the dangers of CFC’s have been shown, TNC’s are proposing a gradual phase out programme instead of an immediate and total ban… PROFIT.

TNC’s are heavily involved in the destruction of tropical forest in Africa, SE Asia and Latin America. The Rio Farce saw the North dictating to third world nations to cease activities that have detrimental effects on the environment while the third world is in a catch 22 situation. It sees the exploitation of natural resources as one of the ways in which it can rid itself of the tightening debt noose that the World Bank and IMF has fixed on it.

The link between the TNC’S, commodity prices and the environment is also clear. When export commodities, prices drop (rice, coffee, cocoa, sugar and cotton prices are 20% lower in 1989 then 1980) poor countries earn less revenue, which means more poverty, less development, and increased destruction of the environment. In the meantime suit and tie jobs in Wall Street, Diagonal Street, etc. play juggler with commodity prices to ensure maximum profit margins … at any cost.

Of course it is in TNC interest to avoid fundamental changes. Last year Germany’s powerful chemical industry saw to it that the State failed to adopt environmental standards; in April Dutch industrialists threatened to locate out of Holland if the government effected its proposed carbon law; the Californian based furniture industry took its highly pollutive factories straight across the border to Mexico where it continued exploiting the environment and at the same time got a double benefit by having cheap Mexican labour at its disposal … thereby exploiting people as well.

Bush refused to agree to any environemental contraints at the Rio Farce that would [have] adversely affected US TNC’s.

TNC’s and their governments at Rio undermined any measures limiting their pollution and timber activities and last year the UN Commission on TNC’s was axed largely due to TNC pressure.

Clearly a solution to environmental problems cannot and will not be handed over on a silver platter by governments or [their] TNC allies (and vice versa) since too many vested interests are involved. Once again grass roots action from below seems to be the only way to slow down and hopefully halt the rape of Mother Earth.

To conclude: “The destruction of the planet cannot be stopped by barricading ourselves against the advancing bulldozers … we need to be in the driving seats of these machines and and our destinations should be the multi-story, multi-million dollar offices of TNC’s and the Capitol Hills and Union Buildings of the world.”


About Lucien van der Walt

I teach at Rhodes University, the Eastern Cape. I’m South African, born and bred. I am currently also involved in union education and have a background in social movement and left-wing activism, the Workers’ Library and Museum, the Anti-Privatisation Forum, and the National Health and Allied Workers Union (NEHAWU). I’ve presented papers at more than 120 conferences and workshops, published in key journals like 'Capital and Class' and 'Labor History', have co-edited 3 journal specials (these on global labour history, African labour, and unions in the Global South), and written well over 130 other articles, papers and entries. I was Southern Africa editor for the 2009 'International Encyclopaedia of Revolution and Protest' (Blackwell). My focus has been on South Africa, but I have also done research in Zambia and Zimbabwe. I won the 2008 international 'Labor History' thesis prize, and the 2008/2009 Council for the Development of Social Science Research prize for best African dissertation, for my PhD thesis on South African anarchism, syndicalism and black militants. I have several books, including 'Negro e Vermelho: anarquismo, sindicalismo revolucionário e pessoas de cor na África Meridional nas décadas de 1880-1920,' 'Anarchism and Syndicalism in the Colonial and Postcolonial World, 1880-1940: the praxis of national liberation, internationalism, and social revolution' (co-edited with Steve Hirsch, Brill, 2010/ 2014) and 'Black Flame: the revolutionary class politics of anarchism and syndicalism' (co-written with Michael Schmidt, AK Press 2009).