Mute Witnesses

The morning sun glints against corrugated iron roofs scattered with car engines, beer crates and wire shopping carts. We are in Alexandra, one of the oldest shantytowns in Johannesburg, South Africa. Nelson Mandela rented a one-room shack here in the early 1940s. Today, dozens of yelling protesters push toward the backseat of a Toyota, where only a few red T-shirts bearing antiglobalization slogans remain to be had. Nearby, some 10,000 people wearing red headbands wait in the heat. There's a mother with a baby strapped to her back, and an old man with no teeth carrying a bag of oranges. Then there's blow-dried Naomi Klein, wearing yellow-tinted sunglasses.

Six miles to the west, the high-rises of Sandton are vaguely visible through a brown haze. There, at a domed convention center not far from a mall styled after a Tuscan castle, 107 heads of state have gathered for the biggest conference in United Nations history. The subjects are water, energy, health, agriculture and biodiversity -- or WEHAB, as UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan calls them. And the occasion is the Aug. 26-Sept.4, 2002, World Summit on Sustainable Development, where 20,000 delegates from 190 nations have come to contemplate protecting the environment and closing the gap between the world's urban middle class and the 1.2 billion people who live on less than $1 a day.

Denmark's prime minister and the current president of the European Union, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, recently quipped to The Economist that the summit would be "about everything and therefore, in the end, about nothing." But try telling that to the 10,000 unaccredited delegates making the walk from Alexandra to Sandton. Shamans with bead tiaras beat drums to protest genetically modified corn. A blond vegan wearing a bikini made of lettuce leaves shouts, "Go veg!" Says one man, "This is the long march to the promised land, the glass city on the hill." A disabled boy's arms and torso are so contorted that he has to pivot his crutches against his hips.

En route, the protesters cross the Jukskei River, contaminated last year by raw sewage from pit latrines serving the shacks perched on its banks. Cholera broke out here. It's a fitting backdrop for the summit, where sanitation is a major issue and the subject of a particularly creative public-relations strategy. The South African government has printed slogans such as "Hygiene is not a softissue" and "A flush is not the only winning hand" on two-ply toilet paper for the exclusive use of the delegates. By the end of the conference, a deadline of 2015 is set to halve the number of people in the world without clean water.

If many of the protesters marching from Alexandra personify the have-nots of sanitation campaigns, they stand in similar relation on the issue of energy. In Alexandra, wires leading into older brick homes are spliced so that neighbors in shacks can siphon free electricity. Children are often electrocuted when they step on the damaged wires.

Nothing so crude is discussed, however, at the summit's negotiations on the Draft Plan of Implementation. Instead, Brazil lodges an early proposal to draw 10 percent of the world's energy from renewable sources by the year 2010. The European Union, which has made particularly great strides with wind power, proposes raising the target to 15 percent. Finally, the United States delegation strikes a deal with oil-producing Arab nations, including Iraq, to scrap energy targets and deadlines and to leave the clause vague enough to include nuclear energy.

Nearing their destination, the protesters pass through the thin band of mostly defunct industry that circles Alexandra. Many migrants who have fled stagnant economies and unexpected droughts in neighboring countries now pay to sleep in these empty warehouses. The World Food Program estimates that 14 million people face starvation in southern Africa. Before the drought hit the region, the International Monetary Fund advised Malawi that it should sell some of its reserves of corn, its staple food, to ease the country's debt burden. Corrupt officials sold the entire reserve, skimming off the top and leaving nothing to help farmers deal with climate change.

The protesters trudge uphill along a wide avenue through the greenery of Sandton, stopping to crowd around a garden tap. At the sound of water splashing against the burning tarmac, those at the rear of the pack begin to run. The organizers, waiting on two flatbed trucks up ahead, pour more gasoline into the rattling generator that powers their loudspeakers. A police helicopter circles above. Behind the wall of riot police, behind the armored vehicles parked across the exits, the airplanes of arriving heads of state leave white streaks across the sky.

"Let us not be deceived when we look at a clear blue sky into thinking that all is well," says Annan in the summit's opening address. "All is not well."

Indeed, southern Africa is not the only region facing climate change. After the flooding of the Elbe River near one of Europe's major industrial regions, the German delegation is particularly keen on getting reluctant states such as China, Russia and Japan to ratify the Kyoto Protocol, which sets targets for reducing carbon-dioxide emissions. The only countries that haven't signed the protocol are the United States and Australia. At the last minute, a clause giving the World Trade Organization final authority over environmental accords such as Kyoto is deleted. But language is malleable. After delegates sign off on a clause demanding greater corporate accountability, the U.S. delegation slips in a footnote stating that the clause refers only to existing treaties on global standards for corporate behavior. But no effective treaties on corporate behavior exist.

So what enforcement will be available for the environmental compromises struck here? Unlike the United Nations, the wto at least has the authority to settle disputes over its agreements. President Jacques Chirac of France suggests forming a World Environmental Organization but meets with scant applause from the tired bureaucrats.

Walking the six miles to Sandton has taken most of the day. As Johannesburg's brown high-rises redden in the last of the sun, a few stragglers begin the long walk home. They leave a footprint-covered placard on the tarmac: "Land! Food! Jobs!"

No number of exclamation marks can guarantee change in Alexandra. And without a legal framework, nothing that is agreed upon at the Johannesburg summit amounts to more than a promise. In his address at the Meridian International Center last July, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell quoted Hernando de Soto: "The hidden architecture of sustainable development is the law."

From Sept. 2-4 at the Sandton Convention Centre, each head of state or a representative takes the dais for five minutes to speak about sustainable development. The world leaders' words bear little resemblance to the texts their bureaucrats have just negotiated. Is it simply the nature of politics to divide language from reality? Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez recently called the world summit "a dialogue of the deaf."

When Powell rises to say what his president, on holiday in Texas, told him to say -- that the United States is firmly committed to reducing carbon-dioxide emissions -- environmentalists and journalists in the bustling press gallery shout him down. The next speaker hails from Angola, where 60 percent of the rural populace in 305 villages has a disease called river blindness; when he tries to make himself heard, more than half the press gallery leaves.

Delegates stream outside the convention center for lunch. The sealed-off street is quiet, the poor who normally hawk fruit there having been removed. Instead, the delegates pass 6,000 papier-mâché statues with open mouths and raised palms. A strident press release calls them "Mute Witnesses." A passing bureaucrat in a dark suit pops a dollar in the shoe box provided by Friends of the Earth and walks away with his purchases, a Mute Witness statue tucked under each arm.