Thabo Mbeki, the South African President, called yesterday for concrete measures to lift billions of people out of poverty and misery, while saving the planet before its dwindling resources were squandered. Opening the world summit on sustainable development in Johannesburg, he told representatives of more than 160 governments that it was time to overturn a world order based on the "savage principle of the survival of the fittest".
The conference, to be attended by up to 40,000 delegates over 10 days, represents the best opportunity in 20 years to address the problems of dire poverty and environmental degradation at the same time. But it already faces breakdown because preparatory negotiations which were supposed to outline broad agreement ended in disaster in Bali, in June.
As President Mbeki spoke, delegates were starting the tortuous process of trying to eliminate more than 400 points of disagreement in a so-called "Plan of Action" to be agreed by the conference. Starting with the least contentious topics, they managed to resolve a few points regarding the environment of small islands, and the Global Environment Facility, the main fund for financing environmentally friendly development, launched at the Rio Summit in 1992.
But they have not even begun to address the big divisions over setting a target to provide sanitation for more than a billion people by 2015, increasing the amount of renewable energy used in developed and developing countries and providing more aid to finance sustainable development. The most basic dispute is over whether to put specific new targets into a Plan of Action rather than relying on generalities. The European Union is almost alone in pressing for the targets and Britain is playing a pivotal role. Hardline countries such as the United States, Australia and Japan, fear the targets would involve them spending more money in aid.
Developing countries do not believe any more money will be forthcoming and so do not want to be landed with commitments they believe they cannot fulfil.
President Mbeki said on Sunday that "global apartheid" between rich and poor must, like white minority rule in his own country, be swept away. Yesterday he used the opening speech of the UN's largest summit so far to attack the failure of the global community to act on agreements reached at the Rio Earth Summit.
"A global human society based on poverty for many and prosperity for a few, characterised by islands of wealth surrounded by seas of poverty, is unsustainable," Mr Mbeki said.
"It is as though we are determined to regress to the most primitive condition of existence in the animal world, of survival of the fittest. It is as though we have decided to spurn what the human intellect tells us, that the survival of the fittest only presages the destruction of all humanity."
Poverty, underdevelopment and inequality within and between countries, plus the worsening ecological crisis, summed up "the dark shadow" under which most of the world lived, he said. The world must strive for shared prosperity.
President Mbeki and his ministers are key players in the summit, representing the most developed of the developing countries.Mr Mbeki himself has been repeatedly criticised for his failure to take a firm stance on critical governance issues which relate to sustainable development. His failure to condemn Zimbabwe's controversial land seizures that have resulted in food shortages have often been highlighted as indicative of his "weak" leadership.
But he has taken hold of the talks, to try to kick some life into them. South Africa has said it will settle for nothing less than an ambitious plan of action and timetable which binds industrialised countries to deliver on the phasing out of trade and agricultural subsidies, and accepting the principle of shared and differentiated responsibility in rescuing an ailing planet.
Leading non-governmental organisations last night threatened to walk out of the summit, accusing the organisers of sidelining them in negotiations.
Delegates described it as a "closed summit" at which people who held contrary views to large corporations were being kept out of the main forums of discussions.
The summit is being held in Sandton, Africa's glitziest commercial district whose palatial marble-and-glass towers loom over the squalid township of Alexandra.
Delegates are sealed off in the fortress like complex by concrete barriers and metal fences. An 8,000-person security force is deployed to help prevent the kind of violence seen in recent international meetings in Seattle and Genoa, Italy.