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Business leaders fly the green flag at Earth Summit

THE TIMES, 26 August 2002 - Business leaders plan to take the initiative at this week's Earth Summit in Johannesburg to forestall another damaging dialogue of the deaf with campaigning environmental and anti-capitalist groups.

They aim to to promote a series of Public-Private Partnerships to demonstrate action and to turn the expected $2.9 billion ( £1.9 billion) of new funds into delivering sustainable development. Most centre on fresh water, sanitation and health - key priority areas at the United Nations event.

Lord Holme of Cheltenham, vice-chairman of Business Action for Sustainable Development, a group formed to represent business at the summit, said: "With the summit's stated emphasis being on partnerships for solutions, it would be nice to get away from the cycle of mutual recrimination and concentrate on working together."

Business groups have improved their attention to development issues since the summit in Rio de Janeiro ten years ago. There has also been a shift of gears since the riots at the Seattle trade conference, where multinationals found themselves tagged as the enemies both of the environment and of development in poor countries.

Last year Kofi Annan, Secretary-General of the UN, made a compact with business based on a permanent advisory council that is meant to bring together public and private sectors and to align multinationals with development targets.

The compact board includes Sir Mark Moody-Stuart, the former Royal Dutch Shell chief who now heads BASD.

The 100-strong British delegation to Johannesburg also contains key executives of UK-based multinationals such as Sir Robert Wilson, chairman of Rio Tinto, the metal mining group, and Bill Alexander, the managing director of Thames Water, now part of Germany's RWE utility group.

The mining and metals industry has set up its own Global Mining Initiative, with an action plan drawn up after a three-day conference in May. It focuses on involving local people in future mining projects, ensuring lasting benefits to the communities and, further ahead, seeing mining and recycling metals as a single process and future costs reflected in product prices. These changes follow the disastrous events on Bougainville Island, where one of the world's richest mines was lost, and in Nigeria, where oil companies have almost been at war with local people.

The water supply and engineering industry, via the Business Partners for Development initiative, has set up a water and sanitation "cluster" bringing together industry, governments and charities in a series of schemes to extend water supplies to groups of poor people in four continents.

The pharmaceuticals industry has also moved forward since its mauling in South Africa over affordable treatments for millions with the HIV infection. There are initiatives on Aids, on vaccination and on tuberculosis and malaria. But drug firms are still under pressure over patent rights and for ignoring the needs of poor tropical countries in their research.

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