Rio 20+ ― gov't failures strengthens movements' resolve

Participants in a 20,000-strong rally in downtown Rio de Janeiro in support of strong environmental action during the June 13-22

If you talk to the people in-the-know at the United Nations and other related agencies, they will tell you that our system of governance is not working well enough to solve the crises the world is facing.

I guess this explains why the final lead document “The Future We Want” from the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development held in Rio de Janeiro in Brazil from June 13-22, was described by Yolanda Kakabadse, International Director of WWF, as “a weak text without bones and without soul.”

Known as Rio 20+, the summit came 20 years after the first Earth Summit, also held in Brazil, at which world leaders pledged action in the face of environmental crises.

Martin Khor of the South Centre spoke about how at Rio 20+, as with other major summits, NGOs struggle to get nation states to even reaffirm previously agreed upon principles and commitments.

At the end of difficult negotiations, government delegations finally reaffirm what they had previously already committed to and the summit is labelled a “success”.

The Rio Principles, agreed to in 1992, is one such example. For example, principle seven from the 1992 document, which states: “States have common but differentiated responsibilities. The developed countries acknowledge the responsibility that they bear in the international pursuit of sustainable development in view of the pressures their societies place on the global environment and of the technologies and financial resources they command.”

Principle 15, the “precautionary principle”, is another civil society has to fight constantly to retain.

After hard negotiating, the concept of equity was retained in the text of the 49 page document. However, late in negotiations, the Vatican successfully removed of all references to women’s “reproductive rights”.

Ninety-seven heads of state attended the official summit, down from 109 in 1992. Of all the western European countries, only the heads of state of Denmark and France attended. This is despite western European countries being among the most voracious consumers on the planet, with a large impact on the world environment.

US President Barack Obama and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper also did not attend.

On the other hand, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda attended attend and pledged 2.4 billion euros for renewable energy.

Julia Gillard attended, though the media swallowed her glowing report on Australia’s track record ― particularly on establishing marine parks ― without reporting less-than-sustainable conduct, from coal to uranium to coal seam gas.

Where the real dialogue was

The People’s Summit, a counter conference organised to provide an alternative to the main summit, was much larger than in 1992. The People’s Summit was open to the general public and an estimated 60,000 people attended the eight-day event.

However, some activists complained that the organising of the People’s Summit was not an inclusive process, being dominated by NGOs loyal to Brazil's ruling Workers' Party (PT).

The Occupy Rio movement was excluded from even having a stand at the People’s Summit, as was Partido Verde (the Green Party).

Many environmentalists are critical of the PT for its support for a large hydro-electric scheme in the Amazon, as well as 42 more dams in the pipeline.

They are also critical of the government’s downgrade of the Forest Code, ceding to interests of large landholders and agribusiness, and giving carte blanche freedom to the banking sector.

The City Council would not even allow Occupy Rio or the Green Party to have a stand just outside the perimeter due to an agreement with the People’s Summit organisers. Occupy Rio finally set up camp in Mahatma Gandhi Place not far away.

Unfortunately, a young woman from the group was killed by a truck when crossing the road. Another Occupy Rio activist was beaten by military police and taken to hospital.

The camp remained despite the tragedy, intimidation, and heavy rains at night.

There were a number of street rallies. One rally featured about 3000 women marching in defence of the rights of women, indigenous peoples and the environment.

A larger rally of an estimated 20,000 people also marched through the streets of downtown Rio. The rally was dispersed with tear gas.

Not all negative

NGOs were allowed to take part in the “official” summit at Riocentro to a far greater degree than 20 years ago. NGO representatives were able to address the main plenary.

However, their direct access to government delegations remained restricted.

A highlight of Rio+20 was the Dialogues for Sustainable Development, which invited people to suggest Sustainable Development Goals (SGDs) and vote on suggestions for SDGs via a website which was operating several weeks before the summit.

The top 100 SDGs receiving the most votes were then referred to 10 sessions, comprising eminent panellists and focusing on different themes (poverty, forests, oceans etc).

The panellists and audience then voted for the top SDG in each session. An estimated 60,000 people participated in discussions around Sustainable Development Goals, and more than 1 million people voted according to Pete Cousteau who facilitated the session on oceans.

Another outcome was a total of 692 voluntary commitments which have been made by NGOs, corporations, and development agencies valued at 410 billion euros (over what time frame is not clear). Of this, 180 billion euros will be directed to attaining universal access to sustainable energy by 2030.

Commodifying nature

A strong theme at the summit was the “Green Economy” ― incorporating natural capital and ecosystem services into national accounts, sometimes referred to as GDP+. But many activists view this as a way of commodifying the Commons, and giving a monetary value to natural and social values.

This creates the danger of creating a market for use of the atmosphere and oceans to pollute (with the wealthy able to pay to pollute), as well as access to water and fishing grounds. This means access can be denied to those who cannot afford to pay. It can also pave the way for further privatisation of the Commons.

Activists ask what happens if an endangered species of bird actually offers little in the way of ecosystem services compared to the value of the coal located under its habitat (as in the case of the black-throated finch in Queensland’s Bimblebox Nature Refuge).

NGOs reject and defect

Wael Hmaiden of the Climate Action Network addressed the High Level Plenary Session on behalf of major NGOs such as WWF, Conservation International, Greenpeace. Hmaiden spoke on behalf of a petition called “The Future We Don’t Want”, signed by over 1000 organisations and individuals, rejecting the final text of the “The Future We Want” document.

Hmaiden asked for the text “in full participation with civil society” to be removed from the first paragraph of the lead document.

He cited the lack of commitment to removing fossil fuel subsidies, the lack of a clear mandate for further negotiations on protecting oceans, and absences in the document relating to women’s reproductive health as examples of a failed text.

The next day, representatives of youth groups, women’s groups and indigenous groups staged a sit-in protest at the Riocentro Summit. The group (myself included) held a People’s Assembly to discuss why we were here and what action we would take.

Eleven-year-old Ta'Kaiya Blaney of the Sliammon Nation in British Columbia spoke about a pipeline coming from tar sands mining which was being built through her tribal lands. In typical Occupy Wall Street style, each of her phrases was repeated and amplified by the Assembly. She then sang a song.

Security repeatedly warned the People’s Assembly they would be forcibly removed. Each time the warning was put to a vote, and each time the Assembly voted to remain seated. After taking photos of the crowd, security personnel eventually disappeared.

One international delegate commented how impressed he was with the process of consensus at the impromptu People’s Assembly compared to supposed consensus negotiations in the plenary.

After two hours of discussion, the People’s Assembly voted to walk out of the Riocentro Summit backwards with protesters handing back their ID cards at the exit.

This action, along with banners and exuberant chanting “The future we want is not found here!” brought the Riocentro Pavilion 1 to a standstill as hundreds of media, delegates, and other officials followed the procession or looked on.

It was not only the NGOs who saw failure. Brazil’s environment minister Izabella Teixeira said: “What I saw were the developing countries making sustainability commitments and no rich countries adding resources to this process.”

The People’s Summit issued a Declaration called “Against the Commodification of Life, and In Defence of the Commons,” and on the final day it was delivered to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon.

It read: “The multilateral financial institutions, the coalitions at the service of the financial system such as the G8 / G20, the corporate capture of the UN and the majority of governments demonstrates irresponsibility with the future of humanity and of the planet and promotes the interests of corporations at the official summit.”

There was a sense that with the failure of the UN system and nation states to deliver an effective strategy for the future, and with the further capture of the UN by the corporate sector, it was now up to civil society to set the agenda.

Many NGOs are talking about up to 200 SDGs to be decided on by the end of 2013. The implementation of these SDGs would be financed by a 30% cut in global military spending, implementation of the Tobin Tax on international financial transactions, diversion of fossil fuel subsidies, and fulfilment of OECD’s long held promise to commit 0.7% GDP to development assistance ― a total fund of about 480 billion euros annually.

To bring the point home, the People’s Summit Declaration also calls for a World Day of General Strike.

Given that Earth Summit III did not deliver a viable Plan of Action, people are suggesting another emergency summit, but well before Rio +30.