Voices not heard at the Earth Summit

Wednesday, August 5, 1992

Andrew Garton was in Brazil for the Earth Summit in June. The following account of some of his impressions is excerpted from the forthcoming book, In the Shadow of UNCED, edited by Param Berg.

The Rio of the '90s is nothing like I imagined it to be. Up until 1960 it had been the heart of Brazil, its cosmopolitan capital. It is now a crumbling relic, a monument to the tyranny of a defunct military regime and a national debt of $115 billion (in 1988). It is the ex-capital of a country in the grip of overpopulation, inflation and corruption.

Rio is home to 5.7 million people, about a quarter either homeless or living in makeshift shanty towns called favelas.

There are at least 545 favelas in Rio. The largest in Brazil, Rocinha, is stacked on a mountainside just outside Ipanema, almost halfway between the NGO and UN sites.

Rocinha has a population of around 250,000. It has partly illegal electricity supplies, intermittent water and no closed sewers. It has three schools and two small health clinics. Children play in stagnant waters, have little to eat and must dare the city streets, which during the summit were heavily patrolled by the police and army. Twenty-five thousand troops were deployed in the area.

The police dare not enter Rocinha, but they "guard" the entrance to warn visitors and take bribes if one wishes to venture in.

There are an estimated 25 million deprived children in Brazil, of whom between 7 and 8 million are on the streets. Only a minority of them are on their own — either orphaned or abandoned. But on the street, one beggar is the same as the next.

The Earth Summit was to be a prime opportunity for Brazil's social movements to present to the visiting heads of state the plight of these young people. Pedro Mendonca, president of the Federation of Favela Dwellers, was denied permission to speak at any of the conference events. He demanded to be allowed to present the case of the urban poor to the summit. The demand went without reply, though delivered by a host of environment groups, including Greenpeace.

Many of these groups then took to the streets in a protest dubbed by the local media the "last stand of the left". It was said that up to 50,000 people descended on Hotel Gloria, the NGO site. Trade unionists, welfare groups and their supporters protested against their government's support for the conference and the vast amount of taxpayers' money that had gone into it.

I was not to forget the children of Brazil. Their stories, their faces and their pleas followed me all the way from Mascot airport and back again. Seated next to me on the flight out of Sydney were two young Brazilians from Sao Paulo. They'd been back-packing along the east coast of Australia for a month.

They weren't your average Brazilians. They had good jobs, a home each and one even had a car. He was single, with a one-year-old boy, and sold guns, now as rife in Brazil as in the States. Gun licensing laws were only recently introduced, but a healthy black-market trade keeps the weapons in easy reach.

Many of his customers were members of vigilante groups or "death squads" who have "taken the law into their own hands" to deal with the rapidly increasing crime rate. He stated, "I don't like guns, but it's the only work I can get". "Besides", he added, "our government won't protect the people from themselves. It couldn't give a shit!"

The worst hit are the children. Rio's streets until recently were filled with homeless children. There had been stories circulating for months about the government's clandestine attempts to rid the streets of them. Hard to prove, but according to my travelling companions, the death squads spend much of their time hunting down these kids.

Many of the 7 to 8 million children who must survive on the streets resort to petty crime. The cities have retaliated in a brutal war against them. Prior to the summit, Rio was "swept clean" of its street children. Many of them ended up with poor church groups in northern Brazil; others were less fortunate and had been held in bleak compounds near Rio's international airport.

The children are worse off than cats and dogs. My friend was deeply concerned by the slaughter but informed me that if the government provides nothing for these children, then people will continue to kill them, in an attempt to curb the escalating crime. In Sao Paulo a government survey found that 70% of children under 16 work to supplement their family's income.

In 1991, a policy described as "fiscal incentives" by the Brazilian government waived US$7.4 billion in tax revenue from companies with projects in the north and north-east of the country. In the words of one official, these generous concessions are in reality "a diversion of public money for the illicit personal enrichment of the beneficiary". The money could have put 4 million of Brazil's 31 million school-age children into a school.

Cristovam Buarque, rector of the University of Brasilia, in his book The Collapse of Brazilian Modernity, makes quite clear that the existence of chronic illiteracy "is the result of a deliberate option, the decision of the government with the connivance of the elites to use public money for other ends".

A survey carried out jointly by the Brazilian Institute for Social and Economic Analysis and the National Movement of Street Children counted 457 murders of children and adolescents in the three cities of Recife, en March and August 1990. Thirty-eight per cent of the victims lived with their families, and only a small proportion had any involvement with crime and drugs. In only 74 cases out of the 457 was the murderer identified. They were generally police or ex-policemen. Preliminary figures for 1991 indicated that nearly 300 young people were murdered in 11 major cities. Figures for 1992 were obscured by the pre-summit "clean-up" campaign.

One evening I was sat with a friend at a cafe in Gloria, a small suburb of Rio. Children came by our table and asked for money. We gave to the youngest and to the girls. The older were more street wise, and the boys were less likely to resort to prostitution. I heard of a nine-year-old girl who was being treated by local volunteer social workers — she had turned to prostitution at seven.

The parade of children continued: a girl no more than 12 with a child in her arms; two boys a little older offering to shine our sneakers; others selling roasted peanuts. Then, a girl not much younger than my own daughter, possibly five or six, came and stood at our table and asked for nothing. She looked us over, surveyed the table and eventually wandered back to the street.

She wore a T-shirt with pink hearts. Her face was expressionless. Nothing. Shortly, a ragged sort of fellow came by selling huge stuffed toys. The girl grabbed a pink furry bear-like thing and held to it like it was the only comfort left to her in the world. It was almost as big as her. The toy man, probably just as poor, stood there not wanting to take it from her. Nearby, a young man selling fruit offered the toy man some money. It was clearly not enough, but he was happy and went on his way. The girl was left in the street clutching her treasure. It could have been the most joy she had ever felt.

UNCED was indeed a historical event, but much of it was about pontificating "feel good" idealism. The real issue was whether we heed the cry of the children in Acre, Ethiopia, Guatemala, Peru, Somalia, the shanties of the Northern Territory and the streets of Rio.

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