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Rio+20: a view from the grassroots


“By what right are they destroying the world?”
Rio de Janeiro, 20th June 2012.

rio_plus20_hands20 years on from the ground-breaking Earth Summit which saw the signing of the landmark Biodiversity and Climate Change Conventions, heads of state are again assembled in Rio.

Again, the non-governmental sector is here too, over an hour away in the beautiful setting of the Flamengo Park, separated from the beach only by an endless row of fetid portaloos.

But there are many differences between 1992 and 2012. In 92, the leaders of the developed nations were highly visible – George Bush (the elder), John Major and Helmut Kohl, amongst others. Today Obama, Cameron and Merkel are conspicuous only by their absence. In their place, nearly all of the heads of developing and middle-income countries are here, with a record number assembled.

Unfortunately their serried ranks will not be enough to turn this summit from a mediocre, unambitious junket into a ground-breaking landmark event to match the achievements of 92. Host government Brazil has seemed intent on pulling the last few teeth from what was already a weak ‘zero draft’ document, and even the behind-closed-doors discussions between diplomatic missions in the ‘prepcom’ lead-up sessions have been carefully managed to ensure that nothing substantial will be available for discussion during the intergovernmental summit proper, which is just beginning. The whole process is reminiscent of an old-school communist show event, carefully managed and tightly choreographed.

The disconnect between the formal United Nations process and the parallel event, called the Global forum in 92 and now re-branded as the Peoples’ Summit, is very obvious. The official UN venue in Riocentro is completely isolated, far away from the Peoples’ Summit, and fenced off behind a line of heavily-armed soldiers even from the official exhibition pavilions just across the road in Athlete’s Park, where enormous air conditioners fight a losing battle to chill the entire Rio environment, generating massive CO2 emissions in the process.

The sense of pointlessness and disappointment in the formal UN event is offset by a remarkable drive among the attendees at the Peoples’ Summit, where passions run high and people in crowed tents are disucssing a multitude of praiseworthy and worthwhile initiatives.

Brazil’s charismatic and disparate indigenous communities are well represented at the Peoples’ Summit, and are amongst the most outspoken and forceful. In contrast, they appear to have been all but excluded from the official UN event.

There is a curious undercurrent to the UN proceedings. People can be heard muttering about the need for a real and substantial change in direction, the need to replace the narrow financial basis of our world order with some new mechanism which prioritises the long-term obligation to manage the planet’s natural resources and biodiversity in a way which is genuinely sustainable. These comments are sometimes difficult to discern, buried as they are like needles in a haystack of UN terminology, much of it including the word ‘sustainable’ but using it in a way which chimes not at all with any sensible understanding of what is really sustainable – something that will ultimately allow future generations to survive and thrive on the face of the Earth which the present generation will leave behind.

The UN process focuses on add-ons to the dominant democratic capitalist world structure. Although some of the measures being discussed will go some way to rectify the social, environmental, biodiversity and natural resource failings of our society, they will not solve the problem. If the last twenty years is the pattern we are set to follow, we can expect all of the gains made through UN initiatives, national government legislation and voluntary programmes to be no more than a marginal mitigation of the pattern of accelerating damage and unsustainability which is being driven at an accelerating rate by the commercial and financial world. Foremost in this army of destruction are the transnational corporations (TNCs) which today exert so much control over national governments and lobby relentlessly to be granted all manner of privileges and dispensations in order to maximise profit and avoid taking responsibility for the costs of their activities. It is sobering to remember that, whereas in 1990 there were just 3,000 TNCS, today the number has mushroomed to 63,000.

The indigenous people are on the whole perplexed by TNCs. Such impersonal and anti-humanitarian structures seem unimaginable to people whose own cultures are completely centred on the concept of community. “You can’t eat money,” one of them told me, “a man needs food, a man needs his family, a man needs a shelter and water to drink. Why do these people want so many things that do nothing to help them live a good life?”

Yesterday, a group of around four hundred indigenous people marched to the downtown offices of BNDES, the Brazil’s National Bank for Economic and Social Development. They wanted to know why the bank is financing development projects which are displacing them from their land and degrading and damaging the natural environment on which they depend. “We used to think it was we were just fighting for ourselves when we tried to preserve our forests,” one said, “but now we understand that we are preserving the forests for all of the Earth’s people. We’ve come here to BNDES because they are financing things like the Belo Monte dam and soya farms. We want to know why they think they have the right to destroy the Earth.” It’s a question that I’d like answered too.

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