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Rio+20 and climate change

Many of us would still like to hope that Rio+20, the big UN climate conference that is beginning in Rio de Janeiro, can still achieve something of importance. The need for action has never been clearer. In a joint report just launched, the Inter-American Development Bank, the UN’s Economic Commission for Latin America and the World Wildlife Fund put the cost of the damage that will be done to the region by global warming of just 2°C at US$100bn. Read more. The IEA (International Energy Agency) warned recently, however, that it is virtually impossible now to contain global warming to 2°C and that the world is on the way to global warming of 6°C, so the future for Latin America and the world looks grim indeed. Read more.

Yet few people expect much from Rio+20. A group of NGOs, including OXFAM, has issued a sombre warning that little or none of what has so far emerged from the preliminary negotiations suggests that the conference “will deliver on what governments agreed was needed 20 years ago at the Earth Summit”. Read more. Brazil’s former environment minister, Marina Silva, is even more pessimistic, saying that “We are starting Rio+20 in an accelerated process of reversals.” Read more.

One of the problems is the environmental record of the host government, which is still promoting economic growth with little concern for sustainability. The Dilma government recently announced that Amazon deforestation hit its lowest recorded level from August 2010 to July 2011 – something of which it rightly feels proud (and about which we will undoubtedly hear a lot more about during the conference). But, as Marina Silva has pointed out forcefully, this success “was only possible thanks to legislation that has now been demolished”. She was referring to the deal that the government is proposing for changes in the country’s forest code – Dilma’s “poisonous proposal”, as Brazil’s Catholic bishops have called it.

Some of the government’s concessions go further than the agribusiness lobby had dared to propose, in allowing, for instance, that “reforestation” be carried out with the use of commercial forest crops such as eucalyptus, orange trees and vines rather than native species. To avoid embarrassment during the conference, the current draft has been sent to the discreet obscurity of a Congressional committee, dominated by the agribusiness lobby. Battle will resume after Rio+20. Read more.

Much more vitality and hope for the future will undoubtedly emerge from the Peoples’ Summit, which is being held before the official conference. As IBASE, a leading Brazilian NGO, has pointed out, this will be the forum in which debates about urgently needed structural change will occur. Read more. Communities will also “present experiences, ways of life, that show that it is possible to live together in solidarity without destroying the planet”. Read more. The peasant organisation, Via Campesina, which is strong in Latin America, will be there with its message that real solutions are largely found, not in corporations or “green capitalism”, but in peoples’ age-old knowledge. Read more.

This approach can be enhanced by modern scientific advances but the new technology must be used in consultation with local communities, not riding roughshod over their interests. From Brazil we learn how solar panels on a football stadium in Salvador can be one small pointer to the future. Read more. And in a special article for LAB Claudia Pompa describes how a potentially exciting wind energy project in Mexico is going wrong precisely because local people have not been properly consulted. Read more.

It has been clear for some time that, while mass-based, popular organisations in South America have been effective in criticising neo-liberalism and even in gaining some degree of political power, they have been less effective in building new models of alternative development which must be considerably less dependent on export industries and the exploitation of natural resources, if they are to avoid the damaging impact these have on people and the environment. For a case in point, read Dario Kenner’s update on the continuing controversy over the proposed road through the TIPNIS indigenous territory and national park in Bolivia. Read more.

But new thinking on development is emerging. Peru has had the fastest growing economy in Latin America in recent years as a result of the high prices obtained by its mineral exports, but the impact of mining on the environment has provoked many conflicts. The Red Muqui coalition presents an exciting video debate on ways of making mining more sustainable and developing alternatives to extractive industries to drive the economy. Read more.
It seems likely that the real way forward for the region will emerge from this kind of discussion, rather than from the formal debates of Rio+20. But the challenges are huge.

In the meantime people continue to live their lives, adapting to and mitigating change, often in surprising ways. From El Salvador we have an example of how, after a disastrous hurricane (one of the by-products of climate change), women are rebuilding their lives, with eggs and sewing machines. Read more.

And, from Colombia, CENSAT/Friends of the Earth Colombia, invites us to a “Carnival in Defence of Water and Life”. Read more.