The United Nations Conference on the Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, Eco-92 or Rio-92, was a milestone in several different ways. The largest meeting held by the United Nations (UN) until then, it approved a swathe of documents and relevant treaties, such as Agenda 21, the Earth Charter, and the Convention on Biodiversity, the Climate and Desertification. The conference legitimised the concept of sustainable development and opened the cycle of UN social conferences. In addition to the meetings of rulers and diplomats, hundreds of organisations and social movements undertook activities in the Global Forum in the Aterro do Flamengo. From then on, global civil society began to meet regularly with common agendas..
The same UN and the Brazilian government are organising this June in Rio de Janeiro the UN Conference on Sustainable Development. It is not for nothing that the meeting is called Rio +20, as it resembles greatly the conference 20 years earlier, Rio-92. However, if the conference in 1992 was characterised by some real social and environmental
achievements and by the expectation that much more importance would be given to nature in the future, Rio +20 is becoming a symbol of disappointments and setbacks. The main agreements reached in 1992 have not been implemented and yet they will not even be renewed this time. The United Nations has already warned that this year’s conference will not produce the comprehensive documents of its predecessor.
As in 1992, global civil is meeting again in Rio de Janeiro in a parallel conference. The goal is to denounce the current planetary crisis and its causes, to call for environmental justice, and to talk about experiences and ways of life that demonstrate that you can live in solidarity with each other, without destroying the Earth. The daily life and practices of former slaves, indigenous communities, farmers, youth, women, blacks and other groups show that there are alternatives to the pursuit of economic growth at any cost. This is the agenda of the Peoples Summit for Social and Environmental Justice, which is being held from 15-23 June.
“We propose structural changes”, says Rubens Born, from the Brazilian Forum of NGOs and Social Movements for the Environment and Development (FBOMS), who is a member of the organising committee of the Peoples Summit. The focus of the meeting is “against the commodification of life and in defence of the commons.” To unite social movements and organisations across the world and to plan activities and campaigns, the Summit has been holding both specific meetings, organised by different groups and networks, and general meetings, the Peoples Assemblies. People from movements without any formal organisation, such as the Arab Spring and Occupy, will also be in Rio. The World Forum for Free Media is also holding a conference during the Summit.
“We know the future we want, and it is not the one proposed by the official Rio+20”, said Graciela Rodriguez, from the Articulation of Brazilian Women. The letter containing the principles of the Summit talks about the construction of a new paradigm and calls the green economy, the central theme of the official Rio +20, a “false solution”. More specifically, the “green economy is not the solution, but is making the situation worse,” says Ivo Lesbaupin, from the Brazilian Association of Non-Governmental Organisations (Abong) and a member of the organizing committee of the Summit.
The green economy symbolizes perhaps the main difference between the official conference and Summit. The Peoples Summit doesn’t want “adjustments” in the current model, but a new model. The concept of the green economy has been tried in other initiatives, such as the attempt to develop corporate responsibility, official environmental incentives to sectors and enterprises that make a commitment to pollute less, uses of bio- and nano-technology, and mitigation efforts such as the market for carbon credits.
For Walter di Simoni, superintendent of the Green Economy for the State of Rio de Janeiro, the idea is to find “ways of creating new tools for sustainable development”. The biophysicist Jean Remy Guimarães, from the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ), says “If the concept of green economy is followed properly, it can, in practice, be good. The ecological question began to be taken a little more seriously when an effort was made to assign value to environmental services, because until then we thought they were free. All technical processes, new indicators and new ways of calculating environmental costs are worthwhile.”
However, Pablo Solón, Bolivia’s former ambassador to the UN, disagrees with the biophysicist. Solón argues that the aim of the proposals behind the green economy is to strengthen the treatment of nature as capital, and he believes that it is private initiative that will profit. “They are seeking to develop on a world scale a set of indicators and measures that will attribute a price to the different roles of nature and put them in the market via financial mechanisms This green economy seeks not only the commodification of the material part of nature, but also its processes and functions”, he wrote in a recent article.
The power of the market permeates Draft Zero, the basic text of the official Rio +20. In the opinion of Iara Pietricovsky, from the Institute for Socioeconomic Studies (INESC) and a member of the organising committee for the Peoples Summit, the document “persists” in the concept of economic growth, which, she says, contradicts the idea of environmental sustainability. “Zero Draft does not address the issue of the model of development, but proposes adjustments to the existing model, without structural changes, because the private sector obviously doesn’t have this goal. Industries and businesses have the key role as producers of green technologies”, she says in an interview with the People’s Summit (www.cupuladospovos.org.br).
“In other words, this document symbolizes a certain submission of nation states to private sector capital, a movement that emerged from the UN’s Millennium Goals in the early 2000s, when the UN bowed to the power of capital and began operating from guidelines dictated by the interests of the richer countries, of the institutions of the financial system and of world trade,” Iara said.
For Jean Pierre Leroy, it is time to abandon all remaining illusions. A consultant to the NGO Fase, Leroy participated intensively in Rio-92 and in the Global Forum. He recalls the excitement of those days but says times have changed. “Now we must abandon any illusion that our rulers will take steps to protect the climate, that large corporations are, in fact, committed to the environment, that technology is salvation”, he comments.
Two decades later, the warning made by the then Prime Minister of Norway, Gro Harlem Brundtland, during Eco-92 is more urgent than ever: “Time is short for us to correct the current unsustainable patterns of human development.”
*Published in IBASE’s magazine, DemocraciaViva. Translated by LAB.