Rio+20 fails to deliver on Health and Migration issues
Post-Rio reflections, submitted to Northern News Services, Canada
By Nimisha Bastedo
I was swallowed whole by the institution that spreads hope throughout the world with its blue helmets and international declarations –The United Nations. It spit me back on the streets of Rio de Janeiro feeling disillusioned, blinking in the sunlight of the real world, after dwelling in the windowless meeting rooms for almost two weeks, watching international representatives negotiate our future. It was the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, otherwise known as Rio+20, or Rio minus 20 by those of us on the inside who were witnessing the incredible lack of global ambition first hand.
The conference marked the 20th anniversary of the first Earth Summit in Rio, where countries agreed on a progressive platform for sustainable development. Despite all the promise and fanfare tied up in that first conference, the world’s social, economic and environmental crises are worse than ever. Rio+20 was a historic opportunity to get us back on track, for countries to take responsibility and make real commitments to tackle issues like climate change and poverty. But any flicker of hope that I brought with me to Rio became increasingly dim with each day that I spent in that overly air-conditioned conference center decorated with advertisements for ‘sustainable Coca-Cola’.
As I witnessed the discussions circle round and round, the title of the outcome document became increasingly ironic. They called it “The Future We Want”. But far from inspiring any forward momentum, the document actually sends political commitment spiraling backwards. Basic things that had been previously agreed upon, like human rights to food and water, were up for debate until the eleventh hour. Developed nations like Canada and the US refused to acknowledge the global South’s most minimal requests for financial support, and tried to shirk the North’s responsibility to curb our unsustainable production and consumption habits. This glaring backwardness prompted my youth group to organize a demonstration, where we all walked backwards throughout the conference halls. I think the message was clear, even to the security guards, who gave us a bit of a scolding on the premise of “safety concerns”.
Rio+20 was an epic failure on the part of our world leaders to put the wellbeing of people and the planet before national and corporate profit. Not only did it send us backwards, it also laid down a new welcome mat for transnational corporations to strengthen their reign. Under the camouflage of a “Green Economy”, our leaders signed our future away to ‘eco-friendly’ oil companies and ‘green’ pesticide monoliths. They splashed green paint on the same old logic of faith in the free market and unlimited growth. The rules of the game were not up for debate and neither were the greedy power structures that control them. It was clear the only concrete thing that was going to come out of the conference was a flood of high-level Green-washing.
The conference culminated in a three-day grand finale performance when heads of state and deputy ministers entered the stage to give their stamp of approval. Each country had their moment in spotlight. One after the other, the biggest, richest polluters used their five minutes to toot their own green horn. On behalf of Canada, our environment minister Peter Kent boasted of “consistent progress toward a stronger, greener economy” saying that this is “an objective that we have integrated into a broad range of government actions and strategies” that include “augmenting oil sands monitoring, and significantly increasing the protected areas in Canada.”
I admired Kent’s ability to keep a straight face and announce these words to the world, literally days after the Harper government released the 2012 budget bill (Bill C-38), that among other atrocities, slashed our Environmental Assessment Act and removed legal protection of fish habitat by gutting our Fisheries Act.
Kent also proudly mentioned “Canada’s Green Mining Initiative”. No need to worry about the fact that over a million barrels of the world’s dirtiest oil is extracted everyday from our tar sands. Natural Resources Canada is developing techniques like growing canola on old tailing sites, to ensure that our mining is not only profitable, but sustainable!
I was experiencing the world’s most expensive junior-high school talent show. Millions of dollars had been poured into setting the stage, but when the world was calling for jugglers and acrobats, all we got was feeble lip-sync.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called this moment “an important victory for multilateralism after months of difficult negotiations”. Perhaps it seems a miracle that 192 countries where able to reach a consensus, but with such a watered-down text filled with nothing but green-washed business as usual policies, I find it more of a miracle our high-level representatives were able to pat themselves on the back and call it a success. If the UN were filled with Pinocchios there would have been a lot of long noses in the crowd.
By Julian Velez
Civil Society, represented by Major Groups (MGs) within the conference, could not come to an agreement — in informal consultations there where two attempts to create a united MG statement that fell apart because the perspectives of what was needed and the level of ambition that was required were very varied.
The organization of the conference here at Rio increased the confusion of the already disorganized civil society. With last minute changes in schedules, a paperless conference that sometimes had text but no electronic backup (and which civil society had no access to), and the constant closed bilateral meetings and informal negotiations alongside the Sustainable Development Dialogues, it was not till the looming end of the conference that everyone began to come together under one voice given the evidently unsatisfactory state of the negotiations.
Afterwards, there was a pretty much agreed text to present to heads of state and ministers for the three day high level summit, Rio+20. It was very clear that the big battles over language on the text were over and it was now a question of whether high representatives would endorse it. The text reflected compromises both from the developing and the developed nations but it failed to express ambition in eradicating poverty, in implementing sustainable development and in expressing true commitment to take action in the face of the environmental, social and economic crisis.
Seeing that the text was essentially locked down, a group of youth that felt the need to very clearly express that a political agreement does not necessarily mean something positive, and that in this case the outcome completely failed to meet what was needed from governments. Governments said: “we can live with this." The youth organized an action inside the convention center (Rio Centro) to say: “no, we cannot live with this, the people in the front lines of poverty, climate change and hunger cannot live with this." The youth, alongside some NGOs and other members of the major groups such as the Women and Indigenous major groups, raised their voice to say to governments, media and the rest of the world that Rio was a failure, that we cannot pat governments' backs for reaching a political agreement to continue the conversations in the multilateral process for another 20 years. To say that we need concrete commitments to actions, and that governments, especially in the developed world, have shaped their political agendas around the lobby of corporate interests and are taking steps backwards on previous commitments. Commitments that have not been met, commitments to support sustainable development in the developing world with Means Of Implementation (MOI), through public initiatives of tech transfer, capacity building and finance. It is more than clear that if the developed world does not help the developing nations and if they don’t recognize their historical responsibility and follow through with the corresponding steps, sustainable development will not happen.
The actions within Rio Centro and the people outside in the People Summit helped shift the broader discourse that is very present in these international negotiations: That a political agreement means progress or success and that blocking or rejecting it for bad or lack of content is blocking progress. The general disappointment of civil society in their governments was evidence that even when governments reach consensus, it does not necessarily reflect the ambition that is required. On one side the governments in the developing world are pushing to avoid the Green economy initiatives that threaten to tie them to a new form of neoliberal dependence and on the other, developed nations push to avoid meeting their commitments of publicly financing the shift towards sustainable development with MOI.
Civil Society is left with a sour aftertaste of constantly fighting against something instead of having victories and taking steps forward. Rio+20 was supposed to deliver ambitious solutions to the problems of the world. We were all fearfully expecting a Rio-20, but we are left with a general sentiment of a tasteless text form the multilateral process that barely achieved incremental progress: What we have a is Rio+0 non-win that wasted this unique opportunity for governments to change the course of the boat in time and allows the continuous of the ever drowning condition of those below deck.
Point of No Return
By Mariana Calderon
Sitting back in a bed in a hostel in Rio de Janeiro, trying to regain some sense of normalcy through regular sleep and regular meals, I hardly dare to think back on the last two weeks – or the last 20 years – just yet. Some time to recover, please.
Unfortunately, time is something we don’t have much of anymore. In the halls of the Rio Centro convention center, the atmosphere differed depending on the crowd: While frustration abounded, the sense of urgency you might expect from such a reputedly important moment in history was lacking in many rooms. It seemed as though few participants had any real grasp of the situation; in negotiating rooms, delegates showed little of the ambition necessary to address as huge an issue as sustainable development. Compared to other meetings, such as those for the UNFCCC, the theatrical dramatics were missing. It is a strange way to put it, but while at the climate COPs, negotiators are constantly bombarded with the responsibility to save humanity and the earth before time runs out, here in Rio the feeling of momentous occasion was lackluster, enough that media were starving for interesting shots and swarmed around children at the conference center (our future!). Negotiations felt staged, simply a ritual which representatives had to go through to show that they had tried – and the more governments insist on holding ritualistic meetings without real substance, the faster we run out of time.
Perhaps I am being unfair. Certainly, there were States championing the rights to water and food (even as others strove to weaken or eliminate them) or fighting against a “green economy” that would commodify and privatize nature as well as human life, but I am pondering the long term effects of this gathering and all those before. Why didn’t this conference, and the many preparatory meetings that came before, or the last twenty years work?
If I’m going to be completely fair, one answer is that sustainable development is huge. It could be called The Next Big Thing. After all, it should be all-encompassing. It needs to mention climate change, and biodiversity. It must address poverty eradication, how to bring it about, and how to do so while protecting the environment and traditional ways of life. It has to guarantee basic human rights for all. It needs to fix our economy and create a framework under which all of this will be done. It also should address the various issues we care about, including gender and reproductive rights, youth unemployment, the use of science, protecting oceans and forests, and just about everything else that we, as humans within and as part of our environment, have to interact with and decided to throw into the mix. Therein lies our problem. Sustainable development is the Next Big Thing that no one really knows how to deal with. It is an issue that no one person could possibly begin to fully comprehend – sustainable development deals with everything. True sustainable development, a kind that would acknowledge, respect, and take into account social, economic, and environmental issues as part of a larger whole, is an ideal.
So it’s really no surprise that it hasn’t worked so far. After all, when you’re talking about everything, a two-page inspirational statement would be next to useless. A cumbersome 49-page document could be more useful, but no one wants to look at it, and anyways, 234 paragraphs still isn’t everything. There was no sense of urgency because no one would know where to go with it. So why the meetings? Why the thousands of flights to Rio de Janeiro, dozens of shuttle buses, and “recycled material” installation artwork full of styrofoam? I can’t answer to the styrofoam and plastic bottle art on Copacabana, but I do still see a point to these meetings. They could work, but first, the people need to get angry. Angrier.
Sustainable development may be huge, but collectively, we understand what needs to be done. I’m not talking about negotiators understanding, or Heads of State, but everyone else. The solutions are right in front of us, and civil society can see them. Some things, like affordable renewable energy, need to be ironed out. Figuring out how to feed the world without relying on genetically modified organisms and monocultures is difficult. Conserving biodiversity when developing countries need the natural resources is complicated. But we know enough to start. In fact, we know enough that we could get a running start, punctuated by leaps and bounds. It could be done, but only with a united effort. This is where we run into problems. For the most part, the way in which we currently try to collectively address global issues would involve governments taking lead. Clearly, this is not working well. So the question we must ask is why? Why are our governments not taking lead?
We have one huge problem: Our governments no longer represent us. They no longer (if they ever did) have our best interests at heart. If millions are hungry, forests are being razed, and the oceans are being emptied, and we know that it is possible to change all this, shouldn’t it be done? Yes, it would be difficult – incomprehensibly difficult – but, if there is to be a focus on human well-being by governments (the rights of nature non-withstanding, we know most governments hardly like to hear about inherent values to biodiversity), then our governmental bodies should be working harder to listen to our solutions and put them into play. They are not.
This is where we get angry. What do governments do at these meetings? Many come into the game full of empty promises and empty pockets – they left all their accountability behind when they started to put the interests of large corporations before the interests of people. Money shouts loudest. It’s that simple. I may be biased. After all, supposedly, the US government is representing me. In the halls of the UN, I am often ashamed of this. The US government has consistently tried to take the right to food out of the text. I have the right to be furious. But are other governments any better? In small ways, perhaps. But small ways do little when what is needed is larger collaboration. Small gains in the text – on human rights for example, are more symbolic than practical when there is no one to read all 234 paragraphs of text and check on governments to see if they are adhering to them. And governments won’t adhere to them. Not completely. Some countries simply can’t, just yet, and those who can often resist assisting them.
But I should come back to the anger. We have to be angry. The reason is this: Sustainable development is an ideal. Multilateralism is an optimistic sort of idea. It seems like we’re striving for utopian perfection; it’s so utterly far away. But, the more we strive to reach it, the further we’ll get. And with millions dying of something so simple as hunger, we have to reach as far and long as we can. We won’t get there with optimism or defeatism, practicalism, or realism. To get there, with governments who don’t represent us, and who are stubbornly stuck on the modern world as it stands, we need anger.
The reason we couldn’t hope to achieve sustainable development right now is because most people, most governments, are looking at it as a way to alter our current system. We’ll make our billions of cars green with biofuel, drink fair trade coffee from a continent away, buy reusable plastic tote bags for our groceries, and this will work just fine, we say. But we know better. The system isn’t working. Sustainable development will never fit in, neatly, or otherwise. The shift must be bigger. It has to be huge. The world has to change, and to do so, we must change who our governments listen to and work for: Not for big corporations – they work for us, and we have to remind them. We’ve been trying to do it nicely for a while. Some have given up on being “environmentalists,” forsaking the world of environmental policy and multilateral agreements for local and grassroots efforts centered on changing communities. This is necessary as well – change has to come in two directions, which is why I still place value on multilateralism.
For practicality’s sake, the United Nations makes sense. The issues the world faces are global, and global discussions and action are needed to address them. There is an institution available, ready to facilitate that. It is a resource, and should be used. If this multilateralism isn’t working, it is because UN meetings are driven by those who drive the negotiators. Negotiators are driven by their government offices. Those governments are too often, and increasingly, driven by corporations and big polluters. To get the shift we want, we must drive the governments ourselves. It’s that simple. But first, we have to make them listen. There must be action outside of the UN, as well as inside. I will continue to work from the inside even as others work from the bottom up. I am privileged enough to have some sort of voice inside negotiations. I’m going to use it to make delegates, negotiators, and representatives look twice at the large groups in their complexes denouncing their false work. We can show them that we have solutions, and can come to them in a truly consensus-based way. We can provide the ideas and values, and the words to frame them, that they are too cowardly to put into writing themselves. They will leave with that uncertainty hidden in the back of their minds, and then they will go home, patting themselves on the back, and they need to find movement back home as well. We’re at a point of no return. We have to be angry enough to be loud enough to show our governments that 1) They need to put our interests before those of polluters, and 2) That if they don’t, they will be losing the power we had given them. We will demand a future and take matters into our own hands.