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.
Discussing the concept of sustainability
By Nimisha Bastedo
Sustainability. It’s a word that can mean so much and so little at the same time. Throughout the entire Rio+20 roller-coaster, everyone from the most conservative State representatives to the most radical activists were either advocating for it, or at least pretending to be. If we all agree that we need to move towards a more ‘sustainable’ world, why was it so impossible to produce any concrete plan for how to make it happen? I believe that part of the problem was the collision of multiple, very different visions of what ‘sustainability’ actually entails.
Before the Rio conference in 1992, the Brundtland Report introduced what became the trendiest definition for ‘sustainable’ development in the United Nations. It’s all about “meeting the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs”. As far as this definition is concerned, it seems like we only care about the Earth staying in good enough shape for our great grandchildren to fulfil their daily caloric requirements, have air to breath and water to drink.
Even the three-pillar concept of sustainability focuses on human need. ‘Environmental protection’ supposedly has equal ranking to ‘economic development’ and ‘social equity’, but as we saw here in Rio, discussion about the environment is all too often dominated by neoliberal ideologies that only frame it in terms of what humans need in order to survive and continue consuming. If negotiators have this approach to sustainability, it is no wonder that there was a push from the most powerful to commodify nature and plow ahead with free-market capitalism.
Human-centered, needs-based, market approaches to sustainability are what prevail in international negotiations, but I know that I am not alone in believing that there is a lot more to sustainability than human needs, and that the market cannot be given the power to decide what should be sustained. Take la Via Campesina for example. This grassroots international peasant movement is one of the many organizations we encountered here that are pushishing the sustainability discussion beyond needs, to rights–not only for people, but for Mother Earth.
In sustainability, I see securing meaningful lives for the present, while ensuring that future generations will have an equitable opportunity, not only to meet their needs, but to dance in the streets, express their opinions, feel safe and respected. I see universal recognition that humans are a part of the environment; that society and the economy are subsets of the natural world and entirely dependant on its integrity. If there is any hope for sustainability, we must respect and care for the environment instead of commodifying it for the short-term benefit of a select few. Humans are not the only thing that needs to be ‘sustained’ after all. Ecosystems, biodiversity and the planet itself all have every right to flourish and persist.
Sustainability does not mean invariability. The world will always be changing, and societies will forever be changing with it. But through those changes, humans must work in harmony with the planet, instead of pretending it is theirs and free for the taking.
Some new friends of ours were present at the Thursday action, and made a short video about it:
On June 21, 2012, leaders from around the world gathered in Rio de Janeiro to discuss sustainable development and related issues. Nobody hoped for much but the results were even worse than expected. Some members of civil society who were present decided to take bold action to show their anger at a failed process and that the time has come to unite to demand a future for all. Over a hundred people walked out the conference center, symbolically returning their UN badges on the way out. Here is the story of that day.
Music: 'Polaroid' by Jahzzar: http://www.betterwithmusic.com