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From June 20 to 22, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, will be hosting the United Nations Summit on Sustainable Development. The event is also known as Rio+20 because it was 20 years ago that the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, or Earth Summit, took place in the same city.

In 1992, of course, the world was a different place. Just before the Earth Summit, I had been living in West Germany. In those days, we had seen a man to walk on the moon but still could not imagine the Berlin Wall falling. But something considered impossible happened in 1989, and I watched the distinction between the First World and the Second World crumble with the wall.

In the wake of such a historic and inspiring event, the Earth Summit was brimming with optimism. The event was unprecedented in its size and potential for impact and was meant to aid governments in rethinking economic development and also to come up with ways to prevent the depletion of natural resources and production of pollutants.

One of the products of the meeting was Agenda 21, a comprehensive blueprint for sustainable development that combined environmental, social and economic elements. Previously, development was one dimensional, and the elements were considered separately.

Unfortunately, not all of the Earth Summit was inspiring, as many major players, including the United States, refused to sign key environmental agreements.

At this year's Rio+20 Conference, according to the event's website, "world leaders, along with thousands of participants from governments, the private sector, NGOs and other groups, will come together to shape how we can reduce poverty, advance social equity and ensure environmental protection on an ever more crowded planet to get to the future we want."

The conference will "focus on two themes: 1) a green economy in the context of sustainable development poverty eradication; and 2) the institutional framework for sustainable development."

Today's backdrop isn't post-Cold War optimism. Rio+20 comes in the wake of massive public protests: the Occupy movement and outrage at the corporate bailouts in the United States, the Arab Spring demonstrations, the indignados movement in Spain and others around the world. Potential food crises and rebellion threaten many countries globally. The participants in this year's U.N. summit must be bold enough to confront the root causes of the public outcry and seek sustainable solutions, and all the key players must be on board for lasting changes to take place.

Heifer International is chiming into the discussion on sustainable development via our Heifer Brazil staff, who will be attending the People's Summit, a major meeting that is parallel to Rio+20 and organized by networks of NGOs and social movements.

Together with Heifer partner organizations, staff members will engage in advocacy in the areas of sustainable agriculture, livestock, food security and food sovereignty while also accompanying the farmers' social movement Via Campesina in its actions to advance agroecology and social justice. As an organization, we will specifically push for the following:

-A transformation of agriculture and food systems to ensure food and nutrition security, protect natural resources and support equitable development for all.

-Integrated crop/tree and livestock agriculture and rotational grazing of livestock to improve/restore grasslands and curb land loss and soil degradation.

-Sustainable livestock production systems including global support for strong animal health and welfare guidelines and practices.

-Strengthening linkages between urban and rural areas for food and nutrition security.

In terms of sustainable development, the three pillars defined in 1992 (environment, social,

economic) are incredibly important. But I think the social element should be defined to include culture. When I say culture, I don't mean folklore, but rather the unique elements that indigenous peoples bring to a geographic area. They often bring an unparalleled knowledge of the local natural environment as well as a healthy respect for the nature that sustains them.

Additionally, we want everyone to know that the answers to many of these complicated issues are present at local levels. Farmers, fishers, indigenous peoples, campesinos—these individuals and their organizations have the solutions and they are themselves part of the solution. Their voices just need to be heard, and at Heifer, we want to do our part to make sure those voices are heard.

In the coming weeks, we will make sure to keep you updated on Heifer Brazil staff members as they participate in Rio and support small holder farmers who are speaking out. Stay tuned!


Oscar Castaneda

Oscar CastaƱeda is the Vice President of Heifer International's Americas Area Program and has been at Heifer since 2004. He was born and raised in the highlands of Quetzaltenango, Guatemala. He is passionate about organic, local and Fair Trade food and how those processes connect people. Oscar loves running and spending time with his wife and son.