Heifer Brazil Director Reflects on Rio+20

A photograph of the author, Jason Woods.

By Jason Woods

July 27, 2012

In June, Fernando Larrea, director of Heifer Brazil, attended events related to the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro. The official conference, also known as Rio+20, was held from June 20-22, but many official and parallel side events were also held around the same time. The following comments are Fernando’s impressions of the events.

What kind of progress was made at the Rio +20 Conference?

No specific commitments or substantial progress were made. At the People's Summit for Social and Environmental Justice, the parallel event to the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, Rio +20, held by civil society organizations in Rio de Janeiro, an organization of garbage collectors placed a huge canvas painted with a message saying: "The scavengers of recyclable materials of our planet do more for the environment than all Rio + 20." It is perhaps the irony and truth present in this message that best expresses the meager results of the Rio + 20 Conference and the contents of the final document, "The Future We Want." The outcome is especially disappointing for those who expected a significant advance in the agreements between the governments of the 193 participating countries to address environmental and social crisis affecting the planet, 20 years after the Rio Conference in 1992 (or the Earth Summit) and the adoption of Agenda 21.

What led to this lack of progress?

The document was agreed upon by the negotiators of government delegations prior to the signing by the heads of state and senior officials. It reflects the lowest common denominator acceptable to governments, while recognizing that there was also a retreat from the principles adopted at the Earth Summit in Rio 92. Likewise, there are questions about the lack of concrete commitments by governments and the lack of concrete goals and deadlines on key issues such as climate, biodiversity and energy. Nor were new resources or specific means of implementation to achieve sustainable development goals assigned or pledged.

Brazilian diplomacy was able to overcome the difficulties in reaching a consensus document to prevent the total failure of the conference at the cost of emptying the contents of the draft document, avoiding controversial issues and keeping the text general.

Added to this is the extensive power exercised by large multinational corporations on governments to prevent them from taking actions that might affect their interests, as highlighted from a critical perspective by researchers and activists like Vandana Shiva, Miguel Altieri and Pat Mooney. This is unlike the situation during the Earth Summit in 1992, where governments had more room for autonomy in decision making.

But, there are also some positive aspects of the document. Among them are the ratification of commitments made in relation to the human right to adequate food and water, as well as the recognition of the role of local communities and indigenous peoples in the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity.

How was civil society involved in the event?

The Rio + 20 Conference attracted active involvement and participation from a wide range of civil society organizations, including international networks and coalitions organized as part of the programming of the official conference. Additionally, organizations and social movements participated in a parallel People's Summit for Social Justice and the Environment from June 15-22 as a space that sought to establish a critical counterpoint in the deliberations of the conference and mobilize social forces for deeper changes.

It is estimated that more than 4,000 parallel events took place during that period including those linked to the official program. These events involved the participation of more than 50,000 people in the discussions and activities.

As part of the activities of the People's Summit, organizations and movements organized a march in the center of Rio de Janeiro, appealing widely to a varied and colorful group of more than 50,000 people (80,000 according to organizer movements) as a space for expression in response to the environmental and social problems affecting the planet.