From the Field: The UN at Rio+20 says eradicating poverty is the biggest challenge to a sustainable future, but its lack of concrete solutions rouses people to action. Kate Wilkins
By Kate Wilkins
193 member states, 2 days of deliberation and a 53-page official document later, the world remains the same: the poor suffer, while the environment continues to degrade. My hyperactive imagination envisioned the United Nations (UN) conference as a sustainability vortex that would magically mold brilliant ideas into immediate actions to create a more balanced relationship between humans and planet Earth! Realistically, I knew that the conference would not yield a global utopian society; but, for all the pomp and circumstance of the event, what actually transpired in Rio de Janeiro?
If you missed my first blog post, you may wonder to which conference I am referring. I recently attended the United Nations conference on sustainable development (a.k.a Rio+20) in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil from June 20-22. The UN stated that at “Rio+20…groups will come together to shape how we can reduce poverty, advance social equity and ensure environmental protection on an ever more crowded planet.” Delegates from the UN member states convened to discuss their countries’ unique experiences and struggles with the natural environment, especially the unpredictable effects of climate change. Every delegate, from the wealthiest nations to the smallest islands, had a chance to speak their piece.
These deliberations produced a 53-page document entitled, “The Future We Want”, which cited “eradicating poverty” as “the greatest global challenge”. The delegates described their “renew[ed] commitment…to ensuring the promotion of an economically, socially and environmentally sustainable future for our planet for present and future generations.” They highlighted the need to support developing countries that will be most negatively impacted by climate change and increased natural disasters. But, the delegates did so in passive prose that invoked images of equivocating politicians, with statements such as, “we reaffirm our commitment,” “we recognize,” “we acknowledge,” and “we stress the importance”. This official outcome document did not appease the citizens of developing countries who attended the People’s Summit in Rio.
The People’s Summit (Cúpula dos Povos) was a forum for citizens from around the world that took place at the same time as Rio+20, about an hour’s drive from the conference center. The summit became the weathervane for ordinary citizen’s opinions and thoughts on the conference. People would stage protests and other demonstrations, such as ripping up the official text. Unfortunately, I only attended the People’s Summit the last day, after most groups had disbanded. Friends who experienced the summit in full force described it as the antithesis of the UN conference because it seemed to have more initiatives for actually taking action toward a more sustainable future.
Despite the criticisms, Rio+20 facilitated people’s participation in a global democracy, if only for a short time. The conference gathered high-level delegates and ordinary citizens from around the world to meet and exchange ideas in a central location. The delegates spoke and the people responded, decrying and ultimately rejecting the final document from the UN member states. I found this interaction refreshing, if not extremely encouraging for conferences that try to solve issues on a global scale. Although no one formally voted on the text, people’s decision to reject the document’s lack of action was a vote: a vote for increased collaboration amongst countries, a vote for individuals to hold their governments accountable, and above all, a vote for taking action to build a sustainable future.
I disagree that mega conferences such as Rio+20 are becoming defunct. These conferences create a central platform for idea exchange, while building new global networks of people with a passion to improve our lives and our relationship with the natural environment. People can criticize, reject, rip, and burn “The Future We Want” document. However, the document spurred discussions that may lead to more action than its content ever led anyone to believe.