By HERMAN GREENE
Special to the Saipan Tribune
I was in Rio from June 13-22 for the UN Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20). The prevailing view is that Rio+20 was a failure. The New York Times quoted representatives of CARE saying it was “nothing more than a political charade,” and Greenpeace declaring it “a failure of epic proportions.”
Evaluating Rio+20 as a failure has consequences. For some, its “failure” underscores the weakness of the UN processes as a whole. Because blame was placed on “governments,” faith in government action has fallen. In the United States, where the event was seldom reported, reports of failure would underscore the event's “lack of importance.”
My view is different. I had to educate myself to understand the UN sustainable development process, of which Rio+20 is only the latest chapter in a 40-year long history. I engaged in this process in October 2011 in order to promote formation of an International Ethics Panel on Ecological Civilization. Many NGOs and some governments were emphasizing the need for new ethical structures in UN governance in connection with Rio+20's theme, “Institutional Framework for Sustainable Development.”
In attending preparatory events and the final Rio+20 conference, I learned the UN's sustainable development process is not primarily about the environment. It is about how people can improve their lives and the most appropriate forms of development for doing so. Environment comes in because it must: after all Earth is the living planet and resource base on which humans physically and culturally depend. Economics enters because our current understanding of development is dominated by it and by conventions such as GDP, neo-liberalism, globalization, and industrialization, all of which were questioned in the Rio+20 debates, especially in relation to the conference's other theme, “The Green Economy.”
I learned that equity and security are at the heart of every sustainable development debate. Small island states ask if it is equitable that they should be flooded due to global warming and rising seas attributable to the actions of others. The president of Ecuador raises the question how much should his country be paid to leave rainforests intact to produce oxygen for the world. The “Green Economy” is viewed by many in the South as a further expansion of capitalism, commodification of nature, and threat to indigenous people. Security becomes, for many, a question whether they will have food to eat in a world facing erosion of land, desertification and land grabs by governments and corporations. Subsistence farmers wonder why they must enter the monetary economy to become “sustainable,” and why their occupation of land for centuries does not constitute “title.”
I learned that civil society by holding to their ideals, commenting on intergovernmental negotiations and making their voices heard, are collectively a major force in the UN negotiations. Yet I also learned that, now more than ever, government is the indispensable actor in bringing about the future we want.
With this growing knowledge, I have come to understand Rio+20 as not a failure. The language of outcome documents in UN conferences are arrived at by consensus. Thus, Rio+20 reflected where there was and was not consensus on future commitments. While progress on new commitments would have been preferable, the central issue became whether governments would preserve the basic principles of sustainable development adopted at Rio in 1992, principles such as social equity, gender equality, common but differentiated responsibilities, human rights, the polluter pays, the precautionary principle and the right to development. The reaffirmation of these principles became the limited success of the governmental portion of Rio+20.
The greater achievements came in the civil society portion. More than 30,000 civil society representatives participated in the official Rio+20 conference and 100,000 more in the concurrent People's Summit, protest marches, and business and professional gatherings. Knowing the limitations of the official outcome document, activists released 14 People's Sustainability Treaties and a Manifesto. Brazil's President Rousseff called Rio+20 “a global expression of democracy.”
People who gathered in Rio knew the official results of the conference would be limited. We came to network and set the stage for the next phase of the UN sustainable development process, the shaping of the post 2015-development agenda in which the present Millennium Development Goals will be integrated into more ambitious sustainable development goals. We left to form a global citizens' movement to take sustainable development action now and to develop the political will for global policy change. Rio+20 was not an end, it was a new beginning.
Herman Greene is president of the Center for Ecozoic Societies in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.