Rio+20: A Success for Multinational Corporations, a Failure for Everyone Else

By Reid Mukai, CAGJ Co-Chair

From June 20 to 22, approximately 50,000 delegates and 130 heads of state and ministers from 190 countries gathered for the Rio +20 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (also known as the Earth Summit). Unfortunately this massive effort, the largest conference ever organized by the U.N., amounted to very little substantial action. While such an outcome might not be a surprise given the current political and economic climate, one might have been tempted to expect more in light of recent large-scale environmental disasters with ongoing repercussions such as the BP oil spill and the nuclear meltdowns in Fukushima.

The summit’s official outcome document titled “The Future We Want” was hyped as a major step forward in achieving a sustainable future. After lengthy politically and economically charged negotiations, the end result has been widely decried by the people and organizations most concerned about the environment as weak, timid, mediocre, disappointing, and woefully inadequate. This isn’t to say that there were no government leaders who made an effort. Ecuadorian President Raffael Correa pushed for compensation from wealthy nations to developing nations damaged by climate change. President Evo Morales of Bolivia characterized the type of green economy pushed by the U.N. as a new colonialism imposed on developing nations by the wealthy.

President Morales wasn’t the only one critical of the vague and potentially deceptive language used at Rio +20 and resultant outcome document. In a post from The Guardian/UK’s George Monbiot [1], he outlined how the term “sustainability”, used in the 1992 Rio Summit, gradually morphed into “sustainable development”, then “sustainable growth” to it’s current mutation, “sustained growth”. It doesn’t take a genius to realize “sustained growth” is nowhere near sustainable for earth’s natural ecosystems, but apparently that term is used 16 times in “The Future We Want”. Greg Hanscom writing for Grist [2] pointed out this laughably noncommittal line from the document about ending fossil fuel subsidies:  “We invite others to consider rationalizing inefficient fossil fuel subsidies by removing market distortions, including restructuring taxation and phasing out harmful subsidies, where they exist, to reflect their environmental impacts, with such policies taking fully into account the specific needs and conditions of developing countries, with the aim of minimizing the possible adverse impacts on their development and in a manner that protects the poor and the affected communities.”

In contrast to this is a bullet point from a new action plan for the UK government drafted by Friends of the Earth [3]:

“• Agree to end fossil fuel subsidies. Governments across the world are handing over almost a hundred billion dollars of tax payers’ money every year to the oil, coal and gas industries. ”

Another alarming aspect of the erroneously named “The Future We Want” for global civil society pertains to what’s left out of the document. In particular, there’s no mention of gender equality and women’s human rights in the document. Women’s rights are an essential component of sustainable development, for increased women’s education and empowerment is a prerequisite to decreasing child starvation and mortality rates [4]. If people’s basic needs are fulfilled they can make better decisions regarding their communities and the environment. Unfortunately, as reported by Zonibel Woods for RH Reality Check [5], an “un-holy alliance” of the Vatican and conservative governments such as Egypt, Syria, Malta and Algeria effectively pressured the U.N. to sell out women’s rights to reach a consensus on issues of a higher priority to them such as trade, financing of (loosely defined) sustainable development and the green economy. Immediately after the release of the U.N. document, Brazilian feminists gathered at the heart of the conference in Rio Centro to protest. Soon after, women’s rights activists met with Michelle Bachelet, head of UNWomen, and Dr. Izabella Teixeira, Brazilian Minister for the Environment, to present their declaration to Rio +20 which ended with these words: “We defend women’s rights to equality, autonomy and freedom in all territories where we live, particularly in our bodies, which are our first territory.”

Such events seemed to fit a pattern of direct actions surrounding Rio +20 upstaging leaders and bureaucrats in the conference halls. Many of those involved were participants of the People’s Summit [6] a parallel conference attended by approximately 80,000 people from all walks of life with at least 30,000 mobilized in different actions each day of the Summit. One of the largest days of action was June 21, when hundreds of NGO delegates walked out of Rio +20 led by members of Simultaneously, a rejection letter responding to the U.N.’s “The Future We Want” was signed by 40 environmental organizations while around 3,000 people of the Movement of Landless Workers marched through downtown Rio in defense of peasant agriculture [7]. Environmentalist youth leaders also walked out of the U.N. Summit to stage a people’s plenary at which they read a satirical text called “The Future We Bought”, proceeding to tear it up and turn in their U.N. badges before joining the People’s Summit. At a Public-Private Partnerships for Sustainable Agriculture forum, activists of Global Justice Ecology Project and BiofuelWatch disrupted a speech by Richard Branson, owner of Virgin Airlines. Their action called attention to Branson’s support of gmo-based biofuels and geo-engineering, the use of large-scale technology to modify the Earth’s climate systems.

On the following day, June 22, a coalition of African civil society organizations released a declaration for a new network called African Alliance for Green Economy [8]. This was in response to concerns that “The Future We Want” document is overly vague, offers no means to achieve positive goals, gives no safeguards to civil society and indigenous peoples, and distorted interpretations by corporations could lead to profit-oriented strategies that endanger the environment. Africa Alliance for Green Economy are open for a wide membership from local councils, civil society and private sector organizations to develop a mutual understanding of the definition of “green economy”, share expertise and work with a broader spectrum of stakeholders towards true sustainable development.

If anything can be learned from Rio +20, it’s that to be strategic we need to spend less time and energy on institutions that cannot or will not take action for the benefit of all people and the environment. There are growing levels of proactive support of the environment by average citizens every day to counter the harm being done orchestrated by politicians and corporate executives. While the 1% may have the economic, legal, and military power, we have increasing numbers, knowledge and motivation to take action. CAGJ’s focus is on supporting local, sustainable economies and food systems but it’s just part of a constellation of equally important movements such as indigenous/immigrant/labor rights, social/economic/environmental justice, peace activism, media democracy, permaculture, urban agriculture, local currencies, campaign finance reform, tax justice, anti-austerity, transition towns, corporate charter revocation, capital democratization, debt relief, alternative education, the occupy movement…the list goes on. They may seem like disparate issues on the surface, which always confuses corporate media when they cover protests too large to ignore, but from a wider perspective they are all different ways of changing or resisting the destructive neoliberal capitalist system which, reluctantly or not, most world leaders are forced to go along with. Isolated and divided there’s no hope of ever changing the status quo but united in solidarity and cooperation, there’s a chance that at a time when the world seems to be in such a dire situation, it may yet be possible to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.










Recommended reading:​

A wealth of interviews from social movement leaders and activists who were at Rio sharing their thoughts on food justice, the future of activism and movement building is provided by The US Food Sovereignty Alliance at:



Posted in Agra Watch Blog Posts, Food Justice Blog Posts, Trade Justice Blog Posts.

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