Alternative voices from Rio+20

While world leaders negotiate in the Rio+20 meeting halls, thousands of activists have launched ‘The People’s Summit’.

Indigenous activists at Rio+20 alternative summit [Preethi Nallu/Al Jazeera]
Indigenous activists are among those at the Rio+20 alternative 'People's Summit' [Preethi Nallu/Al Jazeera]

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil –  “The development – the drilling, mining and damming – is affecting everyone, our communities and the Earth, our home and the only planet we have.”

The piercing voice of 11-year-old Ta’Kaiya is enough to grab the attention of delegates passing by. With the aptitude of a seasoned speaker, this young delegate from Canada comfortably commanded the following of environmental activists staging a sit-in at the Rio+20 conference.

Ta’Kaiya is in Rio to represent the Indigenous Environmental Network and to speak out against the controversial tar sands project being planned by an energy transport company, Enbridge, that involves a pipeline from the Alberta tar sands to the Pacific northwest coast of Canada.

“This pipeline puts in jeopardy, thousands of streams, 45 different indigenous cultures that have been practiced by my ancestors and their ancestors. I am shocked that people would jeopardise such pristine beauty and put a price tag on it,” T’Kaiya told Al Jazeera.

The wisdom emanating this young mind would leave many of the negotiators in the “green” rooms of Rio grappling for answers.

She is joined by more than 200 civil society groups that have travelled from all over the world.

Even before the UN Conference on Sustainable Development, also called Rio+20, commenced on June 20, hundreds of non-governmental groups focused on ecology, climate change and development gathered for a counter-conference that they named “The People’s Summit” – an alternative to the UN mechanisms that have yet to produce the needed results called for at the 1992 Earth Summit, which also took place in Rio.

What will it take?

“Re-inventing the world” is the only course of action, claim social movements gathered in Rio.

Scenes from Rio’s alternative People’s Summit
[Preethi Nallu/Al Jazeera]

Being financed by the host government Brazil, this alternative summit has brought together leading voices, not just from environmental groups but from all stakeholders, especially from the most afflicted demographics. Rural women’s organisations, indigenous leaders and climate activists featured heavily both inside the UN conference and at the city centre’s Flamengo Park, where the People’s Summit is taking place until Sunday.

Meanwhile, the official UN conference opened on a sombre note, with the largest contributors to the issues at hand, the industrialised countries such as the US and UK, not sending their heads of state. To accommodate the downscaling of enthusiasm towards emission reductions marked by the recent Bonn Climate Conference in May, UN officials announced that the emphasis at Rio would be “green economies across the globe” – and not tackling climate change head on.

The conference has proceeded without the same sense of urgency as the 1992 Rio Earth Summit. This is despite experts warning that the current state of affairs calls for action more urgently than ever before, with biodiversity and climate change being much greater challenges than 20 years ago.

‘Rio minus 20’

Over the days of the conference, activists took to the streets marching in the tens of thousands to express their collective rejection of the green economy initiatives that have become the major focus at Rio+20.

Greenpeace activists were among those marching on the opening day of UN summit, dubbing the conference “Rio Minus 20”. Kumi Naidoo, the executive director of Greenpeace pointed out that, although this high level meeting comes 20 years after the first Earth Summit, a majority of the 17 principles charted in 1992 have not progressed, with many areas of concern experiencing rapid degradation.

Furthermore, activists said the main principles laid forth at the Earth Summit of 1992 have been rampantly “broken”, to the point that today’s levels of greenhouse gases are rising more rapidly than before the UN convention on climate change came into being.

The Earth Summit is credited with two historically significant outcomes – one was a convention on preserving biodiversity and the other was the creation of the UN Panel on Climate Change. The two are inextricably bound. They are mutually inter-dependent. Focusing on one part while ignoring the other is counter-productive.

Bill McKibben, of, is blunt in his assessment of Rio+20 summit. Although he has chosen to attend, he thinks that the gathering is a “joke”. When he spoke to Al Jazeera, he was about to join a sit-in protest, aware that his credentials may be revoked as a result.

“I remember Rio 20 years ago, a source of hope,” he said. “But we are now losing the environmental battles. There is nothing in this text to change that, just some wistful declarations.”

But, McKibben points out that his work is not deterred by the inefficacy of such high level meetings. In fact, it is exactly this ineptitude from governments that prompted his mission to galvanise grassroots movements across the world. says it has mobilised more than 20,000 demonstrations in the past four years and operates in every country, except North Korea.

“It is the largest global climate movement and that is what we need – movement power – in order to apply real pressure. Currently, the fossil fuel industry holds all the cards. This is why we do not get any action,” said McKibben.

‘The future women want’

Activists are attempting to form a mass coalition
of grassroots organisations [Preethi Nallu/Al Jazeera]

As part of the Rio+20, UN Women conducted a women leaders’ high level summit where female heads of state from Denmark, Norway, Brazil and others pledged their commitment towards enhancing cooperation between governments and NGOs and advocating for gender equality. While the meeting was inspirational, given the achievements of this handful of leaders, it hardly filters down to the millions of other women across the world who feature most heavily in every indicator of developmental divisions, from education to basic health and human rights.

After an emotionally charged speech at the People’s Summit, Emily Tjale from South Africa, representing the Rural Women’s Assembly, sat down to explain her frustations as an activist.

Tjale has been following the negotiations since “Agenda 21” the declaration that spelled out the necessary measures for national and international action “in every area with human impact on the environment”, at the 1992 Earth Summit. This commitment was re-affirmed by member states in 2002, but the repeated promises have not materialised into action, she said.

“We, women, need space. We need to be made part of the decision making process, as we are the ones most affected. We need to connect climate change with our issues that affects our livelihood. We need to reconnect the eco-system in order to rehabilitate it,” Tjale explained.

The Kari-Oca declaration

Concurrent to the Rio+20 conference and as a sequel to the first Kari-Oca conference that was also held in 1992, 500 indigenous groups gathered at the sacred Native American site in Rio to adopt a new declaration that they delivered to the UN over the course of the conference.

Much to their disappointment, the final document does not mention “culture” or “indigenous rights” as part of the main principles.

Windel Bolinget is representing the Cordillera People’s Alliance at both summits, and has travelled from the Philippines where he lives as part of the Igora tribe. He explained why culture, as a “fourth pillar” is essential for the text – not just from an indigenous perspective, but in a global context.

“Our people’s cultural world view is that humanity must be in harmony with mother nature. We should treat nature as a source of living, not extraction. The multiple crises that the world is facing today – economic, social, political and climactic – we, indigenous people, have much to offer in terms of solutions.”

He joins other civil society movements in rejecting the “green economy” initiatives being prodded by the UN as the most pragmatic approach to dealing with environmental crises.

“When we look at the policy proposals of the draft document drawn by UNEP, basically the green economy is converting nature as a capital, so it is basically the commodification of nature – our carbon credits and eco-system. The corporations are to make cash value off these investments. It does not address the root causes of climate change such as nuclear power, extractive industries, the polluting of rivers and [the destruction] of our mother Earth.”

From Rio to Rio and beyond

The activists gathered in Rio believe that the alternative People’s Summit is just the beginning of a movement led by a global community, and one that will result in much more effective change than loosely binding agreements between states.

The main pre-occupation of governments around the world at the moment is in sustaining their individual economies, these advocates argue, at the expense of bankrupting the world’s natural resources in the long term. Given the bleak prospects for state-led action, activists in Rio say their hope is that world citizenry will evolve from being a passive audience of these initiatives to taking the reins of their futures.

Meanwhile, these 200-plus grassroots organisations in Rio are mobilising to transform the average consumer into the average sustainer.

Follow Preethi Nallu on Twitter: @preethinallu

Source: Al Jazeera