Post-Rio reflections, submitted to Northern News Services, Canada
By Nimisha Bastedo
I was swallowed whole by the institution that spreads hope throughout the world with its blue helmets and international declarations –The United Nations. It spit me back on the streets of Rio de Janeiro feeling disillusioned, blinking in the sunlight of the real world, after dwelling in the windowless meeting rooms for almost two weeks, watching international representatives negotiate our future. It was the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, otherwise known as Rio+20, or Rio minus 20 by those of us on the inside who were witnessing the incredible lack of global ambition first hand.
The conference marked the 20th anniversary of the first Earth Summit in Rio, where countries agreed on a progressive platform for sustainable development. Despite all the promise and fanfare tied up in that first conference, the world’s social, economic and environmental crises are worse than ever. Rio+20 was a historic opportunity to get us back on track, for countries to take responsibility and make real commitments to tackle issues like climate change and poverty. But any flicker of hope that I brought with me to Rio became increasingly dim with each day that I spent in that overly air-conditioned conference center decorated with advertisements for ‘sustainable Coca-Cola’.
As I witnessed the discussions circle round and round, the title of the outcome document became increasingly ironic. They called it “The Future We Want”. But far from inspiring any forward momentum, the document actually sends political commitment spiraling backwards. Basic things that had been previously agreed upon, like human rights to food and water, were up for debate until the eleventh hour. Developed nations like Canada and the US refused to acknowledge the global South’s most minimal requests for financial support, and tried to shirk the North’s responsibility to curb our unsustainable production and consumption habits. This glaring backwardness prompted my youth group to organize a demonstration, where we all walked backwards throughout the conference halls. I think the message was clear, even to the security guards, who gave us a bit of a scolding on the premise of “safety concerns”.
Rio+20 was an epic failure on the part of our world leaders to put the wellbeing of people and the planet before national and corporate profit. Not only did it send us backwards, it also laid down a new welcome mat for transnational corporations to strengthen their reign. Under the camouflage of a “Green Economy”, our leaders signed our future away to ‘eco-friendly’ oil companies and ‘green’ pesticide monoliths. They splashed green paint on the same old logic of faith in the free market and unlimited growth. The rules of the game were not up for debate and neither were the greedy power structures that control them. It was clear the only concrete thing that was going to come out of the conference was a flood of high-level Green-washing.
One of the many green-wash advertisements that decorated Rio Centro. It says: "Coca-cola Brazil and Rio+20, together for a more sustainable world".
The conference culminated in a three-day grand finale performance when heads of state and deputy ministers entered the stage to give their stamp of approval. Each country had their moment in spotlight. One after the other, the biggest, richest polluters used their five minutes to toot their own green horn. On behalf of Canada, our environment minister Peter Kent boasted of “consistent progress toward a stronger, greener economy” saying that this is “an objective that we have integrated into a broad range of government actions and strategies” that include “augmenting oil sands monitoring, and significantly increasing the protected areas in Canada.”
I admired Kent’s ability to keep a straight face and announce these words to the world, literally days after the Harper government released the 2012 budget bill (Bill C-38), that among other atrocities, slashed our Environmental Assessment Act and removed legal protection of fish habitat by gutting our Fisheries Act.
Kent also proudly mentioned “Canada’s Green Mining Initiative”. No need to worry about the fact that over a million barrels of the world’s dirtiest oil is extracted everyday from our tar sands. Natural Resources Canada is developing techniques like growing canola on old tailing sites, to ensure that our mining is not only profitable, but sustainable!
I was experiencing the world’s most expensive junior-high school talent show. Millions of dollars had been poured into setting the stage, but when the world was calling for jugglers and acrobats, all we got was feeble lip-sync.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called this moment “an important victory for multilateralism after months of difficult negotiations”. Perhaps it seems a miracle that 192 countries where able to reach a consensus, but with such a watered-down text filled with nothing but green-washed business as usual policies, I find it more of a miracle our high-level representatives were able to pat themselves on the back and call it a success. If the UN were filled with Pinocchios there would have been a lot of long noses in the crowd.