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Rio+20, Follow-up to the Earth Summit threatens to fail before it begins

We are still just over 2 years from the Rio+20 meeting in Brazil scheduled for June 2012 and the just finished PrepCom in New York points to a disaster in the making.

The UN is a gigantic, slow-moving, behemoth at the best of times, interspersed with some sparks of movement and hope. The first Earth Summit was one of those sparks. It created very real mechanisms on trying to deal with biodiversity issues, deforestation, desertification, sustainable development and climate change. True, these mechanisms have been systematically undermined by powerful countries, like Canada. Witness the attempted drowning of the Kyoto Accord in Copenhagen, an illegal act by countries like Canada, which are signatories to Kyoto. Still, the first Rio Summit inspired many new developments and a framework for sustainable development.

Some have said that the only reason this happened was that at that time the powerful did not take these efforts on the environment seriously and did not think they could impact the agenda of the capitalists. Now, with peak-everything, there is keen interest by the corporations and those who serve those interests. This upcoming Rio+20 summit is under intense scrutiny and even more dangerous, it is under threat of being highjacked.

This is because the substantive issues have been left off the table. Issues like water, climate, oceans etc. are only given passing note as ‘emerging’ issues. The core of the discussion in the lead up to Rio +20 and consequently the summit agenda, will revolve around two main themes, the Green Economy and the Institutional Framework for Sustainable Development. The second should make you yawn and is mostly about internal UN processes, but the first sounds kind of interesting, and you should take interest.

This is because the Green Economy is being coupled with a project called TEEB, which is the Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity. The consensus among a group of concerned countries and concerned civil-society is that this is cover for increased commodificaiton and privatisation of our water, air, nature… it is an argument that directly relates to the myth of the tragedy of the commons, that myth being that the only way to preserve something is to privatise it. The reality is that privatising the commons, enclosing the commons is the surest way to ensure its over-exploitation and this starts with valuing it. This is the current push towards markets in every sphere including air and water. Carbon markets and water markets leave the mechanisms of deciding who has access to draw water or push carbon into the atmosphere to where the highest economic good lies, as determined by price.

Under this scenario, we come up against those who think it might be good to stop the externalization of costs as we are currently doing, a huge failure in achieving sustainable development. The answer, however, does not lie in internalizing costs by implementing a mechanism that also decides who gets access to those resources, which is what the market does.

If you are still with me, and I have been clear, it will be apparent that a Green Economy scenario, alongside work on assessing the economics of the environment can easily be hijacked to serve increased exploitation and inequity as well as less-sustainability. This, in a basic accounting, is why my 3 days spend at the Rio+20 PrepCom has left me worse than disappointed, I am downright fearful for the current trajectory of these talks.

Is there still time to try and shift this discussion to where it should be, around directly tackling the critical issues of our times, engaging the incredible human resources of those communities and people who want a better world and inspiring people that there is hope and a way forward? Maybe, I am not sure. We do need to loudly express our concern, as did many of the ‘developing’ governments like Bolivia, Cuba, Venezuela and even some non-traditional governments such as Russia, but unfortunately it seems the power structures within the UN and those governments which control those structures ignored these concerns. Canada made a particularly banal and bizarre intervention on the first round of statements which said virtually nothing except that there should be no duplication with existing processes, thanks a lot.

People at the UN still hold the work of Maurice Strong in high regard as the Canadian chair of the first Earth Summit. it was, by many accounts, a great success. Strong has some detractors but no doubt did lead and deliver an inspiring moment. I will end by saying we need countries and governments, working with social movements to inspire and challenge us. Cochabamba was an example of what can be done in that regard with tens of thousands engaging in an open process to deal with the issue of our times, climate change (I actually see climate as a subset of the water crisis, so no contradiction in saying this as a water campaigner…). Unfortunately, those governments which do inspire are marginalized within the current UN power systems and it is very hard to work against these structures. The issues of corporate influence at the UN (and within our governments) needs to be addressed as does general UN reform. Still, it is a space that needs to be recaptured, not by retreating, but by advancing and social movement engagement. Can Rio+20 be the space for social movements to engage with the UN, possibly, but not with the current agenda as it is playing out!