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Rio+20: Pursuing the 'Sustainable Development' Agenda?

What are the prospects for equitable change at the Rio+20 conference?
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A farmer in Kenya. Photograph by International Centre for Tropical Agriculture.

What is Rio+20?

More than a hundred heads of state are expected to attend the Rio+20 summit – officially, the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development – on June 20-22 in Brazil. It will mark the 20th anniversary of the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), also known as the Earth Summit, and the 10th anniversary of the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) in Johannesburg. It is expected to be the biggest UN summit ever held.

As its official name suggests, Rio+20’s is about sustainable development, a concept given prominence by the 1987 'Brundtland Report'. Sustainable development, as officially enshrined at WSSD in South Africa, constitutes three pillars: economic, social and environmental.

Rio+20 is expected to result in a focused political document, negotiations for which have been ongoing and heated, with major divides between the big blocks of the EU, JUSCANZ – which includes the likes of Japan, the US, Canada and Australia – and the G77. At the heart of these debates are the conceptualisation, or lack thereof, of the conference’s two main themes – “a green economy in the context of sustainable development poverty eradication” and “the institutional framework for sustainable development” – as well as discussions over what priority should be given to 'Rio Principles' such as the precautionary principle, polluter pays, common but differentiated responsibility between rich and poor countries and the Right to Development.

The current state of play

Developing countries in the G77 fear that the ill-defined 'green economy' could be used by rich countries as a new means of trade protectionism, while the EU is keen to establish targets and the US is reluctant to make any obligations at all. The EU and African countries, led by Kenya, want to see the United Nations Environment Programme upgraded to a UN agency, but the US and other rich countries oppose any further expenditure.

Human rights obligations and equity principles in Rio+20’s draft outcome document have been decimated at the hands of wealthy countries. All references to the Right to Development have been eliminated, poverty eradication has been qualified to focus only on extreme poverty, while rich countries have sought to eliminate any prescriptive language committing them to providing finance, technology and capacity-building in support of sustainable development in the “Global South”. There also remain no commitments to engage in systemic macro-economic reforms in the trade, finance and investment policies which hinder many African countries. Conversely, the wealthy countries, while railing against subjecting the private sector to greater regulation, are pushing for private sector investments and initiatives to fill gaps left by the public sector.

These developments, and Rio+20 as a whole, must be viewed against the backdrop of the worst crisis of the global capitalist system since the Great Depression. The world’s elites are evidently promoting a green growth agenda - used interchangeably with the “green economy” - to justify the conversion of common resources into private property as part of a wider remit of resuscitating growth in the dominant economies. African small-scale farmers are encouraged to “scale up adoption of green agriculture by partnering with leading agribusinesses”, serving to deepen the stranglehold of leading agribusinesses on global agriculture at the expense of people-based and biodiversity-based food production systems. Natural resources and ecosystem services are to be traded as assets in financial markets and as new sources of 'superprofits'. Peasants, indigenous peoples and communities directly dependent on nature for their livelihoods and community life, especially in unindustrialised countries, are to be dispossessed, displaced and even killed in the process. Rio+20 is an opportunity to legitimise this corporate agenda in the name of promoting “sustainable development” despite UN Secretary General Ban-Ki Moon’s belief that Rio+20 will result in a "once in a generation" blueprint for global sustainable development.

Why is Rio+20 needed?

Rio+20 comes at a critical juncture. Economic, social and environmental crises have worsened since 1992’s Earth Summit, with the impacts felt most by the poorest and most marginalised – African countries are, in this regard, at the sharp end of failures by the wealthiest countries to change unsustainable production and consumption patterns highlighted in 1992.

While a small African elite accrues great wealth and a narrow middle class joins them in pursuing the unsustainable standards of living enjoyed by the West, half of Africans live on incomes below the internationally accepted poverty benchmark of $1.25 a day. And, in the time since the Earth Summit, poverty reduction in Africa has been twice as slow as in Asia, and three times as slow as in Latin America, highlighting the weak link between economic growth and meeting basic needs.

Yet, at a global level, the more that wealth has been accumulated by a privileged few, the more the planet’s ecosystems and people have become adversely affected by climate change, pollution and resource depletion.  Climate change, biodiversity loss and pollution are intertwined with the rise of heavy industry and the predominance of multinational corporations under capitalism - fossil fuel CO2 emissions and world GDP have grown exponentially in lock-step with each other over the past two centuries.

Anthropogenic, negative impacts on the environment driven by a political-economic system geared toward capital accumulation lead to environmental stresses that threaten the foundation of the ecosystems that humans and other species depend on for their survival. The impacts of environmental degradation are often felt most keenly by those in the poorest parts of the world. Ecological destruction serves to further exacerbate the plight of 70% of the world’s and Africa’s poor who depend on rural livelihoods for their income. African countries are responsible for some 4% of greenhouse gas emissions yet global warming has already substantially altered regional climatic and ecological systems. Some 460 million people from across the continent are at risk of living in water stress by 2025, with the impact of climate change on critical livelihood sources such as Lake Chad well-documented.

Although resource use has dropped per unit of global economic output by around 30% in the past 25 years, globally we have used around 50% more natural resources. And this resource consumption is distributed inequitably. North American per capita consumption is around 90 kg of resources per day, Europeans at around 45 kg, whereas in Africa consumption is at about 10 kg per day.

The Earth Summit

Of course, many of these issues were already well understood in 1992. And the outcomes of the Earth Summit represented a progressive leap forward in tackling sustainable development, especially when couched in the context of a period when the Washington Consensus reigned supreme in the immediate aftermath of the end of the Cold War.

Chief among the agreements was Agenda 21, a 40-chapter framework through which the future action at global, national and local levels was mandated on each of the three principal dimensions of sustainability; it was the practical implementation plan for the Rio Declaration. Agenda 21 emphasises the need for poverty eradication, of giving greater resource access to poorer people, of the greater responsibility of richer countries to clean the environment, and stresses the need for the adoption of national strategies and a global partnership in order to bring about change. The planned implementation was agreed to by 178 governments. However it was not legally enforceable and was thus dependent on the will of national governments.

Agenda 21 was also “not allowed” to examine the economic system. This was a bizarre lacuna given that the political-economic system determines modes of production and consumption, and that production and consumption patterns are at the heart of unsustainable development. Indeed, the US Republican Party this year suggested that Agenda 21 is “a comprehensive plan of extreme environmentalism, social engineering, and global political control … [to] be accomplished by socialist/communist redistribution of wealth”. 

However, this could be seen as an expected exclusion if one couches it within the global system’s dominance by a finance oligarchy in whose interest it is for the system to be perpetuated, regardless of the comfortably remote poverty and environmental destruction it engenders.

Equity and human rights

It is the richest countries’ accumulation of wealth that has driven the current environmental crisis and perpetuated poverty in the South. Yet, many Northern states continually oppose demands from the South that they take a role for preventing and mitigating environmental destruction proportionate to their historical responsibility for causing it. They also continually resist calls to provide greater assistance for poorer countries in addressing environmental issues.

Moreover, the poor are continually apportioned the blame for environmental destruction and its consequence of their further impoverishment - the relationship between poverty and environmental destruction has been and is viewed through a deterministic lens. The work of Thomas Malthus, the views of European colonial powers, the Brundtland Report and IMF, UN reports and conferences, have all reiterated and reinforced the view of poverty as the determinant of environmental destruction in a “two-way interactive process”. As the 1990 UN Human Development Report affirmed soon after the Brundtland Report, “Poverty is one of the greatest threats to the environment".

Such views frame the need for an approach to sustainable development couched within global political economy – paying heed to the environment alongside development, and analysing poverty, inequality and environmental crises within the framework of structured, unequal relations between countries. Such an approach will be at the heart of the parallel “Cupula dos Povos”, the “Peoples' Summit”. To ensure that the outcomes of the official process push true sustainable development, equity and human rights – meaning the whole spectrum of political, cultural, social and economic rights – political economy must be placed at the heart of sustainability.

Any hope of gaining a meaningful outcome at Rio+20, and consequently hopes for sustainable development, depends on key demands being met by the negotiating parties. The following are key demands levied by IBON International and the Rights for Sustainability delegation, comprising of civil society groups and people's movements from across Africa, the Asia-Pacific and Latin America:

- Reaffirm and build upon rights and the Rio Principles;

- Ensure democratic access and control of smallholders, women, indigenous peoples, youth and other marginalised groups over resources such as land, water, seeds, forests, finance, appropriate technologies and infrastructure;

- Commit adequate public financing for poverty eradication, social equity and sustainable development;

- Establish a strong regulatory framework for the private sector to ensure that it contributes to rather than undermines sustainable development;

- Establish participatory accountability mechanisms through which the people’s voice, including that of women and youth, can be reflected, and independent monitoring of Rio commitments can be conducted at the national, regional and global levels. 

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