Rio Earth Summit: Tragedy, Farce, and Distraction
By Anne Petermann,Executive Director, Global Justice Ecology Project
Source: Z Magazine, September 2012
As I flew to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil on June 12 for the UN Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20)—the 20-year anniversary of the historic “Rio Earth Summit”—I read an article in the Financial Times titled “Showdown Looms at OPEC After Saudi Arabia Urges Higher Output.” The article explained that Saudi Arabia was urging OPEC (Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries) to increase their output of oil in order to ensure that the global price of oil would not exceed $100 per barrel in order to “mitigate the risks that high oil prices pose to the global economy.”
The article pointed out that ensuring the health of the global economy requires expanding oil production. This, as we know, will worsen the climate crisis. The takeaway message of the article, therefore, is that the global economy will only thrive by destroying the life support systems of the planet.
At the Rio Earth Summit, this was also the underlying logic of the so-called “green economy” proposals that have polarized and paralyzed the talks since the first preparatory meeting for Rio+20 in May 2010.
According to Jim Thomas of the ETC Group, who wrote about the Rio+20 summit’s preparatory meetings for the Guardian back in March 2011, “Far from cooking up a plan to save the Earth, what may come out of the summit could instead be a deal to surrender the living world to a small cabal of bankers and engineers. Tensions are already rising between northern countries and southern countries…and suspicions are running high that the…‘green economy’ is more likely to deliver a greenwash economy or the same old, same old ‘greed’ economy.”
At the Rio+20 summit, industrialized countries and multinational corporations, accompanied by institutions like the IMF and World Bank, led the push for development of the green economy—that is, to use the very ecological devastation caused by global capitalism to create markets in so-called “environmental services” by turning them into tradable commodities. These new markets would help prop up the global economy in a greenwashed version of business as usual.
“Environmental services,” provided by intact natural ecosystems—which include such things as the storage of carbon, the purification of air and water, and the maintenance of biodiversity—would be given a monetary value in the market, enabling them to be purchased and supposedly protected. In reality, however, it would allow companies to destroy a biodiverse ecosystem in one area, by purchasing the protection of an equivalent ecosystem.
The other obvious fallout of this scheme is that if these “environmental services” are given an economic value then, as the ecosystems that provide them become scarcer, their price will go up and investors will profit. Since the global economy is based on transforming natural resources into capital (i.e., turning forests into paper), increasing scarcity is assured. In addition, this scheme will only work if the ecosystems providing these services are privatized.
In this way, the green economy is setting the groundwork to accelerate the privatization of the last intact ecosystems on the planet—forests, wetlands, grasslands, etc., disenfranchising and evicting the very communities that rely on and have traditionally protected these lands. Like the foreclosure and crisis caused by speculative and predatory mortgage schemes, this green economy will result in a global foreclosure—a mass displacement of communities and peoples—the victims of the privatization and speculative trade in nature.
Because of the highly controversial nature of the green economy within the halls of the UN Rio+20 conference, very little could be agreed on. Besides the obvious inequality of the scheme driving North-South divisions, countries like China—with already booming economies—opposed measures such as carbon taxes, which they view as trade barriers.
Green Economy = Trade Liberalization
An article in Forbes Magazine on June 22 stated, “One of the more interesting developments in the sustainable development policy debates is the changing role of international trade policy. We’ve come a long way since the riots at the World Trade Organization ministerial meeting in Seattle in 1999. Now in the agreed outcome text of Rio+20 “…international trade is seen as one of the ‘means of implementation’ for a sustainable future. Our governments are very clear about the importance of trade: ‘We reaffirm that international trade is an engine for development and sustained economic growth and also reaffirm the critical role that a universal, rules-based, open, non-discriminatory, and equitable multilateral trading system, as well as meaningful trade liberalization, can play in stimulating economic growth and development worldwide, thereby benefiting all countries at all stages of development, as they advance towards sustainable development.’”
This emphasis on trade liberalization and sustained economic growth as supposed drivers of sustainable development were major reasons Rio+20 was almost universally condemned by indigenous peoples, civil society organizations, farmers, and other impacted peoples.
George Monbiot, in the UK Guardian, reported that the outcomes “[take] us precisely nowhere…the declaration…is as stuffed with meaningless platitudes as an advertisement for payday loans. There is nothing to work with here, no program, no sense of urgency or call for concrete action beyond the inadequate measures already agreed in previous flaccid declarations. It suggests that the 190 governments…have, in effect, given up on multilateralism, given up on the world, and given up on us.”
The UK’s “green business” website, BusinessGreen, was more optimistic. They reported on June 25 that while [Rio+20] is unlikely to deliver sweeping economic and environmental changes on its own, it could still mark a turning point for the green growth agenda. Malcolm Preston, global lead for sustainability and climate change at PricewaterhouseCoopers, said that during the summit, UN leaders effectively passed the baton of responsibility for building the green economy to the business community.”
This shifting of responsibility from government to industry was clearly seen in Rio outside of the official negotiations at several private industry-sponsored events focused on the advancement of so-called “public-private partnerships” to develop bilateral and subnational agreements related to the green economy and other “green” business schemes.
One such event in Rio, hosted by the Avoided Deforestation Partners, featured members of the Consumer Goods Forum, including executives of Coca Cola and Unilever, alongside celebrities such as the Prince of Wales, Dr. Jane Goodall, U.S. Climate Change Envoy, Jonathan Pershing, and Sir Richard Branson.
The Consumer Goods Forum is a global industry network of 650 corporations that have combined sales of over $3 trillion. During the event, it was announced that the U.S. government would be partnering with the Consumer Goods Forum to achieve zero net deforestation in their supply chains by 2020.
About this seemingly lofty goal, Keith Brunner of Gears of Change Youth Media Project stated, “Industry has been tremendously effective at co-opting the concerns raised by civil society to create plans to advance business as usual. For example, what the Consumer Goods Forum means by ‘zero net deforestation’ is continuing to cut down the world’s biodiverse forests, but replacing them with highly profitable yet devastating industrial tree plantations. In their eyes, a tree is a tree is a tree, regardless of whether it can sustain communities or biodiversity.” Whereas in reality, an industrial tree plantation bears as much resemblance to a forest as a cornfield does a native prairie.
Ambassador Donald Steinberg of USAID underscored the importance of the outside industry meetings at Rio. “These events are not side events, these are the main events,” Steinberg said.
Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Groups and a major promoter of biofuels, emphasized industry’s role in Der Speigel, “One way to look at climate protection is to regard it as a business model because our only option to stop climate change is for industry to make money from it.”
The Green Economy Is A REDD Economy
The keystone policy of this green business model is the Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD) scheme. REDD, initially developed at the UN and pushed by the World Bank, has met with serious challenges inside the UN process, due to the social and ecological impacts it will have and the absence of a clear funding source beyond the failing carbon markets. Instead, sub-national REDD agreements, such as one between California, Chiapas (Mexico), and Acre (Brazil) are moving forward outside of the UN process.
At another day-long event in Rio, sponsored by the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) and the Governors’ Climate Change Task Force (GCF), the focus was on promoting such REDD projects and catalyzing private sector investments. It included the participation of government leaders from key forested states in Brazil, Indonesia, Mexico, and elsewhere, as well as private companies like Google and Wildlife Works. Unsurprisingly, the event lacked participation by indigenous peoples and local communities in those states who are directly affected by REDD policies and who have strongly condemned them.
In a press release from June 15, the Alliance of Indigenous Peoples Against REDD and For Life denounced REDD as a “new wave of colonialism.” Berenice Sanchez of the Nahua People of Mexico stated, “Not only does REDD corrupt the sacred and fuel financial speculation, it also serves as greenwash for extractive industries like Shell and Rio Tinto,” by allowing polluting companies to buy forests that absorb carbon instead of reducing their pollution. “Don’t be fooled,” the alliance urged, “the green economy and REDD constitute a planet grab. Rio+20 is not an Earth Summit, it is the WTO of Life.”
Large NGOs are enabling this corporate takeover. During the Avoided Deforestation event, Julia Martin-LeFevre, Director General of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), explained that the way to protect nature was to “harness the capacity of the markets through [strategies like] payment for biodiversity and ecosystem services.” She added that big NGOs like IUCN (the International Union for Conservation of Nature) play a role in this process: “We conservation organizations sit very well together with corporations.”
Sustainable Energy For All Initiative
Another initiative moving forward through these non-transparent partnerships is the Sustainable Energy for All Initiative (SEFA). SEFA has been condemned as a cynical bid to capitalize on the demand for renewable energy. Almuth Ernsting of Biofuelwatch attended the Sustainable Energy for All Day event on June 20 in Rio, which emphasized profitable “green” solutions. Chad Holliday, the chair of Bank of America and co-chair of SEFA calls it “the greatest public-private partnership of all”—approaching $50 billion in commitments, with 50 countries having signed up to its initial assessment.
“Despite its title,” Ernsting said, “the UN spelled out that ‘implicit in SEFA is that all options are open’ including all fossil fuel options. Energy generation, SEFA spokespersons claimed, had to be scaled up to plug the ‘energy gap.’”
Ernsting explained exactly what the implications of SEFA are: “A Norwegian government spokesperson praised Norway’s ‘Oil for Development’ scheme which aimed to transform oil and gas into a blessing for developing countries. Africa had great gas resources and Norway was generously offering help with exploiting those. Norway sees an equally important role for big hydro dams: ‘Big hydro is a renewable energy which can be handled well…and is a great resource Africa has. The private sector should invest more in it and once more, Norway is ready to help.’ With Norway being a key funder of SEFA commitments, their choice of big hydro as the key type of renewable energy will undoubtedly result in more big dams being financed under SEFA.”
Besides devastating large-scale hydroelectric dams and fossil fuels, Ernsting points out that SEFA is also promoting industrial biofuels and, "in coming decades, could lead to millions more people being displaced from their land, widespread loss of food sovereignty and environmental devastation, as well as faster and more catastrophic climate change.”
Civil society is striking back. The steady erosion of the ability of non-corporate entities to participate in critical decision-making has led to mass protests at the UN Conventions on Climate Change and Biological Diversity which, in turn, has led to the total militarization of these events as the UN begins to look more and more like the WTO.
The Cupola dos Povos—alternative Peoples’ Summit in Rio—began on June 15 and ran through the entire Rio conference, ending on June 23. Tens of thousands of people from around the world attended the Peoples’ Summit, with workshops and panels discussing strategies to address some of the world’s most serious crises. These events were organized to search for and identify real, just, and truly ecological solutions.
The Peoples’ Summit included marches almost daily, with the biggest march on June 20. Major themes of this march were denunciations of Brazil’s new forest law, which opens the door to accelerated deforestation and displacement in the Amazon; and statements against the Belo Monte dam, which is being constructed on the Xingu river. The Belo Monte Dam will be the world’s third largest hydroelectric project and will displace up to 20,000 people while flooding as much as 230 square miles of rainforest in Brazil. During the Rio+20 summit, on June 18, indigenous peoples protested the dam by digging a huge trench through a temporary earthen dam that had been constructed, allowing the river to flow once more.
The declaration produced at the end of the Peoples’ Summit emphasized the importance of uniting diverse sectors in the global struggle for social change: “The Peoples Summit is a symbolic moment of the beginning of a new cycle in the course of global struggles, which produced a new convergence of the movements of women, Indigenous Peoples, people of African descent, youth, family, and peasant farmers, workers, the poor, and traditional communities such as Quilombos, those who fight for the right to the city, and religious groups world wide.”
Also during the Rio+20 summit, indigenous peoples from around the world met at the Kari-Oka II gathering. Brenda Norell of Narco-News explained, “As world leaders seek to profiteer from nature at the summit, Indigenous Peoples, barred by the military from attending, are holding their own encampment at the Kari Oca II and produced the Kari-Oca II Declaration…demanding a halt to the false carbon market schemes which allow the world’s worst polluters to continue polluting and profiteering from nature: “We demand that the United Nations, governments, and corporations abandon false solutions to climate change, like large hydroelectric dams, genetically modified organisms including GMO trees, plantations, agro-fuels, ‘clean’ coal, nuclear power, natural gas, hydraulic fracturing, nanotechnology, synthetic biology, bio-energy, biomass, biochar, geo-engineering, carbon markets, Clean Development Mechanism and REDD+ that endanger the future and life as we know it.
“We cannot allow false solutions to destroy the Earth’s balance, assassinate the seasons, unleash severe weather havoc, privatize life and threaten the very survival of humanity. The green economy is a crime against humanity and the Earth.
“As inheritors of earth, youth play a vital role in continuing to defend what is left of their natural resources that were valiantly fought for by their ancestors. Their actions…will determine the future of their younger brothers and sisters and the generations to come.
“We will continue to struggle against the construction of hydroelectric dams and all other forms of energy production that affect our waters, our fish, our biodiversity and ecosystems that contribute to our food sovereignty. We will work to preserve our territories from the poison of monoculture plantations, extractive industries and other environmentally destructive projects and continue our ways of life, preserving our cultures and identities. We will work to preserve our traditional plants and seeds and maintain the balance between our needs and the needs of our Mother Earth and her life sustaining capacity. We will demonstrate to the world that it can and must be done. In all matters, we will gather and organize the solidarity of all Indigenous Peoples from all parts of the world and all other sources of solidarity with non-indigenous of good will to join our struggle for food sovereignty and food security.
“Ultimately, in the search for real solutions to the myriad crises we face, our movements may need to re-learn some of the lessons from the Indigenous Peoples of the world who have retained their traditional ways of living in balance with and as part of the Earth.”
« Back to Publications
Anne Petermann is the executive director of Global Justice Ecology Project. She is a co-founder of the Durban Group for Climate Justice and Climate Justice Now! She also coordinates the global STOP Genetically Engineered Trees Campaign and is the North American Focal Point of the Global Forest Coalition. Photos are by Anne Petermann.