Rio+20 Was a Predictable Bust
By 2012 the global warming crisis was supposed to be resolved. What a bunch of bullshit.
By 2012 the global warming crisis was supposed to be resolved. World leaders promised this 20 years ago at the Eco-92 Summit, where they introduced a new strategy called “sustainable development” that would enable market forces to save the environment through brilliant innovations like carbon trading. That’s what made it possible for capitalists to make money off of environmental protection. Despite the initial enthusiasm at the time, this turned out to be a giant crock of shit.
This week world leaders returned to Rio de Janeiro to celebrate these two decades of failure, in an event called Rio+20. It was hosted by the United Nations, who have a smaller operating budget than the NYC police department. Since the UN didn’t have enough funding to hold the event itself, it was also sponsored by Vale (the mining corporation that has been responsible for ripping down thousands of square miles of Amazon rainforest), the Petrobras state Petroleum Corporation, and other companies like Coca-Cola. There wasn’t much hope for anything positive coming out of this summit, and, as the Guardian pointed out, the US government did everything it could to destroy the final agreement. This final accord, which was signed yesterday by 193 world leaders, is a stalling measure that says that nothing will be done until the next meeting, scheduled to be held in 2015.
As world leaders and their yes-men sat around poring through anal-retentive articles about indicators, an alternative event was taking place in Rio called the People’s Summit for Social and Economic Justice, which is based on the World Social Forum structure and hosted tens of thousands of participants from all over the world. The People’s Summit was organized by social movements and civil society organizations as an attempt to influence the Rio+20 process. In five arenas and hundreds of tents stretching from downtown to Flamengo beach people have been working together to create specific lists of demands that will be presented to the UN at the end of the week.
One thing that all the groups have in common is that they reject the Rio+20 theme of “Green Capitalism,” which the UN sees as a market-based solution to environmental problems, as nothing but a new metaphor that big polluters will use to continue destroying the environment. To be realistic, it’s difficult to see how the UN will be influenced by the People’s Summit, and how, even if it was, this would lead China and the US to stop their world leadership in greenhouse gas emissions. On the bright side, the series of meetings, protests, and parties that will hopefully lead to better organized resistance against the 1 percent of the world’s population who are ruining the planet.
I live in Rio and yesterday morning I was invited by friends in the squatter’s movement to join a street protest in a slum that is earmarked for destruction before the 2014 World Cup, which also happens to be on the edge of the area where Rio+20 is taking place. After staying out drinking at a crazy Brazilian feminist movement party in the auditorium of a public high school designed by Oscar Niemeyer until the wee hours of the morning, I pulled myself out of bed and took a bus to the Carnaval stadium, where tens of thousands of social movement activists and indigenous people were sleeping on air mattresses in the high school classrooms that were built under the stadium seats. Twenty-four buses hauled us to the protest, free transportation provided for all the people staying there during the People’s Summit. I was surprised to see that our escorts were dozens of Air Force Police officers on Harley Davidsons.
I joined up with a group of friends and we got on a bus with members of the Central de Movimentos Populares, one of the largest social movements in Brazil, comprised of the poor and working-class. The motorcycle police shut down Rio’s main road downtown for us, and we were whisked off across to the other side of the city, a trip that took two hours. This was originally supposed to be a protest held by national squatters' rights movements against forced evictions that are scheduled to happen before the World Cup, but the fact that so many different social movements—from a small black bloc anarchist presence to the enormous Via Campesina tournout—were staying in the same place created a synergy for something bigger. I was surprised to see two buses full of warriors from the Xingu indigenous tribe in full war-paint carrying spears. Apparently over dinner the previous night, every group that was staying at the stadium decided to send people along in solidarity.
We arrived at the slum and entered a line that stretched back at least half a mile. Hundreds of local residents joined up with us. We walked along through the slum and out to a path along a sewage canal. On the other side of the canal there were press photographers, military shock troops, and traffic cops directing cars into the Rio+20 parking lot. There were snipers on a roof in the distance looking at us through binoculars. Two helicopters hovered above.
I thought we were going to go onto the main road leading into the Summit, but the leaders looped back through the slum. Then we stopped and sat around for an hour, waiting for another ten buses full of housing activists to arrive. New people arrived and a sound truck pulled up. A man climbed up on top of it, took a microphone, and started giving us instructions. We weren’t going onto the main avenue, he said. We were going to do one more loop around the slum and stop at a place where international press photographers could take pictures.
“This is bullshit,” an old woman from the low income housing movement said. “What is the point of coming here if we aren’t going to cause problems for anyone?”
“What was the deal with all the police escorting us here anyway?” another guy chimed in.
The march started up again. We went down an alley to the mud path along the sewage canal that separated us from the main road. All kinds of people were on the other side photographing and filming us. Some looked like journalists; others looked like security types. Suddenly the chief of the Xingu yelled out and the tribe filled up behind him. They marched over the footbridge to the main road. We made motions to follow suit but a woman from Via Campesina stood on the bridge, blocking us. “Everyone from Via Campesina, the MST, and the Central de Movimentos Populares has to stay on this side of the bridge,” she said. “We made an agreement with the locals not to cause problems.”
A group of locals ignored her and followed the Xingu over the bridge, and thousands of people fell in behind. Photographers came running from all directions as the Xingu marched up to a line of armed troops in riot control equipment and a tank with a sonic weapon on it. They yelled at the police and reporters about the Belo Monte hydroelectric project, a billion-dollar dam that is going to flood most of their reservation in the Amazon jungle and destroy the ecosystem.
There was confusion and we didn’t know if the rubber bullets and tear gas were going to start flying or not. After 30 minutes of commotion, President Dilma Rouseff sent cabinet minister Giberto Carvalho out to offer the Indians some kind of slightly improved resettlement package. Nobody seemed satisfied. For a minute it looked like they were going to start beating the guy. Then it looked like the photographers were going to cause a pushing riot. Finally, things died down and we walked back to our bus and rode across the city to where a much larger street protest was starting, based on the decision of 1000-something civil society organizations and social movements to withdraw their signatures from the final Rio+20 accord.
These kinds of People’s Summits and forums have been going on for over a decade in Latin America now, as a strategy to move beyond relying exclusively on protest marches and develop clear strategies to fight against the corporations and the media and governments they bankroll that are destroying the planet. They are rarely covered in the northern media, and when they are they are belittled as being full of naïve people who aren’t clear about they want. Regardless, four World Social Forum activists have been elected president in South America. And hopefully people like that don’t sign bullshit time-buying accords.
For more on the environmental disaster that is the Amazon's ecosystem, here's our Toxic series on activists Zé Cláudio Ribeiro and Maria do Espirito Santo, who were shot to death for trying to save some trees.