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My thoughts on Rio

Posted Jun. 28, 2012 / Posted by: Ian Illuminato

Rio+20 and the People’s Summit (attended by more than 50,000 people) both came to a close over the weekend. Much effort from many individuals was poured into relatively few days of meetings. Both events required months of preparation, with some aspects of the meetings even taking years to prepare. You can imagine what it feels like when all of that comes to a close. All of that energy that had been running nonstop was then turned off. Like shutting down an engine that had been running with no interruption for years.

I felt it most on the last day, when I got on the shuttle back to Rio from the complex where Rio+20 took place. I couldn’t help but sense the emotions behind all of this. That hour on the bus was filled with a mixture of tears, relief to be done and moving on, as well as some bewilderment about what had just happened.

To some the meetings were a success, to others a failure, even a tragedy. I heard it all. There were many opinions and perspectives floating around, and they have all been landing in various communications and press releases in the past few days. I myself avoided writing a summary of my experience here for a couple of days. I needed to let things sit for a while. I needed to take some time to absorb what had just happened. There is still some contradiction within me about Rio. On paper I can see that the final agreements of Rio+20 were not what we had hoped and worked for, yet in my heart I do not feel this was a complete failure.

Many important concepts on how to improve the health of the world were not acknowledged at Rio+20, especially those from the 200 civil society groups that supported the alternative People’s Summit, such as Friends of the Earth U.S. and Friends of the Earth International. The profit-driven agenda of some corporations and industries ended up taking the main stage at the UN negotiations. This agenda was an obstruction toward developing ways to implement true sustainability on the planet.

A potentially dangerous element of the final Rio+20 outcome document was the validation of the ‘green economy’ as a tool for changing the world. Of course getting companies to think green and practice sustainability is important, but many of the outcomes of Rio+20 give preference to profit within the green economy instead of strong mandates to curtail unhealthy industrial practices that occur every minute on our planet. Waiting for corporations to change their ways through the green economy may just allow more room for them to make excuses for sacrificing our environment. Especially considering that one of the main issues with the green economy is that it seeks to privatize nature and turn it into a commodity.

Fortunately, thanks to the work of Friends of the Earth and our allies, we were able to ensure that major steps backward were not taken at Rio+20, yet our governments were not strict enough with industry. We needed to establish stronger laws to deal with the unhealthy practices of corporations, such as deforestation, mining, industrial agriculture and other forms of pollution and environmental degradation, which are growing at a very rapid pace and must seriously be kept in check. For other views on what took place in Rio, I encourage you to read some of the statements from other groups I trust, such as the ETC Group, Greenpeace, the Third World Network, and of course our Friends of the Earth International.

So that’s the bad news. On the other hand I couldn’t help but witness the positive. Walking into the Rio+20 conference complex, I was in awe witnessing the coming together of so many nations and different people -- people who in the past you may have never expected to see together in the same country, let alone the same room. What a delight to see our different ways of being… the colorful dresses and suits of some cultures, the different languages spoken, different expressions -- it was a beautiful sight. And in terms of the outcome of Rio+20, the final text did support essentially important aspects, such as the Human Right to Water, the Right to Food, and the acknowledgment of the rights of indigenous people. The text also left intact most of the principles set forth in the first Rio Earth Summit of 1992.

As far as technology assessment goes, the final text that came out of Rio+20 did include acknowledgment of the need for assessing technologies, which could have negative repercussions on the environment and our health. There was no mention in detail of what technology assessment would look like, but even just a few words in the text gives Friends of the Earth and other groups that focus on technologies a good means for pushing our governments on the national and international level to set up frameworks and government bodies to assess technologies. I hope that what comes next is a framework for technology assessment brought forward in a transparent and multilateral fashion. It will also need to allow for meaningful engagement from civil society and the public in order to be effective. Thanks to the tireless work of our friends at the ETC Group and other allies, the final negotiated document also included a consensus against risky ocean fertilization as a techno-fix to climate change. Opposition to other geoengineering methods also seems to have gained some momentum thanks to ETC’s work.

My main mandate in Rio was to carry out our 6th annual Nanotechnology Summit with colleagues and allies that focus on this issue in particular. We also prepared various workshops on nanotechnology during the People’s Summit. I was at the same time keeping a close eye on Rio+20 negotiations pertaining to technology assessment more broadly and working with our Friends of the Earth International partner groups to support the broader campaigns of our federation.

I’m happy to report that our Nanotechnology Summit was a success. We gathered about thirty allies and shared our nanotechnology campaign efforts. The second day of our summit was spent strategizing ways in which we can empower the public to learn more about this technology and ways for demanding that government regulate this risky technology in order to protect the public and our environment. Nanoparticles are found in a wide range of products, such as cosmetics, sunscreens, clothing, paints, cleaning products, sporting goods, and household appliances. These tiny, intentionally manufactured nanoparticles are entering our lives at a rapid rate with no regulation in place to ensure safety.

The Nanotechnology Summit was attended by a diverse group of stakeholders, including journalists, labor unions, academics, NGOs, curious citizens, and even government representatives. I was pleased to learn about the work of our colleagues in South America. One of the union representatives from Sao Paulo, Brazil explained that he had worked with a major pharmaceutical company in the region to build a mandatory policy that would ensure workers of that company would be informed about the nanomaterials they are handling in the workplace. The policy also ensured that their pharmaceutical products that contain nanomaterials would be labeled as such, a step towards allowing consumers to make informed choices. We also began planning for the creation of a website that would allow colleagues from around the world to share studies and information about nanotechnology and their campaigns in order to grow and support our global efforts. During the summit, our English speaking groups (including Friends of the Earth) made the commitment to translate the work of our South American colleagues in English so that their excellent work could be conveyed in other regions, such as North America.

I’ve connected with many efforts and movements in these past weeks. I’ve always appreciated taking in the big picture, and from that perspective, I can’t say that these weeks were a failure. Sure, this process was far from perfect, but we must consider the fact that in Rio we witnessed thousands of perspectives coming together, a microcosm of the world in a sense. That coming together will take time; will require hope and a strong desire to persevere in order to succeed.

Some say we should give up on the UN and these processes. I’m not sure if that is the solution. There are some governments influenced by corporate agendas that don’t support government itself! Some want to destroy government, to leave us lawless, so that they can take advantage of the world. I think these forces would be pleased to see our movements walk away from the UN. They want us to give up in these processes -- but very little would stop their destructive agendas if we gave up on the UN. In my opinion we are only getting stronger as a movement; our ideas are finally hitting the global stage like never before. So I think there is room for progress yet at the United Nations.

I put my heart into this work and I witnessed thousands of people doing the same. When we come together with our hearts, I believe we are destined for success no matter what the challenges may be. Though we must be careful not to get too caught up in just pointing at governments and the United Nations for implementing change, we really need to embody that change, all of us, on a deep level.

When it comes down to it, we share everything on this planet: the pain, the joy, and the resources. I look to myself and see that I drive a car, I use resources, I am sometimes short-tempered, I make wrong choices, I can be wasteful, etc. I also see those dynamics in my fellow humans and so it reminds me that we in the end, as individuals, must make these changes one by one, on some level, in order to change our collective world. We need to remember to keep the focus of change as a personal pursuit that we work to practice in our daily lives and interactions. As we grow into that change, it would seem only natural that the systems we have created together would improve, such as the UN. With all of my imperfections I see myself also making good choices and improving my interactions with the world, and I see this all around me. So I still have a lot of hope. And I hope that you do too! I’m going home with the willingness to continue this work.

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