RIO+20 – A conference without a soul?

by Ricardo Braun

The Rio + 20 Conference created great expectations for all that are interested in the future of our Planet. There was a lot of talk about sustainability but at the end nothing really changed. Why is it so?

The United Nations Conference on the Human Environment, also known as the Stockholm Conference, was held in Sweden in 1972. It was the first conference on international environmental issues based on the zero growth report of the ‘Club of Rome’. Shortly after the conference the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP) was institutionalized in Nairobi, Kenya. In Brazil the Special Secretariat of Environment (SEMA) was established in 1973, and later implemented the National Environmental Policy Act (Law 6.938).

Twenty years after Stockholm the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) was held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. This conference, also known as  ECO 92. It  followed the findings of the report ‘Our Common Future’ prepared by the World Commission on Environment and Development that introduced the term ‘sustainable development’ for the present and future generations. The 92’ Global Forum,  was also held in Rio de Janeiro in parallel to UNCED. It was considered the largest civil society meeting at that time. The ECO 92 conference had impressive results such as the global Agenda 21, the Rio Declaration and the establishment of a number of major international conventions such as climate change and biological diversity.

The United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development known also as the Rio + 20 had the task to give continuity to the previous UN conferences. Based on the slogan ‘the future we want’ the main goal of the official UN meeting was not only to evaluate the implementation of the Millennium Development Goals, but also to strengthen the climate negotiations, evaluate the human rights issue and define an agenda for sustainable development for the next decades. In other words to take a step forward in relation to the previous conferences.

Excluding the parallel agreements and voluntary decision-making between local governments and the social civil society, the final out-put of this meeting was a simple declaration that was defended by the Brazilian government as a successful summit document. However this declaration has been strongly criticized by the world civil society as an empty diplomatic document lacking concrete goals to guide the future we all want for the Planet.

The Peoples’ Summit

The ‘Peoples Summit for Social and Environmental Justice‘ held during the Rio + 20 Conference  became the hope to overcome the failures of the official meeting. It was held at the  Burle Max’s gardens in Flamengo Park in Rio de Janeiro. The same location where the famous 92’ Global Forum was held twenty years ago.


The Peoples Summit congregated several sectors of society through an ambitious programming. There were many structures, many people circulating, and many protests, claims and incentives to mass protest. The majority of structures were opened tents with chairs and a spot of light for all sorts of performances, lectures and demonstrations, and to bring together NGOs, government representatives, academics, scientists and the general public. Many structures such as the Gaia Education,Transition Towns, Blue Planet Project, among others, demonstrated that sustainability is possible through the gathering of motivated people and local solutions.

The first day of the summit was marked by the lack of information. A lot of people looking for maps and information signs. Chinese lectures, Spanish researchers, Iranian and Italian NGOs, Canadian students, even Brazilian NGOs were lost in the first day. This was no different for me. I also had problems to find the structure were I should lectured on the ‘Future of Energy’ representing the Urban Observatory of Rio de Janeiro (OUERJ / UN Habitat).

The Flamengo Park was opened for almost everything. There were street vendors and artisans selling their products and much of the public seemed to be more interested in seeing and buy crafts than participating in the plenary sessions. The feeling was that the commerce somehow distracted the attention of the visitors regarding the real objectives of the Peoples’ Summit. Some structures in the park has permanent activities with great public. But many structures were kept empty.


The ‘Plenary on Food Sovereignty’ gathered representatives from the Brazilian land tenure movement (MST), various indigenous and ethnic groups and many NGOs. There were hard speeches against global mercantilism and social injustice.  When inquiring a representative of the Tupi-Guarani indigenous group about her modus vivendis she promptly offered to sell me handicrafts made from her native group…

More ahead at the Modern Art Museum there were many people coming and going in the midst of non-governmental and governmental structures. A loud amphitheater with LED video screens stood out for live music and roundtables discussions on different topics. A show of lights and colors from the government. But powered by diesel generators! In this scenario, the Greenpeace gave a glimmer of hope by feeding their structure with solar and the wind power.

In short the Peoples Summit had diverse and simultaneous events with the involvement of many organizations. No doubt a great event. Very similar to the 500 years celebration of the discovery of Brazil by the Portuguese in the year 1500. But for an analytic eye there was some unanswered question regarding this whole event, such as, what were the main contributions out of all the discussions carried out in the Peoples Summit?


The ‘Declaration of the Peoples Summit’ revealed to be very simplistic for such a big event. The general text with two pages emphasized a reactive position of ‘being against…’ and ‘fighting for…’ Instead of the spirit of cooperation and sustainable solutions that we need for our common future.

The Prophets of the 92’ Global Forum

Before opening the doors of the 92’ Global Forum the former director of the Centre for Our Common Future, Waren Lindner, emphasized two essential things. To deliver a consistent document that synthesized the position of the 92’ Global Forum for the heads of governments at UNCED and to show the world that the civil society was capable of organizing a great event in a sustainable manner.

Although there were numerous promises from politicians, government agencies and business enterprises to help develop the 92’ Global Forum, all governmental infrastructure and support was given to the UNCED’s official meeting in the Rio Center. The Forum team worked with minimal support. The internet at that time was an experimental Bulletin Board System, and there was only one fax to send and receive all messages to organize the event. Resources were limited but the motivation, the creativity and the willingness to make it happen was enormous.

The Forum had many structures focusing on science and technology, culture, women’s rights, children’s forums, arts and culture for sustainability among many other parallel events. A permanent spiritual vigil for peace was carried out during the event. A viking boat sailed the Atlantic with an international crew to arrive during the 92’ Global Forum. Hundreds of banners painted by children from around the world were exposed and hundreds of people were acting for a better world. A very positive atmosphere took place in June 92 at the Flamengo Park.

The ‘Open Speakers Forum’ was one of the most important structures of the 92’ Global Forum. It gathered many environmental leaders that gave ‘soul’ to the Eco 92 event. Among the speakers were the Buddhist leader Dalai Lama, the Oceanographer Captain Jacques Cousteau, the Nobel laureate Wangari Maattai, the educator Darcy Ribeiro, the spiritual leader of Dadi Janki, the environmentalist José Lutzenberger, Professor David Suzuki, the ecofeminist Vandana Shiva, Senator Al Gore, the director of the World Watch Institute, Lester Brown, the leader of the Third World Network, Che Yoke Ling, Dr. Helen Caldicott from the institute of social responsibility, the American Indian Nations spokeman Chief Oren Lyons, Elizabeth Mann Borgese the Director of the Institute International Oceans, among many other known environmentalist and celebrities.


The Forum’s charisma was such that many UNCED authorities broke protocols to visit Flamengo Park in order to prestige the event. Many government leaders climbed to the ‘tree of life’ located in the center of the park, and wrote their pledge for a sustainable world on small leaf made of recycled paper.

Why an empty document at Rio + 20?

Despite Brazil’s spectacular biodiversity and a highly sophisticated environmental legislation, it cannot not be considered a sustainable country. Brazil has many environment contradictions such as high deforestation rates, poor urban sanitation, excess cars in the streets, a progressive pressure on the indigenous people, an energy matrix with historical negative environmental impacts, a consuming population with poor education, and many corrupt politicians. Brazil’s human development index is incompatible with its sixth position in the world economy raking. It’s clear that the country cannot lead something that has not been reached.

The country lost twenty years of opportunity since the Eco 92 Conference to show more sustainability during the Rio + 20. It could have shown practical solutions beyond prototypes and small-scale projects. The whole conference could have been powered by alternative sources of energy. Just to show the world that the country is tune with the modern concepts of sustainable energy. It also lacked green mobility schemes and selective collectors for recycling, including bicycles lanes and other alternative means of locomotion during the event. There was also no disclosure regarding the neutralization of carbon emissions generated during Rio+20.

In the newspapers, on the internet and on TV we had live information about what was going on during the official conference. Heads of state, journalists, government officers and NGO leaders gave interviews and repeated technocratic information on agreements, strategies, negotiations, decisions, successes and failures of the Conference. Never in environmental history have we experienced so many contradictions concerning the future of the Planet.

Knowledge and communication are one of the pillars of sustainability but the excess of information confuses society regarding what is vital and what is not for the future of humanity.

It is necessary to ask where was the Rio + 20 environmental leaders to inspire the general public? Where was Sir David Attenborough to talk about the wonders of the planetary ecology, and the Nobel Prize Muhammad Yunus to talk about the solidarity bank of the poor? Where was our former Environment Minister Marina Silva to talk about the Amazon forest, and Master Tokuda to talk about Zen and ecology, or Bunker Roy, founder of the Barefoot University, and the Monk Satish Kumar from the Schumacher College to talk about soil, soul and society. These among many other names would certainly bring more light and consciousness to the decision makers at Rio + 20.


The first impression is that ‘sustainability for future generations’ is not an important issue for a country that is focused on two great events. The World Cup in 2014 and the Olympics Games in 2016.

But is there any environmental concern for the Olympics Games? In fact the organization of the Olympics begins at least six years prior to its development. The hosting countries have to develop an environmental impact study of the Olympic Games (OGI) and deliver an Olympic Agenda 21. They have also to implement local measures to recycle litter, feed the athletes with organic food, establish sustainable mobility schemes, develop social responsibility projects among many other actions. However none of these actions were seen during the Rio + 20 Conference. In other words, without environmental measures there are no Olympics Games. This should have also been the case for Rio + 20. It is imperative that the United Nation establishes an Agenda 21 for the future mega conferences.

The failure of the Rio + 20 must be reviewed, starting with the name of the conference. The ‘Rio plus some number’ such as ‘Rio + 5, Rio + 10, Rio + 20’, in fact does not say anything. It is a bureaucratic abbreviation of a successful conference that took place twenty years ago in Rio de Janeiro. A UN conference discussing the future of humanity must have its own personality. The exhausted Planet urges for less ‘ego’ and more ‘sustainable soul’ because it is a serious issue for our common future. We are seven billion consuming the Planet and the world needs sustainable paths to follow.

The Nordic countries have some of the best examples regarding the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals. Future UN conferences such as Rio + 20 should be developed in the countries that are more sustainable in order to give the good example.

During the Peoples’ Summit two small tents gave the right message for long term sustainability with a couple of ergonomic bicycles and dynamos powering mobile phones with human driving force. A small example of how the world can be more sustainable when mankind begins to give back what has been consumed in excess.


Ricardo Braun was a special events manager at the 92’ Global Forum. He is currently an associate researcher at the Aberdeen Centre for Environmental Sustainability (ACES) and associate to project MAYA in the UK.