It has been more than a month since Rio + 20, otherwise known as the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (UNCSD). It was held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, exactly two decades after another UN conference, the Earth Summit, held in the same city. The outcome document of the 2012 summit, entitled The Future We Want, was declared a failure because it was unsuccessful in achieving concrete political commitment between developed and developing nations – considered a prerequisite to further the agendas of sustainable development.
Much has already been written about the limited outcome of the summit; one that was bogged down in contentious debates on “green economy” and the unwillingness of developed countries to commit to finance and provide technology to lesser developed nations. The media’s focus was on events at the Riocentro Convention Centre, where negotiations with political leaders took place.
What went unreported were some significant discussions and events that took place tangential to the summit. These were held in academic institutes, public parks, museums and art centers strewn across the city. Civil society organizations participated actively, representing a wide array of issues, ranging from arbitrary detentions and displaced peoples to climate change and women’s empowerment.
Events at venues like Flamengo Park–packed with street theatre, banners and stalls–exuded high energy levels and cut across borders.
Located on the port of Rio, Mauá Pier was a major site for several remarkable exhibits. Among those was the ‘Greenpeace Rainbow Warrior’ ship, which was anchored to gather public support and urge the UN to declare the High Arctic as a protected sanctuary.
Greenpeace Rainbow Warrior ship
Several stalls at this venue showcased Brazil’s advances in technology, especially those which enhance agricultural productivity and strengthen food security. Also at display was the process of converting sugarcane molasses to produce ethanol – a clean, affordable and low-carbon bio-fuel that can be blended with gasoline, if needed.
Ethanol has taken Brazil one step closer to a ‘Green economy,’ by increasing energy efficiency and cutting carbon emissions. Brazil continues to encourage the concept of ‘flexible fuel cars,’ those which run on a combination of fossil fuels and ethanol. Ethanol offers another advantage for the South American giant: of using domestic resources to run its transport systems, thereby reducing its dependence on imported oil.
Molasses to Ethanol conversion equipment
The Pier was also host to a significant discussion on ‘citizen driven accountability mechanisms for sustainable development,’ organized by various international financial institutions (IFIs).
The IFIs’ were represented by their Independent Accountability Mechanisms (IAMs) – bodies which provide recourse for citizens adversely affected by projects funded by the IFIs. These IAMs held discussions centered on policies that ensure the accountability of financial institutions while funding developmental projects.
An example of such a project, in India’s case, is the Sardar Sarovar Dam project, on the Narmada River. Poor environmental impact assessment, inadequate resettlement and rehabilitation of people affected by the project had evoked intense criticism in the early 1990s. In response to this case, and due to the increasing demand for ‘citizen-driven accountability,’ the Inspection Panel of the World Bank was established in 1993.
Since then, several other IFIs involved in developmental efforts have followed suit, and set up their own panels.
This event at Rio + 20 has particular significance for those in India, where development-led displacement is highly contested around issues of entitlement and at times, has assumed political overtones.
Amid these noteworthy events, the delegates got a chance to explore the city. The excellent upkeep of Brazil’s public and tourist spots are certainly worthy takeaways for a Mumbai person. However, what was disturbing and had resonance, were the stretches of favelas on the mountain slopes – shanty towns that have proliferated due to unaffordable housing in the city, likened to the slums of Mumbai.
That Rio was the host for this major international event, with sustainable development and social equities as the theme, seemed ironic! Favelas such as the Rocinha, Cantagalo in the Copacabana neighborhood, Complexo da Maré, and Vidigal Favela, are clearly visible and in sharp contrast to the up-market suburbs and beaches of Ipanema and Leblon. These peri-urban settlements reflect the developmental challenges that cities like Mumbai and Rio face. Issues of rural-urban migration, an imbalance between the supply and demand of affordable housing, gentrification and gross socio-economic inequities are all problems that a resident of Mumbai can empathize with. Looking ahead, the two cities could share their good practices and limitations in urban planning.
Renu Modi is the Africa Studies Fellow at Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations. She is the former Director of the Centre for African Studies, University of Mumbai.
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