Dispatches from Rio: The People’s Summit, an Alternative

Will you be our next sustaining member?Donate

Dispatches from Rio: The People’s Summit, an Alternative

About 25 miles away from the presentations of the Rio+20 Earth Summit, an eclectic mass of activists gathered for the People’s Summit. The alternative meet-up sought to call attention to the irony that Rio, a city reliant on an unsustainable economy, is hosting one of the biggest conferences on sustainability in decades.

The Woodstock-esque People’s Summit stands opposed to the more corporate Rio+20 going on 25 miles away. Credit: Greg Scruggs

This is your first of three free stories this month. Become a free or sustaining member to read unlimited articles, webinars and ebooks.

Become A Member

The UN Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20 for short) is happening right now in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Next American City will provide daily coverage of the summit by way of dispatches from Editor in Chief Diana Lind and correspondent Greg Scruggs.

Rio’s Flamengo Park is usually the hangout of joggers, strollers, soccer players, birdwatchers and picnickers. Indigenous tribespeople, Hare Krishnas, hardcore communists, landless peasants and Mad Max environmentalists … not so much.

Except for the once-in-two-decades occasion that is the People’s Summit. Converging from all over the world, the most passionate and dedicated are camped out everywhere from the Sambadrome to the school around the corner from my house (renamed “Casa Feminista” for Rio+20). At the bottom of my street, a brand new graffiti mural to an indigenous chief popped up this week.

The collective voice of civil society has their official platform a good 25 miles away from the negotiating tables of the heads of state, which isn’t to say they haven’t tried to bust down the army-backed gates.

In anticipation of the People’s Summit, this graffiti mural to an indigenous chief popped up Credit: Greg Scruggs

In a recent reflection for Piauí (a kind of Brazilian version of The New Yorker), Marcos de Azumbuja, a Brazilian diplomat involved in the negotiations to bring Eco 92 to Rio, provided a succinct analogy: “If Woodstock, the Conference of Yalta, and the Cannes Film Festival had all taken place at the same time, the combination would have reassembled Rio-92.” The same roughly holds in 2012, with the Woodstock element exceptionally strong at the People’s Summit.

The scent of incense and massage oil mixed with a lunchtime smell of rice, beans and fish. Marijuana, surprisingly, was largely absent. The aesthetic veered from hippie to indigenous, with lots of vendors offering face painting or selling Amazonian jewelry. A Hare Krishna with an Argentine accent accosted me early on and asked if I liked to read. I politely declined his copy of the Bhagvad Gita. A member of the Pataxó tribe from the northeastern state of Bahia kindly posed for a photo in front of the Wangari Maathai tent (all the tents were named after fallen heroes of political and environmental struggles, from Martin Luther King to Toussaint Louverture to Patrice Lumumba, as well as Brazilian heroes like murdered environmentalists Chico Mendes and Sister Dorothy Stang).

Edna Silva, from Marajoá in the northern state of Pará, participated in Eco-92. She told me that the 1992 conference at least agreed on a statement of principles — Agenda 21 — but 20 years later the question is why they haven’t yet been implemented. Silva pointed out that Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff was at that moment at the G20, where she had taken the Rio+20 document. A done deal, in other words, without any real debate likely to take place these final days in Rio.

Everyone from indigenous tribespeople to Mad Max environmentalists descended on Flamengo Park for the People’s Summit. Credit: Greg Scruggs

In turn, Silva’s main issue that she brought to Rio +20 is biopiracy, or the use of indigenous symbols, imagery, techniques and resources for commercial means. She cited Brazilian cosmetics manufacturers Boticário and Natura, the latter of which is a poster child “socially responsible” company here, as two big culprits.

Further along, I listened to part of a talk by a member of the Brazil Union of Ecological Bikers (UBEM in Portuguese) — and that’s biker in the Easy Rider sense, no pedaling here. The UBEM’s tricked out rides are Mad Max monuments to a post-apocalyptic vision of an unsustainable planet. Running on natural gas, the leather jacket-clad bikers hail from all over Brazil — I met an indigenous guy from Amazônas and another mestizo (child of white and indigenous parents) from Rio de Janeiro state — spreading their message of environmentalism the most bad-ass way imaginable.

Finally, the People’s Summit has made pointed overtures against the drivers of Rio’s decidedly un-green economy. The city is flanked by two massively dirty infrastructure projects: To the west, the ThyssenKrup steel plant will likely have severe impacts on Sepetiba Bay. To the east, the Petrochemical Complex of Rio de Janeiro State (Comperj) will be the biggest oil refinery in South America. ThyssenKrup was on the itinerary of the Rio+20 Toxic Tours, led by a network of environmental activists.

These pillars of dirty industry on the outskirts of Rio reminded me of a comment by Roberto Magalhães during the session on the Philly-Rio Joint Initiative on Urban Sustainability (JIUS). While the partnership is all well and good, how serious can one take the State of Rio when its economy is driven by petroleum and heavy industry? The JIUS partnership has always felt a bit one-sided to me. (Full disclosure: I have participated in JIUS workshops and written material for the JIUS cookbook.)

The Brazil Union of Ecological Bikers ride motorcycles that run on natural gas. Credit: Greg Scruggs

Rio could learn a lot from Philly, which used to be a capital of heavy industry and truthfully, if the economy warranted it, would probably be happy to have those jobs back. But they’re gone, and now the city is reinventing itself. By contrast, Rio has everything to gain from exploiting a pre-salt oil deposit — one of the world’s biggest — and positioning itself as the petroleum capital of Latin America.

The green and un-green economy has definitely been the rub at Rio+20. Taking place in the ideological space of the post-Seattle era is perhaps the biggest difference from Eco-92. Neoliberalism and the Washington Consensus don’t appear to have diminished much, despite the 2008 financial crisis, as national governments continue to hinge on economic solutions to the sustainability question.

By contrast, the more radical elements of civil society believe that capitalism is the biggest obstacle and see Rio+20 as just another sell out. Getting these parties to agree to disagree? Unlikely.

Gregory Scruggs is a Seattle-based independent journalist who writes about solutions for cities. He has covered major international forums on urbanization, climate change, and sustainable development where he has interviewed dozens of mayors and high-ranking officials in order to tell powerful stories about humanity’s urban future. He has reported at street level from more than two dozen countries on solutions to hot-button issues facing cities, from housing to transportation to civic engagement to social equity. In 2017, he won a United Nations Correspondents Association award for his coverage of global urbanization and the UN’s Habitat III summit on the future of cities. He is a member of the American Institute of Certified Planners.

Tags: economic developmentparksgovernancesustainable citiesrio de janeiro

Next City App Never Miss A StoryDownload our app ×

You've reached your monthly limit of three free stories.

This is not a paywall. Become a free or sustaining member to continue reading.

  • Read unlimited stories each month
  • Our email newsletter
  • Webinars and ebooks in one click
  • Our Solutions of the Year magazine
  • Support solutions journalism and preserve access to all readers who work to liberate cities

Join 771 other sustainers such as:

  • Abigail at $60/Year
  • Katherine in Chicago, IL at $120/Year
  • Juan at $5/Month

Already a member? Log in here. U.S. donations are tax-deductible minus the value of thank-you gifts. Questions? Learn more about our membership options.

or pay by credit card:

All members are automatically signed-up to our email newsletter. You can unsubscribe with one-click at any time.

  • Donate $20 or $5/Month

    The 21 Best Solutions of 2021 special edition magazine

  • Donate $40 or $10/Month

    Brave New Home by Diana Lind