The Future We Want is the title of the final accord of the UN Conference on Sustainable Development or Rio+20. It’s a long 49-page text and will require more time to make a more detailed analysis. This article wants to give a first glimpse of this document, highlighting some of the controversial points.
It has to be said that this text is not too original in terms of creativity, with almost no new ideas, except for the articulation of the “green economy” and “sustainable development goals.” In fact, the agreement is a re-working of dozens of previous agreements, treaties, programs, and organizations that support, reinforce, or strengthen already existing initiatives. We are going to offer some examples, with the paragraph number of the official document in brackets.
“With full participation of civil society” (1) In a strong statement issued by NGOs present at Rio, they asked this phrase removed as they didn’t find themselves represented in the outcome, putting in question the whole process.
“Including the right to development” (8) In the way this is expressed, the right to development is superior and hence cannot be constrained by physical boundaries of the planet. Scarcity and exhaustion of natural resources is not expressed as a major issue.
“We recognize that many people, especially the poor, depend directly on ecosystems for their livelihoods, their economic, social and physical well-being, and their cultural heritage. For this reason, it is essential to generate decent jobs and incomes that decrease disparities in standards of living to better meet people’s needs and promote sustainable livelihoods and practices and the sustainable use of natural resources and ecosystems” (30). The solution offered – jobs and incomes – could suggest that this is a priority to the protection of ecosystems. This could be clearly contradictory, as it’s well known that spoiling, or not managing correctly the ecosystems is the first source of poverty as traditional incomes collapse. Again, we can see one of the major difficulties of this text: it doesn’t prioritize, it just enumerates, so it doesn’t give a criteria in case of conflict.
“We recognize the need for broader measures of progress to complement GDP in order to better inform policy decisions, and in this regard, we request the UN Statistical Commission, in consultation with relevant UN System entities and other relevant organizations, to launch a program of work in this area building on existing initiatives” (38). Again, this is nothing new, too little; but something clearly good and helpful.
“We recognize that the planet Earth and its ecosystems are our home and that Mother Earth is a common expression in a number of countries and regions and we note that some countries recognize the rights of nature in the context of the promotion of sustainable development. We are convinced that in order to achieve a just balance among the economic, social and environment needs of present and future generations, it is necessary to promote harmony with nature” (39). The question of the rights of the nature or the rights of the earth is becoming quite controversial, especially where indigenous communities organize themselves to protect their traditions and resources in their territories. The solution given by the accord is to acknowledge that some countries recognize these rights but make a general appeal to harmonize with creation. Obviously this is a very weak argument compared with how strong the protection of a right can be.
“We acknowledge the importance of corporate sustainability reporting and encourage companies, where appropriate, especially publicly listed and large companies, to consider integrating sustainability information into their reporting cycle. We encourage industry, interested governments, as well as relevant stakeholders with the support of the UN system, as appropriate, to develop models for best practice and facilitate action for the integration of sustainability reporting, taking into account the experiences of already existing frameworks, and paying particular attention to the needs of developing countries, including for capacity building” (47). The recommendation is so light that it could be considered naïve it was not written in an international agreement. Compulsory corporate sustainability reporting is the only real difference that Rio+20 could have achieved in this issue, and to keep the status of recommendation is an opportunity lost.
“We stress the importance of the participation of indigenous peoples in the achievement of sustainable development. We also recognize the importance of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in the context of global, regional, national, and sub-national implementation of sustainable development strategies” (49). This paragraph seems insufficient when Indigenous Peoples are struggling to survive. The appeal to participate in order to achieve sustainable development sounds almost hypocritical when simply they are trying keep their existence as people.
“We affirm that there are different approaches, visions, models and tools available to each country, in accordance with its national circumstances and priorities, to achieve sustainable development in its three dimensions which is our overarching goal. In this regard, we consider green economy in the context of sustainable development and poverty eradication as one of the important tools available for achieving sustainable development and that it could provide options for policy making but should not be a rigid set of rules. We emphasize that it should contribute to eradicating poverty as well as sustained economic growth, enhancing social inclusion, improving human welfare and creating opportunities for employment and decent work for all, while maintaining the healthy functioning of the Earth’s ecosystems” (56). Probably we don’t know much more what the green economy is meant to be. It’s even more disconcerting after the affirmation of the need for the huge, diverse responses to achieve sustainable development.
“We are committed to strengthening the role of the United Nations Environment Program as the leading global environmental authority that sets the global environmental agenda, that promotes the coherent implementation of the environmental dimension of sustainable development within the United Nations system and that serves as an authoritative advocate for the global environment” (88). The UN Environment Program remains as a program and that is very low stature in the range of international agencies. This makes dubious its role of being the “leading global environmental authority.”
“We acknowledge that minerals and metals make a major contribution to the world economy and modern societies. We note that mining industries are important to all countries with mineral resources, in particular developing countries. We also note that mining offers the opportunity to catalyze broad-based economic development, reduce poverty and assist countries in meeting internationally agreed development goals, including the MDGs, when managed effectively and properly. We acknowledge that countries have the sovereign right to develop their mineral resources according to their national priorities, and responsibility regarding the exploitation of resources described in the Rio Principles. We further acknowledge that mining activities should maximize social and economic benefits as well as effectively address negative environmental and social impacts. In this regard, we recognize that governments need strong capacities to develop, manage, and regulate their mining industries in the interest of sustainable development” (227). Probably this is one of saddest paragraphs of the declaration. The preeminence given to mining as an economic activity, without taking into account that is a non-renewable resource, and putting the request of social protection at the very end without mentioning the devastating effects of mining: expulsion of communities, land grabbing, contamination of soils and water, and inhuman labor conditions gives the real insight of the scale of values promoted. Commodities go much more in front than peoples.
“We further recognize the importance and utility of a set of sustainable development goals (SDGs), which are based on Agenda 21 and the Johannesburg Plan of Implementation, fully respect all Rio Principles” (246). This is one of the novelties of the text, time will say if these are fully developed and made operational.