By José Pedro Martins
The United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, Rio+20, began June 13 in Rio de Janeiro with many warnings from civil society around the world about the risk that the green economy turn into justification for the commodification of nature, benefiting large international corporations.
Criticism of the green economy is also a major focus of attention of the People’s Summit, from June 15 to 23, during which social organizations from around the world will conduct a series of events parallel to Rio+20.
The green economy in the context of sustainable development and overcoming poverty is one of the two central themes of Rio+20, along with the search for a new governance, to address numerous global challenges such as global warming, the devastation of biodiversity and the eradication of poverty that still affects about one billion people worldwide. The document that virtually opened up the global debate on the green economy is the Global Green New Deal, launched in 2008 by the United Nations Environment Programme, or UNEP.
In addition to referring to the New Deal, US President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s policy to counter the Great Depression in the early 20th century, UNEP describes the Global Green New Deal as — given the multiple global crises currently — “a set of globally coordinated large scale stimulus packages and policy measures that have the potential to bring about global economic recovery in the short term, while laying the foundation for sustained economic growth in the medium- and long-term.”
New green deal
In the policy brief, UNEP argues that the investment of 1 percent of the world’s gross domestic product — approximately US$750 billion — in five key sectors would be enough to fund the Global Green New Deal and refocus the global economy to increase the supply of jobs and at the same time step up efforts against climate change and environmental degradation and in favor of poverty reduction. Energy-efficient buildings, renewable energy, sustainable transport, agriculture and freshwater are the key areas for structuring the green economy, according to UNEP.
For civil society organizations, there was an abrupt change, from talk of sustainable development decided on at the Rio-92 conference, based on the three tenets of economy-environment-society, to a discourse of green economy as well as green growth.
The new discourse is characterized by “the subjection of political, social and environmental issues exclusively to economic logic,” said Camila Moreno, sustainability coordinator for the Brazilian office of the Heinrich Böll Foundation, one of the nongovernmental organizations that participate in the People’s Summit that question the green economy and seek alternatives to what Moreno calls the “new hegemonic discourse.”
One concerning aspect of the green economy is, given the new economic thinking, the transformation into a market system of what should be everyone’s right, according to Moreno. She cites the debate over Brazil’s Forest Code: “Large landowners, instead of following the law, are now demanding to be paid, that they be incentivized not to deforest. It’s a clear reversal of values, which we see in other sectors.”
Along with that goes the “metrification of natural resources,” its quantification as a new object for profit. “Multilateral organizations like the World Bank are already disseminating metrics and equations to price everything. And that discourse has also grown in the academic world,” says Moreno.
Rights that aren’t negotiable
Resistance to put a price on nature, transforming natural resources into commodities, is part of many events and demonstrations in the People’s Summit and Rio+20.
“Awakening the dreamer, changing the dream: Living beyond war,” is one example of an event put on by the Pachamama Alliance, in collaboration with Beyond War and Rights of Mother Earth during the program’s opening at the same time as Rio+20, on June 13. The Pachamama Alliance defends the rights of indigenous communities and nature, and supports — as a proposal for Rio+20 — the principles upheld in the Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth, established at the 2010 World People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth in Cochabamba, Bolivia.
“Mother Earth is a unique, indivisible, self-regulating community of interrelated beings that sustains, contains and reproduces all beings,” according to the Declaration’s first article. “Each being is defined by its relationships as an integral part of Mother Earth. The inherent rights of Mother Earth are inalienable in that they arise from the same source as existence.” This document was the basis of many activities against the commodification of natural resources during the People’s Summit and Rio+20.
One of the key points of the mobilization of civil society was the reaffirmation at Rio+20 of the human right to water and sanitation.
This right, following a proposal by Bolivia, was finally approved by the United Nations General Assembly in July 2010 after much persistence from social movements, with abstentions from 41 countries lead by the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom.
During negotiations ahead of Rio+20, there was renewed resistance from developed countries to the inclusion of water and sanitation as a human right in the conference’s final report. NGOs and social movements from around the world worked for that right to be clearly reaffirmed by the governments participating in Rio+20.
“It’s important that this right be reaffirmed to guarantee universal access to water and sanitation, controlled by society”, said Silvio Marques, president of Brazil’s National Association of Municipal Services of Water Supply and Sanitation, or ASSEMAE for its name in Portuguese, one of the organizations that most advocated for the reiteration of the human right to water at Rio+20 and the People’s Summit. The fact that approximately 4,000 people — the majority children — die every day around the world from water-borne illnesses is the primary argument behind the insistence that the right to water and sanitation be ratified in a very clear way at Rio+20.