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Rio+20: We’re not colonies anymore


Jay Naidoo is founding General Secretary of Cosatu, a former minister in the Nelson Mandela government and is a board member of the Mo Ibrahim Foundation.

The planet is in a mess, and climate change is perhaps the biggest threat to both prosperity and political stability worldwide. It is always the poor who suffer most; and yet the battle continues to be led by those who do not have the best interests of the most vulnerable at heart. But why? Perhaps it’s time, instead, to mobilise the people.

I can’t say it better than one Brazilian activist I met at Rio+20. “The developed world must realise we live in the 21st century,” he said. “We are not their colonies anymore. Power has shifted in the south and east – it’s time they stopped thinking they are Masters of the Universe; that they can lecture us and decide on the future of the world.”

I couldn’t agree more. 

Rio+20 was meant to evaluate the progress we made on political commitments made in the Earth Summit of 1992, and to take decisive steps to avert a global climate crisis that threatens the very existence of our planet and its citizens.  But to my enormous disappointment, I don’t believe it will meet the expectations of our people – because the people’s voices are not there. 

The global leadership involved in these negotiations carry the responsibility for destroying the hopes of our children and the future generations. And that’s a heavy load I hope they are prepared to bear.

As I travel to the villages and slums in my work around the challenge of hunger, I see the desperation of mothers unable to plant the crops that will feed their children, because extreme weather brings flooding and prolonged droughts. It’s all very well for those in power to continue in their pursuit of wealth at the expense of the environment; meanwhile, the climate crisis tightens the noose of poverty around the poorest and most vulnerable people in the world. 

Household food insecurity is an epidemic; malnutrition grows; poverty and disease explodes; millions of our children are born underweight and become stunted or die of preventable causes.  The scramble for Africa becomes furious as the economic powers of the world grab our arable lands to feed their own populations. Climate change will be the source of biggest social, political and economic wars of the future. The crisis in the Horn of Africa, and now in a growing area around Niger, strangles the life out our communities. Conflicts start over access to water and grazing lands And Africa, with the least capacity to deal with this challenge, will face the brunt of the impending disaster. The developed world will benefit, and Africa will pay.

But, although it’s most pronounced here, sadly it’s not only in Africa. This staggering inequality, and the battle for food on an increasingly broken planet, is also what I see in villages across India, Bangladesh and Asia. And in this growing human catastrophe, our emperors fiddle while Rome is burning. The heads of state, in their “blue light brigade”, speeding through the streets of Rio, sitting in the air-conditioned Rio Centre, have not the political will nor the passion to understand the extent of this humanitarian crisis. The odd representative that they bring into the conversation remains a token: either representing the development industry of poverty experts, or the rare face of a rural woman or indigenous leader who will provide the photo opportunity. But once it’s snapped, it’s forgotten. 

For my part, I sat with the leaders of the Rural Women’s Assembly in Southern Africa, representing tens of thousands of smallholder farmers. Our discussion was about the real issues of improving agriculture yields, ensuring that their children have access to nutritious food, water, education and health. It was about improving women’s rights, empowerment, leadership and incomes.  

What it wasn’t, was about carbon trading or the “green economy”. 

“These people who are negotiating on our behalf have been doing this for 20 years, and our situation is getting worse. Where do they get a mandate? How do we fire them so that we can speak for ourselves?” asked Emily, a battle-hardened activist. And it is voices like hers that should be leading us. 

But in civil society we are fragmented and divided by policy, tactics and ego. We are as guilty as the powerful economic and political elites we accuse. We have our own emperors. And in this environment, I fail to see a strategy that harnesses the ferment I see in the world. 

People are outraged and are taking to the streets. They want a new world. They embrace a bold vision of social justice, human dignity and freedom. They are frustrated by the new apartheid that grows in the world that divides us into the global rich and the majority of global poor.

It is time we listened to these voices; they are powerful and, more specifically, they are right. There’s a battle to be fought, and we can’t just whitewash over it. The sceptics of climate change that face us are highly organised. They are fighting a war that will protect their vested interests, which put profits ahead of our people and our planet. 

They buy governments, scientists and civil society leaders to challenge the science and evidence that tells us we are in crisis. In the inadequacy and injustice of our governments’ response, there is an urgent need for unprecedented unity and mobilisation across global civil society to avert these crises.      

In the light of this global apartheid, Rio is a fascinating place – and a peculiarly apt choice to host the summit that highlights these ongoing inequalities. It has all the pretentions of being the metropolis and centre of politics of Brazil, as well as the carnivals of culture. It has history and beauty on its side. But the rich, installed in their fortresses, emerge to parade their bronzed bodies along the wide boulevards of Ipanema and Copacabana and mingle with the ordinary people, while their servants, the poor, live in the precarious favelas high on the hillsides with magnificent views – but in the line of fire for any disasters caused by climate change.

And so the contradictions of Rio parallel the contradictions of the Rio Summit. The rich and poor nations made it their battlefield, leaving discussions paralysed by the impasse and strong divide between developed and developing countries. 

Many key issues remain outstanding.  

But perhaps most worryingly, the negotiations to produce an outcome document saw a backtracking on a central equity principle in the 1992 Rio summit – namely to commit to finance and technology transfer to address the crisis the developed world has caused.

Many developing country governments and activists fear that the debates on the “green economy” will replace sustainable development, which is prioritising our fight against poverty. But as a senior advisor in a developing country said to me, “We see attempts to drive a commodification and financialisation of nature, life and ecosystems. We have always lived with nature in a sustainable way. We fear that the proposed market financial mechanisms to address climate change will lead to the same financial crisis that enriched speculators in the developed world.”

I look at the texts and agree. The whole battle has watered down to the “voluntary transfer of technology on mutually agreed terms”, which implies the sale of equipment on commercial terms, contrary to previous commitments. Also, the original commitments of developed countries to provide new and additional financial resources to meet the previous agreed aid target of 0.7% of their GNP the developed world has been rigorously resisted by countries like the US and Canada.

The debate on the Sustainable Development Goals is likewise bogged down. The developing countries have accepted this concept and have put forward principles, including the idea of common but differentiated responsibilities. Simply put, this means that the developed world must pay the historical debt for the mess they have created. 

Another key contested area is how the post MDG reviews process and how these new goals are linked. Developed countries want the UN Secretary General to take charge of a process for experts to come up with the goals, whereas the developing country governments want to drive the process with inputs that can be given by the UNSG and experts.  

Ultimately the Summit should launch a process to negotiate these goals, but this time in an open and transparent way, and backed up by concrete action plans, with details on the financing and technology transfer aspects to implement these plans.  

But herein rests the opportunity for civil society, social movements and labour to campaign for a seat at the main table. If they fail to achieve this, then they must consider seriously the option of withdrawing from a process that has no meaningful role for them. The history of the current negotiations process revolves around power and many of the civil society representatives have been sucked into a process in which they do not have the power. 

As the Civicus Report on Civil Society says, “The space granted to CSOs is always a gift rather than a right, often contested, sometimes ceremonial… For us as civil society, the pressing need arising from this is to assert our voice and our right to be included. To do this we need to organise ourselves, in more comprehensive, inclusive and multifaceted ways than we have managed before. We need to learn from the new social movements which rose to prominence in recent years like in the ‘Arab Spring’, to not just advocate, but to model alternatives in the way we organise, convene, act and speak.”

There is global recognition that, with crises lingering on many fronts, a drastic reshaping of social and economic structures and relations with the environment needs to happen now, and fast. Civil society organizations and people’s movements must call on their governments and multilateral bodies at the global and regional levels, to uphold and pursue the principles and framework of sustainable development that give primacy to human rights, equity, democracy and social and environmental justice in the discussions towards Rio+20 and beyond.

That is the bold vision that our people demand. That is what we have to organise towards. And what we need now – non-negotiably – is a fearless and courageous group of leaders who can demonstrate passion and humility when they speak on behalf of our people. DM


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