Can grassroots organizations affect high-level negotiations? Reflections from Rio+20


Peter Kostishack


Peter Kostishack

A telling image of the events surrounding Rio+20 appeared on the front page of the Brazilian newspaper Globo on 19 June. It’s a photo taken outside the Brazilian National Development Bank (BNDES), its shiny steel initials visible, showing two security guards in black suits ducking for cover behind a cement wall as an indigenous Amazonian, with a yellow feather headdress and a loaded five-foot longbow, stalks toward them through the manicured garden.

This captures the clash of worldviews that came together in Rio for a week under the umbrella of Rio+20 summit, with its associated side events, peoples’ summit, indigenous villages and demonstrations. Panning out from the conference to view the whole constellation of spaces and events revealed deeply divided visions about how to save this planet and the people within it.

Even before the World Conference on Sustainable Development began, it had already been deemed a failure by just about everyone. But the outcomes of the multilateral negotiations were not what brought me to Rio+20. It was the opportunity to witness and accompany the countless social movement organizations and leaders and get a sense of what influence they can have at this high level.

And with Brazil, one of the fastest growing economies in the world, as the host, it was a good place to understand just how difficult it is to grow a such a rate without sacrificing the environment, equality and human rights. BNDES, for example, now makes more in loans to large development projects around the world than the World Bank. It has attracted strong protest from affected communities and environmentalists for, among other things, bankrolling the highly destructive Belo Monte hydroelectric project on Brazil’s Xingu River, a road in Bolivia that will cut through the Isiboro Secure national park and indigenous territory, and a series of large hydroelectric dams planned for major Amazon tributaries in Peru.

Yet there were moments in Rio that gave me hope about the strength of social movements to define the future in terms of values of environment and social justice.

In Rio, I met up with leaders from the International Group of Communities Affected by Vale – a Brazilian corporation that is the second largest mining company in the world. People affected by Vale came from across the globe to coordinate actions and raise awareness about the company’s dismal environmental and human rights record.

At the RioCentro Convention center, Sheyla Jurunga, an indigenous activist whose home in Altamira, Brazil will soon be destroyed by the Belo Monte project, interrupted a presentation by an executive of the ElectroNorte Corporation. Jurunga tearfully denied the company’s claims that communities had been consulted and that homes and compensation were available to the thousands to be displaced by the project.

An informal group of funders of grassroots women’s groups was convened by Heinrich Böll Foundation to look at the emerging international climate finance infrastructure. Together, they’re figuring out how we can ensure that a significant portion of these funds can be made available to local women to support their priorities for adaptation and mitigation.

A new network of seven Brazilian grassroots grantmakers emerged in 2012 to address socio-environmental issues, women’s empowerment, racial equality and human rights by directly supporting social movements. These funds pose a sharp contrast to the 90% of philanthropy in Brazil, which consists of non-grantmaking, corporate operating foundations (of which Vale is the largest).

Perhaps the most powerful scene was in the Kari Oca 2 indigenous village, where more than 500 indigenous men, women and children from 70 different peoples around the world came together at the foot of a mountain near the RioCentro convention center. They gathered to reflect on what had happened since their last meeting on the same sacred ground in 1992. Their resulting declaration, blessed by dozens of chiefs and spiritual leaders, urges ‘all humanity to join with us in transforming the social structures, institutions and power relations that underpin our deprivation, oppression and exploitation.’

I rode along in one of seven tour buses, escorted by a police motorcade, that transported these leaders from Kari Oca to the UN Conference where they presented their declaration. Unfazed by the lines of military police in riot gear blocking the entrance to RioCentro, they disembarked and launched into traditional dance and song. They were emboldened in their vision by the wisdom of their ancestors and an unwavering commitment to future generations.

Peter Kostishack is director of programs at Global Greengrants Fund

Tagged in: Brazil Climate change global development Grassroots organizations Indigenous people Rio+20

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