The Future We Don’t Want: Indigenous Peoples at Rio+20
“Farce” and “failure” are a few choice words that Indigenous Peoples have used to describe Rio+20, known officially as the United Nations World Conference on Sustainable Development. The conference, held from June 20-22, was a follow up to the 1992 UN Conference on Environment and Development, a.k.a., the Earth Summit. With over 50,000 registered participants, the Rio de Janeiro-based event was the largest UN gathering in history. Perhaps not surprisingly, the event turned Brazilian Indigenous people into poster icons in the mainstream media. Yet, in spite of such high visibility and vocal presence, it seems the world’s heads of state were not listening.
According to the description on the official conference website, Rio+20 was intended to be a forum for a series of dialogues on “how we can reduce poverty, advance social equity and ensure environmental protection on an ever more crowded planet to get to the future we want.” The “we” in this vision statement refers to 10 “major groups” formalized by this process: business and industry, local authorities, NGOs, the scientific and technological community, farmers, women, children, laborers, trade unions, and Indigenous Peoples.
The fact that Indigenous Peoples had a place at the table meant they were able to provide input into the formal document produced by the conference, which was given the (unintentionally) ironic title, “The Future We Want.” Despite its many shortcomings, “The Future We Want” is the first official UN document to mention the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. As stated, “We recognize the importance of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in the global, regional and national implementation of sustainable development strategies.” While this recognition is a step in the right direction, it remains to be seen whether it will truly guide the implementation phase of Rio+20.
On the whole, “The Future We Want” has been widely panned. Many major groups, Indigenous Peoples chief among them, have complained that the document doesn’t actually represent a future that anybody wants. Much of the resistance has centered around the concept of the proposed “green economy. As per the United Nations Environment Programme, a green economy is defined as one whose growth in income and employment is driven by investments in systems to reduce carbon emissions and pollution, enhance energy and resource efficiency, and prevent the loss of biodiversity and ecosystems. This development path is supposed to “maintain, enhance, and, where necessary, rebuild natural capital...especially for poor people whose livelihoods and security depend strongly on nature.” While perhaps well-intentioned in scope, the concept of nature-as-market capital is in direct conflict with the worldviews of many Indigenous Peoples who understand themselves to be inseparable from nature, as stewards and caretakers with a responsibility to protect the environment. The green economy proposed at Rio+20 also fails to address the inherent unsustainability of the practices that it outlines, ignoring the reality that natural resources are finite; if not properly cared for or respected, they will be depleted.
Issues of Access
Ensuring the participation of opposing voices was another major issue at Rio+20. Even those who were able to gain entry to the UN compound were restricted from attending the official meetings and thus had scant access to the decision-makers. The metaphorical distance between the two groups was underscored by the conference’s physical setup: world leaders were enclosed in a protected space with their backs to the relatively small, dimly lit area where the rest of the participants congregated. If one was lucky enough to gain entry to the guarded room (as few as 15 passes per major group were issued), one could only observe. Representatives were granted few opportunities to speak, and no real dialogue was possible.
The Sustainable Development Dialogues were meant to provide a forum for engagement between experts and participants on key topics, with the opportunity for those at the conference—as well as interested parties around the world—to vote online for the primary messages that would ultimately be discussed at the conference. As an example, the so-called dialogue on Forests consisted of 10 expert panelists who each made individual presentations, leaving very little time for an actual exchange. As one Indigenous representative remarked, most forest dwelling peoples, whose input would have been vital to discussions involving deforestation, do not have access to the Internet. Neither were many Indigenous people well informed about the online voting process.
Irrespective of these setbacks, Indigenous Peoples came to Rio prepared to make themselves heard. While often not well-considered in the main event, they succeeded in organizing three major meetings of their own.
Twenty years after the first Indigenous Peoples’ Conference, which coincided with the 1992 Earth Summit, Kari-Oca II was realized. The gathering was organized by the Cordillera Peoples Alliance; Land is Life; the Indigenous Environment Network; and the Inter-Tribal Committee of Brazil. Held at the sacred site of Kari-Oka Púku on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro, Kari-Oca II brought together a large contingent of Indigenous Peoples from Brazil and the Americas. The agenda for this week-long meeting focused on evaluating gains and losses since the first Rio conference, including the status of implementation of such key documents as the UN Conventions on Biodiversity and Climate Change. Kari-Oca II was also designed to be a place for the participating groups to collectively strategize and share information. Time was set aside for discussion of major environmental issues like deforestation in developing countries and the impact of extractive industries and dams, among others.
The resulting declaration of Kari-Oca II condemned the UN’s current agenda: “We see the goals of Rio+20, the ‘Green Economy’ and its premise that the world can only ‘save’ nature by commodifying its life-giving capacities as a continuation of the colonialism that Indigenous Peoples and our Mother Earth have faced and resisted for 520 years.”
Although this gathering was held miles from the site of Rio+20, on June 21 participants marched from Kari-Oka Púku to the UN compound. Only a small contingent were allowed onto the premises to formally submit their declaration. As Kandi Mossett (Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara Nations of the United States), who participated in the march, stated, “We cannot commodify the sacred and expect a good outcome.” Mossett spoke from direct experience, having witnessed the devastating effects of oil and gas drilling on her homeland in North Dakota.
Indigenous Peoples International Conference
The Indigenous Peoples International Conference on Sustainable Development and Self Determination: Standing Together for Our Food Sovereignty, Traditional Cultures and Ways of Life was organized by the Indigenous Peoples’ Global Coordinating Committee for Rio+20 in the framework of the official UN conference. Held on the grounds of Rio’s Museum of the Republic from June 17-19, the conference was largely attended by representatives of Indigenous Peoples who work on environmental policy issues. For three days, participants discussed an agenda that included the impact of development models on Indigenous Peoples and food sovereignty, the right to food, the Andean idea of buen vivir (living well), and issues related to ecosystems and lifestyles.
The conference declaration addressed the fundamental relationship of culture to sustainable development and the importance of strengthening diverse local economies and territorial management. One critical point, which clearly refers to Rio+20’s notion of a “green economy,” states: “We will continue to reject the dominant neo-liberal concept and practice of development based on colonization, commodification, contamination and exploitation of the natural world, and policies and projects based on this model.”
During this conference’s formal side event at the UN compound on June 21, Indigenous representatives officially presented their declaration. Although many participants were associated with Rio+20 and active in the conference’s official preparatory processes, they remained skeptical of its outcome. As Onel Masardule (Kuna from Panama) stated: “Governments in most countries have already signed up to human rights agreements and environmental treaties and have endorsed the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. We are here in Rio once again to demand that States fulfill their obligations and commitments in all development policies, finance and actions and put proper arrangements in place at the national level to implement these agreements. Our rights must be secured so that our lands and territories are maintained for the benefit of our future generations and the whole of humanity.”
From June 15-22, Indigenous representatives gathered together as Campamento Terra Livre (Free Land Camp) during the People’s Summit for Social and Environmental Justice in Defense of the Commons. The organizers of this dedicated Indigenous space included the Articulation of Indigenous Peoples of Brazil, the Coordinator of Indigenous Organizations of the Amazon River Basin, the Andean Coordinator of Indigenous Organizations, the Indigenous Council of Central America, and the Guarani Continental Council of the Nation. Held in Flamengo Park in the heart of Rio, the People’s Summit was organized as a counter-conference; the anti-Rio+20. It centered around local and global struggles for anti-capitalist, -classist, -racist, -patriarchal, and -homophobic political framing.
The delegates of the Free Land Camp produced the Terra Livre Declaration, which focuses on the concept of buen vivir: “We advocate and defend plural and autonomous forms of lives, inspired by the model of Living Well/Healthy Life, where Mother Earth is respected and cared for, where humans are just another species among all the other compositions of multi-diversity of the planet.” The delegates also compiled a list of proposals for action with a focus on issues at the forefront for the Indigenous Peoples of Brazil, such as the need for land demarcation to protect Indigenous territories, along with calls to improve health conditions and Indigenous education.
On June 20, an especially drizzly day, the Peoples’ Summit organized a protest march against Rio+20. Led by the Campamento Terra Livre, a contingent of Indigenous people gathered around a giant rainbow flag. [The icon represents to the Andean people the legacy of the Inca empire, and is a symbol of Indigenous Peoples’ resilience.] Thousands marched from Flamengo Park through the streets of downtown Rio, carrying signs and banners ranging from professional to homemade. Many participants wore creative costumes, some carried giant puppets, others walked stilts; all came together to create a joyous and carnival-like atmosphere. True to the spirit of Brazil, a truck blaring samba music, complete with samba school students dancing alongside, added the musical component to what turned into a daylong march.
Preserving the Environment for Our Relatives Still to Come
As was perhaps to be expected, the Brazilian government and media took full advantage of the many photo opportunities that colorfully dressed Amazonian peoples provided. At Kari-Oca II, the Brazilian government extolled the creation of a fund for the promotion of Indigenous culture. However, it has also recently approved the construction of one of the most controversial projects in the country’s history—the Belo Monte dam. The dam promises to bring devastating environmental consequences to the region, which happens to be in heart of the Amazon rainforest; thousands of Indigenous Peoples will be displaced as rising river waters flood their homelands.
Along with many others, Indigenous leader Raoni Metuktire, a chief of the 5,000-member Kayapó tribe, came to Rio to defend his peoples and protest the dam: “The white man doesn’t want to preserve the forest for the future. This worries me a lot. Why don’t they preserve green forests for our relatives who are still to come?” he implored. Metukire’s concerns are shared by Indigenous Peoples who recognize that their fate is not being considered among those in power, neither in international forums like Rio+20, nor in any real long term capacity.
Despite its many failings, Rio+20 succeeded in providing a platform for the convergence of social movements, NGOs, and Indigenous Peoples to advocate for their rights. Participants of the many side sessions and counter groups developed concrete visions for a just, sustainable development model—one that is based on what they believe is best for the planet and its inhabitants. Indigenous Peoples at Rio+20 made it clear that the “official” vision to emerge from the conference is not the future they want; what they seek instead is a future that is self-determined, and therefore truly sustainable.
---Miriam Anne Frank is an applied anthropologist who has been active in supporting Indigenous Peoples for over two decades. Presently she is working for the Sacred Land Film Project, teaches as an external lecturer at the University of Vienna, Austria, and consults for IPOs, NGOs, foundations, and museums.