Twenty years after Rio: Facing a future we do not want

by Shobha Raghuram

The Rio+20 'Future We Want'  is a 53-page document, an outcome of the UN Conference on Sustainable Development (A/CONF.216/L.1*, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, 20-22 June 2012). This document deserves to be read by all citizens, not because it provides us hope for serious change but because it reminds us of the platitudinous nature of global diplomatic discourse. It is a reaffirmation of an international order that has done little to recognise, resist or force a real change in the natures of governments’ attitudes towards a crisis, which is simultaneously ecological, political, economic, environmental, developmental, and moral. This document has a few statements that least signal some recognition of real politik, such as issues of accepting differentiation in countries and the nature of continuing and deepening poverty (V. Framework for action and follow-up, A. Thematic areas and cross-sectoral issues, the sections on Poverty Eradication and Food security and nutrition and sustainable agriculture, 105-112, p21).

However, there is little to reassure citizens that radical changes will occur. As in many such meetings, the differences, which surfaced and were voiced and the protests that were made, have been recorded as part of a ‘democratic’ world; but, in the end, a few decide ultimately on behalf of the majority. International governance standards are increasingly becoming poor, and markets, rather than elected governments, dictate terms. The economic recession continues to have severe impacts on and to affect the livelihoods of large sections of populations everywhere. It is no surprise, then, that the outcomes of Rio+20 have been greeted with barely muted dismay by most committed researchers and development workers:

'In this way, Rio+20 was the opportunity to tackle what is clearly the most intractable and most obvious of all issues confronting the world: the current economic growth paradigm that is consumption-led and is gobbling its way through banks and the Planet. It is now well understood that the world is staring at financial recession on the one hand and environmental catastrophe on the other. It is also increasingly understood that the consumption patterns and lifestyle of the already-rich cannot be afforded by all. So what is the way ahead? How can the world move towards sustainable production and sustainable consumption while ensuring growth for all? Rio+20 should have focused on sustainable development goals to achieve such growth. In addition, it should have focused on new robust measurement tools to track progress in well-being, the GDP-plus economy. Instead, in my view, Rio+20 became the battleground for what can only be considered an illegitimate fight. And if Rio+20 is a failure because of non-action, then it is a failure of global leadership that allowed the US and its cronies to try fiddling with the principle of equity in global action. This deepened the distrust that destroys global cooperative action'.  Sunita Narain, Rio+20: Why It Failed? 

The major women’s group (WMG), which represents 200 organizations of women around the world, demanded on 24 June, that the title of the position document be changed from 'Future We Want' to 'Future We Need', thus expressing their deep disappointment with the results of the Rio+20 Conference. They said '... We believe that the Governments of the world have failed to defend the rights of women and of future generations. The Rio + 20 provides almost no progress for the rights of women and of future generations for sustainable development ...

Many development workers have been critical of the superficial nature in which the Rio+20 document refers to indigenous peoples all over the world; they number almost 250 million and have been, over the centuries, trustees of almost 80% of the world’s biological diversity (Kate Hoshour and Jennifer Kalafut, 'A Growing Global Crisis, Development-induced Displacement and Resettlement', International Accountability Project Issue Paper, 2007.)  In more than a dozen references to this vital constituency, only minimal respect is paid to their cultural and traditional practices; the document  merely states that they should be recognised for their contributions to traditional sustainable agriculture and that their cultural heritage should be respected. There is also a passing reference to indigenous peoples in the section on sustainable tourism: here the documents says that access needs to be promoted, but with regulatory guidelines! Such statements can hardly mask the shocking truths of the condition of the indigenous peoples in countries, such as the USA, Canada, and Australia, where they have been eased out of mainstream citizenship and, through biased regulatory mechanisms, have been penalised to live in ‘reserved areas’ without serious claims to citizenship. 

The Rio +20 document has successfully avoided discussions of the real contradictions that prevent the functioning of sustainable development models; and it is also silent on the impedimenta to the scale-up of such models. Systemic changes and the acceptance of these models as dominant practice are impossible without such scale-up. Unfortunately, the outcomes of Rio+20 signal a world in which the future belongs to those who can avoid examining why poverty continues and why, in the beginning of the twenty-first century, we still have millions of people displaced by unsustainable development practices, driven out of their lands, forced into selling their labour, and pushed into beggary because they have been pauperised by a desensitised, economic-expansionist, growth-led, development that supports corporate takeovers of people’s lands. And, this is implicitly supported by national governments. 

Rezaul Karim Chowdhury from Bangladesh  ( and of the South Asia Alliance for Poverty Eradication ( SAAPE) comments thus (private communication) on the Rio+20 outcome: 'In fact it is commodification and commercialization of nature; and  I will term this as the GREED ECONOMY and not as the green economy. Developed countries are still demonstrating that they do not want to change their consumption pattern, which is the fundamental reason for all climate catastrophes; the total capitalist system has to be changed because it is exploitative of mother earth, human beings, and developing countries too. It is unfortunate for us that some of the advanced developing countries (e.g., BRICS) are also considering the western or developed-country paths as the only way of development. We have to redefine our development model. We need to acknowledge the rights of mother earth; and, above all, developed countries have to give reparations for the damages they have done historically for an unequal share or their high levels of carbon emission'. (Click here)

The Rio+20  document has perfected the art of saying everything, but ensuring that there can be no concrete follow-up, which costs those who are responsible for unsustainable development practices their present consumption patterns and questions their unsustainable, market-dominated, financial models of development. 

Soon after the Rio +20 meeting the media carried the following news item: 'In a setback to 1984 Bhopal gas tragedy victims, a US court has held that neither Union Carbide nor its former chairman Warren Anderson were liable for environmental remediation or pollution-related claims at the firm's former chemical plant in Bhopal. US district judge John Keena in Manhattan dismissed a lawsuit accusing the company of causing soil and water pollution around the Bhopal plant due to the disaster, and ruled that Union Carbide Corporation (UCC) and Anderson were not liable for remediation or pollution-related claims (Click here June 28th TOI.) Union Carbide India Ltd at Bhopal, where the world’s worst-ever industrial disaster had taken place on the night of December 2-3, 1984 killing thousands, maiming for life thousands, stands as the global site of continued injustice. About 346 metric tonnes of toxic waste is lying within the premises. Most recently GIZ Germany withdrew its earlier offer to commercially enter into an agreement with the Indian Government to move the waste to a disposal unit in Hamburg, specialised in handling toxic waste. This was to cost the Indian Government around 4.5million dollars'. (Bhopal gas tragedy: Blow to victims as German firm refuses to dispose of toxic waste, PTI | Sep 19, 2012, 05:51AM IST)

Bhopal’s gas tragedy remains the site of callous non-resolution, and it is a reminder to all that the battle for social justice and equality is at the root of all efforts at sustainable development. In the Rio+20 document,  Sections 213-220, under the rubric ‘Chemicals and Waste’, refer to various issues regarding the sound management of chemicals throughout their life cycles,  disposal under secure terms, recycling, etc. Section  218. states, '... We recognize the importance of adopting a life cycle approach and of further development and implementation of policies for resource efficiency and environmentally sound waste management. We therefore commit to further reduce, reuse and recycle waste (3Rs), and to increase energy recovery from waste, with a view to managing the majority of global waste in an environmentally sound manner and, where possible, as a resource. Solid wastes, such as electronic waste and plastics, pose particular challenges, which should be addressed. We call for the development and enforcement of comprehensive national and local waste management policies, strategies, laws and regulations ...' A distinguished chemical scientist, Professor Anju Chadha of the Indian Institute of Technology Madras, Chennai, remarks (private communication) 

'...Life cycle analysis [LCA] of each chemical, which is used, is not known; and is not easy to determine. Even for the ones, which have been worked out, there is always an issue of 'economics'; e.g.,  DDT is still used and so are  many other harmful chemicals. My overall impression is the following: (1) The West has been very wasteful in its use of chemicals, energy, e-waste, etc. Can they disclose what they do with their waste - e-waste, chemical, radioactive, etc.? Details are not easily available. It is well known that huge quantities of toxic waste, which come as ship loads, are dumped in India and Africa. (2) Recycling is better known to us than to anyone else in the world; we recycle everything - clothes, paper, wood, etc. We have problems of not being able to scale- up these recycling processes; but, then, like in so many other important issues, the framework and political will is missing'

Sustainable development is not for the weak, the corrupt, the self–interested and those who profiteer  by destroying public goods and the people’s wealth. It calls for-long term commitment to social and ecological goals that are respectful of the laws that govern existence. It calls for the courage to sacrifice a life style and a pattern of development that is exploitative and based on self-aggrandisement. Poverty has deepened; meanwhile, we have excelled in the art of constructing a convincing camouflage, which leaves intact the structures of wealth accumulation while focussing on a superficial public discourse of ‘socially inclusive growth’. Exclusionary practices continue to leave millions without the dignity of basic material needs. We are creating a future in which millions will be unable to enjoy the benefits of an existence that lends respect to a joint responsibility for care and conduct. Instead, the imagination of intergenerational justice must be embedded in all our actions.

This is a follow up article of SID Journal Development Vol. 55.3 Gender and Economic Justice produced in partnership with AWID.


Shobha Raghuram is an independent researcher who has specialized in development studies and philosophy. She serves on a number of public-interest bodies. She is on the Editorial Board of the Development Journal (Macmillan), on the policy-advisory board of NWO (WOTRO), The Netherlands, is a Founder Member of the South Asia Alliance for Poverty Eradication (SAAPE), Kathmandu, and is a Life Member of the Institute of Economic and Social Change, Bangalore. She has recently joined the Advisory Boards of Svalorna, a Swedish International NGO donor  working in India and Bangladesh, and of the Centre for Child and the Law at the National Law School University of India (NLSUI), Bangalore. From 2002-2007 she was Director of the Hivos India Regional Office, Bangalore. She has been a temporary adviser to WHO and UNDP, Senior Fellow at the Centre for Population and Development Studies, Harvard University, and Fellow at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, New Delhi. She served on the Panel of Education and Law at the National Commission for the Protection of Child Rights, Govt of India. She consults for major national and international development institutions.  Her research interests include civil society action, gender equity and social justice, institution building at the grassroots level, ethics, and development aid.  She is working on her book, 'Rethinking Development: The Politics of Social Change'.

Photo: United Nations Photo/flickr