Friday saw the end of the Rio+20 conference and, rather appropriately, outside it was wet and rainy. During my time in Rio it has been uncharacteristically wet and stormy, a subtle indication of the shifting seasons and weather patterns that this conference was meant to address. On Thursday I had access to the plenary hall, a vast cavernous space in semi-darkness with row upon row of desks and laptops, where delegates and leaders were constantly coming and going. The day was filled with them exchanging speeches about the plans within their country for living more sustainably. Oddly, it seemed to be acceptable to give your speech and leave, meaning that the exchange of ideas was purely symbolic.
On Wednesday, the opening day, I managed to track down Nick Clegg at a reception for organisations and groups from the UK. Looking just slightly jet lagged (he had arrived only a few hours earlier!), he gave a brief speech about how we should see Rio+20 as a ‘trampoline’ for making advances in sustainability, given that the written agreement here is vague and lacks commitment. In the dense crowd of people eager to speak with him, I lined myself up alongside a security guard and then my moment came. I reminded him of the fantastic petition Oxfam supporters had presented him with back in the UK, highlighting the need to promote stronger support for co-operatives and better rights for small scale farmers.
The previous day, I had been at the People’s Summit, a large gathering of members of civil society happening alonside the main conference. Oxfam and other organisations were supporting the event, creating an exciting and vibrant space for new ideas to be shared, along the length of Flamengo beach in downtown Rio. Amidst the groups of Indigenous people, activists and passers-by, I spotted members of the Rural Women´s Assembly, a group who I had met on a march in South Africa last year. These were the people our petition aims to support, them and many others like them around the world. Simple steps to support small scale farmers creates real change that ripples outwards.
The world of the UN conference and the People’s Summit are miles apart, both literally and symbolically. Rio+20 was frantic and intense while the People´s Summit was outside and vibrant. What we need is to build a bridge between the two worlds so that the energy of the people permeates the official process. So far, it has been missing, apart from an exciting youth-led action yesterday, where 150 people voiced their dissatisfaction with Rio+20. It may be too late for Nick Clegg to change words and phrases here but there is still time for him to begin trying to bridge the two worlds, by amplifying the voices of the people gathered in Flamengo inside the corridors where new agreements are made…