May 23, 2013
The road to Rio
Cry for change well-understood by those living with the consequences of world inaction
by David Smith
Special for the Herald
The world knows we are going to Rio de Janeiro in 2014, for the World Cup. Likewise, the world is looking forward to the Olympics in Rio come 2016.
Yet today the world gathers in Rio, the leaders of most of the countries on earth will be there for the next three days. And the goal is monumental: to save the planet. Better still, to create a future we all want.
My boss, the Secretary-General of the United Nations, Ban Ki-moon, has called the Rio summit in the eye of the worst economic crisis the world has seen in almost a century. The belief of the UN leadership is that, precisely because of the crisis, the world must look with fresh eyes at long-term solutions which confront the underlying issues of poverty, inequality and protection of our environment.
The phrase which will dominate proceedings is Sustainable Development. How do we share our planet for the benefit of all of humanity? How do we work together to create a future which will embrace the nine billion of us who will be on this planet come the year 2050? How do we prevent conflicts to come over water, energy and food, not to mention education, health and jobs?
“In Rio the world will come together for the most important meeting of our time on Sustainable Development,” says the Secretary-General.
“This event demands from us a clear agenda: a truly green economy that protects the health of environment, and which simultaneously boosts income growth, decent jobs and the eradication of poverty.”
In the weeks leading up to Rio, I travelled to six Argentine provinces, to speak to audiences at schools and universities, to address gatherings of activist NGOs, to communicate to provincial media the importance of what is happening this week in Rio de Janeiro.
At almost every stop, I heard a strong sense of awareness, of the crisis requiring attention, of the need for dramatic change, of one generation recognizing that its legacy to the next is in danger.
In Córdoba, it was the voice of a farmer telling us that he had lost more than half his soy crop because of drought. In Mendoza, it was a small businessman worrying that foreign tourists will stop coming because of the global recession. In Tucumán, it was a high school student fearful that his province will lose its livelihood, those lemons and that sugar, if the unprecedented frosts, and snow, will become routine, rather than extraordinary.
In Santiago del Estero, at a conference on Climate Change now in its 11th year at the National University, it was an environmentalist asking me quite bluntly: “How can the world not take action on a process that is destroying the planet?”
And in Salta, on a morning radio programme, the interviewer introduced me with the thought: “We have floods in Tartagal, we have landslides in China, we have people starving in Africa, and Asia, and Latin America. How can we save the planet?”
I might have felt a little overwhelmed by that question but the overriding sense was one of relief almost wherever I went. Far from feeling, as a communicator for the United Nations, that I had a mountain to climb to persuade communities about the importance of Rio, I learned quickly that many people in this country understand the crisis of the day.
They are living with the consequences, be it the farmer in Córdoba or the businessman in Mendoza or the child in Tucumán. They recognize the need for a summit in Rio, whatever their doubts about the outcome of such a meeting. In the strongest possible sense, they “get it.”’
The question, of course, has to be whether the Rio forum will meet the challenge at hand, confront the issue on the table, and deliver a response that matters. The skeptics argue that, at a moment of such global economic crisis, the chances of world leaders delivering breakthrough policy are slim to non-existent. And certainly the countdown to this summit has been one of painful progress on the negotiating front.
That sentiment was put most forcefully, by a provincial deputy at a conference I attended in Rosario, a forum which was opened by the Governor of Santa Fe province and which drew thousands of activists from across Latin America.
“What makes you believe that the UN can bring the world together, and make the world act, after all these years of inaction?” he asked at the end of a session when I had spelled out the thinking behind the Rio summit, with its emphasis on making poverty, and equality, as much part of the agenda as the environment and climate change.
The path to change, I argued, usually has two routes in my experience. One, from the top down, from leadership to the shop floor. Or change can come from the bottom up, from the floor to the ceiling. Down the years, living across our world, I have seen that the change that springs from below offers lasting revolution in thought and action.
The tens of thousands of people, from around our world, including activists from Buenos Aires, and the provinces, also in attendance this week in Rio, spoke powerfully to that revolution from below, I concluded.
Looking around that auditorium in Rosario, and thinking over meetings in Salta and Córdoba and Tucumán, I saw that the cry for change is well understood by the communities who are living with the consequences of the world’s inaction. Under the circumstances, the issue has to be whether the politicians meeting this week in Rio can keep up with the people.
David Smith is Director of the UN Information Centre for Argentina and Uruguay