An Earth Summit Draws on Oil, Mining and Utility Largess (NYT)

Taylor Barnes
Thursday, June 21, 2012

This blog originally appeared in The New York Times

Indigenous people protesting the Belo Monte dam project on Wednesday as the Rio+20 conference opened in Brazil. They say the dam will destroy their livelihoods along the Xingu River.
Indigenous people protesting the Belo Monte dam project on Wednesday as the Rio+20 conference opened in Brazil. They say the dam will destroy their livelihoods along the Xingu River.
European Pressphoto Agency

RIO DE JANEIRO – The cups at the water coolers here at Rio+20, the global sustainability conference taking place Wednesday through Friday, are made of rough biodegradable corn fiber rather than plastic. Vans running on second-generation ethanol made from sugar cane bagasse take conference members, free of charge, from the hotels on the Copacabana beach to the conference center an hour away.

There, speedy Wi-Fi is offered to tens of thousands of participants so they can avoid printing out Rio+20 documents, and biodiesel generators power the million square feet of conference grounds.

Some of this is financed by millions of dollars in financial support from Brazil’s largest energy, extraction and petroleum corporations. Those include businesses like the mining giant Vale, voted the “worst company of the year” in the 2012 Public Eye Awards, and Eletrobras, the state electricity company, a partner with Vale in developing the Belo Monte dam project on the Xingu River.

Environmental activists oppose the project, saying that it will drive out thousands of indigenous and other people by drying up the river and causing them to lose their livelihoods. The government has emphasized that no indigenous people will be forcibly removed from their land by the project.

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, part of the Organization of American States, asked Brazil last year to suspend dam construction until an agreement was reached with the indigenous communities; the government declined.

Belo Monte is the largest among dozens of controversial dam projects planned in Brazil’s Amazon region. Although various environmental groups have protested the Belo Monte project on the sidelines of Rio+20, relatively few seem to making a big point of the conference’s corporate sponsorship.

Of the quarter-billion dollars or so that Brazil plans to spend on the conference, most — some $210 million — comes from a special government fund, according to official documents cited by the Brazilian newspaper Valor Econômico. About $10 million was contributed by each of the official Rio+20 partners, corporations including Vale, Eletrobras and Petrobras, the state oil company. The conference expenses primarily involve installations, logistics, transportation, accommodations and security. Some 20,000 soldiers, police officers, municipal guards and intelligence service agents have been deployed on Rio’s streets for the event.

Friday, 4:56 p.m. | Updated Asked about its choice to accept corporate sponsorship from energy and mining companies, the Brazilian Foreign Ministry said in a statement that it has specifically sought to include corporations to “bring these industries closer to environmental-friendly standards.” All companies that presented themselves as “willing partners” of Rio+20 were accepted, it added.

Eletrobras, which has a 49.98 percent stake in the Belo Monte dam, said in a statement that its sponsorship role was “appropriate” because of its investment in hydroelectric power, a clean energy source. It said that Brazil needed to increase its capacity by 5,000 to 6,000 megawatts a year to meet the demands of the nation’s population of nearly 200 million, and that roughly 80 percent of potential hydroelectric production is in the Amazon region.

Vale, which is investing $1.5 billion in the dam and has a 9 percent stake in the project, said it was acting as a Rio+20 sponsor so that the conference would have “a larger dimension and visibility for society over all, given the themes that are being discussed, which are of great interest to the business.”

Petrobras, which routinely finances cultural events and nongovernmental organizations in Brazil, is now aggressively developing (along with foreign oil companies) deepwater “pre-salt” oil reserves about 200 miles off Brazil’s shores. The government has promoted the pre-salt find as a kind of national bounty set to catapult Brazil to the level of Arab oil-producing nations and elevate Venezuela’s status as an oil exporter.

But environmental groups like Greenpeace have complained that consumption of oil from the pre-salt fields could add 35 billion tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere over the next 40 years. Petrobras’s heavy investment in extracting the deepwater oil will assure that Brazil is petroleum-dependent for decades to come, the group adds.

The company emphasizes that it has been ranked on the Dow Jones Sustainability Index for six years and is a signatory of the United Nations Global Compact, which commits businesses to aligning their operations with high principles on the environment, human rights and other causes.

Such corporate participation in Rio+20 does not sit well with Danilo Chammas, a lawyer with Justiça nos Trilhos (Justice on the Trails), the group that nominated Vale for the Public Eye Award. The group took part in a 2,000-strong protest on Tuesday in front of the company’s headquarters in Rio.

“It’s a shame,” he said, adding: “Many people should be questioning this.”