River & Rio+20 Dispatch: Green Economy

Jason Rainey
A man enjoys a pipe during the Kari-Oca II gathering outside Rio.
A man enjoys a pipe during the Kari-Oca II gathering outside Rio.
Photo: Ben Powless

I’ve been at the People’s Summit in Rio for less than eight hours, and I’ve already got too many possible points of departure for this first dispatch!

Let me start by setting the scene. The People’s Summit is a steamy cauldron of the critical, the practical and the absurd. The Summit grounds stretch a kilometer or two along Flamengo Park, a ribbon of greenspace between a highway and white sand beaches. There are 39 tendas – large canopy spaces – and six major plenary stages. There seem to be hundreds of formal and informal booth spaces proffering ideas, publications or products. It’s all happening concurrently and as there doesn’t seem to be any printed program or schedule, it’s helpful that the plenary stages are dubbed with a theme for the week, such as “Energy and Industrial Exploitation” and “Defending against the commodification of nature.” Otherwise, you learn what’s happening by reading the leaflets that are handed out at every turn.

A touch of the absurd? A line of indigenous people from the Amazon – with bright-feathered headdresses and tattoos – lean against a railing smoking and taking in the chanting of a small group of Hari Krishnas. A Rastafarian griot sells god’s eyes and dream catchers in the symbolic colors of the motherland – red, black, green and gold. Two very pale guys stream by in speedos grunting to each other in Russian, they're after other plans and are paying no mind to the humanity assembled for a week of … not dialogue, but a polyglotted multi-logue.

Hundreds of people occupied the Belo Monte Dam site near Altamira, Brazil, Jun 15, 2012.
Hundreds of people occupied the Belo Monte Dam site near Altamira, Brazil, Jun 15, 2012.
Photo: Atossa Soltani/Amazon Watch/Spectral Q

I’m here to find the thread of this global conversation, to assess how International Rivers can continue to play our unique and critical role – sometimes in support, sometimes in the lead – of building an effective river protection movement. We know well the critique of this economic system that is failing people and planet so terribly, so I’m also listening for the strategies that can get to the solutions that tackle the economic and political roots of the problems. Above all, I’m here to connect with river people from throughout the world – those living with the legacy of dams and displacement, and the ever-expanding numbers of people now dam-threatened – as these are the frontlines of the struggle for a livable future.

Here’s the highlight from my first night at the Summit:

All attention was placed on Mr. Achim Steiner, the Executive Director of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), as he was part of a vociferous panel on the “Green Economy” and the commodification of nature. The official proceedings with heads of government and their corporate sponsors (e.g. mining giant Vale, Eletrobras, Petrobras) are meeting at a site 70 minutes drive to the other side of Rio; thus it was a good showing by Mr. Steiner to attend the People’s Summit, and he acknowledged that the official proceedings would benefit from greater inclusion of civil society. Panelists confronted Mr. Steiner – who also served as the Secretary-General of the World Commission on Dams from 1998 to 2000 – on the UNEP’s report on the Green Economy, released in November 2011. While Mr. Steiner acknowledged the validity of critiques of the global economic system’s failures, he implored civil society groups to embrace renewable energy technologies and offered that “the economy of the past needn’t be the economy of the future.” Community leaders from throughout the Global South responded with rhetorical eloquence – and much applause from the several hundred people assembled – critiquing the role that monetization plays in the separation of people from nature, a fundamental failing of dominant socio-economic systems.

While my own experiences align with those leveling their critiques of the systemic failure of capitalism to provide equitable prosperity and the regeneration of the Earth’s natural capital, I had sympathy for Mr. Steiner’s concluding plea to civil society representatives to move beyond critique (and here I paraphrase from my notebook): Wake up! The world is deeply divided and the planet is imperiled – we must collectively focus on building economies that can respond to the scale of the crisis.

I came back to my room last night thinking about which sectors of our economy must grow and which must “de-grow,” and gained some guidance from a new paper, Economic Rethink, authored by Randy Hayes, Andrew Kimbrell and Brent Blackwelder, one of our board members. It’s a useful economic framework worth sharing – and will inform my approach to the next couple of days at the People’s Summit. Here in this riotous, multi-player exchange of ideas, hydro-dams, alternative energy strategies and human rights will come into focus in the context of Brazil and the 150+ dams planned or under construction throughout Amazonia.