Rio+20: A missed opportunity?

After two weeks of a plethora of events and meetings, the Rio Earth Summit ended amid disappointment and divisions. The general expectations about the outcomes of the Conference were decidedly low, but consensus was almost reached at the summit on the final document, The Future We Want.

The Brazilian government argued and pushed that the Conference at least reach an agreement on some issues, however it seemed increasingly difficult for governments to come to big global agreements.

Officially, Rio’s objectives were an accelerated shift towards a green economy alongside an improved institutional framework for sustainable development, with equality and social justice for all. From the beginning it was clear that the diplomacy would be kept out of the more conflicting issues, like climate change. The focus, instead, would be on how economies can grow without endangering the environment whilst reducing inequality.

In the end, the document laid out aspirations, and not mandatory goals. Even the proposal of fortifying the United Nations existing environmental programme and transform it into a full-fledged agency wasn’t accepted.

Shift from poor to rich countries

One proposal that made to the final document was the decision to make a move from MDGs Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) to Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The new goal shifts attention from poor countries to rich countries, where most of the problems originate. Other interesting aspects in the document are that it encourages reporting on corporate sustainability, aims to develop new ways of accounting a country’s GDP – by also taking into account environmental and social costs to an economy and adopts a 10 year programme on sustainable consumption and production.

Although with good ideas, the document lacks content and urgent deadlines. The problem is that governments are more focused on the global economic slowdown, while social and environmental agendas are given a backseat. Rio+20 proved that global solutions are unlikely in times of economic and financial crises.

Sustainable development in practice

On the other hand, several side events at the Rio+20 conference showcased hundreds of initiatives of sustainable development in practice, many of these started in coalitions at a more local level.

One of these examples was Santa Brigida Farm, located in the State of Goias, in the Brazilian Cerrado, which is known for its recent agricultural expansion and with several areas that are potentially good for further expansion. The owner of the farm, Marize Porto Costa, participated in an event at the Humanidades Forum which promoted cases of smart land use and sustainable farming in Brazil. Santa Brigida is a pioneer in developing integration of crop and livestock production. They started the project with Embrapa (The Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation) more than five years ago with the aim of restoring degraded pastures.

The project completely changed the landscape of the 600 hectares farm. Last year, it produced 35 000 bags of maize, 20 000 bags of soybean and raised 2000 animals in natural pastures. In the first year, the crop paid the investment in the recovery of the pasture. Now they are integrating forests too.

The success of Santa Brigida has become a showcase for Embrapa to prove that integration of crops with livestock is a viable technology that can contribute to the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions and deforestation. The recovery of low-productivity cattle raising areas in Brazil will be a fundamental factor to create new spaces for the expansion of food, fibers and biofuels production without the necessity of more deforestation.

Read the final document on, The Future We Want, here