RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil — On Sunday climate change activists marched down Ipanema’s packed beachfront in a highly publicized introduction to the nation’s burgeoning People’s Summit, a movement seeking to create a concurrent, socially just alternative to this June’s UN-sponsored Rio+20 Conference on Sustainable Development.
Twenty years after the first Earth Summit helped lay the groundwork for the Kyoto Protocol, Rio+20 has tasked itself with setting the sustainable development agenda for the coming decades. As in 1992 and 2002, the summit will include delegates from around the world and will seek to put forth a document of governing priorities and recommended actions on an international platform.
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Rio+20 will also serve as a litmus test for the city’s ability to integrate popular opinion into its dialogue on urban development as it prepares for the impending 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympic Games.
Many activists, however, say the official conference is indicative of a failed institution that has turned its back on widespread public participation, human rights accountability and social justice.
“Our city is being split open at the seams in the name of urban development, and its oppressed groups and popular voices must to come together and hold the UN accountable,” said People’s Summit organizer Jorge Vidal.
Sunday’s protest began, symbolically, at the base of the Pavão Pavãozinho favela, one of the city’s most iconic slums, which has historically been left off of city maps despite its adjacency to Ipanema and Copacabana. Descending through a throng of Ipanema beachgoers, the march ended at a nearby park, where activists held educational workshops and organizational strategy sessions. An estimated 500 activists attended and participated, from favela-based women’s groups to Greenpeace Brazil chapters.
The protest marked the first in a series of mobilizing actions that seek to increase public awareness and dialogue on social justice’s role in sustainable urban development. “We want to affirm new paradigms and alternative constructions for the people...to put together a political agenda for the coming decades,” one protester said over the loudspeaker.
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“I want to see Brazilian women’s perspectives heard and I believe the People’s Summit is the place where that will best happen,” said Leila da Souza Netto, a coordinating member of Mulheres de Pedra, a women’s advocacy group that helped to organize Sunday’s protest. “I’m hopeful that, if we organize a parallel summit, the UN will listen.”
The activist Vidal attended the protest with his 8-month-old son Steiner.
“It isn’t enough to just call attention to our plight, we need to transcend beyond perfunctory discourse, beyond token delegate positions, beyond failed institutions. I have a responsibility to my son to create meaningful dialogue about preserving this country, preserving this city — not just for the summit but as this city develops.”
The official Rio+20 conference offers a call for public participation and even links to the People’s Summit on its press page. People’s Summit protesters, however, worry that their contributions will be overshadowed by larger corporate interests, and that their goals for meaningful human rights and equality principles will be eliminated from official summit documents.
“[The People’s Summit] is the space where the people can more freely and openly discuss and question the fundamental underpinnings of the global economic and political order; embrace new paradigms for ‘development’ and sustainability; and explore truly transformative solutions, not the false solutions that we’ve been hearing,” argues activist Paulo Quintos.
Still, the People’s Summit will look to serve as both a complementary and oppositional force to the official UN event. “But we can’t completely abandon this space either,” said Quintos. “We have to send a resounding message to our purported leaders that we will not allow them to ‘delete’ our rights and ‘bracket’ our futures. We must not allow them to backtrack on the Rio principles [established in 1992] and on human rights obligations.”