Rio + 20 People’s Summit: “If they don’t let us dream, we won’t let them sleep”

I originally wrote this for the Community Alliance for Global Justice, a fantastic local organization, but it’s worth reposting here.

The official Rio+20 United Nations (UN) Conference on Sustainable Development and the simultaneous People’s Summit for Social and Environmental Justice (Cupula dos Povos para Justicia Social e Ambiental) had a surprising similarity – their outcomes were set before anyone even arrived.

But the similarities stop there. While the UN attendees from civil society whom I met  left feeling depressed and wondering why they even came, those of us who attended the People’s Summit left feeling inspired and more committed to solidarity in our shared struggles.  These comments are based solely on my limited personal experiences as a general attendee of the Summit;  given the quantity of activity, I missed many of the other events and discussions.

The week was full of workshops, plenaries, marches, impromptu dancing, and more than a few coconuts provided by our wonderful friends with the MST (Landless Workers Movement). But most important were the sharing of stories and the strengthening of connections I witnessed and participated in. Just a sample: I was able to observe activists fighting land and water grabs in Cambodia and West Africa share stories and ideas, talk and eat with organic cacao farmers using agroecological production in Brazil, and even get a chance to watch Vandana Shiva stir up a crowd as she railed against biopiracy.

Vandana Shiva speaking on biopiracy.

Neither the final document which the official Summit created nor the demands we chanted in the streets of Rio were surprising. Everyone agreed we need food sovereignty and biodiversity and railed against agrotoxins and transgenics, among the dozen demands the Peoples’ Summit made.

It’s in this respect that the People’s Summit, like the UN conference, might be criticized – there was almost no real conflict manifest in either Summit’s debates. In the euphoria of the People’s meetings, few dared to play devil’s advocate or talk seriously about implementation and concrete campaigns that might cause conflict –- thus limiting the actual spaces for learning and coming to detailed consensus. Instead, the final proclamation of the People’s Summit promises mainly to have more dialogue and more meetings, beyond affirming what we already knew we agreed to. Despite the overflowing good intentions all around, I couldn’t help but feel we were kicking the can down the road.

Just a fraction of the 50,000+ march that took the streets of downtown Rio on June 20th, the global day of action.

Yet as we marched down the streets of Rio, 50,000 strong, I was simultaneously overwhelmed by the sense of strength and unity within a movement that so often appears to be weak and fragmented. Perhaps a Summit like this – like the official UN meeting – is too big and unwieldy to come to anything concrete and transformative at a grand scale. But the power of our Summit was the various organizations coming together – -and the local to global connections with individual people we each made.

So even if we left without a roadmap or a campaign to sign onto, most of those I spoke with left inspired to redouble their efforts at home. Perhaps against all odds, hearing the stories of so many wonderful activists made me optimistic that another world is not just possible, but happening bit by bit. And with my new friends from across the globe, I know we can and will win it, even if our world leaders are still wringing their hands and hoping they can stifle our ambitions by using a Trojan Horse of a “green economy.”

As one of the closing speakers said, “if they don’t let us dream, we won’t let them sleep.” So let’s get our pots and pans – and give them hell until Rio+30!

This artist had created bills detailing the exploitation upon which our money is founded. The bill he gave me showed a slave ship of the sort which brought Africans to Brazil.

My friend Nadine from Portugal and one of our new friends from the march!

“[President] Dilma, a developing country invests in education, not in a [World] Cup!”

Acknowledgements – a special thanks to Phil Bereano for helping me make sense of this whole summit process, since it was my first time at an event like this!

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