In June 2012, world leaders along with thousands of participants from governments, NGOs and environmental groups as well as the private sector will come together in Rio de Janeiro in Brazil for Rio+20, 20 years after the Earth Summit was organised by the UN in 1992, to address urgent ecological challenges such as extinction of species, erosion of biodiversity and climate change. The Earth Summit gave us two significant international environmental laws — the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity (UNCBD) and the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). It also gave us the Rio principles, including the precautionary principle, and the “polluter pays” principle.
The world has changed radically since 1992 and, sadly, not for the better. Ecological sustainability has been systematically sacrificed for a particular model of economy, which itself is in crisis.
The year 1995 saw a tectonic shift in values guiding our decisions together with a shift with regard to those who make those decisions. It was the year the World Trade Organisation (WTO) was established. Whereas the Rio principles — shaped by ecological movements, ecological science and by sovereign governments — were informed by values of ecological sustainability, social justice and economic equity across and within the countries, the WTO introduced the paradigm of global corporate rule, changing the values and structures of governance and decision-making through free trade agreements between nations.
Conservation of the earth’s resources and equitable sharing were over the years replaced by greed and the grabbing and privatisation of resources across the globe. Sustainable economies and societies were replaced by non-sustainable production systems and a relentless drive to spread the virus of consumerism. Decision-making moved into the hands of global corporations, both directly and indirectly. It is, therefore, not surprising that when we meet at Rio+ 20, the ecological crisis is deeper than what it was at the time of the Earth Summit.
While the corporations wrote the rules of WTO and global free trade, they also subverted the environmental rules that were supposed to regulate their commercial activities to ensure sustainability. They have mutated environmental laws that were supposed to regulate commerce into laws for commercialising and commodifying the earth’s resources and ecological functions. They have subverted the Climate Treaty (derived from UNFCCC) and the Biodiversity Convention (UNCBD).
Instead of polluters paying and being regulated at the national and international level to stop pollution, the biggest atmospheric polluters who have contributed most to climate change are laying the rules on how to deal with climate change. The biotechnology industry that has caused genetic pollution by releasing genetically engineered organisms into the environment is laying down the rules on how to manage biodiversity and govern biosafety. The attempt to introduce Brai, the Biotechnology Regulatory Authority of India, is an example of this.
The original objective of the Climate Treaty was to put in place legally binding emission reduction targets for the historical polluters, who in the pre-globalisation era were concentrated in the rich industrial North. The treaty was destroyed in 2009 at the Climate Summit in Copenhagen by an attempt to replace it with a non-binding Copenhagen Accord. The Kyoto Protocol of 1997 had introduced emissions trading, which, in effect, meant that the polluter got paid, not punished. The big industrial polluters were first paid by allowing them to get private rights to our atmospheric commons. Then the polluters got paid by making profits through carbon trading. Profits increased and emissions also increased. Climate chaos is worse today than it was in 1992. And the polluters look for new avenues to make money and grab resources. Now they want to commodify the ecological functions and services that nature provides. This will be the big climate debate in Rio+20.
The objective of Climate Treaty was the conservation of biodiversity and its sustainable and equitable use. That objective has been subverted and is being increasingly replaced by objectives of trade in genetic resources, profits and privatisation. The Nagoya Protocol on Access to Genetic Resources and Benefit Sharing, adopted in 2010, restricts access only to global players, ignoring the access of local communities. It treats as utilisation only utilisation for research and commerce, ignoring the survival needs of local communities. It is, in fact, legalised biopiracy as it enables transfer of genetic wealth from local communities to global corporations. It undermines the biodiversity economies and cultures that have conserved biodiversity and are necessary for conserving it for the future.
In both the Climate Treaty and the Biodiversity Convention, trade and commerce is replacing conservation and eroding the commons. Rights of corporations are edging out the rights of people.
And this change in values, from conserving and sharing to exploiting and privatising, is justified in the name of economic progress and economic growth. Yet, the economic paradigm for which the earth and the society are being pillaged and destroyed is itself in deep crisis. Look at the number of farmers committing suicides and hunger and malnutrition in India.
A paradigm shift is desperately needed. And it will not come from those who have created the crisis and who are looking for new ways to extend the life of the greed economy by commodifying and privatising all life on earth. They will come to Rio+20 to paint the “greed economy” green, and call it the “green economy”. And they will have powerful governments on their side.
Movements for ecological sustainability, social justice and deep democracy will come to Rio+20 with another paradigm — one centred on the rights of mother earth, the rights of future generations, of women, indigenous communities and farmers. It is this epic contest between a destructive and dying outmoded paradigm and a life-enhancing emergent paradigm that will be the most significant aspect of Rio+20. The outcome of this contest will determine the future of humanity.
None of us are immune from the crisis or the response to it. None of us are bystanders. We are all immersed in the processes that are either threatening the planet and our own future, or finding creative ways to shape a sustainable and a just future. Every day is an earth summit in our lives. And each of us is negotiating our collective fate on earth.
The writer is the executive director of the Navdanya Trust