Part II of an on-the-ground series following the Rio+20 Earth Summit, 13-22 June in Rio de Janeiro. A mountain range, a rainforest, hours on a bus, and official pre-accreditation requirements separate Riocentro, the gigantic Rio+20 conference center, from the parallel People’s Summit in in central Rio de Janeiro: an apt allegory for the lack of interaction between the suited-up decision-makers and businessmen and those who have traveled to Rio to call for fundamental change. The Rio People’s Summit has gathered global civil society, social movements, different collectives, and indigenous groups to promote ‘social and environmental justice in defense of the commons’, by building ambitious alternatives for change on global and local levels. As disappointment has mounted regarding the new compromise text released by Brazil for negotiation on Saturday, it’s begun to look as though the official outcome document of Rio+20 might become a watered-down failure. If this happens, however, it would not mean that the Earth Summit itself has been a failure. Not only has the summit mobilized Latin American NGOs, academics, and social entrepreneurs, but parallel phenomena like the International Society for Ecological Economics conference and Bhutan’s coalition on a Paradigm for a New Economy lend some hope to the broader goals of the summit. To show that an ambitious diplomatic agreement is possible and to point to an alternative, the Indigenous People’s Global Conference on Rio+20 and Mother Earth produced the Declaration of Kari-Oca II, adopted by 500 representatives of indigenous communities around the world. Drawing on traditional concepts of ownership, the declaration promises “sacred recognition that we cannot sell the rights of our Mother Earth, and we cannot accept false solutions that manipulate nature for profit,” as a representative from Mexico said. Putting a price on nature Mainly, the new text suffers from being reduced to the feeble common denominators of various countries’ positions. But among cthe biggest criticisms from civil society, apart from a lack of action to eliminate fossil fuel subsidies, is  that the Summit is turning the chance to place more value on nature on its head—by using market valuing to privatize and commodify aspects of nature. The human rights approach to natural resources, they contend, has been undermined by a focus on setting prices and creating tradeable markets for them. However, even the practical problems with this sort of market approach have manifested in carbon trading as experienced in European and Australian experiments. Wolfgang Streeck describes the dilemma well in writing that current economics “teaches citizens and politicians that true justice is market justice, under which everybody is rewarded according to their contribution, rather than their needs redefined as rights.” As happens, the value of ‘contribution’ is of course measured in capital ‘value,’ setting primacy for money-based relationships to the things we value, instead of starting from the philosophy of rights or ethical principles. Public-private partnerships or corporate takeover?

The official partners gleaming on the Rio+20 posters around the city include the Brazilian petroleum company Petrobras, Coca Cola Brasil, and the BMW Group – echoing strong business presence at Rio+20. This presence reflects the UN’s increasing trend of promoting and acting through “public-private partnerships”. Many of the panels feature as many business CEOs as government officials. As a result, Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace, and other organizations have been vocal in warning of a possible ‘corporate takeover’ in Rio. The green economy, groups say, in its current form, could be used as a tool for a greenwashed type of new Washington Consensus.

In response to this phenomenon, economists Joan Martinez-Alier and Joachim Spangenberg describing these increasingly market-focused approaches as ultimately misguided: “Unsustainable development is not a market failure to be fixed but a market system failure: expecting results from the market that it cannot deliver, like long-term thinking, environmental consciousness and social responsibility.” Diversity in property rights institutions One way of preserving and valuing nature in a more egalitarian and sustainable way according to the work of late Nobel Prize winner Elinor Ostrom, could be the common pool resources approach. Ostrom showed that while sustainable management of our common resources requires organization and guidelines, the managers need not be hierarchically positioned private owners or central governments. Instead, Ostrom’s work showed how communities and groups of people were able to manage nature more sustainably and democratically under diverse kinds of collective property rights models. Given real stakes and ownership over their resources, people seem to have more incentives for cooperation and for not neglecting what they now feel responsible for.  The ecological economist Joshua Farley has similarly written about deliberately developing institutions of cooperation instead of institutions of greed that would foster, instead of greed, collective behavior tied to natural reciprocity, proximity, and multi-level group selection. Role of international environmental lawSuch plural ownership models could be coupled with an overarching coordinating body, the best hope for which would be a strengthened UN environment agency, UNEP—a proposal currently at stake in the debate over the Rio+20 text’s final iteration. A UNEP with teeth could address and set standards for activities outside different countries’ limited domestic jurisdictions, which are increasingly inadequate in dealing with the many environmental cross-border issues we face. International environmental law could also do much to expand its aegis, for instance, by setting global clean trade agreements or terms for shipping emissions, which are currently unregulated. If UNEP were reformed, the hope is that unlike the WTO, its structure would also be more inclusive—possibly in future allowing the creation of an International Environmental Court to have some real teeth. We have have until tomorrow to hope. Photo: Ben Powless “Signing of the Kari-Oca II Declaration”

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