Rio+20’s bottom up initiatives hold out hope

Dev Nadkarni

This month thousands of the world’s political leaders, scientists, corporate heads and representatives from civil society, non government organisations and interest groups will gather at the UN Conference on Sustainable Development (better known as the Rio+20 summit) in Brazil. They will deliberate on ways to promote greater social equity by reducing poverty while ensuring environmental protection.

None of these ideas are new and such jamborees have been held periodically in many parts of the world since the first such conference in Rio twenty years ago. Their achievement so far can at best be termed patchy. Climate Change conferences have failed to achieve consensus repeatedly generating skepticism around mega events like Rio+20. But they have succeeded in greatly raising awareness about environmental degradation and the progressive loss of biodiversity. They have helped bring ideas like sustainability and social equity into the public discourse. They have catalysed the incorporation of these concepts in development initiatives especially at local, grassroots levels.

This has helped percolate these ideas through levels of government and through the media into communities’ grassroots activities like agriculture, fisheries and helped promote ideas of conserving resources around these practices. The awareness of sustainable practices is much more out there among the people than ever before and being involved in the activities themselves, it is best for decision makers to hear straight from communities and people who are at the coalface.

Ear to the grassroots

Fortunately, the Rio+20 has taken this on board. Rio+20 differs from previous conferences in that it has a built in system for information and communications technology infrastructure to involve the wider community. Any person from anywhere in the world can participate in the pre-summit deliberations using simple web technology. Submissions, which can be made on more than a dozen listed topics, will be collated and suggestions and opinions from common people will hopefully be presented to the leaders before the final deliberations. How much this ICT-aided attempt at to ensure inclusiveness will succeed remains to be seen. But it is a great start at involving hands on people at the grassroots of human activity.

If this highly democratic looking system really works – which we will know in the weeks after the conference concludes later this month – the more inclusive bottom up approach will be a refreshing change over previous conferences that have deliberated at the highest political, commercial and scientific levels with little active input from the grassroots – except for scenes of protests outside meeting venues. It is time policy makers took on board feedback straight from the people who are directly affected in terms of their livelihoods, habitats, shelters, lifestyles and cultures, rather than from intermediaries like research and survey agencies.

Rio+20 has also succeeded in keeping the conference conceptually simple. Rio+20 focuses on two themes: a green economy in the context of sustainable development and poverty eradication, and developing the institutional framework for sustainable development.

Climate change conferences and the global initiatives they have spawned aiming at adaptation and mitigation has brought a greater appreciation at all levels about adopting green technologies for achieving greener economies. More and more countries are embarking on the path of renewable energy generation and several Pacific Island countries are at the forefront of policy making and target setting for implementing renewable energy projects. Countries like the Cook Islands, Tokelau and Tonga have well documented strategies to achieve milestones.

But that is only the ‘pull’ factor, so to speak. There is a bigger ‘push’ factor that is driving these countries on that path. It is the continuing uncertainty wrought by the entrenched oil economy. The volatility of oil prices and the fact that it is so closely tied to such unpredictable elements as geopolitical stability, market forces, cartelisation and the sheer costs of moving it to remote locations like the Pacific islands has hastened the islands toward adopting strategies for alternative, unconventional energy systems.

Sustainability the central mantra

The key word in all this is sustainability. Be sustainable and you will be in a position to be more independent, self sufficient, economical, clean, green and prosperous.

Small vulnerable countries like most of the Pacific Island states would do well not merely to stop at adopting renewable energy sources driven chiefly by the uncertainty of the oil economy and spiraling costs of dwindling hydrocarbon based fuels. They should in fact do everything to delink from the oil economy as best as they possibly can. This means less dependence on imports that can be replaced quite easily with little intelligent effort locally.

For instance, adopting new grassroots level small and micro-farming techniques could collectively save the islands millions of dollars in foreign exchange, while promoting healthy practices of which islanders are so badly in need of. The islands have the requisite climatic conditions to grow a variety of fruit and vegetables on small scales at community and even family levels. It is just a question of adopting a sustainable, low resource using growing technique like the fish waste driven aquaponics. This simple technique is gaining impressive ground in water starved regions even in the developed countries such as the United States and Australia.

It will be interesting to see the outcomes of the deliberations on the adoption of green economies at Rio+20. Techniques like aquaponics that promote food security and therefore greater social equity as well as dozens of appropriate low cost, low footprint, high on conservation, sustainable techniques and technologies are being invented, reinvented, revived or tinkered with every day. It is hoped that initiatives like Rio+20 will help bring these to the fore.

What will be even more interesting is to see what progress is made on the second theme of the Rio+20 conference: developing the institutional framework for sustainable development. This is the important part that will make the wheel of sustainability turn to gather momentum toward a greener future. It is the part that deals with assisting national governments and global financial institutions to sit together and develop frameworks for financing, implementing and successfully running green technology initiatives.

Unlike climate change conferences, which have aimed at top down prescriptive initiatives based on unproven science that have big implications on national economies – mostly perceived negatively – which indeed is why no substantial agreements have been reached, the Rio+20 conference seems more grassroots level, bottom up, full of proactive initiatives in sharp contrast.

The ingredients for successful outcomes are all there. Making it work is as much an opportunity of decision makers at the highest level as it is for people at the grassroots level. For all our destinies are bound up together with the well being of the planet. We’re all stakeholders and our collective strategy can only be sustainable practices.


First appeared in Islands Business June 2012