Rio+20: Mixed outcomes pose significant challenges for rights and sustainable development

Indigenous leader informs Indigenous Peoples’ International Conference about harmful impacts of the Belo Monte dam development
Tom Griffiths

Rio+20: Mixed outcomes pose significant challenges for rights and sustainable development

While governments failed to adopt binding commitments on sustainable development, indigenous peoples from all over the world delivered strong messages against dominant development models and for respect of human rights, self-determination, traditional knowledge and culture.

Touted as the biggest UN event in the last 20 years, the Rio+20 Conference on Sustainable Development, held in Rio de Janeiro from 20-22 June, was labelled by many as an announced failure, and by others as a positive step ahead in the direction of renewed commitments by the global community at large towards sustainable development. Indeed the official document adopted by governments (“The future we want”) does not equal the historical achievements struck 20 years ago, and lacks clear commitments and timelines for action. The adoption of so-called Sustainable Development Goals, the commitment to support means of implementation (notably revised terms of trade, and increased Official Development Assistance (ODA) among others) and the upgrading of existing institutional frameworks for international environmental governance, were deferred to future negotiations. It could not have been otherwise, with the Rio+20 outcomes stemming from a compromise  between conflicting agendas of emerging countries, i.e. G77, India, China and the once economic superpowers of the G7.

The outcomes of the summit portray a world split between the incapacity of national governments to detach from dominant growth oriented paradigms and to reconfirm principles and commitments adopted in 1992, and the widespread call coming from indigenous peoples and social movements for alternative approaches  to sustainable development. Hence “The future we want” contains both risks and opportunities. The outcome document  recognises the concept of a green economy (criticised by many as equal to commercialisation of nature), but also acknowledges that countries may pursue different green economic policies and that any transition towards sustainable economies needs to respect traditional knowledge and livelihoods beyond mere market values. 

Discussions on forests came late to the negotiation process leading up to Rio+20 and many felt the official Rio+20 dialogue on forests was rushed and unsatisfactory (see, for example, FPP partner comments in article 2 of this E-News). The end result was dry text affirming the international forest policy-making role of UN bodies such as the United Nations Forum on Forests (UNFF) supported by international financial institutions like the World Bank and GEF under the Collaborative Partnership on Forests (CPF). While the text notes the role of strengthened land tenure in improving forest-based livelihoods, actions are subjected to national legislation (which in many countries still fails to recognise customary land rights). The role of indigenous and other forest peoples in sustaining much of the world’s forests is not acknowledged explicitly in the outcome document.

In spite of the strong resistance by indigenous communities both in the North and the South to destructive extractive activities in their lands, governments agreed that mining plays a role in economic development, while noting that mining activities should “effectively address negative environmental and social impacts.” During negotiations on this controversial text, indigenous peoples and human rights organisations were very disappointed to learn that some governments sought to eliminate rights language and in the end any mention of rights was also entirely lost (other than the ‘sovereign right’ of ‘countries’ to exploit their mineral resources!). In fact, many indigenous organisations felt it wholly inappropriate to include mining in a sustainable development agreement given that mineral extractive activities of non-renewable resources are by their very nature unsustainable (use of finite resources).

While the Rio+20 official outcomes fail to fully incorporate a rights-based approach they do include unprecedented references to respect of traditional knowledge and cultures, the obligation to ensure full and effective participation of indigenous peoples and the relevance of international obligations and instruments such as the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP). 

Throughout the preparatory process, indigenous peoples have pressed for the recognition of their rights to self-determined development as an alternative approach to environmental conservation and poverty alleviation. A common indigenous peoples’ platform on sustainable development was adopted in Manaus in August 2011. It stressed the recognition of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) as the key framework for sustainable development as well as the role of culture as the fourth pillar (together with the social, environmental and economic pillars) of sustainable development. The platform also underlined the obligation to protect and respect rights to land, territories and resources as a precondition for sustainable development. Last but not least, indigenous peoples maintained that Rio+20 should recognise the distinct and crucial contribution of traditional knowledge and diverse local economies to poverty eradication and sustainable development and as the cornerstones of green economies. 

Indigenous peoples met on various occasions and took part in numerous actions and initiatives as well as side events before and during the Rio Summit, inside RioCentro (the venue of the official event) and outside. Some indigenous organisations gathered at the Kari-Oca II space to  reaffirm the key role of indigenous peoples’ culture and values, and the rights of Mother Earth, as well as rejecting the push to “commodify” nature and ecosystems, as opposed to the current “capitalist” model. Other indigenous organisations from Latin America and the Amazon met in the “Campamento Tierra Libre y Vida Plena” to make calls  for the recognition of rights to land, territories and resources as opposed to the current push by most Latin American governments to step up extractive activities, promote  megaprojects (such as the controversial Belo Monte dam in the Brazilian Amazon) and expand agribusiness developments.

More than 200 representatives of indigenous organisations (as well as support NGOs, such as Forest Peoples Programme) participated in an Indigenous Peoples’ International Conference on Sustainable Development and Self-determination, that met over three days just before the official high-level segment. The Conference’s goal was to share experiences and perspectives on self-determined development. Participants analysed the impact of neoliberal development models on indigenous peoples and the effects of extractive activities and infrastructure megaprojects. Alternative approaches based on indigenous traditional knowledge and practices were also underlined, focusing on both food autonomy and territorial economy. Conceptual and spiritual assumptions underlying indigenous peoples’ own approaches to development were explored, ranging from indigenous women’s perspectives on “living well” to pastoralism, and ecological diversity.

The final declaration of the indigenous peoples’ conference, endorsed also by the “Campamento Tierra Libre”,  reiterated the central value of culture in sustainable development, the obligation to ensure the full exercise of human and collective rights, and the need to strengthen local economies and territorial governance. It further stressed indigenous peoples’ commitments to implement their own priorities for development on the basis of self-determination and traditional knowledge and cultures, restoring knowledge and trade exchanges. Rejecting the neoliberal model, it calls on states, companies and the international community to implement international obligations on indigenous peoples’ rights, and to further commit indigenous peoples to carry on their resistance to destructive development projects. The declaration provides a roadmap of collective activities and advocacy efforts in the lead up to the UN World Conference on Indigenous Peoples, that will take place in 2014, and that would provide an unprecedented further opportunity to debate on indigenous peoples’ practices and approaches to sustainable development.


“The future we want”:

The final statement of the Global Conference of Indigenous Peoples on Self-Determination and Sustainable Development:

The Kari-Oca II final declaration:

The Declaration of the Campamento Tierra Libre y Vida Plena:

The final declaration of the Peoples’ Summit for social and environmental justice in defence of the commons (in Portuguese):

Vicky Tauli-Corpuz puts questions to panel on the impacts of top-down development on indigenous territories
Tom Griffiths
Indigenous peoples' caucus meet at Rio+20 venue to discuss next steps towards the UN World Conference on Indigenous Peoples 2014
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Indigenous leaders sign the Kari-Oca II Declaration in Rio de Janeiro
Cordillera Peoples Alliance