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Twenty years after first Earth Summit, disappointment and hope

RIO DE JANEIRO — Jilson Roberto stands in front of the community centre in Cachoeirinha, a poor favela on the west side of Rio de Janeiro, greeting all who happen by. Everybody knows him, and they all call him Feijão, meaning ‘bean’. Pictured at right with a community photo album, Feijão (pronounced fay-jow) heads the local community association, making him a kind of mayor representing perhaps a few to several-thousand residents (estimates vary). An employee at the Rio de Janeiro state legislature, he held the same volunteer post 20 years ago, when world leaders descended on Rio for the first Earth Summit; he also attended to advocate for sustainable-development aid on behalf of a collection of 52 favelas. He says that the group dubbed their proposal ‘eco-favela’.

Many commitments — social, environmental and economic — were made in 1992, and it is certainly fair to say that had they all been implemented, the world occupied by Feijão and the residents of Cachoeirinha (kie-sho-air-een-ya) would look quite different. I ask him whether anything has changed as a result of the first summit, and he pauses. “Muito pouco,” he says. “Very little.” The community is still without rubbish collection, and when the rains come, flooding is a constant problem. At the beginning of an intersection 2o metres away, two old couches block the road before it begins its ascent up a small hill, apparently marking the local drug traffickers’ territory and establishing a kind of no-go zone for police.

Inside the community centre, a small group of visitors in town for the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, Rio+20, observed a sex-education class offered by a local family-planning organization, Bemfam. It was a dual-purpose trip intended to highlight the remarkable progress that Brazil has made (and where it has fallen short) while drawing media attention to the issue of reproductive rights and population in Rio, where the Vatican came out on top this week (for more on that as well as the relationship with consumption patterns and global-warming emissions, stay tuned). It was also an opportunity to talk about urbanization, which is shaping up to be one of the fundamental demographic features of the twenty-first century (see Nature‘s cities special here).

As the United Nations’ latest population statistics indicate, more than half of the 7 billion people living on Earth now live in cities, and another billion are expected to arrive by 2025. The vast majority of this growth will take place in what is now the developing world, and most of them will start their lives in poor communities such as Cachoeirinha. When I asked the youths here what they would like a conference on sustainable development to address, the first words that came out of their mouths were ‘security’, ‘jobs’, ‘hospitals’, ‘education’, ‘medicine’ and ‘pollution’, in that order. Further prompted, they also said that they cared about animals, forests and the environment.

The same sentiment was reflected in comments by Brazil’s lead negotiator, Luiz Alberto Figueiredo, who unveiled this week’s agreement by underscoring poverty as “the greatest global challenge that we face in the world today”. This remains a source of deep misunderstanding in the industrialized world, which is in the middle of an economic crisis and often sees Brazil and other emerging giants as powerhouse economies that are only beginning to flex their muscles, says Samantha Smith, who is based in Oslo and heads the WWF Global Climate and Energy Initiative. But a dollar that is invested in science or protecting the Amazon is a dollar that is not invested in collecting trash and establishing the rule of law in Rio’s favelas. “People forget that these are still poor countries,” Smith says, “and equity is part of their philosophical foundation.”

Back at Cachoeirinha, Feijão invites me into his office in the basement of the community centre. He pulls out an album with photos dating back to the 1970s; in one photo a woman is hauling water up a dirt trail beside a series of shacks, and he explains that this is one of the roads right outside the centre. In many ways the community has progressed, but the couches are a sad reminder of how things have deteriorated as well. Far from the beaches and stadiums that will attract tourists for the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics, Cachoeirinha has yet to be “pacified” by the intense police and military operations that have cleared bandits out of many other favelas. Feijão just shakes his head. “We don’t talk about security,” he says. “That’s a problem for the government.”

But he is perfectly content to talk international environmental diplomacy. He mentions the 1972 Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm, and then he talks about commitments in Agenda 21 signed in Rio in 1992. He says he is disappointed that German Chancellor Angela Merkel and US President Barack Obama aren’t coming this time around, and then he gets to the point: governments cannot forget about the current generation as they protect the planet for future generations. For people in Cachoeirinha, he says, cleaning up the environment is a question of collecting trash. And yet no matter how many times I prompt him about the failures of the past 20 years, he refuses to be cynical about the next 20 after world leaders depart Rio on Friday.

“I think things are going to be different,” he says. “You have to be hopeful.”

Photo: Jeff Tollefson


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