International environment summits: leaders waste time while grassroots and indigenous leaders inspire.
This column runs immediately following the UN Conference on Sustainable Development, Rio+20, commemorating the Earth Summit of 1992 in Rio de Janeiro. Important international agreements like the Convention on Biological Diversity (never ratified by the US) and Framework Convention on Climate Change were signed there.
Humans have made a bigger mess of the planet since, despite 20 years of follow-up summits, UN conventions attended by heads of states, departmental lackeys, opposition leaders, NGOs and numerous protocols. Why should we still care?
When I speak to people who go to these things---the NGO and opposition-leader variety, who are willing to speak to me---they express frustration, embarrassment with Canada, disillusionment at the process, and hope inspired by the accompanying People's Conventions. That's where the unofficials, who care about the planet, meet and discuss its problems.
Susanna Fuller is no exception. She coordinates the High Seas Alliance, an international group of 28 organizations working hard to protect the 45 percent of oceans---everything more than 200 miles from land---that isn't protected by law. "Canada is taking its new personality to the world now, and it's embarrassing," she says. "Canadians wear red squares [in solidarity with Quebec student protests] instead of maple leafs. Quebec has a bigger delegation than Canada."
That new personality rocks a smug smile, self-satisfied with Bill C-38's recent demolition of decades of hard-won domestic environmental protections. The omnibus budget bill turns Canada's back on its international commitments. "Canada can't agree to anything new," Fuller says. "For six years nothing has happened with Canada internationally."
For the first time no opposition members or NGOs were invited to join Canada's official delegation. "There has been no consultation with NGOs, and that's never happened before," Fuller says.
As frustrating as Canada's role as a conference kidney stone is, Fuller sees flaws in the whole process.
"The Rio Dialogues are ostensibly where civil society can have their say in the outcomes document. But the text was agreed [to] during the dialogue process, so there was no way to have true input. Lots of smart and famous people are talking about what should be done---but the negotiations are happening in another pavilion."
It's no surprise that the High Seas Alliance didn't get what it wanted, a framework for protecting high-seas biodiversity. Canada and the US led Russia, Japan and Venezuela in opposing the framework, against supporters like the EU, China and Brazil, saying it would impede their pharmaceutical industries from profiting from medicine patents using deepwater ingredients. The framework advocated fair access and global benefit sharing.
Fuller maintains that international conferences play an important role in keeping humans from eliminating themselves. "The only place we can resolve oceans issues is at UN summits and Rio," she says.
On the other hand, she argues that even when Canada plays blood clot the language of unadopted frameworks can guide municipalities like Halifax. When the US failed to ratify the Kyoto Protocol, numerous municipal governments adopted their own greenhouse gas reduction policies.
Her experience has strengthened her resolve to hold Canada accountable.
"I think Canadian NGOs are letting Canada off the hook," she says. "I don't think governments know what they committed to half the time, and we don't remind them enough."
As usual, the grassroots people's summit inspires and daunts. She describes the juxtapositions: "The Vegans for Peace are dressed in animal costumes passing out books from the Supreme Master Ching Hai and free vegan food, and they're surrounded by military people with machine guns. Everyday there are hundreds of events in locations all over the city---giant beach clean ups, public art; Christ the Redeemer is lit up in Green and if Jesus can go green why can't the rest of us?"
She's learned the most from the indigenous peoples in attendance who talk about how pollution affects them directly and the downside of the so-called green economy, particularly mega-dams that are flooding their ancient territories and forcing them all out. "Capitalism is usurping the green economy and environmental movement," Fuller says. "It all has to stop but I don't how."
Chris Benjamin is author of the critically-acclaimed novel, Drive-by Saviours and the award-winning Eco-Innovators: Sustainability in Atlantic Canada.