Rio+20: Development projects sustaining people and planet?

Members of Brazilian non-governmental organizations (NGOs) crowded into a tiny room in the back of a house in Rio de Janeiro to hear a woman discuss ways to attract national and international attention to the work of small NGOs.

Their goal was to engage all society, not just a few conservation groups, in efforts to protect the environment and question development projects that could have negative environmental impacts. The year was 1992 and the event was a NGO meeting in advance of the United Nations (UN) Conference on Environment and Development, also known as “Earth Summit.”

Flash forward 20 years.

This week, a group of academics gathered in a formal setting and listened as the only Brazilian on a distinguished panel of presenters shared her views during the Forum on Science, Technology and Sustainable Development in advance of the UN Conference on Sustainable Development, also known as Rio+20, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

CASA Fund logo.

Maria Amalia Souza, executive director of the Socio-Environmental Fund CASA (formerly the Center for Socio-Environmental Support), was the speaker at both the meeting in 1992 and again in 2012. While her presentation skills are sharper today than 20 years ago when she had been in the field only six years, Souza says, she remains passionate about collecting and sharing data related to development projects that could adversely affect the people and environment in her beloved Brazil — and also in ecosystems beyond its borders.

“We are the wealthiest country in the world when it comes to biodiversity, yet we are destroying it. Why?” asked Souza during a phone interview from the conference in Rio de Janeiro.

“We have the biggest freshwater river basin in the world — the Amazon River Basin. It should be a source of great pride, not just for Brazilians but for people here, there and everywhere on the planet and our governments want to build dams all over it!”

CASA — a grantee of the International Finance for Sustainability focus area of the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation’s Environment program — is one of several Mott grantees attending the UN Conference. The Foundation’s grantmaking area seeks to shape international investment to support sustainable development and reduce environmental degradation.

A Sao Paulo-based organization, CASA is also a grantmaker, providing between 75 and 100 small grants annually to help NGOs and community-based organizations address issues related to the environmental impact of large-scale energy and infrastructure projects in Brazil and neighboring countries, Souza says.

In addition, CASA also supports grassroots groups that research the sustainability of projects such as hydroelectric dams, she says, including those on the Tapajos, Teles Pires and Xingu rivers — and the effect of those projects on the people who depend upon these rivers for their livelihoods.

“The old model was ‘development at any cost.’ The new model needs to be democratic so the people affected by the projects are involved in the process,” Souza said. “As NGOs, we need to be showing the alternatives, not just protesting. There are a lot of people with great ideas that can actually work. They need to be heard.”

Mott Environment Program Officer Sandra Smithey is also attending the Rio conference. Through an email exchange, she shared the differences she has observed between the 1992 event and this year’s.

“Today’s conference in Rio shows how much has changed in the world over the past 20 years. Although we are still far from the vision of sustainable development that we imagined in the first Rio conference, there are now a lot more groups around the world that can help push that vision forward,” Smithey said.

“The ambition and enthusiasm of the civil society sector in countries like Brazil and China has exponentially increased, which gives me hope as we move forward.”

The Rio+20 UN Conference, plus the accompanying People’s Summit, are stirring excitement in Souza, too. The former invites participation from world governmental leaders while the latter welcomes NGOs such as environmental, social, religious, and indigenous people groups.

It is tremendously satisfying to see so many indigenous people from all over the world attending events in Rio, Souza says, including about 2,000 from Brazil. The Brazilians are wearing their traditional attire and advocating for their right to “free, prior, and informed consent” about projects planned for their territories, she says.

Today, many developers acknowledge that indigenous people are entitled to a seat at the discussion table when it comes to large-scale projects in their ancestral lands, Souza says, which is a move in the right direction. However, if people don’t know and petition for that seat, then governments and companies can easily exclude them, she says.

“Ensuring and providing the means for local groups to exercise their legal rights to advocate for their cause has been a big focus of our grantmaking,” Souza says.

But many more steps are needed, she says, wondering aloud why the Brazilian National Development Bank plans to proceed with funding the Belo Monte Dam project when virtually all other investors have said it is not a viable project after social, environmental and economic costs are factored into the equation.

“Development problems don’t stop at a country’s border. We need to be looking at entire ecosystems as a whole, not as being divided by countries and their borders,” Souza said. “We also need to be constantly asking, ‘Who is at the table? Who is missing from the table? Who is affected by the project on the table?’”