Rio+20: Fiddling While Earth Burns

I am having trouble summoning any enthusiasm over the upcoming Rio+20 UN Conference, which will begin on June 20.

When you go to the conference website, everything sounds so benign, forward-looking and responsible.  For example, talking about food security, the conference framers call for the promulgation of sustainable agriculture, meaning “the capacity of agriculture over time to contribute to overall welfare by providing sufficient food and other goods and services in ways that are economically efficient and profitable, socially responsible, and environmentally sound.”

It sounds marvelous.  But we all know that during the last 20 years, since the first Earth Summit in 1992, industrial agriculture has only gotten bigger and badder, more focused on profit at the expense of social responsibility or environmental stewardship.

Food security for the majority of people on the planet has become a pipe dream, and even the most privileged of us are growing increasingly vulnerable to disruptions in food supplies caused by climate change, monoculture and the superweeds and superbugs that have developed resistance to our chemicals.

I was not surprised to find in my inbox this morning an eloquent position paper from La Via Campesina, seeing right through the rosy language of the “sustainable development” engineers to recognize that “beneath the deceptive and badly intentioned term “green economy”, new forms of environmental contamination and destruction are now rolled out along with new waves of privatization, monopolization, and expulsion from our lands and territories.”

Here is how La Via Campesina, which represents indigenous and peasant farmers worldwide, but particularly in South America, sees the “green economy”:

“The green economy does not seek to reduce climate change or environmental deterioration, but to generalize the principle that those who have money can continue polluting. Up to now, they have used the farce of purchasing carbon bonds to continue emitting greenhouse gases. They are now inventing biodiversity bonds. This is to say, businesses can continue destroying forests and ecosystems, as long as they pay someone to supposedly conserve biodiversity somewhere else. Tomorrow they may invent bonds for water, natural “views”, or clean air.”

I am afraid that this analysis is right on target.  The whole premise of the REDD agreements, under which communities were to be paid for conserving their forests, has only resulted in a land rush to purchase the forests so as to collect the international funding.  And to add insult to injury, REDD has allowed the destruction of virgin forests and replanting of, say, palm oil plantations, to “count” as forest conservation.

So the international capitalists make out like bandits, and the local people who have lived peacefully and harmoniously in the forests for thousands of years suddenly find themselves given the boot.

In the first anthology I edited, Women Writing Resistance: Essays on Latin America and the Caribbean (South End Press, 2004), I included an essay by Rigoberta Menchu, the 1992 Nobel Peace Prize winner from Guatemala, who has become a major voice for global indigenous rights and environmental stewardship.  The essay describes Menchu’s unofficial visit to the Earth Summit in Rio in 1992.

Rigoberta Menchu Tum

“I had gone to find out what their idea of the earth, plants and nature might be, and what I found was a commercial version of ecology,” she said.  “There were T-shirts with tigers, lions and parrots painted on them, and plastic bags with animals’ faces.  It was a case of businessmen making money out of the environment.”

Although Menchu ended on a more hopeful note back in the ‘90s when this essay was first published, I have no doubt that today she is less optimistic, given the way events have played out over the past 20 years.  It is no exaggeration to say that the capitalist assault on the natural world combined with the human population overload of the planet has brought us to the brink of civilization collapse.

The calm, rationalist language of the Rio+20 architects reveals no sign of awareness of the dire state of the planet.  They seem to have constructed their conference materials in an air-conditioned bubble, through which the voices of the billions of ordinary people on the ground cannot penetrate.

La Via Campesina is calling for a return to small-scale agriculture as the solution to the Earth’s problems. They argue that a relocalization of agriculture is necessary, with indigenous and peasant farmers given cooperative control over their lands, as it was for the thousands of years preceding our own unfortunate era.

We will never get the diplomats, technocrats and financial oligarchs in the air-conditioned conference halls to agree to such a simple, unprofitable solution to food security.

But the feedback loops that have made our planet stable since the last Ice Age are now becoming severely disrupted, and so Earth may take matters into her own hands, forcing a relocalization in which only those who still remember how to subsist in small groups close to the land will be able to survive.

Is this the great transition prophesied by the Mayans long ago?  The end of the age of technocratic capitalism, and the return to a simpler way of life?

Global meetings such as Rio+20 should be occasions for making plans, together with the small-scale farmers on the ground all over the world, for intelligent transitions to truly sustainable communities. There is still time to prepare for the coming ecological shocks so as to prevent mass misery.

Instead, governments are using this precious time to build up armies and police forces to ensure the control of ever-shrinking resources by the wealthy, and selling small-scale arms to local gangs to encourage violence and terror outside of the gated communities of the rich nations.

This is a strategy that keeps us all in line—we in the wealthy nations are terrified of the violence we see outside our borders, and so we docilely do as we are told, which is to say, continue to participate in the aggressive policies that are bringing us all to ruin.

I see the twin monsters of the weapons and the chemical industries as the most destructive forces on our planet today.  If these two industries could be stopped, and their destructive products destroyed, imagine what a different world we’d be living in.

We may not be able to put those evil genies back into the bottle ourselves.  But the planet will take care of it, sooner or later.

Right now, it’s looking like it’s going to be soon.

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  1. “Global meetings such as Rio+20 should be occasions for making plans”…………they have been making plans for over 20 years………it’s called Agenda 21 and is not in any human’s interest to promote this plan!
    Do you advocate a return to the cave? Do you promote the loss of Industry and to introduce poverty into “developed” countries in order to level the playing field?. Do you really believe that the Earth’s population is too large for continued life? Do you have an “open mind”?….apparently not!

    • Agenda 21 was released in 1992 and revisited in 1997 and its formulations are reasonable though typical UN bureaucracy bla bla, which is not committing anybody to anything.
      You are right, Agenda 21 is not in any corporations interest and it is not supporting the neocolonial agenda and the disaster capitalists. But as the formulations look good in the colorful brochures and leaflets and the non binding goals will be ignored as usual, Agenda 21 and the Millennium Development Goals were allowed to be discussed and passed.

      The same will happen with any papers that are produced by Rio+20.

      The disaster capitalists, who are in for the quick buck and who don’t care about the impoverished masses, in the meantime buy any land they can get (more info at Oakland Institute) and have commoditized the food market ( They can hold us to ransom. Food is in corporate control, water is next, the air that we breathe is still common good — but wait…

      Rio+20 is just holidays for some mid level bureaucrats, technocrats, politicians — nothing to worry about.

      The substantial things are decided at meetings like the G-8 summit at Camp David, where Obama promoted the “The New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition,” which paves the way for agribusiness giants like Cargill, Monsanto, DuPont, Syngenta, and Yara, and junk-food corporations like Unilever, Kraft, Hershey’s, and Mars.

      The important decisions are made at corporate conference rooms and retreats, where the likes of Bill Gates and George Soros promote their “philanthropic agenda.” (corporaphilia it is rather)

      Rest assured, your agenda is forcefully and tirelessly pushed forward. Every man has his price and there are enough corrupt politicians willing to sell out to the international gangsters. In the rare cases that politicians cannot be bribed (like for instance Gaddafi, Assad, Chavez), the resisting (rogue) country is treated with sanctions, death squads, weapons and funds for terrorist splinter groups and religious fanatics, or an “humanitarian intervention,” till it falls apart into small chiefdoms run by callous warlords.

      Then the “blood diamonds,” “blood oil,” “blood rare earth minerals,” can be extracted and benefit the corporations, the money elite and to a tiny part also their minions.

      Some of the “blood profits” may indeed trickle down to you — be happy about your bread crumbs!

      • Jennifer Browdy de Hernandez

         /  June 8, 2012

        As usual, your perspective is so dark, and so accurate, Mato! You should write a thriller screenplay, it seems you have all the elements at your fingertips! Movies seem to be the best way to get information to the masses these days, even though they do, more and more, blur the boundaries between fiction and fact, to the point where we are not sure anymore which is which. Maybe the line is just not so hard and fast, since so often visions that started out as fiction end up becoming fact–as in so many “science fictions”–

  2. Thanks for this Jennifer – I agree with much of this, but at the risk of appearing to split hairs I have a quick question… You write:

    “The whole premise of the REDD agreements, under which communities were to be paid for conserving their forests, has only resulted in a land rush to purchase the forests so as to collect the international funding. And to add insult to injury, REDD has allowed the destruction of virgin forests and replanting of, say, palm oil plantations, to “count” as forest conservation.”

    I’m pretty critical of REDD (see, but I wonder what evidence you have for your claim that REDD “has only resulted in a land rush”. And do you have examples of REDD allowing forests to be destroyed to be replaced by oil palm plantations?

    • Jennifer Browdy de Hernandez

       /  June 8, 2012

      Thanks for your comment, Chris! This is where I got my information about the REDD forest grab:

      Whether it is accurate or not I cannot say for sure, but it certainly wouldn’t surprise me, given the cynical design of such international treaties in the past.

      If you’re able to verify or disprove this info, please let me know!

      • Thanks for your response. I don’t think I’d say that REDD has resulted in a land rush (so far – of course it could do so). There are cases where REDD-type projects have resulted in evictions (in Kenya, for example:, But it could be argued that these would have happened with or without REDD. As I’m sure you know, there is a long history of evictions for conservation (see Mark Dowie’s Conservation Refugees –

        Vast areas of forest were cleared for oil palm plantations before REDD was dreamt up. In Indonesia, that is far more of a land rush than REDD (at least so far). While there are many REDD projects in the pipeline, they’ve been stuck in the pipeline for several years.

        This interview ( with Frank Momberg of Flora and Fauna International is interesting. FFI has been trying to set up REDD carbon trading projects for five years. Near the end of the interview Momberg’s frustration is clear: “I find it almost a disgrace that after five years we still have no carbon credit sales from Indonesia on the voluntary market.”

  3. Jennifer Browdy de Hernandez

     /  June 8, 2012

    Hmm, these are interesting sources, Chris, thanks for the links. The answer in Indonesia is probably that the land is just being summarily taken, so the palm oil companies don’t need to go through a REDD agreement. Why bother? I’ve been following the deforestation situation in Sumatra closely, and it’s beyond depressing. But the same thing is happening in the Amazon, and now the boreal forest of Canada is in the crosshairs. I have no answers, only laments.

  4. Martin Lack

     /  June 8, 2012

    La Via Campesina is presumably a Latin American eco-Marxist outfit. Even so, their cynicism of ‘Western’ greenwash is entirely justified. However, I am sorry to see that they include REDD in that category but, if it has been complicit in the replacement of biodiverse ecosystems with cash-crop monocultures then, again, their anger is justified… In response, I would say two things:
    (1) The UNEP and UNFCCC are not doing what they should or what environmentalists want; they are only doing what they are allowed to do by ‘Western’ governments (which is not enough) because the latter are all, ultimately, in favour of as much business as usual (BAU) as they can possibly get away with.
    (2) Despite having this BAU millstone tied around its neck, I think UNEP/UNFCCC is making progress; e.g. REDD+

    • Hi Martin – I think you’re going to have to show a little more evidence than a couple of websites with the heading “What is REDD+?” to convince me that UNFCCC and the World Bank are making progress on REDD… (The Forest Carbon Partnership Facility website that you linked to is a World Bank programme, not UNEP.)

      There were three excellent articles published over the weekend in the Sydney Morning Herald about REDD in Indonesia, which highlight some of the problems:

      Credits lost in tangle of Aceh’s forest –
      Change in Aceh hinders carbon plan –
      Indonesia’s forests of corruption –

      These problems are not confined to Indonesia. Here’s a series of posts on REDD-Monitor about the problems that the World Bank’s FCPF has run into –

      • Martin Lack

         /  June 11, 2012

        Thanks for all those links, Chris. I am not denying the possibility that the UN and/or REDD is flawed (especially after watching the movie The Whistleblower on DVD last week. Wow, what an eye-opener that was…), but is not REDD+ designed to specifically tackle the problems REDD has generated?

  5. Martin Lack

     /  June 8, 2012

    “Fiddling while the Earth burns”; or
    “Fracking while the Earth warms”
    – Either way; it is not good!

  1. Rio+20: Fiddling While Earth Burns « pdjmoo
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