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Serie “Rio 92 what did it lead to? Rio +20 what will it lead to?”

 Interview Ambassador Flávio Miragaia Perri
Posted on 04 June 2012
© Lúcy Chayb
 Interview Ambassador Flávio Miragaia Perri
Brazil will be hosting the Rio + 20 with the status of a ‘biodiversity power’. Obviously that image is largely based on its immense natural assets (distributed among six distinct biomes) and the exuberance of its natural landscapes. Such recognition, however, has not come about automatically. It has been painstakingly constructed and involved decades of efforts on the part of Brazilian diplomacy to build it, to affirm Brazilian sovereignty, and to show other countries that Brazil is a ‘power’ in this area, above all, because of its considerable accumulation of forest knowledge, its far-reaching legal framework implemented to protect biodiversity; and because the Brazilian State and society are jointly engaged in actions to ensure the sustainable use of the environment.

Retired Ambassador Flávio Miragaia Perri was one of those Brazilian diplomats that laboured for the ingenious construction of Brazil’s current status. A fundamental step in that process was the Rio 92 conference for which the former ambassador acted as executive-secretary of the national working group responsible for organising the conference. Ambassador Perri was also at one time President of the Brazilian Institute for the Environment –Ibama, Brazilian Secretary of State for the Environment (right after the Rio 92 event) and he served for a period as Head of the Environment Department of the State of Rio de Janeiro. In the following written interview, the former diplomat gives an insight into the organisation of that conference and assesses the prospects for the upcoming Rio+20 event.

What were you involved with at the time of the Earth Summit? Do you recall anything that marked that conference?
I was taking part in the 1992 United Nations Conference on the Environment and Development long before I was actually designated Executive Secretary of the National Working Group charged with organising it. In the preceding years I acted as Plenipotentiary Minister attached to the Brazilian Mission at the United Nations and the idea of holding such a conference had been circulating in the UM ever since the presentation of the 1987 Brundholt Report. At the time Brazil found itself under heavy crossfire from international environmentalist campaigns directed at the Amazon and the conditions of that immense forest most of which comes under Brazilian sovereignty. The holding of the Rio-92, as that historic meeting later came to be known, and which brought together 107 heads of state and delegates from all United Nations member countries, had a profound effect on me because all the clashes at the General Assembly sessions prior to the decision to select Rio de Janeiro to host it involved the active diplomatic efforts of the team I was attached to. The Secretary General for Foreign Affairs, at the time, was Ambassador Paulo Tarso Flexa de Lima and the Head of the Brazilian mission at the UN was Ambassador Paulo Nogueira Batista, two of Itamaraty’s great names that conducted our performance in that case. The decision to offer Rio as the host city was a great moment for the country insofar as it became the landmark for a profound revision of internal policies and institutions insofar as they began to embrace active concern for the environment. 

What countries participated more prominently in the Earth Summit? What was the participation of Latin American countries like?
I was not a negotiator in the Brazilian delegation but I did have access to all the negotiations as I was in charge of the infrastructure that provided support to the Delegation, and, in that privileged position, I was able to appreciate the evolution of the negotiations and everything that took place in them. Without a shadow of doubt, Brazil’s performance was outstanding and just mentioning the names of some of the negotiators will be sufficient to illustrate the point: Celso Lafer, Marcos Castrio de Azambuja, Ronaldo Sardemberg, Bernardo Pericás, Rubens Ricúpero, Luiz Augusto de Araújo Castro, among so many others, were all skilful and creative negotiators on Brazil’s behalf, not only in obtaining progress but in defending Brazil’s interests. Many countries were important and it is hard to single out any one, but the Nordic countries came to the conference were very well-prepared, and although their positions revealed an almost academic concern, they brought with them the tradition of the 1972 Stockholm Conference. Obviously the coordinating role played by the ECDO was of singular importance and, among its member countries, the United States played an important part even if it was because of its more conservative stances; and the western European countries, outstanding among them recently re-unified Germany, the United Kingdom and France. Among the Latin American countries, the Amazonian countries deserve mention, united, as they were, under the aegis of the Amazon Cooperation Treaty [Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Guyana, Peru, Suriname and Venezuela], and who, at that moment, had common interests to represent. Costa Rica, Chile and Argentina were able to count on their own experienced negotiators and their traditions of active diplomacy in the sphere of the United Nations.

What have been the main legacies of the Earth Summit?
The Rio Declaration is masterful document because of the precision of its concepts. Its 27 ‘principles’ actually consolidated the concept of Sustainable Development. Among them I would highlight the most incisive of all because of the ethical and economic dimensions it embraces, namely, Principle Five, which declares that:

“All states and all people shall cooperate in the essential task of eradicating poverty as an indispensable requirement for sustainable development, in order to decrease the disparities in standards of living and better meet the needs of the majority of the people of the world.”

From it have stemmed the efforts to combat hunger and to formulate the ‘right to nutrition’, which, years later, has achieved significant legal-political evolution. Brazil has a praiseworthy history of progress in those directions and has served as a parameter for many developing countries, especially African and Central American countries.

The Convention on Biological Diversity and the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change were important steps towards environmental protection. The Kyoto Protocol and its sub-product, the Climate Change Convention, have not evolved satisfactorily because adherence to them has not been universal, with the United States heading the resistance to the protocol and to the control over emissions that the protocol established in the form of commitments to reduce gas emissions that aggravate greenhouse effects which are the anthropogenic cause of global warming. The most recent Conference of the Parts failed to provide continuity for the commitments that expire in 2012, but did foresee a re-opening of negotiations on reduction goals and or emissions control in a defined timeframe.

The Agenda 21 was the most far-reaching document to come out of the Rio 92, constituting an action programme and a working method to materialize the ideal of sustainable development. The Agenda 21 was not universally developed or universally applied, but there can be no doubt that it is one of the most complete repositories of methods for environmental protection, social justice and economic efficiency in a spirit of much needed and conscious citizenship and participation.

Its economic and social aspects encompass international policy and national policies for the application of the new concepts of sustainable development, especially in developing countries in regard to strategies for combating extreme poverty, while at the same time involving both developed and developing countries in fostering changes in production and consumption patterns. The suggestions made in regard to public health and the quality of human settlements are highly significant. Another aspect I consider to be of delicate actuality concerns the planet’s limitations, which albeit they are not singled out exactly in those terms, are nevertheless addressed, as for example in the inter-relations between sustainability and population dynamics.

The Agenda 21 addresses the balance of interests struck between the planet and development embodied in the sustainable development concept from various different angles: protection of the atmosphere, energy transition, soil stewardship, marine resources, freshwater resource management, desertification, biological diversity, the value of education, etc.

In the actions it proposes, the document does not fail to address the importance of financial mechanisms or the production and supply of technology to provide essential support to sustainability management, the development of science and education, and culture, as the basic elements for the construction of environmental awareness. It also contains, when addressing the revisions of national and international institutions needed to achieve sustainable development, the complex problems associated to qualifying administrative personnel for efficient management and other issues we usually address today under the heading of governability.

Although it was criticised because of its low level of operability, the Sustainable Development Council [CDS] was a sensible product of the Agenda 21, however, it was inadequately accommodated in the United Nations System and lacked the coordinating powers that were expected of it.

Finally, the most important feature of the period from 1992 to 2012 has been the participation of public opinion, the increasingly important engagement of the citizenry in this debate, the generalised awareness of the importance of dialogue in which the Internet is in the front line of the communication media. In 1992, in spite of the important participation of civil society organisations, it was not possible to sound the feelings or feel the pulse of the interest of the citizen or of society at large. Nowadays, everything points to a civil society occupying a position of outstanding importance and consideration. The Rio+20 will take place in Rio but it will simultaneously involve the whole world through the virtual medium.

Among the resolutions from the Rio 92, in which area were there no advancements?
I am not pessimistic about progress made; I am aware that it is necessarily slow in the international sphere. In the national spheres, however, I find it a bit harder to understand, because the necessary leverage is in the hands governments and they have instruments for political economic and social action embedded in the hearts of their States.

However, political processes are not linear

Relations among States continue to be ritualistic in their respect for the principle of sovereignty, and that requires time. Governments represent the will of their citizens according to their national legal judicial regimes, democratic consensus wherever democracy is in place, identification of interests, and so on. They have the faculty of being able to determine the internal legal-judicial conditions and so, naturally they can be more efficacious.

As for the failure to materialise many of the expectations created in 1992, we cannot ignore the vested interests that existed and their opposition, which paralysed many actions. Resistance to change is strong not only in the national sphere but in the international sphere too. There are differing levels of development, innumerable unbalances; ideological convictions are deeply rooted and there are cultural differences, all of which are impediments to understanding and progress.

The power of inertia needs to be overcome and moments of crisis like the one we are witnessing at the moment, unfolding on both sides of the North Atlantic, offer an opportunity for change. In that sense, the Rio +20 Conference is highly propitious for creating it. 

What should be the main outcome of Rio+20?
Full awareness of the planet-wide crisis in development according to the models we have been adopting is something that this great conference will surely provide. What is needed is to be daring enough in asserting that now is the time to revise the paradigms that have been guiding humanity’s actions on a planet, whose limits can be exhausted.

Here I would apply Lampedusa’s maxim in ‘The Leopard’ of the urgency of ‘changing to preserve’. There needs to be change in order to impart sustainability, not just to the economy, but to the planet and the humanity that it and its unique ecosystem are home to. 

What is your opinion on the draft text for Rio+20?
The base text is not a document that needs to be criticised or condemned. It is just a draft document drawn up by the Secretariat based on over 600 contributions of varied origins. It is up to the States to modify it or even, if they choose, to ignore it.

Compiled the way it has been, it fails to achieve the desired objective, which would be, to be capable of exerting influence, because it lacks any impact. In any event I will risk an opinion and say that what it lacks is focus. In fact it repeats themes and suggestions that have been exhaustively addressed in earlier documents of a far better quality. I do not believe that what we need is a text that mimics other texts and is set out in two hundred pages without any focus.

To represent that set of sector based claims and demands, which is how I define the base document, there is no need for a new document; it would be enough just to underscore the worth of the well-formulated and exhaustively studied Agenda 21, which addresses all the themes, considers all the sectors, suggests working methods, indicates lines of action and… already exists!

On the other hand, the Rio Declaration and the Millennium Declaration have both been exhaustively affirmed but not always applied, or not applied by all concerned. The Rio + 20 Conference needs to be visionary. It is a moment for us to reformulate our vision of the world and the future. It is within the grasp of the world leadership that will be represented in Rio in June, to act like statesmen and point to the mistakes and gross errors inherent to the currently adopted models of economic order, of social order and priorities and of care for natural assets that are, by definition, finite.

It is time to recognise the planet’s limitations and the urgent need for an immediate intervention to change the direction civilization is heading in.

Visionary in its attitude, capable of constructing the scenario of the future, it must act with detachment in facing up to the improper and unfair way in which wealth is been organised in the world of today. Its ambition must include making the necessary changes to the paradigms, including the ways in which natural assets are appropriated and transformed, in order to guarantee the stable survival of the planet over time and the dignity of human life.

The conference can, and must assume the great urgency of change and define the route, show the way to achieve it, so that humanity as a whole, in all its conditions and manifestations can shoulder the burden of ensuring its own survival.

The concept of sustainability must not be dilapidated. With it, for the first time, we have managed to enrich our understanding of what development means. 

What is the feasibility of creating the so-called "green economy"? Would a 'blue economy' also be important?
It does not seem to me to be a good moment to introduce a phrase that was coined during the evolution of the sustainable development concept. Something that has not yet been clearly defined could lead to mistaken interpretations, discriminations and restrictions. ‘Green Economy’ is not a known category in economics and I cannot see how it could be enunciated as an item on an ambitious agenda for the Rio +20 without upsetting the progressive and more efficient application of the ‘sustainable development’ concept. From what can be understood of the phrase, the ‘green economy’ would never be a model for automatic implementation nor would it be uniform for all countries. The characteristics of societies and institutions are quite distinct for each country and it would be up to them to determine their goals and methods in their pursuit of sustainable development. If we are to inset the phrase as an element of the larger concept, I imagine it would be acceptable that the denomination should stand for some of the goals that make up part of the path to be followed. I would not mention one colour or another but, rather, all the colours and that they should illuminate our survival.

How can the business sector and civil society contribute to environmental conservation and sustainable development?
I do not have any ready-made models for the engagement of each sector of society in the pursuit of sustainable development, but I can safely say that for our planetary venture to achieve success, the engagement of all sectors is absolutely essential. Neither can I refrain from stating that if we carry on at the rate and with the model that we have adopted up until now, we will surely founder. The planet will not sustain a humanity that challenges it with such a wilful project of depredation as we have been practicing
Change, the courage to change, new pathways...

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