First Impressions at Rio+20: A Question of Scale?

© Paula Alvarado

The landmarks and landscapes that make every iconic photo from Rio de Janeiro are nowhere to be found at Riocentro, the convention center where the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20) is taking place. Except perhaps in banners and in the special set of stamps the mail service is selling at a stand inside the event. What you see at Barra da Tijuca, a neighborhood southwest from the center of the city planned following American urban trends at the end of the 1960s, are fenced tall buildings, jammed cars, and bucolic open spaces that feel intimidating.

The reason why a conference on sustainable development takes place in a place that stands for everything that a healthy sustainable community is not, is the sheer size of the event: there is not, I was explained by the Rio+20 coordinator at City Hall last May, a place as big and secure as Riocentro that is closer to the shiny sand and green mountains. But the explanation doesn’t take away the contradiction and the confusion everyone is feeling with having to spend two hours inside of a bus all the time.

© Paula Alvarado

Frustration I think is the word, and it doesn’t just apply to the official event: there is perhaps one hour between each node where activities are taking place (broadly: Barra da Tijuca, Copacabana and Aterro de Flamengo), and since events have not been particularly organized by subject it’s very difficult to follow a planned schedule (meaning you may have booked two events you were interested in, but soon realize you may make none having so much moving to do).

This is probably why when the folks at 350.org threw a small action today at Copacabana beach the media turnover was better than actual people’s: I guess journalists were just happy to have something specific to cover and a good photo opportunity.

© Paula Alvarado

My arrival at Riocentro was at least softened by the friendly vegan activists from an organization called Climate Sustainable Certification Center (CSCC), who were giving away 300 vegan meals to convince people such food is great tasting and motivate a shift away from meat.

When trying to make sense of the event and its significance, these subjects of scale came to head: is it possible that negotiations such as this are just trying to cover too much, too broadly? This is not, as some advocates are interpreting, the same thing to say we should let the planet burn. Far from that: it’s more of a question of how to approach such huge themes to promote action more than talk.

Slideshow: Postcards from a Nascent UN Conference on Sustainable Development, Rio+20

An example: while walking around Riocentro, what called my attention was not the ambitious Sustainable Development Dialogues session or the great number of events that were talking place inside rooms, but a small exhibition put together by the New York Museum of Modern Art. Called Museum as Design Laboratory, it showed nine cases in which design applied to the subject of dwelling was trying to solve problems and create a better quality of living. It threw me back to the issue of cities getting a step ahead of national governments in tackling sustainable development, going from the local to the global.

Again, the question is not whether or not the global process should be given up, but why we should let local authorities (both on city and country levels) wait until an accord forces them to do something.

Follow all Rio+20 coverage here. I'm in Rio until June 23, if you have any leads or want to point us in the direction of an interesting event, please e-mail paula@treehugger.com or tweet me at @paualvarado.

Tags: Brazil | Environmental Policy | Rio+20 | Sustainable Development