The Future We Need? Hundreds of Civil Society Members Walk Out of Rio+20

A question that is milling around Rio Centro, where the Rio+20 Earth Summit has been taking place for the past week-and-a-half is: What do we want and what are we going to get? Although the Rio+20 process has direct ways to engage civil society in policy development called the Major Groups, many civil society members who have been shaping the soon-to-be outcome text for over a year are now questioning if their voices are really being heard.

For many, the Rio+20 process has been a roller coaster of “wins” and “losses”, and has been dominated by a dual sense of both urgency and apathy. In the hallways, when talking to NGO representatives, I’m often hearing, “I don’t know what I’m doing here. I’m just not excited.” However, on the other end of the spectrum, there have been tears of joy and powerful handshakes of agreement during side events, awards presentations, and negotiations. The question for some is how to get our voice heard by our governments. For others, it is how to get things done on the ground. And for others, it’s about how to shake things up.

In a place where it would be hard to put more diversity of opinions in a room, the Rio+20 Earth Summit is a landmark event–a bringing together of minds, bodies, and ideas. It’s also, a deep source of frustration for many; A process that has been looked to by many as a potential ‘beacon of light’ in the environment, social justice, and economic reform arenas, but that is also restrained within the confines of a complex United Nations platform. Undoubtedly, it is a place where large country mandates, and even bigger leaders’ egos, butt heads over the state of the planet.

So, what’s the answer? What do you do as a civil society member in this game we are playing? For me, I’ve chosen to push within the system. I’ve come to peace with the inadequacies of the process, while simultaneously demanding change from inside the doors of Rio Centro and the Rio+20 processes. At the same time, I feel at home with creative and engaging actions to raise awareness, our voices, and even more importantly to reach our media. As civil society actors, we have a responsibility to help shape the story of Rio+20, and all of the issues that we tackle on a daily basis, for the press and with our communities. So, what do we want them to know? What do we want to take home with us?


Today, hundreds of civil society members, let by members of the movement and youth organizations, decided that their message was “Walk Out, Not Sell Out!”and they officially walked out of the Rio+20 negotiations. As the protesters rallied through the stale Rio Centro halls shouting, “The Future We Want is not here!”, the pressed flashed their cameras and delegates got out their iPhones. Handing in their badges, many of them decided that the People’s Summit is where they want to shape the plans for the future. A powerful action, the walkout drew a crowd and will undoubtedly reach the newspapers and evening news.

As the crowd finished their final rally cries and crossed the Rio Centro threshold, however, the scene inside immediately returned to the usual; People continued to rush from meeting to meeting, and the security went back to their stations. So, my question is: What is the Rio+20 story that will be told? From this, and many other actions that we have undertaken during Rio+20, what does it say to our communities? It certainly expresses frustration. It expresses anger and direct action. But does it represent the change we need? Outside of these doors, is that group of hundreds going to create a plan for a sustainable future that our neighbors will be excited about? Will they rally the masses for a ‘green, just, global revolution”? I’m not so sure.


Also today, civil society members got together to present a statement to governments about their dissatisfaction in the process. Their statement puts the cries of the walk out into more policy-based words, stating:

The Rio+20 we don’t want: The Future We Want is not to be found in the document that bears this name. The Future We Want is not what resulted from the Rio +20 negotiation process.

The future that we want has commitment and action, not just promises. It has the urgency needed to reverse the social, environmental and economic crisis, not postpone it. It has cooperation and is in tune with civil society and its aspirations, and not just the comfortable position of governments.

None of these can be found in the 283 paragraphs of the official document that will be the legacy of this Conference. The document entitled The Future We Want is weak and falls far short of the spirit and the advances made over the years since Rio-92. It even falls far short of the importance and urgency of the issues addressed. Fragile and generic agendas for future negotiations do not guarantee results.

Rio +20 will go into History as the UN conference that offered global society a outcome marked by serious omissions. It endangers the preservation and social and environmental resilience of the planet, as well as any guarantee of acquired human rights for present and future generations.

For all these reasons, we, as many civil society groups and individuals, register our profound disappointment with the heads of State, under whose guidance and orders the negotiators worked, and we state that we do not condone or endorse this document.

For me, the answers don’t lie in the negotiating room or in the protests. They lie in the diversity of actions and the strength of commitments that each of us, no matter where on the metaphorical totem pole we sit, are willing to take. We can yell, and I do, but our voices ARE being heard by many. I’m ready for the challenge of having our talk become real, effective action.

By Tara DePorte, Executive Director and Founder, Human Impacts Institute

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