It’s been two months since the Rio+20 global summit on Sustainable Development took place in Brazil. The bleak political outcome of the summit that reinforced the public’s low expectations has filtered through the news. This has left many to tighten their hold on the tools of the past and re-trench rather than look for alternative approaches to current problems.
The enormity of the challenges may bring forth a wave of cynicism. Yet, what came out of Rio+20 for many was the realisation that things are happening on the ground. As one Brasilian pictured it: all these actions by individuals, groups and businesses are like small soap bubbles that join each other to expand into a giant soap bubble that will eventually encompass a large portion of society.
The capacity of individuals, groups and businesses to change society to more sustainable practices is enormous. People from all over the world who shared very important characteristics such as the vision of a sustainable, ethical world and the will and courage to make change possible gathered and exchanged 'notes'. Hearing each others stories reinforced a feeling of success. Mutual recognition gave energy to those that gathered as possible collaborations were initiated amongst interdisciplinary groups of individuals, NGOs and business.
The parallel People's Summit focused on the need to contextualise sustainable development depending on the culture of different societies.It also paid attention to the tribes of Brazil and gave many an opportunity to learn about the culture of the indigenous people of Brazil, their problems, hopes and goals.
Emphasis on local and indigenous community initiatives to reduce poverty and bring forth sustainable development was celebrated by the Equator Prize award ceremony for 2012 that took place at the People's Summit. The award presents and acknowledges outstanding initiatives with emphasis on the use and conservation of biodiversity. As an award winner, the village of Ando Kpomey in Togo demonstrates how the expansion of biodiversity and nature directly supports human well-being and development. The village created a green 100 hectare forest around its community limiting resource extraction to meet livelihoods needs and managing revenues from the sale of forest based products. The forest provides firewood for cooking significantly reducing the time spent by women to forage; crops and medicinal plants are grown in the forest bolstering healthcare needs.
Such nurturing of biodiversity markedly contrasts with the global reduction in the Earth's biological resources. The Living Planet Index estimates that since 1970, biodiversity has declined by 28% globally and as much as 61% in the tropical regions. This index uses trends in the size of more than 9,000 populations of mammal, bird, reptile, amphibian and fish species. To frame this in another way, the current loss of biodiversity has been termed the Sixth Mass Extinction.
The number of examples that are successfully tackling the loss of biodiversity combined with the development of human well-being, despite global political inaction, emotionally infused onlookers at Rio+20 as tears of happiness swelled among prize winners. With music by Gilberto Gill, musician and former Minister of Culture in Brasil, participants tricled out onto the streets with a sense of hope and a 'can do' attitude.
Rio+20, for some, was a life changing experience. Participants from different educational, social, religious and national backgrounds were open to change, to learning from different cultures, to listening closely to alternative perspectives and working together for a sustainable future. The lack of initiative on a political level actually offered organisations and individuals the opportunity to realise the importance of their work and the responsibility they hold, which reinforced their will to become even more active and committed to a sustainable world that has human well-being at its heart.