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Rod Oram’s Rio Blog #2

Written By Rod Oram, Rod’s Rio Blog # 2, Saturday 16th June:

The warm-up:

Nobody knows quite how many people have come to Rio de Janeiro for the United Nations’ Rio+20 sustainable development summit – estimates vary from 35,00 to 70,000.

But everybody knows why they’re here: to change a global system they believe is stuffed; or to defend a global system that serves them well; or as observers of the clash between the two.

The drama plays out in a bewildering array of places, styles and speeds:

– Negotiations are taking place in the cavernous RioCentro, usually the home to mega-trade shows. They are deeply arcane and tortuously slow.

– Official fringe events happen near by in a gigantic athletics park. They range from earnest country pavilions to the UN’s environmental programme’s place. The agency has conscientiously shunned air conditioning, substituting large fans that push hot and humid air over visitors.

– The gargantuan corporate sustainability forum, which has attracted a global elite, albeit not the A-listers who turn up at Davos, is running like clockwork through 100 sessions in three days at a smart beachfront hotel.

– The People’s Summit is an encampment on Flamengo Beach downtown. Greenpeace and some other NGOs have chosen to hang out here with the People’s Assembly, loosely modeled on the Occupy Movement. The latest Rainbow Warrior is moored nearby,

– And in countless other venues, by arrangement or chance, people are meeting to persuade, lobby, argue, entreat, rail, ridicule or otherwise try to shift the thinking of humankind.

So far Rio, as a big city, can handle this cacophony of lead-up meetings. But next week, when the summit proper starts, will be the real test. Streets will close and police-escorted motorcades will whip through town between grand hotels, consulates and UN venues carrying some 100 heads of states plus sundry other politicians. New Zealand will be represented by Amy Adams, the environment minister. She has a short, early morning speaking slot the first day of the summit.

Rio is almost on its best behavior. So far only a few reports have surfaced of delegates being mugged or their cars hijacked. But comfort comes at a cost. Even a relatively modest room in the official hotels near the smart beaches cost US$450 a night or so, if you can find one. And then it still takes delegates 60-90 minutes through heavy traffic on a free, official air conditioned shuttle bus to get to the RioCentro.

Being a cheap-skate freelancer paying his own bills, I’ve halved the cost by taking the opposite tactic – budget hotel and expensive transport. On Expedia, after months of repeated searches, a hotel turned up 50km west from RioCentro, out in Santa Cruz, a satellite town. I’m paying more for taxis each day than I am for bed and breakfast…but at least I get to RioCentro in 35 minutes through light traffic.

The hotel, with extensive grounds far more beautiful and better kept than my small room, and a delightfully helpful staff, came with an unexpected bonus. A fellow guest is an Ethiopian environmental expert representing eight Horn of Africa countries and the wider African Union.

A veteran of innumerable negotiations around the world, he lined up a hotel employee to run us into RioCentro each day in his own small car at half the cost of a taxi. I only pay full taxi fares back home in the evening because my days moseying around usually run longer than his days of negotiations.

Over breakfast and on our drives he is giving me a running tutorial on Ethiopia, Africa and the state of play for the G77 group of developing countries.

He broke some hot news tonight when we rode back to our hotel. The preparatory negotiations had got so bogged down that Brazil, as host country, had stepped in. They weren’t supposed to take over chairing until the summit starts next Wednesday. But they were alarmed by the risk “their” summit would end in a debacle.

The stats speak for themselves. Months of preparatory meetings around the world had delivered a draft text for the summit with 329 paragraphs. But only 21% of them had been agreed at the end of the last pre-Rio meeting on June 2. As of Friday night the text was had slimmed to 319 paragraphs but only 37% had been agreed.  As ever, the developed and developing countries are on different planets.

No negotiations took place today while Brazilian seized the reins and tried to figure out how to get a near-fully agreed document by the time the heads of state arrive.

That leaves four days to save the world…one paragraph at a time.

I can’t take the pace. Tomorrow, I’m heading to the beach…to the People’s Summit. It might not save the world…but it’s having a lot of fun trying.


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