Volume 16, No.05 - May 2012

Feature articles

The voice of civil society at Rio+20


It has become something of a given that significant new national or international issues that are addressed by government must include a component of multi-stakeholder involvement. That multi-stakeholder model was invented at the United Nations’ 1992 ‘Earth Summit’ and formalized in Agenda 21. For Rio+20, Major Groups have been invited to present general policy inputs for the “zero draft” document.

The extent of the role that various stakeholders would play was not fully anticipated in 1992, when the idea of active participation by the independent sector first was reflected in a document at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development. Agenda 21 – the Summit’s blueprint of action to achieve sustainable development – acknowledged and codified those stakeholder sectors as the “Major Groups”.  Nine Groups were explicitly identified: Women, Children and Youth, Indigenous Peoples, Non- Governmental Organizations, Local Authorities, Workers and Trade Unions, Business and Industry, the Scientific and Technological community, and Farmers.

Major Groups included a vast number of non-governmental actors whose input was becoming increasingly critical in defining policies and mechanisms related to sustainable development issues. 

Each major group was given its own chapter in Agenda 21 defining its role, areas of influence, obstacles and responsibilities in achieving sustainable social patterns. Those roles could involve being consumers of resources, producers, innovators, communicators or role models who could pioneer new techniques and motivate others to move towards more sustainable practices.

A social dimension

One of the most visionary aspects of Agenda 21 and the 1992 Summit was the premise that, in addition to the environmental and economic dimensions that needed to achieve integration, a social dimension also needed to be addressed. Without access to adequate clean water, energy, nutrition, education, individual rights and information or participation in local democratic decision making, people around the world would not be able to focus on the longer term requirements of a sustainable future.

The understanding was that enabling every single sector to take action would not only benefit itself, but benefit the broader society as well. And it could help build public constituencies in favor of sustainability-friendly policies and programs that could motivate political leaders to act as well. In general, the “Major Groups” approach has proven to be a functional and definitely useful example of wide-ranging civil society participation

Since 1992, these groups participated in each annual meeting of the UN Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD), and in subsequent Review processes, such as the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg. They attend many types of intergovernmental meetings and have opportunities to speak at most plenary meetings. They hold consultations with bureau representatives on process, and with governments on substantive issues. They receive official documents and distribute their own. They organize side-events and build coalitions through meeting among themselves.

A growing stakeholder’s involvement

Over the past two decades, similar models of multistakeholder involvement have been adopted by various UN agencies and programmes, and by other intergovernmental processes, if in less intensive forms, such as the World Bank, the IMF and the G20. There has been a broad movement toward increased stakeholder participation that has taken place at the local, sub-national and global governance levels – not to mention the growth of stakeholder consultations with business and industry. 

The Rio+20 process has continued the involvement of the Agenda 21 major groups, and in some ways expanded it. This past November, for the first time in a General Assembly Conference-level negotiation, the accredited major groups organizations were invited to present general policy inputs – at the same time as governments – to the planned Rio+20 ‘zero draft’ document.  Nearly 500 organizations did so. And in February, the DESA Division of Sustainable Development accepted specific additional text comments to the emerging Conference draft document, and integrated them into an informal parallel document – brackets and all – so that interested governments could have easy access to those groups suggested positions.

Towards a Sustainable Development Council

Major groups generally hope that an acceptable way can be found to strengthen the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), and to start the process toward the establishment of a Sustainable Development Council that would maintain and hopefully upgrade the active participation that they had in the Commission on Sustainable Development.

On the ‘green economy in the context of poverty eradication and sustainable development’, there is a significant range of opinions and concerns among major group organizations. Many organizations expressed concerns that this new notion could ‘water down’ the unanimously agreed principles of sustainable development, in a way that could result in regarding natural resources merely as commodities, and would open the door to any business using ‘green’ terminology without meaning.

Most major groups will be trying to communicate to the public that a sustainable future is possible; that there are a large number of proven, effective programmes and technologies already at work; and that sustainable societies would provide affordable, achievable and attractive communities to live in.

Major groups all agree on one point: the success at Rio+20 is essential. 

The author of this article, Michael Strauss, has been involved with media relations for Major Groups over the last two decades. 

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Indigenous peoples and the right to food


Where data exist, they show that levels of hunger and malnutrition among indigenous peoples are much higher than among the non-indigenous population. Indigenous peoples and their right to food and food sovereignty will be one of the focus of the Eleventh Session of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII), to be held at UN Headquarters in New York from 7 to 18 May 2012.

Understanding what the right to food means to indigenous peoples goes beyond merely examining statistics on hunger, malnutrition or poverty. It encompasses indigenous peoples’ own particular conceptions of food, hunger, and subsistence. It has to be understood as a collective right, where food procurement and consumption of food are part of culture, as well as of social, economic and political organization. In addition, subsistence activities such as hunting, fishing and gathering are essential not only to their right to food, but to nurturing their cultures, languages, social life and identity.

The few available data on indigenous peoples’ nutrition shows that inappropriate development efforts often intensify the marginalization, poverty and food insecurity of indigenous peoples. Addressing the lack of disaggregated data on the situation of indigenous peoples, including on the extent if hunger and malnutrition, has been indicated as a key priority by the Inter-Agency Support Group on Indigenous Issues.

Traditional food jeopardized

The realization of indigenous peoples’ right to food depends crucially on their access to and control over the natural resources in the land and territories they occupy or use. Industrial development, especially mining and logging, as well as urban sprawl have polluted land, water and air. The creation of reserves, national parks, private lands and over-fishing have further reduced the areas and resources available to indigenous hunters, fishers and gatherers. Changing environmental conditions due to climate change that jeopardize traditional food species further exacerbate food insecurity.

Recent practices violating indigenous peoples’ intellectual property rights – such as “bioprospecting” or “biopiracy” – pose a threat to indigenous peoples’ genetic resources and traditional knowledge. Indigenous peoples want to be consulted about the ways their knowledge is used, and to equitably share in any benefits.

Food as a social indicator of existence

Over the years indigenous peoples have expressed deep concerns over the obstacles and challenges their communities face in fully enjoying their right to food. Indigenous peoples have urged the Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food to address these issues as a separate question to his work. The Declaration of Atitlán drafted at the First Indigenous Peoples’ Global Consultation on the Right to Food in April 2002 in Guatemala stated that the denial of the Right to Food for Indigenous Peoples is a denial of their collective indigenous existence, because it not only denies their physical survival, but also their social organization, cultures, traditions, languages, spirituality, sovereignty, and total identity.

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The right to food and indigenous peoples:

Urban population to grow more than ever

The Population Division of UN DESA launched on 5 April the 2011 Revision of the World Urbanization Prospects.  “Urban areas are expected to absorb all future population growth between 2011 and 2050. They will effectively have to cope with the equivalent of the world population of 1950 by the year 2050″, said Mr. Jomo Kwame Sundaram, Assistant Secretary-General for Economic Development.

While the world population is expected to increase by 2.3 billion, the population living in urban areas is projected to gain 2.6 billion, representing the entire future population growth and even drawing some rural population into urban areas.

“We need to focus on the absolute numbers instead of growth percentages. Why? Because people drink water, not percentages. People need sewage systems. People need housing. It is absolute numbers that count in many aspects” said Mr. Gerhard Heilig, Chief of the Population Estimates and Projections Section. Because of the expected increase in urban population, a lot of new infrastructure will have to be built, just to keep up with the growth rates.

According to the Report, five out of every six new urban residents will be either in Asia or in Africa, where the growth is expected to be the greatest. Special focus should be put on the mega-cities of 10 million inhabitants or more, where evidence shows most rapid growth. While in the 1970s, there were only two such cities; in 1990, there were already ten. Today, there are 23 mega-cities, and in 2025, we expect to have 37. There seems to be a process of urban concentration: cities with more than 1 million inhabitants will increase their share of the urban population, while cities with less than 1 million inhabitants will have a declining share of the urban population of the world.

The significance of the 2011 Revision of the World Urbanization Prospects is largely due to the availability of the new census data. While the previous 2009 revision relied on data from the 2000 census, the 2011 revision relies on information collected from the 2010 census, allowing for more accurate projections.

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