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Rio+20 Conference: Stark Contrasts and Little Common Ground

Historic Fort Copacabana is one of the venues for the Rio+20 conferences. Photo by Fred de Sam Lazaro for the PBS NewsHour.

RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil | Variety is an inherent fringe benefit of this job, but rarely does it get more jarring than in these past two weeks, which have taken me from the famine zone in Africa’s Sahel region to glittering beachside hotels and the convention center in Rio de Janeiro.

In rural Niger, we filmed the withering bodies of young children and a scramble by government and aid agencies to contain the effects of what has become chronic hunger. In Rio later this week, more than 100 heads of state will gather for the U.N. Conference on Sustainable Development.

Called Rio+20, the goal is to update agreements reached at the original Earth summit here in 1992, which addressed environmental issues that threaten food security and development in places like Niger and complicate efforts to attack poverty. However, the results from Rio ’92 and other high level global agreements have at best been mixed.

There’s been progress in restoring the ozone layer, for example, but carbon dioxide emissions, which most scientists agree contribute to planetary warming, have increased 38 percent between 1990 and 2008. Eighty five percent of the oceans’ fish stocks are “over-exploited, depleted, recovering or fully exploited,” according to a U.N. report.

The number of people living in absolute poverty (at or below $1.25 per day) has declined substantially and per capita gross domestic product grew 75 percent between 1992 and 2005. However, the gains have been geographically lopsided, with China and distantly second India accounting substantially for them. Hunger has actually increased — particularly in sub Saharan Africa — due to poor access to food and increasing prices, while environmental degradation imperils future food production. Globally, there is growing inequality between haves and have-nots. Of all the proxies for the gaping divide, this one from the U.N. report stood out for me:

“Food wasted by consumers in high-income countries (222 million tons) is roughly equal to the entire food production of sub-Saharan Africa (230 million tons).”

In fact, almost as much food is wasted in poor countries as rich, the report adds. However, in the former, 40 percent of the food loss is due to poor storage and transportation. In the rich world, 40 percent of the waste occurs at the retail and consumer levels — leftovers.

I was invited to Rio to moderate of one of a series of panel discussions prior to the main conference. Organized by the Brazilian government, their goal was to add the voices of ordinary citizens to the discourse and agreements. In recent weeks, online debates and dialogs were conducted globally and distilled down to a range of recommendations for action.

Among those from our panel, whose topic was “Sustainable Development to Fight Poverty” were access to education (globally 67 million children did not attend school in 2009), health care, water and sanitation (2.6 billion people lack access to the latter) and a sharing of both modern and traditional technology that could lead to improved yields and sustainable agricultural production. (The summit website has more information.)

Many panelists in this “pre-conference” agreed there’s a general shortage of specifics or optimism for substantive action on the myriad challenges of sustainable development, especially given current political and economic realities in key nations. The heads of state of the United States, Germany and Britain will not be among those at Rio+20. One cannot help wonder how worlds as disparate as rural Niger and beachside Rio could find common ground.

All this has not dampened the enthusiasm of activists of all stripes who’ve come here with placards and more sophisticated publicity strategies. Many invoke the “Arab Spring” as they talk about pushing for change from the bottom up.

One panelist, Pavan Sukhdev, a former banker and consultant on sustainable growth, said that in a world of finite and dwindling resources and a population that will reach nine billion by 2050, sustainability is not an option but an imperative. Already, he said, we are spending nature’s principle, not its interest.

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