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Rio Conference UNCED 1992




The follow-up to the Stockholm Conference in 1972 was UNCED, the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. Unlike in Stockholm, the purpose was to combine the requirements for environmental considerations with the requirements for economic development.

The ideological guiding star for this was the so-called Brundtland report; the concept launched there was ”sustainable development”. The definition of the term was presented in two partly contradictory ways. Partly as a wish list with the goal of eliminating poverty and environmental problems and on the other hand sustainable growth that would be achieved through cooperation between corporations, the state and what were called non-governmental organizations, NGOs. Unfortunately, there was no description there of how this contradictory sustainable development would be achieved, it became a task for the conference to sort out.

The conference adopted, (in addition to a declaration on desirable objectives), two conventions:
- a Climate Convention on ”voluntary” stabilization of emissions to 1990 levels, with special responsibility for rich countries to support the poor in achieving this goal,
- a Convention on Biological Diversity, including the right of every nation to its genetic resources,
- a statement on forest principles which, inter alia, stipulates that a country may not use its forests to the detriment of other countries, and
- Agenda 21, an action program to achieve the objectives set out in the Declaration, Conventions and Principles; so much action may not have been there but rather a division into different sub-goals to try to achieve if one wanted.

As for the content of all these documents, it clashed immediately.

For the rich countries, the main interest was to have the principle of free trade enshrined as the goal, purpose and means of environmental and development policy, and to have their own transnational corporatioins adopted as the main actors to implement it. For this happened during the most market euphoric period, before all financial crises.

For the poor countries, the main interest was that the right to economic development must be guaranteed and that the rich countries should pay for the transition to sustainable ones. Agenda 21 promised funding for the transition by increasing aid to 0.7% of GDP in industrialized countries. The reality was the opposite and in the years following the Rio Conference, aid was reduced.

In addition, there were the oil countries, whose main interest was to remove any reference to the harmfulness of fossil fuels from the writings.

And in another addition, the United States’ special interest came from refusing any conceivable change in its lifestyle and role in the world.

The popular movements, which had played a prominent role in Stockholm in 1972, played a much smaller one in Rio in 1992. The global elites had had twenty years to formulate a strategy to regain hegemony and succeeded quite well with this. While the popular movements, or in the UN language ”NGOs”, in Stockholm had been dominated by member organizations on the ground and radical activists from third world countries, the popular movement scene in Rio was dominated by international offices and aid organizations, each focused on a specific issue, often funded by the state, and often without a basis in democratic local work. Cooperation in conflict with the interests of large corporations, important for the conference’s results, became almost impossible.

On the other hand, they managed to reach some agreement on certain principles that had some significance for the future, namely that popular movements must cooperate, that the link between environment and development issues was important (but perhaps not the states’ definition of this), and that international networking must be regionalized.


The official website of UNCED

Wikipedia summary

The Brundtland report

Agenda 21


Tomas Wallgren: Unsustainable about sustainability, comment on the Brundtland report - short version

Third World Resurgence: Sustainable Development - Ten Concepts That Clarify the Concept

Patrick McCully, WISE: Achieving Sustainability, Organizational Action by UNCED

Pratap Chatterjee and Mathias Finger, SEED: How to Read the UNCED Process

Tord Björk: The Emerging NGO system

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