I arrived in Rio de Janiero, Brazil, for the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (popularly known as Rio+20) with a keen sense of curiosity and a healthy dose of skepticism.

For the past year I’ve been working with Canada World Youth, a non-governmental organization (NGO) aimed at getting youth involved in cultural understanding and volunteerism through international and local exchange. Together with 10 other young Canadians, I’ve been working to “connect, engage and mobilize
youth in the context of Rio+20.”

The past few days have been a blur of informative sessions, frank (and not so frank) discussions, frustrating transportation, heavy military presence, and interesting cultural exchange.

By and large, thus far, civil society has been heavily critical and demanding of world leaders — the already agreed upon outcomes document was disappointing for many of the civil society Major Groups. On Wednesday, at the opening plenary discussion, the Major Group for NGOs withdrew support for the official outcomes document, saying it is “removed from reality” and fails to address key problems.

Coming from an environmental perspective, I have been disappointed to hear talks centre almost exclusively around what humans need from the environment, and why we must protect it to ensure our “right” of development, instead of focusing on protecting, conserving and restoring the web of life we are all a part of.

We also heard from Zimbabwe’s president, Robert Mugabe — in my opinion a bizarre choice to make for opening remarks. He chided nations for failing to stick to their promises, and emphasized his desire for continued resource exploitation in Zimbabwe.

We finished out the day mingling with protesters in a massive and festive street demonstration organized by the Peoples Summit.

My overall sense is that, for a conference that is supposed to be “environmental” in focus, I’m hearing more about fiscal sustainability than true environmental change. There are two distinct camps at Rio — those who sincerely believe a paradigm shift is necessary and those who believe that economic solutions will solve environmental problems. So far it seems as if the latter camp is winning.

By Hilary Miller, guest blogger | Canada World Youth