The launch of the People’s Summit: « Transition now! » Porto Alegre (Brazil) 24th to 29th January 2012

Martine Theveniaut, March 2012

In other languages : français - Português - Español

The obstacle is clearly identified: the fragmented responses linked to the lack of any clear expectations that can unify the live forces around shared perspectives. Every State speaks for their country alone. The major groups defend the interests of their sector. And the sum total does not add up to make a global whole. RIO+20 is an invitation to global civil society to come together…in Brazil! Brazil, the home of organised social resistance movements, vitality and long-lasting relationships with Europe!

«Reinventing the world»

The “People’s Summit of RIO+20 for social and environmental justice” aims to be a founding moment, and run parallel to the official Earth Summit. It aims to demonstrate the political strength of organised movements and their ability to confront the major issues of the planet, as these issues are theirs! The networks preparing for the Summit came together in an open space. Between 300 and 400 organisations took part, and were represented by a facilitation committee made up of the key Brazilian networks: indigenous peoples, women, black communities, trade unions…the Brazilian Solidarity economy Forum, represented by Andrea Mendes was one of them.

Networks from neighbouring countries were also present. Bolivia played a prominent role, with Pablo Solon, negotiator for his country in Cancun playing an important part. He has resigned from his position as governmental advisor. Indian communities from 8 different countries of the Amazon Basin are strongly resisting the non-consultative decisions, agendas and methods being forced upon them. They have built a collective project based on their cosmovisions. The international dimension of the meeting included networks from South Africa, the Maghreb and Palestine.

The event will take place in the Flamengo Park in Rio de Janeiro from June 17th – 23rd 2012, to run parallel to and independently from the official conference. There will be self-managed discussion groups around a Permanent People’s Assembly that will operate with “outside/inside” relations to the official forum, putting forward proposals to the institutional negotiators.

The facilitation Committee for the preparation of the People’s Summit has an executive committee that includes the CUT, a powerful trade union in Brazil, the Via Campesina and the Landless People’s Movement, the Reflection and Support Group of the World Social Forum (1), the Brazilian Forum of Social Movements and the People’s Summit: an intertwined dynamic.

Initially the Thematic Social Forum was planned for 2-3000 people, and aimed to prepare for the People’s Summit through systemic thematic work groups, operating over a several-month period.

The work covers four thematic axes:

a) Ethical and philosophical foundations: subjectivity, domination and emancipation;

b) Human rights, Peoples, territories and defence of Mother Earth;

c) Access to wealth, common goods and transition economy;

d) Political subjects, the architecture of power and democracy.

Sharing the results should “support the connection of experience with political contributions in an international process; the agenda for change, electronic fora, and different languages of participants (2). The French delegation of the RIO+20 committee was founded in order to contribute on the basis of their own work and to determine how best to contribute to a collective strategy (3).

Interference between the different objectives of the meeting did not allow the thematic groups to make the most of the meetings, and the organisation was mainly voluntary. The ideological inheritance of “democratic centralism » clashed with overwhelming self-management processes and emotional clashes of leadership. Accepting the idea that work has already been accomplished also implies accepting rules and building trust through transparent processes. In reality, the event was far greater in scale. It mobilised many Brazilians in the current municipal pre-electoral period as well as people from the neighbouring Latin American countries, and centred on the geopolitical context of the continent. There were between 20,000 and 30,000 participants, and almost 1,000 self-organised activities! Very few Africans or Asians took part. Many people discovered the intertwined nature of the thematic Social Forum and the People’s Summit for the first time.

The meeting did however chart the resources and weakness of civil society that is attempting to seize the helm on the basis of what is the current state of play. This probably represents an indispensable and useful stage in an uncharted process of affirmation.

The current position of the official process.

The 0 Draft of the United Nations published in January “The future we want” is poor. The declarations by the G77 put nothing on the table. The institutional mechanics are blocked, although taken individually, the countries are critical. In the chapter on governance, the key issue is that everyone speaks on behalf of their own country. There is no crosscutting vision and no legitimacy to defend common goods, no United Nations organisation to carry this issue forward. Certain States are more committed than others, like Brazil, China, the Small Island Developing States (SIDS), several Latin American countries, and, to some extent, India. African countries are more receptive, given the fact that a United Nations Agency has its headquarters in Nairobi. Canada, is closed to all these issues, and is capable of causing the whole conference to fail.

The United Nations has certain expectations from the not-for-profit third sector. This is an indicator of economic progress, as well as access to rights, services, and increased interest in all oceans. There is greater maturity on some themes than others in terms of what progress is possible: water, food sovereignty and the genuine representation of civil society as a third pillar. Given the strength of certain lobbies at the UN, would it not be possible to institutionalise a formal consultative process, similar to that of the Economic and Social Committees in Europe? Or like the Civil Society Mechanism of the Committee for Food Security of the FAO? Or an official body for State commitments, with international follow-up?

The political entrance of the Occupy movement.

The Occupy movement played a strategic role in the meeting. Their camp is outside the legislative assembly of the state of Rio Grande do Sul. They were invited to participate by the organisers of the Thematic Social Forum on three consecutive days, between midday and 2 p.m., and they testified and discussed non-stop between the official sessions. On the third day, they moderated a plenary session. They were surrounded, called upon, and urged to join in the dynamics of what was happening, and although not all of them were members of the WSF, they support this struggle and are aware that “existing organisations fail to respond to the current issues”. The Indignados (members of Occupy!) from Greece, Spain (Catalonia), Britain, the USA and students from Chile have understood that “the political parties do not have the answers”. The believe that “they need to take responsibility for changing things and finding the means of strengthening democracy and the way that power is exercised”.

One year after the beginning of the popular uprisings, the Occupy movement in various countries of the Arab world find it easier to “identify their friends and their enemies among the extremists: the Islamic supporters are better organised and have won the first round and the elections; the Western countries let the dictators that they have got rid of get on with things, before supporting them for reasons linked to their own interests. The far left is divided and has lost their energy for changing the world”.

Esther Vivas, a Catalonian attendee said, “according to her European experience, it has become clear that capitalism is incompatible with democracy. The Occupy movements’ response is both radical and direct. It is not a cosmetic social democratic reform, but the desire to see genuine democracy that is also economic and self-managed. This is now being achieved through daily experience and through non-violent solutions. Caring for those who have become marginalised and who have no access to medical care, stopping the increasing number of evictions of those who can no longer pay their rent. So far the government hasn’t dared to take them on using police force, as the majority of the population supports them. They are facing many challenges: combining forms of resistance and struggles that are still scattered and a genuine collective dynamic of resistance that is local, national and international; maintaining popular support; strengthening the analyses and including sustainable development that has not until now been considered as a priority, but that is part of the anticapitalist struggle (land, water…). We need to prepare for increased governmental resistance, as this is the beginning of a social revolution”.

The alterglobalisation movement continues to question its own future.

Some old hands stated during the Thematic Social Forum of Porto Alegre: “We are still convinced that our ideas are right, but we are not able to move forward to draw in new people… Our problem is to recruit new members”, said Chico Whitaker, the 80-year old founder member of the Forum. The WSF now only involves a small fraction of the live forces involved in today’s major popular mobilisations fro democracy. This Thematic Social Forum is part of the attempts of an on-going reform to try to build a new dynamic. Of course the CUT and the Via Campesina remain forces that are able to mobilise many people. But their members are divided on the subject of the “green economy”, caught on the horns of a dilemma, because the industrialisation of our country also creates jobs, as president Dilma says! Activists from the sustainable development lobby were also present in the opening march on the 24th of January, with a different position. There appears to have been some lively discussion. The Thematic Social Forum concluded with a declaration by the Assembly of Social Movements and the launch of the People’s Summit at the Porto Alegre Gasometer, on Saturday the 28th January in the evening, introduced by the Forum’s executive committee members. “United in our diversity” was the general trend set by Carmen Foro, secretary for the environment at CUT: the interest of alliances won out over division! This was the best news of the whole meeting…

As a member of the French Collective RIO+20 and of RIPESS Europe, the Thematic Social Forum was a very instructive step in a year-long preparation process. Solid documents, fundamental lines, identified differences…resulting in direct interest and mobilisation. Civil society is confronting its decision-making responsibility: to unite and collectively build constructive coalitions and change the agenda in order to put concrete experience-based proposals on the table that can be “success-stories as of 2012”. Brazil has built bridges between the official Earth Summit conference and the People’s Summit to enable the 4-day period to be more productive than Copenhagen! The strategy has yet to be defined. With the support of Luiz Fernanco Pezao, the vice-governor or Rio de Janeiro, and coordinator of the State infrastructure, the city of Rio hopes to advocate for improved consideration of public infraregional governance. Brazil would like to see a permanent secretariat created to improve the connection between the economic dimension and the MDGs on poverty. Sustainable development will be part of the outcomes that are universal, aspirational and aim for 2030. The balanced importance attached to economic, social and environmental goals will depend on the messages and the strength of the coalitions.


(2) (portugais, anglais, français espagnol)

(3) An open discussion space created by the French RIO+20 collective that brings together over 40 organisations preparing for the Conference.

(4) Available in 4 languages on the website

Sources :

International Newsletter for Sustainable Local Development n°86