Speaking for the people

Rio saw the largest ever gathering of NGOs -- over 2,000 of them. And finally the world was forced to acknowledge that NGOs were the real voice of the people

Published: Wednesday 15 July 1992

HERALDED in with drums, the fortnight-long Global Forum, held parallel to UNCED, was probably the largest ever gathering of NGOs in the world. It forced the world to sit up and recognise that governments don't always speak for all the people.

From Bahais to Brahma Kumaris and Anand Margis to Amazonians, everyone was there. Vegetarians claimed they had found the answer to the environmental crisis. Gays said homosexuality was ecological. Neomalthusians from the Population Institute extolled the virtues of birth control. Feminists fought hard against any institutional control over their bodies.

From lectures to concerts, symbolic protests to informal meetings, an artificial Tree of Life, with millions of individual pledges to save the world on cutout paper leaves, to the lone figure who, day after day, walked half-bent, a cross on his back, warning that the end was near, the Global Forum had room for everybody.

Governments were also forced to recognise that NGOs cannot be ignored, that this was an appropriate forum to make a point. The chief minister of Gujarat, Chimanbhai Patel, sent his wife and C C Patel, a senior bureaucrat, as part of a government-sponsored NGO to convince people that dams on the Narmada should be built.

A large cross-section of views were expressed, but most of what was happening at the Global Forum had little relevance to the official conference. Said Rosario Ortiz Quijano, a Columbian biologist who belonged to the Fundacion Pro-Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, "The distance between the Global Forum and Riocentro is a real filter. They want to keep us out.

Distinct NGOs

Within the NGOs, there were distinct groups. Some were involved in actively lobbying their governments and other delegations, but an overwhelming number preferred to concentrate on their own private agendas.

A number of Indian NGOs felt lost amidst the carnival. They felt that they, like the Japanese, could have been organised better. One NGO member was upset that Kamal Nath, environment minister, was not meeting them as often as he had promised in Delhi. But few of them made the effort to lobby at Riocentro.

NGOs from the North were far better organised. The big national and international NGOs like Greenpeace, World Wide Fund for Nature and others issued press statements almost every other day. The smaller ones were, however, more involved in their own worlds. Rita Krizek, a volunteer with Partners in the Environment, a small group working on sustainable agriculture practices in Alexandria, Virginia, said, "We came to Rio to work with other people on the sustainable agriculture group, we have little to do with the NGOs at Riocentro."

Like governments, NGOs had a hard time agreeing with each other. They endlessly debated and `negotiated' a number of treaties as a token of their criticism of the government process.

Dissent amongst groups from within the US was also manifest. Some NGOs comprising `people of colour' were unhappy with all that was going on. Said Dana Aston of the Panos Institute in Washington DC, who is a part of the People of Colour Environmental Justice Network, "The main problem we have with them is that their policies and actions have had a detrimental effect on the economic, social and political development of our communities."

President Bush surprised everyone by spending a great deal of his time with his NGOs in Rio. But a number of them were demoralised at their inability to mould US policy. Said Kelly, in what was probably the ultimate insult, "Fidel Castro was saying the right thing and George Bush was not."

In sum, whatever was the contribution of NGOs to the UNCED process, one thing was for sure as one NGO put it, "No longer will the world's people accept that they cannot participate in and watch their governments negotiate." The time for global participatory democracy moved a few inches forward in Rio, howsoever flawed it might have been.

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