From Idealism to Action: My Road from Rio 1992 to Rio+20 (Part 1)

Rio de Janeiro

Home to more than 6 million people, Rio de Janeiro is Brazil's second-largest city and the site of the upcoming Rio+20 conference. (© Olivier Langrand)

During the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, I was part of the youth movement advocating for ambitious targets to chart the path for a sustainable future on our planet. We were a group of young leaders from many nations — very idealistic, well organized and committed to protecting forests and species in the world’s most threatened places.

Back then, very few countries — especially developing nations — had environmental ministries, and the negotiation environment was very different from today. There was no basic environmental governance. Two-thirds of the world’s protected areas were located in the Northern Hemisphere, even though the Southern Hemisphere held most of the planet’s biodiversity.

Carlos Manuel Rodriguez in 1992.

In addition, bioprospecting — the search for and commercialization of biological resources for use in medicines, cosmetics and other products — raked in profits for outsiders while rarely leading to any benefits for local people and national governments who owned and managed these resources.

Among the outcomes of the Rio-92 summit were the creation of the U.N. conventions on climate change, biodiversity and desertification, important achievements that set the stage for international discussions to continue on the key environmental challenges of our time. In the wake of these historic decisions, optimism was running high.

Fueled by this optimism, Rio-92 indelibly influenced the course of my professional career. Before the meeting, I was a diehard conservationist, but unable to see the metaphorical forest for the trees. Watching these world leaders make decisions that could shape the future of nations — or, indeed, the entire planet — I saw that we wouldn’t be able to protect nature if we didn’t understand how politics and economics work.

I realized that unless I changed the system from the inside, I wouldn’t be able to make the difference I wanted. That moment was the inspiration for my career in politics. Since 1989, I have actively participated in these global policy discussions — first as a representative of civil society and later as a country negotiator.

A Career Inspired by Rio

During my time in the ministry of environment of Costa Rica, I began to understand the direct connections between climate change, biodiversity loss and development policies. So, in 1996 my team began designing national policies around these links, streamlining our operations and ensuring that our conservation efforts would have the biggest impact.

We were particularly successful in understanding the economics of nature conservation and launched the innovative Payment for Environmental Services program. This is essentially the REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation) concept, which has since become an important economic and conservation strategy in regions across the globe. (Learn more in the video below.)

Outside of Costa Rica, global conservation policy has reached some important milestones in the two decades since Rio-92 — and has also suffered some major setbacks.

On the plus side, during the 2010 Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) meeting in Japan, negotiators took significant steps to protect the rights of indigenous and traditional peoples to their land and resources. In addition, the geographic distribution of the world’s protected areas is now reversed from two decades ago; two-thirds of protected areas can now be found in the Southern Hemisphere. However, many of these are considered “paper parks” — protected in name only — largely because of lack of funds.

The world today versus the world of 20 years ago is a very different place. We’ve added 1.5 billion people to the global population and seen the rise of developing economies throughout the Southern Hemisphere. Technology and globalization have allowed us to bridge cultures and offered new opportunities for people to support their families and enter the middle class.

But all of this growth comes with a price. Earth’s ecosystems are buckling under the pressure of increased conversion, use and consumption. We must develop smarter.

So today, as I pack my bags for a return trip to Rio, and the world gears up for the 20th anniversary of this historic Earth Summit, hosted by the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20) later this month, my hopes are bright but measured.

Rio+20 will convene high-level policymakers — including heads of state and governments, as well as ministers — in an attempt to secure renewed political commitment for sustainable development.

Carlos Manuel Rodriguez

Carlos Manuel Rodriguez

Many of those young activists from 1992 — including myself — are now key decision-makers on many national delegations, and we will do our best to move talks forward to concrete commitments. But time has also given us the wisdom of understanding that changing the course of economic and social development is like turning around a huge oil tanker. A rethink and redesign of our global consumption and production patterns will take more time and energy than any of us previously understood.

Carlos Manuel Rodriguez is vice president and senior advisor for global policy in CI’s Center for Conservation and Government. He was formerly the environment and energy minister for Costa Rica. Read the conclusion of this blog.

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