Women, Children, and Indigenous People Last: Do broad platitudes at international environmental conferences matter?

Late June 2012, the leaders of the world will come together in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil for the largest global environmental conference in 10 years.  This meeting takes place 20 years after the original Rio environmental negotiations that produced treaties dealing with Climate Change, Biodiversity, and Desertification, a new international environmental funding institution (the Global Environment Facility), and Agenda 21 (a set of environmental goals for countries).  Because of this the meeting is often referred to as Rio+20.

The negotiators are currently working with a Zero Draft of an agreement they hope to reach at the Rio+20 meetings.  This negotiation has some specific provisions in it that are generating some healthy debate and discussion.  But then it has the broad platitudes about women, children and indigenous communities. 

Some highlights:

  • Paragraph 21: “We recognize the importance of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in the global, regional and national implementation of sustainable development strategies. We also recognize the need to reflect the views of children and youth as the issues we are addressing will have a deep impact on the youth of today and the generations that follow.”
  • Paragraph 94: “We recognize that mountains are highly vulnerable to global changes such as climate change, and are often home to communities including of indigenous peoples, who have developed sustainable uses of their resources yet are often marginalized, sometimes with high poverty rates, exposure to natural risks and food insecurity”
  • Paragraph 102: “We recognize that sustainable development is linked to and depends on women’s economic contributions, both formal and informal. We note with concern that persistent social and economic inequities continue to affect women and children, who make up the majority of those living in poverty.”

Some may celebrate these as victories with women, children, and indigenous people taking large mention in the draft for an international declaration.  Others might dismiss them as broad platitudes with no real importance tacked on to the end to make sure that no one will get upset at the declaration.

But do these actually matter?

Here’s how I’m going to try and get an answer to this question for this post: Have these platitudes become more specific overtime?  Looking at these broad acknowledgments in the first Rio Declaration (from 1992) and see if any of them got more teeth in the Johannesburg Declaration (from 2002).  We’ve already seen how the ‘Environment’ has gradually disappeared in these progressive declarations.  The question here is whether women, children, and indigenous groups are staying at the same level or whether they are getting more importance in later declarations.

The Rio Declaration of 1992 has these sections related to women, children, and indigenous people.  In that declaration these were  almost literally tacked on to the end of the declaration after they had achieved some agreement on state goals in regards the global environment in the early part of the declaration.  The main provisions are:

Principle 20: Women have a vital role in environmental management and development. Their full participation is therefore essential to achieve sustainable development.

Principle 21: The creativity, ideals and courage of the youth of the world should be mobilized to forge a global partnership in order to achieve sustainable development and ensure a better future for all.

Principle 22: Indigenous people and their communities and other local communities have a vital role in environmental management and development because of their knowledge and traditional practices. States should recognize and duly support their identity, culture and interests and enable their effective participation in the achievement of sustainable development.

In the Johannesburg Declaration of 2002, included similar provisions under the section “Our Commitment to Sustainable Development”.  The relevant sections are:

Paragraph 20: We are committed to ensuring that women’s empowerment, emancipation and gender equality are integrated in all the activities encompassed within Agenda 21, the Millennium development goalsand the Plan of Implementation of the Summit.

Paragraph 25: We reaffirm the vital role of the indigenous peoples in sustainable development.

Children do not have a specific section detailing their efforts, but they appear a number of times as the crucial people demanding action on the environment.  Paragraph 3 reads: “At the beginning of this Summit, the children of the world spoke to us in a simple yet clear voice that the future belongs to them, and accordingly challenged all of us to ensure that through our actions they will inherit a world free of the indignity and indecency occasioned by poverty, environmental degradation and patterns of unsustainable development.”

Indigenous people between Rio and Johannesburg went from a long paragraph about states providing cultural protection for indigenous people to they play a vital role.  Women did the reverse and moved from having a vital role to specific mention of integrating gender equity into the various plans of the negotiations.

In general then between Rio (1992) and Johannesburg (2002):

Women got a more specific role,

Indigenous groups got a less specific role, and

Children and Youth got removed from their role entirely.

Then when we look up at the Rio+20 Zero Draft, we find:

Women have retained a quite specific role,

Indigenous groups have retained a fairly unspecific role,

Children and Youth have returned, but with an unspecified role.

The broad, inclusive platitudes in the original Rio Declaration regarding women, children, and indigenous people appears to have produced some measure of meaning for women; but has largely not developed significant provisions or goals for indigenous peoples or children and the youth.  Women in environmental declarations have been able to articulate clear goals including gender equality issues in the sustainable development language.  Indigenous groups and children and youth have instead retained the vital role provisions that fail to articulate clear agreements, provisions, or even broad directions for progress.

The broad, inclusive platitudes of the first Rio Declaration were necessary to begin to develop the terms of sustainable development and global environmental politics.  However, they do little today, twenty years later it is time to set clear directions for these crucial groups in sustainable development global policy.  To do less is not acknowledging their vital role, but actually ignoring any role they may be able to play.


One thought on “Women, Children, and Indigenous People Last: Do broad platitudes at international environmental conferences matter?

  1. Pingback: Rio+20 Countdown: Civil Society Can Choose Recognition or Responsibility « Lullaby of the Commons

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s