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Proforest director Ruth Nussbaum at Rio+20

Proforest's Ruth Nussbaum was at the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development which was held in Rio de Janeiro from 20 to 22 June 2012. A short interview.

Many participants and observers expressed disappointment about the outcomes. Do you share their view?
It is true that the outcome document is weak in some places though there is quite a lot in it which is useful too. However, I think that some of the disappointment is the result of unrealistic expectations and if anything came out of this meeting it is that it is going to be very hard, if not impossible, to resolve all the issues the world faces through a process which requires consensus between over 150 countries.

You said some things in the outcome document are useful – which bits in particular?
Well, there is a strong focus on the need for governments to work in partnership with civil society and the private sector, and for good governance and transparency. There is also a very strong focus on food security and agriculture which is very important.

But is this enough without governments really committing?
It is not enough on its own, but there were some encouraging things outside the main government negotiations at Rio which are also really important. Two examples:

First, there was a lot of discussion on building partnerships with sub-national governments. There were examples from various countries of really exciting and innovative projects from partnerships between state governments, NGOs, communities, and the private sector, and a lot of discussion about how effective it sometimes is to engage with sub-national government rather than national government. This is also recognised in the outcome document.

Secondly, there is the role of companies and the importance they are now placing on sustainable development. At the UN Global Compact meeting, which was the main private sector event many, large companies were represented by their CEOs or COOs. Though there were obviously some attempts at window-dressing, many companies seemed genuinely committed to progress and change, and came with well thought out proposals and programmes. There is still a long way to go, but there is also some real potential for progress.

Can you give an example of such potential for progress?
In the discussions on food security and agriculture the issue of smallholders came up repeatedly with calls to integrate them into supply chains, provide them with more support and ensure that their rights are respected. Many people commented that for major brands building good relationships with smallholders is central to future profitability. We have already heard this from some of the companies we work with but my sense is that this will gain ground rapidly as a basis for policy making.

What is your overall feeling?
I think that for those trying to influence the main negotiations, it was probably quite frustrating as almost everything interesting happened in the parallel events. For those working with the private sector or sub-national governments, however, the experience has been mainly positive. Even some of the large environmental and social NGOs and campaigning groups seemed to be enthusiastic about the potential for progress in these areas.

Published 03.07.2012