Stars of the Earth Summit
June 22, 2012 | Taylor Barnes | Source: New York Times
Rio de Janeiro – If the Rio+20 conference on sustainable development has been criticized for being short on results, the mega-event has at least made the city a stage for a colorful cast of political and environmental personalities.
Absent many of the heavyweights, including President Obama and Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, new faces like Brígida de Souza, a Brazilian feminist, and Erasmus Vinhuyzen, a Dutch seven-month-old, have been the headline makers.
Ms. Souza, 22, a lesbian activist from the northeastern state of Ceará, was dubbed the "muse" of Rio+20 in the Brazilian news media after pictures were published of her marching with female colleagues in a topless demonstration. Erasmus, meanwhile, is the youngest credentialed member of the conference, having traveled here with his mother, a professor at Wageningen University. "What can Erasmus hope for the future?" local headlines said.
With meaningful commitments from recession-leery world leaders scarce, Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, made one of the biggest splashes simply by coming and delivering a speech.
As for the estimated 1,500 indigenous people taking part in protests and sleeping in tents in the city's samba stadium, the lion's share of attention has gone to Raoni Metuktire, 82.
Raoni, known for his characteristic coaster-size lip disk and yellow feathered headdress, is a chief of the 5,000-member Kayapó tribe, which lives in the Brazilian states of Mato Grosso and Pará. Arriving late to a protest on the beach, the chief was greeted by a paparazzi-like swarm and applause.
On Thursday, he led a 500-strong march of indigenous people with bows and arrows to the center where the three-day United Nations conference is taking place. They were barred by more than 100 police and soldiers from entering.
"The white man doesn't want to preserve the forest for the future," Raoni said in an interview through a translator. "This worries me a lot. Why don't they preserve green forests for our relatives who are still to come?"
Raoni and other indigenous activists have focused mainly on protesting construction of the Belo Monte dam in the state of Pará. Although the government has said no indigenous people will be forced out by the project, environmentalists have estimated that thousands of them will lose their livelihoods when the Xingu River is dammed and will have no choice but to leave.
The issue is hardly new for the chief: In 1989 he received international attention when he fought the construction of another dam project in Pará that ended up being abandoned.
But Brazil now plans dozens of hydroelectric projects in the Amazon region to meet the nation's energy needs. The state electricity company, Eletrobras estimates that 80 percent of Brazil's potential hydroelectric power is in the Amazon.
"I am very worried about the Belo Monte dam," Raoni said. "Yesterday I spoke with the Brazilian environment minister. I told them not to build Belo Monte, because we indigenous who live on the edge of the Xingu River have our population growing. We need space. We need land."
The chief has also met with the likes of Jacques Chirac, the former French president, and the musician Sting during his stay.
Asked if he saw anything positive emerging from the Rio+20 conference, Raoni wagged his finger like a scolding professor: "What the white man is doing is destroying everything," he said.