The Rio+20 UN conference opens today in Rio de Janeiro. But as Robert Schmidt reports, just earlier this month in the same location, engaged youth gathered together at the 6th World Youth Congress: these days, young environmentalists are less active on the streets than they are on the internet, in the laboratory and in concrete projects.
« Gandhi would never have posted something like that on Facebook », Abhishek Thakore is sure of that. In the beginning of June, the India-born youth trainer led a workshop called « The path to sustainable development ». Participants at the World Youth Congress sit on plastic chairs under the open sky, here in the suburban jungle, more than an hour’s drive from the tourist attractions of Rio. Thakore explains that Gandhi’s thesis is relevant to the environmental activism of our modern times. Young activists should reflect in silence, perform simple daily tasks and learn to understand the pain of others. Only then can they « create an embassy to reach many people over Facebook. » Sustainable behaviour From a political perspective, the World Youth Congress – which takes place every one to two years in a different region in the world – is the most influential meeting of youth activists. The organiser of the ten-day meeting is the international youth organisation Peace Child International; this year’s main sponsor was the city of Rio de Janeiro. In line with the theme of this year’s summit, everything – except for air travel – was sustainable: participants camped outdoors and no meat was served.
A good half of the events were put on by the 350 participants themselves, most of them studentsaged 16 to 30. Daniel Wehner, who is completing studies in waste management at the University of Stuttgart in Germany, led a workshop on the topic of lifecycles. He also researches and works on this subject at the Stuttgart location of the Fraunhofer Institute. While in Rio, the 26-year old explained that « many supposedly sustainable products deserve this title only for certain parts of their lifecycle, such as during production ». He doesn’t see himself as an activist whatsoever, but rather as a scientist who provides the basis for decisions that the politicians then have to make.
Catchphrases just like in politics
The majority of workshops, which were held mostly in English, were concerned with entirely practical matters: environmental policy, educational work and project management. There was less variety with the roundtable discussions. But these were full of catchphrases favoured by politicians such as « next steps », the necessary « multipliers » and the indispensible « inclusion ». The youth of today showed no discomfort in tossing around these terms. Change of location: Young people burn a heap of garbage. At the street corner, stand three police officers with machine guns, while people dance next door in samba in a bar. The contrast to Rio’s slums, the favelas, is almost crass. This is where the participants should have come for their three-day action projects to show that they do more than just talk. Back in the in the environmental centre, first they ate, then they danced, and then they the talked once more. One participant offered face-painting; another took the opportunity to learn something – a new dance.
Concrete actions and demands
In all fairness, the congress produces good results. Some participants from the World Youth Congress worked on developing a concept for sustainable tourism in an adjacent park that is half-filled with garbage. Another working group came up with the idea to replant shrubs, flowers and trees in the park. One could hear the sounds of sawing and hammering and things being knocked down: the young activists were building a fence – « against the ravenous wild boars and monkeys ». For many youth at the conference, projects like this are nothing new. 23-year old chemistry student Bernard Eng is helping fellow students in his homeland Malaysia to plant trees. His impression is that « environmental awareness is all the rage for my generation ». Similar sentiments were voiced by many participants from other regions in the world. The youths’ expectations for Rio+20 are high. In 1999, the ideas put forward by the first World Youth Congress were, to a large extent, accepted by the UN and were later incorporated into a few of the UN Millennium Goals. Together with the results from another youth congress, the list of 20 recommendations of this year’s youth delegates will be presented to UN policy makers at Rio+20. They demand an end to the use of fossil fuels and making energy efficiency and sustainability subjects in school, among other things. And yet many of their recommendations remain elusive. Daniel explains why: « When my friends and I sit in a pub over a beer and discuss these issues, we quickly find ourselves reaching a consensus. But as soon as you add a couple more people, it becomes more complex. »