UN negotiations are always complex, but Rio+20 has an unusually complicated agenda. Sustainable development by its nature is broad, combining social, economic, and environmental dimensions.
The negotiating text covers the concept of the Green Economy, which is by no means an accepted term, and has met with strong G77 criticism for its lack of focus on poverty eradication and related social issues. Attempts to agree on the “institutional framework” for sustainable development at the UN, including the upgrading of the United Nations Environment Program to a UN agency, are not only divisive between Europe and North America but have also forced a split within the G77.
The last negotiating round of this two-year process began with a text of 278 pages covering many thematic areas including: oceans, land degradation, energy, sustainable cities and food security. By April 27th negotiations dropped the text to 157 pages but it is now over 171. Of 401 clauses, only 21 are agreed and most of those are titles.
The food security section has grown to include agriculture (thankfully) but has no agreed paragraphs – not even the title. Key clauses recognising the particular needs of rural communities, specifically: women; the importance of agricultural research and extension; livestock and fisheries are likely to survive. Unfortunately a key paragraph on the needs of smallholders (NCST 64 quat) such as credit, grain storage, and water harvesting is now loaded with trade and other contentious issues that were added during a complex evening of negotiations. Only the revised chairman’s text, expected before the May 29 negotiations, can hope to save it.
Added to that are a variety of difficult issues, from the amount of overseas development assistance to technology transfer, from reproductive rights to “occupied territories” (which in UN-speak is one way of raising the Palestine question). There are a lot of trip wires in the current text.
So can an agriculture section survive? If the thorny issues of trade and price volatility are managed or dropped, there are likely some areas where agreement can be reached on agriculture text. The question then becomes: do those items in specific areas like agriculture, transportation, and land degradation form the basis of a practical, though not particularly ambitious outcome? Or do all of the areas of implementation get dropped in favour of a political declaration focused on sustainable development goals? Let’s hope those are the options and failure is not.