John Vidal, who was in Rio for the ’92 Earth summit, looks back at that momentous event, and how the 2012 version compares
Helicopters thundered up and down the chic Copacabana and Ipanema beaches. Tanks guarded the bridges and tunnels. The favelas were in lockdown, schools closed and supermarkets stood empty. Unexpectedly, George H W Bush, the 41st US president, flush with success at the collapse of communism, had arrived in Rio de Janeiro for the 1992 Earth summit.
The graffiti I saw on Rio’s streets read “Yanqui go home”, but the world had seen nothing like this before: after years of planning, 109 heads of state, 172 countries, 2,500 official delegates, and about 45,000 environmentalists, indigenous peoples, peasants and industrialists came together for the UN’s epic conference on environment and development.
The Dalai Lama meditated with Shirley MacLaine on the beach at dawn, Jane Fonda and Pelé turned up, as did Fidel Castro, train robber Ronnie Biggs, and an obscure US senator called Al Gore.
On a wave of concern about the state of the world, presidents, prime ministers and even two kings signed up to a legally binding convention on biodiversity, a climate-change agreement that led to the Kyoto protocol, a 6,000-page blueprint for action, a six-page philosophical paper linking poverty to environmental degradation, initiatives for forests, and new principles to guide world development.
The milestone summit set the global green agenda for 20 years and took only a few days for leaders to negotiate. Nowadays, when it takes 15 years to arrive at nowhere in climate negotiations, it seems extraordinary.
Twenty years on Rio is bursting again and on maximum security alert for the follow-up conference, billed as the biggest UN event ever organised. This time, 15,000 soldiers and police are guarding about 130 heads of state and government, as well as ministers and diplomats from 180 countries and at least 50,000 others.