RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil – Mexican citizen Altagracia Villareal, 71, left her small residence in Mexico City to join the crowd that began amassing at Rio de Janeiro’s Aterro do Flamengo on June 17.
It is here, overlooking the Guanabara Bay – one of Rio de Janeiro’s most famous tourist attractions – that the People’s Summit will take place until June 23. The event, which is being held in tandem with the Rio+20, the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, is aimed at giving a voice to those who have been left out of the official discussions.
Villareal has already lost count of how times she’s visited Rio de Janeiro to discuss issues of fair trade.
This time is no different.
Villareal, who is a Franciscan Missionary, came to Rio to take part in an event focusing on solidarity economy that was being held on the eve of the summit. She wound up staying so she could deliver her message to those who wanted to learn more about the issue.
“We don’t agree with the green economy being proposed by the governments,” Villareal said. “Solidarity Economy is a new way to produce, transform, distribute and consume.”
Villareal’s goal is to disseminate her work among Mexico’s indigenous communities through the Rural Coalition, which is supported by the United States and where she’s worked since 1995.
Wearing traditional Mexican dress, Villareal was merely a hint of the colorful exchange of people at Rio’s Aterro do Flamengo.
People of different nationalities and creeds mingled without prejudice. There were indigenous selling necklaces, young people giving out hugs in something they called a “love blitz” and environmentalists’ teaching energy conservation.
Students Tatiana Furquim, 23, and Alice Novato, 22, were among those hoping to call attention to the relationship between humans and the planet.
The two came to Rio by bus from Curitiba in Southern Brazil, to meet with other members of the National Network of Groups of Agroecology and take part in a large-scale seed exchange with members from other Brazilian regions.
The network seeks to understand not just the economic and environmental aspects of agriculture, but also its social, cultural, political and ethical impacts.
More specifically, it aims to support family farming, eliminate the use of pesticides and the dependence of agricultural producers on multinational companies.
“The People’s Summit won’t produce guidelines or pointed documents with respect to agricultural issues,” said Novato, brimming with youthful confidence. “But through small initiatives like ours, we can have an impact on society, even if it’s on a smaller scale.”
Furquim and Novato are staying in local college dormitories, as are Marcela Nunes and her friends, who traveled 1,150 kilometers (715 miles) from Brasília to Rio to present their views on monoculture farming and real estate speculation in Brazil’s Cerrado (savannah) region.
Nunes, 19, does not have a job. But she got together with her classmates from the University of Brasília and came up with a creative way to pay for their trip.
They set up a stand to sell R$4 (US$1.95) popsicles made from fruits typically found in the Brazilian Amazon and Cerrado region.
“We ordered these popsicles and brought them from Brasília,” Nunes said. “It was a way to not only cover our costs but also to call attention to the country’s new agricultural frontier and its negative consequences for the environment.”
Most of the participants at the summit are students. French citizen Valentine Mercier, 21, stood out among them since she was wrapped in a Brazilian flag sarong.
She arrived in Brazil 11 months ago, as an exchange student studying history in Caxias do Sul in Southern Brazil.
On the morning of June 17, she listened attentively to presentations on ways to rethink the modern city, which were made by NGOs operating in the former French colonies of Africa.
Yet, activists aren’t the only ones attending the People’s Summit, as the event has become a tourist attraction.
With stands selling politically correct crafts, kiosks with native delicacies from the Amazon and exhibitions demonstrating how to ensure the sustainability of the planet, Aterro do Flamengo became an even more popular destination this past weekend.
Magno Souza, a 64 year-old businessman from Minas Gerais, used the events being held in tandem Rio+20 as an excuse to visit Rio with his family.
He traveled from Belo Horizonte with his wife, Nisete, 69, his daughter, Ana Beatriz, 32, and his 2-year-old grandson, Alexandre.
At home in Belo Horizonte, Souza uses cloth bags at the supermarket and recycles his household waste, but he’s not a staunch environmentalist.
“I’m just here to check it all out,” Souza said. “It’s a great event.”