Rio+20 and the People’s Summit: Dialogic or Disconnected Spaces?

David Meekby David Meek, University of Georgia

Critical educational scholars have extensively explored the diversity of ways in which people learn within social movements (Welton 1993; Spencer 1995; Walter 2007; Holland and Skinner 2008). From participation in the informal everyday rough-and-tumble of political action to formal short-courses and innumerable spaces in between, scholars accept that meaningful learning happens when people participate in political life (Foley 1999; Gouin 2009).

One of the many spatial arenas in which learning happens for social movement members and civil society in general is the space of a social forum or people’s summit (Haddad 2003). These venues often, but not exclusively, occur temporally or spatially alongside ‘official’ international summits.

In this post I would like to critically focus on the messy relationships between dialogue and learning and the spaces of official and counter-summits, using as examples the recent UNDP’s Rio+20 environmental summit and the accompanying People’s Summit. In examining these spaces as areas for learning, I find it valuable to draw upon Peter Rule’s (2004) theory of dialogic spaces. Rule describes dialogic spaces as those that enable transformative learning through action and reflection on a social agenda – or praxis in a Freirean sense (Rule 2004). In exploring the relationship between a summit and counter-summit, I question whether we should extend our theory of dialogic spaces to include the learning that happens as individuals participate in multiple spaces.

Learning – theoretically, at least – can occur as participants negotiate these different spaces. However, whether learning happens as participants negotiate the spaces of the different summits depends in large part on the geographic intentions of the summits organizers. Based on my experiences at the People’s Summit, I suggest that given the geographic isolation of these summits, whether learning arose from dialogue between participants in the People´s and UNDP summit is debatable.

Between 15 and 22 June both the People’s Summit (Cupula dos Povos in Portuguese) and the United Nations Development Program’s Rio+20 summit took place in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The name ‘Rio+20’ comes from the fact that this year’s conference is taking place 20 years after the original Rio Earth Summit in 1992. The official meetings of the Rio+20 and the People’s Summit were publicized as integrated spaces, which together with the event’s other locales in the city comprised the whole of Rio+20. Dialogue between participants in the various spaces was portrayed as a key feature of the overall event. For example, during ‘Dialogue Days’ at the official RioCentro convention center, civil society members were supposed to be able to voice concerns that would be collected and taken to world leaders. However, while dialogue was supposed to be a tie between the two summits, in reality, the relationship between the official meetings of the Rio+20 and the People’s Summit was spatially and politically complex.

For one thing, we cannot say that the People’s Summit truly took place alongside the actual UNDP summit. The People’s Summit took place in the Attera do Flamengo, a rolling sea-side park designed by renowned Brazilian landscape architect Burle Marx. During the People’s Summit, this area served as a space for meeting, discussion, and debates for approximately 15,000 people a day. However, the official Rio+20 summit took place largely in the RioCentro convention center in the Barra de Tijuca, which given Rio’s traffic is an area between two and three hours away from the People’s Summit. Additionally, participating in the official summit required accreditation through the United Nations. As a result of these two ‘inconveniences’ – one spatial and the other procedural – while both events took place within Rio de Janeiro, traveling between the People’s Summit and Rio+20 earth summit, or participating meaningfully in each, was next to impossible. The need for official UN accreditation negated the possibility for most people at the People’s Summit to participate at the Rio+20 site, and the extensive travel time reduced whatever interest might have existed among official delegates in visiting the People’s space.

And t his was not an accident. Speaking with one Brazilian organizer at the People´s Summit, I learned that “the objective of keeping the UNDP summit and the People’s Summit apart was intentional. Think about it, with the difficulty in traveling between these two spaces, the possibility for disruptive actions was significantly reduced”. A byproduct of the spatial isolation of these spaces was that the possibility of dialogic learning between participants in the disparate summits was greatly reduced.

Questions for further reflection

1. Does the learning that occurs within a counter-summit arise more due to participants’ exposure to alternative/popular solutions, or to the critical analyses of hegemonic power that happen in these spaces?

2. How can dialogue between civil society and official delegates be strengthened when the summits co-exist in spatial isolation?

3. Do the political protests of civil society at official summits inform the consciousness of delegates, or their political agendas, and if so, can they be considered a form of learning through direct action?


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