By Armsfree Ajanaku
“I think you are my roommate,” said Lucas Viano.
His voice was friendly and confident. But as soon as he told me he was from Argentina, unpleasant memories flooded my mind. They were memories of lost football games that were religiously watched in Nigeria, from where I come.
In Lucas, I saw the faces of great Argentine footballers, including the legendary Diego Armando Maradona, and the inimitable Lionel Messi. These names have caused many Nigerians sleepless nights, and teary moments whenever Nigerian team known as the Super Eagles traded tackles with the Argentines at the World Cup. The football rivalry between Nigeria and Argentina is so fierce that it sometimes borders on enmity.
In Rio de Janeiro, where the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development took place however, Lucas and I put football rivalry behind us to focus on issues of sustainable development. As Internews/O Eco journalists covering the conference, we shared a room in a down town Rio hotel. It meant we had to cooperate in certain ways to make our stay smooth.
Relations between us went well, but we watched and reported proceedings of the conference within the context of our own fears. Although as reporters we are theoretically supposed to be detached in order to objectively report the issues, there was however the feeling that the summit was also about us and our planet. As such, we followed the negotiations with skepticism, and a realisation that politicians would not be able to summon the will to deliver “the future we need.”
Our fears were somewhat confirmed by the “weak and watered down” outcome document, which the negotiators managed to hammer out. We watched as the representatives of the women, children and youths, as well as the civil society groups objected to the document. The feeling was there that multilateral diplomacy had become the graveyard of high hopes. Going by the way the Brazilian delegation sought to drum up support for the document, one was forced to reach the conclusion that the politicians who sat in the negotiating room, were victims of the expectations of the rest of the world.
Lucas told me, fear apparent in his eyes, about the twin problem of deforestation and urban pollution, facing Argentina. From him, I learnt that in Argentina, the most recent expansion in soybean agriculture has relied on available agricultural land, with aggressive targets to expand the area to increase production for export to China. This, I was informed has had far reaching impacts on the environment.
“The deforestation in my country is worse than the deforestation in the Amazon because Argentina is an agricultural country, and deforestation causes more harm.
“I didn’t see that in the text of Rio+20,” he said. His lamentation about deforestation underscored the similarities between Argentina and Nigeria with respect to that specific problem. In Nigeria, over 70 percent of the forest cover is gone. Devastating oil spills and horrendous gas flares have combined to put the environment, especially in the Niger Delta in a sorry state. Again, I was making a mistake, to think it was only in Nigeria that lousy politicians conspired to obliterate the sustainable “future we want.”
“The politicians in my country, I think, almost all, do not care about environmental issues,” agonised my Argentine roommate.
“But I think the Argentine people care about the environment. Year after year, the pressure of the inhabitants of Argentina is making the politicians take decisions about protecting the environment,” he added.
Nonetheless, there is a sense in which phenomenal progress was achieved outside the gridlocks of the negotiating room. Even some of the most vociferous critics from the NGOs and civil society movement managed to breathe a fresh and optimistic air. They talked in a consolatory way about how Rio+20 should be seen as a gathering of people, and how many voluntary commitments have been made by communities and companies. Those commitments are being tracked to ensure they are fulfilled.
In the eyes of Lucas too, much of the triumph had nothing to do with the 49 pages of opaque intentions.
“At the side meetings, a lot of the governors of the cities (in Argentina) are making statements about how to be more efficient in the use of energy through improved transportation systems, and in the treatment of waste… all these are happening outside the main conference.”
He said the private sector and sub-national governments like cities and provinces were more forthcoming, by showing greater will and courage to deal with the problems facing the planet. As we prepared to exit Rio, I wished Lucas and Argentina well as they explore ways to invent the future the country needs. I however did forget to remind him of the victory Nigeria recorded over Argentina in the football event of the Atlanta '96 Olympic games. I fervently prayed that mankind would muster the nerve to gain victory over the perils confronting planet earth.