Photo: Engajamundo. All rights reserved.
Francesc Badia: Thank you, Raquel, for having DemocraciaAbierta. My first question is: how did you become an international leader? You started as a local activist and quickly became a global leader. How was this?
Raquel Rosenberg: I started in Rio +20, which was a UN summit on sustainable development held in Rio de Janeiro in 2012. I went there with some friends, and the first thing I saw was that there actually is a space for youth in UN summits. But this space was totally occupied by youth from the North – from the developed countries. When I heard their positions on behalf of global youth… well, they were clearly unaware of the things that we face in the South and the challenges that we encounter as Latin Americans or Brazilians. So, I decided that our voice should be heard in that space. After Rio +20, we started working on what was to become Engajamundo, my NGO in Brazil – in English, “engage the world”. The idea behind it is mobilizing and engaging young people in activism/advocacy on global issues: climate change, gender equality, sustainable development and habitat. What we do is train young people and then go on to defend strong positions at UN conferences. When we get back from the conferences, we figure out how to bring global issues down to the field and make sure young people understand where their responsibility lies – to be part of the solution, not just the victims, which is what has been happening in the past.
Rio +20 was a bit of a shock. I thought that just being there was enough, but then I realized that you actually need to be really well-prepared in order to participate effectively. We started doing study groups at the university. We asked some experts to help us at the beginning. After attending our fist conference - the UN Climate Change Conference (COP19) in Warsaw, Poland, in November 2013 - we came back home and I realized that our role was to show young people how to become engaged and how to change their behaviour, both individually and collectively, at their schools and communities, in order to be part of the solution. This was a turning point.
While training young people in Brazil, I realized that you cannot speak on behalf of others about issues that are their own. For instance, if some group is facing a challenge in the Amazon, I would need them to attend the conference and explain what they are up against. I cannot speak on their behalf. That is what many people do nowadays: speak on behalf of others. We cannot do this. I can only speak on my behalf. That was a key point for me in creating Engajamundo. We have now more than 700 members from 16 different states in Brazil. Our main idea is to help them master the necessary advocacy tools to go and put their issues on the table at local, national and international level.
The crises and challenges that people in the northeast of Brazil are facing are totally different from the ones we face in Sao Paulo. I cannot use the same arguments to lobby and pressure the local government in Sao Paulo as the ones which are to be used in Manaus, in the Amazon, where they are dealing with issues such as deforestation. There they have completely different issues than the ones we are dealing with in the big cities. This is the most important point. Yes, we do represent people in our capacity as leaders and representatives but, more importantly, we get them involved in the process, making sure they know what their role is and how they can actively be part of the solution.
FB: Participation and mobilization have been evolving in the last few years – especially through the impact of the new technologies, particularly among young people. In Brazil, specifically, we have witnessed huge mobilizations in 2013 and, again, in 2015- 2016. There has also been some fragmentation: many movements are focusing just on one particular issue. But you are trying to connect the dots…
RR: This is the reason why we are focusing on youth. It is much easier when you work with young people. From my perspective, the challenges that we are facing today are totally different from the ones our parents and grandparents experienced. Today, we need to be united before challenges such as climate change. We cannot be quarrelling among ourselves for the simple reason that this is too big a crisis. I believe that issues such as this are the ones that can really unite people. Unfortunately, the same old mentality from our parents’ time is still very much alive. The political system in Brazil is the one that was installed after the dictatorship. If the political system is still based on that sort of divisive way of thinking, how can we deal with a new unity-based mentality? I believe that we are in the process of changing all this. Young people have the will to do so. They have the energy they need to push it through and they are aware of the many problems we have, such as in healthcare and education. We need to find a middle ground where we can all unite instead of this political divide that has operated in Brazil for years and is still there.
FB: You have been engaging in this UN system that belongs to another era - a system characterized by wavering positions, endless negotiations and complex procedures. How do you deal with the frustration that may arise when you face a senior representative of that system?
RR: Yes, well, we know that the UN works in slow motion, so we do not get really frustrated. It is impossible for governments and companies to do everything they should. That is why we focus much more on mobilization and changing young peoples’ attitude towards helping their communities, schools, etc. I believe that if everyone does something towards issues like climate change, then we will not need governments or companies to do so. I know that this is far from being the case right now, but this is the quickest path. We use these conferences to exchange ideas, experiences, knowledge and thoughts on how to promote these changes. There is much more to these conferences, I feel, than merely trying to put pressure on governments.
In Brazil, it is very difficult to advance on certain issues because our Minister of Foreign Affairs is quite autonomous from the rest of the government. They are excellent negotiators and they send excellent proposals to the UN. At one time, they proposed that civil society should be consulted on how to implement the Intended Nationally Determined Contribution (INDC) – the emissions-reduction goal decided by each country. This is something we, as civil society, should be proposing, and Brazil was officially proposing it at an international level.
But when you get to the government level, things are completely different. It is like being in a different country. We are faced with a position that is the opposite of the ambitious proposal Brazil made to the UN: the government decrees a tax reduction on cars, drills for oil on the coast, and builds power plants in the Amazon. In other words, what Brazil takes to the table at the UN is not what it does back home. How do we deal with this? Having young people put pressure on both companies and government and force them to do what should be done and carry out their international commitments!
FB: Well, one way of doing this is to concentrate action at urban level. What does your organization feel about this?
RR: Municipalization is the best way to go, we think, with climate change and issues related to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). We take global issues such as these to people at local level to see what makes sense for them to fight for. For instance, in the northeastern city of Fortaleza, the group is fighting against a thermal power plant that is now operational because of the water crisis in Brazil, which has forced the hydropower plant to be turned off, and they are now using coal to fuel the plant. The local fight is against this thermal power plant. In Florianopolis, in the South, the problems are different: a hurricane hit the area, something that used to happen very seldom in South America. So, they are now focusing on how to adapt to this new development and on preparing local communities for this kind of natural disasters. Our mission at the local level is giving young people the advocacy tools they need in order to deal with the problems they are facing in the field and bring them to the attention of their local governments.
Last year, the COP process ahead of the Paris summit was a good experience in terms of advocacy. Prior to Brazil’s presentation of its INDC, we held an event with many experts from civil society, scientists and government officials. We met with them and discussed the ideal goal for Brazil. We got a figure for each region in the country. We then sent a group of ten young people from different regions to Brasilia. We did what we called an “advocacy tour”: we had the specific lobby points on each sector – agriculture, mining, energy, and environment – and we went to see each responsible minister and personally talked to them to express our goal and point out the potential courses of action. They listened to us and, when they finally presented Brazil’s INDC to the UN General Assembly, one of the negotiators sent me a WhatsApp message saying: “What did you think of our INDC?” This comes to show that, somehow, we did make an impact on the process.
FB: Does this environmental issue in Brazil cut across political tendencies? If there is a government change, would this slow down the process?
RR: Yes, it always depends on the government – especially environmental issues. We had the best minister of environment from 2003 to 2008. Then, things took a turn for the worse and deforestation started growing again.
FB: There was this big disaster in an iron ore mine tailings dam in Bento Rodrigues, in the sub-district of Mariana. The dam collapsed and the whole river was contaminated…
RR: Yes, that was the biggest ecological disaster in Brazil’s history. Millions of people were displaced, some lost their lives. Not to mention the enormous impact on rivers and biodiversity in the country as a whole. It was a crime against humanity.
FB: Do you think this was a turning point in the way in which your government deals with corporations which are responsible for contaminating huge areas? Or do you think the government will just forget about it and carry on?
RR: I would love to say yes to the former, but no. They are mostly trying to cover it. The established media almost did not mention the disaster in Mariana, which now affects the whole country. They are mostly trying to hide it, and the companies are behind everything the government does - especially, the big companies like Vale/Samarco, the one responsible for the disaster in Mariana, and also Petrobras, the oil state company. These two are behind everything, as well as the agribusiness. It is a difficult situation for Brazil, because the money these companies make and politics are intertwined. Most of the big farmers (or ruralistas as we call them) are members of Congress – one of them is the current Minister of Agriculture. They wield both economic and political power. So, this is a big fight indeed for us to take on. But there has been a lot of action and response from civil society. We organized a huge climate march in November, publicizing the tragedy that took place in Mariana. Participation was great. We shall keep on fighting - for sure.
DemocraciaAbierta attended the International Civil Society Week 2016 in Bogotá (24-28 April), thanks to a Media Fellowship from CIVICUS. This piece belongs to a series of interviews to prominent civil society leaders who participated in the event.
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