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Rio+20: Empty Promises Won't Fill Empty Bellies

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This post originally appeared on the Heifer Blog.

"The Future We Want" is not the future Heifer International believes we will see following last week's Rio+20 UN Conference on Sustainable Development. Lots of issues were raised, lots of solutions proposed, but in the end, malaise and more of the same won out, leaving smallholder farmers -- still -- to fend for themselves.

Despite the bold title and the sheer size of the gathering -- nearly 50,000 participants, including more than 100 heads of state or government -- no enforceable commitments on climate change or any of the other global challenges -- empowerment of women, access to water, sustainable development, health issues -- came out of the summit.

There was unilateral recognition that progress needs to be made toward greener development, but no big-ticket items got more than lip service. Still, progress was made, but it was made via unofficial channels -- the places where most progress gets made today.

For example, Microsoft said it would roll out an internal carbon fee on its work in more than 100 countries, part of a plan to go carbon-neutral by 2030. A Latin American soft-drink bottler pledged to obtain 85 percent of its energy needs in Mexico from renewable sources, and a group of development banks announced a $175 billion initiative to promote public transportation and bicycle lanes in the world's largest cities.

Important progress to be sure, but not where it can do the most good, the official channels of governments and leaders--powerhouses of influence who have the resources to create revolutionary change, not the evolutionary change we have, unfortunately, become accustomed to.

Heifer believes these one-off solutions don't go far enough. The solutions -- pledges really -- proposed at the Rio+20 summit do little for the millions of smallholder farmers who daily struggle to eke out a living for themselves and their families.

Heifer is not alone is its disappointment in the outcome of the potential-ridden summit. Organizations such as Friends of the Earth, Oxfam, Amnesty International and World Vision all have issued statements on how short the summit fell from providing true solutions, or even commitments to decisively act in the future.

So much need yet so little resolve, and so much potential, energy and entrepreneurship just waiting for a hand up such as provided by Heifer. Men and women like Laban Kipkemboi Talam, a dairy farmer in Kenya, and Dolores Delgado, of Peru.

Absent the help of organizations such as Heifer International, Talam and Delgado would still be scraping by, hungry and poor, with little hope or opportunity for a better life. Today, though, Talam has seen his milk output grow through better management of his cows. He has received training and help that will allow him to continue to improve his farm and his life. Delgado, who was given guinea pigs and today practices agroecological production -- environmentally beneficial farming -- is looking to expand her business, and it is a business -- small, but productive and growing.

What answers do the outcomes of the Rio+20 provide to them and others like them? What assurances or protections do struggling farmers in Haiti have as the climate warms and they move deeper into another hurricane season? What about the pastoralists who are suffering from disastrous drought in the Sahel and the Horn of Africa?

Empty promises do nothing to quell empty bellies.

These types of conferences promise social justice (which includes environmental justice) to small-scale farmers who lack more than resources -- they lack a voice, too. Yet Rio+20, like so many other conferences of its kind, ended with no clear solutions. The official documents, the official records speak to solutions, but commit to nothing.

At Heifer, we are committed to working with smallholder farmers, giving them a voice, giving them dominion over their future, giving them tools they will use, with their own energy and ingenuity, to bring an end to hunger and poverty and to cool the planet.

Read more from Heifer International CEO Pierre Ferrari on the Heifer Blog