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Rio+20: Final Dispatch

Posted 06.26.2012

This report ran in the Portland Business Journal on June 26, 2012.

An Interview with Miguel Lago, “Carioca,” Mobilizer,  Next Mayor of Rio?

Consumers can no longer wait around for business and government to implement sustainable practices that protect people and the environment. It’s time for consumers to demand it. At Rio+20, Unilever CEO Paul Polman said it. Demonstrators said it. Miguel Lago said it.

Wait. Who’s Miguel Lago?

He’s the 24-year-old, Paris-educated “carioca” (native of Rio de Janeiro) behind Meu Rio (My Rio) — an online portal that provides tools to demand transparency in local government.

For instance, when the city was spending less than the constitutionally required 25 percent of its budget on education (it was only 18 percent), Meu Rio went into action. They used social media to drive people to an online petition calling for an amendment to the city budget that would right the proportion spent on education — meaning moving some $500 million (U.S. dollars, not Brazilian reais) into education. It almost worked. Twenty-three of the necessary 26 council members supported the amendment. It didn’t help that the mayor moved the date of the city council vote at the last minute — causing Meu Rio to have to scramble to keep community focus on the issue up to the last minute.

Was Lago mad about the outcome? No. He said he was “happy” because he never thought Meu Rio would come so close to swaying such big change in a local government that’s not always so transparent.

Fellow EnviroMedian Millie Salinas and I met with Lago in downtown Rio two days after the conclusion of Rio+20, the UN sustainable development conference that drew 45,000 from around the globe. He wanted to meet away from the beaches of Ipanema and Copacabana and show us old Rio, which is “much more interesting and beautiful.”

 

We met at the Centro Cultural Banco do Brasil, and he guided us through the cobblestone streets to the old Palace (Paço Imperial), where we stopped at a café and talked over caipirinhas.

Was Rio+20 a Failure?

I asked Lago about the global criticism of Rio+20, and he said he doesn’t think the conference was a failure — that it was, in fact, a “major success.” He said the dialogue and citizen input was unprecedented, and, ever the optimist he seems to be, that he sees opportunity in the media’s portrayal of disagreement at Rio+20.

“What is good of this perception of failure is the important lesson that we won’t get sustainability only by government,” he said, adding that it’s a great opportunity for people to mobilize for social change. (Full disclosure: Lago is the nephew of Brazil’s chief Rio+20 negotiator, André Corrêa do Lago.)

On Keeping Business & Government Honest

As Unilever CEO Polman said earlier in the week during a discussion on deforestation, “There’s no stronger signal than the marketplace.”

Earlier this year, Unilever announced its pledge to buy all its palm oil from certified, traceable sustainable sources by 2020. It was also one of 24 companies (including Nike, Dell, Weyerhaeuser and Patagonia) that signed on at Rio+20 to the “Valuing Natural Capital” initiative outlining “the profound business value of Earth’s natural assets —and the business imperative of safeguarding them.” “Enhancing Brand” is one of four benefits outlined by the group — along with Reducing Risks, Cutting Costs and Fueling Growth.

Couldn’t the tools developed by Lago’s Meu Rio be used on a global scale to hold companies like Unilever accountable — especially on tricky issues like palm oil sourcing? Absolutely. In fact, cities like Paris and Lima, Peru, have expressed interest in adopting the Meu Rio model.

“It can be perfectly adopted to any democratic city,” he said.

Lago created Meu Rio three years ago with his cofounder Alessandra Orofino, also a “carioca” and high school friend. As Lago tells it, he was studying public policy in France and she was at Columbia in New York, “but all we could think about was Rio.”

“All this Facebook and Twitter was beginning, and it was sophisticated but the content was full of crap,” Lago said. “We thought, with this kind of communication we can really do something.”

So the pair developed a business plan and went into cultivation mode with the high-profile IETS think tank. Last December, they publicly launched Meu Rio and put it to the test with its first campaign — the education budget battle they almost won.

Disturbing News on World Cup, Olympics

Right now, Lago has his eye on a bubbling issue related to Rio’s hosting of the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics. To make way for stadiums and other sports facilities, according to Lago, the government is evicting an estimated 20,000 people from the “favelas” (slums) with a day’s notice and R$2,000 (US$969). Lago described the situation as “absolute cruelty” and said The New York Times coverage in March has caused city officials to snap to, but only superficially. In the meantime, Meu Rio’s campaign “O Maraca é Nosso!/The Maraca is Ours!” focuses on the displacement of residents of the Metro favela to make way for the World Cup stadium.

I asked Lago if Meu Rio’s technology model makes it difficult for the poor to participate, and he said 30 percent of Rio doesn’t have online access. “It’s not just about money but a generation gap,” he said, pointing out that 90 percent of Rio’s young (age 15 to 30) do have access.

If the young — not just in Rio but around the world — could tap into Lago’s energy and optimism, we just might see a world where business and government are doing a lot more for sustainable development.

Millie asked Lago if he’d run for Rio mayor, and he grinned and said, “No, I’m too young. I can create more change with Meu Rio.”

We believe him, but not the part about being too young.