Rio de Janiero’s population is currently swollen by an additional 100,000 people. The United Nations Rio+20 meeting is in full swing. "Plus twenty" refers to twenty years after the United Nations Conference on Environment, commonly known as the Earth Summit, was held in Rio de Janeiro in June 1992. Paul Coleman might think of it as Rio+22.
Paul set off to Rio from his home in Ontario, Canada, in July of 1990, on a Walk to Save the Amazon. He started alone, with only enough money to cover a month’s expenses. His sponsors became the communities through which he walked. His message was simple. Each individual voice counts; as individuals we can do something to save the Amazon and halt destruction of the world's rain forests.
Mr. Coleman encouraged a letter-writing campaign to U.N. Secretary General Javier Perez de Cuellar demanding that the U.N. step in to save this natural resource. As he, and three supporters who joined him in Texas, walked through Mexico City in November 1991, a U.N. representative informed Paul he had been added to the list of speakers at the meeting in Rio.
Two days later I had a surprise phone call from Paul asking if he could stay with us while passing through Cuernavaca. I had been reading about his journey in Mexican newspapers and my wife, environmentalist Flora Guerrero, and I were delighted to have the opportunity to meet him. Paul accepted our offer to facilitate media connections and events for the rest of his walk through Mexico.
A letter to President Salinas, expressing my concern for Paul's personal safety as he walked the Panamerican Highway, resulted in a phone call from the Federal Highway Police commander in Cuernavaca asking, "Where to you want the patrol car to meet you?" From Cuernavaca to the Guatemalan border a Policia Federal de Caminos patrol car escorted Paul and those walking with him.
Towns and cities along Paul’s route welcomed the Walk. Villagers walked with him to the next town, entrusting him to their neighbors who did the same. Huajuapan de León had a parade from the village outskirts to the zocalo with police cars and ambulances sirens wailing. On the zocalo Paul and the municipal president planted a tree. On a Sunday morning in a little village in Oaxaca the priest celebrated Mass until Flora gave a wave from the door of the church in advance of Paul's arrival. This guaranteed a good-sized crowd to welcome him. Radio stations interviewed him, schools held assemblies where he spoke and answered questions, school children cheered him and then helped plant trees. Environmentalists and other members of civil society met him on the outskirts of Oaxaca City and walked with him to a grand reception in the zocalo. The governor of Chiapas even flew Paul over the Lacandon rainforest in a light plane.
Paul Coleman’s reception was so warm in Mexico that I faxed the president of Guatemala. The Guatemalan counterpart to Policia Federal de Caminos was waiting for Paul at the border! He was well on his way to Rio.
The 1992 Earth Summit in Rio was unprecedented in the scope of its concern for finding a new model that could both allow continued economic development and halt the escalating and rapid pollution of the environment and depredation of irreplaceable natural resources.
Agenda 21 was the most significant plan adopted at the conference. It focused on sustainable development and is a comprehensive global, national, local blueprint for actions to stop destruction of the environment by human action. It recognizes that poverty, as well as excessive consumption by affluent populations, exerts unprecedented stress on a fragile environment. It places responsibility on developed nations to help less-developed countries meet the standards.
A 1997 assessment of the achievements of the Earth Summit determined economic disparity had grown further and the environment was at even greater risk. The Kyoto Protocol was adopted later that year but not fully implemented until 2005. The United States never supported either Agenda 21 or the Kyoto Protocols. Conservatives in the U.S. argued against implementation with many claiming there has been no human-caused climate change. Without U.S. support the promise of the Earth Summit was not realized. Pre-event press coverage of expectations for Rio+20 is generally pessimistic.
Concurrent with the U.N.'s Rio+20 conference the Brazilian government provided five million dollars for a "People’s Rio+20 Summit . . . designed to foster alternative ideas and provide an outlet for discontent at U.N. member countries' failure to preserve biodiversity, eliminate poverty and cut greenhouse gas emissions.” Hundreds of groups - including environmentalists, unions, religious groups and indigenous tribes – are taking part in the nine-day event expected to climax with a rally of 50,000 people on June 20th. 110 heads of state convene in Rio on that day.
Meanwhile, Paul Coleman continues walking and is now known throughout the world as “Earthwalker.” Though remaining committed to the rainforests and trees, Paul’s mission has evolved to include world peace. Since 1990 he has walked the world with the goal of planting more than 100 million trees -- “one for every man, woman and child killed in the wars of the last century.” He’s walked 47,500 km and planted 11,350,000 trees. Paul Coleman is taking one step at a time to change the world.