A Day in the Life at Rio+20

June 15, 2012 | 2:30 pm
Calen May-Tobin
Former contributor

My day begins at around 6 in the morning. The songbirds and roosters usually wake me up before my alarm does. I get ready and make my go to breakfast is mango, toast, and queso fresco (“squeaky cheese” as one of my fellow grad students used to call it), with a glass of coconut juice (have to resupply those electrolytes).

rio + 20 summit

This is part of a series of posts straight from the Rio +20 Summit.

I won’t be returning to my hotel until the evening, so I have to bring everything I need with me.  The three essentials are my laptop, my smartphone, my camera, and my ID badge.  The UN is very strict about badges (everyone is scanned in and out of the conference center, like a library book) so if I forget it my day is essentially a waste.



View from my hotel courtyard first thing in the morning.


Breakfast of Champions- Tropical Edition

The essentials

Laptop, phone, ID badge; the essentials (camera not pictured, for obvious reasons). Plus a book for when I'm too brain-dead to work on the bus home.

Then it’s out the door and the ten minute walk through the steep winding streets to the beach-front Hotel Sol Ipanema (a Best Western) to wait for the shuttle bus to Riocentro.

Rue Saint Roman

My street, Rua Saint Roman

hotel sol Ipanema

The Hotel Sol Ipanema where the shuttle bus to Riocentro picks up

The shuttle buses come every twenty minutes (more or less) and are crowded with official delegates, NGO staff and students from all over the world so conversations are a mish-mash of English, French, Portuguese, and countless other languages.

waiting for the shuttle

Delegates waiting for the shuttle

bus to rio

Shuttle Bus! (exciting, right?)


Traffic, but at least the view is nice.


The bus ride offers a good opportunity to work (most of my posts are drafted on the bus) and meet people from all walks of life.  Yesterday I talked with a group of Ph.D. students from Duke University. They are studying governance and are here as a part of their research. One student is actually an official delegate from the Marshall Islands where she is investigating the efficacy of marine conservation areas.





When not glued to my laptop, these rides offer a glimpse into the daily workings of Rio as we creep along the streets of Ipanema and Leblon.

Leblon store

A storefront in Leblon. The architecture in Rio is amazing.

entry line

The registration line to get offical UN ID badges.

Once at the conference I pass quickly through the security check points, grab an espresso and a seat outside to figure out the rest of my day.  Theoretically my hotel has Wi-Fi, but my computer has yet to make nice with it, so this is usually my first chances to get online to read news articles and blog posts and download e-mails I can’t get on my phone.  I review the daily list of side events and negotiating sessions for those relating to forests, agriculture, and land-use and decide which ones I will attend, as there are far more than one person can cover. Then it’s off to the first meeting of the day.


CAN meeting

Morning strategy meeting for the Climate Action Network.

That meeting is usually the Climate Action Network’s (CAN) daily briefing. These meetings are held in the courtyard between the pavilions (one of two informal meeting spots) and provide an opportunity to recap the prior day’s events, share intelligence, and prepare for the day to come.  CAN is a coalition of NGOs from around the world that work on all aspects of climate change that have found that their voices are stronger if they speak in unison.  It acts as a pure democracy, with every member having an equal say and be warned that if you make a suggestion for action, chances are you will be voluntold to carry it out.

Three of the speakers at the side event UCS co-sponsored on sustainable cattle in Brazil (left to right: Barbara Pyle, Captain Planet Foundation; Roberto Smeraldi, Amigos da Terra- Amazônia Brasileira; Nathalie Walker, NWF.)

After the CAN meeting breaks up, it’s off to a side event or the negotiations.  The daily plan goes out the window pretty much as soon as I make it. Yesterday for instance, I had planned to attend a side event on sustainable lifestyles (an interesting complement to Cooler Smarter, which I finished reading on the plane here) but then realized the negotiating session on forests was at the same time. I booked it over to that session only to find it starting 10 minutes late and the first half hour eaten up determining a schedule for all the topics being discussed, since forests are lumped with mountains, poverty, food security and biodiversity (you know, the simple things).  It was decided that forest would be discussed from 3pm-5pm, which coincided with the UCS sponsored side event, so that meant no forest session for me that day.

The rest of the day usually follows in pretty much the same manner: jumping between meetings, adjusting my schedule, and trying to absorb as much as I can.  Only two things break the routine.  The first is lunch. The food court offers the second informal meeting spot, so lunch is usually a quick meal grabbed with coalition partners and friends to get their perspective on the day.

Food Court

The food court at Riocentro; informal meeting space and the one place to get the caffeine to make it through the day.

The second opportunity to pause is whenever my laptop battery dies. With only two hours of charge, at least once a day I have to plug in and since my power adapter only works in a few outlets here (thanks, RadioShack) this mostly means sitting on the ground next to the janitors closet with constant interruptions from people telling me that there is a nice work room (full of unusable outlets) just around the corner.

media center

Where most people charge their laptops.


Where I work, next to the men's room and a storage closet (not pictured is a comically large fire extinguisher).

Rio Sur

View south of Rio

And through all of this there is the constant buzz of my phone, the stream of nearly indecipherable e-mails about the negotiations (what does “G77 walks out of GE talks until MoI is clarified” mean?[1]), plus occasional vain attempts to keep up with work from back home.

Depending on when the last interesting side event ends or whether evening negotiations have been canceled, I usually catch the shuttle back to Ipanema at around 7, which is well after dark.

Back in Rio, I grab a leisurely dinner, either alone or with other folks from NGOs to continue the discussions from the day. I get back to my hotel around 10 or 11, do some quick photo editing and recap of the day, finally falling asleep around midnight. After a few hours of sleep the birds start back up and it’s time to start the whole thing again.

[1] The G77 is a UN negotiating group of consisting of developing countries, GE is the green economy negotiating session, and MoI stands for means of implementation.