Rio + 20 : Montreal student Jessica Magonet heads to conference


Montrealer Jessica Magonet was not even born when the first Earth Summit was held in Rio de Janeiro 20 years ago this month.

But next week, when nations meet again for the 20th anniversary of that watershed United Nations conference, Magonet won’t be letting her youth stop her from demanding the world pay attention to her cause.

Magonet, 19, is part of a 14-member youth delegation from across Canada heading to the UN Conference on Sustainable Development, also known as Rio + 20, Wednesday to Friday. They will demand that protection of polar regions be among the global commitments that come out of the conference, and that indigenous peoples be involved in development decisions.

Magonet, a law student at McGill University, thinks it’s fitting that young people set part of the agenda at Rio + 20.

“Sustainable development is all about caring about people who are not here yet, so I hope we can represent that symbolically,” she said.

The first Earth Summit brought 172 countries together to create a blueprint for a better world, one with equal rights, less poverty and a healthier environment. Although hopes were high afterward, a recent assessment of progress on 90 environmental goals found that significant progress had been made on only four since 1992.

The world has managed to eliminate production and use of substances that deplete the ozone layer, remove lead from fuel, improve access to clean water and increase research on marine pollution. But the assessment, called the Global Environmental Outlook and released this month, showed that little or no progress has been made on such critical issues as climate change, desertification and drought.

The slow progress since the first Rio conference does not discourage Magonet.

“We have a lot of energy and we are not cynical. We have hope. … This seems to be a very political generation, actually … and with what’s happening at the federal level, people who may have been quiet up until now are becoming more vocal.”

Magonet was referring to Bill C-38 and the sweeping changes it will bring to environmental legislation. She is also concerned that Canada will soon be chairing the Arctic Council, an intergovernmental body responsible for Arctic governance that includes representatives of Canada, Russia, Norway, Finland, Denmark, Iceland, Sweden and the U.S.

“The current federal government does not have a great environmental record … so there is big concern as Canada is taking over as chair.”

Magonet said her delegation wants the world to recognize that the polar regions are threatened by oil drilling, mining, fishing and marine traffic, and that attention must be focused on sustainability now, before it’s too late.

“A lot of these regions are not governed by any laws because nobody goes there, so there is concern there will be a free-for-all, with no limit on the type or number of ships that can pass through there.

Indigenous people also must be involved in the sustainable development of these regions.”

Magonet became fascinated with the Arctic when she visited Kuujjuaq and sailed up the east coast of Baffin Island with an organization called Students on Ice in 2010. She was inspired by meeting Inuit elders, hearing their concerns and fears about climate change, and learning from biologists and glacier experts about how the region is changing.

“Visiting the Arctic makes climate change so visceral and human, because what’s happening there is so shocking. They are already talking about adaptation; they’ve had to move beyond prevention and try to live with this new environment.”

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