The outcome of last month’s United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro, known as Rio+20 to commemorate 20 years of the Earth Summit in 1992, is being heavily criticized by environmental NGOs and activists – many had predicted earlier in the year that the conference was doomed for failure.

However, while heads of states and delegates from around the world sat in their air-conditioned rooms at Riocentro compiling a mediocre text for “the future we want”, global civil society gathered at the People’s Summit for Social and Environmental Justice next to the white beach of Flamengo, 90 minutes away from the main event.

From Brazilian “catadores” (informal rubbish pickers) to Peruvian indigenous people; from European businessmen to small Vietnamese co-operatives – they all came together to protest against what they consider to be the root of the world’s on-going social and environmental crisis: globalization, global capitalism and neo-liberalism.

The People’s Summit, a 9-day parallel event to Rio+20, saw more than 200 civil society groups and thousands of visitors and participants. It was a truly diverse and multicultural movement that tried to demonstrate the international discontent with the world’s failure to tackle climate change, protect biodiversity and reduce global socio-economic inequalities.

Indigenous tribes offered tribal face-paintings, while others were selling hand-made jewellery – all of them getting inspired by anti-capitalist rhetoric and being entertained by exotic drumbeats. A big concert-like stage between palm trees was the medium through which activists expressed their concerns and called everyone to fight for their rights, regularly followed by chants and applause.

With around 15,000 visitors a day and a live radio broadcast to reach out to more isolated and less privileged communities in Rio de Janeiro, the People’s Summit was hardly a failure. Despite the civil society event being geographically distant from the main conference, it managed to engage the public with the high-profile political agenda.

While world leaders at Riocentro lacked political will, activists at the People’s Summit showed their enthusiasm for a more just and environmentally-friendly world. Words such as “green economy”, one of the key elements of Rio+20, was interpreted by the protesters’ as a new way for the rich countries to exploit the world’s resources.

The People’s Summit stood against the commodification of life and was in defence of the commons. This counter-conference may have been over-idealistic but it was nonetheless a very important event to convince sceptics that an alternative is possible.

Text and photos by Martin Ross, assistant editor at Revolve Magazine.