A green sabbatical in Brazil

Risa Halagueña

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I volunteered for a non-profit organization that brought a group of young people to Rio de Janeiro for community service and a UN youth forum

Risa HalagueñaVocê da China, né?  I turned to the speaker, a smiling Brazilian girl. “You’re from China, right?”  Eu sou Filipina, I answered. (I’m Filipina.) We were at the entrance of a Catholic church and I was handing out flyers. She took the flyer and headed out somewhere into Leblon’s streets.

It was already my fifth week in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. I had not yet mastered the unique Rio accent but my Portuguese was improving somewhat. The bits of Spanish that was left from my Instituto Cervantes days sometimes helped but there were lots of dissimilarities in the language. I had the linguistic grasp of a five-year old whenever I tried to engage in a non-English conversation with Cariocas, natives of Rio de Janeiro.

The Spanish parish priest quizzes me about any improvements in my vocabulary for the day. I tell him I learned how to say “not yet.” As in, “Do you speak Portuguese?” and I answer with “Ainda não.” That line almost always makes Brazilians laugh. 

Last January, I had excitedly made plans to fly to Brazil in 2012 to attend Rio+20, the United Nations’ much-anticipated Conference on Sustainable Development.  Armed with my law degree and a short course on international environmental law, I naively felt that I could help in shaping important sustainable development policies, choosing among possible green economy outcomes, and deciding on the summit’s catchphrase, the future we want.

Instead I was handing out flyers.


I decided to take a break from the legal profession after five years of working in the judiciary. It was my first job out of law school and restlessness had set in. I set out to resign from my job two years ago but one interesting case after another kept coming in. I stayed on and thought that I could somehow contribute to Philippine jurisprudence.

When I finally handed in my resignation letter, I suddenly had a case of graduation goggles. You know, whenas  Marshall of How I Met Your Mother explainsyou act like a graduating student and see everything in a nostalgic light. Everything seemed perfect and suddenly I didn’t want to leave.

Eventually, I did leave. I cleared my desk and had a farewell lunch with my colleagues. I hadn’t told everyone I was leaving and most of them were surprised at the news. Some were curious about my plans, and wished me luck on my new adventure. My boss wished me well and I thanked him for being a mentor to me. A despedida dinner with schoolmates followed. A friend, with a mischievous grin on her face, gave me a door sign saying “Don’t English Me I’m Panic.” As things stand now though, it would be more useful to change “English” to “Portuguese.”

My ultra-basic knowledge of the language is a good conversation starter, but when I’m hit with a flurry of unknown Portuguese words, I know it’s time to say não entendeu” or grab the nearest local intern for a quick translation. 

I volunteered for a non-profit organization that brought a group of young people to Rio de Janeiro for community service, musical performances, and a UN youth forum. Most of the time, I helped with the media campaign, wrote articles about the group and prepared information they needed to know. Our small band of volunteers was, however, undermanned and occasionally our duties were blurred; hence the flyers.

The flyers, written in Portuguese, appeal to Cariocas’ sense of hospitality and encourage them to host our group’s young participants. From beaches to Rotary Club gatherings, from church entrances to parties, we’ve been handing out these flyers in the hopes that a local family will welcome the international cultural exchange (and temporarily have an extra family member raiding the fridge).

But my career break wasn’t completely all about handing paper out to strangers. After all, we were there for Rio+20, the massive UN event being held in Rio twenty years after the original summit. 

BLUE AND GREEN. Volunteers participate in a beach cleanup in Ipanema. All photos by Risa Halagueña

Conference grassroots

From time to time friends wrote to ask “how the conference was going.” The word “conference,” however, was not an accurate noun to use for Rio+20. There was the main conference attended by heads of state, yes, but there was so much more to Rio+20 than the three-day event. 

There were hundreds of side events that people could attend. One morning I was learning about the state of the planet’s glaciers, then after lunch I was listening to a top environmentalist on why planting trees improves one’s love life.

Just finding alternative lunch options at Rio+20 was a great way to meet interesting people. Our NGO couldn’t afford the expensive meals at the UN grounds and we were fortunate to have a local restaurant providing us with meals in big reusable tubs we carried with us. We had lunch picnics on the grassy field outside the UN complex where we met delegates from Peru, Mali, India and Brazil.  They thanked us for sharing our meals with them as we exchanged calling cards under the sun. One of them even gave me a shirt that decried the continued melting of polar ice caps. To me, those lunch breaks were sustainable development and international cooperation effortlessly taking place. 

RIGHTS. Indigenous people gather in Rio fior the summit

Beyond Rio+20

I’d like to think that I swapped my original goal of influencing international policy in exchange for something more personally memorable. I watched Edward Norton bring his wit and star power to a United Nations awards ceremony for social entrepreneurs from developing countries. I met proactive college students and local families during beach and river clean-ups around Rio.

I realized that I didn’t need to be a top diplomat to see and hear what was taking place: the different voices at Rio+20 were loud and clear. From the air-conditioned halls of Riocentro you could make your way to Flamengo Park and meet activists, students, and artists supporting a number of causes. 

I’ll remember not just the speeches on UN grounds but an assortment of people who represented different struggles. The young girl representing an indigenous group who tearfully decried how some businesses are “commodifying the sacred.”  The tough-looking rap group that took to the stage in a favela (shanty town) and started rhyming about Rio+20 and the importance of recycling. 

It was also during this time that 17-year old Brittany Trilford famously challenged over a hundred heads of state in her Rio+20 address: “I am here to fight for my future. That is why I’m here. I would like to end by asking you to consider why you are here and what you can do here. I would like you to ask yourselves: Are you here to save face? Or are you here to save us?”

TREE OF KNOWLEDGE.  Hanging books urges readers to borrow and read

Time will tell if the Rio+20 outcome document, which received mixed reviews, can contribute to a more sustainable future. Governments around the world will have to be accountable for the choices they make for their citizens and the targets they commit to achieve.

As for the individuals, activists and volunteers who were there, it was apparent that the true global shift would have to be led by people, not governments that have to contend with the slow pace of diplomacy.  This realization made the time I spent on the ground in Rio all the more vivid in my memory. –Rappler.com

Risa Halagueña wrote this essay following her six-week stint in Brazil volunteering for an international education program. She is now working on getting more Filipinos to discover and support travel and experiential learning as co-founder of Good Exchanges.

Follow her: @reeseeverywhere

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