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What does Rio+20 mean to me?

18 June 2012

Peter Henriot, SJ

As I type this short note, I’m shivering in the “unseasonable” cold weather of early June here in Lilongwe, Malawi.  Winter isn’t supposed to come until July here!  And I’m recalling that the rains, so important for our maize crops, didn’t start as usual in late October last year, but only in early December.  And then the “unseasonable” rainy weather stopped and started again, then stopped and started again, worrying farmers and all of us here.

Yes, “unseasonable” seems to be the best way to describe our Malawian weather – and the weather of so much of southern Africa these days.  It’s caused, we are told, by “climate change” and if it keeps up, we are in for even greater problems.  So what does that mean for me, a Jesuit originally from the USA who has lived in Zambia and Malawi for over two decades?

I’ve seen the consequences of that “climate change” in the erratic weather patterns affecting us all these days; consequences of intense rainfall, changing rainfall patterns, floods, droughts, and prolonged dry spells.  In a country where more than 80% of the food is produced by small farmers, such erratic patterns mean more hunger, more infant and maternal deaths, more poverty all around.

So I hear people ask, what’s going on?  Why all this change?  Who is to blame?  What can we do to stabilise the situation?  Who can make a difference?

I’d like to think that those people gathered in Rio for the big “sustainable development” conference would think about our situation here in Malawi and take the necessary global steps to make a difference.  But I know that we also need to do some things here at home in Malawi to make a difference.

Well, in one small way, we Jesuits will be trying to make a difference.  In a new secondary school that we are starting up in a poor rural area of this country (Kasungu), we will be emphasising some of the “green” concepts that need to be put into practice.  We will have a co-educational boarding school for 500 youth and we will try to make “sustainable” describe something more than a theme at a big conference.

In construction, we will use soil-based bricks and not kiln-fired bricks where our precious trees are burnt.  In maintenance, we will pay attention to water use and (if funds are found) try to introduce some solar energy.  In curriculum, we will teach environmental awareness not only in science classes but across all instruction.  In student and faculty service programmes, we will require activities relating to the local ecological challenges (e.g, in agriculture).  And in lifestyle and spirituality, we will try to put into practice some of those strong recommendations accompanying the recent Jesuit report on “Healing a Broken World.”

I pray something good and “sustainable” comes out of the Rio+20 conference.  But I also pray that we do what we can do here at home – and that’s a big challenge in this “unseasonable” time!

Peter Henriot, SJ. Photo Credit: scarboromissions.ca

Peter Henriot, SJ directed the Jesuit Centre for Theological Reflection in Zambia from 1990 to 2010, and is now the Director of Development for the Loyola Jesuit Secondary School in Malawi.  Peter may be reached through his email: phenriot(at)jesuits.org.zm.

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