Where are we heading? From Bendum to Rio and back again

Where are we heading? From Bendum to Rio and back again

Jesuits and friends working for the future we want at Rio and beyond. Photo credit: Jaime Tatay, SJ

Pedro Walpole, SJ

I went from a mountain village in Southern Philippines to attend the global meetings in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, the land of magnificent bornhardts and beaches.  Heading back up the mountains after the discussions, what do I have to bring with me and what do 50,000 other people returning home have as a source of hope?

I honestly cannot think of a global conference such as Rio+20 that did not disappoint – it is the nature of political shuffling, of political compromise.  The ideal of a global body such as the United Nations to forge world peace is as poorly realizable as the present efforts at sustainable development or a green economy.  Yes, we need these ideals, the economic designs and shared political optimism, but we need much more to forge a path of sustainability.  Establishing a sustainable world is the challenge of all humanity at this point.  All of us need to be in the action – not just the picture – from local to global, from the forests to the metropolis.

The response given is not what is needed and even the politicians must feel personally a little disillusioned.  Neither can civil society at the global level form a commitment that feeds political conversion overcoming the obstacles.  Hundreds of voluntary actions are the only things signed and the rest is a statement of intent: we recognize… we affirm… we urge… we emphasize… but political will waits its time.

While the Arab Spring changes season in Syria and enters grave violence, the Occupy Movement has no economic allies able to address unemployment, and boat people in Asia seeking refuge are again incarcerated.  We see how we need greater response but our systems are so limited.  Our awareness today of such global experiences shows us we cannot manage the present or map the way out.  To cap the despondency, we are entering the 6th mass extinction as Ashok Khosla[1] in Rio speaks of the present crisis – if we refuse to adapt.  Adaptation to meet our responsibilities brings us back to two main adages – both soul searching.

First, it is the young people who are inevitably taking up these concerns.  What are these concerns?  We must meet the basic needs of all people and maintain natural resources.  We need more open venues for the youth to take up the challenge.  The elders and the youngers,[2] the movers and the shakers of this world need greater humility and hope in shaping the path to “the future we want.”[3]

Second, the crises will shift if we can develop the trust and partnerships needed.  How does change occur?  We need to connect on primary concerns of sustainability whether it is practice or policy, whether basic or higher education, farmer or financier.  We do this by going deeper into our own commitment whether the other changes or not.

We have less than 18 months to advocate and get far greater government public accountability.  Then we have to go back again and try at the General Assembly of 2013, to see what countries commit to and where the Millennium Development Goals are.[4] Greater civil action is needed with impact on the ground, with a more thorough program of listening and accompanying on the ground than any ‘three-year project’ could possibly allow.  We need to get back on the road to change that heals.

So the experience of Rio is one of connecting out globally and of listening for the common ground to share, and now it is time to go back and move with renewed awareness.  I take with me four things.

1.   Signs of the times are evident, or as they say in Latin America, hecho mayor.  The major event for history is now poverty and sustainability.  Here we have poverty and earth degradation not as symptoms but causes of a wounded world – including climate change.  We now grapple with this call for change, understanding the event but also the capacity to contribute.  Buen vivir is the call of many in Latin America for a “good life,” not a better life that competes and consumes.  The youth call for the right to a “good life” and reasserting the balance needed.

2.   The statement of the Indigenous Peoples is not much different from what we already aspired to, but it is more vigorous and is a point of greater connectivity.  Points drawn from the statement highlight the sentiments of being marginalized and need for recognition:

  • shift from imposed development to a ‘time of choosing life’
  • affirm cultures as the most fundamental dimension of sustainable development
  • support self-determination and sustainable development as complementary
  • build vibrant community economics with land security and territorial management
  • call for the world to return to dialogue and harmony with Mother Earth
  • revitalize cultural priorities, institutions, knowledge, trade, and solidarity
  • get full implementation of where there are commitments to Indigenous Peoples while rejecting the neo-liberal concept of  development based on exploitation or resources defined simply by market
  • seek full and effective participation of Indigenous Peoples in UN discussions affecting directly and indirectly Indigenous Peoples.[5]

3.   One of the interesting conversations was with Seethapathy Chander of the Asian Development Bank when he spoke of 96% of agency risk reduction funds (US$ 2.5B) being spent on mitigation and 4% on adaptation.[6] The dearth of science connecting people’s actions to the impact of scaled events is one of the major reasons why adaptation is presently failing to attract funds.  This needs much further understanding and investigation and perhaps a ‘brown bag’ lunch can start the discussions going.

4.   Stories of Latin America were moving, there were terrific people to engage and with whom to seek greater partnership; some of these connections will live on.

Now it is time to work together with commitment on the ground, to have some quiet in our life, a time for gratitude that we are alive and living is good.  We need to experience the silence as an assurance of our human context to make good.  We can move and taking up a greater realization of wellbeing for all.


Ashok Khosla, President of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

The Elders: Rio+20 is not the response we need to safeguard people and the planet, Rio de Janeiro, 21 June 2012, Press Release.

The Future We Want, Rio+20 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, Rio de Janeiro, June 2012.

The Future We Want, ibid.

Rio+20 Indigenous Peoples’ International Declaration on Sustainable Development and Self-Determination, 19 June 2012, Rio de Janeiro. Indigenous Peoples from all regions of the world met at the “Indigenous Peoples International Conference on Sustainable Development and Self Determination” from 17th–19th June 2012 at the Museu da República in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

Helping Developing Asia Reduce Disaster Risk, Speech by Xiaoyu Zhao, ADB Vice President at the High Level Meeting on Disaster Risk Reduction on Helping Developing Asia Reduce Disaster Risk, Washington DC, USA, 15 April 2011.


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