These simultaneous meetings had numerous dialogues, ceremonies and prayer vigils which took place at multiple locations throughout the region. Representatives from the United Religions Initiative took an active role in the planning and presentation of a number of programs at both venues which addressed the multifacted ecological, social and spiritual challenges facing our civilization(s) today.
I was part of a nine member team from Protecting and Restoring the Sacred CC of British Columbia, Canada. Each of us took part in events adding to discussions around a number of varied topics, such as the preservation of the global commons, the restoration of sacred sites of worship, and the exploration of new paradigms for social cooperation.
On Sunday, June 18, URI members had the opportunity to reflect upon the "Ethics and Spirituality of Water" on a panel designed by Heidi Rationmaa of URI Finland and moderated by Andre Porto. Speakers reflected on ways in which water nourishes, refreshes and sustains all life. In traditions the world over, water's very presence acts as a conduit to the divine, and those who shared its significance in their culture and custom, emphasized how vitally important it is that our waters remain pure and accessible to everyone.
Dr. Reijo Heinonan, theology and ethics professor, David Weaver of the Ecumenical Water Network and I traversed familiar territory of Christian and Jewish sacrament and ceremony in our remarks. We broadened the conversation to explain that water acts as threshhold to the soul as it stewards our intentions in sacrament and ceremony from the ritually impure to the pure. All agreed if we remain in reverential relationship with this vital resource we will prevent its prodigal use.
Of equal importance is the protein-rich sustenance that Earth’s waters provide to billions around the world. Eleven-year-old Ta 'Kaiya Blaney of the Sliammon First Nation (pictured above, left) and Sundance Chief Reuben George of the Tsleil Wathuth People spoke of salmon runs in their indigenous territories that are fast dwindling. The hearty bounty of clams and crabs, a staple food source for generations harvested from the Burrad Inlet as a tide went out each day is now a scarcity. Increased oil and commercial tanker traffic along with industrial waste in the region takes its toll.
In a gesture of unity and commitment of purpose, our panel concluded with a water ceremony which combined water offerings brought by members of the world community into a single vessel. The Hebrew Shehecheyanu blessing was recited thanking the Almighty for bringing us all to this season of hope and renewal.
As we left the conference room, we were met by a group of journalists and NGO representatives who wanted to hear firsthand about the practical challenges our Indigenous members face. They were particularly interested in hearing about how their ways of life have been directly impacted by the expanding encroachment of commercial development. A steady stream of concerned inquiry around this topic kept up throughout our time in Rio. Our CC members took part in numerous spontaneous media interviews and deep side discussions with individuals and organizations. From these discussions and interviews stories were written, and videos were recorded. Collaborations and partnerships were born.
The same was true after the panel discussion, "Women Leading the Way, Mobilizing for an Equitable, Resilient and Thriving Future" where Ta ‘Kaiya offered these words, “As indigenous peoples, as humans, our priorities are the land and water, and to the land and water. Our responsibilities are to be stewards to the Earth and the animals, and holding that title we must live by it, and act as if it s a law. Our ancestors once hunted and fished and lived on the land we remain and thrive on. In order to uphold our traditions we must protect our territory because the land and culture are two parts of the same whole.”
Her prescient words were a reflection of fellow panelist Dr. Vandana Shiva, who gave a powerful presentation, reminding us that modern civilization has used millions of years of resources in a handful of generations. She acknowledged that we have been living in “masculine times” which have brought about so many separations: political, social and cultural. An infusion of women in positions of governance would bring us multicentric leaders who would oversee issues in a multicentric process. Holistic thinking is vital at this critical moment in our planet’s history. In Dr. Shiva’s words, “We must go beyond anthropomorphizing the Earth and portending the globalization of greed. We must relocalize the struggle and globalize the hope, globalize compassion, globalize cooperation.”
There indeed was a heightened spirit of cooperation throughout the entirety of the conference, even though it was clear that outcomes would fall short of expectations. Some of the most interesting conversations took place at the food court, which turned out to be the cross- roads of many good ideas.
I met with dozens of people from around the world who came to Rio only loosely associated with an NGO. They came because they had improved on a biogas or a photovoltaic invention that would do away with the need for oil or gas to power and heat homes, or they had worked out an innovative way to get communities to transition from a consumptive economy which depletes resources, to one that is collaborative where needs are met by bartering, gifting, and sharing goods and services which fosters trust and builds community.
Why were they in the food court? They had attended the one session they had come for, and now they wanted to share their good idea with others in any way that they could. They came by way of Vienna and Zimbabwe and Brooklyn -- and every time I stopped by for a cup of chamomile tea, I got an education.
Our URI members had the chance to take part in an informal question and annswer session with environmental activist Bill McKibben of 350.org at a table near the food court’s main entrance. Tarah Stafford from our group arranged for him to give us a half hour of his time with our BC contingent, and I immediately put out the call to URI colleagues we had not yet met: Patrick Nickisch, Seira Flanigan, Everett Hoffman, and Aline McCarthy to join us for this unique opportunity.
McKibben took the time to discuss possibilities for partnering with grassroots civic leaders and faith communities. At one point in the conversation, he said that he was coming to recognize that the time had come to craft a new language and trade in a new currency, one of compassion and trust for ourselves and our fellow man. I reflected for a moment on all the good will and impassioned words I had heard. What would it take to get people to listen?
That new language which he was describing would have to have deeper meaning. It would have to be a kind of Esperanto of the heart. I asked if he would consult with our URI Environmental Satellite which holds monthly meetings. He replied that he would speak to anyone who will listen.
More than 150 world leaders and ministers had brought commitments to Rio+20 and these were chronicled in a final outcome document, “The Future We Want." The conference had been billed as a "once-in-a-generation" opportunity to rebalance the needs of the economy, society and the environment. Even with the tremendous challenges that lie ahead, the document offered only a limited upgrade in status of the UN Environment Programme. It emphasizes the over-arching global benefits of a “green economy,” and it launches a process to establish criteria for Sustainable Development Goals (SDG’s).
Many were concerned that these new goals would eclipse the importance of the MDG’s set to be achieved in 2015. Not one of the eight proposed goals has yet to be met. The lack of clear commitments, timetables, financing or means of monitoring progress in the outcome text prompted dismay among many delegates and observers. The greatest stumbling block in almost every sector was stakeholder insistence that the remedy for dealing with the challenges of global poverty, climate breakdown, transportation, housing and urban development, would be largely market-driven. We are somehow expecting the poison to miraculously become the cure.
The moment it was signed, EU Climate Commissioner Connie Hedegaard tweeted, “Nobody in that room adopting that text was happy. That’s how weak it is.” This perspective was widely accepted by UNCSD delegates, and it stood in stark contrast to the spirit shared at the Peoples Summit at Kari-Oka.
Honored at the opening of the Summit events, Chief Phil Lane Jr. and Sundance Chief Reuben George were asked by our Brazilian hosts to share in the lighting of the ceremonial fire in sacred gathering. South and North American tribal leaders stood together and heralded new beginnings, each embracing the moment as a fulfillment of a prophecy long promised. That time of great awakening is now upon us, when Peoples of the world would share the best within themselves for the good of all.
Indigenous peoples who had come celebrated this auspicious event in dance, ceremony and song. In the days ahead, and with a sense of great unity of purpose, many meetings would take place around the issues which indigenous peoples of the world face. The Kari-Oka ll Declaration would be written and delivered with a clear message that embraces the intrinsic value of all living beings, “We continue to inhabit and maintain the last remaining sustainable ecosystems and biodiversity hotspots in the world. We can contribute substantially to sustainable development but we believe that a holistic ecosystem framework for sustainable development should be promoted. This includes the integration of the human-rights based approach, ecosystem approach and culturally sensitive and knowledge-based approaches.”
The Kari-Oka ll outcome document flatly rejects “false” market-based solutions when it states, “Mother Earth is the source of life which needs to be protected, not a resource to be exploited and commodified as a ‘natural capital.’ We have our place and our responsibilities within Creation’s sacred order. We feel the sustaining joy as things occur in harmony with the Earth and with all life that it creates and sustains. We feel the pain of disharmony when we witness the dishonor of the natural order of Creation and the continued economic colonization and degradation of Mother Earth and all life upon her.”
Ringing true were Dr. Shiva’s remarks shared earlier in the conference, "Green is not the color of money, it is the color of life."
In a finger of jungle not far from RioCentro was the sprawling hacienda Aldiera Terra Novo, where a large number of religious and spiritual mentors and indigenous peoples from around the world sought to stay. Many of the programs at the 1992 Rio Summit were held there because camping is allowed on the grounds. Over several weeks during the run up to Rio+20, dozens of programs were held there. Ceremonies of gratitude and unity took place daily in the main hall, on the grounds, and at the water’s edge. I was inspired by the scope of color and majesty which make up the fabric of human culture.
When I arrived at Terra Novo in the night tired, and in grief over the loss of my father, I could not imagine what was to unfold. I took to my bed exhausted from the journey and hoping that comfort and grace would somehow find its way in. When morning came far too early with drums beating, I went outside and in the clearing was a large circle with people of all colors and cultures participating in prayer.
Agroup of Amazonian Elders in full feathered regalia were chanting and dancing. In the middle of the circle someone was waving a large Pax Cultura Banner of Peace. It was beautiful sight. I was filled with joy and burst into private tears with a prayer of gratitude in my heart. I looked around. Nicholas Roerich's flag was everywhere, one was hanging from the tents in the distance. How could that be, I wondered?
After a few moments all became clear. Of course, the Pact was signed with South and Central America in the 1930’s, and its promise for hope and peace has been passed down as a sacred promise ever since. The intent of preserving the treasures of cultural heritage is still honored in treaty, in the spirit by which it was drafted.
Philosopher Nicholas Roerich keenly understood that peace could indeed be achieved by preserving the most precious of human resources when he declared, "Where there is Peace there is Culture, and where there is Culture there is Peace."
This year on September 21, the UN International Day of Peace will draw its focus from the conference calling for a "Sustainable Peace for a Sustainable Future." Mary Robinson, former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, recognized too that our best hope for the future lies in social commitments and cooperations, “Happily the lack of political leadership was countered by the incredible vitality, determination and commitment of civil society -- from young people, women, trade unions, grassroots communities, faith-based organizations and the private sector.
The legacy of Rio+20 will not just be the text of the Declaration. Hopefully, it will be the mobilization of people to build the future they desire.”