Overcoming frustration at Rio+20 through religious commitment and community
World Council of Churches (WCC) participants in the Rio+20 Conference have joined a broad religious coalition in rejecting the official outcome document of the United Nations-sponsored event.
“Renowned environmental scientists are saying that practically nothing happened between 1992 and 2012 in terms of public policy and global commitment,” observed Professor Leonard Boff, best-selling Brazilian author and co-founder of Latin American liberation theology.
He drew his conclusion near the close of the Rio+20 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (UNSCD).
Boff joined a chorus of critics who attended the UN conference and its populist counterpart, the People’s Summit, held simultaneously from June 20 to 22 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
With World Council of Churches Central Committee moderator the Rev. Dr Walter Altmann, Boff co-chaired a People’s Summit event on “the ethical and theological basis for climate justice”.
Lamenting the human condition in relation to today’s eco-systems, Boff confessed: “Wherever we arrive, we bring destruction and we force the other species to flee. Wherever our economic-based thought reigns, poverty, exploitation and hunger prevail.”
Altmann regretted the apparent disconnect between the strategies of international organisations distilled in the UNCSD outcome document and potential resources at the local level found in religious communities and other embodiments of civil society.
“There was more dialogue with civil society in 1992,” recalled Altmann as he looked back to the Earth Summit that took place at Rio in that year. He stressed that religious communities have a particular vocation in responding to the crises facing our planet, exploring their spiritual and ethical dimensions.
The panel chaired by Altmann and Boff was one of 80 events at the People’s Summit grouped in an ecumenical and inter-religious space designated as “Religions for Rights”. Activities in this sphere offered a creative interaction among the many and varied religions of the world.
Lack of ambition cannot be justified
Dr Guillermo Kerber, the WCC programme executive in the area of Care for Creation and Climate Justice, reinforced the conclusion of religious partners in refusing to accept the final document of Rio+20 as an effective instrument of change.
“The outcome document of Rio+20”, he said, “does not reflect the urgency of threats to life on earth as presented by the scientific community. It fails to update previous commitments of the international community, especially those in the Rio 1992 Conventions regarding biodiversity, desertification and climate change. There are no new, concrete commitments for the future.”
He provided this critique of the document: “The WCC has advocated for a principle-based preamble with clear ethical grounding. The present ‘vision’ of the text falls short in this regard. The international community, having been unable to reach a consensus, opted for the lowest common denominator, avoiding any controversial issues. As a result, the earth loses, and the poor and vulnerable lose.”
Kerber dismissed the document’s cautious approach: “Arguments used to justify the lack of ambition in the document, like the financial and economic crises, are unacceptable from the WCC perspective.”
During the conference, representatives of the People’s Summit met with UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon to express their frustration with the final document of Rio+20.
Rafael Soares de Oliveira, executive director of the ecumenical service organisation Koinonia, which is a member of the ACT Alliance, said of the encounter with Ban Ki-moon: “The meeting represented a concrete challenge to the leader of the UN regarding its agenda for the future. The People’s Summit did not accept the final document of Rio+20 as an effective instrument of change.”
Need for public theology
Bishop Dr Heinrich Bedford-Strohm, of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Bavaria, Germany, was among the speakers who continued to encourage people of faith to dedicate themselves to the struggle against environmental deterioration.
He said that “religions reach the minds and the hearts of people. Therefore, what we need is a public theology that is developed both in religious and secular languages.”
Bedford-Strohm pointed to two elements that, in his opinion, are essential to change the world: inspiration and incentive. “I’m not so pessimistic,” said the bishop. “We as religions have so much to offer.”
The Rev. Dr Nestor Paulo Friedrich, president of the Evangelical Church of the Lutheran Confession in Brazil (IECLB), added, “What we saw here in Rio shows that the distance between the UNCSD and the People’s Summit reflects an urgent need to increase the participation of civil society in the global dialogue.”
A young Muslim leader, Soher El Sukaria, secretary of the Muslim Arab Society of Cordoba, Argentina and co-coordinator of Religions for Peace Latin America and Caribbean Youth Network, stressed the common struggle of religions in protecting the environment and empowering the poor.
And at the end of the panel, Michael Slaby, on behalf of Rabbi Awraham Soetendorp, presented the inter-religious statement: “Towards Rio+20 and beyond – a turning point in earth history,” a text which already has been signed by many religious leaders and organisations.
The World Council of Churches, through its Care for Creation and Climate Justice program, will continue to advocate at the UN debate concerning sustainable development, environment and climate change-related issues. The WCC is also committed to continue its participation in the movement that organised the People’s Summit.
People of faith in Rio de Janeiro show concern for the earth (WCC press release of June 20 2012)