Rio+20: faith based organisations keep the hope alive


By Martina Liebsch, Caritas Internationalis Director of Policy and Advocacy

It has become a tradition that faith based organisations host a side event together at major global conferences, like at the UN conferences on climate change in Cancun and Durban. Over 120 people gathered in one of the last of the side events at the Rio+20 conference, which, in spite of the general frustration about the outcome of the summit, gave some hope. The title of the event was “Ethical and Religious Insights on the Future we Want” sponsored by the World Council of Churches, the Lutheran World Federation, Religions for Peace and Caritas Internationalis.

At the beginning of the event a statement of Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew for the Rio+20 Conference was read out. He called for the urgent need to deliver meaningful action, keeping in mind that the goals of the Earth summit are all attainable and that political leaders know that. “We can either have a human world with justice for all, or a polluted, degraded and angry world without justice.” The world must be perceived as a spiritual and physical place, which means that the world is a sacred place and our only home. He called for tempering our attitudes, distinguishing between greed and other people’s needs.

At that point in time, everyone knew that the conference would end without any major decision, but with a declaration with many a should and a could and general encouragements.

Bishop Dr. Heinrich Bedford-Strohm from the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Bavaria encouraged people to dedicate themselves to the struggle against environmental degradation. He said people of faith should engage with politicians and civil society to make the difference in terms of a social and ecological new world.

It appealed to me when he spoke about two elements which we need to bring together: inspiration and incentive. In my daily work, I often feels the tension between the moral call and technical solution-oriented language.

We need a vision, for example for an economy of solidarity and sharing. At the same time, we need to understand the reality and self-interest of people that we can only change by giving them incentives. These two dimensions need to come together, so that politicians will understand us, as they are mainly taking the self-interest of people into account. So we need incentives, for example an ecological tax for everything we do against nature.

Religions reach minds and hearts of people. That is why he concluded by saying “I’m not so pessimistic” and “we as religions have so much to offer.”

Rosa Ines Floriano Carrera, the Caritas speaker, highlighted another dimension of the future we want. Sge said we have to analyze our relationship with the environment. We talk about the preferential option for the poor. This is not only about meeting their immediate needs, but to look at unjust relationships. What we call integral human development looks at the economic, spiritual and ecological dimension and the relationships within that frame.

We need to allow for conditions where poor and excluded people, are allowed to dream, are given the opportunity to call for their recognition and inclusion and can realize their dreams.

As religions we have a privileged place, as we have access to the conscience of the human being. We cannot measure the conscience, but relationships are expressions of the conscience. We should bring about change with the right relationships based on justice, solidarity and participation.

When Rosa Ines first presented this idea to me I was surprised and confused. “Before we build structures we should look at relationships”, she said. What is the relationship with the poor we want? Just giving them some money to allow them to buy some bread or a relationship where they can express themselves, participate and use their talents? This approach gives freedom to those in power – and she did not mean only political leaders, but also all those of us who work with the poor. Responsibility is shared. I found her thoughts fascinating and it sounded almost like a revolution. And wasn’t it the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon who a month before the Rio summit called for nothing else than a revolution in our thinking?

Reverend Dr. Nestor Paulo Friedrich, president of the Evangelical Church of the Lutheran Confession in Brazil highlighted the distance felt and experienced by many participants, between the official Conference and the People’s Summit. He called for pushing to increase the participation of Civil Society in the Global Dialogue.

He also said, that there is a difference between using the resources of the earth or devastating the earth are two different things and made reference to psalm 24 which says, “To the lord belongs this earth”. He called for jointly creating “ an ecumenical World”.

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, reminded us, that the destruction we are facing is done by human beings. “Every single effort to protect the environment and empower the poor, is important, she said, but we have to work together.”

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,” which has been signed by many religious leaders and organizations. The document asks the question of what, in spite of passionate expressions of shared responsibility for the well-being of the human family expressed amongst other in the Earth Charter, the Johannesburg Declaration, has prevented us from realising these commitments? We repent, the document says, where our traditions and organizations have promoted violence and injustice towards others, and have supported the destruction of the environment. It contains several commitments, amongst a commitment to fully engage with the whole community of life on Earth to engage in a paradigm shift towards universal responsibility and global empathy and to redouble the efforts of serving as forces for good, by participating in the realisation of the Millennium Development Goals and their successors.

“May our children, and our children’s children not be disappointed with our actions, may we be able to make them proud.”

Talking to my son (23), about the outcome of Rio+20 and asking his opinion about the outcome document I shared with him, I do not think we have much to be proud of. “It sounds as if all agree that the world is terrible and someone should save it, he said.” Who then? One of the answers came from my colleague Marcio from Brasil, almost at the beginning of the event. “Real life and creativity is out there at the people’s summit, not at the official summit”.

While at the summit politicians were fighting for a minimum common denominator at the people’s summit networks of solidarity economy were built, reinforced and the idea spread, that another way of doing business is possible. Where a lively and coloured crowd discussed and met, indigenous people, activists, trade unions and philosophers like Leonardo Boff. And I can’t remember where in the corridors I heard people saying, that it is probably civil society who can make change happen.

So what is the stream of healing for the planet? A few buzz words for inspiration: Make the right choices for our planet; not losing the inspiration, but make things work by incentives for the better of the planet by considering the self-interest of human beings; green audits in our own organizations; rethinking our structures and what kind of relationships they reflect; a stronger alliance of faith based organisations to engage with civil society, global dialogue and make specific proposals for the (hopefully) upcoming set of goals, announced in the outcome document; a “revived Earth Charter”; a people’s treaty, including the issue – one of my favourites – of global citizenship; and action.

At the end of the side event, cards were exchanged with new allies. The summit was yesterday, the new work starts today and I would follow the Evangelical Bishop. I’m optimistic too, seeds were put in the earth at this conference, we have to make them grow.


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