Bahá'í Involvement at the Earth Summit

The Bahá'í community made several contributions to the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development and the 1992 Global Forum which took place in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

This article appeared in the 1992-93 edition of The Bahá'í World, pp. 177-189.

alt Sustainable Development and the Human Spirit

By any account, the Earth Summit and its companion conference, the '92 Global Forum, were history-making events. The mere fact that over 100 heads of state, more than on any other occasion, gathered to discuss global concerns with the depth and complexity of environment and development issues represented a milestone for humanity. The parallel gathering of some 27,000 representatives from thousands of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) was likewise unprecedented, not only for its numbers but for its diversity.

The inauguration of the Peace Monument, a sculpture initiated by the Bahá'í International Community as a monument to the Earth Summit. The monument contains the soils of more than 100 countries and territories.

Government delegations to the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), as the Earth Summit was formally known, agreed on two major treaties aimed at slowing global warming and preserving the earth's biological diversity. Governments also adopted the principles of "Agenda 21," a 500-page, 40-chapter, global action-plan to guide the world community into the 21st century, and agreed to create a United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development.

Non-governmental organizations at the Global Forum, too, can point to many achievements. They succeeded in negotiating several alternative treaties and adopted an Earth Charter--a declaration of principles on environment and development. The cross-sector and cross-border networking among various groups was extensive, laying the groundwork for future collaboration.

From the preparatory meetings held around the world before the Conference to the actual gathering in Rio, the worldwide Bahá'í community found itself playing an active and surprisingly prominent role in the entire UNCED process. Indeed, Bahá'í participation in UNCED and the Global Forum was on a scale greater than anything else the Bahá'í community had undertaken at a major United Nations conference--or any other comparable world event.

The community's role was significant in several ways:

"The increased recognition of the Bahá'í International Community, coupled with growing acceptance of the principle of the oneness of humanity, are some of the most significant outcomes of our participation in the UNCED process," said Lawrence Arturo, Director of the Office of the Environment of the Bahá'í International Community, which coordinated the overall worldwide involvement of Bahá'ís in UNCED.

Acceptance of the theme of oneness

Central to the Bahá'í message at Rio was that the world should focus on the principle of the oneness of humanity. This theme was gradually picked up by others and appeared in various statements and publications related to the UNCED process. Ultimately, in several speeches at the Earth Summit and Global Forum, NGO and government leaders alike embraced this principle as critical to the establishment of sustainable development in the world.

Warren Lindner, international coordinator of the '92 Global Forum, made reference to the words of Bahá'u'lláh during the dedication ofthe "Peace Monument"--a five-meter-high sculpture initiated by the Bahá'í International Community as a lasting monument to the Earth Summit. "The '92 Global Forum and the Earth Summit were not really about environment and development," said Mr. Lindner on 14 June 1992, the final day of both conferences. "What they were really about was proving the point made on the monument. The fact that `the earth is but one country and mankind its citizens.'" He was quoting the words of Bahá'u'lláh as inscribed on the monument.

In other statements and addresses by world leaders and prominent thinkers, the same theme of oneness was emphasized as essential to sustainable development.

"Rio and Brazil have become milestones on the path of men to one world," said H. E. Ruud F. M. Lubbers, the Prime Minister of the Netherlands, in his speech to world leaders at the Earth Summit. "Now that the East-West conflict is over, all efforts must be directed even more vigorously to the relationship between North and South and to the cooperation of the world as a whole."

"Let it be a sacred duty, in the knowledge that we all belong to one mankind and that no person and no nation can enjoy lasting peace and well-being unless they act as members of the human family with respect for the integrity of creation and in harmony amongst ourselves," Mr. Lubbers added. "This requires new forms of cooperation and global partnership."

The theme also emerged in interviews with delegates. "Before UNCED, there were different sectors--wildlife, forests, trade," said Mr. Raymond Kwerepe, a delegate from Botswana. "Now we are trying to integrate them. We are dealing with the global village--South, North, East and West. That is the real theme of this conference."

Bahá'í participation in UNCED

The Summit must be seen in terms of a process. UNCED was, in reality, many separate events. Starting more than two years before the actual Rio Summit in June of 1992, various preparatory meetings were held around the world--meetings designed to prepare the agenda and agreements that would be signed in Brazil.

The Bahá'í Vocational Institute for Rural Women in India was the recipient of the UNEP Global 500 Award.

Several National Spiritual Assemblies, as well as the Bahá'í International Community's Office of the Environment, were involved from the beginning. Representatives attended all of the major international preparatory conferences, as well as many subsidiary conferences sponsored by NGOs.

At the international level, the Bahá'í community presented statements at each of the four preparatory meetings (known in United Nations parlance as PREPCOMs). These statements addressed such issues as the importance of adopting an "Earth Charter" to establish common values on the issue of sustainable development, the need for "bold and creative approaches" to create the "international legislative machinery" necessary to direct and coordinate international activity aimed at solving world problems, and the importance of the principle of the oneness of humanity in any global effort to solve the problems of sustainable development.

As well, national Bahá'í communities around the world participated in national and regional meetings held in preparation for the Summit. Under the terms of UNCED, for example, each participating country was to submit a report outlining its concerns on the state of environment and development. The input of NGOs was stipulated in this process, and Bahá'í communities in many countries, ranging from Brazil to Swaziland, responded. In the process, they sought to demonstrate that the teachings of their Faith and the social and community life of its followers offer to the world intriguing models for action in the effort to create a sustainable world.

At the "Global Assembly of Women and the Environment," a special pre-UNCED international conference organized in Miami, Florida, USA, in November 1991 under the auspices of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and implemented by the WorldWIDE Network, an international network of women in environment, some 500 women and men from nearly 70 countries gathered to discuss grassroots-level "success stories" of environmental management and sustainable development.

The goal of the gathering was to showcase affordable, repeatable and environmentally sound development projects undertaken by women, thereby demonstrating capacity and leadership. Two of the projects were started by Bahá'í women. The story of the Bahá'í Vocational Institute for Rural Women in Indore, India, which has been very successful in its effort to eradicate guinea worm disease in 302 villages in central India, was presented to the Global Assembly by Janak Palta McGilligan, the Director of the Institute.1 A second Bahá'í, Irma A. Allen of Swaziland, was also recognized by the Assembly for her work in helping to launch a national anti-litter campaign.2

Bahá'í community representatives also participated in subsidiary conferences sponsored by NGOs. At the World Women's Congress for a Healthy Planet, also held in November 1991 in Miami, Florida, USA, the Bahá'í International Community made available a statement entitled "Women and Men: Partnership for a Healthy Planet." The statement outlined the importance of the principle of equality between the sexes in any attempt to establish sustainable development, suggesting that only through a partnership between men and women will it be possible to "create the moral and psychological climate in which peace can emerge and environmentally sustainable civilization can advance and flourish."

Prior to UNCED, the Bahá'í International Community had prepared a statement for presentation. Because it stressed broad spiritual principles and ideas, it quickly emerged as the one that representatives of other religious bodies could support. Accordingly, the statement was presented to the plenary on behalf of religious NGOs generally.

Entitled "The Most Vital Challenge," the statement took a global view of the problems facing humanity, emphasizing that above all else the problems of environment and development cannot be solved unless humanity can "commit itself to enlightened cooperation and long-range planning on a global scale." It noted the interdependence of the world's problems and said that worldwide cooperation on the scale needed to solve them is possible only through a deeper understanding of human nature: "For, although economics, politics, sociology and science offer important tools for addressing the interdependent crises facing humanity, a true resolution of the dangerous state of affairs in the world can only be realized when the spiritual dimension of human nature is taken into account and the human heart is transformed."

The statement concluded by saying that the fundamental spiritual truth of our age is the oneness of humanity. "Universal acceptance of this principle--with its implications for social and economic justice, universal participation in non-adversarial decision-making, peace and collective security, equality of the sexes, and universal education--will make possible the reorganization and administration of the world as one country, the home of humankind."

Participation in the Global Forum

Apart from its participation at UNCED itself, the Bahá'í International Community played a major role in supporting the Global Forum, the parallel conference in Rio for NGOs. More than 27,000 NGO representatives, representing roughly 11,000 NGOs from at least 171 countries, took part in the '92 Global Forum--making it the largest and most diverse NGO event ever held. At least 140 Bahá'ís, from all continents of the world, including two members of the Continental Boards of Counsellors, members of several National Spiritual Assemblies, and representatives of the Bahá'í International Community, took part in the Global Forum. Much of the credit for this participation rests with the Bahá'í community of Brazil, which devoted intense effort to supporting a range of Bahá'í contributions:

Beyond these specific events the Bahá'í community contributed significantly to the overall direction and shape of the Global Forum. In August 1991, for example, the community was approached by Mr. Warren Lindner, Co-Chairman of the Global Forum, for assistance in setting up the Global Forum offices in Rio. "We were able to offer to the Forum the full-time assistance of Ms. Amanda Gurney, a Brazilian Bahá'í who is fluent in both English and Portuguese, as an assistant to Mr. Lindner," said Mr. Arturo. "Our hope was that early involvement by Bahá'ís would help to infuse a unifying spirit to the Forum, and we believe this was accomplished."

The Bahá'ís organized a series of cultural evenings as part of the Global Forum. Pictured here is Kevin Locke, a North American Indian, performing at one of these events.

The Peace Monument

The conception and construction of the "Peace Monument" represented a particularly gratifying opportunity for Bahá'í initiative. The inauguration held on 14 June attracted more than 400, including more than 30 media representatives and at least a dozen representatives from government delegations to UNCED.

The five-meter high concrete and ceramic monument was designed by, and built under the supervision of, the renowned Brazilian artist and sculptor, Siron Franco, who became very committed personally to the project. Indeed, in the final weeks of its construction, Mr. Franco declared his belief in Bahá'u'lláh during a live radio interview broadcast throughout Brazil. His design combines two pyramids, one inverted on top of the other, creating an hourglass shape intended to symbolize the fact that time is running out for humanity unless it unites in a new spirit of global cooperation.

During the inauguration ceremony, a line of children dressed in the costumes of many countries passed from hand to hand the soil of 42 nations for deposit into the monument, which is hollow. Contributions of soil were solicited from nations the world over and, as of May 1993, soil samples had been received from an additional 10 countries, bringing to 52 the number of nations that have contributed soil to the project. Many of the soil samples have been taken from sacred or historic sites. Soil from Iceland, for example, was taken from that country's most sacred and historic spot, the site of the first parliament, which was founded 1100 years ago. Soil from India was taken from Shakti Sthal, the site of the monument to the late Prime Minister Mrs. Indira Gandhi, who was the only head of state to attend the 1972 Stockholm Conference on the Environment.

Representatives of the Ethiopian government noted that their willingness to donate soil to the monument was especially symbolic because of its sacred nature. One representative said that when European delegations visited Ethiopia a hundred years ago, the Emperor decreed that their feet should be washed before they left, to prevent any of the country's sacred soil from being carried away. "In the past, we did not allow anyone to take our soil out of the country willingly," said Zegeye Asfaw, Ethiopia's Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Development, in a press conference before the inauguration ceremony. "But our determination is to see a peaceful and prosperous earth, and that is why we have delivered our soil to the peace monument."

Etched in four languages on the four sides of the upper pyramid are words written by Bahá'u'lláh more than a century ago: "The earth is but one country, and mankind its citizens." The quotation is displayed in English, Portuguese, Chinese and Terena, an indigenous language of Brazil. On the lower half of the structure the words "world peace" have been engraved in more than 35 languages. A glass strip at the monument's midpoint displays multi-colored soils taken from the contributing nations.

Constructed near the Santos Dumont Airport, just north of Flamengo Park and the site of the '92 Global Forum, the monument will stand as a lasting symbol of the Earth Summit and the Global Forum.

The Children's Book

Mr. James Grant, executive director of UNICEF, receiving the book Tomorrow Belongs to the Children.

The book, Tomorrow Belongs to the Children: Contribution to Earth Summit '92, brought together the concerns of children from more than 25 countries and offers an inspiring glimpse of what the world could be like if the peoples and nations of the world can learn to cooperate in building an environmentally sustainable future. Produced by the Bahá'í International Community, with support from the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) and the Masrour Association for Family Welfare and Education (ASMA), the book includes contributions from children of virtually every religious and cultural background.

The publication was officially released at the Global Forum on 12 June. For the first edition of the 78-page book, 15,000 copies were printed, half being donated to UNICEF in support of children's environmental programs. The remaining copies were distributed to non-governmental organizations, government delegations, United Nations officials, and heads of state.

"The artwork and essays in this book poignantly reflect the heartfelt concerns of the world's children as they face a world threatened by the potential of environmental degradation, uneven development, and continued political conflict in which the future seems so uncertain," said Roberto Eghrari, the Secretary-General of the Bahá'í National Assembly of Brazil, which also assisted in the book's preparation and publication. The 80 selections of artwork and essays in the book were done by elementary school children in 26 countries. They were chosen from thousands of submissions.

Other contributions to the forum

In many ways, the "Evening Series in the Park" nightly musical and cultural performances during the Global Forum also organized by the Bahá'í community, became the heart and soul of the Global Forum, providing a time and place where diverse people could come together without any particular agenda. Its intention, in the words of the Forum organizers, was "to reflect the cultural diversity of the Human Family with different musical genres from around the world." Between 2,000 and 4,000 people gathered each night to see these shows. On 13 June, the final night of the Evening Series, six acts featuring Bahá'í performers were presented as a "Unity Show."

A Greater Role for NGOs

In general terms, the Earth Summit helped to show how NGOs have become important players in the development of world policy and co-operation. It was clear that governments have developed a new respect for the expertise and capacities of non-governmental organizations. Many government delegations to UNCED included representatives of NGOs. "This is really one of the first ideas to have come out of this conference, that we need to cooperate more with NGOs," said Mme. Lansiri Nana Haidara, a member of the Mali delegation to UNCED. "NGOs are really the ones that work with the people at the basic level. And the governments recognize that they have to work with NGOs."

Representatives from NGOs agreed. "That is one of the areas of achievement of this conference," said Sir Shridath Ramphal, president of the World Conservation Union (IUCN). "UNCED was different from other UN conferences. The diplomatic closed-door style was opened up. The entire process was opened up. This could be the beginning of a global dialogue at the level of the social partners, rather than at the level of the international bureaucrats. The world needs this."

For the Bahá'í community, the Earth Summit provided a unique opportunity to demonstrate the universal nature of the beliefs that guide it, the unity of its approach, and a range of activities which offer potential models for action in the quest for sustainable development.

  1. In 1992, the Institute was among 74 individuals and institutions honored with a Global 500 Award by UNEP in ceremonies at UNCED on 5 June.
  2. Ms. Allen received a Global 500 Award in 1988.

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