Thomas Brendler coordinates the National Network of Forest Practitioners, a grassroots alliance of ruralpeople advocating for environmental protection and social justice in the woods. He is a fellow of the Environmental Leadership Program.

Tuesday, 28 May 2002

BALI, Indonesia

At the Bozeman airport, when the person at the counter asked “Why Bali?” the speed of my response surprised me: “U.N. black helicopter flight school, of course!” He laughed with the faint nervousness of those puzzled by sarcasm, but things quickly turned serious when we realized that Indonesia has the same airport code as Idaho. No way were my bags going to Pocatello.

My journey actually began in Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife and dog and coordinate the National Network of Forest Practitioners, a grassroots alliance of rural people advocating for environmental protection and social justice in the woods. The NNFP provides technical assistance, a forum for networking and organizing, and a meaningful role in national discussions about forests and rural communities. We are the horse loggers, trail builders, mushroom pickers, tree planters, mom-and-pop sawmills, and the community organizations and researchers that support them. We are agency officials trying to change the system from within by humbling ourselves, asking questions, and taking risks; and we are indigenous groups who bring an immense wisdom about the natural world and what it means to tend and heal the land.

I was in Montana for our annual board meeting. Just three weeks earlier, I had received a last-minute invitation to attend the Fourth Preparatory Committee for the World Summit on Sustainable Development — “Prepcom IV” for short. Prepcom IV is the last stop before the World Summit itself, slated for late August and early September in Johannesburg.

I confess that when I received the invitation, I didn’t know very much at all about the World Summit — but I stocked up on info faster than a New Englander on milk before a snowstorm. Not surprisingly, there are a dizzying number of governmental and nongovernmental groups involved in the process, and dozens of events. And there’s the paper trail to prove it. Leafing through my spoils on the plane was like unearthing a new culture, complete with its own language and customs. It was both entirely exciting and rather daunting.

After 22 hours, I emerged into the 90 degree heat of Denpasar, where I was greeted by a cheery team outfitted in Hawaiian shirts. One of them slapped a WSSD sticker on my chest, and the rest was history: I was whisked through passport control and customs and ushered to a waiting van, with seats hastily (and temporarily) reupholstered in white cotton. The whisking continued at the hotel, where all at once my bags were taken, my glasses fogged up from the sudden humidity, a gong was struck, and someone lassoed me with a fragrant lei.

The Prepcom is being held in Nusa Dua, a luxury tourist enclave nuzzled into the southern tip of Bali. Nusa Dua was the brainchild of the World Bank and the Indonesian government, which about 20 years ago decided the answer to the growing pressures of tourism was to concentrate it in one corner of the island. There is general agreement that this wasn’t such a great idea, a conclusion that is illustrated when I’m driven down a street with a Planet Hollywood on one side and a rice paddy on the other. Naturally, the irony of having a global conference on sustainable development in such a place is not lost on anyone, to the point that it is almost cliche to talk about it.

The WSSD is being held on the 10-year anniversary of the first such summit, held in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. That summit produced guidelines for sustainability (in a document called “Agenda 21”), and the task for this last prepcom is to lay out a plan of action for Johannesburg, and along the way assess the progress made since Rio. Not surprisingly, there is widespread concern here among “civil society” groups like mine about the capacity and commitment of member nations to implement the vision of Rio. Already there is grumbling in our ranks about the flimsiness of the “Chairman’s Text,” the draft action plan being negotiated by government delegates. In the words of one Rio veteran, “This is Rio minus 100, not Rio plus 10.” And to make matters more complicated, at every turn newcomers like myself are reminded that we are in the eleventh hour, and not much can be done. Or can it?

Stay tuned.