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.

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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.

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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.

Wednesday, 29 May 2002

BALI, Indonesia

Toward the end of a morning briefing for nongovernmental organizations, a U.N. official announces that because there are not enough seats at the opening ceremony, she has decided to hand out 100 passes on a first-come, first-served basis. The passes are yellow, laminated, and important-looking. A golden ticket to Wonkaland.

I dutifully wait in line and, after some pushing and shoving, get one of the last tickets. I string it on the chain that holds my U.N. pass and merrily hightail it to the balcony, only to be told that there are no seats, my shiny yellow pass notwithstanding. So it’s a quick dash to the opposite balcony, which is reserved for the press. Although the balcony is practically empty, my new credentials don’t help me there, either. I’m directed instead to an auditorium, where I can watch the proceedings on a colossal television. Exasperated, I head for the beach, but am stopped by a security officer who demands I relinquish my worthless amulet.

I came to PrepCom IV to learn first-hand about global efforts to promote sustainable development, to network with community forestry groups from other countries, and to use international support for community forestry — a recent study found that at least 25 percent of forests in developing countries are owned or managed by communities — to build greater acceptance for it in the United States. Partly due to the Kafkaesque atmosphere of the summit, and partly because of the consistent admonishments about how late in the game we already are, I was reluctant to organize a meeting of people interested in community forestry. Besides, the gathering was already stuffed with simultaneous events, most them quite interesting, and it struck me that one more interest group might weaken opportunities to build unity among the civil society groups.

But I kept running into people at breakfast who were astonished that the Chairman’s Text made no reference whatsoever to community forestry, and wondering when we could get together to discuss it. After a few false starts (daunted by the seeming futility of our goal), we attracted about a dozen people from places like India, Indonesia, Nepal, and Paraguay to a dimly lit hotel room where we scrutinized the forests section of the text. We printed out our recommendations and dubbed ourselves the International Community Forestry Caucus.

The next morning we were leafleting the place, lobbying delegates, and holding a second meeting, at which our numbers magically doubled. When we ran out of copies of our recommendations, one caucus member whipped out his laptop and spiffed up our manifesto. Our meetings have become more sophisticated, but it’s hard not to laugh hearing ourselves say things like, “Japan is in if someone else introduces it,” “Ecuador is a possibility,” and “Has anyone talked to India?” Still, it’s a good feeling to be involved; we’re planning a press release and beginning to strategize for Johannesburg and beyond.

And, all the while, we wonder if any of our work — or for that matter the efforts of other civil society groups — is worth it. This is, after all, a place where civil society groups are reminded at every turn that they are second-class citizens: We are restricted to separate lounges, a separate information desk, and even have to enter the conference center through the back door. (As one friend pointed out, the United States outlawed a similar policy nearly 30 years ago.) While we earnestly scurry about, we hear reports of corporations meeting privately with government delegations. Perhaps they’re printing out some more yellow passes for us.

Thursday, 30 May 2002

BALI, Indonesia

Last night, led by Henry Harrison, a spirited county extension agent from Louisiana, a small group of us escaped from the U.N. encampment. We were a motley crew: a linguist, an ethnozoologist, a renowned nature writer and activist, a researcher from Egypt active in the Pan African Center for Land and Resource Rights, a grassroots community forestry activist from Ohio, a social justice activist from Louisiana, her colleague who runs a market that supports local farmers and fishers, and a media consultant from Nigeria.

And suddenly, there we all were, in “real” Bali at last: snaking streets flooded with schools of motorbikes, lined with Hindu temples and shrines, food stalls, cigarette billboards, and one-story shops selling everything from baby clothes to dried lemongrass. The air was thick with the smell of wood smoke and burning garbage, and the traffic seemed to eddy in all directions, with a chaotic balance that transcended logic.

Beyond the busy towns, the profusion and diversity of life continued: mango, tamarind, string beans, avocado, and, higher up, papaya, guava, jackfruit, coffee, and cacao. And, of course, the storied rice fields: an impossible shade of green blanketing open stretches of flat land, and majestic terraces in the hills. Our destination was a local subak, or rice growers’ cooperative, of which there are hundreds in Bali, where we were welcomed by the reputed subak expert, officials from the subak museum, and local rice farmers.

Subaks in Bali date back more than a thousand years, and are an example of successful community-based natural resource management. The primary function of subaks is to ensure equitable and efficient access to the water needed to irrigate the rice fields. They also serve to coordinate planting, production, and marketing. Their structure is ancient, intricate, and interwoven with the social structure of the community, as well as its religion: Each stage of the rice-growing cycle is marked by a ritual, and every year, all of the subaks in Bali gather at a lake believed to be the source of the island’s water.

At a miniature grocery store on the dusty main street, outfitted with a veranda and vinyl couches, we snacked on nameless crispies, water chestnuts, and a plate of rice noodles, bean sprouts, pounded rice cake, and chilies. All the while, lanky dogs patrolled the paddy catwalks, sleepy in the noon heat.

When we returned that evening, we learned that the language we proposed be added to the Chairman’s Text, which we’d been told was admirable but hopelessly idealistic, had been introduced and accepted. We were jubilant. It still needs to pass a few more tests, namely the meeting of high-level ministers next week, but we are hopeful. The spontaneity, momentum, and surprising success of this group has delighted me to the point of tearful laughter.

Friday, 31 May 2002

BALI, Indonesia

Tonight, as a friend and I were leaving the conference center, we passed a knot of people watching the oversized television outside the delegates’ lounge. Rather than the blue of the convention hall upholstery and carpeting, the screen was filled with the luscious, rice-paddy green of a soccer field. After only one try, I found someone who spoke English and was willing to look away from the screen long enough to tell me France was playing Senegal in the World Cup. A palpable excitement had abruptly replaced the bland bureaucratic mood of the days before.

A few minutes later on the stairs, a joyous roar echoed through the nearly empty halls. Senegal had scored the winning goal.

I came to Bali from the other side of the planet to learn what I could about how our world works — and here, seemingly by accident, in that thunderous echo, was yet another lesson. To oversimplify (hey, it’s my diary), the developed north has an advantage over the underdeveloped south, the result of (initially) the need for heat and (later) colonialism and (later still) neocolonialism. The north lends money to the south and expects to be paid back, with interest — even knowing that much of the money gets siphoned away from its intended recipients, and also knowing that the limited capacity of the borrower countries will relegate them to a position of chronic subservience. Meanwhile, the prosperity of the north depends heavily on cheap imports from the south — cheapness whose real cost can be measured in the human-rights violations stemming from underpaid labor and ecological degradation.

Given all that, when 7,000 people convene to discuss sustainable development, you can understand why at least some of them might want Senegal to kick France’s ass.

It is late. And this week has been jam-packed with names and brochures and meetings and ideas and hope and despair. With so many simultaneous meetings (there are three agendas, plus a daily update) and a dozen locations, it is hard to know exactly which meetings to attend, and impossible to know all that is happening. There is no list of participants, no formal process or structure for meeting our respective countries’ delegations, and multiple coalitions serving similar purposes. Which leads me to repeatedly wish that, at some point, all of the participants could gather in the same place at the same time and tell their stories. After all, what’s the point in bringing everyone to the same place if they cannot share their perspectives? I know this is a pipedream — at just five minutes per person, that would be 35,000 minutes, which comes out to just over 24 days — and yet imagine the absurd beauty of that!