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, 3 Sep 2002

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa

The poet John Ashbery wrote that all stories begin in the middle. So here I sit in the early morning on the outskirts of Johannesburg in the flagstone courtyard of an old gatehouse, getting grill-marks from the icy wrought-iron furniture. The gatehouse is part of an old estate converted into a country inn, complete with a 10-foot high barbed wire fence (fences and gates are a booming business here) and a highway running along one side of it. There is also a river, the Crocodile River. Of course.

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My water has boiled but my roommate, Farrell Cunningham, is still sleeping. Farrell, 26, is from the Maidu Nation in Northern California, one of dozens of federally unrecognized tribes. He is working to reestablish indigenous knowledge as the basis for managing his people’s land, most of which is controlled by the U.S. Forest Service and has been hit hard by decades of heavy timber cutting and fire suppression. Together with his community and other leaders around the country, Farrell is helping to broaden the definition of “sound science” to incorporate non-Western wisdom.

Farrell and I are here at the World Summit on Sustainable Development as part of a delegation of people working on “community-based forestry” in the United States. Community-based forestry is a different way of managing forests. It is characterized by an emphasis on taking care of the land, a participatory and transparent decision-making process, monitoring the social, economic, and ecological effects of forest management decisions, and making meaningful investments in communities and forests. Community-based forestry is multidisciplinary, and the eight of us here are a diverse crew, interested in a variety of overlapping issues, including African-American land loss; criteria and indicators for measuring and evaluating sustainability on the ground; forest labor; developing and marketing so-called “non-timber forest products” like medicine and mushrooms; and sustainable, community-based wood products businesses. We are part of the two leading community-based forestry organizations in the U.S., the National Network of Forest Practitioners and the Communities Committee of the Seventh American Forest Congress.

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Wednesday, 4 Sep 2002

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JOHANNESBURG, South Africa

Summer has come to Johannesburg. You can tell from the rains, which come in blazing thunderstorms that rocked our tents last week and ignited the night sky like flashbulbs. The anemic waist-high grass would soon turn bright green, we were told, and the charred fields were already flush with new growth. For the moment, the rains stilled the dust.

Late in the evenings, I read my tattered copy of One Hundred Years of Solitude, its spine broken, its back cover now just a bookmark, and talked to my wife on my cell phone (under the blanket, like a kid past bedtime, so as not to wake the people in the other tents). I do not know if the thousands of delegates bedded down in the sparkling hotels of Johannesburg could hear the rains. (Or for that matter, the creatures that chirp and howl throughout the night — some of them rumored to be hyenas in our camp.) Do they know it is summer?

Last week, I stayed at the Cradle of Humankind, a World Heritage Site north of Johannesburg, where some of the oldest human remains have been found. There were more than a hundred of us in safari tents, all grantees of the Ford Foundation, which enabled some 400 grassroots representatives from all over the world to attend the summit. (Ford is the largest single supporter of so-called “civil society” participation — more than any government.) There were plenty of people of who would have preferred to be in town, but in my view, there was nothing better than stumbling into the camp after a long day to tell stories around the fire. Everywhere I turned there were fascinating people; it’s been like an Olympics for social and environmental activists. Without the lycra.

And even out in the bush (“Camp Hemingway,” as I like to call it) we are not without the Internet. There is a small shack at the top of the hill, rustic on the outside, but enter and — it’s like happening upon the secret spy nerve center in a James Bond movie, only inside are social and environmental activists instead of evildoers in yellow jumpsuits. Most of our delegation is outfitted with cell phones (a lifeline amid the chaos), which are constantly whistling Bach Fugues, Dixie, and Mary Had a Little Lamb, like a chorus of tripping crickets.

Summit-to-go.

IISD.

I spent the first few days of the summit at NASREC, a sprawling campus in Johannesburg’s southern, industrial quarter. Although it’s more appropriate for auto shows (which I’m told is the normal fare), NASREC is the site of the Global People’s Forum, the main parallel civil society event, with presentations, discussions, workshops, marches, and performance art. The entrance is lined with people passing out flyers and newspapers, and selling tchotchkes and summit souvenirs of all kinds. Inside, the walls are plastered with advertisements for events and campaigns, and the concrete paths brim with color and music. Above it all snakes a dormant monorail track. People knot and huddle on the steps, under the trees, at the tables outside Halal Foods and Archie’s Hamburgers and the dozens of other snack joints. (We’re faithful to Halal, especially for the samosas and vegetable curry.) They pore over schedules and pamphlets and occasionally erupt in riotous laughter.

The official event, the WSSD, where the diplomats and heads of state meet, is 45 minutes across town from NASREC, in Sandton. That area is a high-rent forest of crystalline spires, polished granite, and fences (of course), plus barbed wire to channel the foot traffic and cops to sift the crowd at the door. This is the site of the negotiations on a plan of action to implement the sustainable development ideals drafted in Rio 10 years ago. So this is really a tale of two summits. The governments and big-boy NGOs have rented space in Sandton to woo and strategize. It is telling that few of them made it to NASREC over the last two weeks. Some of them didn’t even know what NASREC was.

Thursday, 5 Sep 2002

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa

What made the World Summit on Sustainable Development such a frenzied stew is the fact that at any given time there were at least 17 simultaneous events, all of them immensely interesting and important, at least according to their organizers. Everywhere, veils were being unveiled, launches were being launched, briefers were briefing. This made it nearly impossible to decide which events to attend, leaving many of us feeling like we were never in the right place at the right time. It reminded me of high school, when I spent Kafkaesque Saturday nights driving around with a six-pack in the back seat, chasing rumors of parties I never found.

Sadly, even the mind-boggling number of events that were held here couldn’t ensure fair representation. Grassroots groups rarely got air time equal to that of the large, national ones, and typically lacked the budgets to market themselves at the same level. At the same time, large NGOs often claimed to be the authoritative voice of civil society. Had they participated at NASREC, or visited the Landless Peoples’ Camp, for example, they would have realized that there are plenty of people who were not spoken for — and, frankly, would prefer to speak for themselves.

This situation is largely the result of a preoccupation here and back to the U.S. with the big fix. While small- and large-scale solutions can coexist, the romance with industrial-strength solutions, however altruistic, is part of the problem. In my view, a key indicator of sustainability will be the proliferation and health of small-scale approaches that seek true ecological stewardship, share power, improve peoples’ access to markets, and treat people with respect and dignity.

Colin Powell talks about U.S. forest programs.

IISD.

The issue of scale strikes me as especially critical considering the WSSD’s emphasis on partnerships between governments, business, and NGOs as a tool for achieving the goals of the summit. If partnerships are to be an answer, they must be balanced, inclusive, and accountable, and not exempt governments from their responsibilities to people and the environment. The issue of scale is also critical back home, where the federal government’s response to the forest fire crisis has largely ignored the potential contributions of communities and small businesses, and where invaluable programs like the Forest Service’s Economic Action Program are threatened with elimination every year.

All of these developments seem a bit ironic given the growing emphasis on “community” in international initiatives. If communities are as important as the governments and macro-NGOs claim, then they need to be equal partners in the process of developing solutions, and equal participants in the benefits. All too often, communities are brought in at the last minute to legitimize projects and programs in which they have had no involvement. And when we hear about incidents like Coca-Cola bribing security guards to truck in its wares even though the People’s Forum organizers had chosen not to sell soft drinks because plastic isn’t recycled here, it’s hard not to become cynical about the big boys and their largesse.

A friend of mine here summarized the feelings of many civil society participants when he said, “When I get home, people are going to ask me what I thought of the summit. And right now, I’m not sure I went.” There was no center to this event, no place we all convened, even once, to see one another’s faces, so we could say, “This is what this is. This is who we are.”

The reality is there were 60,000 summits in this town; you’re reading about just one of them. I found my summit on the endless bus rides, in the kooky parades of United Global Citizens (where everyone was singing and dressed in animal costumes), in the unexpected conversations, in my hopes of seeing my newfound friends in Nepal and Guatemala and Uganda. I found it in the haunting wail of Jang Sa-Ik, a Korean folk musician.

People can say what they want about the summit. Its failures are obvious. But the fact is that for whatever reasons, tens of thousands of people from around the world spent two weeks in the same place, talking about something they care dearly about: the future of the earth and its people. There was chaos and rage and frustration, but there was also passion and a sense of common purpose that will only grow in the years to come. So for now, we go home, and are hopeful.