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Implementing Agenda 21

Sustainable Development and World Citizenship

by Lawrence Arturo



As a worldwide non-governmental organization, the Bahá'í International Community has long had an interest in sustainable development and environmental protection. In the 1920s, Richard St Barbe Baker, a Bahá'í, founded The Men of the Trees, which was one of the first international environmental organizations. During the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s he hosted the ground-breaking World Forestry Charter Gatherings, which were dedicated to bringing worldwide attention to the condition of the environment.

In the early 1980s, Bahá'ís around the world were encouraged by their international governing council, the Universal House of Justice, to begin to apply systematically the principles of their faith to the challenges of social and economic development. As a result, in the decade prior to UNCED Bahá'í communities worldwide launched more than 1000 development projects. They were mostly small-scale and included medical camps in Pakistan and Alaska, primary health care clinics in Kenya and India, agricultural schools in Tanzania and Brazil, and community development radio stations in the Americas and Africa.

The Earth Summit process and the spirit released by the parallel NGO Forum in Rio de Janeiro heightened awareness among the world's five million Bahá'ís and stimulated many to launch efforts to implement aspects of Agenda 21 in their individual and community lives.

Among the principles and concepts promulgated by the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development and Agenda 21;and that have resonated within Bahá'í communities;are the call for "new levels of cooperation among states, key sectors of societies and peoples" (Preamble, Rio Declaration); the assertion that women's full participation is essential to achieve sustainable development and that peace, development and environmental protection are interdependent and indivisible (Principles 20 and 25, Rio Declaration); and the declaration that "Education...is critical for achieving environmental and ethical awareness, values and attitudes, skills and behaviours consistent with sustainable development" (Agenda 21, Chapter 36.3).


Local, National and International Initiatives

There has been a wide range of responses by Bahá'ís to many of the principles and recommendations agreed to at Rio.

In Bolivia, Dr William Baker, the head of the Dorothy Baker Environmental Studies Center, attended the Earth Summit and the global forum. The contacts he made and the information he gained from these meetings inspired him to bring back many new ideas that have been incorporated into the organization's programme.

The organization, a Bahá'í-sponsored environmental research institute in the eastern Andean city of Cochabamba, is devoted to exploring how appropriate technologies and education for sustainable development can be applied to improve the lives of the Aymara and Quechua peoples, who eke out a living on the harsh Bolivian altiplano.

The organization has adapted the design for a solar-heated greenhouse to grow vegetables and fruits inexpensively at high altitudes and works to promote reforestation and soil conservation techniques suitable for the altiplano. These practical efforts are combined with a programme of environmental study classes for adults and pre-school classes for children. The accent of the classes is on showing a community how to help itself. They underscore the inherent dignity and worth of all human beings and emphasize the essential unity and equality of all peoples;teachings that help tap into the underlying aspirations all humans share and empower them to become increasingly responsible for their own development.

The use of solar-heated greenhouses has led to the construction of more than 120 low-cost family-sized greenhouses in about 30 communities.

The effort to promote soil conservation and reforestation focuses on building small soil infiltration dams to control erosion on the region's barren mountainsides. Drawing on a base of "graduates," the organization has helped to organize four altiplano communities;Pasto Grande, Kullpaaña, Yawritotora, and Japoc'asa;in Tapacari province to participate in the project. During 1994 and early 1995, some 300 volunteers from these communities built approximately 2000 small check-dams on nearby hillsides.

The simple rock and fill dams, which take three or four people a few hours to build, help slow the rainfall run-off, so that water filters into the ground and leaves precious soil in catch basins behind the dam.

The hope is that, if enough such dams are built, the ecological system on the altiplano hillsides can be restored.

The Bahá'í have undertaken a number of other initiatives linked in one way or another to the Earth Summit. Less than nine months after UNCED, the Bahá'í community of Brazil, in conjunction with the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), launched a conservation education programme, which trained schoolteachers in and around the capital, Brasilia, and produced curriculum materials and a video on environmental issues. The second phase of this project is underway and is replicating these activities in several Brazilian states.

In India, the Bahá'í Vocational Institute for Rural Women in Indore received the prestigious Global 500 Award from the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). After the Earth Summit, it expanded its efforts in environmental education, such as hosting workshops and environmental awareness programmes in the surrounding rural communities.

In five Latin American countries and the United States, Bahá'í community radio stations carry programmes and public service announcements on environment and development, which focus on topics such as sustainable agricultural practices and care for the earth.

In 1994 the Bahá'í International Community, in collaboration with other organizations, hosted a World Forestry Charter Gathering at St James Palace in the United Kingdom. The gathering was noteworthy for its focus on the Forest Principles, adopted at the Earth Summit, and for highlighting the need to view the forests as the common heritage of humanity in order to conserve and sustainably manage them into the distant future.

Within the Bahá'í community itself, schools, summer schools, youth conferences and other meetings taking place around the world have devoted sessions and sometimes entire programmes to issues of environment and development. Bahá'í communities are involved increasingly with governments and organizations of civil society on the local, national and international levels. The communities are participate in conferences, roundtables, commissions and coalitions, many in connection with major UN consultations that focus, to some degree, on sustainable development.


A Global Campaign

While these mostly grassroots efforts are taking place, the Bahá'í International Community's Office of the Environment launched an initiative aimed at promoting a new sense of responsibility toward the environment by people across the planet. This initiative began as a concept paper entitled World Citizenship: A Global Ethic for Sustainable Development. The paper stresses the need to promote a global ethic in order to make sustainable development an aspiration and commitment in peoples' daily lives. It was presented at the first session of the UN Commission on Sustainable Development in June 1993. It has since formed the basis of a worldwide campaign carried out in collaboration with a number of the Bahá'í International Community's 175 national affiliates;and many of the individuals and local communities that comprise them.

The aim and focus of this campaign can perhaps best be described by quoting from the first paragraphs of the statement:

"The greatest challenge facing the world community as it mobilizes to implement Agenda 21 is to release the enormous financial, technical, human and moral resources required for sustainable development. These resources will be freed up only as the peoples of the world develop a profound sense of responsibility for the fate of the planet and for the well-being of the entire human family.

This sense of responsibility can only emerge from the acceptance of the oneness of humanity and will only be sustained by a unifying vision of a peaceful, prosperous world society. Without such a global ethic, people will be unable to become active, constructive participants in the worldwide process of sustainable development.

While Agenda 21 provides an indispensable framework of scientific knowledge and technical know-how for the implementation of sustainable development, it does not inspire personal commitment to a global ethic. This is not to say that ethics and values were ignored during the UNCED process. The call for unifying values was heard throughout, from heads of state to UN officials to representatives of non-governmental organizations and individual citizens. In particular, the concepts of 'our common humanity,' 'world citizenship' and 'unity in diversity' were invoked to serve as the ethical undergirding for Agenda 21 and the Rio Declaration.

The world community has, in this way, already come to a basic accord on the need for a global ethic to vitalize Agenda 21. We suggest that the term 'world citizenship' be adopted to encompass the constellation of principles, values, attitudes and behaviours that the peoples of the world must embrace if sustainable development is to be realized.

World citizenship begins with an acceptance of the oneness of the human family and the interconnectedness of the nations of 'the earth, our home.' While it encourages a sane and legitimate patriotism, it also insists upon a wider loyalty, a love of humanity as a whole. It does not, however, imply abandonment of legitimate loyalties, the suppression of cultural diversity, the abolition of national autonomy, nor the imposition of uniformity. Its hallmark is 'unity in diversity.' World citizenship encompasses the principles of social and economic justice, both within and between nations; non-adversarial decision making at all levels of society; equality of the sexes; racial, ethnic, national and religious harmony; and the willingness to sacrifice for the common good. Other facets of world citizenship;all of which promote human honour and dignity, understanding, amity, cooperation, trustworthiness, compassion and a desire to serve;can be deduced from those already mentioned. A few of these principles have been articulated in Agenda 21;most, however, are noticeably lacking. Moreover, no overall conceptual framework is provided under which they can be harmonized and promulgated.

Fostering world citizenship is a practical strategy for promoting sustainable development. So long as disunity, antagonism and provincialism characterize the social, political and economic relations within and among nations, a global, sustainable pattern of development can not be established. Over a century ago Bahá'u'lláh warned, 'The well-being of mankind, its peace and security, are unattainable unless and until its unity is firmly established.' Only upon a foundation of genuine unity, harmony and understanding among the diverse peoples and nations of the world, can a sustainable global society be erected."

The Office of the Environment has distributed more than 100,000 copies of World Citizenship: A Global Ethic for Sustainable Development, has offered it at various UN conferences and events, and has encouraged broad distribution of the copies. The document exists in at least a dozen languages and has been put on several electronic bulletin boards and networks.

Bahá'í communities in several countries have held seminars, workshops and discussion groups on the ideas contained in the statement and several have undertaken concrete actions. For example, a number of Bahá'í communities initiated efforts to encourage local authorities and organizations of civil society to implement Agenda 21. Bahá'í communities throughout Germany and the United Kingdom began approaching local authorities (the subject of chapter 28 of Agenda 21) to discuss promoting the concept of world citizenship as a moral and ethical basis for development. Similarly, Bahá'í communities in Australia, Denmark, Sweden and Switzerland have launched campaigns in schools focusing on world citizenship and sustainable development. In Brazil the Bahá'í community has initiated an annual World Citizenship award.

We believe that the energetic and positive response to World Citizenship is due, in large part, to its positive vision for the future and its practical approach to the application of universal principles. The first part of the statement stresses the transcendental nature of the concept of world citizenship as a new ethic for sustainable development; the second part outlines a global campaign to promote the concept through education programmes and public awareness campaigns, as called for in chapter 36 of Agenda 21. The outline includes, for example, recommendations that the concept of world citizenship be taught in every school, that it be incorporated into educational materials on sustainable development produced by UN agencies, that campaigns to raise public awareness of the challenges of world citizenship be launched making use of the full range of media and the arts, and that world citizenship be promoted;internationally, nationally and locally;through the holding of contests and the presentation of awards.



For Bahá'ís, development implies a dynamic coherence between the spiritual and material requirements of life on earth. The Bahá'í approach to development is organic and seeks to harmonize the seemingly paradoxical concepts of globalism and decentralization. Overall direction and guiding principles are established on the international;and often national;levels, helping to ensure a sense of global process and mission in all development activities. At the same time, actual programmes and activities arise largely from individual or community initiative, are driven by community decision making processes and are based on the principle of universal participation. They are, therefore, likely to address the needs, conditions and aspirations of the local or national society.

In this light, the response of the Bahá'í International Community to the Earth Summit process can be seen as one in which the community has become progressively more engaged in practical actions for sustainable development, based on the conditions and needs of the communities themselves and guided by the principles of the Bahá'í faith.


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