Serie “Rio 92 what did it lead to? Rio +20 what will it lead to?”

Posted on 25 May 2012
Entrevista Leonardo Boff, teólogo
© Alexandre Monteiro
 Interview Leonardo Boff, teologist

The Earth Summit (Rio 92) is a milestone in the personal life story of Leonardo Boff, who serves on the Earth Charter Commission, is a theologian, philosopher, lecturer and writer. It was during that conference that he decided to withdraw from the Order of Friars Minor (Franciscans), which he had joined in 1959 - at the early age of 21.

After a debate on religion and peace in the Rio Conference two decades ago - during which he was critical of Judaism, Christianity and Islam "for being belligerent" - Boff was reproached by "a Vatican spy-cardinal" for not observing the "obsequious silence" to which he had been sentenced by Rome. After censuring Boff for the Liberation Theology, the Vatican required him to leave the country to serve his sentence in a convent in South Korea or the Philippines. Boff declined the new imposition of silence and decided to leave the Church instead.

In addition to this milestone in his personal life, Leonardo Boff recalls the atmosphere of the conference. He said there was "a mystique that bonded everyone in love for the earth, in a general fellowship beyond differences. It seemed that another kind of eco-friendly humanity was born there." This image is entirely different from his expectations for the Rio +20 and its preparations. In his opinion, the draft text, for example, "is an insult to the world’s intelligence (...) It is a moving document in terms of goodwill, but naive about the criticism and mediation that it proposes," he says with the same frankness that startled the "spy - cardinal" 20 years ago. Below is the written interview that Leonardo Boff gave to the WWF.

What were you involved with at the time of the Earth Summit? Do you recall anything
special that marked that conference?

The event as such was the expression of another mindset, another world view and relationship with the Earth, which was not regarded as a warehouse of tangible resources, but as the great common home that requires care. There was a mystique that bonded everyone in love for the earth, in a general fellowship beyond differences. It seemed that another kind of humanity was born there, one that was eco-friendly, fraternal and respectful of differences. For me it was remarkable because after a debate on religion and peace which I took part in I criticized the Abrahamic religions quite harshly for being belligerent. Cardinal Baggio, a spy-cardinal from the Vatican, came up to me and said, you haven’t learn anything from your "obsequious silence.” "You must leave not only Brazil but Latin America. You can choose between Korea and the Philippines. But you have to leave." I said, "but in those countries can I teach theology and continue writing?" To which he replied, "you will be in obsequious silence in a convent." I said, "the first time I accepted the silence as a sign of humbleness; it was virtuous. Now this imposed silence is clearly unfair and amounts to a sin; I cannot accept it." And he said, "make up your mind tomorrow noon." I replied: "My mind is set. I will abandon one trench, but not the fight. I will promote myself to the condition of Jesus, who was not a priest, much less a cardinal, but a lay person from the tribe of David, of which nothing is said regarding priesthood." And so I had to leave the Franciscan order and leave the priestly ministry. It is not a nice memory. Worst of all was the total lack of courtesy on the part of the cardinal, who was the Apostolic Nuncio in Brazil. When I reached my hand out to greet him, he withdrew his. Well, I thought of St. Francis, who greeted everyone and even made friends with the ferocious wolf. Why should I, a Franciscan, be different and not understand the rudeness of a small-minded, vengeful cardinal?

What countries participated more prominently in the Earth Summit? What was the participation of Latin American countries like?

I don’t recall which were the Latin American countries that took part. All I know is that the great novel subject that emerged from the meeting was the women. In their Women’s Tent they held great debates and meaningful rituals. They always had a full house. They made the sharpest criticism to the patriarchy that hides behind the industrial / consumerist process and that is the root of our culture of domination.

What have been the main legacies of the Earth Summit?

The fruits yielded have been scarce, otherwise we wouldn’t have the degraded situation we see today. But we heard the cry of the earth, the awareness that we are responsible for our common future has spread. The Earth Summit consecrated the ambiguous term "sustainable development." I mean, the savagery of this dominant type of development cannot go on because it is not development but material growth at any cost. The category ‘sustainability’ has become central and has no longer been left out of debates. It raised the issue of differentiated contributions from all countries to tackle the ecological crisis, the fight against hunger and extreme poverty. For the first time there was a reference to the fact that the planet is warming considerably, though that fell on deaf ears. In my view, the biggest shortcoming of the whole meeting was the rejection of an Earth Charter. It would have served as an umbrella under which all the other projects would develop. Something remarkable and enduring came out of it: Agenda 21. But it was left hanging in the clouds without a coordinated vision of Planet Earth, of interconnected ecosystems. It was then that [Mikhail] Gorbachev [the former secretary general of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union], UN Under-Secretary Maurice Strong and the Prime Minister of the Netherlands, [Rudd] Ludders, raised the idea of consulting humanity to draft an Earth Charter that would come from the bottom, from the peoples, not from state bureaucracies. I was invited to this debate and in my place I suggested that Paulo Freire be invited. Because in all these issues there is a problem of pedagogy. And nobody better than Paulo Freire to handle this issue. After his death I delved into it by drawing up draft proposals to represent the Americas, which were substantially taken on board in the final text.

Among the resolutions from that conference, in which area were there no advancements?

I think there is an increased awareness regarding responsibility, first in terms of corporate social responsibility and, later, of social and environmental responsibility. The most important point was the creation of a collective environmental awareness. This concern is no longer the preserve of the greens and has become one of society. There was and is a growing awareness that we cannot go on this way. We must change. Otherwise we are heading for the worst.

What should be the main outcome of Rio +20?

I expect nothing from the heads of state. Most will not attend. They’ll send ministers without decision-making power. Everything bottlenecks into the question: who will fund any measures that will be taken? All claim they do not have money, that they are in an economic and financial crisis and cannot help. Behind it all is the perverse capitalist and neoliberal perspective: what counts are the markets, the currencies, the economic-financial system and not life, humanity, the future of our civilization and the preservation of the vitality of the earth. And so, festively, we hurtle towards a possible and predictable social-ecological disaster. But the awareness of humanity, represented in the Peoples’ Summit, will grow dialectically. It will bring forth the real issues in confidence that "no one can stop an idea whose time has come and it will prevail to create another course for history." We will save ourselves and usher in a new way of inhabiting the planet, which is more respectful of life and has greater solidarity with all human beings, especially those who suffer most.

What is your opinion on the draft text for Rio +20?

The document is an insult to the world’s intelligence, which has amassed reflections and experience on the crisis of the Earth all these years. It is a moving document in terms of goodwill, but naive about the criticism and mediation that it proposes. The three central themes -- sustainability, global governance and the green economy -- are never clearly defined, giving the impression that it really wants to distract thinking minds and global movements from not poring over the real problems that afflict humanity: the nature-depleting means of production, the inequalities (social injustice) and the urgent need for alternative models of consumption in view of the limits of the Earth, which can no longer replenish what we take from it.

How can the business sector and civil society contribute to environmental conservation and sustainable development?

Until a new paradigm in our relationship with nature and the Earth is put in place and we continue with our industrial/consumerist/individualistic approach we cannot expect anything substantial to ease the global crisis. Companies are fundamental, as they provide the material infrastructure of human life. But they are victims of the prevailing model, which is one of unlimited accumulation at the cost of devastating nature and not losing out against the competition. This approach is the surest path to disaster. I stand behind Hegel’s idea that, "we learn from history that we do not learn from history, but learn everything from suffering." I think that when the suffering is collective and affects everyone directly, then we will change. Otherwise, we run risk that the Earth will go on, but without us.

What is the feasibility of structuring the so-called "green economy"? Would a 'blue economy' also be important?

The green economy brings important elements that we should value, because in its original intention it wants to preserve the vitality of nature. However, it does not question the prevailing paradigm, which implies the domination of nature, unlimited accumulation and consumption without hindrance. It does not question the global inequalities, the fact that most people are living in poverty. And there is a great risk that a price tag will be put on everything, even on the commons, that is, those goods and services that are directly related to life such as water, food, seeds, soil, air, energy and so forth. Now, life is sacred and cannot be commodified. If this happens, we’ll have reached the height of the capitalist spirit and, thereafter, will see its downfall. What is sacred is inviolable. And once violated it creates mechanisms of punishment and exclusion, as cosmologists and biologists keep warning us. We do not want the end of the world. We want instead the end to this type of world that is hostile to life, to solidarity, to compassion and to love.

In an approach centered on citizens' access to food, water and energy, how should governments and society regard the environment? What is the solution for the future of the Amazon, Brazil and Latin America?

This question is too complex to be answered. This is what I think: we should not expect much from the public authorities and governments, as they are hostages to big corporations and the capitalist system. They are obliged to follow their logic, which is to have at least some GDP growth each year. But this logic can no longer be supported by the Earth, whose limits have been reached and can now be felt. I hope that solutions will come from the bottom, from the disgruntled and desperate, from those who do not accept the verdict of death on their lives and their ecosystems, from the movements that have developed another view of the Earth and production processes that are sufficient and decent for us humans and the entire community of life. I think the Proyecto Buen Vivir (Good Life Project) in Andean communities holds the solution to what will be mandatory for all mankind and to safeguard the Planet. That is to say, always strive for balance, pursue an economy of sufficiency and not of accumulation, of communion among all beings and also with the universal energies, the spiritual ones, and live in profound communion with the Pacha Mama, the Earth, the only Common Home we have, and we have no other to dwell in. We either do that or we will decree the slow extinction of our species and a great damage to the biosphere, which will continue to exist, but without our species which, due to its aggressiveness, created a new geological era, the Anthropocene, that is to say humans are the true sweeping meteor capable of self-destruction with a profound effect on the living planet, the Earth. But as the spirit exists first in the universe and then in us, perhaps in millions of years there will appear a complex being capable of harboring the spirit and ushering in another type of civilization on this planet, certainly better and more wholesome than ours.
Entrevista Leonardo Boff, teólogo
© Alexandre Monteiro Enlarge