One Planet and
Sustainability and Environmental Efforts
by Bahá’í Communities Around the World
No one can stop climate change alone. Individuals, communities and institutions must learn to work together in harmony. Today, a community in Vanuatu is doing this—to restore a lagoon ecosystem on which it relies.
CASE STUDY ↓
Democratic Republic of the Congo
Action-research around sustainable agriculture
Promoting approaches to sustainable agriculture can both address environmental degradation and empower local communities. When a collection of Bahá’í-inspired development organizations spanning the continent of Africa assessed experiences among communities they served, a number of challenges were found to be common between them. Many farmers felt powerless against the economic, social, and environmental factors that influenced their production, for example, and forced them to adopt systems promoted by whichever organization would provide needed inputs. Local knowledge related to traditional systems of polyculture, often more sustainable and holistic, was also being lost in many communities.
Building capacity for meaningful action
CASE STUDY ↓
The construction of physical facilities, when approached in a spirit of concern for the natural world, can be an important opportunity for environmental stewardship—in religious contexts as much as any other. Bahá’í Houses of Worship represent a physical expression of the spiritual conviction that worship of God and service to humanity are inextricably linked. Each temple, as they are sometimes called, is to be surrounded by subsidiary institutions that provide for the physical, social, and spiritual needs of all area residents. As local communities strive to demonstrate this coherence between the material and the spiritual, growing numbers are learning how religious infrastructure can give impetus to efforts to sustain and restore the natural environment.
Applying capacities gained to ecological challenges
CASE STUDY ↓
High-income areas exert a disproportionate burden on the natural world. Communities in such areas will therefore need to make particularly dramatic changes if a sustainable world is to be built. When residents of the Rochor neighborhood, an affluent area close to the city center of Singapore, studied a course offered by the Bahá’í community on building vibrant communities, their thoughts on applying in practice what they were learning turned to sustainability and food production. Writing to the National Parks Board, the group secured permission to repurpose part of a local park into a community garden of vegetables and fruit trees. The effort aligned with the national “Singapore Green Plan” of meeting 30 percent of nutritional needs from locally produced food.
CASE STUDY ↓
The capacity to identify ecological challenges facing a local community and devise appropriate responses is vital to effective environmental action. When a group of eight young adolescents participating in educational programs offered by the Bahá’í community in the South Pacific nation of Vanuatu assessed their local realities, it became clear that years of overfishing had depleted the coral reef, making fishing near the shore extremely difficult. These “junior youth” determined that establishing a marine reserve would help restore the reef’s vitality. With the aid of the group’s facilitator, they began making presentations to key stakeholders, including the owner of the land where they envisioned the reserve, the chief of the village, and the community as a whole.
OTHER CASE STUDIES
Strengthening local communities’ capacity and inclination to initiate effective action in response to local needs is critical to addressing the many forms that environmental challenges can take. The Baha’i-inspired Preparation for Social Action (PSA) program seeks to foster such a spirit of initiative and service to the common good by assisting youth and young adults to serve their regions as “promoters of community well-being.” The program’s 25 units help participants build capabilities in areas ranging from language, mathematics, and science, to agriculture, health, and environmental conservation.
While studying PSA materials related to the environment, one group of young people in the Mwinilunga district of Zambia carried out an analysis of their local area, focusing particularly on ways that stressed ecosystems in the vicinity might be restored. Many ponds in the area, for example, had contained fish in the past but no longer. In response, the group initiated efforts to revitalize the fish ponds and raise consciousness about ways to fish that would not deplete the stocks. Other areas once covered by forest had now been mostly cleared. The group began replanting trees.
The group’s commitment to regularly assessing the needs of their community included but was not limited to conservation projects. When government construction of a new road forced sections of the community to relocate, the group helped rebuild homes in new locations, so community members would have somewhere to go. Group members also took the situation as an opportunity to start conversations in the community about how homes could be built in ways more conducive to the health of families and the environment—for instance, moving away from the common practice of placing latrines or rubbish pits next to a home’s kitchen, in order to improve sanitation.
Extending care and attention to diverse segments of society was a priority for the group. Their efforts ranged from helping the elderly clear grass from around their homes and fetch water and firewood, to offering educational and empowerment programs to young adolescents. This outward-looking orientation attracted others to their efforts—the study group, for example, growing to include some 40 young people. But it also inspired environmental action by many others in their area who had no direct connection to the group. Experiments with backyard vegetable gardens that the group undertook, for example, were taken up by others in the village, improving nutrition in the community.
Perhaps most notably, the group’s endeavors contributed to improving certain aspects of the culture of the community. The shared understanding of the notion of “development”, for example, moved beyond one in which the local community is relegated to being a mere recipient of material services, to one in which people increasingly think of themselves as protagonists of their own progress. In the words of the tutor of one of the groups:
Before, people thought that development could only occur when others with money come in to fund projects. But then they started to see development as something that can come from within the community—that when we work together in unity we can build our community.
When natural disasters strike, local communities can be on their own for days or weeks. Increasing communities’ ability to leverage their own resources and draw on their own capacities is therefore critical in responding to a changing climate. In this regard, Baha’i communities have found that local populations already working to build habits of unity, cooperation, and collective action are better prepared to rebuild the physical environment, respond with agility to acute needs, and strengthen the social fabric.
When the Caribbean island of Dominica was struck by Hurricane Maria, one of the most powerful Category 5 storms on record in the Atlantic, the Kalinago territory, a primarily rural and indigenous region, was particularly hard hit. With aid slow to arrive from the capital city, participants involved in Baha’i community-building activities convened a series of public discussions to consult on what steps could be taken with the resources at hand.
These consultations explored immediate physical needs but many other social and spiritual aspects of the community’s health as well. In one discussion, community members identified a return to a sense of normalcy as a central need. The local school was functioning, for example, but instead of the uniforms customary for the area, students were wearing whatever clothes were available. This was felt to be contributing to a general sense of disorder and instability in the community.
School uniforms were therefore identified as a priority of the community, but one that was not likely to be addressed by external relief agencies. Further discussion on how the community itself might be able to respond revealed that what was truly needed was not uniforms, but rather fabric. Many local residents knew how to sew, and there was a desire for the community as a whole to have ownership in the process of re-establishing the school. As clarity on these points emerged, an official observing the proceedings announced that the Dominican government was seeking means to inject capital into villages affected by the storm. If fabric could be secured, he declared, he would find funding to pay community members to sew the uniforms.
Parallel to these efforts, several communities in the area identified a need to build greenhouses to quickly re-establish food crops that had been destroyed. Using primarily locally available materials and land donated by community members, these efforts responded to near-term shortages. But they also served as key social spaces for community members to gather together, reflect, pray, and study. The greenhouses became collective rallying points. Moral and spiritual education classes for children and young adolescents were held on the sites, augmenting the formal schooling underway, as well as prayer gatherings open to all. These initiatives reinforced and strengthened commitment and initiative across a range of response efforts. An individual who supported these projects reported:
Building the greenhouses brought the community together in a profound way. Neighbors and friends joined together and worked from early morning until evening, bringing whatever materials they could spare or salvage and sawing planks from fallen coconut palms. After finishing their work for the evening, they would gather again for collective prayers. It was very touching.
United States of America, Navajo Nation
Growing numbers are noting the importance of drawing on both indigenous knowledge and the insights of scientific inquiry, in building more ecologically sustainable societies. This was at the heart of a series of conservation and agricultural initiatives undertaken over the course of four years in the Navajo Nation of the United States. Several groups of middle-school students participating in the Baha’i-inspired Junior Youth Spiritual Empowerment Program were assisted to apply growing capacities of observation, inquiry, and service to the ecological and social realities of the reservation on which they lived, in light of the traditions and culture of the Navajo people.
The first year of activity focused on investigation and observation. Members of the groups and those assisting them spent significant time in the field, observing and cataloging animals, insects, plants, herbs, and rocks present in the local ecology, through each of the four seasons. This observation was augmented by trips to the public library, where group members researched features of the plants, animals, and habitat associated with their climate zone and elevation. The groups’ research efforts also included visits to local elders to capture stories, observations, and recollections they could share about aspects of the natural world and relationships between them. For example, the group observed seasonal star constellations to calculate traditional dates and deadlines for planting and harvesting, then heard storytelling from elders about how the night sky historically guided people's movement, cycles, practical lessons, and ceremonial events. This not only bolstered traditional ways of understanding local realities, but reinforced connections between generations.
Central to these efforts was a commitment to individuals gradually building capacity over time, paired with collective efforts beginning simply and growing in complexity as experience accrued. Reflecting this approach, in the second year, group participants were assisted to choose and purchase seeds and begin growing simple plants in their homes, deepening understanding of the level and consistency of care needed to foster growth. In the third year, participants acquired heirloom bean, squash, and corn seeds from a tribal seeding program, and began planting exterior plots to learn about dry farming. As expected, physical yields were initially low, but learning was plentiful.
By the fourth year, the participants as well as those helping to facilitate the groups—often young people themselves—had grown significantly in capacity, and the groups were drawing on far more sophisticated techniques. That year, crops were started indoors to extend the growing season, using artificial light. Learning from past challenges and building off of principles of permaculture, groups were now using instruments to test the pH value of the soil, and had learned traditional practices of using pine needles or ash to raise or lower levels of acidity and alkalinity. They had also begun to draw on vermiculture (the use of worms to manage the decomposition process) and understood the effect it could have on adjusting levels of nitrogen, potassium, and phosphate in the soil.
All of the efforts strove to consider ecological principles not in the abstract but through the arid and often hot conditions of the reservation itself. As a lack of running water was one of the primary reasons that the young people struggled to sustain crops, the group became deeply involved with approaches to water catchment and conservation. They familiarized themselves with drip systems, water reservoirs, and other means of conserving and dispersing water as efficiently as possible. They tested local heirloom seeds that had been developed for the area and bred to be drought resistant. They also discussed various aspects of climate change and how it might be reversed and its effects blunted.
Among the most notable capacities built over the four years was a rise in the middle-schoolers’ ability to think both critically and appreciatively about patterns of culture in their society. The groups sought to examine and gradually differentiate between what was superstition and irrational thought, which needed to be weeded out or left aside, and what was vital tradition and culture, which needed to be embraced, drawn on, and revitalized. As the coordinator of the programme wrote in this regard:
We began to ask our own families, even our own observations, as to reasons why these [environmental changes] were happening. We tried to identify a language to describe what we were doing. And with our spiritual convictions of the Navajo people, we began to answer the question, “What is worth preserving in our own culture as far as the environment and all the qualities and attributes that went along with living in balance with the land and the people and giving back through a reciprocal process.”