The day the Joanna Macy week ended I boarded an all-night flight to Merida, Mexico, to join Vance Martin (the president of the Wild Foundation) as a volunteer on his core team of personnel in putting on WILD9 – the 9th annual World Wilderness Congress. I was joined there with Shay – another of the BB team – and the two of us commenced 2 weeks of intense service, work, opportunity, learning and insight.
For years the Wild Foundation has been a leading force in the effort to protect the world’s wild places. Needless to say, when I heard about Vance, the work of the Wild Foundation, and the chance to help with the Congress (which only happens once every 4 years), I jumped at the opportunity. I have to credit Gigi for this, and thank her for her incredible insight, networking, and willingness to put me in touch with Vance.
A little background from Wild's website:
The World Wilderness Congress (WWC)
The WWC is the longest-running, public international environmental forum. It is a conservation project that creates coalitions, establishes time-lines, sets objectives and achieves practical outcomes. Established in 1977, it has convened on eight occasions in 30 years to review progress, debate issues, announce results and celebrate the importance and vitality of wild nature.
The WWC is an ongoing conservation project, focused on practical outcomes in policy, new wilderness areas, new funding mechanisms, trainings for communities and professionals, and more. Read the outcomes of the most recent WWC, WILD9, which convened from 6-13 November 2009 in Merida, Mexico with 1800 delegates from 50 nations.
Merida is an incredible old city in the heart of the Yucatan. However, the majority of my two weeks there were not spent in the city center, but running between a giant convention center where the congress took place, and the giant hotel where I met with the team and pretended to sleep from time to time. Vance immediately gave me a great deal of responsibility – which was a huge show of faith given that he knew very little about me before my arrival. I was assigned, essentially, to the Congress’ version of the “green room,” where I met all of the presenters for all of the plenary talks, and worked hand-in-hand with David, a local tech guy (and an angel of epic proportions) to check over and run all of the audio/visual/technical aspects of all the presentations. Once the presentations were free of glitches, we downloaded them and ran them to the other tech team inside the main hall with cues and a running sheet so they’d know what to play when. It was a serious non-stop, over-time, halogen-lit, multi-media, high-tech, high-pressure effort (the kind of thing that needs lots of hyphens to describe). I don’t know if I’ve ever felt so far away from anything wild, and during the first few days especially I had to ask myself at times what the heck I was doing there.
And of course, as is so often the case, my reasons for being there became abundantly clear as I stuck with my unlikely job in the tech room. WILD9 was no small affair. Thousands of people from scores of countries around the globe came to the event and even more joined in via the internet. The president of Mexico, Felipe Calderon, delivered the opening speeches, and a new term for “wilderness” was coined for Central and South America, “tierras silvestres.” This may not seem like a big deal, but it is. The concept of wilderness as we tend to understand it in the west (which is a debatable thing in and of itself to be sure) doesn’t exist at all in many parts of the world, for better or for worse. In many places, cultures are still living in a way that is enough connected with their environment that a word like “wilderness,” which has connotations of separating humans from the natural world, doesn’t make any sense. They still live the truth of non-separation. However, in many parts of the world, especially more developed places, we are not living in the truth of our connection to the wild earth, and as a result, are destroying it at a devastating rate. For such places, a word like wilderness, or tierras silvestres, is useful in describing and naming something that we hope to salvage, to save, to care for, love, identify with, and use as a model for rehabilitating other pieces of the earth. There is power in naming, and if any concept out there needs some extra power right now, it’s the concept of wilderness and all that it means for our lives.
Shay and I in the main hall at WILD9 (not a great picture... but the only one from the event I've got... do I look as out of place as I felt?)
Bedraggled, tired, completely inspired and grateful, and utterly moved by the dedication of the people who I met at WILD9, I wove my way through the congress. I worked hard and played hard as well. As a part of Vance’s team I was invited to some incredible events and parties. But most exciting were the people I met and the success of the endeavor. WILD9's successes were many and varied, here is a partial list from website of the congress:
- 44 targeted resolutions adopted, and available online for discussion and reporting on outcomes;
- The Message from Merida (El Mensaje de Merida): An international call to action with specific policy guidelines to integrate wilderness and biodiversity conservation into global climate change strategy. Delivered to Copenhagen with 75 organizational co-signers and still growing.
- The first international agreement on wilderness conservation, initiated by WILD and signed by the governments of Mexico, Canada and the US;
- The first-ever Corporate Commitment to Wilderness, a results-oriented initiative for wilderness, signed initially by 15 corporations, with others to follow;
- New protected areas in Mexico and elsewhere, including: a new private sector commitment of 50,000 hectares in the Carpathian mountains (Romania); the intention to create the first marine wilderness areas in the US and territories; a new coastal, Mangrove protected area in Mexico;
- Creation of six new Intergovernmental Working Groups involving US, Canadian, Mexican, and other government agencies to stimulate ongoing collaboration on conservation matters;
- Extensive Government agency collaboration NGO and indigenous partners to strengthen peer-to-peer networks and produce numerous targeted trainings;
- The formal launch of the Marine Wilderness Collaborative (MWC)
- Launch of WILD’s “At Least Half WILD”™ campaign – working with world-wide partners to protect at least half of the planet, land and sea, in an inter-connected way.
The Message from Merida brought to Copenhagen is of particular interest and concern, and is connected integrally with the "At Least Half WILD" campaign. The idea of perserving 50% of the planet is not coming just from starry-eyed nature enthusiasts; it’s the bottom-line percentage that climate change science recommends as necessary to help stop the massive threat of global warming. As it turns out, protecting and maintaining the integrity of wild places is one of the very biggest and best things we can do to slow climate change.
As a wilderness guide and deep lover of all that is wild, indeed, as a person who’s based most of his adult life working in and with the wilderness, I have to extend my deep gratitude to these men and women who are working so doggedly from within buildings and behind computer screens to save some of the world’s last remaining wild places -- and by doing so, present all of us with a chance to save something wild within ourselves, so that perhaps one day we can celebrate a time when words like wilderness are no longer needed.