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Reflection on the United Nations Ocean Conference

by Virginia Dorgan, RSHMCategory: Updates

The 2nd UN Ocean Conference was held this summer in Lisbon, Portugal following a two-year hiatus due to COVID-19. More than 4,000 delegates, including heads of state and government officials, attended the event which was co-hosted by the governments of Kenya and Portugal. The conference theme was “Scaling up ocean action based on science and innovation for the implementation of SDG (Sustainable Development Goal) 14.” Joining Sister Virginia in the RSHM delegation were Sisters Manuela Queirós and M Julieta Mendes Dias from Portugal.

Four sisters in front of a sign with the UN logo and the words "United Nations Ocean Conference"
Pictured L to R: Sisters Virginia Dorgan, M Julieta Mendes Dias, Kathryn Keigher, IBVM, and Manuela Queriós.

I was fortunate to attend the UN’s Ocean Conference in late June. This is a new and important focus for me since the first goal of the Laudato Si’ Action Plan is to respond to the cry of the earth. About 71 percent of the earth’s surface is covered by water. The United Nations General Assembly proclaimed the United Nations Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development (2021-2030).

I learned that problems in the ocean are severe. For instance, there is The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, home to an enormous swirl of plastic waste twice the size of Texas. There is “ghost gear” – all kinds of debris, broken nets and garbage – at the bottom of the ocean left behind by fishers that kill the fish that get entangled in it. Another threat is the mining of the ocean floor which will have a devastating impact on plants, animals and the environment, with economic benefit only for the few.

One solution: The UN Global Compact is a non-binding pact to encourage businesses and firms worldwide to adopt sustainable and socially responsible policies, and to report on their implementation. One of their goals is to collect the garbage before it gets from the rivers to the ocean.

New ways of thinking: There was talk of a Blue Economy, focused on the sustainable use, management, and conservation of aquatic and marine ecosystems and descriptions of a Blue Society with care to include local people in the decisions, look for inequities and keep native peoples in the front. And there are Blue Schools developing around the world. Within these new ways of thinking, there is action to transform garbage, trash, and even clothing into useful products. This is called a circular economy.

During a side event, there was a participatory dialogue sponsored by Caritas Internationalis and the people of Oceania. A very moving speaker at this session was a First Nation’s leader – Theresa Ardler, from an aboriginal Australian family. She spoke of living in a rural community at the ocean; getting food there; celebrating births and deaths there; praying there, filled with awe and power and majesty. No one goes hungry in the community. These voices, so close to nature, are silenced by big businesses looking for minerals and profits from the Ocean. 

Pedro Walpole, SJ, is a native Irish man who grew up on the banks of the Shannon River and has served for the last decades in small islands in the Pacific. He is passionate about the need for an economy of justice; “the change must be now; we need to connect with the lives of others.”

“Only in the heart do we feel this. I hope that this conference goes beyond words. I have heard grand speeches too often. We need action. We need to listen to the youth.” 

Pedro Walpole, SJ

Let us unite around his words, more aware of the oceans. Let us consider conservation as an investment in the future rather than a restraint on current development.

This article also appeared in RSHM’s News from the UN, #130

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