· Vatican City ·

Advocating for soil worldwide

 Advocating for soil worldwide  ING-021
24 May 2024

Australian diplomat and environmental advocate, Ms Penelope Wensley discusses the global fight for climate justice as well as the importance of including the voices of indigenous people in decision making.

In Florence, Italy, as 1,500 experts celebrated the centenary of the International Union for Soil Sciences ( iuss ) with an International Conference between 19 and 21 May, Penelope Wensley was honoured with the Distinguished Service Medal. “One hundred years of soil science”, she told Vatican News, is reason to celebrate, as she reflected on her extensive career in diplomacy and her long-lasting commitment to environmental advocacy.

A Diplomat’s Path to Soil Advocacy

Wensley’s journey with soil goes hand in hand with her extensive diplomatic career, spanning four decades. “I had many, many postings overseas: as Australia’s Ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva, for three years; in New York for four years; High Commissioner to India; consul general to Hong Kong... and ambassador to France. And among all those postings, I was also Australia’s ambassador for the environment”, she said.

The role of diplomacy in environmental preservation

Wensley emphasised the critical role of diplomacy in environmental preservation. “At the global level, it’s governments that decide where the priorities lie... there is a need for diplomats as advisors to government”, she stated. Despite soil often being the “poor cousin” in environmental discussions compared to water and air, Penelope Wensley sees a growing recognition of its importance as we begin to really suffer the issues of climate change and biodiversity loss globally.

From Rio to Queensland

Wensley’s relationship with environmental issues, and soil, started in the early nineties, marked by significant global events such as the Earth Summit and the Rio Summit. “The negotiation of the big conventions: climate change, biodiversity, and the convention to combat drought and desertification introduced me to soil, gave me a passion for sustainability and the better management of our natural resources”, she said.

After leaving the foreign service, Wensley served as the Governor of Queensland, one of Australia’s largest states. “We had a lot of natural disasters: terrible drought, terrible floods, cyclones... the effects of climate change and global warming. As governor, I visited so many communities that were devastated by these extreme weather events”, she recalled.

The power of Indigenous communities

One community which is impossible to ignore, in Australia and throughout the world, is the indigenous community. Indigenous people have invaluable knowledge in the fight for climate justice, as Wensley noted: “The population of Australia’s indigenous peoples has been on our ancient continent for thousands and thousands of years... their wisdom and knowledge must be taken into account alongside contemporary so-called Western science”.

And the world is advancing in this field, she added, explaining that people are starting to understand more and more the invaluable role that indigenous communities can play, and must be encouraged to play, in decision making.

Young people must also be heard, said Wensley, as she spoke of this other community with a touch of “envy: I am at the end of my career, and theirs is just starting”, she says, adding that they are working with passion. “It’s fantastic to see so many young people at this Congress”, she noted.

Aligning with Pope Francis’ teachings

All these themes: climate justice, indigenous rights and just diplomacy resonate deeply with the teachings of Pope Francis in his encyclical, “Laudato Si’”, on the Care for our Common Home. Wensley sees these connections clearly: “Conferences like this are about taking better care of our environment. It’s a special celebration, inviting reflection on moral and ethical issues of responsibility”.

A celebration

As the conference drew to a close, Penelope Wensley extended her gratitude to the Italian organisers, whom she said “have done a stupendous job”. From an expected 700, 1,500 participated, marking a significant mobilisation for this historic celebration and for this vital theme.

By Francesca Merlo