“Some participants have said that the World Resources Forum (WRF) is actually the real World Economic Forum, because here they talk about the issues that are truly important,” says Bas de Leeuw, managing director of the WRF, a sustainability-focused nonprofit that produces conferences around the world. The conference’s flagship event is held every two years in Davos, Switzerland , the same location as the World Economic Forum meetings, where the world’s richest and most powerful gather to discuss the fate of the planet.
Having started out as conferences focused on recycling with 200 participants in the 1990s to become an annual Forum twice the size, the World Resources Forum has come a long way since its inception.
“Well before my time, the R-conferences in the 1990s were biannual gatherings organized by EMPA [Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Science and Technology],” he says. These conferences initially focused on the technical aspects of recycling and were geared towards engineers and scientists. As recycling became a more prominent theme, people started to realize that it was more than a technical problem, that it would affect production and consumption.
“During the R07  conference in Davos, they decided to rebrand it to the World Resources Forum, almost as an answer to the World Economic Forum.”
De Leeuw came on board in 2011, as EMPA pulled out of the organization to focus on its research activities, and the WRF took its current form. “I think, apart from size, the most important difference with the R-conferences, is that we include people from all scientific disciplines, sociologists, psychologists, as well as businesses, governmental organizations,” he explains.
The WRF’s goal is not necessarily to become the biggest, as De Leeuw puts a strong emphasis on the quality of the event. “It’s impossible to measure impact. Not everybody understands the complexity of the problem. For instance, someone asked asked us to measure the difference between the pollution and resource use before and after the conference. We started to laugh out loud.”
He hopes to make the WRF the go-to yearly gathering for scientists, companies and governments: “There is so much science already but what is missing is the connection between the right people. Only reports don’t work. Conferences alone do not change the world, but you need them to bring people together.”
The first annual conference outside of Davos was held in Beijing in 2012 together with the Chinese Academy of Science. Ever since, the WRF returns to Davos every other year. Regional conferences also started up this year with an Asia Pacific-focused meeting, in Sydney, Australia. “By inviting regional scientists, businesses, NGOs and governments, and focusing on local issues and activities, we also hope to make them more practical,” says de Leeuw.
The last full-scale WRF to take place outside of Davos, in Arequipa, Peru, attracted more than 1000 participants. One of them was Ana Quiros, who will organize the next regional conference in Costa Rica.
Quiros, a risk assessment engineer in construction has worked on environmental issues through the UNEP Lifecycle Initiative since 2002. “Last year, I went to the World Resources Forum in Arequipa. I thought, what a drive this institute has, bringing together academia, businesses and actually pushing to change minds.” In the regional conference next year, she will focus her efforts on the construction industry: “the construction sector involves so many resources and stakeholders, it seemed like a logical partnership.”
As far as Costa Rica’s particular challenges are concerned, Quiros reckons they’re rather typical for a nation in transition. “The most important thing is changing the way we understand sustainability as a society. For businesses and government alike, sustainability is in their rhetoric, but not embedded in their practices.” As an example, she mentioned a recent decree that would allow municipalities to build incinerators to deal with their waste.
“A topic I was missing in most of the workshops [at the WRF], is corruption. I believe this is a significant issue for Costa Rica and Latin America. There cannot be sustainability if we do not change the way we are doing business.”
In the presence of the Costa Rican ambassador, Ana Quiros will announce her plans for the 2016 regional World Resources Forum in San José, Costa Rica during the press conference on Wednesday.
According to de Leeuw, there is a lot of demand for more regional conferences, but only one in ten gets approval; “we are looking for support from government, scientific partners and businesses. We do not just plant our flag in different cities, we are looking for true partnerships with the local organization.”