By Matt Youngfrau
JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA October 18, 2002 Although Dick Coombe is no longer a New York State Assemblyman, he continues to serve his local community, state, and country, as evidenced by his recent trip to Johannesburg, South Africa as a United States delegate to the World Summit on Sustainable Development. The U.S. was one of 40 countries represented at the conference.
It was an amazing trip, Coombe commented of the August 24-September 4 journey. I have been changed for life. It is hard to believe that a person from a little rural community could be involved in something like that.
Coombes expertise was needed because his Watershed Agricultural Council programs were featured at the conference. Coombe also had served as an advisor with the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) under Secretary James Mosley.
We were in the eye of the storm, Coombe reflected. Many of the poor countries were upset with the United States and Europe. I have never witnessed such booing and hissing.
The days were fairly long for Coombe and the delegation, beginning with breakfast at 6:15 a.m. At 7:15 a.m., Coombe headed to a security briefing. Then it was a 45-minute shuttle ride to the scheduled event for the day. After another 45-minute ride back, there would be a debriefing session, writing the daily report, and dinner between 10 and 11 p.m.
Each day, we had different topics, remarked Coombe. They ranged from agriculture to forestry to environment and water. In all, there were 12 sessions.
While Coombe did not speak at any of the sessions, he found them informative, noting that the delegation was frustrated because many of the poorer countries did not listen to what they had to say. Once Coombe talked to a few people one-on-one, he said he got them to listen to what the U.S. was doing. In fact, he established some relationships that continue via email.
It was quite the experience, Coombe stated. Many people [from other countries] would stop us just to find out what life was like in the U.S.
Coombe visited one of the villages outside Johannesburg, where he saw an HIV-AIDS clinic, a school, and a community garden. Coombe was amazed at how little agriculture the natives knew, noting that the pond and valley could have been used better for irrigation.
During the trip, United States Secretary of State Colin Powell made an appearance at the conference. Coombe got the opportunity to talk to him and share some of his experiences.
Once home, Coombe received letters of thanks and appreciation from both Mosley and Powell. Coombe hopes to return to South Africa one day with his wife, Penny, to show her what he found to be a beautiful land.