Image: Collage of Pele appointed by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan in 1992 a UN ambassador for ecology and the environment, and with UNESCO DG Federico Mayor who appointed him 1994 as UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador. Source: UN photos. - Photo: 2022

Of Pele, of Brazil, of Rio

By Ramu Damodaran

The author is the first Director of UN Academic Impact and a Senior Fellow at the New Delhi-based Centre for Social and Economic Progress (CSEP).

NEW YORK (IDN) — It was 55 years ago that those involved in the Nigerian civil war paused their hostilities to watch a much-anticipated football match starring Pele, the tenacious and graceful player for whom the United Nations holds a special affection as it recalls the time he was, very literally, a poster child in his home country, Brazil, for protecting infant health through breastfeeding.

As the UNICEF Deputy Executive Director Kul Chandra Gautam recalls, “due to the aggressive marketing of baby milk formulas by private multinational companies, breastfeeding had declined dramatically to the point that in the 1980s only eight per cent of Brazilian mothers exclusively breastfed their babies during the first six months.

UNICEF explored how best it could help reverse this dangerous trend.” That exploration led to a request to Pele, one he readily accepted, and UNICEF prepared “an attractive poster that was plastered all over the country in which Pelé’s mother was shown patting her famous son on the shoulder and saying: “Of course, he is the best football player in the world. I breastfed him!”

It was an immensely successful campaign; forty years or so later, posters may well have become passé but every now and then, one emerges to capture the imagination and make an effective point, such as the one shared two years ago throughout Brazil by the United Nations Information Centre (UNIC) in Rio de Janeiro.

It’s by Peruvian artist Ivan Ciro Palomino who was welcomed to the United Nations in 2016 as the first prize winner in a “poster for peace” contest relating to nuclear disarmament; the imagination, colour and verve that distinguished his work then continue to animate it now, as his poster on the sustainable development goals attests.

Creatively employing art as a message has stood UNIC Rio well; “it is essential to spread reliable and easy-to-read information for people to protect themselves against COVID-19 in the right way”, says Maurício de Sousa, author of the Brazilian comic book series and media franchise “Turma da Mônica” (Monica’s Gang) who collaborated with the UNIC and United Nations Verified campaign.

And that this imaginative energy emanated from the Rio centre is apt in its own way, for it was the 1992 and 2012 conferences in this storied city that began the process culminating in the Sustainable Development Goals that Ivan has so deftly brought into almost lithographic lyricism and which attests to the remarkable prescience of Heitor Gurgulino de Souza, then the Rector of the United Nations University, and earlier Rector of the Federal University of Sao Carlos, Brazil, who, a third of a century ago, and two years before Rio 1, spoke of “looking at the 1990s from the point of view of the global environment,” adding that that perception includes physical, political, economic, and social issues in a “more interdependent world.”

And it was an institution in Rio that nurtured a mind that would challenge and change the Charter of the United Nations itself as it was being drafted. Bertha Maria Júlia Lutz was a naturalist at the National Museum of Brazil in Rio (she has three frog and two lizard species named after her), and she brought her academic precision and impatience with implication to the 1945 San Francisco conference that authored the Charter where she successfully negotiated the insertion of the critical words in bold in its stirring preamble: “faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small,” a foreshadowing of Mauricio’s Monica who began her illustrated career as supporting character to Jimmy Five, or Cebolinha, and then emerged as the star of the show herself.

The fact of rights being human and not disaggregated by gender or colour saw affirmation a generation after San Francisco; Brazil was host to the first United Nations conference on apartheid, in Brasilia, in 1966. Present there was the secretary of the United Nations Special Committee against Apartheid, Enuga (“ES”) Reddy, who died two years ago, “selfless in struggle and in scholarship” in the phrase of historian Ram Guha, scholarship that creates, as founder president of the IESB university in Brasilia, Professor Eda C. B. Machado, put it with the simple elegance that is her style, “better human beings who become more tolerant, open and flexible”, much like the historic Carnival of Rio itself.  

This began with reference to UNICEF in Brazil and ends with a grateful mention of Brazil in UNICEF, and indeed in the UN, in the person of artist photographer Sebastiao Salgado. Parvati Nair of London University’s Queen Mary and founding Director of the United Nations University Institute on Globalization, Culture and Mobility (UNU-GCM) is the author of an elegiac work on Salgado, whom she also references in an article in The Guardian where she writes, “modernised, urbanized and alienated as many of us are, photographs remind us of nature’s many complexities and subtleties”.

Or, as in Sebastião Salgado’s ongoing project Genesis that is linked to an equally challenging project at the Instituto Terra to restore Brazil’s Atlantic rain forest, photography marries wonderment, amazement and joy to a well-defined and articulated commitment to the planet. It melds fractures and helps envisage solidarity in our imbalanced and fractured world.”

Parvati titled her book on Salgado “A Different Light.” As I write this, Herbie Mann’s “Pele” is playing in the background, the fleetness of flute keeping a brisk ball-bopping pace with the imagined fleetness of foot. And I think of the telluric quality of both the game that Pele shaped to his name and the art that Ivan, Herbie, Mauricio and Sebastiao moulded to their own, allowing us to sense and to save that which is so precious that it is taken for granted until we allow the fires in our minds, and the candles in Ivan’s poster and in our hearts, cast upon them a light wondrous, new, curious and, ultimately, different, much as the world did twice in Rio. [IDN-InDepthNews — 04 December 2022]

Image: Collage of Pele appointed by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan in 1992 as a UN ambassador for ecology and the environment, and with UNESCO DG Federico Mayor, who appointed him in 1994 as UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador. Source: UN photos.

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