Faith leaders discuss duty to protect rainforests

A consensus is growing among the world’s religions — reinforced by Pope Francis’ 2015 encyclical Laudato Si’ (“On Care for Our Common Home”) and other declarations by religious leaders — that environmental concerns are closely linked to social justice, and that people of faith have a spiritual imperative to protect the planet and its most vulnerable people.

With these concerns in mind, religious, interfaith and indigenous leaders met to focus on the urgency of protecting the world’s rainforests at the first Interfaith Rainforest Initiative summit, which was held June 19-21 in Oslo, Norway.

The rainforests play a critical role in the absorption and breakdown of carbon dioxide emissions from burning fossil fuels — coal, oil and natural gas — that many scientists say are driving climate change. But confronted with growing global business demands, forest areas the size of Austria are being decimated yearly.

The summit was sponsored by Norwegian government ministries and organizations, including the Ministry of Climate and Environment, the International Climate and Forest Initiative and the Rainforest Foundation Norway, and religion forums such as the Religions for Peace, the World Council of Churches and the Forum on Religion and Ecology at Yale University.

The multi-faith summit included Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, Daoist and indigenous religious leaders and was the first time religious leaders from a broad spectrum of faiths worked hand-in-hand on a faith-based action agenda to end deforestation with indigenous peoples, who are considered the historical guardians of rainforests.

Msgr. Marcelo Sánchez Sorondo, chancellor of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences and Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, and Peruvian Bishop Alfredo Vizcarra Mori were Catholic representatives.

“This has been a real interchange of ideas, though the lamentations were greater than the solutions,” Msgr. Sánchez Sorondo told Our Sunday Visitor. “This is perhaps the first time the voices of the autonomous indigenous people who live in the forests have been heard as part of a forum (like this). We are here now taking our first steps. We have to think and find actions (that will create change). To be against saving the rainforests is to commit suicide. People who don’t believe this is a serious problem just don’t want to believe.”

He added, “When you understand that climate change and the destruction of the rainforests is endangering the very existence of humankind, it is a moral imperative for us to act. We are a conduit for all of nature,” he said.

‘Only one choice’

Some issues, such as the fight against climate change, cross all borders and religious boundaries, said Nanditha Krishna, a Hindu academic scholar from India. Each faith can be inspired by others to find shared global actions, she said.

“The most important thing we saw here is how much in common the various religions have when it comes to the environment. Yes, you can go around cutting down all the trees and drying up the rivers for ‘progress’ so much that there will be no earth for people to live in. We only have one choice: to work for the survival of our planet,” Krishna said. “In Hinduism we are supposed to be stewards of the earth. We have to listen to the voices of animals, plants and forests. All faith groups are politically strong (in their regions) … and we can play a role and be the voice of the indigenous people who are in a very sad condition and are not being heard.”

Judeo-Christian traditions only have to look to the story of the Garden of Eden to become aware of the biblical injunction to care for the environment in which we live. Other faith traditions share similar directives.

In a traditional Jewish commentary, God asks Adam to look around and appreciate the beauty of the garden and then warns: “Take heed that you do not despoil and destroy my world, for if you despoil it, there is none to fix it after you,” said Rabbi David Rosen, international director of Interreligious Affairs at the American Jewish Committee and co-president of Religions for Peace.

“This ancient rabbinic homily focuses on the trees of the Garden of Eden and thus identifies the forests as the critical constituent and sustainer of creation,” Rosen said. “Above all, however, it highlights our human responsibility for our ecosystem. To fail to ensure the health and strength of the forests is not only to imperil humanity’s future; it is to fail the divine charge to humanity to protect the garden of our world.”

‘Nature is sacred’

Muslim leader Din Syamsuddin of the Indonesian Ulema Council spoke about a “triangle of harmony among God, man and nature” in Islam that must be honored.

“Nature is sacred, with its own soul. Man and nature were created in analogical balance. Man must keep that balance through spiritualistic partnership with nature. Conserving rainforests is indeed a part of keeping that balance for the well-being of both nature and mankind,” Syamsuddin said.

Harol Jhonny Rincon Ipuchima, secretary general of the National Organization of the Indigenous People of the Colombian Amazon, said indigenous peoples were mandated by their Father Creator to protect life for all society, not just for themselves.

“The message we have to protect life … has to be respected,” he said. He noted the importance of international support for the struggle of indigenous people. “If indigenous people tell the governments, ‘We are being killed,’ they do nothing. But if others condemn the killings, they do something immediately.”

‘Spirit of compassion’

In their final statement the leaders affirmed their responsibility and commitment to taking ongoing actions to protect the rainforests within an international multi-faith alliance. They went so far as to pledge a change in their own lifestyles, including their diets and consumption patterns, to learn to “live in harmony with the rainforests.”

They left the conference determined to train leaders and educate their followers about the importance of the saving the rainforests, they said.

Like what you’re reading? Subscribe now in print or digital.

“We recognized that unrestrained consumption, lifestyles of the global north and irresponsible financial systems devastate the rainforests’ biosphere and ethnosphere,” the group said in its final statement. “We listened to accounts of the persecution and murder of indigenous peoples and others who protect the forests. We learned about governments unwilling to pass or enforce laws needed to ensure rainforests’ future and the rights and traditions of those who continue to be their guardians. These realities are haunting. This destruction is wrong.

“A spirit of compassion and truth has been with us as we have met. This spirit awakens hope. ... For the sake of the rainforests and the peoples who live in them, and for the future of the planet, we commit to respond,” they concluded.

Nevertheless, as Msgr. Sánchez Sorondo noted, faith leaders do not always have the political clout in all societies — especially in Western countries — to push through a plan of action on their own. It will remain to be seen whether religious leaders can reach out and engage other members of society and instill in them a sense of moral obligation stemming from their faith.

Judith Sudilovsky writes from Jerusalem.