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Dr. Charles McNeill Addresses the IRI Dialogue with Indigenous Leaders

Dr. Charles McNeill addressed “An Urgent Call to Protect the Amazon: An Interfaith Rainforest Initiative Dialogue with Indigenous Leaders” at the 2023 Parliament of the World’s Religions in Chicago, USA.

Thank you, Lewis. Good evening to all of you around the world and in this room. Our way of life and even our very lives are now threatened by climate change and the loss of nature.

Every day we see the consequences of our pollution of the planet in terms of devastating droughts, fires, heat waves, floods, and extreme weather. Already with 1.1 degrees Celsius, global temperature rise, changes to the climate system not seen for thousands of years are now occurring in every region of the world.

The last decade was warmer than any period for the past 125,000 years. And we are witnessing the sixth great extinction event in the Earth’s history, the first since the dinosaurs disappeared. Only this time, we caused it. We caused this due to our own unsustainable consumption and production patterns and an unfair and perverse economic system.

One million of the world’s estimated eight million species of plants and animals are now threatened with extinction. And although fossil fuels remains the number one source of greenhouse gas emissions, we simply can’t avoid the worst aspects of climate catastrophe without protecting our tropical forests, which are currently being lost at a rate of a football field every six seconds.

If protected and restored, however, our tropical forests can actually help solve the climate and biodiversity crises in very significant ways. This is what tonight’s event is all about.

The Amazon is the single largest tropical forest in the world, covering nearly three million square miles equivalent to twice the size of India. About 60 % of the Amazon rainforest is in Brazil, and the rest is shared among the other eight Amazonian countries. The Amazon is home to millions of species of flora and fauna, as well as over 2 million Indigenous people from more than 400 different groups.

The Amazon River Basin is one of the most critical elements of the Earth’s climate system, system, acting like a giant air conditioner, lowering land temperatures, generating rainfall, and strongly influencing weather patterns both within and far outside the region. Through the process of transpiration, the Amazon pushes massive amounts of water into the atmosphere, creating enormous flying rivers. This water then falls as rain, providing around half of the region’s rainfall. Clearing the rainforest interferes with this process, and just last week, Brazil’s Minister of Environment Marina Silva reminded us that 75% of South America’s entire economy depends on the rainforest’s rainfall.

The Amazon plays a vital role in fighting global climate change by holding an estimated 123 billion tons of carbon, which would otherwise be released into the atmosphere with very deadly consequences. Drivers of deforestation include mostly commercial activities like agricultural expansion for cattle ranching and cattle feed crops, as well as mining and logging. In fact, cattle ranching itself accounts for an astounding 80% of the loss of the Amazon. Over 90% of these deforestation activities in the Amazon are illegal.

Since the 1970s, around 18% of the Amazon rainforest has been destroyed, and recent research shows that the Amazon rainforest is teetering on the precipice of a dangerous tipping point. If forest loss increases beyond the current 18 % to between 20 and 25%, large areas of the Amazon could fall into an unstoppable downward spiral that would transform them from lush rainforest into grassy savanna. And the global implications would be profound, causing large-scale drying across the region. And this would have tremendous impacts on the world’s climate and would cripple food production, hydropower generation, and human health and well-being for the region and the world. 

As a human family, tragically, we will not be able to achieve any of the global climate or biodiversity goals, not to mention our poverty reduction goals if we lose the Amazon. Much of the destruction of the Amazon is driven from other parts of the world, like from right here in the U.S., from Europe, from China, when we import much of the Amazon deforestation in the form of beef or illegal logging or mining. That is why our own countries should enact supply chain laws, like the new European Union law that outlaws the importation of any beef or other products that could be linked to deforestation. 

And, of course, each of us in our own lives should look at how we can reduce pressure on the Amazon from our own personal choices. Stopping or reducing our own beef consumption could be a good way to start. But the good news is that Brazil knows how to solve this problem because between 2004 and 2012, it already succeeded in reducing deforestation by a staggering 84%. And Brazil did this. And Brazil did this while nearly doubling agricultural production and GDP, showing that we don’t need to destroy more forests to increase food production. 

That’s a myth that we’re done with that. Brazil achieved this by creating and implementing public policies that attacked the structural cause of the problem, the solutions they implemented, included, one, enforcing forest laws, two, offering financial incentives for forest protection, and three, expanding protected areas with a special emphasis on creating Indigenous lands.

There is no need to deforest any more primary forest in the Amazon for livestock and agricultural production because there are thousands of square miles of already deforested lands that can be used for those purposes. And we will hear from our next speaker. There is good reason to expect that Brazil will soon return to these effective policies to significantly reduce deforestation in the Amazon.

The United Nations also understands that to protect and sustain the Amazon and other tropical forests we must recognize the rights of the Indigenous peoples who have been responsibly stewarding these forests for centuries, thanks to the distinct culture, traditional knowledge, and spirituality. In the Amazon, deforestation rates are much lower in legally recognized Indigenous territories than in other lands.

But Indigenous peoples are being targeted with attacks and violence for protecting their lands. And as we will hear from our speakers, this must stop. The UN also recognizes religious leaders and faith communities as essential partners in solving our environmental crisis.

And we are collaborating with all faiths through the Interfaith Rainforest Initiative, a UN program that the Parliament co-founded in 2017 with other partners here in the Parliament. Through this work, leaders of the world’s religions are America, Asia, and Latin America, perhaps for the first time in 500 years, to create an extraordinarily powerful and inspiring new coalition to protect forests. This should give us all great hope, and tonight’s program is an expression of this growing partnership.

Now let me introduce you to our next speaker, the distinguished and honorable Sonia Guajajara, the Minister, the current Minister of Indigenous Peoples in the Government of Brazil. Minister Guajajara was appointed by the recently elected President Lula da Silva, and she is the first Indigenous person to serve as a Minister in Brazil’s government.

Sonia Guajajara was born in the Indigenous land of Arayiboya, in the state of Maranho, and is a member of the Guajajara Tentahar people. Her fight for the recognition of the rights of Indigenous peoples led to her selection by Time Magazine as one of the 100 most influential people in the world.

Sonia helped launch the Interfaith Rainforest Initiative at the Novell Peace Center in Norway in 2017, and has been such a strong advocate for this work in Brazil and around the world ever since. Sonia represented Brazil in last week’s Amazon Summit, and she sent us this video just a few hours ago from deep in the Amazon, where she is right now with President Lula. In this message, she brings us news from that summit and how we can help her and her people to protect the Amazon and their way of life. Thank you. 

I would like to thank all the members of the Parliament for the support they have provided to express the concerns of the Indigenous peoples in the heart of the Amazon. Their indisputable commitment over decades with the promotion of dialogue and understanding between various religions and traditions is a source of inspiration for the people around the world.

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