Religious leaders mobilize to protect indigenous people and forests

This article first appeared at Mongabay: News Inspiration From Nature's Frontline published by Willie Shubert and written by on May 2, 2018. View the original publication here.

This article first appeared at Mongabay: News Inspiration From Nature's Frontline published by Willie Shubert and written by on May 2, 2018. View the original publication here.

  • Religious leaders joined forces with indigenous peoples from Brazil, Colombia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Indonesia, Meso-America and Peru at the Nobel Peace Center in Oslo in 2017 to launch the Interfaith Rainforest Initiative (IRI).
  • The IRI plans to mobilize high profile religious leaders to intervene in policy forums and advocate for forests and indigenous people with support from UN Environment.
  • It has been estimated that one third of climate change mitigation is from tropical rainforests and securing land rights for indigenous peoples is an effective and low-cost method of reducing carbon emissions.

What if the moral and spiritual influence of the world’s religious communities and their leaders were directed towards protecting rainforests and their indigenous guardians? Is this an appropriate role for religious and faith-based communities to take on?  The coalition of religious and indigenous leaders behind the Interfaith Rainforest Initiative believe it is.

Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Jewish, Muslim, and Taoist religious leaders joined forces with indigenous peoples from Brazil, Colombia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Indonesia, Meso-America and Peru at the Nobel Peace Center in Oslo in 2017 to launch the Interfaith Rainforest Initiative (IRI) and are committed to mobilizing billions of people of faith to stand up for rainforests and their protectors. The IRI global steering committee reconvened at the UN Headquarters in New York on April 19, 2018 to give a briefing on this initiative and to receive consultation.

“We are here tonight at this stage to listen,” said Reverend Fletcher Harper a writer, preacher and executive director of Green Faith as he addressed the diverse group of indigenous leaders and other attendees in New York. “There is a great deal of historical inertia from which we must overcome and much blindness from which we must repent and for which we will need your help,” said Rev. Harper. “We are here to listen. We are in your debt. We hope to be worthy of your partnership.”

Faith leaders as eminent as Pope Francis and faith communities have made contributions to environmental efforts in the past.  The creation of The Paris Agreement was aided by people of faith who organized, engaged in civil disobedience, and mobilized millions to sign petitions. Harper says faith communities and organizations including The Parliament of the World’s Religions, Forum on Religion and Ecology at Yale University, The World Council of Churches, Religions for Peace, the Real Network and Green Faith are committed to bringing that same level of commitment to protecting forests and indigenous peoples.

This protection cannot come soon enough. In 2016, nearly 4 people were murdered per week defending land from industries like mining, logging, and agribusiness — 40% of these deaths were indigenous people. For most indigenous people, land serves as the center of their spirituality, livelihood, and survival. And in the case of tropical forests much more is at stake—the health of the entire planet.

It has been estimated that one third of climate change mitigation is from tropical rainforests and securing land rights for indigenous peoples is an effective and low-cost method of reducing carbon emissions. According to the World Resource Institute, securing these rights in Brazil, Colombia, and Bolivia, for example, would be the equivalent of removing between 9 and 12 million cars from the road for one year. In areas of the Amazon where indigenous people have land rights, deforestation is 2 to 3 times lower. However, less than 10% of indigenous people hold formal land rights to the forests they protect and inhabit, making it difficult to take any legal actions against those who would illegally or unethically exploit resources.

Worldwide, IRI plans to mobilize high profile religious leaders to intervene in policy forums and advocate for forests and indigenous people with implementation support by UN Environment. IRI will also launch early programs in five high risk, high priority countries: Brazil, Colombia, Peru, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Indonesia. These programs will support the development of faith-based networks with diverse advisory councils which include local indigenous people.

“Protecting tropical forests is not only a matter of the protection of nature but also about the protection of the cultures, languages, livelihoods and human diversity that thrive within these ecosystems,” said Reverend Harper. “The protection of forests is only done well when it is integrally connected to the protection of indigenous peoples and we wish to reaffirm our recognition of this as fundamental to what this initiative is about.”

IRI steering committee member and Ambassador of Norway Mae Ellen Steiner acknowledged that governmental partners have a long way to go and have lots of inconsistencies, but, at least in the case of Norway, they are trying. Norway has invested heavily in IRI and has devoted almost US$3 billion over the past decade to support developing countries to reduce deforestation and forest degradation, and has committed to continuing substantial investments.

During the question and comment portion of the New York briefing, indigenous leaders in the room echoed a shared ethos surrounding the sanctity of the forests, their centrality to their lives and expressed enthusiasm about working with IRI and its mission. However, concerns were raised about dealing with unsupportive governments, local industries and businesses.

Leaders and representative of NGOs and advocacy groups (such as the Water Culture Institute and Rainforest Alliance) were eager to learn how they, as secular organizations, could help. The steering committee members were clear that atheists, humanists, and any person of ethical convictions had a place in dialogue and coalition building. The IRI members were also reminded and encouraged to include the voices of youth and women in the process.

“I have heard from many indigenous people that our religions need to re-indigenize,” said Dr. Kusumita Pedersen, IRI steering committee member and Professor Emerita of Religious Studies at St. Francis College, New York, who has been part of the global interfaith movement for over thirty years.

“What does this mean?” Dr. Pederson asked. “Within the philosophies, worldviews, and ethics – the deepest values and visions of the world’s religions – there are those elements that correspond to the indigenous spiritual traditions. The Pope’s encyclical Laudato Si states that all living beings have dignity, not merely human beings. Father Thomas Berry famously said the universe is not a collection of objects but a communion of subjects. All beings have a spirit, personhood and are worthy of respect. So, our traditions need to draw out from within themselves these elements, hold them up, and make them as strong as possible to help us to be effective in the work we are doing, in solidarity. This is the task before us in order to move hearts and minds. It is not always easy, but we must never give up.”


Banner image: Buddha statues in the Laotian rainforest at Wat Chom Si. Image by McKay Savage via Wikimedia Commons. 

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