Interfaith leaders step up to protect the world’s ‘sacred’ rainforests

Interfaith leaders step up to protect the world’s ‘sacred’ rainforests

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  • In June 2017 — in response to the planetary climate crisis — Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu and Taoist religious leaders joined hands with indigenous peoples from five tropical countries to form the Interfaith Rainforest Initiative (IRI) — devoted to protecting the world’s last great rainforests.
  • Since then, IRI has worked to engage congregations of all faiths around the globe in an effort to, through political pressure, protect the rainforests of Brazil, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Indonesia, Colombia and Peru — accounting for 70 percent of the world’s tropical forests.
  • During Climate Week at the United Nations in New York City starting September 22, IRI will unveil its Faiths for Forests Declaration and action agenda, jumpstarting its global campaign to harness faith-based leadership and the faithful in recognizing tropical forests as “sacred” and humanity’s obligation to provide stewardship to these great bastions of biodiversity.
  • IRI recognizes the staggering scope of the challenges that lay ahead — to create and energize a worldwide interfaith movement that will successfully pressure national governments to act on climate — national governments that have long backed industrial agribusiness, mining and timber extraction within the world’s last great rainforests.
Looking toward heaven in the Indonesian rainforest. The Interfaith Rainforest Initiative (IRI) is an alliance of Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu and Taoist religious leaders, their congregations and indigenous peoples working to save the world’s last great rainforests. Image by Rhett A. Butler / Mongabay.

An ambitious global interfaith partnership, targeting five rainforest countries in Asia, Africa and South America, is emerging to harness interdenominational congregations worldwide in demanding aggressive climate action from national leaders.

The Interfaith Rainforest Initiative (IRI) is an international alliance bringing the leverage of faith-based leadership and moral urgency to a global effort to slow and reverse tropical deforestation by shifting the priorities and policies of world leaders.

Scientists say that meeting the forest conservation goals of the 2015 Paris Agreement is vital to preventing catastrophic global warming of 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) by 2100. But reducing deforestation as a means of slowing the pace of global warming is seen as increasingly difficult — with the objective hampered by the rapid expansion of industrial agribusiness, mining, and timber extraction, all heavily supported by corporate and financial interests and national governments.

IRI was formed at the Nobel Peace Center in Oslo, Norway, in June 2017 as Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu and Taoist religious leaders joined forces with indigenous peoples from the five tropical countries. Promoting the rights of indigenous peoples — whom environmentalist call the true “guardians of the forests” — is viewed as essential to the cause.

The countries on which IRI is focused contain 70 percent of the world’s remaining tropical forests, and include Brazil, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Indonesia, Colombia and Peru — nations which are daily seeing their capacity to regulate the earth’s climate diminished by rampant deforestation due to wildfires, mining, timbering, agriculture, roads, dams and other infrastructure construction.

“This isn’t about churches planting trees,” said Joe Corcoran, IRI program manager with UNEP, the United Nations Environment Programme. “We want to say clearly and definitively to world leaders: religious leaders take this issue of forests and climate very seriously, and they are going to be holding public officials accountable to make sure these issues are addressed.”

During Climate Week at the United Nations in New York City starting September 22, IRI will unveil its Faiths for Forests Declaration and action agenda. Its website will promote the next phase of organizational capacity building, or the congregational “entry point,” as Corcoran called it. Religious leaders and places of worship will be asked to endorse the IRI declaration, access educational materials and learn how to participate in political activism.

Also during Climate Week, millions of young people, led by Swedish teen Greta Thunberg, are expected to participate in global strikes aimed at pressuring policymakers into action.

Corcoran says that IRI’s “movement building” initiative comes at a critical moment, as wildfires rage in Amazonia and the Congo, and as the world turns its attention to New York. There, on September 23, UN General Secretary Antonio Guterres will make a single demand on the world’s nations: stop delaying and commit to aggressively cutting your carbon emissions, and dramatically increase the aggressiveness of your climate action plans now.

Young Munduruku warriors in the Brazilian Amazon. IRI has joined with indigenous groups in five tropical countries to apply political pressure and help preserve indigenous claims to ancestral lands and forests. Image by Mauricio Torres / Mongabay.

Irreplaceable rainforests

“Twenty years ago there wasn’t even a thought connecting religion and ecology,” recalls Mary Evelyn Tucker, an environmental scholar at Yale University with appointments in its schools of forestry, religious studies and divinity.

And it’s likely that this moment in history marks the first time the interfaith community is stepping prominently into the political arena to help significantly reduce rainforest deforestation. The IRI declaration is seen as a rallying point for faith leaders and their followers. It decisively states: “Tropical deforestation is a crisis of existential proportions. We either deal with it now, or leave future generations a planet in ecological collapse.”

But for IRI to be successful, Tucker explained, faith leaders must preach and promote a “change of heart and conscience” that values tropical forests not only for the ecosystem services they deliver to humanity — such as carbon sequestration and climate stabilization — but also for the sake of conserving God’s creation. With more than half of the Earth’s plant, animal and bird species living in the world’s rainforests, s it is vital people of faith understand and value the irreplaceable creatures that keep tropical forests thriving.

“Religious leaders can come onboard for practical reasons,” Tucker noted. “But they can also come onboard because the goals are sacred. That’s why their voices are essential.”

This was the central message offered up by Pope Francis in June 2015 in his unprecedented Catholic teaching document, Laudato Si, On Care for Our Common Home. Concerned by the extinction rate driven by human activity, Francis wrote: “Because of us, thousands of species will no longer give glory to God by their very existence, nor convey their message to us. We have no such right.”

In an early September 2019 swing through southern Africa, the pope denounced the exploitation of natural resources for the economic gain of a few, and decried rampant deforestation in Madagascar: “The last forests are menaced by forest fires, poaching, the unrestricted cutting down of valuable woodlands.”

In August, Laura Vargas, the coordinator of IRI Peru, convened meetings and workshops with three dozen national interfaith and indigenous community leaders in Madre de Dios — a biodiverse hotspot deep in the Peruvian Amazon, now being rapidly deforested by illegal gold mining.

Vargas, along with Bishop David Martinez in Puerto Maldonado, the capital of Madre de Dios state, have joined with NGOs and other environmental activists to lobby the historically environmentally-lax Peruvian government to act decisively to protect the already badly ravaged Madre de Dios region from the miners.

“This is a very important moment and we have to act,” Vargas said from Lima. “This is as important as the Mass or religious activity. Caring for the forests is essential to our faith.”

A Coquerel’s Sifaka lemur (Propithecus coquereli) in Madagascar. The interfaith gorup is trying to curb climate change and preserve sacred rainforest biodiversity. Image by Rhett A. Butler / Mongabay.

Untested political capital

IRI received a boost in August when its Faith for Forests declaration was endorsed at the Religions for World Peace assembly held in Bavaria, Germany, an interfaith organization that represents more than 900 million people in 125 countries.

“We were floored by the reception we received — the commitment across faiths and the recognition of indigenous rights in fighting deforestation,” said Corcoran of the event.

Today, partners to the Interfaith Rainforest Initiative include Religions for Peace, GreenFaith, the Parliament of the World’s Religions, the World Council of Churches, the Yale Forum on Religion and Ecology, Norway’s International Climate and Forest Initiative, Rainforest Foundation Norway and the UN Environment Programme.

But IRI and its goals aren’t finding easy acceptance everywhere. Efforts to organize in Brazil and the Democratic Republic of the Congo have been slowed thus far by political leaders who are actively promoting deforestation as part of their pro-business policies. However, Corcoran reported that small lobbying successes are emerging in Colombia and Peru.

“IRI Colombia held a briefing with 11 members of Congress in July,” he said, and negotiated an outcome document “where government representatives in attendance agreed to include wording around a commitment to ending deforestation in the forthcoming National Development Plan for Colombia.”

The Rev. Fletcher Harper, an Episcopal priest and the executive director of GreenFaith, a U.S.-based interfaith environmental coalition, is cautious; he has seen religious interest in the environment wax and wane over the years. For all its ambition, IRI has its challenges, he said.

“There are places on the planet, Brazil being one of them, where religious groups are part of the problem, as well as the solution,” Harper noted. “You have some conservative Christians working in support of deforestation efforts.”

The administration of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, for example, is moving quickly to “develop the unproductive Amazon,” and is also heavily backed by Evangelical Christians.

Harper said that in places like Brazil and Indonesia, IRI would do well to “lift up the voices of religious moderates and conservatives” who represent a more politically potent segment of those countries’ religious populations. In Indonesia, he added, “there are moderate and conservative Islamic leaders who want to be involved in this [conservation] effort.”

One challenge to truly building momentum, Harper said, will be in getting religious leaders of all sects to use their political capital in a way that most haven’t yet tried.

“Does this effort stand a chance?” he asked. “I think it does. But around the world, that question is still up in the air. Religious groups have more potential for political influence than they have yet deployed. But it’s going to take a level of education, resolve and scale of action that is altogether larger and different than we’ve seen so far.”

Justin Catanoso, a professor of journalism at Wake Forest University in North Carolina, is a regular contributor to Mongabay. Follow him on Twitter @jcatanoso

This story was originally published on and is part of Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 220 news outlets to strengthen coverage of the climate story.

Indigenous Ticana children in Colombia. Their future depends on people working together around the globe to conserve rainforests. Image by Rhett A. Butler / Mongabay.