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

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

Video Courtesy of africanews

  • 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.
400 years of black giving: From the days of slavery to the 2019 Morehouse graduation

400 years of black giving: From the days of slavery to the 2019 Morehouse graduation

Two of the top donors who made constructing the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture possible were black.
AP Photo/Susan Walsh

Tyrone Freeman, IUPUI

When African American businessman Robert F. Smith declared during a Morehouse College commencement speech that he would pay off the student loan debt of the entire 2019 graduating class of about 400 young men from the historically black school, he provoked a frenzy. Footage of the jubilant graduates immediately went viral, with an outpouring of hot takes on what the news meant.

As a historian of philanthropy, here’s what caught my eye: Smith said that he was making this roughly US$40 million gift on behalf of eight generations of his family with American roots.

On top of paying tribute to his ancestors, I see this generous act as an extension of the underappreciated heritage of African American philanthropy that began soon after the first enslaved Africans disembarked in Virginia in 1619.

Robert F. Smith told the Morehouse College class of 2019 to applaud their own families and communities for helping them succeed.

Strong tradition

The West African people put into slavery brought cultures of giving and sharing with them across the Atlantic. In 1847, for example, enslaved Africans in Richmond, Virginia, donated money through their church to Ireland’s potato famine relief efforts. I believe that their ways of looking after others and pooling resources to survive forms the basis of giving by African Americans today.

And while Oprah Winfrey and basketball star LeBron James bring visibility to black philanthropy in unique ways, it’s important to realize that they contribute only a small share of the at least $11 billion African Americans give to charities each year.

Despite the toll that four centuries of slavery and discrimination have taken on black earnings, African Americans regardless of their economic status have long given generously of their money and time.

Black women

I have written extensively about the historical roles of black women as the creators, innovators and purveyors of African American philanthropy. In my forthcoming book about Madam C.J. Walker, the early 20th-century black entrepreneur philanthropist commonly known as the first American self-made female millionaire, I’ve documented this history through her gifts and those made by her peers – other black businesswomen and leaders of clubs.

Before Smith’s announcement, Winfrey had already donated at least $12 million to Morehouse, enabling more than 400 men to graduate debt-free. A $21 million gift to establish the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture made her its biggest donor – Smith’s own $20 million gift was also among the top three.

Countless other black women, from all walks of life, give of their time, talent and money generously through their churches, clubs, sororities and giving circles – groups of people who pool charitable money for nonprofits they collectively choose to support. Black women also made August Black Philanthropy Month, an international celebration of giving by people descended from Africa.

Smith has said his mother, Sylvia Myrna Smith, set him on a path of generosity. A high school principal, she instilled in him the habit of giving through her annual ritual of donating to the United Negro College Fund to help young people of color gain access to higher education.

A place in history

Smith earned his wealth through technology and finance, and has his own foundation. He has signed the Giving Pledge, through which dozens of the world’s richest people have promised to donate most of their wealth to causes they believe in. But in my view, it would be a mistake to look to the likes of Bill and Melinda Gates and Warren Buffett, the billionaires who created the Giving Pledge in 2010, to understand Robert F. Smith’s philanthropy.

That’s because of the challenges Smith made to the Morehouse graduates benefiting from his gift and his peers as well.

“The liberation of communities we come from depends upon the grit and the determination and the greatness inside of you, using your skills and your knowledge and your instincts to serve to change the world in only the way that you can,” Smith said.

This idea of a responsibility to liberate one’s community links Smith and today’s black donors with those of the past.

Forten and LaFon

One of the black philanthropists in colonial times was James Forten, who was born in 1766 into a free black family in Philadelphia. Introduced to sail-making by his father, Forten apprenticed in the trade after serving on a ship near the end of the Revolutionary War. He became wealthy and a leader in the movement to end slavery.

Forten helped finance abolitionist newspapers while fundraising for the movement and aided runaways who fled slavery in the South.

Thomy LaFon, another early black giver, was born into a free family in 1810 in New Orleans. He grew up in poverty but was a natural entrepreneur who sold food, ran a store, brokered loans and eventually invested in real estate.

LaFon leveraged his clout to advocate for racial equality. He funded a black newspaper and the arts. He financed the American Anti-Slavery Society and the Underground Railroad. LaFon bought property for orphanages and following his death his estate financed two hospitals, a nursing home that still exists, the New Orleans college that became Dillard University and a black order of nuns called Sisters of the Holy Family.

McKee and Gaston

Colonel John McKee was born into freedom in Alexandria, Virginia, around 1819 but became indentured at a young age.

Col. John McKee’s legacy of helping young men without fathers attend college continues, more than a century after his death.
McKee Scholarship

McKee ran a Philadelphia restaurant in his twenties. Over time, he acquired a significant amount of property. He provided housing for the black migrants who traveled north to Philadelphia after emancipation.

When he died in 1902, McKee left most of his reported $2 million fortune to the Catholic Church and a school to educate black and white orphaned boys. After decades of disputes, the McKee Scholarship emerged in the 1950s. It continues to help cover higher education costs for many young fatherless men in the Philadelphia region today.

A.G. Gaston was born in 1892 in Demopolis, Alabama, to parents who had been enslaved. He began building businesses in Birmingham in the 1920s. He ultimately owned an insurance company, a funeral home and cemetery, a business college, motel, bank, radio stations and a construction company.

Gaston worked behind the scenes of the civil rights movement to maintain relations with whites while maintaining a reputation as having a non-confrontational approach to ending segregation. In the 1950s, the entrepreneur helped pay the legal bills tied to a court case seeking the admission of African Americans to the all-white University of Alabama.

He regularly donated or discounted the use of his facilities to house civil rights activists and host meetings. When the police commissioner, Eugene “Bull” Connor, jailed Martin Luther King Jr. and Ralph Abernathy for protesting in Birmingham in 1963, Gaston bailed them out, along with hundreds more protesters.

When the Alabaman, who was reportedly worth $130 million, died in 1996 he left several provisions in his estate for charity. Birmingham’s A.G. Gaston Boys and Girls Club is still operating.

With this gift and the rest of his big donations, Robert F. Smith has assumed his place in this philanthropic history, and encouraged other African Americans to do the same.

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Tyrone Freeman, Assistant Professor of Philanthropic Studies, Director of Undergraduate Programs, Lilly Family School of Philanthropy, IUPUI

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.