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An appeal made by Pope Francis almost four years ago to prevent the destruction of tropical rainforests is gaining traction through the international Interfaith Rainforest Initiative (IRI).
The pontiff shared his fears about the impact of human activities on the environment, climate and rainforests in a major document entitled Laudato Si’ (Praise Be) in 2015.
In response, two years later in 2017, IRI was launched. Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu and Taoist religious leaders made a pact with indigenous peoples to make rainforest protection a priority.
Last month, Colombia and Peru became the most recent countries to join the group, which already counted Brazil, Democratic Republic of Congo, Indonesia and Mesoamerica among its members.
Implemented by UN Environment and supported by the government of Norway, IRI opens the door for religious leaders to work with indigenous peoples, governments, businesses and civil society to protect rainforests.
“With the launch of the Interfaith Rainforest Initiative here in Colombia, we are making ending deforestation a spiritual concern of the highest order,” said Rev Francisco Duque Gomez, president of the Interreligious Council in Colombia.
Colombia, which lost almost 425,000 hectares of tree cover in 2017, is among the top 10 countries experiencing dramatic levels of deforestation, according to satellite monitoring by World Resources Institute. (The statistic does not take into account tree cover gain that might occur through replanting.) The Peruvian Amazon lost more than 143,000 hectares of tree cover in the same year, according to a recent analysis by Amazon Conservation.
Pope Francis and other religious leaders say they recognize the need to protect the rights of indigenous peoples, forest and afro-descendant communities.
In Colombia, at least 68 indigenous community members were murdered and 5,730 people displaced between November 2016 and July 2018, the period after a peace agreement was reached with the rebel Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), according to the National Indigenous Organization of Colombia (ONIC).
“The Amazonian rainforest is vital for the survival of humanity,” said Rev. Pedro Merino, president of the National Evangelical Council of Peru (CONEP). “Our goal is to partner with our indigenous brothers and sisters to ensure that the people of Peru, all of us, understand and act on our responsibility to serve as stewards.”
“It’s significant that religious and indigenous leaders across the world back the protection of forests because they are opinion leaders in their communities and in their nations,” said Tim Christophersen, head of the Water, Land and Climate Branch at UN Environment.
About 12 million hectares of forest are destroyed worldwide each year. Combined with agricultural expansion and other land use changes, deforestation is responsible for a quarter of greenhouse gas emissions, contributing to global warming, according to UN Environment.
“There is a growing awareness across different faith communities, well expressed for example in Laudato Si’, that humankind needs to heal its relationship with nature,” Christophersen said. “The principles of world religions, and the wisdom of indigenous peoples, are essential for this change.”
UN Environment was asked to provide a platform free of religious or political bias where countries, religious and indigenous peoples leaders and other civil society organizations could meet, he said.
Planning for a major conference to be held in 2020 on the future of rainforests is underway. Delegates are expected to debate moral and ethical arguments against deforestation caused by various threats, including logging, resource extraction and land clearance for agricultural purposes.
“We’ll focus on our shared concern to protect forests, and the many benefits that forests can bring to people,” Christophersen said.