8 October 2019

Molly Burhans on how to reduce the separation of church and Earth

Religious organizations are not quite at the forefront of digital technology – but one Catholic environmentalist and cartographer is working to change that. Molly Burhans is founder of the U.S.–based NGO GoodLands, which aims to leverage the Catholic Church’s landholdings to address conservation issues. By mapping the Church’s properties worldwide using geographic information systems (GIS) technology, GoodLands aims to identify Church-owned areas with the potential for large-scale land restoration.

Burhans was recently named UN Environment’s 2019 Young Champion of the Earth for North America for her work with GoodLands. Landscape News spoke with her shortly before she traveled to New York to receive her award at Climate Week on 26 September.

What drew you to this massive project of mapping the holdings of the Catholic Church? How did this all begin?

Sometimes people have a ‘eureka!’ moment, and I’ve had some in my life where I thought, ‘Wow, that’s a really good idea.’ This was not one. This was more like a systemic tidal wave with all of my interests and passions coming together.

In my early 20s, I became interested in the work of [20th-century Catholic social activist] Dorothy Day, who had founded the Catholic Worker Movement, and that helped me to connect back with my faith. I was also really interested in community and very active in service work.

I co-founded my first company around that time – Grooperative, a worker-owned food cooperative in Buffalo, New York – and around the same time started to explore religious life and the idea of becoming a nun. I met some really cool nuns through discernment [of a Catholic vocation],and they further inspired me to explore vocations with a spiritual director. But when I visited their convent, I noticed that the land management could have used a lot of improvement. I thought, ‘They have all of these forested areas, but all of these invasive species and erosion issues, and acres and acres of mowed lawns that could be meadows and pollinator habitat.’

When I founded GoodLands, I realized that the Catholic Church is the largest non-governmental network of education and humanitarian aid and oversees 26 percent of healthcare facilities [globally]. I thought that it must also have the largest conservation network. but what I found was that there was actually no one actively working on it.

Not only that, I found that almost no dioceses or religious orders had GIS maps of their properties, and many did not even have an Excel spreadsheet listing their property in one place. I thought, ‘Well, somebody has got to do this’. I had also learned that the Catholic Church was one of the largest landowners globally – some speculate it has over 177 million acres [71.6 million hectares] in holdings worldwide – but had rarely done land inventories.

How did the Catholic Church respond to your project?

I met with Catholic leadership from the Roman Curia [the body that assists the Pope in governance] at the Vatican and asked for permission to map the Church globally. We also discussed privacy needs. Then, in December 2016, we premiered the first digital maps of the Catholic Church in history, as part of the Vatican Arts and Technology Council. We now have what is very likely the largest geodatabase of Catholic information, which is foundational to the next step: using that to achieve our ecosystem restoration and property management goals.

You mention concerns about privacy and security issues. Why is that?

Maps are incredibly powerful political tools. And at the property scale globally, that’s where the risks really come in. Risks to lives, risks of land-grabbing – that [property] information, while necessary for our goals, can be used very nefariously, especially in parts of the world where people don’t like the Catholic Church, where there are oppositional state or non-state actors, or even opportunistic extractive companies facing a population that doesn’t understand the value of its property. We saw a similar situation with fracking companies exploiting the Amish [in parts of the U.S.].

I could easily imagine people aligning mineral maps or oil deposit maps with the maps of Catholic properties and exploiting these communities and their lack of knowledge about their landholdings to get below-market transactions for their own gain. Given these concerns, we really need to establish a governing body for the Catholic Church in the digital age to consider and set policy for these issues surrounding data.

Molly Burhans maps
Molly Burhans displays one of GoodLands’ maps at the Vatican. Courtesy of Molly Burhans

What do you mean with the GoodLands mission, ‘helping people use land for good’?

What it means to me is that we have to understand the potential of landscapes and their role in our lives. They are these complex, amazing mosaics of ecosystems, and landscape management practices some of the most effective ways to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. We know that ecosystem services are economically valuable to us.

If we don’t take care of our land, we don’t take care of people. Land is the matrix where all of our other good work happens. Whether it’s health care, housing, or giving food to those who are hungry – we can only get that food from the land. And I think there is a moral dimension to how we take care of our land, to ensuring that land is promoting public health and increasing the quality of life of those around us.

Catholic Church-owned landscapes provide an opportunity to multiply the positive impacts of other church programs such as those in education and health care. Those programs are already having a tremendous positive impact, and now we realize that with the space the church is using, there is a whole other dimension that we could use to improve the world. The potential is just amazing.

What does the UN Environment’s Young Champions of the Earth award mean for you and your work?

One of the most valuable parts of this award is the microphone it provides to push out the message that we must make our land work for good and that there is a better way to manage land. I hope it can allow me to share individual stories of landscapes that are being managed with ecological integrity and that helped inspire me in the first place, and bring our organization to an appropriate capacity to help scale that type of ecological landscape design and management, using technology, local partnerships and innovative financial vehicles.

This award is also really valuable because of the people that I have been able to meet. I feel privileged to be part of this network of Champions of the Earth and have the opportunity to listen and learn from them. I am honored and excited to bring hope and solutions to the world and encourage other people to not give in to apathy or despair in the face of climate change.


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