- Colombia’s deforestation rate has been accelerating since the country’s peace accord in 2016, which formally ended a more than 50-year civil conflict.
- The Interfaith Rainforest Initiative in Colombia was launched in November to bring together scientists, development experts, indigenous peoples and religious leaders.
- The aim is to use their combined expertise to reduce deforestation via public policy and grassroots action.
- The initiative hopes to expand its activities in Peru, Indonesia and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
MEDELLIN, Colombia — An alliance of scientists, development experts, indigenous peoples and religious leaders met late last month in Colombia to determine how church leaders can help drive environmental public policy in the largely Catholic country. The meeting was under the umbrella of the Interfaith Rainforest Initiative (IRI), a global coalition launched in mid-2017 to fight escalating threats to forests in Africa, Southeast Asia and Latin America.
“We see this as a way to reconcile not only the victims and perpetrators of violence, but also humanity with their environment,” said Francisco Duque-Gómez, an Episcopal bishop and president of the Interreligious Council in Colombia, in an interview with Mongabay.
Duque-Gómez said although there were communities of faith in “every corner of Colombia,” it was important to not only lobby for change on a national level, but to get congregation members the environmental information they needed to take action. IRI hopes to augment its national policy work with benefits from grassroots efforts by faith leaders to educate communities about topics like deforestation.
The hope is that the interfaith, interdisciplinary IRI will not only unite communities fractured by 50 years of civil conflict in Colombia, but will also serve as a model for similar campaigns in Peru, Indonesia and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Those countries also have large indigenous communities and are grappling with deforestation and post-conflict issues.
The initiative comes at time when forests all across Colombia, from the Amazon in the east, to the Chocó bioregion in the Pacific west, are under threat.
A June 2018 report from the Colombian government’s Institute of Hydrology, Meteorology and Environmental Studies (IDEAM in Spanish), showed the extent of deforestation in Colombia at a six-year high. In 2017 alone, 2,200 square kilometers (850 square miles) of natural forest was lost. The country’s Amazon region is taking the brunt of the destruction. Seven Colombian Amazonian municipalities represent half of the country’s forest losses.
That’s on top of nearly three decades of deforestation caused by a variety of factors including internal displacement, illegal mining and the impact of coca crop cultivation. According to IDEAM historical records, between 1990 and 2015, around 55,000 square kilometers (21,200 square miles) of forests were lost in Colombia — an area nearly twice the size of the U.S. state of Maryland.
According to Nicola Clerici from Colombia’s Universidad del Rosario, this acceleration of deforestation since a 2016 peace accord between the Colombian government and the FARC rebel group is fallout from a power vacuum. Areas once ruled off-limits because of FARC control are experiencing rapidly expanding illegal activities, including a race by armed groups to lay claim to former FARC areas.
That’s where IRI comes in. Globally, the initiative is supported by the United Nations and King Harald V of Norway. After meetings around the world, the initiative’s principles are being implemented on the ground for the first time in Colombia.
The aim is to form a network of religious communities that can exchange strategies, experiences and information. That network includes Colombian Catholic Church members and Evangelical and Protestant religious organizations, as well as representatives of Hindu, Buddhist, Greek Orthodox and Muslim faiths.
The project is part of a wider movement, particularly in Catholicism. In 2018, Pope Francis visited the Peruvian Amazon, and in 2019, there will be a large summit of bishops focused on ways in which the church can integrate preservation of the environment, particularly the Amazon, into its teachings.
Bringing worlds together
The initiative will educate more than those in the church, according to forest governance expert Frances Seymour, a senior fellow at the World Resources Institute (WRI) and former director general of the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR). Seymour said in an interview with Mongabay that many forest managers and scientists tended to employ a relatively secular approach.
“We sometimes might have off-base assumptions about things like the size and values of a particular religious community, or the roles of religious leaders within those communities,” Seymour said. “I’m the daughter of a Baptist minister, so growing up, I would listen to my father using his pulpit to talk about the struggle against poverty or the fight for civil rights. For me it is natural that religious leaders would be important messengers, and faith communities would be important constituencies, regarding some of the greatest moral imperatives of our time: protecting forests and protecting the climate.”
Seymour said most of the world’s religions have a creation story with a stewardship narrative, and most also are concerned about social justice. So, combining the conservation of nature with social justice in the context of forest protection aligns with the priorities of faith communities.
“In many forest-rich, tropical countries, faith communities are very important components of civil society, so to not have them involved has been a big omission,” she said. “Thanks to satellites, we can now see how quickly forests are disappearing before our eyes. Brazil was a pioneer in using those images to galvanize civil society and government into action there.”
Alistair Monument, practice leader for forests at the WWF, told Mongabay that in urban centers and rural areas globally, awareness of the causes of forest loss was rapidly increasing.
But he said faith leaders and their communities didn’t always know the latest science and what the most effective conservation strategies were, so partnerships could help bridge this gap.
“Conservation science can help solve many of these issues,” Monument said. “It is imperative to engage with faith leaders and institutions, who are often the backbone of communities, to raise awareness and implement conservation solutions.”
An important part of this broad alliance are the indigenous groups of Colombia, who are known to be excellent forest stewards.
Under the administration of the former Colombian president Nobel Peace Prize winner Juan Manuel Santos, the number and area of indigenous reserves increased, protection for uncontacted peoples expanded, and greater recognition of ancestral territorial rights was granted.
A 2016 WRI report found that deforestation rates in Colombia’s tenure-secure indigenous areas were half the rate in the rest of the country.
Anitalia Pijachi is a member of the Ocaina people, indigenous to Colombia’s Amazon region.
“For us, it’s not just a forest — it allows us to be economically self-sufficient, it gives us everything we need,” she told Mongabay.
She said the history between the Catholic Church and indigenous peoples in Colombia had been rough, but that now was the time to move ahead and protect the forest.
“What unites us is a common concern for our shared home,” she said.
The IRI isn’t the first or only initiative to bring faith and forest conservation together. In 1986, Britain’s Prince Philip, then president of WWF International, gathered leaders of the five major world religions to discuss how their faiths could help save the natural world.
Monument said that as part of the Alliance of Religions and Conservation (ARC), WWF supported numerous interdisciplinary initiatives, including a 2006 report, “Beyond Belief,” that explores the role that faith can play in the protection of forests, mountains, rivers, lakes, seas and deserts.
“Sacred areas are probably the oldest form of habitat protection on the planet and still form a large and mainly unrecognised network of sanctuaries around the world,” the report says.
It concludes: “Given the influence of the faith communities, including direct ownership of land and resources, conservation organisations should be working much more closely with faith groups to identify ways of collaboration.”
Banner image: An indigenous Colombian takes in deforestation close to the Amacayacu National Park in the Colombian Amazon.