Illegal logging, deforestation, land grabbing, pollution and climate change – questions of life and death for the Amazon people and their forests – are some of the issues raised at the Synod of Bishops for the Amazon in Rome, October 2019. The bishops insisted: it is time to listen to “the voice and song of the Amazon as a message of life,” and to heed the “cry of the Earth and the cry of the poor.”
The Synod was the first to tackle the linkages between deforestation, human rights violations and climate change – although such issues have long been a concern of Pope Francis. It has sent an important, timely, call to the world and to the EU to work on a coordinated and just response to those issues. All actors, the Catholic Church among them, must get involved.
In its final document, the Synod professed a strong Church commitment to promote environmental and social justice and to stand in solidarity with its 34 million inhabitants living in the Amazon region, comprising millions of Indigenous Peoples. The Synod pledged to defend their rights to life, land and their cultures, while underscoring the urgent need for a global ‘ecological’ conversion.
Working for the protection of the Amazonian rainforest is crucial for climate and humanity. Three quarters of the forest areas have been destroyed to make way for agricultural expansion, mining and meat production, which pose a major threat to the entire ecosystem and local livelihoods.
This ecological crisis is not isolated: the forces wreaking havoc in the Amazon are sowing destruction in other global regions, such as Southeast Asia and Africa.
For example, the Congo Basin in Central Africa, home to the second largest rainforest in the world, is blessed with abundant natural resources: minerals, oil and timber. But many of the region’s countries are failing to manage these resources transparently, and benefits seldom reach the local populations.
One of Fern’s partners Mathieu Yela, of the Cercle pour la Défense de l’Environnement (CEDEN) explained: “In the Democratic Republic of Congo, European companies have ruthlessly exploited timber and mines for decades. They are also attempting to grab vast swathes of land to develop agro-industrial parks and large-scale plantations aimed at production for export. Sadly, we see very little change for local communities and Indigenous Peoples, whose land is being grabbed, pillaged or degraded, and who have very little say over policies that are being decided at the top. The urgency is real, and if we change nothing, we cannot win the battle”.
Others agree, such as Rigobert Bihuzo, coordinator of the Ecclesial Network of the Congo Basin Forest (REBAC). He urges placing integral ecology (the safeguarding of both the planet and peoples’ rights) at the centre of the Church’s policies and work and strengthening networks that promote forest protection.
But to save tropical forests and ecosystems, as well as local communities and Indigenous Peoples, we need to get serious about tackling drivers of deforestation, beginning with reducing unsustainable demand for agricultural commodities, timber and minerals. The EU has a responsibility in this destruction, so it must uphold its own principles and statements when it comes to halting deforestation. To that end, the recent Communication from the European Commission on Stepping up EU action to protect and restore the world’s forests and the subsequent exchange of views in the Council seems promising.
The next step must be for the EU and its Member States to work on an a European Green Deal for forests that develops domestic measures to respond to the forest emergency and that partners with producing countries to ensure that development and economic reforms are inclusive of local peoples’ rights to land and a healthy environment.
Pope Francis, in his 2015 encyclical Laudato Si, said: “[W]e have to realise that a true ecological approach always becomes a social approach; it must integrate questions of justice in debates on the environment, so as to hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor.” Taking this initiative forward, he announced his intention to issue an apostolic exhortation before the end of the year to operationalise the synod’s nonbinding conclusions.
It is important that Fern and its partners create linkages with this important Amazon initiative, and that it inspires work in other tropical forest regions. Confessional groups, in Europe and throughout the world, are increasingly emulating the Pope’s call for climate and ecological justice.