King Harald V of Norway plans to host a meeting of religious and indigenous leaders, interfaith advocates and scientists this week to address the worldwide crisis of deforestation and its effects on climate change.
Religious and indigenous leaders from 21 countries convened at the Nobel Peace Center in Oslo on Monday for a three-day conference on rainforest protection. They are slated to meet with forest advocates, climate scientists and human rights experts to develop goals and actions for a rainforest initiative that blends science, faith and indigenous knowledge.
“The fact that the U.N. and a major government are open to hosting this and synergizing science and religion, ecology and ethics makes it an exciting moment,” said Mary Evelyn Tucker, director of Yale University’s Forum on Religion and Ecology, one of the co-sponsors of the event.
The conference participants include indigenous leaders from tropical forest nations like Indonesia, Brazil and the Democratic Republic of Congo, as well as religious leaders from Jewish, Christian and Muslim traditions. Bishop Marcelo Sanchez Sorondo, head of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, Rabbi David Rosen, the director of interreligious affairs at the American Jewish Committee, and Dr. Din Syamsuddin, an Islamic scholar and head of the Center for Dialogue and Cooperation Among Civilizations, are listed among the attendees.
“A decade ago, Norway decided to make reducing tropical deforestation one of its top international priorities,” said Vidar Helgesen, the country’s minister of climate and environment, in a statement. “In that decade ― the scientific case, the economic case, and the geopolitical case for ending deforestation has only grown.”
This week’s conference, convened by Norway’s International Climate and Forest Initiative, Rainforest Foundation Norway and the United Nations Development Programme, aims to investigate how religious and cultural values can bolster efforts to protect the world’s rainforests.
A new norm is emerging against illegal deforestation. To have the faith community engaged in the issue could be quite significant. Frances Seymour, World Resources Institute senior fellow
“This will be the first conference of its kind on the role of religions and indigenous peoples on forest conservation,” Tucker told HuffPost.
Attendees say they hope religious and indigenous leaders can help turn the tide on forest preservation by encouraging a cultural shift in how the world views climate efforts.
“A new norm is emerging against illegal deforestation,” said Frances Seymour, a senior fellow for the World Resources Institute, referring to the 2015 Paris climate agreement. “To have the faith community engaged in the issue could be quite significant.”
On a more immediate level, tropical rainforests provide food, water and income to some 1.6 billion people, according to the United Nations. (And of course, that’s to say nothing of the vital role they play for countless animal and plant species.) The humanitarian component of forest conservation is something Tucker said almost all of the world’s religions can get behind.
“Many of the religions have had values [of] justice for people ― taking care of the poor, aiding the sick and the elderly,” she said. “On the other hand, you have environmentalists trying to preserve forests for their ecological complexity, but sometimes without an understanding of the people who live there.”
Rural communities in developing countries get over 20 percent of their household income from gathering wild products like bush meat and wood in the forest, Seymour said. These communities also benefit from “forest-based ecosystem services,” including water and resilience to extreme weather.
“When a forest is degraded through logging and converted to different land uses, the poor are made worse off, because they lose access to forest goods and services and don’t necessarily benefit from new employment opportunities,” she said.
Deforestation and illegal logging have had a devastating impact on indigenous communities around the world. Many of them lack legal rights to care for the land that is both essential to their livelihood and sacred in their belief systems.
Pope Francis wrote about the special bond between indigenous peoples and the land in his 2015 encyclical on the environment. “For them land is not a commodity,” he wrote, “but rather a gift from God and from their ancestors who rest there, a sacred space with which they need to interact if they are to maintain their identity and values.”
Indigenous groups have historically found themselves confronted by third-party companies unlawfully encroaching on their land and cutting down forests without consent. In places like Brazil, the government has tried to establish legal protections to end the practice. But in a conflict that conservationists say resembles the “Wild West,” indigenous groups have often been driven to stage protests and even fight on the ground to protect their land.
“Forest communities around the world have put their lives on the line to care for the planet’s tropical forests,” Vicky Tauli-Corpuz, the U.N. special rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples and an attendee of the Oslo conference, said in a statement. “We are nothing without our forests. Our culture, our spirituality, our livelihoods, our incomes and our health are tied to them.”
Research has also shown that when indigenous communities have the rights to their land, rainforests in those regions are more likely to remain standing. Indigenous groups therefore need to be “part of the solution” in forest conservation, Seymour said.
Both she and Tucker said that conference attendees will work to draft immediate, concrete action plans, including coordinating a follow-up summit for 2018.
But interfaith and intercultural efforts can be challenging by nature, given their tendency to run into differing belief systems and traditions.
“Religions have their problems, and they have their promise,” Tucker said.
Their promise, Seymour said, lies in their ability to help bring about social change and a “shift in norms,” in which deforestation would go from being generally accepted to universally condemned. Such a shift in public opinion could in turn lead to new legislation to protect the world’s forests.
“I’m the daughter of a Baptist minister, and in my father’s lifetime the cause was civil rights,” Seymour said. “I saw how in a brief generation, attitudes, laws and practices regarding racial segregation could change with the help of religious leaders. My hope is that environmental justice issues could similarly witness that kind of sea change.”