If they die, we will perish

“Don’t the white people know that if they keep cutting down all the trees, they will all die of hunger and thirst?”

Dr. Antonio Donato Nobre was telling about the twenty years of research he has done on the Amazon rainforest. “And then I met this shaman, who summed up all of my twenty years’ work in one sentence!” he said. The group he was talking to in the Norwegian Ministry of the Environment building was perhaps as extraordinary in human terms as a rainforest itself: Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, Daoists, and Indigenous Peoples, as well as atheists, coming from Brazil, Ecuador, Peru, Colombia, Nicaragua, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Thailand, Myanmar, Indonesia, India, the Philippines, and from the United States, Canada, France, the Netherlands, Sweden, Vatican City, Israel, South Africa, and China. And Norway, of course.

For many years, Norway has invested some of its huge petroleum revenues in forests, and in particular, rainforests, as a key component of stopping and even reversing climate change. The government has also become keenly aware of the plight of the peoples of the world’s rainforests. As the forests are destroyed for commercial farming and livestock, the Indigenous People who live in them and care for them become victims of ethnic cleansing, including violence and murder. In eastern Congo, for instance, rainforest is cleared and its inhabitants enslaved in order to dig up rare minerals like coltan ore, which yields niobium and tantalum, crucial to the operation of smart phones.

So the Norwegian government called all of us together for an unprecedented “Interfaith Rainforest Initiative”. We reviewed on the first day the abundant scientific evidence concerning the crucial role that the world’s rainforests play in maintaining fresh clean air and rainfalls for the planet, capturing carbon efficiently and harmlessly, and providing food, shelter, employment, and medicines for hundreds of millions of people. Then at the Nobel Peace Center in Oslo, under the patronage and presence of Norway’s King Harald V, we listened to three panels: leaders from all the religions listed above, representatives of Indigenous Peoples, and those already connecting their faith to maintaining the rainforests.

The next day we spent in long discussions. In particular, we conversed with people from the rainforests of Amazonia, Africa, South and Southeast Asia, and Indonesia. This was no typical interfaith conference. There was no need to work through the often-thorny questions of finding common ground. We had done that work before, elsewhere, it seemed. The scientists had said their peace, and the witness of the forest dwellers confirmed their findings in every detail — adding the human cost as well. Speaker after speaker affirmed a particular religion’s ecological commitment. The terms used were different, but the intent is not.

The last day was spent creating a manifesto. I’ve been involved in the crafting of several such documents, with laborious efforts. Often the result is, as the French say, an elephant giving birth to a mouse.

Not this time. The document was amended slightly and then unanimously approved. Even more surprising, all the participants lined up to sign the statement, as a witness to personal commitment to the alliance that is forming.

As each of us signed, we were asked to say one word. The motto of the state of my birth, Rhode Island, came to my mind: “Hope.”

If the rainforests disappear, all of us will die. Simple as that. And therefore each of us needs to take part in preventing that. And not only by stopping rainforest destruction immediately, but by supporting the people who care for them, and are cared for by the rainforests. If an interfaith group, composed by strong leaders from very diverse origins and fields, can understand that and commit to changing it as one, all people of good will can and must.

There is a huge task ahead, most of which requires local actions in the various countries with rainforests. But there is much to do internationally, as well. The rights of indigenous peoples must be upheld and enforced. No one should die because they don’t want to be run off their land and see their home destroyed.

Patterns of consumption have to change. One of the largest contributors to greenhouse gases is the methane produced by cattle: so eat less or no beef, for instance. The United States must not change its commitment to eliminate the sale and use of conflict minerals. And much much more…

At dinner on the first day of the Interfaith Rainforest Initiative, I was asked to speak to my reasons for hope about the result. I gave three reasons: the biophysical reality that if the forests die, we die; the cultural reality of destruction of the way of life of millions of people; and the spiritual reality of the tribal reflex all humans have to want more for themselves and their families, tribes, nations, at the expense of others and the planet itself. Since all the members present agree on these realities, I argued, there is reason to hope we would accomplish something. My hopes were fulfilled beyond any expectation.

Read the Oslo Statement. Talk to your religious leaders and communities. Get the facts. Watch the Journey of the Universe. Hear what Pope Francis has to say. You, Gentle Reader, are just as involved as we are. Join the Initiative and commit to respond.

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