Indigenous people hold climate key
Tackle the climate crisis. Support indigenous rights. When religious and spiritual leaders from all major traditions begin to make these demands, we should listen. Not out of respect. But for our own survival.
Some 900 faith leaders from 125 countries recently convened in Lindau, Germany, for the Religions for Peace World Assembly amid a new global emergency -- the climate crisis.
For the past five decades, the world's largest interfaith alliance has been collaborating to tackle common concerns: Poverty. Inequality. Gender violence. Racism. Misuse of religions. Identity conflicts and wars.
It is now evident, however, that the climate crisis -- unless contained in time -- will intensify human suffering beyond repair.
The rainforests are on fire. Not only in the Amazon, the planet's biggest lung, but throughout the world. More than one million species are facing extinction. The arctic ice is rapidly melting. The sea level is rising ever faster. Storms, flash floods and droughts are becoming more frequent and extreme. Water wars are inevitable. As always, the weakest will be the hardest hit by climate catastrophes.
We only have 11 years left to turn the tide before the ecosystems break down from global warming, warns the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the UN's top science top body.
It's clear. The looming climate crisis is now humanity's greatest danger.
"This is an issue that all religions can agree upon," says Shayk Abdallah Bin Bayyah, president of the Forum for Promoting Peace in Muslim Societies. "We need to take the initiative to pressure our political leaders to stop the devastation of our natural kingdoms."
Tropical rainforests are the world's biggest carbon sink, a key actor to mitigate global warming, regulate weather and protect biodiversity. Rainforests help sustain life on the planet, providing humanity with food, shelter, livelihoods, medicine and clean water. Yet massive deforestation is going on unabated.
Rainforest destruction is the second leading cause of global warming. The main culprits are the agribusinesses that burn forests down to produce global commodities such as palm oil, pulp and paper, maize, soy, meat, oil and gas. Threats also come from logging, mining, dam and road construction.
These crimes against humanity are backed by short-sighted, corrupt governments and their draconian forest laws that kick indigenous peoples and forest communities off their ancestral land. Those who do dare to fight for their ancestral lands and cultures risk being maimed and killed.
"We are committed to protecting rainforests through protecting those indigenous people who are protecting the rainforest," stressed Rev Kyoichi Sugino, acting secretary-general of Religions for Peace International, the world's largest global interfaith alliance for social justice.
The global interfaith alliance's resolve is in line with science.
According to the IPCC, halting deforestation can contribute over one-third of the total climate-change mitigation required by 2030. For this to be possible at all, the world needs to recognise the critical roles of indigenous peoples and forest communities in containing climate change.
At present, forest dwellers customarily take care of half of the world's land surface and 80% of biodiversity. Research from around the world also shows forest communities outperform officialdom in forest conservation.
Yet the indigenous peoples and forest communities are routinely subjected to systematic persecution. Most lack legal land rights, which makes traditional forest custodians vulnerable to evictions.
This needs to change, declared the world's top scientists on climate change. Give indigenous peoples and forest communities legal land rights. Give them decision-making power over their resources. Only then can they continue to safeguard rainforests for the planet.
The Interfaith Rainforest Initiative, an international multi-faith alliance, is trying to achieve just that.
"We must be under no illusion of the nature of what we face," said Rev Fletcher Harper, director of Green Faith. "We are struggling for the very existence and future of this planet."
The movement is mobilising faith leaders and groups across the world to sensitise their congregations to the climate crisis, the urgent effort needed to end tropical deforestation, and the need to save the indigenous peoples to save the planet. The potential is huge given the fact that over 80% of the world's population belongs to religious groups.
But raising awareness alone is not enough, stressed Rev Harper. Faith leaders and faith-based groups must be politically active to pressure governments and businesses to protect the forests and their traditional guardians.
"We are up against the forces of the greatest degree in economic and political power on this planet and we must build strength in a morally conscious way to turn the tide of history," he said.
In Thailand, the challenge is indeed daunting. The mainstream Buddhist and Christian leaders still consider forest dwellers as uncivilised. Their main concern is to compete and win over these folk to their faiths while staying mum to state violence against forest communities and state propaganda that demonises them as forest destroyers.
Where to start when religious leaders are still out of touch? How to make ending deforestation and indigenous rights their spiritual calling, when power is their agenda, not the climate crisis?
Indigenous people are suffering the same persecution all across the globe. But real change anywhere must start with respect, said priestess Beatriz Schulthess, president of the Indigenous Peoples Ancestral Spiritual Council.
"Respect the indigenous spirituality as [being] equal to other faiths. Respect the indigenous people's relationship with Mother Earth and learn from it."
While modern society views the earth as an object to extract resources, the indigenous peoples around the world revere Mother Earth as living and sacred, with all things in nature alive and interconnected.
Such reverence governs their faith and customs, enabling the indigenous people to live close to nature with little disturbance to the natural environment. Yet they are looked down upon as barbarians or illegal encroachers so as to justify state violence that destroys their lives and takes their lands.
"This must stop," she said.
At the Religions for Peace World Assembly, indigenous peoples in their colourful traditional garb mingled with members of other major religions and performed rituals in major events to emphasise the need for mankind to reconnect with Mother Earth. "We don't want people just to look at us. Learn from us," she stressed.
And also to help, cried out Sonia Guajajara, an indigenous rights activist from the Amazon. The world needs to stop the Brazilian government from destroying the largest rainforest on earth and wiping out its indigenous peoples and their trove of knowledge of the natural world, she urged.
"It's our moral duty not to accept injustice. We need to stop the tragedy together. This is not only the fight of indigenous peoples to protect the ecosystems. It's the fight for your own existence."
Sanitsuda Ekachai is former editorial pages editor, Bangkok Post. She writes on human rights, gender, Thai Buddhism, and the environment.
Former editorial pages editor
Sanitsuda Ekachai is former editorial pages editor, Bangkok Post.