The Interfaith Rainforest Initiative: Religious and indigenous leaders urge better protection of forests

Religious and indigenous leaders appealed on Monday for better protection of tropical forests from the Amazon to the Congo basin, with a Vatican bishop likening current losses to a collective suicide by humanity. The Interfaith Rainforest Initiative was launched in Oslo on 19 June 2017, followed by a two-day roundtable to develop the initiative’s concrete goals, action plans and milestones. This process is expected to lead to a global interfaith rainforest summit to be convened in Brazil in the second half of 2018.


Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist and Daoist representatives met indigenous peoples in Oslo to explore moral and ethical arguments to shield forests that are under threat from logging and land clearance for farms.

Organizers said the Oslo Interfaith Rainforest Initiative from June 19-21 was the first to gather religious and indigenous peoples to seek out common ground to protect forests. They hope to organize a summit in 2018.

“Without the forests we don’t have life,” said Bishop Marcelo Sanchez Sorondo, head of the Vatican’s Pontifical Academy of Sciences. “If we continue to do this deforestation it’s like suicide.”

Din Syamsuddin, an Indonesian Muslim leader, called for new technologies and changes of lifestyles to protect forests. “A true believer should maintain the balance with nature,” he said.

Norwegian Climate and Environment Minister Vidar Helgesen, a host of the talks, said forests were homes and a source of income to millions of people, as well as habitats for creatures from tigers to birds of paradise.

He said rainforests were also a giant natural store of carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas from burning fossil fuels. Trees release the gas when they rot or are burnt to make way for farms, such as for cattle or palm oil plantations.

“The Paris Agreement is doomed if deforestation continues,” Helgesen said.

Many speakers noted that a “tree of life” is a part of many religious traditions.

“Trees don’t have only ecological value for us, but also cultural value for us. Every tree,” said Joseph Itongwa of Democratic Republic of Congo, a representative of indigenous peoples in Africa.

The net extent of the world’s forests shrank by 33,000 square km (12,700 square miles) a year from 2010-15, about the size of Belgium, the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization says.

The rate is about half that of the 1990s.

Mary Evelyn Tucker, director of Yale University’s forum on Religion and Ecology, said religious groups such as the World Council of Churches were seeking ever more to restrict investments in areas that damage the environment.

Read the Statement of the Interfaith Rainforest Initiative

(Editing by Mark Heinrich and Alison Williams)
Source: Reuters Environment


(L-R) Vicky Tauli-Corpuz – United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Nanditha Krishna of the C. P. Ramaswami Aiyar Foundation, Phra Paisal Visalo – member of Advisory Committee and International Network of Engaged Buddhists, Din Syamsuddin – Chairman of Centre for Dialogue and Cooperation Among Civilisations, Marcelo Sanchez Sorondo – Chancellor of Pontifical Academy of Sciences and Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, Bishop Emeritus Gunnar Stalsett – Honorary President of Religions for Peace and Rabbi David Rosen – International Director of Interreligious Affairs and a member of American Jewish Committee attend a launch of the Interfaith Rainforest Initiative in Oslo, Norway June 19, 2017. NTB Scanpix/Lise Aserud/via REUTERS

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It is largely because of the stewardship of indigenous peoples that many tropical rainforests are still standing around the world. Indigenous peoples and local communities have official legal rights to at least 513 million hectares of forests, which is about one-eighth of the world’s total forest area. Most of these forests – 478 million hectares – are in low- or middle-income countries where pressures to exploit forests are high. Studies show that when indigenous forests rights are legally recognized and protected by governments, deforestation rates and carbon dioxide emissions are significantly lower. Yet research also suggests that indigenous people and local communities lack legal rights to almost three quarters of their traditional lands.

The world’s faith communities, indigenous peoples and spiritual leaders may, by joining forces, have the potential to turn the tide on tropical deforestation. Together, they can leverage moral and spiritual authority, convey messages about the value of the rainforest as a unique part of creation, reach out to local people, civil society actors and authorities at all levels, and mobilize broad support for rainforest protection. Spiritual leaders and faith communities of the world have a great deal to offer in coming together to inspire action in defense of rainforests. This project seeks to bring the spiritual resources, moral authority and unparalleled influence of faith communities to bear in a unified way on rainforest protection.

Since its launch in 2007, the Government of Norway’s International Climate and Forest Initiative (NICFI) has cooperated with international partners, governments in forest and donor countries and a broad range of non-governmental organizations to reduce tropical deforestation and forest degradation. Seeing the need to bring the religious, spiritual and ethical dimension more strongly into this work, NICFI and Rainforest Foundation Norway are working with a coalition of partners on an interfaith alliance to protect the world’s tropical rainforests. In cooperation with the Parliament of the World’s Religions, Religions for Peace, the REIL Network, and the World Council of Churches, and with implementation support by the United Nations Development Programme, the initiative is being designed to mobilize leaders from all religions, faiths and spiritual traditions – including indigenous peoples and forest communities – to forge a united action plan to protect, restore and sustainably manage tropical rainforests across the planet.

The Interfaith Rainforest Initiative was launched in Oslo on 19 June 2017, followed by a two-day roundtable to develop the initiative’s concrete goals, action plans and milestones. This process is expected to lead to a global interfaith rainforest summit to be convened in Brazil in the second half of 2018.