Christian Aid and other faith-based organisations are calling for global leaders to tackle the poverty and inequality which has fuelled the environmental crisis. By Dr Rowan Williams.
he scale of the devastation caused by the wildfires still raging in the Amazon is hard to comprehend. This is a rainforest that provides one-fifth of the world’s oxygen; it is hard not to feel powerless and despairing in the face of the disaster overtaking the region.
But however strong – and bitter – the feeling about this as an environmental catastrophe, we must never lose sight of the fact that it is also a human tragedy.
We need to listen with intensified attention to the voices of those who call the rainforest home, voices all too often sidelined or deliberately silenced, their stories a mere footnote in global news headlines. We have no excuse for not listening now.
The survival and wellbeing of these communities should take precedence over the drive for “development” that serves only a lust for consumption and convenience. The fact that this does not seem to be an obvious moral priority should make us all ashamed.
For generations, the indigenous peoples of the Amazon basin have been the stewards of the forests. Some have literally paid for this with their lives, long before this summer’s fires. These communities have for years been subject to attacks, illegal invasions and deforestation. Their rights have been overridden in the face of the greed of various powerful economic interests, and theirs is a story that speaks of the stark economic inequality blighting and corrupting so much of our world, including countries like Brazil.
Latin America has the worst land concentration in the world. Just 1% of the land owners control half the arable land. In the Amazon, mining and oil extraction are pushing the communities out of the forest in which they have lived for centuries.
There are roughly 3,000 Quilombola communities, descendants of escaped slaves, who are among those who have suffered most from the interests of big business. Fewof these communities have been able to acquire recognition of their clear legal title to the land on which they live. Those unable to do so face the full force of the present Brazilian government’s economic development policies, which actively encourage logging and mining on Quilombola land.
This is not just Brazil’s problem – or indeed that of other Amazon countries like Bolivia and Colombia, which have also been impacted by fire and environmental devastation. All of us are implicated. The global patterns of economic growth, including the unprecedented levels of demand for meat in the developed world, account for much of the pressure on land use in the region. And widespread deforestation in other parts of the world means we are more reliant than ever on the region for our global ecological balance.
The wildfires raging in the Amazon are a visible metaphor for the effect of our unrestrained passion for limitless economic growth. It is this passion that has led to so much deforestation in recent years. It is this that is responsible for the vast majority of the current fires in the region. Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research has published data showing a 278% increase in deforestation this July compared with the same month last year.
It looks increasingly likely that we are at, or very near, a tipping point in our global ecological crisis, a crisis generated by the desire to maximise indefinitely what we can extract from our environment, as if it were no more than a store cupboard to be raided. The Canadian poet Robert Bringhurst writes that “the wild”, the untamed, complex world around us, “is not a portfolio of resources for us or our species to buy and sell or manage or squander as we please. The wild is earth living its life to the full.”
The compulsive acquisitiveness that causes the radical damage we see dehumanises us as well as ruining our environment. The fires are burning in the soul as well.
The beauty of belonging in a world that nurtures us is the solidarity we can enjoy with living matter as well as with each other as humans.
Out of this sense of solidarity, Christian Aid – the organisation I chair – has joined more than 100 other faith-based organisations in a declaration of support for the Synod of Bishops on the Amazon, which is due to meet in Rome next month. This declaration, Somos la Amazonia (We are the Amazon), expresses support for the synod’s vision and outlines a pathway for action to protect both the rainforest and those indigenous communities and human rights activists who are risking their lives to preserve their habitat.
The prime minister has lately called for “more ambition” in tackling the climate crisis and biodiversity loss. We take him at his word: Christian Aid has launched a petition calling on him and other global leaders to tackle the poverty and inequality which has fuelled the environmental crisis. It is time to stand in solidarity with the communities that live on the frontline of this crisis, in the Amazon and worldwide.