Harnessing the moral authority of the world’s religions to save rainforests

Tropical rainforests are an irreplaceable gift. Not only do they exhibit nature in its most exquisite beauty, they are planetary life support systems that provide billions of people with food, shelter, livelihoods, medicine and clean water.

They house the greatest diversity of life on Earth, and are home to indigenous peoples and forest communities that have served as their guardians for generations.

If protected and restored, rainforests can be an important part of international efforts to nurture rare and endangered wildlife, and achieve sustainable development. They are also the best climate change solution we have.

Instead, they are in grave danger.

Extractive industries and land conversion for agricultural products like beef, soy, palm oil, and pulp and paper are driving tropical deforestation. Corruption, weak governance, inefficient land use and unsustainable patterns of consumption are making matters worse.

Each year, an area of tropical rainforests the size of Austria is chopped down. Data shows a loss of tree cover equivalent to the area of France, Germany and the UK combined in the last decade alone. That is a rate of 27 football fields a minute.

Around 3 per cent of the world’s tropical rainforests are on peatlands. Peatlands need special protection because when drained or burned, they release huge amounts of carbon dioxide.

Over the last decade, a broad coalition of governments, indigenous peoples, scientists, non-governmental organizations, businesses and civil society partners have been working together on protecting tropical forests. But this work hasn’t been sufficient to deeply change behaviours, illustrating the relevance of UN Environment Assembly’s motto Think Beyond, Live Within: to think beyond prevailing patterns and live within sustainable limits to tackle environmental challenges and assure a prosperous future. We must inspire people in new ways, appeal to their core values, and make the ethical case for urgent and concerted action to protect rainforests.


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The UN Environment-led Interfaith Rainforest Initiative, a multi-faith alliance that aims to bring moral urgency and faith-based leadership to global efforts to protect forests, does just that. The leadership, moral authority and unparalleled influence of the world’s religions may, according to UN Environment, be the missing piece that will help end tropical deforestation.

The Interfaith Rainforest Initiative was launched at the Nobel Peace Center in Oslo, Norway, on 19 June 2017. In a first-of-its-kind summit, Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu and Taoist religious leaders joined forces with indigenous peoples from Brazil, Colombia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Indonesia, Meso-America and Peru to make the protection of rainforests an ethical priority for the world’s faith communities.

The Initiative is a platform for faith-based leaders and communities to work with indigenous peoples, governments, civil society and business on actions that protect rainforests and safeguard those that serve as their guardians.

In July, environmental leaders, activists and advocates gathered at the Vatican with Pope Francis to kick off a two-day Vatican-organized conference to stimulate greater action and define a shared vision for protecting our planet. The Interfaith Rainforest Initiative was introduced at the conference.

Initiative launches events in Brazil, Colombia and Peru

The Initiative conducted inception missions in Brazil, Colombia and Peru in mid-2018, and now plans to hold multi-day country launch events in November and December, which will feature forest and climate workshops for religious leaders, community building, eco-theology training, interfaith dialogue and exchange, multi-stakeholder planning on existing forest initiatives and potential areas for faith-based leadership, planning sessions for the Initiative’s country work, the identification of priority actions for the country programme, convening and equipping multi-stakeholder Advisory Councils to develop an action plan, and official launch events for the Initiative’s country programmes.

Inception missions in Indonesia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo are being scheduled for later this year and early 2019, respectively.

UN Environment is working to boost communications on the Initiative and will have a website up and running by the end of 2018 that will feature the Initiative’s vision and mission; include short country profiles with key facts on forest cover and deforestation rates; outline the importance of forests to biodiversity, climate change, sustainable development and human rights; and carry news from the Initiative’s events and activities.


Photo by Pxhere

UN Environment’s global engagement with faith leaders

Understanding the key role that faith-based organizations and faith leaders play at the global, regional and local levels, UN Environment, a member of the UN-wide task force on Religion and Development, launched its Faith For Earth Initiative in 2017 and developed an innovative strategy to engage and partner with faith-based organizations to deliver on Agenda 2030 and the Sustainable Development Goals.

The Interfaith Rainforest Initiative is one of the implementation mechanisms to empower faith leaders and communities, share knowledge and scientific evidence and encourage investment in communities for the preservation and protection of rainforests.

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