Interpretations on religious faiths in biodiversity conservation

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports that the world has just about eleven years from now to limit global warming to 1.5 degree Celsius, beyond which even half a degree will significantly worsen the risk of droughts, floods, extreme heat and poverty for hundreds of millions of people all across the globe – irrespective of the rich or the poor. It is for this basic reason that the world is looking for solutions immediate and in the future to avoid catastrophe for all life forms on Earth. One proponent towards this end is the thinking conceived by Jane Godall with her new thrust area of activity – the Interfaith Rainforest Initiative (IRI).
The IRI looks at the angle of religious leaders taking a major position in talking to and convincing local communities towards the herculean task of protecting and conserving vast tracts of vital rainforests in different parts of the world. Rainforests are understood to in-house a wide variety of floral and faunal population, some of which are highly endangered and of enormous value in maintaining the cycle of chain in ecosystem management in the natural state.
Religious leaders are often among the most trusted figures in any society, looked to for ethical and spiritual guidance on economic, social and political life. According to the IRI philosophy, religious leaders are “teachers and conduits of education, awareness and learning. Religious leaders are key actors in the effort to raise awareness about the deforestation crisis, the risks that deforestation poses to progress on climate change and sustainable development, and the entry points for people of faith to get into action to fight for the protection of forests”. This comes in the background of the concerns on tropical deforestation as an “existential threat” that demands urgent and decisive action.
Forests regulate the climate, locally and globally, by absorbing and storing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, where it would otherwise contribute to climate change. When forests are burned, cut down or degraded, their carbon is released back to the atmosphere. The accumulation of massive amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere would then generate the process of extensive heating, resulting in unprecedented increase in warming and subsequently temperature rise to an unimaginable scale. The extensive loss of rainforests, peatlands, wetlands and mangroves due to various interventions by humans is being stated as primarily inducing climate change at an unprecedented scale. It, therefore, is a stated argument that the protection, restoration and sustainable management of forests, peatlands, wetlands and mangroves are highly essential in meeting the international goal of limiting global warming to 1.5 degree Celsius by 2030.
Indonesia comes into world’s focus because of the extreme form of deforestation that is happening there. This is also true of the Amazon. Indonesia has over 90 million hectares of tropical forests, the third-largest area in the world after Brazil and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. As recently as the 1960s, 82 percent of Indonesia was forested. Whereas, since then Indonesia’s rainforest cover has steadily declined, and it is now estimated that barely 49 percent of the country’s original forest cover remains. Much of this remaining cover consists of logged-over and degraded forest. Oil palm and wood fiber plantations (mainly for pulp and paper industries), are the two largest contributors to forest loss in Indonesia. Between 2000 and 2015, some 1.6 million hectares of primary forests were converted to oil palm plantations and 1.5 million hectares were converted to wood fiber plantations.
As per the IRI estimates, by 2017, Indonesia had lost 15 percent of its tree cover compared to 2000, with most of the damage occurring in natural forests. Between 2000 and 2012, a full 43 percent of Indonesia’s peat swamp forests were destroyed. Agriculture has continued to be the main driver of forest loss in Indonesia. Since 2000, Indonesia has experienced an exceptionally rapid expansion of cultivated land, with palm oil and pulp wood plantations dominating the new agricultural landscape. By 2015, Indonesia was the world’s leading producer of palm oil, and together with Malaysia yielded about 80 percent of this widely used, globally traded commodity. The IRI estimates say that around 50 to 70 million indigenous people live in Indonesia and many, perhaps 30 to 50 million, depend on forest resources for their livelihoods.
Indonesia’s Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) under the Paris Agreement includes a commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by around 29 percent by 2030, or by 41 percent with international support. Almost two-thirds of Indonesia’s current emissions result from land-use change, peat and forest fires. The concerns in Indonesia is equally true of in Malaysia, Brazil, Ecuador and in North East India for the same concerns on rapid loss of forests, peatlands and wetlands – all contributing to the process of drastic changes in climatic conditions locally and globally.
The Interfaith Rainforest Initiative looks forward to the participation of faith based movements across communities throughout the world to fight for protecting, saving and the long term conservation of rainforests, peatlands and wetlands to contribute towards climate change mitigation. According to the IRI’s thinking process, “the gains from deploying religious resources in the fight against deforestation are multiplied when the world’s religions stand together. This kind of cooperation can prove more powerful - symbolically and substantively -than unilateral action by individual religious groups. When religious communities demonstrate the ability to work closely together, they build credibility and trust among the population at large”.
Religions are not confined within four corners or in limited geographical areas, whereas, religions span across continents sans political or physical boundaries. The IRI’s push, therefore, is for winning the trust and capability of religions and religious leaders wielding enough influence across nations to work for saving and protecting nature. For instance, in a very limited geographical area, in Manipur the Umang-laikons or the sacred groves could have long disappeared had it not been for the relevance of the groves to worship by the indigenous people, attached with strong religious fervor and belief in age-old traditions. Religions bound with cultural ethos are the answer to saving much of the precious tree cover around the world.
Tree worshipping or the worship of trees in the belief of supernatural elements can be an answer to saving trees which otherwise could be bulldozed overnight under the pretext of ‘development’. In India, for example, the worship of peepal or banyan trees is widely practiced. Banyans are known as one of the best oxygen giving trees, while also supporting diverse life forms, and so the cultivation or maintenance of banyan trees in appropriate measure can contribute largely to human’s needs for clean oxygen to breathe to survive. Imagine how much of essential oxygen would a hundred thousand banyan trees provide us. And, we are just cutting down tree after tree recklessly. Rainforests and mangroves are being chopped down in the name of development, whereas, we are now faced with the threat of intolerable heat in the coming years.

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