Edited by Dr Manoj Kurian
O Lord, how manifold are your works!
In wisdom you have made them all;
the earth is full of your creatures. Psalms 104: 24
God made all things and holds all things together through Jesus Christ (Colossians 1:15-20), and everything belongs to God (Psalm 24:1) and what we enjoy are but gifts we do not own. It is clear that the ‘covenant’ (divine contract) that God establishes with humanity through Noah is not exclusive with humankind but includes ‘every living creature of the earth’ with human beings as a third party (Genesis 9: 8-10).
Tragically, we, as humankind, have been flagrantly violating this covenant. The scale of changes that humanity has imposed on the planet over the last 100 years and much more dramatically over the last 50 years, on the land, water, the climate and on all living creatures, has dramatically altered the biodiversity of this planet, even spurring the onset of a new epoch, the Anthropocene.
Our relentless pursuit for more profits; unrestrained consumption; scaling up of industrial agriculture; destroying natural habitats and converting them into monocultures; extensive extractive industries tearing up lands and the seabed; polluting water and the earth; displacing or wiping out people and all living creatures: all have contributed to the decline of biodiversity species. Additionally, our overwhelming dependence on fossil fuels is further inducing climate change and pushing the earth into the sixth mass extinction.
Tropical forests play a critical role in keeping carbon out of the atmosphere and in maintaining biodiversity. But deforestation and forest degradation continue to take place at an alarming rate. Since 1990, it is estimated that some 420 million hectares of forest have been lost through conversion to other land uses, such as large-scale commercial agriculture (primarily cattle ranching and cultivation of soya bean and oil palm), accounting for 40 percent of tropical deforestation between 2000 and 2010 (1). Even in 2020, despite the global economic downturn caused by the pandemic, forests were destroyed at an increased rate—by 12 percent as compared to 2019 (2). Human activity is primarily responsible for the decline by nearly 60 percent of global populations of 3,706 monitored vertebrate species—fish, birds, mammals, amphibians, and reptiles from 1970 to 2012 (3). The loss of biodiversity, in number and species, is a threat to our very existence, as we currently primarily depend on a handful of plant and animal species for Earth’s food supply. The looming threat of extinction and the loss of native species, and local and indigenous lands, heritages, knowledge, and the alarming threats from climate change make the lack of diversity in the world’s food supplies a dangerous prospect (4). Already these trends are eroding the basis of sustenance of the global poor and our indigenous sisters and brothers, who contribute least to the ecological damage.
Indigenous peoples and rural communities inhabit more than 50 percent of the world’s land and are custodians of up to 80 percent of the world’s remaining forest biodiversity and largest stores of carbon (5). These cultures hold the most ancient lineages and knowledge of biodiversity on Earth, as well as the largest stores of biodiversity and carbon (6). For safeguarding land, water and forests from commercial interests, indigenous peoples increasingly face harassment and violence. Yet the ongoing nurture, care and future of the world’s biodiversity are dependent on the wisdom and knowledge of our indigenous communities as they have cared for it for millennia.
The 2019 Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services report underlines pathways for transformation: (a) promoting visions of a good life that do not entail ever-growing consumption; (b) lowering total consumption and waste, including by addressing population growth and per capita consumption contextually; (c) unleashing values of responsibility to effect new social norms for sustainability; (d) addressing income and gender inequalities which undermine capacity for sustainability; (e) ensuring inclusive decision-making, fair and equitable sharing of benefits arising from the use of resources and adherence to human rights in conservation decisions; (f) accounting for ecological deterioration in economic activities including international trade; (g) ensuring environmentally friendly technological and social innovation; and (h) promoting education, generating knowledge and maintaining different knowledge systems, including indigenous knowledges, noting that in areas held or managed by indigenous peoples, ecological decline has been less rapid or has even been avoided (7).
WCC member churches, through the work of the Ecumenical Indigenous Peoples Network, journey with the indigenous peoples to envision with them "a new earth and new heaven" as promised in the Bible and as seen in the common vision of marginalized peoples everywhere, and can also be experienced as part of the struggle to protect and preserve the biodiversity of our world. In this journey our indigenous brothers and sisters continue to remind us of the fragility of our interdependent, interconnected relationship of our biodiversity and our human family. The pilgrim team visits currently taking place in the Arctic and Standing Rock are examples of this approach (8).
As people of faith, churches and communities can make a difference by being a spiritual and social force to conserve nature. More than 84 % of people worldwide adhere to a faith, and our beliefs and passions can transform the world. It is also estimated that up to 7% of the earth’s surface is owned by religious institutions, so religions can also directly influence biodiversity sustainability.
There are very inspiring examples from member churches on how they promote biodiversity. For instance, in the teachings of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church, a church building, to be a true church, has to be enveloped by forests, resembling the Garden of Eden. Churches protect the forest as sanctuaries around the church buildings. In the context of rapid deforestation in the rest of the country, where just 5% of the country is now covered in forest, down from 45% in the early twentieth century, the forest under the church remains as a key source for seeds of native species and a fountain for the revival of biodiversity in the nation. In the church forests of Ethiopia, the church grounds have become a time capsule of biodiversity (9,10).
The Church of South India has been at the forefront in protecting biodiversity by a stand to protect all the existing trees and plant as many saplings in the existing vacant land. Through the green school programme, the church is teaching the students in a thousand church-run schools about biodiversity conservation, organic cultivation, about the negative impacts of pesticides and by caring for the health of the soil and protecting the habitats of plant and animal species that are humanity’s life support for survival (11).
Thus, the proactive steps taken by the faith communities to protect the biodiversity and promote ecologically just solutions, echoing with this year’s theme of International Day for biodiversity, “We're part of the solution #ForNature.”
The millions of creatures that inhabit the earth are interconnected, intrinsically and in a sophisticated manner, relating to each other in ways we cannot fully understand why— beyond what the eyes can see and what the mind can comprehend. Let us preserve this God-given biodiversity to understand it and nurture it with respect as co-creatures and indispensable accompaniers of humanity to the future.
3. Ceballos G, Ehrlich PR, Dirzo R, (2017) Biological annihilation via the ongoing sixth mass extinction signalled by vertebrate population losses and declines, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) July 25, 2017 114 (30) E6089 E6096
7. IPBES (2019): Global assessment report on biodiversity and ecosystem services of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services. E. S. Brondizio, J. Settele, S. Díaz, and H. T. Ngo (editors).