03 Jul 2020 Story Ecosystems and Biodiversity

New guide equips religious leaders to better protect rainforests

Photo by Juan Carlos Huayllapuma/CIFOR

In December 2019, one alliance managed a landmark move in Peru - it brought together political, religious and indigenous leaders to sign a “Forest Pledge” to develop stronger national policy to protect the country’s Amazon forest.

How did it get done? You might call it an act of God.

IRI Peru
A workshop held last December by IRI Peru brought together faith leaders and representatives of indigenous communities. Photo by IRI Peru

The events last December were convened by the Peruvian program of the Interfaith Rainforest Initiative (IRI) an international alliance launched in 2017 to mobilize religious leaders to defend rainforests, through collaboration with indigenous communities, local groups, and advocates for rainforest protection.

IRI Peru’s strategy went deeper than the Forest Pledge. Earlier in 2019, the alliance brought members of Congress to a roundtable with national religious and indigenous leaders to audit Peru’s progress meeting its commitments under the Paris Climate Agreement; and protect forest defenders by ratifying the Escazú Agreement.

United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) provides the secretariat for IRI and also works closely with global interfaith partners to equip religious practitioners with the latest data, science, and research on forests and indigenous communities, so they can be partners in the fight to defend forests and their guardians.

The Resource Guide

This week, on 29 June 2020, IRI released a Resource Guide on Rainforest Protection for Religious Communities. Fusing research from the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) with spiritual guidance from religious thinkers across ten different traditions, the Resource Guide seeks to merge the scientific and moral urgency of protecting Earth’s remaining rainforests into a call to action and a instruction manual on where religious leaders can begin.

The Resource Guide is part of a growing library of materials that UNEP and the IRI partnership have developed for religious leaders and faith communities on rainforests, climate change, and the rights of indigenous peoples. 

Others include country primers on deforestation, issue briefs on subjects such as tropical forest conservation and engaging indigenous communities, faith toolkits and an upcoming primer on pandemics. These can be found on the IRI website.

Quick Progress

IRI has programs in five countries that that together contain more than 70 per cent of the world’s remaining tropical forests - Peru, Colombia, Indonesia, Brazil, and Democratic Republic of Congo. IRI has already trained thousands of religious leaders on protect rainforests. Projects include:  

  • In Colombia, the initiative negotiated a commitment to end tropical deforestation as part of the country’s National Development Plan, had religious leaders appointed to Municipal Development Councils in seven regions, and will set up more than 30 local chapters by the end of 2020, in areas where forests face the greatest threats 
  • In Democratic Republic of Congo, the initiative is providing a platform for the country’s religious leaders and indigenous peoples to advocate for legislation on recognizing the rights of indigenous peoples, which is currently before the National Assembly.
  • IRI’s Indonesia launch brought together over 250 leaders from the country’s eight major faiths as well as the Indigenous People’s Alliance of the Archipelago (AMAN). It set the groundwork for a new partnership to protect forests and the rights of indigenous peoples in the country.
  • At the global level, in August 2019, more than by 900 of the world’s senior religious leaders from 125 countries and representing a constituency of over 1 billion people, agreed to work together through IRI and endorsed a  statement of purpose in the Faiths for Forests Declaration. It committed religious leaders to leading their congregations toward opposing deforestation as an expression of their care for the Earth.

Inclusive approaches

Critical to the world’s rainforests are the indigenous and local communities who live in the forests and have been their greatest caretakers for countless generations. Engaging indigenous communities is especially important now, as COVID-19 has exposed the vulnerability of forest communities to pandemics.

From the start, IRI’s work has been built on partnership with indigenous and forest communities. Each declaration and national political strategy is developed in consultation with indigenous representatives.

As a Peruvian politician told members of IRI Peru after that workshop in December: “Consensus has seemed impossible in the country for a long time. But when we see faith leaders and indigenous leaders come together with such determination and unity about an issue, we simply cannot say no.”