Niyanta Spelman is the founder and CEO of Rainforest Partnership, a U.S. headquartered international non-profit that is dedicated to protecting tropical rainforests. Rainforest Partnership conserves and restores tropical rainforests by working with communities to develop sustainable livelihoods that empower and respect both people and nature.
Nature is undoubtedly a point of unity for humanity. Regardless of political stance, all religions believe that we are a part of nature and that nature provides for us in many ways. We see the fires burning across the globe and cannot look away. What is happening in the rainforest may be distant but is nonetheless immediate and profoundly arresting—it has grabbed global attention, and justly so. Caring for the environment can unify diverse faith communities for a concerted action on behalf of vulnerable rainforests.
The UN Environment Programme says, “Spiritual leaders at all levels are critical to the success of the global solidarity for an ethical, moral and spiritual commitment to protect the environment and God’s creation. These leaders can become observers, make public commitments, share the story of their commitments and the challenges and joys of keeping them, and invite others to join them. In addition, they can display their sustainable behaviors, serving as role models for their followers and the public.”
In this moment when we are divided by so many issues and policies, the environment represents a unique opportunity for diverse religious communities to unite around this common thread in faith traditions and beliefs. We are all united under a common concern for, and obligation to, the health of our planet. Rather than focus on the things that divide us, environmental stewardship actually represents an opportunity for us to come together under an aligned interest across humanity. So, let’s focus on the intersection of our faiths by acting for the environment and the rainforest.
In terms of action, meaningful action begins with seeking knowledge and deeper understanding. That means not only witnessing the evidence and acknowledging it, but also trying to understand the root cause. When we seek to understand what lies beneath, we can develop solutions that address not the symptoms but the root cause. Acting not only individually, but also as a community, is imperative for this discovery.
Members of faith communities seek to deepen their faith by exploring not just the words of sacred texts but also the interpretations of scholars and religious leaders; we must do the same for environmental challenges like the ongoing threats to tropical rainforests. As faith is believing in what one cannot see, all faiths can unite in believing in a healthy, vibrant forest; doing so is far more positive and empowering than the overwhelming focus on the gloom and doom of charred forests and charred lives.
We can’t make the impact we want if our understanding stops at the observation of the fires and the damage left behind. We have to ask why the forest is being cut down so we are driven to act together in powerful unison. We understand that because deforestation is an economic problem, our actions must therefore be economic solutions. Rainforest Partnership works through a model that understands that the generation of an income for communities is the solution to combating deforestation. Economic alternatives are now available to local rainforest communities, allowing them to make sustainable and autonomous choices not only for their livelihoods but also for their forest surroundings.
Once empowered communities join forces and understand the root causes of deforestation, they, and we, can use this newfound power as influence to spread awareness to those not yet involved. These actions bring more and more communities the ability to make choices that they didn’t have before.
One important bridging action is establishing relationships between global religious communities and local rainforest communities. Not the sort of relationship that existed for decades where the role of the dominant religious actors was to proselytize, or to see indigenous communities as needing salvation, but to build relationships based on mutual respect and willingness to learn, support, and understand the other at a very human level.
Indigenous peoples have very deep beliefs and connections to nature; for some rainforest communities, they are the forest. And, who can argue with them when they have lived in harmony with the forest for millennia and understand its rhythms and intricate patterns in ways that most of us non-forest dwelling folks cannot even begin to fathom. Their understanding, their beliefs, whether couched as religious faith or not, are arguably an integral part of any religious or faith conversation. For, who amongst us can judge what is a valid religion or belief? How can anyone object to deep respect and reverence for nature and the connection one feels with nature when in the forest? Is that not just as valid as the connection one feels in a church, a mosque, or a temple? In this sense a forest is but a house of worship, just one provided by nature. And, if we accept that premise, then it becomes incumbent upon all of us, no matter the faith, to respect rainforests and protect them as we would any other house of worship.
We need a dialogue between every religious community, global and indigenous, to unite under the ideas and understandings that our forests are in trouble. Whether connecting on this level or a religious level, the “creation care” that needs to occur right now is communities all over the world coming together regardless of differences in beliefs.
Building relationships between communities takes time. It takes trust and understanding. And while every religious community has the potential to reach and connect with local rainforest communities, it takes a significant commitment of resources to achieve that goal. It takes time in and with those communities, learning about their lives and their culture, and earning their trust. It’s a worthy goal to achieve those relationships—but in this moment, those are actions that the rainforest can’t wait for us to make.
The way to jumpstart that connection—and do it successfully—is by partnering with international and local organizations that have already developed those trusted relationships, and who may already have effective impact models. These models result in thriving forests and empowered communities. These organizations can be the bridge between global faith communities and rainforest communities to achieve our shared aspirations for the forests, our planet, and our future.