The Convergence of Religious, Economic, and Political Fundamentalisms Undermines God’s Creation in the Amazon

By: Rudelmar Bueno de Faria

November 15, 2019

Religious Responses to the Amazon Rainforest Fires

The Amazon is burning!

We know that weather patterns such as El Niño can bring drought, making the land more flammable, and wind can make deforestation fires more intense. We know that climate conditions are related to fires in tropical rainforests. But, the recent fires in the Amazon are not necessarily part of this equation. What happened and continues to happen in the Amazon rainforest cannot go without assigning blame.

Brazilian agricultural business is not increasing at the same rate as some years before, so the government believes more land is required to grow more soybeans and to expand cattle fields. Since taking office, Brazil’s far-right president, Jair Bolsonaro, has made all possible interventions to dismantle institutions and mechanisms that preserve the Amazon forest and the indigenous reserves. He has also been using an unreasonable and conspiratorial discourse to accuse environmental NGOs and indigenous communities of being responsible for the recent fires and to blame the international community and the media for hyping this year’s fires in the Amazon. His government has even identified the Catholic Church as a leftist organization because the Synod of Bishops for the Pan-Amazon Region was expected to discuss the protection of the rainforest, the rights of indigenous people, and climate change.

Civil society organizations, including faith communities and organizations, have mobilized to counteract the fires in the Amazon. Faith-based organizations are providing humanitarian assistance in the region and are working closely with indigenous communities to mitigate the impacts of the fires and to plan the region's rapid recovery. The objective is to equip indigenous firefighting brigades with the means to reach the locations where fire outbreaks persist, as well as to monitor the burned areas that are vulnerable to invasion by agriculturalists and cattle ranchers. 

Some ecumenical and interfaith initiatives are underway to address the environmental situation in the region. Campaigns such as “We are Amazon,” launched by ACT Alliance members in Bolivia, Brazil and Colombia; the Synod of Bishops for the Pan-Amazon Region; and the Faiths for Forests campaign, which kicked off a global faith-based movement of mobilization, education, and advocacy around tropical deforestation, are good examples of advocacy work from faith institutions and networks. 

Although these initiatives are necessary and important, they are not enough to comprehensively address the structural causes of the environmental crisis in the Amazon region from a faith perspective. Faith communities still have preconceived ideas about the region and have often failed to listen to the creatures and cultures that make the Amazon pulse. Colonizing models of evangelization left deep marks on the territory and its cultures, and the bigoted position of some Christian churches in relation to native modes of belief remains. Capitalism feeds entrepreneurial and exploitative spirituality that is fundamental to the churches' individual and sectarian strategies for economics. 

The convergence of religious, economic, and political fundamentalisms in the region is an explosive formula that undermines God’s creation, but ordinary people do not easily see the intersection of economic interests with the cultural, religious, and political models in place. The prophetic voice is then left to faith institutions and organizations to defend peoples, species, and territories against megaprojects funded by local and global capital. 

The big challenge for these faith organizations is to change the narrative and come up with alternative models without being associated with leftist ideologies or political parties, as Brazil’s far-right government uses the tactic of insinuating such associations and manipulating faith communities and the population in general.

Religious communities and faith-based organizations struggle to take a more prophetic (forward-looking) stance to avoid similar ecological crises and the systematic attacks against the Amazon biome and its natural resources. These attacks arise through the multifaceted nuances that fundamentalisms are increasingly bringing to the polarized society that is Brazil. However, some courageous religious leaders and organizations are standing up, speaking out, and acting for climate justice and against environmental injustice. 

Pope Francis’ convocation of the Amazon Synod, supported by the document Laudato Si, encourages ecumenical and interreligious theological reflection as a faith and pastoral response to the complex crises facing the region. It is time to look for dialogue in this moment of spirituality and prophecy, and to assume our commitment and faithfulness to defend the Amazon, its people, and its biodiversity by ensuring that indigenous, riverside, and Afro-descendent communities have access to and control over their land and can participate in, influence, and decide on the processes that directly affect their territories.

There are many possibilities for interfaith action on environmental changes in the Amazon region, as people are more concerned than ever about the impact of climate change on people’s lives and on the planet. Interfaith communities can play a crucial role in defending human dignity and human rights in this context by participating in effective mechanisms that denounce ecological abuses and work to protect the environment. They can support local communities in organizing sustainable economic alternatives and challenge the current economic system that exacerbates the environmental crisis in the region. Faith communities must develop an ecological spirituality that helps people to hear what God is saying to us about caring for creation.

The dynamics between local religious communities and global faith networks can shape responses to the Amazon rainforest fires and ecological devastation more generally. When we talk about the Amazon, we are talking about the “common home,” not only for those who live in the Amazon, but for all of us. In this case, the answers and actions need to be global. Solidarity with local communities in the Amazon region and the role of global networks need to strengthen the ability of those directly affected by antagonistic policies and decisions that destroy our common home. This may imply challenging structures, positions, policies, and leaders that do not care about the common good and that are promoters of megaprojects and other predatory endeavors.

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