Deforestation, pollution, corruption: the cry of the Solomon Islands

Climate change and the abuse and exploitation of natural resources have increasingly been destroying the Pacific archipelago, a true paradise on earth, where Bishop Luciano Capelli of Gizo carries out his ministry. He is a pastor who flies to his people, crossing the ocean in an amphibious aircraft. Bringing his testimony, he raises the alarm: the forests here are disappearing, the number of migrants is increasing tragically, plastic is suffocating the fish...

By Cristiana Noaptes* - Venice

Salesian Father Luciano Capelli has been the Bishop of Gizo diocese for over a decade of the diocese of Gizo. Serving the central South Pacific in the Solomon Islands, Gizo is a suffragan of the diocese of Honiara, with about 130,000 inhabitants, 14,000 of whom are Catholic. Bishop Capelli is the third pastor of this diocese, that was erected in the 1960s following the union of the vicariates of the North and South. It includes seven parishes and benefits from the pastoral service of twelve priests and about twenty religious.

It is a Church "on the edge of the world" as he defines it, being part of Melanesia, a region that also includes Papua New Guinea, Fiji, Vanuatu, New Caledonia and the Bismarck archipelago.  The Solomon Islands, gained constitutional independence in 1978; the nation’s 650 thousand inhabitants live mainly in 200 of the 980 islands that make up the archipelago. It’s an area where nature has always been generous with mankind: offering shelter and food thanks to bountiful sustenance from both land and sea. However, in recent years, the island nation is suffering dramatically from the consequences of climate change and global warming.

Originally from the northern Italian Valtellina area, a land of migrants enriched by vineyards and apple cultivations, Bishop Capelli follows the pastoral care of these populations with great attention for the young, listening to their aspirations and trying to offer them the best opportunities for formation. "The first missionaries - he tells us - arrived here in 1700 but had to give up their evangelizing work because of malaria, which prevented contact with the people and posed other difficulties. Then they returned, especially the Anglicans. In my diocese, most of the population belongs to the Christian Methodist denomination".

The "flying" bishop

"We were not used to seeing white people here,” Father Jacob Qetobatu, who is originally from the Solomons and is vicar general of the Diocese of Gizo, explains. They came from Europe, China and Japan, and it took time for them to be accepted. But when people began to understand the Gospel, conversions flourished: first the elderly, then women and men".

One of the biggest problems faced by pastoral care in this corner of the world derives from the sheer distances and isolation, the difficulties of communication. Bishop Capelli tells us: "Sometimes we have to face eight-hour boat crossings to visit some communities. Unfortunately, we have lost many lives at sea. We set off in good weather but after a few hours, conditions can change drastically. In order to move more quickly I use a small amphibious aircraft that, at most, in an hour and a half takes me to meet all the communities in the area. More than once I have thought I was on my last flight, but it has always gone well and I hope it continues that way."

In 2016, the year of the Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy, to make up for the great distance between parishes, Bishop Capelli conceived an "itinerant" Holy Door, a singular proposal that would succeed in spreading, by sea, a tangible sign of reconciliation even to the most distant communities. Even today there are still testimonies and echoes of that happy intuition that has brought concrete fruits of encounter and forgiveness, in a land still marked by tribal conflicts and episodes of domestic violence or abuse against women.

The dream of harmony with nature

"In the broken biodiversity of the Solomon Islands, “Bishop Luciano Capelli explains, “we face the problem of deforestation, which has literally wiped out so many virgin forests. The biggest problem is that these deforestations are carried out in favour of a few people and to the detriment of many others. The presence of multinational companies, among other things, is one of the main causes of this phenomenon, especially in our diocese, home to the largest forest which is also the most isolated. Passing over the vegetation with my small plane I see the disaster and the roads that make their way through the trees and bushes: it's a scandalous deforestation and the biggest problem is that no one talks about it. Or rather, they do talk about it, but they say: 'it's all legal, it's all under control' while in reality it's corruption in so many cases."

"We have also received many immigrants from countries in the region,” he continues, “a phenomenon, that of migration, that is due to the warming of the seas and the fact that the island inhabitants can no longer find fish as the water becomes saltier. In the diocese of Gizo there are many migrants who come from the Kiribati islands: they are well received, there is a fantastic solidarity, but they are still people in need of help". As is we know and is written in paragraph 25 of Laudato si', climate change gives rise to migrations of animal and plant species that are not always able to adapt to the new environment, and this in turn affects the population, especially by affecting the resources of the poorest, who are forced to leave their lands with great uncertainty for the future of their lives and for those of their children. The increase in numbers of migrants who flee because of misery exacerbated by environmental degradation is tragic!"

Concrete interventions and environmental education

Bishop Capelli also reiterates the need for concrete, shared interventions to try to reverse the course of destruction and preserve what remains of this paradise on earth, but he also insists on the need to educate people, to raise awareness on the themes of integral ecology addressed by Pope Francis in Laudato si'. "We have held several training courses on Laudato si', he explains, “and we have focused especially on respect for nature, for forests. In addition to this plant resource there is also the ocean but unfortunately, due to lack of environmental education, we are destroying that too! All the plastic we throw away, all the waste we don't dispose of properly, ends up in the sea: it's frightening and, unfortunately, there is a lack of sensitivity in this area, so no one is seriously committed".

*Cube Radio - Salesian University Institute of Venice and Verona


07 December 2021, 09:00