In partnership with the Vatican Covid-19 Commission Ecology Taskforce, the Dicastery for Integral Human Development on Tuesday hosted a webinar on Biodiversity, inspired by Pope Francis’ Encyclical Laudato si’.
The online event, titled “The Road to COP15,” aims to share wisdom, understanding, experiences and mutual insights drawn from various disciplines of knowledge including the indigenous and scientific traditions, the Holy Scriptures, and the Social Doctrine of the Church on biodiversity. These, together, will advocate and inspire biodiversity protection and restoration at the upcoming fifteenth meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (COP15) and COP26 meetings.
The webinar will also invite the ecclesial community to generate dialogue on biodiversity in order to find new paths for the human family to heal and restore relations with creation, especially as in the wake of the ongoing Covid-19 health emergency.
Speakers at the event included Cardinal Peter Turkson, the Prefect of the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development; and Dr. Jane Goodall, founder of the Jane Goodall Institute and UN Messenger of Peace.
All of creation is interconnected
In his intervention, Cardinal Turkson highlighted two main points: the current context of the multifaceted crisis and the safeguard of biodiversity. He explained who these two are connected, on the basis of a 2020 report by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystems Services that showed that the same human actions which drive biodiversity loss have also resulted in an increase in pandemics.
In the current situation of the Covid-19 pandemic - which has affected world economies, increased the already existing gap between the rich and the poor, and has further made evident the poor access to healthcare suffered by some populations in society - “one pandemic has revealed other social pandemics,” said the Cardinal, re-echoing Pope Francis’ words.
Given that Covid-19 has been designated as a zoonotic disease (transmitted between animals and people), he continued, “the current pandemic alerts us to the fact that when nature is sick, humanity itself is very sick.” This, he notes, has been highlighted in Pope Benedict XVI’s encyclical Caritas in veritate, which notes that the way humanity treats the environment influences also the way that it treats itself. Cardinal Turkson stressed that all the elements of creation are interconnected, and that the disregard and abuse of one invariably affects other components of society. The ecological crisis, therefore, is linked with an anthropological crisis - with human conduct and behavior.
Joint responsibility to protect biodiversity
Drawing inspiration from the Scriptures, Cardinal Turkson notes that in the book of Genesis, “biodiversity took its form right from the beginning of creation,” as God created the plants and animals as well as humans.
Moreover, in the social teaching of the Church, “biodiversity is the ongoing work of God’s creation, a sacred gift from God, and each creature has an intrinsic value and worth on that account, and a purpose known to God.” In this sense, every creature reveals God to us and is a manifestation of God’s own glory as expressed in Psalms 19 and 104.
Cardinal Turkson went on to lament the deconstruction of God’s creation and the continuous cry of both creation and the poor highlighted in Laudato si and manifested in the disappearance of plant and animal species, lost forever because of our abusive treatment of nature. “The cost of the damage caused by the human exploitation of nature is much greater than the economic benefits that are obtained.”
“For ethical, moral and theological reasons,” the Cardinal said, “it is incumbent upon us to safeguard biodiversity on earth.” He noted that a global framework in this regard has been provided by the International Convention of Biological Diversity, which recognizes the need for a multi-sectoral and transversal approach to ensure the conservation and sustainability of biodiversity. COP15 also has a vision of a world living in harmony with nature, where, by 2050, biodiversity is conserved and wisely used to sustain a healthy planet and deliver benefits essential for all.
For this, four goals can serve as points of focus: first, an increase in protected areas so that biodiversity can be ensured in its interconnectivity and integrity in order to reduce the number of threatened species; secondly, valuing nature’s contribution to people, to maintain and enhance it through sustainable use for the benefit of all; thirdly, sharing fairly and equitably the benefits from genetic resources; and finally, checking the means of implementation of these goals and the targets relating to them.
“To keep and to till”
“The Church always raises her prophetic voice to provide a spiritual basis for reflection on the protection of the poor, which includes the earth’s diversity and its ecosystems,” Cardinal Turkson said. He recalled, too, Pope Francis’ incessant calls for increased care for the earth, including his calls for universal fraternity, which further emphasize our interconnectedness.
Cardinal Turkson further highlighted that humans have the responsibility to take care of nature. He explained that this comes from the book of Genesis, when at creation God charged Adam to till and keep the garden: “to 'till' was to make the earth productive, while to 'keep' was to ensure that the earth maintains its productive qualities and traits to support life all the time.” This imperative of care also extends to the teaching about resting on the Sabbath, which is, for human beings, also to preserve creation, he said. “Sabbath has a sense of liberation and respite, rest to any system that is oppressed and lives in bondage.”
He also highlighted that the word used in the book of Genesis to describe keeping the garden is the same word used to describe the relationship between Cain and Abel. From this, “our relationship toward creation is similar and comparable to our relationship as human beings, one towards the other. It is the relationship of fraternity and brotherhood.” We are therefore invited to treat everything “with affection, concern, responsibility and care.” At the same time, “we are collectively called to undergo ecological conversion,” stressed the Cardinal. He called for a change of mentality - “moving from a desire to control and dominate, to a desire to safeguard and to protect.”
Indigenous people, custodians of biodiversity
Indigenous people, according to the Cardinal, are “custodians of biodiversity,” and are essential to the protection of biodiversity. They have also been recognized by Pope Francis as “the great teachers of conservation of our biodiverse system.”
He added that they need to be respected and protected so that we can learn from them through paying attention to them. Cardinal Turkson also debunked claims that the relationship between indigenous people and nature is idolatrous. Rather, he explained, “it is an accumulation of time-tested wisdom that ensures the living together of human beings and the systems in creation.”
Proposing steps to save biodiversity, Cardinal Turkson proposed planting trees and partnering with organizations that care for nature. He also urged the prioritization of restoring degraded ecosystems, support for regenerative agriculture, and participation in initiatives even at the local level in parishes.
Concluding, the Cardinal stressed that the protection of biodiversity directly affects each one of us, touching the social, cultural and economic dimensions of our lives. We are therefore called to “embrace an integral ecological perspective and approach, and apply holistic thinking to reorient economies, education and cultural practices and policies, so that we honor the dignity of the human person and the integrity of creation.”
Dr. Jane Goodall’s speech
After the intervention of Cardinal Turkson, Dr. Jane Goodall spoke, sharing her wealth of experience of studying chimpanzees in Africa and working to preserve their habitat.
She expressed regret that in spite of the developed intellect of humans, we are destroying our only home. She noted that our disrespect for the natural world and our contribution to the destruction of the habitat of animals have put us in increased contact with normally-isolated animals, increasing the chance of pathogens spreading from animals to humans, and creating a zoonotic pandemic such as the current one. This same disrespect for the world has also led to climate change, which is one of the major factors affecting biodiversity, she noted.
Proposing concrete action, Dr. Goodall emphasized the need to act within this “window of opportunity.” She highlighted the urgency of reducing the “unsustainable lifestyle of hundreds of thousands of us on this planet who have way more than we need,” especially as regards food, where tons are wasted when there are people who go to bed hungry.
Dr. Goodall also stressed the importance of eliminating poverty. One way of achieving this, she explained, is teaching people to find ways of living without destroying the environment. She recalls that this became apparent to her when she flew over a forest that used to house chimpanzees that had been greatly reduced and surrounded by human presence and farmlands. In this regard, she, through the work of her foundation, encourages community-based conservation to restore fertility to over-used land without agricultural chemicals and pesticides and water management. She also suggests scholarships to keep girls in school; and micro-financing so that villagers, particularly women, can take loans to start businesses that are environmentally friendly. In addition, local people can also be given tools with which they can monitor the health of their own village forest reserves.
This will help people to understand that we protect the environment, not just for the wildlife, but for their own future, because the environment provides us with clean water; and we depend on healthy ecosystems for everything, Dr. Goodall explained.
Biodiversity, fragile tapestry of life
“I like to see an ecosystem as a tapestry of life composed of this diversity of animal and plant species, all interrelated, each little species having a role to play," Goodall said.
In this light, if one of the species becomes extinct, it tears a hole in that tapestry, and as more and more holes are torn, in the end we will be left with a tapestry so torn that the ecosystem will collapse, she warned.
In this regard, Dr. Goodall hails the efforts of organizations, and scientists working to protect and conserve the “tapestry.” She also salutes the many young people who are rising up to tackle the ecological problems they have inherited from those before them.