Fourteen years ago I visited an experimental “permaculture” farm near Manila, run by the Columban Missionaries. There were so many shades of green, lush vegetation and all kinds of fruit trees – mangoes, bananas, coconuts. I marvelled at rows of food crops and worm composting turning kitchen and garden waste into nutrient-rich compost. Buzzing of insects and birdsong filled the air. The soil, vegetation, trees and air were all full of life, and moist. I felt I had walked into the Garden of Eden!
The Philippines is one of the world’s biodiversity hotspots. Irish Columban eco-theologian Sean McDonagh, who worked in the Philippines for three decades, tells a story about a research project on just one tree and found there were more then 3,000 species living on it. But, sadly, the Philippines is just one hotspot where biodiversity is being destroyed, mainly by loss of habitat to deforestation and large-scale mining. Sean’s book, ‘The Death of Life’ addresses this issue. The Columbans have long had Environmental Justice as a campaigning priority of its Justice, Peace and Ecology teams in the 16 countries where they work, such as Pakistan and South Korea. And Biodiversity is a key issue.
Biodiversity is life
The word ‘biodiversity’ was coined in the 1980s, at a time when human society was becoming more aware of the plight of rare mammals, such as tigers, and threats to tropical forests and coral reefs. It encompasses the full variety of genes, species and ecosystems on the planet. It includes the crops we eat and the insects that pollinate them; the bacteria that help create the soil that sustains farming; and the microscopic plankton at the base of food chains that end with fish on our dinner plates. It includes ecosystems such as forests that regulate water supplies and climate. Although rainforests cover only 6% of the land area in the world, they are habitat for at least half of the world’s species and they are crucial for the world’s water system.
Yet, on 12th October the Living Planet Report 2022, released by the World Wide Fund for Nature, revealed that global wildlife populations have plummeted by 69% on average since 1970. The staggering rate of decline is a severe warning that the rich biodiversity that sustains all life on our planet is in crisis, putting every species at risk – including humanity. Our world’s most vulnerable people, places and wildlife – and those least responsible for the climate and nature crisis – are already suffering. In his 2015 encyclical Laudato Si’, and speaking of biodiversity, Pope Francis warned: “Each year sees the disappearance of thousands of plant and animal species which we will never know, which our children will never see, because they have been lost for ever. The great majority become extinct for reasons related to human activity. Because of us, thousands of species will no longer give glory to God by their very existence, nor convey their message to us. We have no such right.”
And human well-being is put at risk too. Half the calories we eat come from just three plants – rice, wheat and corn – but there are at least 30,000 edible plants. Biodiversity also serves as our medicine cabinet. More than half of commonly prescribed drugs are derived from natural products while 60% of people in developing countries rely on traditional medicines – mostly plant based – for their health care. This is quite apart from the role that green land cover and ocean health have in ensuring a stable climate.
Faiths promoting all life
All the world’s major faiths ascribe the variety of life on Earth to divine creation and urge followers to respect and care for nature. Creation theologians, such as Sean McDonagh, take the view that the Earth itself is a bio-spiritual entity, in which humans are situated in the context of an interrelated and complex web of life. He suggests, “the Christian churches have been slow to recognise the attack on life which is so relentless today, but sooner or later, extinction will rob our planet of the ability to sustain many forms of life, possibly even our own”.
Modern destruction of the natural world has been called “sinful” by the bishops of the Philippines. They have tackled the destructiveness of extractive industries. Missionary groups too feel that the context of mission has changed, and it must incorporate care of God’s creation, which is already an element of Catholic Social Teaching. The environment encyclical of 2015, Laudato Si’, contained a chapter on Biodiversity. This was picked up last year in the document, ‘The Wailing of God’s Creatures’, commissioned to the Laudato Si’ Research Institute by Catholic organisations CIDSE, CAFOD, and the Global Catholic CIimate Movement.
Church’s mission to protect Biodoversity
Faith groups are planning to engage with the UN Convention COP15 in Canada in December. Columban co-workers Amy Echeverria and Wesley Cocozello will be attending. The UN Convention on Biological Diversity legally binds nation signatories to conserve biological resources, use them sustainably, and share the benefits arising from their use fairly. But it is poorly implemented. The Laudato Si’ Movement and the Union of International Superiors General of Religious, are amongst those with a robust voice calling for the protection of all life on the planet. These groups have endorsed the Movement’s Biodiversity petition, ‘Healthy People, Healthy Planet’.
The Missionary Society of St Columban has produced two podcast mini-series about the beauty of biodiversity and the threats it faces. The study guide and embedded video links are available on Columban websites. Grounded in Catholic Social Teaching, the Columbans hope that these podcasts will promote understanding of how caring for “our common home”, as Pope Francis calls it, is fundamental to our lives as people of faith and as global citizens.
What is at stake?
In our age of ecological crisis – where we see rampant consumerism and indifference to Earth’s biodiversity – people of faith are increasingly involved in building a movement to care for our common home.