by Giorgio Bernardelli
The network brings together various experiences in order to raise awareness that the two continents face the same environmental challenges together. Its message to the COP27 that opens today in Sharm El-Sheikh is to heed “small local communities” since “negotiations between governments” have failed.
Environmental issues are among Asia’s greatest emerging challenges, a topic that has a prominent place in the encyclical Laudato Si’ as well as at the General Conference of Asia’s Catholic Churches, which ended last Sunday in Bangkok.
Many regions of Asia are already experiencing the effects of climate change. Just a few weeks ago, unprecedented floods hit Pakistan, killing more than 2,000 people and affecting millions more.
Caused by a devastating combination of exceptional rains and melting glaciers from high temperatures, that event was but the most visible example of what is going on. But climate change sows desolation in other, less visible ways, like drought and famine.
The exploitation of raw materials, which disfigures Asia’s forests and the lives of many tribal communities, is another aspect. The River above Asia and Oceania Ecclesial Network (RAOEN) addressed the bishops’ meeting in Bangkok, laying out its own experience.
Created by various groups in the two continents bordering the Pacific Ocean, the network is modelled after Latin America’s Pan-Amazonian Ecclesial Network (Red Eclesial Panamazónica, REPAM), part of a wider network that includes Africa’s Congo River Basin Ecclesial Network (Réseau Ecclésial pour le Bassin du Fleuve Congo, REBAC), and the Central American Ecological Ecclesial Network (Red Eclesial Ecológica Mesoamericana, REMAM).
Why Asia and Oceania together? “Because the climate in Asia depends on the Pacific Ocean and understanding it is part of the challenge,” says Fr Pedro Walpole, currently RAOEN coordinator. For years, the Irish Jesuit served indigenous communities in Bukidnon, in the mountains of the island of Mindanao, southern Philippines.
“Polluting activities are the start of the problem, but then they quickly affect the atmosphere and from there, the oceans. The Pacific Ocean covers a third of the world and is experiencing a great transformation in terms of temperatures. The extreme events that we are experiencing in Asia come from there.”
For the Church, this is also a challenge. “We must understand that we are linked to the populations living in Oceania, that we are part of a common journey. Although numerically small, they face bigger problems,” Fr Walpole explains.
“We must support their cry in seeing the sea level rising in their islands, speak out against the loss of their cultures because they are forced to move somewhere on the mainland. The large populations of Asia must also support them. After all, the Philippines may not be politically part of Oceania, but that’s where the typhoons that devastate our country come from.”
Today COP27, the UN conference on climate change, opens in Sharm El-Sheikh (Egypt), but expectations are not high. In fact, for Fr Walpole, “That path is now inadequate because it does not include social realities; they are only negotiations between governments.”
“What negotiations can we expect in Egypt, where you can’t even demonstrate outside the conference venue? Already Glasgow, last year, completely failed to make an impact. The same commitment to reducing coal mining has been swept away by the war in Ukraine.”
Even Asia’s giants have their responsibilities. “China contributes 30 per cent to coal mining; critics counter that the West has benefited for centuries from it. How can we achieve a balance?” wonders Fr. Walpole.
For the RAOEN coordinator, there is another crucial issue that must be taken into account, namely human rights, which “are an essential part of this process. The way in which negotiations are being conducted now excludes them; it is only a question of power relations. But how many more disasters do we need to understand that the role of small local communities in safeguarding creation is essential?”
“We must return to the idea of stewardship and that is what we as a Church must remember.”
“We must sweep away the idea that there can only be technological solutions to the environmental crisis that do not deal with injustice and imbalances in the distribution of wealth. We need answers that put people at the centre.”
Fr Walpole cites a very concrete example. “Let’s stop planting tens of thousands of trees. Instead, we should support those who can really make them grow, namely farming populations. Let us support them for 25 years in caring for the earth, instead of destroying it through mining or chemical fertilisers. Let’s involve them in recreating the balance of natural forests.
“Let us put away our illusions. A few years ago a middle-class family spent 50 per cent of its income on food, now we are at 40 per cent. But these prices – lowered to stimulate the purchase of other consumer goods – are the result of systems that increasingly take people out of agricultural production processes at a cost that we all pay, and with consequences for the environment.”
This article is a reprint of an article published on 6 November 2022 in AsiaNews, a news agency promoted by the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Mission (PIME) missionaries. Ecclesia in Asia is the AsiaNews newsletter dedicated to Christian communities in Asia.