Religious and indigenous leaders urge better protection of forests

OSLO (Reuters) - Religious and indigenous leaders appealed on Monday for better protection of tropical forests from the Amazon to the Congo basin, with a Vatican bishop likening current losses to a collective suicide by humanity.

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Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist and Daoist representatives met indigenous peoples in Oslo to explore moral and ethical arguments to shield forests that are under threat from logging and land clearance for farms.

Organizers said the Oslo Interfaith Rainforest Initiative from June 19-21 was the first to gather religious and indigenous peoples to seek out common ground to protect forests. They hope to organize a summit in 2018.

“Without the forests we don’t have life,” said Bishop Marcelo Sanchez Sorondo, head of the Vatican’s Pontifical Academy of Sciences. “If we continue to do this deforestation it’s like suicide.”

Din Syamsuddin, an Indonesian Muslim leader, called for new technologies and changes of lifestyles to protect forests. “A true believer should maintain the balance with nature,” he said.

Norwegian Climate and Environment Minister Vidar Helgesen, a host of the talks, said forests were homes and a source of income to millions of people, as well as habitats for creatures from tigers to birds of paradise.

He said rainforests were also a giant natural store of carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas from burning fossil fuels. Trees release the gas when they rot or are burnt to make way for farms, such as for cattle or palm oil plantations.

“The Paris Agreement is doomed if deforestation continues,” Helgesen said.

Many countries have reaffirmed support for the 2015 Paris pact to phase out greenhouse gas emissions after U.S. President Donald Trump announced plans on June 1 to pull out, saying he wants to promote the U.S. fossil fuel industry.

Many speakers noted that a “tree of life” is a part of many religious traditions.

“Trees don’t have only ecological value for us, but also cultural value for us. Every tree,” said Joseph Itongwa of Democratic Republic of Congo, a representative of indigenous peoples in Africa.

The net extent of the world’s forests shrank by 33,000 square km (12,700 square miles) a year from 2010-15, about the size of Belgium, the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization says.

The rate is about half that of the 1990s.

Mary Evelyn Tucker, director of Yale University’s forum on Religion and Ecology, said religious groups such as the World Council of Churches were seeking ever more to restrict investments in areas that damage the environment.

Editing by Mark Heinrich and Alison Williams