Faiths are 'in a powerful position to help restore nature' – webinar report
Globally, faiths own around eight percent of all habitable land on earth, and more than five percent of forests. Additionally, an emphasis on the importance of caring for creation is central to the teachings of many faiths.
The 13th January webinar explored how a number of different faith organisations share knowledge on sustainable use, management and protection of land assets and all that is encompassed within them, with a particular focus on biodiversity. It was part of the wider webinar series hosted by FaithInvest, INCR and the WWF Beliefs and Values Programme on Creating your Faith Long-Term Plan.
Introducing the webinar was Martin Palmer, interim CEO of FaithInvest. Martin began by asking he faiths to look at what they have and what they control and influence, in order to make informed decisions about how to address the wellbeing of all life on earth.
Martin said: “Most people think that the influence of the faiths is purely about human wellbeing. However, the faiths also know that they are part of nature, not apart from it. All faiths have the wisdom that faiths are about people and planet, and today we are particularly focussing on the impact we have on the planet.”
“The world is in crisis”
Chantal Elkin, Head of the Beliefs & Values Programme at the WWF, moderated the session. She stressed that there are many ways in which faith groups around the world are already protecting nature as part of their programmes.
Addressing the question of why we should focus on nature conservation in our long term plans, Chantal stated that: “The world is in crisis”.
From the issue of climate change to man-made pollution and degradation, the natural world is under extreme threat. For example, there has been a 68% decrease in population sizes of fish, birds, amphibians and mammals between 1970 and 2016.
Chantal said: “The faiths are in a very powerful position to help reverse nature loss and restore nature – they own significant areas of land and have a huge impact on how people behave and think about nature and conservation. They are also in a unique position to inspire environmental action by spreading awareness in communities.”
To illustrate how some religious groups are protecting nature, Chantal outlined the Mongolian Buddhist Eight Year Plan, focussing on wildlife, forests, water and pollution, and the Cameroon Presbyterian Seven Year Plan that centres around the protection of forests, water, wetlands and wildlife.
‘Celebration’ as key to engagement
The faith-based organisation EcoSikh began in 2009 in Washington. Ravneet Singh, South Asia Project Manager at EcoSikh, said: “We aimed to establish a connection between the Sikh community and nature. Like every other community, Sikhs have lost that connection with nature despite it being part of their sacred principles.
“By retaining strong roots in theology, we see implementation of the EcoSikh plan as a continuing expression of our faith.”
Ravneet demonstrated how ‘celebration’ has to be an important part of the EcoSikh long-term plan. They have created a day of celebration, World Sikh Environment Day on 14th March, which is now observed in 15 nations, by more than 2 million people. In this way, caring for the environment becomes part of yearly traditions.
With the engagement of the Sikh community worldwide, EcoSikh established a project called Guru Nanak Sacred Forests in 2019, to celebrate the 550th birthday of Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism and the first of the ten Sikh Gurus. The aim of the project is to eventually oversee the planting of 1 million trees.
This incredible endeavour was pioneered in India, using a Japanese methodology, and has proved incredibly popular. Ravneet described it as “tangible, replicable, measurable and cost effective” and a way of helping communities “fall back in love with nature”.
EcoSikh has dedicated its organisation to creating these micro-forests to combat climate change. A massive 134 native forests in India have been conserved, and forest-making training is being provided free of charge to young people in Punjab. Some trees are growing to 10-15 feet high, and every micro-forest is helping to expand the biodiversity of the area and attract insects and birds.
No commercial activity is permitted in the sacred forests, and there is an impressive 95% annual survival rate of the trees. Ravneet encouraged other faith groups to get involved in creating their own micro-forests, while ensuring that the messaging about them being ‘sacred’ stays consistent.
“Desire causes suffering”
The final speaker for the Assets – Land & Forests; Water; Wildlife & Habitats webinar was Ani Tsering Youden, a Buddhist nun in the Himalayan region of Nepal, and Coordinator of the Khoryug (Environment) group in her nunnery.
Khoryug currently connects over 50 monasteries, nunneries and centres throughout India, Nepal and Bhutan in the Himalayas and South India. Its aim is to develop a partnership with community-based organizations and NGOs, wherever there is a member monastery or centre, so that all life on earth, now and in the future, can be protected.
Ani discussed how the founder of Buddhism, Siddhartha Gautama, endured many years of hardship to become enlightened, and how each of us can follow the this path. She said: “As practitioners of Buddhism, we believe that we must change ourselves before we can change others.”
With a focus on water, wildlife, disaster management, and climate change, the Khoryug network is preparing now for the difficulties and challenges that environmental degradation will bring to the area and its people.
Already, 400 nuns and monks have been trained as emergency responders and the disaster management guidelines for Tibetan Buddhist monasteries have been published, as natural disasters are now happening with greater frequency due to climate change.
The Khoryug network is also responsible for monks and nuns getting involved in river cleaning and the protection of water sources. More than 100,000 trees have been planted so that wildlife like birds and insects can find homes. Trees are a sacred symbol in Buddhism and there are many examples of the importance of trees in the life of the Buddha. In Ani’s nunnery, there is no use of electricity for heating purposes – only solar, to save electricity and wood.
Ani said: “There is a need for us to limit our wants as desire causes suffering. We need to take practical steps together to protect our Mother Earth.”