African bishops call on world leaders to protect biodiversity

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ROME – African bishops meeting in Kenya released a statement on Tuesday calling on world governments to take “urgent and ambitious” action to protect biodiversity. This is the first time prelates from the continent have taken a collective, public stance on climate.

“Our common home and common family are suffering,” says the statement. “Biodiversity is suffering at a faster rate than at any other time in history, and successive major reports have highlighted the huge scale of nature loss. The climate emergency is causing rising seas, a warmer planet, and more extreme weather, all of which are devastating God’s creation.”

The statement accompanies a petition that is open for others to sign, and will remain so until this year’s United Nations Biodiversity Conference (COP15), which will take place Dec. 5-17 in Montreal, Canada.

The appeal comes from the Symposium of Episcopal Conferences of Africa and Madagascar (SECAM), and according to the press release accompanying the statement, “this is the first time that the African church has taken a public stance on this area.” The Ecclesial Network on the Congo Basin Forest (REBAC) and the Laudato Si’ Movement (LSM) also backed the petition.

With their statement and the petition, the SECAM bishops joined those who call for 50 percent of the Earth to be protected by 2030. The document also calls for the rights of Indigenous peoples to be respected and the immediate stop of the construction of the East Africa Crude Oil Pipeline. And it calls on governments – especially those in the global north – to be transparent and to be held accountable, while they are reminded of their financial commitments to halt biodiversity loss and initiate its recovery.

The text was presented in an event in Nairobi, where preparatory sessions are taking place for the COP15. The UN summit was originally to be held in China, but on Monday the secretariat announced it will now be held in Canada, but “under the presidency of China.”

As the petition points out, “biologists estimate that we’re driving species to extinction at a rate of 100 to 1,000 times their usual rate.”

Quoting Laudato Si’, Pope Francis’s encyclical on God’s creation, the bishops say that “we have no such right.”

“Indeed, healthy ecosystems, notably forests and oceans, are more capable of storing carbon. On the other hand, reducing global warming reduces the risk of the extinction of species,” reads the petition.

The Argentine pontiff has made the care of the environment a social cornerstone of his pontificate, and is on record saying that he hoped his encyclical released in 2015, the first such papal document dedicated to the environment, would influence the 2015 Paris agreement on climate change.

The COP15 Biodiversity Conference will bring together state leaders, regional organizations and non-governmental actors, and aims to approve the final version of the draft of the post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework (GBF), an update of the Convention on Biological Diversity. This year’s edition was postponed twice and moved from China to Canada due to COVID-19.

The Convention on Biological Diversity was signed by 150 government leaders at the 1992 Rio Earth Summit and is dedicated to conserving biological diversity. It has now been ratified by 195 countries plus the European Union, but not by the United States or the Vatican, which has ratified several other UN conventions, including on the elimination of racial discrimination, refugee status, cluster munitions and biological weapons.

SECAM’s petition for the COP15 follows one signed by more than 120,000 Catholics and 420 organizations presented to the authorities of the COP26 on Climate Change, held in Glasgow last year. The Healthy Planet, Healthy People Petition asked world leaders to take urgent action for God’s creation.

This year at the COP15, according to the website’s petition, “we’re going to do the same and lift up all voices of God’s creation, especially those of the most vulnerable.”

SECAM’s statement makes special mention of the biomass of the Congo Basin, the second-largest tropical rainforest in the world, and where illegal and unsustainable logging along with land grabbing and industrial agriculture put Indigenous peoples and endangered species at risk.

The document points out that the climate emergency and the biodiversity crisis are intimately linked.

The reason, they say, is that the destruction of biomass causes the loss of a key resource for absorbing carbon from the atmosphere, which helps mitigate global warming. Climate and biodiversity are two sides of the same coin and, for this reason, must be tackled together, SECAM argues.

Similarly, the ecological problem is inseparable from its social dimension: The statement points out that these abuses against biodiversity affect vulnerable communities that have been caring for these ecosystems for centuries, and also generate a number of social conflicts.

As with Laudato Si’, the African bishops’ document considers that care for nature and for the most vulnerable go hand in hand. On that matter, they state: “We have no such a right to destroy biodiversity.”

Follow Inés San Martín on Twitter: @inesanma

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