ROME — While Pope Francis finalizes his highly anticipated document on creation and the environment, the Vatican announced an initiative Monday to protect the Amazon basin and its inhabitants.

The Pan-Amazonian Ecclesial Network aims to promote the economic development of the region while managing Amazonian natural resources in a way that’s respectful of human dignity and targets the common good.

Environmentalists consider protection of the Amazon rainforest a critical global priority since it generates 20 percent of the earth’s oxygen and is home to 15 to 20 percent of all species.

The network was presented by Ghana’s Cardinal Peter Turkson, president of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace.

Turkson spoke about the three main components of the network:

  • Its trans-nationality, because it involves nine countries
  • Its ecclesiology, because it requires the engagement of various components within the Church
  • Its commitment to protecting life

“The defense of the life of communities that amount to 30 million people is at stake,” Turkson said.

According to Turkson, the goal of the network is to be useful in areas such as justice, the promotion and protection of human rights, cooperation between the Church and public institutions at various levels, prevention of conflicts, the study and dissemination of information, and the preservation of traditional cultures.

The network is the result of cooperation between the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, the Latin American Bishops Conference, local dioceses, religious orders, and other Catholic groups that minister along the Amazon River in nine Latin American nations: Brazil, Guyana, Surinam, Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Paraguay, and Bolivia.

Pope Francis is planning to visit three of those countries — Bolivia, Ecuador, and Paraguay — later this year.

Universities and organizations that work on the preservation of the Amazon rainforest are expected to collaborate with the network.

Brazilian Cardinal Cláudio Hummes, emeritus archbishop of São Paulo, was scheduled to participate in the press conference as president of the Commission for the Amazon of the Brazilian Bishop’s Conference, but the 80-year-old wasn’t able to attend.

Instead, Hummes sent an audio message saying that the network wants to unify the Church’s efforts to promote responsible stewardship and sustainability to promote human rights, evangelization, and the cultural, social, and economic development of its people, especially the indigenous population.

“The Holy Father encouraged us in this direction,” Hummes said, “[making a] strong call to respect and safeguard the whole creation that God has entrusted to humanity, not to be exploited wildly, but to turn it into garden.”

When the network was created, Pope Francis sent a message through the Vatican secretary of state, Italian Cardinal Pietro Parolin. After wishing the success of the initiative, the pontiff reminded those gathered in Brazil that the network should be a rich place for humanity; not a network of wires, but of people.

“We need to love and be loved, we need tenderness. Only then the Christian witness, through the network, can reach the human existential peripheries,” the pope said.

Representing 30 percent of the world’s tropical rainforest, the Amazon basin is losing 7,500 square miles of rainforest each year, according to experts, the equivalent of six soccer fields every minute. The World Wildlife Fund estimates that 17 percent of the Amazon has been wiped out in the past 50 years, mostly because of forest conversion for cattle ranching.

Pope Francis, as his predecessors before him, has spoken about the need to protect creation and the environment on numerous occasions.

Speaking at the University of Molise, Italy, last July, the pontiff talked specifically about the Amazon, calling deforestation a “sin” and asking Catholics to respect God’s creation.

“This is one of the greatest challenges of our time: To commit to a type of development that knows how to respect creation,” the pope said July 5.

“When I look at [South] America, also my own homeland (Argentina), so many forests, all cut, that have become land … that can no longer give life. This is our sin, exploiting the Earth and not allowing her to give us what she has within her,” Francis said at the time.

During an in-flight press conference last January, Pope Francis said that he hopes to finish his encyclical letter on the environment this month, although it’s expected to come out in the summer.

At the time, Francis also stated that Turkson had written the first draft of the document.