Conserving our planet's botanical resources and ecosystems

Encyclical Letter and the importance of church forest conservation

Below is commentary written by Ezana Habte-Gabr regarding the use of Pope Francis’ Encyclical letter, “Laudato Si: On Care for Our Common Home to highlight the impact of humans on nature:

Little is known about Encyclical letters outside the ecclesiastic sphere of the Roman Catholic Church. The media alludes to them whenever controversial issues are addressed and this is just for a few days. While the term Encyclical Letter has been heard by faithful parishioners, it seems often to be considered something for the clergy and religious scholars. For those outside the area of religious studies or practicing Christians, referring to one of these documents as a source of information or inspiration would perhaps be unconceivable. However, the latest Encyclical letter, Laudito Si , greatly inspired by previous ones, is proving to have a broader readership as it addresses the impact of humans on “Our Common Home”- Nature. It provides an overview of the perspectives of the ecological debates suggesting that husbandry goes beyond the “technocratic paradigm” (Section 101. Page 75) This observation holds true when it comes to spiritually driven conservation which has proven to have conserved trees in countries around the world. Church forests tend to affirm the Pontiff´s observation that “intense dialogue fruitful for both” (section 63 page 45)

Conservationists from diverse paradigms have been lead to look at church woods which are inherent components of Orthodox parishes in Ethiopia and Eritrea. Pope Francis openly admits that “other churches have expressed deep concern on issues which all of us find disturbing” (Section 7.Page 7)

While scientific studies which employ Geographical Information Systems and others have monitored the significance of how these woods have been preserved, one’s own experience of having lived near one of these churches is sufficient to witness the stark contrast between vegetation in and outside of the church yards. “The Principle of the Common Good, (Section 156 Page 116) or the overall welfare of the society is what has been seen in these woods. Perhaps, more so today as they are considered not only part of the church, but national patrimony, which bring in tourists and pride to religiously diverse countries.

As I accompanied my grandfather to mass or kidase as a child, I was quite aware of the native species in the church yard and their role in what the Pope refers to “contemplative rest” (section 237 Page 172) The naturalness of these woods, demonstrate to the believer creation and to others mere nature which has not been disrupted by modernization. While the church yards continue to be a museum of the historic landscape, the land outside them is a “Promethean vision of mastery over the world” (section 116 page 87) as it was subject to centuries of unchanged agricultural practices. While many agrarian scholars have pointed out to a historically quasi-feudal system in Ethiopia and Eritrea as having changed its ecology, it also important to consider the adversities of global warming on the African continent. (Section 51 page 37) It was overwhelming to fly over the Horn of Africa after having lived for over twenty years in the North and South America and witness dark green circles, the Orthodox parishes, in the midst of the brown yellow mountainous landscape , a contrast starker than ever.

Far from Quasquam, in Bogota, Colombia, where I presently live, I have noticed that parishes tend to be built in or next to parks, maintaining vegetation which not necessary always be native. However, the notion of conserving nature around a church is quite explicit. Catholic parishes in Latin America have traditionally been part of the urban landscape as they towered over the town or city square. New neighborhoods, irrespective of their socio-economic levels have constructed parishes within parks or have contributed to developing these green spaces as the cities spread out. Perhaps, the sacred perception of these spaces has contributed to them being considered “our common home” and as is the case of Bogota, parts of some public parks have become de facto homes to churches. Overlooking Bogota, is the Basilica of Monserrate, on top of a mountain, which like the Orthodox Churches in the Horn of Africa, reminds the pedestrian of the nature sensitiveness of spiritual sites around the world.

Church yards, irrespective of their location and creed, go to demonstrate that the environmental movement of the Twenty First Century surpasses a defined line between science and religion. Science, through its ability to precisely evaluate and measure change through computer models continues to prove and highlight the achievement of religion in conserving nature. Saint Francis, who the Pope’s name comes from and the Bahatawean Monks livng around the Orthodox Churches are today are no different than any other environmental activists. Growing up in the 70s, a period in development history based on Modernization, the Bahatawean monk, dressed in his humble worn out yellow cassock, which symbolizes pain and sacrifice in the East African Orthodox Church, was considered a laggard in the scientific world. Home for the Bahatawean has always been nature, particularly the church forests. Today, notions such as Sustainable Development, while being driven by rationalism and science seek a very similar to that which has been sought by these churches.

No wonder, this Encyclical is a best seller in Italy.