In much of the world, defending the environment is a matter of life or death

Known as the Escazú Agreement, for the Costa Rican town where it was adopted, the pact was signed by 24 nations in March 2018, after about six years of negotiations. Only half have ratified it, however. That’s enough for it to enter into force, but not enough to ensure real protection for communities. Corporate vs. community and earth interests are life and death for those on the frontlines. Meanwhile, corporate delay in changing practice has financial costs worldwide too. A new study shows that starting aggressive efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions now — instead of waiting until the end of the decade to step up action toward a 2050 carbon-neutrality goal — would save the U.S. $3.5 trillion, writes Dharna Noor at Gizmodo’s Earther.

By Barb Fraser for NCRonline.org, Feb 2021, an interview with Pedro Walpole

In much of the world, defending the environment is a matter of life or death.

Indigenous people, traditional communities, small farmers, fisherfolk and others depend on healthy ecosystems for their own health and their livelihoods. But they risk their lives when they defend their land against incursions by mining or oil companies, land speculators, loggers, illegal miners or organized crime groups growing drug crops.

When I talked with Jesuit Fr. Pedro Walpole for this week’s story about The River Above Asia and Oceania Ecclesial Network, a new church network linking people of faith throughout the vast Pacific biome, he spoke of the vulnerability of local communities — not just to the sometimes ferocious natural phenomena of the region, but also to abuse by governments and corporations.

“The monsoons and typhoons, they are life and they are death. That’s the nature of water,” Walpole told me, speaking from his open-sided, wood-frame house on Mindanao, in the Philippines.

“That’s where it’s difficult,” he added, “because where the problems are, people are very vulnerable.”

“We suffer much, but we must rise with hope and with care for creation,” he said. “We need a generation that cares, and it comes out of living with the land, of living with the ocean. People in the Pacific are so close to that environment. They can’t get away from it. They are so vulnerable.”

Natural phenomena are not the only danger, however. People are also vulnerable to abuse by corporations that buy off government officials and community leaders, use a “divide-and-conquer” strategy to turn community members against each other, and threaten those who resist.

“In some countries … if you don’t like someone, or you don’t like a community or you don’t like an indigenous group, you say they’re communist. You can eliminate them,” the Jesuit priest said. “Human rights are really under challenge.”

**

Immaculate Conception Catholic Church in Virginia raised $5,000 to plant 5,00 trees in Kenya, as part of a continuing commitment to environmental stewardship and a newfound fellowship in faith with farmers an ocean away. Brian Roewe, NCR environment correspondent, has the story.

5,000 trees link Virginia parish with Kenyan farmers

Feb 5, 2021 by Brian Roewe, NCR Action

About 100,000 farmers in four countries are part of The International Small Group and Tree Planting Program, or TIST, which allows individuals and corporations to fund trees that are used as part of a carbon-offset market. (The TIST Program)About 100,000 farmers in four countries are part of The International Small Group and Tree Planting Program, or TIST, which allows individuals and corporations to fund trees that are used as part of a carbon-offset market. (The TIST Program)

In early November, parishioners at Immaculate Conception Catholic Church in Hampton, Virginia, planted five new trees on the parish grounds. There were two serviceberry trees, two Chinese fringes and a dawn redwood, which, once full grown, can tower to heights eclipsing 100 feet.

The significance of the trees goes beyond beautifying the landscape. They represent the 5,000 trees the parish funded to be planted in Kenya as part of a continuing commitment to environmental stewardship and a newfound fellowship in faith with farmers an ocean away.

The trees were planted through The International Small Group and Tree Planting Program, or TIST, a U.S.-based organization that markets carbon offsets from the tree groves it helps small groups of farmers plant in Africa and India.

During the summer, Immaculate Conception raised $5,000 to fund the 5,000 trees. As it turns out, several of the Kenyan farmers who will plant and tend to the groves are Catholic, too, including members of St. Luke Gitero Catholic Church in Naro Moru, a small town near the base of Mount Kenya. Connected by TIST, the Catholic communities have exchanged video messages sharing about their faith, families, local churches and, of course, the trees.

St. Luke Gitero Catholic Church, in Naro Moru, Kenya, is one of home parishes of farmers who have connected with fellow Catholics at Immaculate Conception Catholic Church, in Hampton, Virginia, as part of the TIST tree planting program. (The TIST Program)St. Luke Gitero Catholic Church, in Naro Moru, Kenya, is one of home parishes of farmers who have connected with fellow Catholics at Immaculate Conception Catholic Church, in Hampton, Virginia, as part of the TIST tree planting program. (The TIST Program)

“With tree planting, we serve humanity. And when we serve humanity, we serve God,” Alphaxard Kimani, a St. Lwanga parishioner and TIST farmer, said in one video.

Fr. John Grace, pastor at Immaculate Conception, calls the project “a beautiful connection of Laudato Si’ and Fratelli Tutti,” referencing Pope Francis’ twin encyclicals that bind caring for a common earthly home with caring for one another as part of a global neighborhood.

“We’re supporting our community that just happens to be physically located in a different place, but they’re our brothers and sisters,” the pastor said.

Planting trees, empowering farmers

Planting trees at home and abroad is the latest effort by Immaculate Conception to reduce its carbon footprint. In 2019, it became the first Catholic parish in the state to switch to 100% solar energy, and it has since installed additional solar panels on the rectory.

Looking to do more, Grace turned to tree planting as a next step on the path to carbon neutrality — balancing emissions produced with those removed from the atmosphere.

Carbon offsets have gained popularity in recent years as a way to help reduce the greenhouse gas emissions that drive climate change. Critics, however, say they don’t spur the necessary changes in business practices and behavior required to reduce greenhouse gas emissions enough to avoid the most dangerous climate impacts.

About 100,000 farmers in four countries are part of The International Small Group and Tree Planting Program, or TIST. (The TIST Program)About 100,000 farmers in four countries are part of The International Small Group and Tree Planting Program, or TIST. (The TIST Program)

Carbon offsets work like this: An individual or organization — such as a state, corporation, school or even parish — seeking to cut emissions funds efforts to reabsorb and store carbon dioxide to “offset” emissions they can’t, or won’t, reduce on their own. Airline passengers, for instance, can purchase credits to offset emissions from a flight, and companies and schools looking to go carbon neutral have sought out credits to cover energy drawn from local power plants running on coal or gas.

Because trees naturally absorb and store — or “sequester” — carbon dioxide, many offset programs involve planting trees or conserving forests.

Grace’s search for a tree-focused offset program led him to TIST.

Since its formation in 1999, TIST has partnered with 100,000 farmers to plant and maintain more than 20 million trees. According to TIST, the program to date has captured and stored 5.5 million metric tons of carbon emissions. TIST charges $1 per tree planted, and $15 for each carbon credit, and has sold credits to major corporations like Delta Airlines.

TIST estimates each tree planted will sequester an estimated 133 kilograms of carbon dioxide over 10 years. In Immaculate Conception’s case, the parish did not calculate its total carbon footprint and did not view the 5,000 trees as a total offset. Using TIST’s calculations, the trees it funded equate to nearly 2,000 metric tons of offset carbon emissions, or the equivalent of not burning 2.2 million pounds of coal.

Vannesa and Ben Henneke, who are Episcopalian, founded TIST after a series of mission trips to Tanzania. During one visit, local community members expressed a desire to replant the trees that once covered the local hills and mountainsides.

“Most of these are subsistence farmers who really are relying on their own farms for food,” Vannesa Henneke told EarthBeat.

Farmers who are part of the TIST program in Kenya take part in a cluster meeting, where small groups of farmers receive news, training and payments related to the tree-planting program. (The TIST Program)Farmers who are part of the TIST program in Kenya take part in a cluster meeting, where small groups of farmers receive news, training and payments related to the tree-planting program. (The TIST Program)

By combining crops with trees in their farm plots, she said, they can restore the landscape and also provide food and income for their families. Along with capturing carbon dioxide, the trees reduce erosion and provide food like fruit and nuts, fuel, livestock fodder, shade and protection against powerful wind gusts.

Besides Tanzania, TIST works in India, Uganda and Kenya, the latter its largest program, with approximately 75,000 farmers.

Small groups of farmers, 47% of whom are women, make the decisions about which trees are planted, while TIST provides training. The farmers own the trees and are paid a stipend for keeping them alive, committing to tend them for 30 years. They also receive 70% of the net profit from the sale of carbon credits.

While TIST is not religiously affiliated, for the couple it is “a mission of our heart and what we feel God wants us to be doing,” Vannesa Henneke said.

Grace said the overlap in values, and the extra benefits of tree planting, beyond offsetting carbon emissions, made working with TIST a good match. He hopes to meet some of the farmers at a TIST-organized gathering once travel is possible again.

Parishioners have told the Virginia pastor that the project has raised their spirits at a time when the coronavirus pandemic has left them feeling cut off and helpless.

“I think it’s really important that we act as best we can, even in the small areas,” he said, “to keep moving forward around what really matters: caring for each other, breaking down the boundaries between each other and promoting the value of God’s gift [of] life, creation.

Famers who are part of the TIST program in Kenya observe some tree saplings. An estimated 75,000 Kenyan farmers are part of TIST, which works with farmers in four countries who grow trees that are then used for selling carbon offsets. (The TIST Program)Famers who are part of the TIST program in Kenya observe some tree saplings. An estimated 75,000 Kenyan farmers are part of TIST, which works with farmers in four countries who grow trees that are then used for selling carbon offsets. (The TIST Program)

Carbon markets questioned

Climate change mitigation programs that take advantage of trees’ ability to absorb carbon dioxide are attractive to policymakers. President Joe Biden’s sweeping climate plans include carbon sequestration through tree planting and farming techniques. Even some Republicans have backed proposals for planting a trillion trees by 2030, and other countries are making similar, though more modest, pledges.

But where some see carbon offsets as a solution, others point out a panoply of problems.

CIDSE, a mainly European-based network of Catholic development agencies, has criticized carbon offsets as a “false solution” to climate change. Instead, it promotes wider adoption of agroecology — a sustainable, locally oriented approach in which farmers grow food and replenish soil nutrients without using chemicals.

A common critique of carbon offsets is that they allow the wealthy and large polluters to continue pumping planet-warming greenhouse gases into the atmosphere and don’t provide enough incentive to change behaviors and reduce emissions.

Critics also argue that carbon markets pass the burden of reducing emissions on to small-scale farmers, who often live in the countries least responsible for producing greenhouse gases but most at risk from the impacts of the rising global temperatures they fuel.

December report from the Minneapolis-based Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy said carbon trading can endanger food security by changing the way farmers use their land or forcing them off their land to make way for tree plantations.

Ensuring that proposed emission offsets are actually achieved is also complicated, the report said, both because it is difficult to measure carbon sequestration accurately and because carbon can be released back into the atmosphere if trees die, are cut down or are destroyed by weather-related disasters.

Then there’s the question of verification.

In 2019, ProPublica published an extensive investigation into the problems facing carbon markets, finding that forests in Brazil and Cambodia that were set aside for selling carbon offsets were ultimately cut down.

One infamous incident involved the Vatican itself, which in 2007 under Pope Benedict XVI partnered with U.S. and Hungarian companies to restore more than 600 acres of forests in Hungary. The project was meant to offset the city-state’s emissions and make it the first carbon-neutral country in the world. Three years later, however, no trees had been planted and the Vatican considered taking legal action. In December, Pope Francis set a new goal of carbon neutrality by 2050.

TIST says it uses a verification system, updated regularly and accessible on its website, in which third-party verifiers conduct routine counts of trees that have been planted and their maturity, along with groves that have been lost because of weather, a herd of stampeding elephants or other causes. It also has an additional audit system.

Henneke told EarthBeat that TIST has been verified by third parties 28 times and is certified under the internationally recognized Verra standards.

“When people see this monitoring system, they’re surprised about the detail, because we knew from the very beginning we wanted to be able to say, ‘OK, these trees are being planted by these farmers in this latitude and longitude,'” she said.

In recent years, TIST has partnered with the Catholic Climate Covenant to fund tree planting as part of Earth Day and feast of St. Francis programs. A page on one of TIST’s websites highlights the partnership and places the program into the language of Laudato Si’: “TIST Farmers are caring for God’s creation by responsibly and sustainably caring for their local environment, local biodiversity, the global climate, and the well-being of their families and communities.”

Grace has worked with TIST to write materials that he hopes will encourage parishes and schools not only to consider tree-planting efforts of their own, along with connecting with the farmers doing the work, but also to respond more broadly to the pope’s call for ecological conversion.

“The gestures are real and they’re concrete, but they’re also symbolic,” Grace said, adding, “We have cleaner air in Virginia because of what African farmers did planting trees in Kenya. There are no boundaries or borders in the natural world.”

That came home to Walpole when the Paris Agreement on climate change was being negotiated. The only reference to human rights is in the preamble, and even then there was an effort to remove it. Catholic groups at the COP 21 United Nations climate summit joined in advocating for the inclusion of human rights in the framework.

“That’s when I really realized this is a global dynamic,” Walpole said of the practices that leave people unprotected when they stand up for their environmental and land rights.

The statistics are chilling. The non-profit watchdog group Global Witness documents the murders of people around the world who are killed for defending their territories or protecting the environment where they live. Some of the victims are well known, like Sr. Dorothy Stang, who was murdered in Brazil in 2005, and Lenca Indigenous leader Bertha Cáceres, assassinated in Honduras in 2016 for her opposition to the construction of a dam in her people’s territory.

In 2019, Global Witness tallied 212 murders, although the real number is probably higher. Nearly half the murders — 64 — occurred in Colombia. Philippines was the second-deadliest country, with 43 deaths. Honduras saw 14 murders, the highest per-capita figure.

Nearly two-thirds of all the murders occurred in Latin America, which has been the most dangerous region for defenders of the environment since Global Witness began keeping track in 2012. Most of the killings in Brazil took place in the Amazon region.

Of the global total, 50 people were killed for opposing mining projects. Industrial agriculture ranked second, with 34 victims — most of them in Asia.

There is one bright spot on the horizon. On Earth Day this year — April 22 — an accord aimed at protecting the rights and lives of defenders of the environment will take effect in Latin America and the Caribbean.

The Regional Agreement on Access to Information, Public Participation and Justice in Environmental Matters in Latin America and the Caribbean requires countries to “guarantee the right of every person to live in a healthy environment and to sustainable development” and protect related human rights.

It also upholds “the right to access to environmental information, public participation in the environmental decision-making process and access to justice in environmental matters.”

Those rights are significant. Even where national legislation requires the “free, prior and informed consent” of communities before projects like mining, oil drilling or dam construction can begin on their lands, the so-called consultations are often superficial or merely informative.

Communities often lack the expertise to analyze the potential impacts of projects, and technical and legal advice can be expensive or difficult to find.

Known as the Escazú Agreement, for the Costa Rican town where it was adopted, the pact was signed by 24 nations in March 2018, after about six years of negotiations. Only half have ratified it, however. That’s enough for it to enter into force, but not enough to ensure real protection for communities.

Brazil, Colombia and Guatemala — three of the six deadliest countries on Global Witness’ 2019 list — signed the accord but have not ratified it. Honduras has neither signed nor ratified. There is still much work to be done to ensure that the agreement is not just another paper promise.

Walpole sees church networks like the ones that have formed in Asia and Oceania, the Amazon, Africa’s Congo Basin and Mesoamerica as providing crucial support for communities that are under threat.

**

The Center for Catholic Thought & Culture at San Diego University is sponsoring a series of talks marking the fifth anniversary year of Pope Francis’ encyclical “Laudato Si’, on Care for Our Common Home.” The series begins at 5:30 p.m. Pacific time on Feb. 11, with a presentation featuring climate scientists V. Ramanthan and Michael Boudrias. You can find more information about this and other upcoming events on the EarthBeat Events page

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