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River above Asia Oceania Ecclesial Network for forests, oceans, and peoples

8 August 2020
River Above map

graphic by Raiza Javier and Hannah Makilan (Environmental Science for Social Change)

This Sunday we celebrate the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples. Every 9 August, the world commemorates the inaugural session of the 1982 Working Group on Indigenous Populations at the United Nations. It is also a special day to highlight and amplify the call for the protection of the rights of the Indigenous Peoples around the world as they continue to suffer from grave social, political, and corporate injustices.

Oceania and Asia as a geographic region is a unique territory with five or more biomes of vital planetary importance. It is comprised of rich mountainous and island areas of profound biodiversity and the most extensive cultural diversity. However, its waters, forests, and peoples are gravely threatened by extractive industries and policies driving consumerism and urbanization without balance for the land.

There is so much that is still not understood in terms of how interconnected and complex the challenges are in Asia and Oceania and how these should be addressed from a territorial bottom-up approach to ensure that indigenous and local communities are supported, and their rights upheld.

The Pacific, one-third of the planet’s surface, is the largest climate determinant on Earth producing much of the oxygen and the climate of the world. Oceania and Asia share a common image in the ‘River Above’ – the Pacific Ocean is the life, the river of Asia where the weather events feed all rivers, seasons and lives. The surface area and ocean currents absorb energy and generate thermals and other air flows, forming the weather patterns and events while sustaining their movement westward. This flow is life-giving and life-taking, especially as the climate is changing and resources are being exhausted. The welfare of the lands and peoples are bound to the welfare of the seas.

Forests are also extremely vital to the well-being of rural populations, particularly indigenous communities, smallholders, those living in close proximity to forests, mountains, and rivers, and those who make use of trees outside forests. In Oceania, forests comprise 70% of the limited land area of small island states. Over 450 million Asians live in or around tropical forests and savannahs, and of them, 84 million live in extreme poverty.

It is clear that the region faces threats from expansive economic interests that convert forests to agriculture, mining and logging areas; contaminate the soil and water with plastics and other solid non-biodegradable waste, sediments, agro-toxins, oil spills, and mine tailings; and displace rural peoples to rapidly expanding cities. Ongoing sea level rise is displacing coastal peoples of Pacific small island states from their homes. Apart from these ‘slow-onset disasters’, people in the region are highly exposed and vulnerable to more intense storms, droughts, floods, and landslide hazards.

How do we honor the knowledge and wisdom of local communities and Indigenous Peoples in caring for Creation?

We need to empower local communities as a major force for change. Rural communities in particular are integrally connected with the land and maintain a tradition through cultures. The community is the basic social unit of religion and the basis for action.

Interfaith dialogue from a territorial dynamic is a way to connect with diverse peoples in the region taking part in the common mission of caring for Creation and neighbor. Catholics may only be 3% of the region’s population, yet being part of the local culture, gives an opportunity for accompanying and responding to the most in need.

“I see we are all affected by what is happening to mother earth. This helps me to realize that we are united in a way. We are in the same region; we are in the same experience. This calls us to respond in a way that unites us in caring. How can we begin a kind of network that will bring out what we have in our region? How can we be united in our response?” – Cardinal John Ribat, Archbishop of Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea

The Church is challenged to listen from the ground up and build bridges with all faiths to respond to the concerns of indigenous and vulnerable communities across the region in the context of growing disasters, the need to build back better and reduce all forms of vulnerability.

Young people can take this forward with support from the Church. How can the youth be accompanied towards a leadership grounded on their intrinsic integrity and vision for a sustainable future? How is the world listening to the youth as they call for urgent climate action? How are the youth accompanied in this struggle? How are the challenges to climate justice understood given the diverse context of Asia and Oceania? How can a unified voice in calling for climate justice be created? How is this re-echoed with the rest of the world?

Sustainability is possible only if the oikosof economics and ecology are balanced as one household. The business world needs to be transformed. Global economics, businesses, advertising, and markets have to promote and learn to live within the ecology of our planet. This can only be done together and if there is a depolarized techno-society where trust and the common good share in the one fragile reality.

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In these, the Church is asked. How can it be a source of greater accompaniment to marginalized people so their voices can be heard globally at this critical time?

With key people from Oceania and Asia, an inter-federation ecclesial network is emerging to develop, integrate, and mainstream a coordination framework for promoting integral ecology.

Drawing from the interconnectedness of Oceania and Asia, the River above Asia Oceania Ecclesial Network (RAOEN) seeks to sustain dialogue and collaborative engagements among the Church, indigenous and local communities, youth, and other faith-based organizations within and beyond Asia and Oceania.

Through RAOEN, a territorial biomes approach in networking and dialogue is being fostered to facilitate collaboration and sharing of limited resources towards an understanding of what is possible in the care for our forests, oceans, and peoples.

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