Thousands of wildfires are currently burning in the Amazon rainforest, destroying millions of miles worth of forest and causing smoke to fill the air in towns across the region. Many people from around the world are concerned about the environmental impact that such a large-scale deforestation could cause, both on the local level and on the global scale.
To discuss how the Catholic Church is responding to the Amazon fires, Greg Erlandson, director and editor-in-chief of Catholic News Service, stopped by Morning Air® to offer his insights.
Speaking of how these fires might impact the upcoming Synod of Bishops for the Pan-Amazon Region, Erlandson said, “I suspect they’ve underscored in a worldwide way the importance and urgency of the Synod. I think not everyone has been aware of why the Holy Father has been so concerned about the Amazon region, and other regions in the world that resemble it. … It underscores the importance of the region and the impact on the people in the region. And certainly one of the elements the Synod will be looking at is the ecological impact as man encroaches more and more on this vast territory.”
The Amazon rainforest spans nine countries and covers 40% of South America. It’s nearly two-thirds the size of the United States and according to scientific measurements it produces about 20% of the world’s oxygen. Because of this, the Amazon is often referred to as ‘the planet’s lungs.’ Erlandson said that, “It’s no doubt that this is an incredible resource that is being impacted by man’s encroachment.”
Erlandson pointed out that in speaking of man’s encroachment on the region, it is not the existence of men in the region, but how the resources of the region are being used that is the cause for concern.
“Now, we have to remember that human beings have been there for millennia,” he said. “There are 3 million indigenous people who live there, among the 31 million people in total. Thirty-one million people is not really that many people, but what’s happening is so much of the land is being cleared either for farming, for logging, or for mining. And it’s being cleared without really much concern for the environmental consequences of that, in terms of impacting freshwater (15% of the world’s freshwater is in the region) or the impact on the people. And I think this is where the Holy Father’s concern is.”
In his encyclical Laudato Si: On the Care for Our Common Home, Pope Francis stressed the fact that environmental problems are social problems, because nature has a massive impact on the the lives of humans.
“He uses the phrase integral ecology, and it’s this idea that it isn’t just environment, nature, trees, plants, or tree hugging,” Erlandson said. “It’s that the environment and the social world, the life of human beings, is integrated. And so we need to be concerned for both of them.”
So what is the Church doing in response to the Amazon fires, and what can Catholics do to help?
“The pope asked a religious order to help in the Amazon and they created a hospital ship that now goes down the rivers and treats the poor there,” Erlandson explained. He also encouraged Catholics to look into helping the people who are already down there serving the needs of those in the Amazon region.
“In terms of the immediate aspect of the fire, helping organizations like Catholic Relief Services would certainly be part of it. But I think also praying for and helping those mission orders that are down there as well. The fires may dwarf or remove from people’s attention from the impact on all the people there and the needs they have recently.”
Going back to the upcoming Synod in October, Erlandson said he is hopeful that the attention the fires have generated will encourage American Catholics to be more aware of their Catholic brothers and sisters in the Amazon region, and the struggles that they face on an environmental and spiritual level.
“The Church is a unifying force for the people there, and yet there are so few Church workers that often people may only get the Eucharist once a year,” Erlandson said. “They may only have one time a year when they can have their children baptized or have marriages blessed.”
“I think that American Catholics need to know more about why the Holy Father is so concerned. These fires may be terrible, but what they have done is they’ve called attention to the region. We just don’t want to forget that there are millions of Catholics in the region, and they are hungry for the Lord, and they need our help. It’s not just fires, it’s people.”
Listen to the full conversation below: