Category Archives: Environment

‘Madman’ digs for decades to bring water to dry Indian village

Laungi Bhuiya is now being hailed as the 'Water Man' and 'River Man' [Courtesy of Jai Prakash/Al Jazeera]
Laungi Bhuiya is now being hailed as the ‘Water Man’ and ‘River Man’ [Courtesy of Jai Prakash/Al Jazeera]

Gaya, Bihar – For nearly 30 years, Ramrati Devi had called her husband Laungi Bhuiya “mad” and tried everything, even denying him food, to get him to focus more on supporting their children and less on what seemed like an impossible dream.

The other villagers in Kothilwa, a parched and poor hamlet in a remote corner of India’s eastern state of Bihar, dismissed Bhuiya when he said he would bring water to them one day.

Kothilwa is about 80 kilometres (50 miles) from Gaya, the closest major city, and is home to nearly 750 people – most of them Dalits – who live in mud huts.

Dalits, formerly referred to as the “untouchables”, fall at the bottom of India’s complex caste hierarchy and have historically faced social marginalisation and discrimination.

A narrow unpaved road off a highway is the only way to reach Kothilwa, a village tucked into a barren landscape, rocks dotting its red earth, on which nothing except maize and some hardy pulses that need little water grew.

Bhuiya, who owns a small piece of land, always reckoned that if he could dig a canal to redirect the streams running up in the hills to his village – which only had a couple of wells for drinking water that were not enough for irrigation – he and others would be able to grow vegetables and wheat and support themselves.

Therefore, oblivious to his wife’s reprimands and the villagers’ taunts, Bhuiya, now 70, would head up into the nearby Bangetha Hills to dig.

He says he kept at it for nearly three decades, with rudimentary tools and a dogged determination.

“I was always angry with him for not caring about the children. There was never any money, never enough food,” his wife Devi told Al Jazeera.

Soon, Bhuiya came to be known in the village as the “madman” possessed by a dream of bringing water to the village. His son Brahmdeo said the family even took him to the village healers to exorcise him. Three of his four sons had migrated to other cities to find work.

But a determined Bhuiya kept digging. He knew water from the monsoon rains filled the many streams in the Bangetha Hills and that they could be diverted to the village.

For years, Bhuiya headed out for the hills to dig every day – a feat reminiscent of the epic efforts of Dashrath Manjhi, another Dalit from Gaya, decades ago.

After 22 years of cutting through Gaya’s Gehlour Hills using only a hammer and chisel, Manjhi in 1982 shortened the distance between his village and the nearest town from 55 to 15 kilometres (from 34 to 9 miles).

Manjhi’s feat earned him the sobriquet “Mountain Man”. The government released a postage stamp featuring him and Bollywood produced a biopic about him in 2016.

“I had heard about him and I thought if he can do it, why can’t I?” Bhuiya told Al Jazeera. “They all thought I was mad.”

‘We used to think he is possessed’

Last month, local journalist Jai Prakash had gone to the village to cover a story about the villagers building their own road to the village when Bhuiya came up to him and asked if he could show him a canal he had dug.

“He had dug a minor canal for irrigation. He said it took him nearly 30 years, so we went on my motorcycle to see it,” Prakash told Al Jazeera.

“In the monsoons, the water had come to the little dam the water department had constructed last year… Laungi Dam.”

As soon as Prakash’s story was published in a local Hindi newspaper on September 3, Kothilwa became a hotspot as journalists, political leaders, social workers and activists began flocking to the village to meet Bhuiya.

Bhuiya was able to dig a canal 3km (1.86 miles) long but hadn’t been able to bring it all the way uphill to Kothilwa, and was forced to stop digging a kilometre away from the village.

As news of his efforts spread, Bihar state’s Water Minister Sanjay Jha came to know about it and ordered the extension of the canal till Bhuiya’s village.

The day Al Jazeera visited Kothilwa, a man from a neighbouring village had walked into Bhuiya’s courtyard and was making a speech about the failures of the government.

A placard with an enlarged image of a cheque for 100,000 rupees ($1,365) presented to him by Mankind Pharma, an Indian pharmaceutical company, hung outside the door of his house.

On the same day, Bihar’s former Chief Minister Jitan Ram Manjhi visited the village and promised Bhuiya he would be recognised by the Indian president. Villagers present asked Manjhi for a hospital and a road to be built and named after Bhuiya.

That evening, Bhuyia, resplendent in a white kurta and dhoti with flowers in his hand, went to an auto showroom in Gaya where a tractor decorated gaily with balloons stood waiting for him.

It was a gift from Anand Mahindra, chairman of the auto giant Mahindra Group, who had heard through a local journalist’s tweets that Bhuiya was now dreaming of owning a tractor after having dug the irrigation canal.

“We used to think he is possessed,” his son Brahmdeo said.  “Things have changed now. We have some money we got because of his work.”

Bramhdeo says he now wants a fan, and maybe some clothes and good food too.

Meanwhile, Bhuiya’s wife Ramrati Devi watched as her husband, now being hailed as the “Water Man” and “River Man”, had been whisked away by a crowd of cheering villagers.

They had a good reason to be happy. This year, the village of Kothilwa was able to grow wheat.

https://www.aljazeera.com/features/2020/10/30/mad-man-digs-for-20-years-to-make-canal-in-remote-india-village

Sharon Lavigne’s fighting faith on the bayou

Sharon Lavigne, right, joins a march organized by the Coalition Against Death Alley in Louisiana in October 2019. (Courtesy of Louisiana Bucket Brigade/Tom Wright)
Sharon Lavigne, right, joins a march organized by the Coalition Against Death Alley in Louisiana in October 2019. (Courtesy of Louisiana Bucket Brigade/Tom Wright)

Welcome, Louisiana — Last May, on the day she turned 69, Sharon Lavigne and three Protestant pastors hiked the levee beside the Mississippi River and looked across the highway at the lush sugarcane fields and wetlands where Taiwan-based Formosa Plastics Group planned to build one of the largest plastics factories in the world.

The 2,400-acre, 14-plant complex would worsen the area’s existing pollution overload, spewing cancer-causing chemicals into the air. Opponents say its environmental permits would allow it to emit greenhouse gases equivalent to the output of three and a half coal-fired power plants.

The complex would also disturb or destroy graves of enslaved Black people who were buried on the property, which was once a plantation.

A mile downriver from the Formosa site stands an elementary school, and a mile beyond that, Lavigne’s home.

Standing atop the levee, she and her companions recalled the Old Testament story in which Joshua circled the ancient city of Jericho and caused its walls to tumble. Lavigne and the pastors walked six times in a circle, reciting Psalm 23, and on the seventh, they raised their arms skyward and begged God almighty to stop Formosa.

A devout Catholic, Lavigne is at the forefront of a campaign to thwart construction of the plastics complex. Two years ago, she founded Rise St. James, a faith-based, grassroots group made up of residents of the Fifth District of St. James Parish, an area of sugarcane fields and historically black hamlets interlaced with pipelines and industrial facilities.

Backed by environmentalists and community organizations, the group is speaking out for Black communities in St. James that face a new wave of industrial pollution.

The group started with protest marches. When the coronavirus pandemic erupted, the activists adapted their strategies and message, pointing out that theirs is a struggle against environmental racism and linking it to national calls for racial justice.

The group’s Facebook posts include updates on actions and lawsuits against the corporation, articles on plastics pollution, video clips of parish council meetings where Formosa was on the agenda, and numerous clips of Lavigne urging local officials to rescind approval of the complex.

She often mentions God.

“If you are Christians, if you believe in God, change this,” Lavigne says in a Sept. 1 Facebook post. “I know you can’t sleep at night because you live in St. James, too. When I am poisoned, you will be poisoned, too. So I ask you to go back, to get on your knees and pray and ask God to put it in your hearts to go back and rescind this decision.”

The Formosa complex represents “an assault on human life at all of its stages,” says Jesuit Deacon Chris Kellerman of the Jesuit Social Research Institute at Loyola University New Orleans. In an Aug. 27 letter to the News Examiner-Enterprise, a St. James newspaper, Kellerman said ethylene oxide emissions from the facility would jeopardize the unborn, citing studies showing that exposure increases rates of premature births and miscarriages. He noted that adults and school-age children would also be at risk, and he mentioned the graves.

“And all of this without the express consent of the people,” wrote Kellerman, who urged local officials to “find other alternative ways of investing in St. James that won’t pose such an antilife, racist and existential threat to the parish.”

https://www.ncronline.org/news/earthbeat/sharon-lavignes-fighting-faith-bayou

There’s still time to act on climate change

A young woman wears an air-filtering mask and holds a sign while participating in the Global Climate Strike in New York City in September 2019. (CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz)
A young woman wears an air-filtering mask and holds a sign while participating in the Global Climate Strike in New York City in September 2019. (CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz)

Is it too late to change the course the world is on?

That’s a question that comes up more and more frequently. This week, I’ve heard reasons for hope, but also messages of urgency. That is, there’s still time, but we need to act now. And although the problem may look overwhelming, it can be broken down — like all the tasks on our to-do lists — into manageable chunks.

First, though, it’s important to understand where most of the greenhouse gases we humans produce come from and how we can set priorities for tackling them, with policies and our own actions. For an overview, check out this webinar by environmental scientist Jonathan Foley, executive director of Project Drawdown.

“Drawdown” refers to the point at which humans’ greenhouse gas emissions stop increasing and begin to fall. That is the point at which we step back from the edge, and Foley says it’s within our grasp.

Which human activities cause the greatest greenhouse gas emissions? As it turns out, electricity and food account for nearly half.

Generating electricity produces 25% of total human-created emissions, while agriculture, food and land-use change (for instance, destroying forest for ranching or to grow crops like oil palm or soybeans) account for 24%. So doing those things more efficiently and less wastefully would go a long way toward reducing emissions, Foley reasons.

For energy, that means not only moving away from fossil fuels — something to which Illinois Catholic bishops lent their support late last month — and increasing our use of renewable sources like the sun, wind and waves, but also retrofitting the world’s buildings, so they use less energy.

For food, it means wasting less, at home and in supply lines, as well as decreasing consumption of beef and dairy products. That’s partly because cattle belch methane and partly because ranching drives tropical deforestation.

While climate solutions require policy changes, there are many things we can do, as individuals and communities, by making lifestyle changes, encouraging others — and, of course, voting.

In Africa, farmers learn new methods for facing drought, floods

Oscar Singo stands in the field of cabbages he grows to feed his livestock, a technique he learned at a Catholic Church-run farmer training center. (Tawanda Karombo)
Oscar Singo stands in the field of cabbages he grows to feed his livestock, a technique he learned at a Catholic Church-run farmer training center. (Tawanda Karombo)

Bulawayo, Zimbabwe — In the sweltering mid-October heat of Matobo, one of Zimbabwe’s hottest and driest districts, Spiwe Moyo tended her ripening tomato crop. Nearby, underneath a baobab tree, a few emaciated donkeys and a small herd of skinny cattle take shelter from the blazing sun.

Along with the onions, vegetables and green beans grown by other communal farmers as part of the Evergreen Community Market Garden, Moyo’s tomato crop is a virtual oasis of green, surrounded by bare red soil that receives little shade from the sparse leaves of the mopani trees and a few patches of dry grass long desolated by the high temperatures.

Despite the punishing heat, unfriendly surroundings and daily struggles for water for humans and domestic animals, she beamed a smile when she spoke of the prospects for her crop, which will ripen in the next week or so.

“I am just weeding out the crop and inspecting for pests and other diseases, because in this hot weather, crops can suddenly suffer diseases or pest attacks. We only water the crops in the morning or evening, to conserve the water,” Moyo told EarthBeat in an interview at the garden.

The water comes from a solar-powered well funded by Catholic Church organizations. Without it, she says, “there would be no green crops to talk about, as the rains are not sufficient.”

There has been practically no rain in the past two years in this arid part of Matebeleland South province, in southwestern Zimbabwe. This year, however, rains came suddenly, a month earlier than expected. Experts say that is one of the uncertainties caused by climate change, and it has combined with other climate-related disasters that have made food scarce in southern Africa.

Climate change has caused as many as 86 million people across sub-Saharan Africa to migrate from their land, according to a September UNICEF report. And drought and climate change are creating critical food scarcity for more than 11 million people in nine southern African countries, the report says.

In an effort to head off water wars and help farmers adapt to the changing climate, various Catholic agencies, including the Irish aid agency Trócaire, Britain’s Catholic Agency for Overseas Development, or CAFOD, and Catholic Relief Services, the U.S. bishops’ aid and development agency, are funding agro-ecology learning centers and solar-powered community wells in southern African countries, including Zimbabwe, Malawi and Zambia.

At the centers, which blend sustainable agriculture techniques with indigenous farming practices, local farmers learn skills such as contour plowing, drip irrigation and organic pest control, as well as practices such as “intercropping,” or combining multiple crops in one plot.

As a result, communal oases of green are appearing in various areas, as “model” farmers share their new knowledge with their neighbors.

“The seasons are changing and we are seeing the impact of climate change, because we usually have the first showers in August and at the end of October we then get the first planting rains. But in the last two years, there have basically been no rains here,” said Felix Ncube, who is a member of the management committee of St. Joseph’s Agro-Ecological Center in Matopos.

Committee members run the learning center and also train other people in the community, passing along their new knowledge to other farmers.

The problems related to climate change are worsened by unemployment and food insecurity, Ncube said. Although Caritas and the World Food Program assist the community with relief kits, they distribute aid only to the elderly, leaving younger people desperate, he said.

“The youths here have nothing to do to feed themselves or take care of their families, so they end up cutting down trees as a source of energy [for brick-making kilns], and this is contributing to the arid conditions in the area,” he said.

Because deforestation can affect local rainfall, the Catholic groups working with farmers hope that slowing the loss of tree cover will also help ease some of those conditions.

Competition for farmland and demand for charcoal both lead to deforestation. In Zambia, the Mother Earth Center, a sustainable farming project run by Comboni Sisters, encourages farmers to reforest their land.

The center trains farmers to combine agriculture with forestry, as a means of diversifying the tree and plant cover on their farms. This helps promote preservation of native tree species and also makes the farmers better prepared to withstand drought and floods.

Because of the high cost of electricity, charcoal is commonly used for cooking and heating in low- and middle-income households, even in cities, Sr. Annes James, who runs the Mother Earth Center, told EarthBeat in an email.

“Little or no investment seems to be made fast enough in the area of solar energy, despite the abundant sunshine enjoyed in these parts all year-round,” she said.

In Zambia, the drying and shifting flows of rivers are evidence that the effects of climate change are already at play in the region, Jesuit Fr. Andrew Simpasa, director of the Kasisi Agriculture Training Center in Lusaka, Zambia, told EarthBeat.

As seasons change and water sources dry up, disputes over access to water access are emerging and are projected to worsen.

“In Zambia, the Chongwe and Ngwerere Rivers, which were once a catchment area for providing irrigation water for farms located on the eastern side of Lusaka city, have now become perennial rivers,” Simpasa said.

“This has caused water access disputes between commercial farmers, who have the machinery and equipment to domesticate the water, and small-scale farmers who struggle to access irrigation water during the dry season,” he added.

In Zimbabwe, Gwinyai Chibaira, agri-livelihoods project manager for Catholic Relief Services in Zimbabwe, has seen successive droughts and floods wipe out farmers’ crops. Even so, when the agency launched an agricultural training center in 2013 in Beitbridge, near the border with South Africa, only four farmers signed up, he said.

Now about 100 households have participated in the training programs, learning to grow fodder for livestock such as cattle and goats. They can then sell the animals to support their families and reinvest in their farms.

Oscar Singo, 36, has gone a step further. Besides growing fodder and cabbages for his herd of cattle, he buys animals from others and fattens them before auctioning them off.

As the climate changes, experts recommend planting earlier to reduce the risk of heavy storms and flooding before they can harvest their crops. They also encourage farmers to plant trees and other vegetation to retain moisture and create additional windbreaks, and to ensure that cattle and goats do not devour newly planted trees and other vegetation.

In Beitbridge, farmers find that fodder crops serve as animal feed, help avoid erosion and provide an additional source of income.

Timothy Ngulube, a 60-year-old livestock farmer in Fula, a village near Beitbridge, hopes to earn enough to install his own solar pump to irrigate the fields where he grows crops to feed his animals on his landholding of less than four acres.

“I used to grow tomatoes and maize,” he said, “but it is getting dryer and hotter here, hence I have to focus on livestock, which is resilient to these dry weather patterns.”

https://www.ncronline.org/news/earthbeat/africa-farmers-learn-new-methods-facing-drought-floods

For this young Indigenous woman, passion for environmental justice is rooted in the land

Paisley Sierra is a student at the University of Minnesota, Morris, whose concern for environmental justice grew out of her Oglala Lakota culture's view of the Earth as family. (Provided photo)
Paisley Sierra is a student at the University of Minnesota, Morris, whose concern for environmental justice grew out of her Oglala Lakota culture’s view of the Earth as family. (Provided photo)

As I look across the horizon, I can see the hills run for miles and miles. Focusing on the sky and becoming entranced in the different colors of the sunset, along with the stars beginning to shine as the day comes to an end, I sit here and listen to the different sounds, taking in the beauty that surrounds me.

It is at this moment when I find myself at peace, when I acknowledge the energies around me and try to center myself between spirituality and reality. This balance is how I grew my passion for environmental justice.

I grew up on the Pine Ridge Reservation and my indigeneity is what helped me to identify the connection between me and Uŋčí Makȟa (Mother Earth). I never fully recognized how different Indigenous beliefs toward the environment are compared to how non-natives view the environment.

Indigenous cultures revolve around this idea of equality with the Earth and can notice the different energies within every living thing on a spiritual level. We have lived off the land for generations and come to see it as equal to us. This connection is something that I believe to be unique to Indigenous peoples.

On the other hand, non-native peoples seem to have a physical sense of the Earth being important for every life form and understand the need to take care of it but lack the emotional and spiritual sense of importance that the Earth holds.

Now with environmental justice comes the understanding of the land, specifically the unpleasant history of it. In the United States, this history is particularly important because of how the government took the land from the people who were occupying it in the first place.

Historically, those who are not people of color have treated the environment as an object to gain profit from and have forced Indigenous peoples off their land in order to gain a sense of power and control. Ironically, in modern times, those who are not people of color have been seeking guidance from Indigenous peoples, whom their ancestors ridiculed for their culture, to understand the land that their ancestors stole.

This history is what has created my distrust of some of the people in power who claim to support environmentalism, but who will also support the oil industry and other large corporations. These people will put money over the environment if given the opportunity to do so. The land is seen as expendable, but in reality the land has lived and will continue to live without us. It is we who are expendable to the land, not the other way around.

I believe that gaining that spiritual sense of the environment is what would put others into that mindset of how to take care of yourself and take care of the world around you. This mindset is one that is difficult to fully understand, because people tend to put the environment over their own well-being or vice versa.

In reality, you need to be able to find that balance between your passion for environmental justice and your own mental health, because they both work within each other. Scientifically, the Earth is very similar to how the body works, meaning that your physical, mental and emotional well-being is like a smaller version of our environment. If you aren’t able to take care of your own mental, emotional and physical self, then how do you expect to successfully take care of the planet?

When I realized how my personal well-being and my passion for the environment connected to one another, I learned to find that balance between them. On the days my mental health is at a low, I tend to do anything that involves going outside and being alone because at these moments I can think clearly.

Most times I pray; other times I just rant to the world around me, because I know that Uŋčí Makȟa is listening to me. I look out to the world and I feel a sense of protection from her. As she listens to me, I listen to her. The heartbeat of the Earth goes unnoticed, but once your body, mind and spirit intertwine with hers, it’s a beautiful sound that you’ll never forget.

https://www.ncronline.org/news/earthbeat/young-indigenous-woman-passion-environmental-justice-rooted-land

Saint’s feast day reminds us to care for creation, those on the periphery

An image of St. Francis greets visitors to the hillside cloister where he prayed outside of Assisi, Italy. (Barbara Fraser)
An image of St. Francis greets visitors to the hillside cloister where he prayed outside of Assisi, Italy. (Barbara Fraser)

As summer turns to autumn in the Northern Hemisphere, and winter to spring south of the Equator, we have celebrated the transitional month of September as the Season of Creation. It has been a time to take stock of our relationship with all of our fellow travelers on this planet, human and non-human alike, and renew our commitment to healing and renewing the Earth.

The Season of Creation ends, appropriately, on Sunday, which is the feast day of St. Francis of Assisi. In answer to this week’s Burning Question, EarthBeat staff writer Brian Roewe explains who Francis was and how he became the patron saint of ecology.

In his 2015 encyclical, “Laudato Si’, on Care for Our Common Home,” Pope Francis notes that the saint from whom he took his papal name is beloved by Christians and non-Christians alike. “He was a mystic and a pilgrim who lived in simplicity and in wonderful harmony with God, with others, with nature and with himself,” the pope writes. “He shows us just how inseparable the bond is between concern for nature, justice for the poor, commitment to society, and interior peace.”

St. Francis has been an inspiration for countless environmental activists, especially in the decades since Earth Day in 1970 launched the modern environmental movement. This weekend is a good time to bring to mind the people who are ecological saints for our times.

How many do you know? If you gather with a faith community on the feast of St. Francis, perhaps you can take some time to share their stories, whether they are famous environmentalists or ordinary people who take extraordinary care of God’s creation. This is also a time to remember the martyrs, the people around the world who have died defending their land from those who would despoil it.

One of the best known in recent times is Notre Dame de Namur Sr. Dorothy Stang, a missionary who was murdered in Brazil in 2005. The state of Pará, where she worked, remains dangerous for those who stand up to land speculators, ranchers and loggers. Photographer Paul Jeffrey recalled the commitment of Stang and others like her in his Lens on Creation series. Today’s final reflection, appropriately, is sparked by a duck that appears to share St. Francis’ joy in the world the Creator has given us.

Thirty days after St. Francis’ feast day, U.S. voters will go to the polls to choose the president and legislators who will guide us through the turbulent months ahead, in which the coronavirus pandemic is likely to combine with the impacts of severe storms and wildfires exacerbated by global warming.

This week, EarthBeat’s Roewe and biologist and science policy expert Thomas Lovejoy joined us for an NCR Facebook Live conversation about the election and environmental issues. Lovejoy, who has been studying a forested area near Manaus, Brazil, since the 1960s, has seen a cascade of factors, including road building and a warming climate, push the Amazon forest closer and closer to what he calls a “tipping point,” at which it could change from forest to grassland, with disastrous impacts on rainfall around South America.

But it’s not too late to act, Lovejoy told us, even if President Donald Trump should win a second term. “There is always hope,” he said, “because we can use our imagination to figure out other ways to make a difference.” Many cities and states are working to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, despite foot-dragging by the federal government, “and that’s where I would concentrate efforts,” he said.

As for individuals, there are plenty of things we can do. Voting is one, of course. Advocacy with state and local governments and even utility companies is another. And a suggestion from Lovejoy, in time for St. Francis’ feast day — we can help restore what humans have destroyed.

“Every time we plant a tree or restore a wetland, get involved in a reforestation project or improve some degraded agricultural land so the soil is accumulating carbon and getting more fertile, we are making a contribution,” he said. “That becomes something that every individual can do.”

So this weekend, as the Season of Creation draws to a close, we can take one more opportunity to praise the Creator along with Sir Brother Sun, Sister Moon, Brother Wind, Sister Water, Brother Fire and our Sister Mother Earth, as St. Francis wrote.

And we can plant a tree, like the little boy who is working with this family to create a mangrove swamp in the Sept. 30 Lens on Creation reflection. In doing so, we are reminded that we endlessly nurture and are nurtured by all of the other human and non-human creatures in this great web of life.

https://www.ncronline.org/news/earthbeat/earthbeat-weekly-following-st-francis-footsteps-season-creation-ends

EarthBeat Weekly: Pope Francis’ ecological conversion on the way to Laudato Si’

Pope Francis and Peruvian Cardinal Pedro Barreto Jimeno join a procession before the first session of the Synod for the Amazon on Oct. 7, 2019. (CNS photo/Vatican Media)

Even popes need a conversion sometimes.

In conversations with Italian environmental activist Carlo Petrini, published in a new book, Pope Francis revealed that more than a decade ago, he did not understand why Brazil’s bishops were so insistent about environmental issues in the Amazon.

His conversion in recent years to awareness of the importance of climate change, other environmental crises and land rights has strengthened the church’s stance on those issues in Latin America and shown that the problems are not just regional, but global.

“That testimony of [then-Cardinal Jorge] Bergoglio’s conversion is, in a way, a reflection of many conversions of clergy,” Colombian theologian Alirio Cáceres, who advises the Latin American Cáritas network on integral ecology issues, told EarthBeat.

Francis took the first step along the road to conversion in Aparecida, Brazil, in May 2007, where he headed the commission that wrote the document resulting from the Fifth General Conference of the Council of Bishops of Latin America and the Caribbean.

Journalists were not allowed to watch the deliberations, so we staked out bishops’ hotels in an effort to snag an interview and attended a daily press conference at which three or four assembly delegates talked about the issues under discussion.

One that I particularly remember came toward the end of the assembly and focused on environmental issues. The participants included Bishop Erwin Kräutler of the Prelature of Xingu in Brazil, the jurisdiction where Notre Dame de Namur Sr. Dorothy Stang was living and working among small farmers when she was martyred.

“It’s five minutes to midnight for the Amazon,” Kräutler said at the press conference. The phrase has resonated for me ever since, as I have spent time with indigenous villagers whose water and food sources have been fouled by pollution from oil spills or illegal gold mining; African-descended residents of quilombos in Brazil who are pressured by encroaching soybean plantations; Guaraní people whose high suicide rates are linked to the loss of their traditional lands; and smallholders and church workers who still battle the forces that led to Stang’s murder.

For Kräutler and other bishops in the Brazilian Amazon, that had been the reality for decades, and their voice at Aparecida was strong enough that the conference’s final document included a short section on “Biodiversity, ecology, the Amazon and the Antarctic.”

“Traditional communities have been practically excluded from decisions on the wealth of biodiversity and nature,” the bishops wrote. “Nature has been, and continues to be, assaulted. The land has been plundered. Water is being treated as though it were merchandise that could be traded by companies, and has been transformed into a good for which powerful nations compete. A major example of this situation is the Amazon.”

But while Aparecida may have set Francis on his path to conversion on environmental issues, the seeds were planted earlier. For Cáceres, 1992 was a turning point, with the convergence of the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro and the Fourth General Conference of Latin American and Caribbean Bishops in Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic. At that meeting, Brazilian Bishop Luiz Demétrio Valentini spoke strongly enough about environmental concerns that they appeared — rather timidly — in the final document, along with mention of the importance of an inculturated evangelization that respected the worldviews or cosmovisions of indigenous and traditional peoples.

Brazilian bishops working in Amazonia had already been meeting to discuss the deterioration of the region’s environment and the situation of its indigenous peoples, as well as the pastoral challenges posed by ministering in such a vast and diverse region. The Brazilian theologian Leonardo Boff had also been writing on liberation theology with an ethic of integral ecology, linking the “cry of the earth” with the “cry of the poor.”

When Bergoglio was elected pope in 2013, he chose the name Francis mainly because of his commitment to the poor, Cáceres says. But at his installation Mass, on the Feast of St. Joseph, his homily hinted at his conversion. Invoking St. Joseph as protector of the family, Francis said that all are called to be protectors, which means “respecting each of God’s creatures and respecting the environment in which we live.”

With that new wind blowing from the Vatican, in June 2013 a group of bishops, religious and lay people met in Ecuador and laid the groundwork for the Pan-Amazonian Church Network (REPAM in Spanish), which would guide the process that led to the Synod for the Amazon six years later.

Meanwhile, Francis was embracing his namesake saint’s understanding of the interconnectedness of all things, taking the name of the Canticle of the Creatures, Laudato Si’, as the name of his encyclical “on care of our common home.” Expectation of an encyclical was high by mid-2014, but the text was not released unti June 2015, a full year later, in time to play an influential role in bringing people of faith together around climate-related issues ahead of the UN climate summit that led in December 2015 to the Paris Agreement on limiting greenhouse gas emissions.

It was not until January 2018, however, that Francis actually traveled to the Amazon as pope, during his trip to Peru. He has said he was particularly moved by conversation over lunch with ordinary people in the Amazonian town of Puerto Maldonado. In his address there to more than 2,000 Amazonian indigenous people, he said the land where they lived was holy ground. He also announced the beginning of the region-wide reflection and consultation process that preceded the Synod of Bishops for the Pan-Amazonian Region, held in October 2019.

Environmental issues were prominent at the synod, although they received less media attention than discussions about ordaining married men to celebrate Eucharist in remote communities and allowing women to become deacons.

Not everyone in the church has embraced Francis’ concept of integral ecology, which calls into question an economy based on uncontrolled consumption of natural resources and social inequalities that have been made starkly visible by the coronavirus pandemic, Cáceres says.

Nevertheless, a decade and a half after Aparecida, the pope’s admission that he did not appreciate the urgency in the Brazilian bishops’ call for attention to the Amazon offers hope that other doubters may follow his path to conversion. Meanwhile, Francis is looking beyond that specific region, by placing what he calls the “periphery” at the center of the church’s concerns.

The pope’s dreams for the Amazon, outlined in the papal exhortation Querida Amazonia, “are also the dreams for all the Amazons of the world,” Cáceres says. “The dreams for the geographic Amazon, the biome, are the dreams for all of the common home. There is a social ecological, cultural and ecclesial dream that applies to the entire world.”

https://www.ncronline.org/news/earthbeat/earthbeat-weekly-pope-francis-ecological-conversion-way-laudato-si

How Montana Is Cleaning Up Abandoned Oil Wells

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An example of abandoned oil pumps and well. Martina Birnbaum / Getty Images

A farmer for most of his life, Sam Stewart bought farmland in Montana about 35 years ago. Since then, he’s planted and harvested his wheat and other crops around 16 open oil wells on this land, which he estimates were dug in the 1920s.

Maneuvering around the wells is not an arduous process, per se, but it requires seeding the same area twice, which is wasteful and can slow his process. The real nuisance is the invisible methane wafting into the air—a greenhouse gas with an impact 10 times that of carbon dioxide. “You don’t want loose gas being just emitted,” Stewart says.

Unplugged wells in Montana and across the country leak thousands of metric tons of greenhouse gases each year. They can also leach toxins into groundwater and surface water systems, contaminating aquifers. More often than not, these wells simply aren’t being cleaned up. That’s in part because a lack of funding and political will has stymied the state’s cleanup efforts, and in part because there’s uncertainty around ownership. “I didn’t know they were actually abandoned,” Stewart says of the multiple orphaned wells on his property. “I thought the oil company was responsible.”

A foundation formed in 2019 could finally help clean up some of these abandoned oil wells, including those on Stewart’s property. “The operator who is responsible is long gone,” says Curtis Shuck, founder of the Well Done Foundation. “Our focus is doing the right thing, leaving it better than the way we found it.”

Abandoned Wells

The first oil wells in Montana were drilled at the turn of the century, and the industry experienced its first boom in the 1920s. Energy demands of World War II spurred a second boom; between 1942 and 1945, oil production in the Elk Basin region increased from 16,000 to 940,000 barrels annually. When those wells no longer produced oil, companies could just leave. The Oil and Gas Conservation Commission of Montana, tasked with identifying and plugging abandoned wells, wasn’t created until 1954, and by that time an untold number of wells had already been drilled, produced, and abandoned.

As more companies moved into Montana, oil and gas production grew into an increasingly important part of local and state economies; by 2015, it made up 5.6% of the state’s general fund. But the industry that once was a cornerstone of Montana’s economy is now in a nosedive: a yearslong decline in global oil production and demand compounded by the pandemic-induced economic slowdown has produced some of the worst oil production conditions in recent years.

In 2016, the most recent year for which he was able to provide data, 4,713 oil and gas wells were in operation in the state and 204 had been abandoned, according to Allen Olson, executive director of the Montana Petroleum Association, a trade organization that works on behalf of the businesses. But that’s a fraction of the tens of thousands that have been drilled in Montana in the past century.

Data on abandoned wells remain incomplete, which further complicates cleanup efforts. Plus, state legislatures have drastically different policies on how to address abandoned wells. One thing remains certain: The issue is enormous and far-reaching. A 2018 report from the Environmental Protection Agency estimated that the country has 3.2 million abandoned oil and gas wells.

Abandoned wells in Montana—left by companies that filed for bankruptcy, for example, default to the state. Theoretically, a state-run fund pays for well adoption and closure, but even under state control, the wells often lay unplugged, because plugging abandoned wells and restoring the surface land is expensive. Olson believes that the “state regulatory agency here is doing an excellent job staying on top” of plugging wells. But the state’s plugging plan doesn’t explicitly address the issue of abandoned oil wells, and also neglects to lay out a time-bound plan for plugging wells.

It’s not just that states like Montana don’t have a legislative apparatus to hold corporations accountable, says Mitch Jones, the climate and energy program director at Food & Water Watch, a nonprofit that pushes for corporate and government accountability. He says that the lack of governmental action is by design. When wells are abandoned, Jones says, “the costs of doing business are passed on to the public instead of being paid by the shareholders in the industry.”

Nationwide, the federal government’s own agency in charge of plugging abandoned wells, the Bureau of Land Management, has openly acknowledged that it doesn’t have the financial resources to tackle the issue of plugging wells on federal land. There was no federal nationwide bond requirement to cover the cost of reclaiming wells until the 1950s, and the required value for bonds has not increased since then.

That’s right: the amount required to cover the cost of cleanup has not been increased or adjusted for inflation for nearly 70 years, so the federal amount is woefully ineffective. Bond standards of a couple thousand dollars often don’t address wells that cost tens of thousands to plug, another cause for wells to be abandoned.

Jones believes that extractive companies are harming the environment and then escaping culpability by declaring bankruptcy. “Not pointing fingers isn’t really an option in order to win this fight against climate change,” he says. Identifying the sources of harm holds polluting industries accountable for supporting solutions and provides a pathway for legislation that protects the planet, Jones says. The House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis, for example, just proposed a $2 billion remediation program for orphaned wells in June, though given the political climate, that legislation has a rocky future.

https://www.ecowatch.com/oil-well-abandonment-montana-2647005111.html?rebelltitem=3#rebelltitem3

Virginia shines as solar hot spot in Catholic Energies expansion

In July, a 421-kilowatt solar system was installed at St. Anthony of Padua Catholic Church, in Falls Church, Virginia. The rooftop solar array is projected to offset almost 90% of the parish’s energy use and save it upwards of $1.3 million over 25 years. (Catholic Energies)

A quick scan of the parishes and groups partnering with Catholic Energies reveals a noticeable geographic pattern: Virginia is a growing hotbed of solar activity.

Last month, three parishes in the Arlington Diocese powered up new solar installations, each developed and financed through Catholic Energies, the burgeoning program of the Catholic Climate Covenant that helps church institutions find outside funding to take on energy initiatives without the initial burden of hefty upfront costs.

With the new installations, the parishes — St. Anthony of Padua Catholic Church in Falls Church, St. Bernadette Catholic Church in Springfield and Nativity Catholic Church in Burke — will collectively offset the carbon dioxide emissions produced by powering 3,500 homes for a year or burning 15,000 tons of coal. Just as attractive to their finance councils, the solar projects came at no cost and forecast sizeable savings.

At St. Anthony of Padua, the 421-kilowatt rooftop solar system — the largest of the three parishes — is expected to cover almost 90% of the parish’s energy demand. The solar panels, along with LED lighting upgrades, are projected to save St. Anthony upwards of $1.3 million over the 25-year term of the power purchase agreement.

The rooftop panels at Nativity are part of several green initiatives under way at the parish. Its creation care ministry has also begun a community vegetable garden, and its school is developing an outdoor learning space with native plants and species. In bulletins this summer, the ministry team and pastor Fr. Robert Cilinski included reflections on “Laudato Si’, on Care for Our Common Home” to mark the fifth anniversary of Pope Francis’ encyclical. While the panels will save the parish money — more than $200,000 — they also reflect Christian values to safeguard creation.

“Our solar panels are on the rooftop shouting the wisdom of Laudato Si’, the social teaching of the church,” Cilinski recently told the Arlington Catholic Herald, the diocesan newspaper.

With each Richmond parish, none paid any upfront costs, an arrangement made possible by Catholic Energies.

The program first works with groups to determine if solar is a fit, then seeks funding, primarily through power purchase agreements. In those deals, an outside investor finances the project and sets a fixed rate for energy usage, often lower than local utility rates, which is paid directly to the investor.

Since launching in fall 2017, Catholic Energies has completed 11 solar projects in the past 13 months. Eleven more are under contract and expected to be completed by the end of 2020. By then, the program will have footprints in eight states, along with Puerto Rico and Washington, D.C.

But the biggest business for Catholic Energies so far has been the region around Virginia. Of the 22 solar installations in all it expects to have completed by the end of the year, 10 are in the Old Dominion and two are in the Washington, D.C., area, where it is also working to finalize contracts with three more Catholic clients.

The completed projects include the 2-megawatt solar installation for Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington, the largest solar project in the city and to date the largest completed by Catholic Energies, which is based in the District of Columbia. The array’s 5,000 panels began producing power in April. Since then, the electricity it has generated from the sun has offset roughly 1 million pounds of carbon emissions, or the equivalent of planting 25,000 trees, according to Catholic Energies.

https://www.ncronline.org/news/earthbeat/virginia-shines-solar-hot-spot-catholic-energies-expansion

Coronavirus Pandemic Delays 2020 Earth Overshoot Day by Three Weeks, But It’s Not Sustainable

Humanity now consumes around 60% more than Earth can yield in a year, meaning we need 1.6 planets to sustain us. elenabs / Getty Images

Back in 1970, the earth’s biocapacity was more than enough to meet annual human demand for resources. But in the half century since, we have steadily outgrown our single planet. Humanity now consumes around 60% more than Earth can yield in a year, meaning we need 1.6 planets to sustain us.

In 2019, we had already spent our resource budget for the year by July 31, the earliest Earth Overshoot Day ever recorded by the Global Footprint Network, which has been calculating global and national ecological impacts for near three decades. In that time, humanity has overshot its biocapacity — defined as an “ecosystems’ capacity to produce biological materials used by people and to absorb waste material generated by humans” — by a few more days each year.

But due to the global coronavirus lockdown, 2020 has bucked the trend. This year, Earth Overshoot Day has moved back by more than three weeks to August 22.

Projections point to almost 15% reductions in CO2 emissions (around 60% of the total footprint) in 2020 as a result of the pandemic-related slowdown in fossil fuel use across the transport, power, industry, aviation and residential sectors. The global Earth Overshoot calculation, which uses data from the likes of the International Energy Agency, also includes forest production, which dipped nearly 9%, and our food footprint, which was steady.

One Planet Misery or Prosperity?

According to Mathis Wackernagel, founder and president of the Global Footprint Network, this year’s contraction is welcomed. But he says the fact that it is accidental means it is not sustainable.

“The tragedy of this year is that the reduction of carbon emissions is not based on a better infrastructure such as better electricity grids or more compact cities,” he told DW. “We need to move the date by design, not by disaster.”

To meet the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) targets to limit warming to 1.5-2 degrees Celcius, the current decline in the emissions curve would have to continue at the same rate for the next decade, Wackernagel points out. At present, however, this is being achieved through economic and social suffering.

“Not doing anything, being stuck at home. That’s not the kind of transformation we need. It’s not lasting,” Wackernagel said.

The goal must be to “systemically adjust to the physical budget we have available,” added the Swiss-born Global Footprint Network founder and 2018 World Sustainability Award winner. “Do you want one planet misery or one planet prosperity?”

Wackernagel argues that the coronavirus is itself a reflection of ecological stress. “These pressures that we see like pandemics, like famine, like climate change, like biodiversity loss, they’re all manifestations of an ecological imbalance,” he said.

Lowering Emissions for the Benefit of All  

A key side effect of disaster-driven emission reductions is the fact that “the pain is going to be unevenly distributed,” according Wackernagel. Marginalised groups, especially people of color, have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic’s “huge economic impacts,” said Sarah George, a senior reporter with Edie, a UK media company that promotes sustainable business practices.

Edie conducted its first Earth Overshoot webinar in 2019, with the aim of educating organizations to reduce their resource footprint through business models that are sustainable for everyone in the long-term.

George says this year’s webinar on August 22 will also address the misnomer spread by some climate skeptics that a green, low-consumption future is only possible under the deprivations of a lockdown.

“They have used the situation to say that lockdown is ‘what green campaigners want,’ and that we cannot enjoy things like international travel, economic growth, etc. in a green future,” George told DW.

But post-lockdown, George says the goal is to create a one planet model through which businesses can couple “better economic and social outcomes” with “lower emissions and air pollution.”

https://www.ecowatch.com/earth-overshoot-day-2020-2647050359.html?rebelltitem=3#rebelltitem3