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The Hope Cathedral was built out of natural materials and plastic waste
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Faith organizations: the fourth economic power on Earth

UNEP director Iyad Abumoghli and activist and cartographer Molly Burhans speak of how engaging with faith institutions is not just necessary but can be immediately beneficial

If 2030 Goals are to be achieved, faith-based organizations must be included in the process 

Faith-based organizations own eight percent of habitable land on Earth. By comparison, that is as much as India and Sudan combined. They also manage more than five percent of commercial forests, and that is just the percentage on a global scale. For some countries it is even higher, like in Austria, where religious institutions control more than twenty-eight percent. As Iyad Abumoghli, director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), points out: «Faith organizations are also known to be the fourth economic power on Earth».

Activist and cartographer, Molly Burhans, realized the first map of the Catholic Church land assets. She underlines that «land and religion are two of the biggest leverage points in the history of civilization». This, along with data on faith-based ownership, led the two to the conclusion that the 2050 goals for climate cannot be achieved without the inclusion of all stakeholders, including and especially, the Catholic Church and all other religious affiliations. Abumoghli and Burhans became active in raising awareness and in involving religious institutions in immediate and substantial change towards a more eco-responsible world. 

«The United Nations», explains Abumoghli, «with the ratification of all nations, have adopted the Sustainable Development Goals and the agenda for 2030 and 2050». In this context, «the global community acknowledges that reaching the SDGs cannot be done without the engagement of all stakeholders. As UNEP, we have a unit that looks specifically at how we engage with civil society organizations». This includes a variety of representatives active on the field and coming from different backgrounds such as «NGOs, businesses or other forms of associations».

In 2017, UNEP realized that out of all the stakeholders they were already managing, the faith sector was missing. Faith for Earth was then founded, with the aim of connecting with faith leaders and including them in the fight to slow down climate change. Faith institutions are involved according to a structure, touching on three main points: engaging in policy making and decisions; putting faith organizations’ economic power to good use and linking science-based evidence with religious teachings to make them mutually supportive.

During the first Faith for Earth dialogue, held in 2019, they brought more than a hundred and twenty faith leaders to UNEP. This prompted them to engage with more than ten thousand stakeholders, discussing how to bring religious values into the decision-making process. The main goal of the initiative was to bring awareness, with the aim of «bringing together faith leaders to inspire and empower action». After the discussion, a few projects were developed. Their aim was to put the land and resources of religious institutions to good use for both local communities and the environment.  

Eden’s Stewards Ministry: an environmental Ministry for the local church

Inspired by the discussion, the church of Nairobi founded the Eden’s Stewards Ministry, «an environmental Ministry for the local church». After service, the church organizes activities that are beneficial to the environment, including collecting plastic, planting trees and cleaning riverbeds. During the first event, more than three tons of plastic was collected. Ministries talked about the SDGs and became leading figures not just for spiritual matters, but for daily ones as well.

They explained to the local community how to live a life that is more respectful of the environment and nature. The community now comes together and is mobilized to take collective action to improve local environmental conditions. Starting from a shared faith, the teachings of religion is able, in Nairobi, to generate a reflection on how all members live their lives. In collaboration with the Roman Catholic Church, UNEP and Faith for Earth built the Living Chapel in the botanical gardens of the Italian Capital, the secular nerve center of Catholic power and institutions. The aim is to «unite concepts of art, music and architecture».

The main focus of the project is ecosystem restoration. Conceptualized and designed in the United States, the chapel was built in Rome in March 2020. Julian Darius Revie, an Australian-Canadian composer, is the man behind the idea. He was helped in the process by more than a hundred students. The inspiration comes from the combination of Pope Francis’s Encyclical Laudato Si, combined with the 2030 UN development goals. The installation was built in recycled and recyclable aluminum and covered with more than three thousand plants.

The structure also hosts thousands of trees coming from Central-southern Europe, belonging to more than forty different species, including a selection of forgotten and endangered fruit trees from the Italian region of Umbria. The structure is dismountable and can be transported to other locations. Inside the chapel, a solar-powered system was put in place to make water flow and move a series of metallic elements that generate a harmonic sound. nourished by rainwater or wastewater, the chapel is a living object, with plants growing outside it freely. At the end of summer 2020, the trees that had been growing in the chapel were sent to governmental and non-governmental institutions to promote the implementation of new gardens wherever possible. 

Hope Cathedral, Norway: built out of natural materials and plastic waste

In Fredrikstad, South-Eastern Norway, the Hope Cathedral was built out of natural materials and plastic waste. The idea comes from Solveig Egeland, a cultural advisor for the dioceses of Borg. She wanted to take action against the plastic waste accumulating on the Norwegian shoreline. She had already been working with children from the local community to collect plastic from the shore to build cottages and artworks from it. The aim was to turn something threatening into something useful.

As part of the Living Houses of Worship and the Faith Strategy for the Decade of Ecosystem Restoration, in collaboration with UNEP, she embarked on her biggest project yet: building a cathedral as a symbol of respect for our seas. The Cathedral has a three-hundred square meter roof made out of discarded plastic that was turned into more than four-thousand roof tiles in more than fifty colors. The construction was financed in a joint effort by the municipality, the county, the Church of Norway and Sparebankstiftelsen DNB. It relied on more than nine thousand hours of volunteer work provided by the community.

The final result is a cathedral for all religions. The works were finished during the Covid crisis, a time when the consumption of plastic had increased, with eighty-nine million medical plastic masks, seventy-six plastic examination masks and more than one million plastic protective goggles used every month. According to the partners partaking in the initiative, the solution lies within responsible consumption and waste management with particular development in the circular economy. According to Abumoghli, the House of Worship for all religions built in Norway was «a demonstration of how cleaning up can be beneficial and constructive»

Plastic Bank providing access to clean energy or social services 

Islamic Relief is also part of the picture, with their program aiming at «empowering women to enhance the capabilities of women to manage their agricultural practices by using sustainable methods». A similar approach is the one behind Plastic Bank: they invite people, especially communities in critical conditions, to «collect and deposit plastic waste in exchange for cash or services». In return, Plastic Bank provides access to clean energy or social services with the aim of «facilitating the collection of plastic waste while contributing to the livelihood of the people».

Abumoghli points out that «different areas of the world connect to religion differently and to different extents». The effect of the combination between faith and the UN inspires actions that are protective for the climate and is consequently bound to be different in various areas of the world. Abumighli explains: «Working in India resulted in engagement of both followers and faith leaders». There, says the Faith for Earth Leader, «we launched the Faith for Earth councilors program in India where we have selected twenty high-profile faith leaders representing all religions, and we have conducted capacity building on what is the relationship between religion and the environment and how they can work together, and faith leaders have mobilized millions of people right away».

The impact is not the same in Europe and the United States where «you will find that only those who are already like-minded get engaged». In the Global West, religion and environmental action of any kind, are less connected, an impression that is confirmed by data: «According to a recent survey, in the US only less than ten percent of people connect religious understanding with the environment», in consequence, «a campaign the US or in Europe would not take as much traction as in other areas»

The Living Chapel: the main focus of the project is ecosystem restoration
The Living Chapel: the main focus of the project is ecosystem restoration

Faith for Earth and UNEP set of Guidelines on Green Houses of Worship

In order to overcome this potentially unsettling issue, Faith for Earth and UNEP have developed a set of Guidelines on Green Houses of Worship. UNEP «have considered thousands of faith institutions and houses of worship around the world within both developed and developing countries», so that everyone, no matter their geographical location, can feel represented and have a way to follow them. These also take into account houses of worship which are not just the church or the temple itself, but also their surroundings and the areas that they often own.

The guidelines have surveyed the current practices of these organizations and have considered what the science tells us on how to be green in your own premises. A range of different environmentally relevant aspects are considered in the guidelines, such as the handling of water resources: «The houses of worship should aim at reducing the consumption of water but also reusing the wastewater that is generated in the first place», but also ecosystem restoration and clean energy. There are more issues regarding clean energy, such as the inability to acquire the means – monetary or infrastructural – that are necessary in order to switch to a green system: «Some organizations cannot install new systems, but they can retrofit their existing ones, taking actions like controlling glares or changing light bulbs».

This is why the indications provided by UNEP not only differ according to the size of the house of worship, but also at what stage and in what area they are. Although religious institutions have the power to reach millions of people across the planet and persuade them to make their life more respectful, the geographical and socio-demographic variety they refer to, can create some issues. Religious belief is able to bring together the most varied groups and people on Earth in the name of a creed, but when it comes to global warming and the best practices to tackle it, differences are not to be ignored or underestimated.

Land is one other key point in the discussion. Or rather, the disproportionate amount of land that religious institutions own and administer, making it unavoidable to include them in the fight for the climate. These two problems are intertwined in the work of activist Molly Burhans, selected as Young Champion of the Earth by the United Nations in 2019 and founder of GoodLands, a combined nonprofit and for-profit organization aiming at encouraging the Catholic Church to use their assets with respect for nature, possibly producing a positive impact. 

Lampoon reporting: Molly Burnhans mapping catholic church’s land assets

«If the Catholic Church was a country» comments Burhans, «it would be the second most populated in the world». The influential power it has on the lives of its followers is comparable to that of the greatest global institutions, and exceeds most of them. According to Burhans, «we are not going to achieve our 2050 climate target without involving the Catholic Church». Due to her background in Cartography, Burhans thought that the first step in putting the Church’s land assets to good use should be mapping it.

The second thought she had was that someone must have done it already: «The Catholic Church is the largest non-governmental healthcare provider in the world and owns twenty-six percent of healthcare facilities. Catholic education is the largest non-governmental education network in the world and Catholic aid is second in size for impact and scope (and only second if you count all of the members if the UN that focus on international aid) – I assumed that there must be Catholic conservation».

Surprised, she found out there wasn’t. She founded GoodLands and got to work. The result was remarkable: «Looking at it, it gives you a different vision of the world». Not just because of the amount of terrestrial surface you can see, but because the assets of the Church seem to follow their own rules, ignoring geopolitical ones. Many dioceses spread across borders, as if they didn’t matter. This aspect is non neglectable for its intrinsic potential. Burhans then observed and found that it can enable us to create humanitarian corridors from those areas where climate change makes life almost unbearable to safer ones.

Starting in 2016, GoodLands developed a variety of projects based on the global pictures it was able to acquire with its mapping work. The Catholic Parks Network aims at creating a network among the Catholic Church’s parks in order to preserve biodiversity while respecting the natural rhythms and cycles of time; in Africa they worked with the Vatican to map all Catholic radio stations across the continent, to analyze their potential as internet delivery sites, including estimating how many people they are able to reach and understanding how to provide them with a connection. Before the pandemic, after previously meeting Pope Francis, Burhans had planned a trip back to Rome to discuss starting a Vatican cartography Institute, which she was going to be the head of.

Although for the moment plans have been put on hold, she is nevertheless optimistic that they will restart after the pandemic. Her aim in collaborating with the Catholic Church is not only environmental, but reformative. In the meantime, on July 24th 2021 and for the first time in all of its history, the Catholic Church publicly disclosed a list of all of their land assets: more than five thousand properties worldwide. Only fourteen percent of them were rented at a market price, the vast majority being rented at a cut rate to Church Employees. 

The mapping technology provided by the GIS system 

Behind all of this is the mapping technology provided by the GIS system that allows to collect, store and analyze large amounts of geographic data. Although it might seem difficult or too technical, Burhans explains that mapping «allows you to have an informed discussion and view the issues in a way that’s not overwhelming», providing with «a design framework to make people sit down and discuss what their values are and translate that into scientifically grounded solutions». «Cartography», argues Burhans, «is a form of storytelling», able to improve people’s lives and the planet. GIS can process a variety of types of data.

It can work with data about people, such as population, income, habits; it can help understand how a society or community is built by storing and processing data about its features, such as the presence or absence of schools, hospitals, sufficient housing; and it can give a complex picture of the landscape of the studied areas, by organizing and giving information about streams of water, vegetation, animal presence and other specifications in a simpler, design-based way. During the 1854 cholera crisis in London, an early version of GIS was used to track and monitor and control the outbreaks on a city map.

As such, it is a powerful technology to rethink and design the world we want to build for our collective future. One that puts nature and the environment, together with the wellbeing of communities, at its core. In a long-standing contradictory relationship, science and religion, according to both Burhans and Abumoghli, can work together to achieve the goal of having a planet that is habitable in the long run. Or rather, they have to.

«Some say that we are witnessing the sixth mass extinction», comments Burhans, «but it’s different this time, because it is caused by a living organism: us». It is then our responsibility to commit to a respectful socioeconomic model and solve it. Both the power of science and that of religious or spiritual belief are needed if we are to achieve this goal. The commitment of faith-based organizations, as Burhans puts it, «must not just be about religion speaking up to motivate people», it has to be about taking substantial action to achieve substantial goals. 

Dr. Iyad Abumoghli 

Director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) Faith for Earth Initiative. He leads the regional team of UNEP West Asia in identifying and assessing relevant needs, priorities, trends, developments, and policies at the national, sub-regional, and regional levels, in order to incorporate them into UNEP policy and programme development. Identify and build/strengthen strategic partnerships at all levels, both with West Asia Governments, the private sector and civil society at large to mobilize support for sound environmental action. Represent the Organization at international, regional, inter-agency meetings, seminars and conferences.

The writer does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article.

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check and buy on Prototipo Store
item collections in limited edition
crafted according to our editorial search

Hemp / made in Italy
Lampoon is working to restore
Hemp production in Italy
as hemp is the one and only
natural vegetal fiber sourceable in the country
for more info, please email us at [email protected]

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