Environmental activists take part in an Earth Day rally against climate change in Surabaya, Indonesia, on April 22. (Photo: AFP)
By mid-April, the number of people who died due to the cyclone-induced flash floods and landslides in Indonesia’s Christian-majority region on Easter Sunday had surpassed 180, while nearly 50 remain missing.
The disaster precipitated by Cyclone Seroja has left thousands homeless in East Nusa Tenggara province and Timor-Leste, on the border with Indonesia, with the latter reporting 36 deaths.
The disaster — believed to be the worst in the last 50 years — swept away thousands of houses and damaged infrastructure, including schools and public facilities, in many districts and cities in the region.
While people are still grieving, emergency aid is being delivered to communities by government and church agencies, and reconstruction is set to go, it is equally important to pay attention to the actual cause of those deaths — the interconnection of climate change and human recklessness and greed.
Most deadly natural disasters are the result of a “perfect collaboration” between global warming and environmental destruction.
Local authorities and activists confirmed that Seroja had triggered heavy rains and stormy weather but blamed the deaths and casualties on decades of ecological destruction.
Too often the government plays the blame game, quickly pointing the finger at the people rather than self-examining
Just a day after the disaster, Agus Payong Poli, deputy of East Flores, one of the most severely damaged areas, said the cyclone would have been less catastrophic if people had not cut down trees or encroached on river basins.
On the other hand, environmental activist Umbu Wulang Paranggi of Friends of the Earth Indonesia said deforestation happened because the government neglected environmental protection in its policies by granting permits for extractive businesses, further destroying the soil.
The pattern is clear. It’s like in many other parts of the country, where floods and landslides occur mostly in areas deforested by mining or palm oil plantations, such as the one that hit 11 districts in South Kalimantan on Jan. 15, killing at least 20 people and damaging more than 20,000 houses and buildings.
Too often the government plays the blame game, quickly pointing the finger at the people rather than self-examining. It must take pre-emptive measures such as limiting investment in sectors that cause ecological imbalance.
East Nusa Tenggara — with Christians, mostly Catholics, accounting for nearly 90 percent of its 5.3 million population — is always among the three (after Papua and West Papua) poorest of Indonesia's 34 provinces.
It’s not easy for the provincial or lower governments to improve the life of the people in the region that spans over 550 big and small islands — mostly mountainous and arid — but it’s rich in mineral resources and coal.
The government often takes a shortcut by granting permits to extractive firms. In 2018 alone, more than 350 mining permits were recorded.
The region, which is sometimes dubbed "the Vatican of Indonesia," is in a constant struggle for water due to the extended dry season every year, while most of its population are farmers.
Instead, there is an urgent need for a collective and sustainable effort to reduce the effect of climate change in the region
President Joko Widodo has initiated several breakthroughs in the region by building several big dams for irrigation and clean water, including Raknamo dam in West Timor where most former East Timorese refugees live, Rotiklot dam in Belu district and Napun Gete dam in Maumere on Flores that was inaugurated in February.
The Easter disaster that hit 20 districts and cities in those dioceses and archdioceses should sound the alarm about the importance of caring for the environment.
It is not the case that the Church has done nothing to preserve nature or regreen deforested areas, as each diocese has green programs. Instead, there is an urgent need for a collective and sustainable effort to reduce the effect of climate change in the region.
Most people in the region had no choice but to remain despite it being arid, rocky, with few trees and a dearth of water and stifling heat during the dry season.
Experts were crystal clear saying environmental damage in the region was caused by land conversion, mining and illegal logging. Key examples are the conversion of land in the upstream area of East Sumba for the benefit of sugar factories, mining exploration in upstream areas in Atambua and illegal logging that has depleted the primary forest on Mount Boleng in East Flores.
Many Catholics in the region now live in disaster-prone areas. Since the Easter disaster, they are worried that a similar catastrophe could recur. Hence, it’s high time for the Church — the two archdioceses and five dioceses — to work together and find effective means to sustain nature and mitigate natural disasters.
Climate change is perhaps something that is beyond the control of a single nation. But what the government or the Church can do is to mitigate the disaster by planting trees in deforested areas and educating people on the urgency of protecting the environment.
The Church in East Nusa Tenggara has the power to change the situation. Each diocese has its program, but often it is done sporadically and has less impact on a larger scale.
So why don’t they cooperate and offer green solutions beyond their comfort zone, cooperating to influence policymakers beyond their area of work?
As home to millions of Catholics, bishops, priests and laypeople in East Nusa Tenggara should be able to make Laudato si' — Pope Francis’ 2015 encyclical on caring for our common home, the earth — a power to influence policymakers at provincial and national levels. This encyclical has less impact in Indonesia in comparison to the pope’s Fratelli tutti (on fraternity) which has been picked up by Muslim communities as an invaluable document for interfaith dialogue.
Laudato si' urges the Church to come out of its comfort zone and take effective measures to save the environment. It’s big homework for the East Nusa Tenggara churches but it can set an example that can later be duplicated by other regions in Indonesia, including Muslim areas.
The program has united Catholics and raised their awareness to love and work for and with nature
The dioceses probably adopt the "Garden of Eden" concept pioneered by Atambua Diocese. Called Atambua Eden — inspired by the garden in Genesis — it aims to inspire and involve as many people as possible to love agriculture and plant trees.
Under the program, thousands of trees such as mango, mahogany, avocado, rambutan, banana, coconut and many more have been planted. Thousands more are in the offing until 2027.
Bishop Dominikus Saku of Atambua lauded the program, which has united Catholics and raised their awareness to love and work for and with nature.
The bishop said the program aimed to help Catholics who are mostly poor and often looked for jobs abroad. The program has already borne fruit and won support from the local government.
But to have a greater impact, it would be better if all archdioceses and dioceses in the region collaborated and integrated their green solutions into a greater "Garden of Eden." The end goal is to have a greater impact on the restoration of damaged lands and reforestation.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.