A canal near Bangladesh’s capital Dhaka is seen here filled with rubbish. In Bangladesh, industrial plants and factories near rivers and waters are blamed for endemic pollution. (Photo: Stephan Uttom/UCA News)
In just one month, Sumon Roy has planted 15 fruit trees around his village home in the Kellabari area of Bangladesh’s Nilphamari district.
Roy, 32, is a Catholic father of one who attends the Immaculate Heart of Mary Church covered by Dinajpur Diocese.
He was encouraged to plant the trees by the parish priest, who also told other Catholics to do so and take care of the environment to pay heed to a call from Pope Francis.
However, they were not told the universal Catholic Church was observing Laudato Si’ Week (May 16-24) to mark the fifth anniversary of the pope’s groundbreaking 2015 encyclical on the environment.
“I don’t think many Catholics in the diocese really know about Laudato Si’ except for some educated and social media-savvy people. This is an extraordinary document which everyone should be aware of and follow,” Roy, a primary school teacher, told UCA News.
“As a Catholic, I feel proud that our supreme spiritual leader has expressed concerns about the environment and urged everyone to take care of it. Everybody must be concerned about the environment and act accordingly.”
While Laudati Si’ has only resonated a little among minority Christians in rural and remote areas of Bangladesh, environmental groups have been taking lessons from the pope’s message in the document.
The encyclical is more relevant than ever, said Abdul Karim, an activist with environmentalist group Bangladesh Poribesh Andolon (BAPA).
“Pope Francis is regarded not just as a Christian leader but as a universal leader, and his message about the environment has universal appeal. He has strongly called for the denunciation of consumerism and luxury for the sake of protecting the environment. Today the world is paying a heavy price for not listening to what the pope warned about five years ago,” Karim, a Muslim, told UCA News.
Political leaders in Bangladesh and across the globe didn’t pay heed to the pope’s call and now they grapple with endemic pollution.
“It is important to embrace the pope’s call and act. Laudato Si’ should be presented for discussion and persuasion nationally so that it can promote changes for the better in terms of the environment,” he said.
Appeal for environmental action
Though affected by the Covid-19 pandemic, the Catholic Church in Bangladesh has taken initiatives to observe Laudato Si’ Week with the theme “We are green, we are clean.”
The climate change desk of the Catholic bishops’ conference has sent messages to Catholic families and education institutes across the country appealing for environmental action, coordinator Holy Cross Father Liton H. Gomes said.
“Tree planting, plastic and waste management, kitchen gardening, cleaning up canals and waterways, and prayers for nature and the environment are some of the things people can do,” Father Gomes told UCA News.
A plan for each Catholic to plant one sapling this year has been hindered due to Covid-19 as the distribution of saplings was not possible, Father Gomes noted.
It is a common problem that most people make a hue and cry over climate change but don’t look at how we are polluting the environment, the priest lamented.
“Often, we say we need development but don’t look for integral development, which does not destroy nature or the environment. There are strong business groups who care for profit at the expense of nature, and the government is unable to stop them,” the priest added.
Caritas Bangladesh, the church’s social service agency and one of the largest NGOs in the country, has been at the forefront in promoting Laudato Si’ over the years, said James Gomes, regional director of Caritas Chittagong.
“Laudato Si’ has been integrated into Caritas programs and activities. A realization is absolutely required so see how we have damaged nature and destroyed this beautiful planet,” Gomes told UCA News.
Over the years, Caritas has been working with conservationist groups to save the environment including rescuing polluted rivers and spreading awareness among people about how pollution can have devastating impacts on human lives, he said.
“We have been encouraging students to plant trees and, refrain from using plastic. We hope people will learn and change will come,” he said.
A man paddles his boat on a river in Gopalganj district of Bangladesh. Many rivers in this largely riverine country are gasping for life due to pollution and encroachment. (Photo: Stephan Uttom/UCA News)
Environmental pollution and threats
Low-lying Bangladesh is one of the most vulnerable countries when it comes to global warming-induced climate change impacts including rising sea levels.
Climate experts have warned that a predicated sea level rise by 2050 will wipe out much of Bangladesh’s southern coastline and displace about 20 million people.
However, in recent years, the country itself has been accused of being an environment polluter. Bangladesh plans to build a series of coal-fired power plants by 2031 in a move described as a looming carbon catastrophe by activists.
Meanwhile, experts have also warned about environmental and health threats posed by the Rooppur nuclear plant in Pabna district being constructed with technical support from Russia.
Bangladesh’s capital Dhaka regularly ranks among the cities with the worst air pollution, which kills thousands each year.
The pollution of rivers in largely riverine Bangladesh is also endemic. A recent government survey listed about 50,000 river encroachment cases across the country, but environmental groups say the actual number is much higher. The study also noted that 178 rivers require immediate dredging to be saved from dying.
The Catholic Church and Caritas have made notable contributions in education, health, economic empowerment and the environment, but they refrain from openly criticizing environmentally critical projects backed or funded by the government, said Sanjeeb Drong, an ethnic Garo Catholic and rights activist.
“Pope Francis teaches us that environmental protection is a question of survival and also a human right. Here in Bangladesh, largely due to its minority status, the Church cannot take a bold stance to save the environment or it might be accused of being influenced by the West or exploiting religion,” Drong told UCA News.
The same issue holds the Church to take a defensive position on ethnic indigenous issues as well, he noted.
The Church needs to form a strong alliance with civil society groups, set up think-tanks and social movements, and also empower its Justice and Peace Commission to speak out more on the environment and human rights, Drong said.
“At the very least the Church can promote Laudato Si’ nationally to raise its profile,” he added.
Father Gomes of the bishops’ conference admitted the Church cannot take too strong a stance on environmental issues but explained an inherent policy.
“The Church is like a conscience and it wants actions to speak louder than words. We are a minority and cannot do what a numerically strong church in other countries can do. We work and collaborate in non-violent and harmonious ways,” he said.