Updated: September 17, 2021 11:24 AM GMT
Indonesian activists from ECOTON (ecological observation and wetland conservation) prepare an installation made with used plastic collected from the river in Gresik on September 17, 2021, to raise public awareness of plastic waste in rivers and oceans. (Photo: Juni Kriswanto/AFP)
Indonesian Church leaders have been criticized for not taking Pope Francis’s monumental encyclical Laudato Si’ further than merely praising the pope’s profound concern.
Since the launching of its Indonesian version six years ago — translated by Franciscan Father Martin Harun — there have been sporadic discussions and actions taken related to the document but lacking an action plan at the national level.
Indonesian Catholics were confused with the latest inconsistencies in terms of action taken by several Church leaders, despite the encyclical being on stage for quite some time. People have expected a clear policy or unified response in the face of rising environmental degradation.
Indeed, many individual priests, nuns and laypeople are committed to environmental conservation, but somehow there is an urgent need for the Church as a community to respond to the pope’s appeal to make a bigger impact.
What a disgrace that some bishops — despite recognizing the importance of the papal document — ignore its principles when it comes to dealing with corporations or government policies.
While bishops have absolute authority over their respective ecclesiastical territories, they must have a unified response to address pressing issues such as environmental destruction that affects not only people in certain zones but the entire archipelago — even globally.
Environmental issues are signs of the times that Church leaders — locally and globally — have to respond to, collectively. Failure to acknowledge them will be catastrophic.
Ironically, Indonesian Church leaders do not stand on common ground when it comes to dealing with issues that affect land or forests, causing confusion among followers.
It was a joyful moment for Christians when Catholic priests in Manokwari-Sorong diocese in Papua cast their support behind Johny Kamuru, head of Sorong district in West Papua, who is engaged in a legal battle with palm oil firms.
The official is being sued by three of four palm oil giants whose business licenses he annulled, suspending their operations on over 100,000 hectares of land owned by indigenous communities. He accused them of violating the rules, hence the land must be returned to the tribal people.
The priests said their action was part of the Church’s prophetic mission and to ground Pope Francis’s encyclical Laudato Si’ — on caring of mother earth as humanity’s common home — on Papuan soil.
Their action was crucial as it boosted the morale of the district leader — and other environmental activists — who could be doomed through political maneuvers.
Moreover, many Catholics saw a better side of the Church through such prophetic witness and hoped for more collective efforts from within it to save the earth.
However, such a move was at odds with the initiative of Archbishop Petrus Canisius Mandagi of Merauke early this year. The prelate was attacked by Catholics for signing a memorandum of understanding with palm oil firm PT Tunas Sawa Erma, a subsidiary of Korindo Group, a Korean-Indonesian joint venture.
The MoU ensures the company’s financial support of about 2.4 billion rupiah ($165,000) in three years for the archdiocese and an additional operating cost of around 1 billion rupiah.
Catholics in Papua, particularly in the archdiocese, fear this would propel further destruction of their forests. Greenpeace Indonesia reported last year that one of Korindo’s subsidiaries, Dongin Prabhawa, had destroyed 57,000 hectares of Papua’s rainforest.
Despite the archbishop defending his decision, saying that the money was needed to fund Church services and the construction of a seminary, Papuan Catholics called it a scandalous conspiracy with a company that has caused so much suffering among Papuans.
Most recently, environmental and rights activists attacked the bishop and priests of Ruteng Diocese in Catholic-majority Flores for signing a controversial MoU with local authorities on the development of integrated tourism projects in Labuan Bajo that could cause deforestation.
They were also slammed for having no words to stop the "Jurassic Park" project that could endanger the Komodo dragons, despite a warning from UNESCO. The activists, mostly Catholics, said that defending God’s creation in the face of unjust policies is the responsibility of the Church. By bowing to the authorities it is feared that the Church is turning a blind eye to policies that can jeopardize the environment.
The different reactions by Church leaders to projects that sacrifice local people and the environment is both embarrassing and raise concerns as to whether Indonesian Church leaders have understood Pope Francis’s message.
Is it possible that they are ignoring it? Hopefully not, but they have plenty of time to fix their failure in the next few years.
In May, Pope Francis launched a seven-year Laudato Si’ Action Platform to encourage all sectors of society to “work together to be able to create a more inclusive, fraternal, peaceful, and sustainable world.”
Through this platform, the pope wants everyone to overcome selfishness, indifference and irresponsible habits, respect creation and promote an eco-sustainable lifestyle and society.
According to a 2019 Forest Watch Indonesia report, Indonesia lost 1.4 million hectares of forest each year between 2013 and 2017 or roughly 7 million hectares in just five years.
Such destruction has brought Indonesia to a climate crisis, which could further deteriorate if no breakthrough is made. There is an urgent need for the Indonesian Church to respond to this situation by turning to Laudato Si'.
Archdioceses and dioceses must cooperate and develop unified measures, step up from small-scale awareness drives to national campaigns, stand rock-solid against forest and land destruction.
Church leaders and the laity in Indonesia are encouraged to be proactive in the planning and execution of concrete actions to save the environment from the damage being done.
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