Laudato Si’ animators join a river clean-up in Timor-Leste capital Dili.
Dircia Sarmento Belo often thinks back to her teens when she used to pass through a rainforest when going to her mother's hometown in Aileu, a highland area 47 kilometers southwest of Dili.
“I don’t know why but my heart always melts when I’m in the forest. The breeze, the fresh air, the birds singing, always make me think how beautiful nature is," she said.
Happiness while growing up in Timor-Leste’s second-largest city, Baucau, 122km east of Dili, was being able to go to the river to swim and catch fish and find shrimps and crabs in paddy fields.
Alas, these activities are increasingly becoming more difficult for children to experience these days, the 26-year-old says.
That's because "the river has vanished, the water has dried up, and it's not easy to predict the weather anymore."
She said Timor-Leste — with a total population of 1.45 million — is being seriously impacted by climate change.
Their lives and livelihoods are significantly affected by climate-related events such as drought, erosion, floods and rising sea levels
“Around 70 percent of Timorese live in rural areas with little infrastructure and are enduring unpredictable weather patterns and the impact of more intense wet seasons and longer dry seasons,” Dircia told UCA News.
“Their lives and livelihoods are significantly affected by climate-related events such as drought, erosion, floods and rising sea levels.”
She said inappropriate and irresponsible waste disposal management has also had negative impacts on the environment and triggered health issues. That encouraged Dircia to take action and work for climate justice.
She said she draws her inspiration from Pope Francis’ groundbreaking 2015 encyclical on the environment, Laudato Si’, which she said has given her a new perspective on the issue.
She has been involved in various environmental programs, thanks to her previous work for the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) Timor-Leste as an environmental consultant providing training to youths, mentoring and conducting door-to-door awareness campaigns.
Through such activities, she said, “I learned about environmental issues and natural resources management from a scientific perspective only.”
“But Laudato Si’ is giving me the opportunity to see, judge and take action from a Catholic perspective,” said Dircia, who completed her bachelor's degree in environmental management and planning at Lincoln University in New Zealand in 2018.
Her interest in the encyclical led her to take a course to become a Laudato Si' animator in a project initiated by the Catholic Climate Change Movement to encourage local leaders around the world to spread its messages.
Dircia, who is also co-founder of the Timorese Youth Initiative for Development, was later listed as the first Laudato Si' animator from Timor-Leste.
She believes that awareness of the impacts of climate change is not yet strong among Timorese people.
In fact, the country has already felt its bad impacts, including flash floods and landslides on Easter Sunday due to Tropical Cyclone Seroja, which caused the worst flooding in 40 years. It killed 45 people and affected more than 30,000 households.
Dircia tries to spread awareness through various means, including using social media such as Facebook and YouTube.
“I want to encourage them to reflect on how climate change has been affecting us, as I believe that the more they understand about climate change, the more they care and take action,” she said.
From Laudato Si', I learned how to respect our common home. As the encyclical says, we are indeed connected
Her efforts have attracted the attention of at least 50 other young people who have become the country’s Laudato Si' animators.
Hirondina Ribeiro Gonçalves, a 22-year-old student at the National University of Timor-Leste, said she only found out about Laudato Si' last year from Dircia's Facebook page before taking course to become an animator.
“From Laudato Si', I learned how to respect our common home. As the encyclical says, we are indeed connected,” she told UCA News.
To further spread the spirit of Laudato Si' at grassroots level, the animators have organized social activities.
Last year they held waste management socialization and recycling activities in Camea Village, St. Peter's High School and Motael Parish Church in Dili Archdiocese.
"Currently, the team is working on a small project in tackling a water shortage and pollution in a rural area of Dili," Dircia said.
In this year's Laudato Si' Week from May 16-25, lockdown restrictions meant they organized a series of webinars where animators shared their experiences on how they created an impact at community level and spread the encyclical's messages.
Salesian Father Placido Teofilo Freitas, who spoke at one of the webinars, said he was really impressed and amazed by the enthusiasm of Dircia and her colleagues.
“The fact that this group emerged from the bottom, from the youth's own initiative and not from the top of the church hierarchy, shows that Laudato Si' touches and answers the aspirations of Timor-Leste youth,” he told UCA News.
They are able to take the initiative and are determined to fight for what is right, fair and beautiful
Their initiative, he said, shows that Timor-Leste’s young people are not a passive generation ignorant of social and ecclesiastical issues.
"They are able to take the initiative and are determined to fight for what is right, fair and beautiful," he said.
The priest, who is finishing his doctoral studies at Salesian Pontifical University in Rome, said the activities they carried out were quite comprehensive, with a combination of spiritual activities such as praying the rosary together every week and social service activities.
He hopes they will continue to raise public awareness of the importance of maintaining our common home and can get support from political and church institutions.
Father Freitas also hopes that Laudato Si' could be a guide for the Timor-Leste government to make policies aimed at stimulating economic growth and social welfare without damaging the environment.
Dircia realizes that spreading the environmental message is a long process as it is not only unfamiliar to the people of Timor-Leste but also among church people.
"Most churches across the country never talk about this topic or even have any concern for environmental issues," she said.
She said it is so sad to see a lot of rubbish scattered around a church after a Mass.
"It's even worse during special celebrations such as Christmas and Easter," she said. “Therefore, through Laudato Si' Animators Timor-Leste, we aim to spread the message and encourage churches to start implementing Laudato Si' in pastoral activities.”
As a small country usually affected most by man-made disasters, she said, “it's important for Timorese to understand the relationship between God and his creatures.”
“This includes listening to the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor, and understanding our role in protecting God's creation.”
Dircia Sarmento Belo, the first Laudato Si’ animator from Timor-Leste.