Millions of hectares of religious forest managed ecologically by 2014
Forest degradation and loss is one of the most important environmental issues of our day. Yet the powerful role faiths can play in forest conservation has often been overlooked by conservation experts, as well as by faith groups themselves.
The faiths’ relationship with the forests, the way they manage their forest lands, their involvement with reforestation efforts, and their investment and consumption practices have an enormous impact on the state of the world’s forests. As a group the faiths hold millions of hectares of forest and extend their influence over far more, are huge investors in commercial forestry, and are massive consumers of forest and paper products.
The inaugural Faiths and Forests meeting in Visby, Sweden culminated in August 2007 in a unanimous agreement to manage forests that are owned or influenced by religious groups in ways that are religiously compatible, environmentally appropriate, socially beneficial and economically viable.
The recently launched Religious Forest Sites (RFS) programme builds on this agreement and is being designed to assist religious groups with their relationship with their forest areas – be that stewardship or a sense of being protected by the forests - and to ensure international recognition of the importance and value of religious forest sites from a spiritual, cultural, economic and conservation perspective. The active role faiths play in forest management will be celebrated internationally at the most sacred event in Japanese religious and social life: the rebuilding of the Grand Shrines at Ise in 2014.
The Religious Forest Sites (RFS) Programme: The Religious Forest Sites programme will function as an internationally recognized umbrella organization of religious forest sites that will support the faiths in the protection, restoration, and sustainable management of their forest lands.
Religious Forest Sites refers to any forested area owned or influenced by religious groups, including small and large commercial holdings, community-managed forests, areas of reforestation, tree planting programmes, and sacred forests that are of explicitly spiritual significance.
At the 2007 Visby meeting, representatives of eight faith traditions with major forestry assets engaged in debates with each other, as well as with forestry experts from the United Nations, World Bank, WWF, Conservation International, the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) and others. In the end they agreed on the need for religious forest sites to be managed in ways consistent with the “quadruple bottom line”, that is, in ways that are:
•Religiously compatible - based on the faith’s own values, beliefs, heritage and traditions.
•Environmentally appropriate - ensuring that the harvest of both timber and non-timber products, as well as the care of sacred areas, maintain the forest's biodiversity, productivity and ecological processes. Also, that those who manage the forest pay attention to environmental concerns, including recycling and pollutants.
•Socially beneficial - helping local people, as well as wider society to enjoy long-term benefits from these places, and also providing incentives to local communities to sustain the forest resources and adhere to long-term management and protection plans set by the faiths.
•Economically viable - structuring and managing forest operations to be sufficiently profitable. The profit should not however be gained at the unreasonable cost of the forest, the ecosystem or affected communities.
The RFS Programme has been set up to assist the faiths in meeting these four criteria in the management of their religious forest sites.
Theologies of the Forest
ARC has invited faith groups to develop and publish written theologies – of land in general and of forests specifically, that can form the basis of appropriate environmental action plans. These theologies of forest will look at, for example, how the tradition views forests, why they are important, why and how people should care for forests, and whether there are sacred texts and stories from the tradition illustrating this.
Commercial Forests and ethical purchasing of timber products
This initiative will also support faith groups to manage their commercial forestry lands according to the “quadruple bottom line”; increase their ethical investment in commercial forestry; and encourage ethical purchasing policies for sustainably harvested (or recycled) wood and paper products.
Small-holdings and non-commercial lands, including sacred sites
We will also assist faiths as requested in finding ways to develop appropriate and flexible management plans and practices for religious forest sites in line with the “quadruple bottom line”. A major element of this is to help link religious groups with relevant environmental experts and other partners as needed.
Reforestation and Tree Planting
Faith groups are involved to a striking degree in tree planting programs. In fact, when all the various tree planting efforts are combined, faith groups are involved in one of the largest global tree planting efforts ever to restore degraded natural areas and assist poor communities. We propose linking these efforts with other international reforestation programs where it makes sense, to amplify their positive benefits.
REDD & Emerging Trends in Forest Policy
Global deforestation accounts for 17% of greenhouse gas emissions, and there is a major effort underway through the United Nations program on Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD) to reduce this percentage by supporting reforestation, conservation and good forest management. This initiative will keep track of REDD’s potential impacts on the RFS.
Mapping Religious Forest Sites
Together, faith groups own and influence millions of hectares of forest, by some accounts 5-8% of global forests - but the extent of these lands is not currently known. We have formed a partnership with Oxford University’s Biodiversity Institute to, for the first time, help faiths collectively document and map religious forest sites.
The visual impact alone of such a map would demonstrate the need for the international recognition of religious groups as key stakeholders in forest conservation, and of Religious Forest Sites as a special and important category of global forests. It will also be a very useful tool in conservation planning for forest landscapes, and will highlight where faith-owned and faith-influenced forests fall within areas of high biodiversity.
Benefits of the RFS
Through this programme we hope to strengthen international recognition and awareness of the world’s religious forest sites and their value to the global community. The RFS programme will help the faiths to both protect religious forest sites that may be under threat, and assist them in managing forest lands in more sustainable ways, by providing the support they need as part of a broad coalition of religious groups and environmental experts.
•Improved management and protection of religious forest sites.
•Increased international recognition of religious forest sites and their global value, leading to increased protection and support for good management.
•A better understanding, through theologies of the land and forest, of traditional relationships with forests and the teachings that underpin conservation action.
•The development of unique, faith-consistent models of good forest relationships and management that can influence how others manage their forests.
How ARC can help
ARC can support these goals by:
•Helping the faiths think through issues related to management and protection of their RFS;
•Identifying best practices in forest stewardship among the RFS that can be taken as models of management and protection;
•Helping faiths develop partnerships as needed with conservation experts (and other partners) to develop management plans, communicate ideas of best practices and to deliver key training and other support.
•Giving voice to the faiths’ perspective in forest policy;
•Raising the international profile of the RFS, and of religious groups as significant forest stewards, by launching an international RFS initiative that will attract global attention through media and partnerships.