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April 25, 2019 — An International Conference on Integral Ecology was held at Georgetown University last March, in preparation for the Synod of Bishops for the Pan-Amazon region, scheduled for October 2019.

Fr. Paulus Wiryono Priyotamtama, SJ (left), rector and president of Sanata Dharma University, and José Gregorio Díaz Mirabal (right), president of Coalition of Indigenous Organizations of the Amazon Basin (COICA)

The conference addressed two important points: collaboration with indigenous communities affected by environmental problems, and upfront work on the necessary changes in the societies causing these issues.

Three experts give us their comments on the event and its applications in Canada: Cecilia Calvo, Senior Advisor on Environmental Justice of the Advocacy Office of the Jesuit Conference of Canada and the United States and one of the main organizers of the summit; Ted Penton SJ, another organizer of the meeting and Secretary of the Office of Justice and Ecology at the Jesuit Conference of Canada and the United States; as well as Fr. Peter Bisson SJ, member of the Jesuits of Canada’s Commission of Justice, Reconciliation and Ecology.

Working with and for indigenous peoples

As the first speakers of the upcoming Synod, delegates of various indigenous groups were at the heart of the event. They presented their concerns about ecology to Church representatives (including cardinals and 20 Jesuits).

The Church wishes to look to the future by working with both indigenous and other lay people on a program rooted in the needs and leadership of affected communities.

This approach should also be followed in Canada. Fr. Bisson explains that “the interdependence we observe between ecological systems is an important lesson for humanity, according to many indigenous elders and intellectuals. An analogous interdependence is necessary between natives and non-natives, between individuals and nations, and between humanity and the planet.”

To accomplish this we must find ways to make contact with First Nations, Métis and Inuits in order to open the kind of dialogue in which the Church can listen to their wisdom, but also their concerns.

Indeed, let us remember that bad environmental management affects not only Amazonian natives, but also those in Canada. To name just one problem: access to drinking water. For example, the Grassy Narrows First Nation and the Wabaseemoong Nation in Ontario have suffered for half a century from mercury poisoning due to chemicals spilled into the English-Wabigoon rivers by the pulp and paper industry.

Several other communities continue to endure such problems, to which the governments do not respond, despite the UN resolution on the right to potable water and to proper sanitation.

As Crystal Lameman, spokesperson for the Beaver Lake Cree (Amiskosâkahikanihk), said in 2015, indigenous rights are the last defense against industrial developments that are destroying access to water:

“It’s no longer an ‘Indian’ problem. If you breathe air or drinking water, it’s your problem too. It’s a matter of inherent rights of first-nation people, of all human beings, and the rights of nature.”

“Ecological conversion” applied to Canada

Besides collaboration with indigenous communities, the conference also underlined the importance of ecological conversion – a change of mind and heart to live in harmony with nature instead of dominating it, and to take care of our brothers and sisters. This conversion applies as much to organizations as to individuals.

Ms. Calvo and Mr. Penton explain that, at the organizational level, the structural transformations required are incredibly important. And Canadian Jesuits have their role to play. According to Penton, “The four universal apostolic preferences call us to conversion in a complementary way.”

Taking care of our common home is an aspect of spiritual commitment, a way to walk with marginalized people affected by climate change, as well as to work with young persons who will suffer from its effects.

The Jesuits of Canada have already adopted an investment policy with ecological, social and governance principles. "With this policy, our investment practice becomes an apostolic tool, and not only a means of financing," explains Fr. Bisson.

So how else can Jesuits do their part? First, by improving their practices, as Fr. Oland wrote last week in his letter to the Province. Second, by advocating for better ecological practices with governments and industries. Finally, by not ignoring those who work, for example, in the oil or coal sectors, who would also be affected by this “green” shift.

On a personal level, each must reflect on their style of life, on the broader repercussions of our actions. How do our daily choices influence the environment and other people? How does our western throwaway culture affect the native peoples of the Amazon who live with contaminated water? Ms. Calvo invites the reader to reflect about these questions and to discern his or her proper role in the ecological crisis.

Even if much remains to be done – rapidly – to stop climate change, not everything is lost. “I see signs of hope,” says Ms. Calvo. “The faith of the indigenous people I met at the conference, who are not discouraged despite their difficulties, allows me to have hope for a change of heart in individuals and in society.”

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