Keeping faith
with nature

Victoria Finlay
says that all the world’s major religions agree on the importance of conservation and describes how they are taking action to put their beliefs into practice

One day the Prophet Muhammad was travelling along a river when it became time for prayer. His followers rushed into the river to perform their ritual ablutions but the Prophet just filled a little bowl with water to wash. They asked him why, surrounded by a whole river, he used so little water. He answered that just because there was plenty it did not mean we had the right to waste it. Buddhists in Japan tell a comparable story of how the Buddha once received a donation of 500 new robes for his followers. Immediately he started planning what to do with the old ones. They would be used for bed-sheets, he decided. The old sheets would become towels. And the old towels would be used as cleaning rags. Everything should be used and reused.

Sacred elements
If there is one key area of agreement between all the world’s religions it is that it is important to look after the Earth. People brought up in Baha’i, Buddhist, Christian, Daoist, Hindu, Islamic, Jain, Jewish, Shinto, Sikh or Zoroastrian environments are all likely to have been taught, implicitly or explicitly, to look after the environment because at least some elements of it are ‘sacred’.

Religions between them own approximately 7 per cent of the Earth’s inhabitable surface, have influence over more than half of the world’s schools, and act as the main community and spiritual centres for more than 4 billion people. They are immensely powerful in most parts of the world, with followings and influence that non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and environmentalist movements could not even dream of.

Not surprisingly therefore, the World Bank, parts of the United Nations, several governments, the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF) and other conservation groups all have begun to work with faith leaders on environmental projects.

Cultural reminder
In Mongolia, for example, the World Bank and other international organizations are sponsoring a project to translate and publish Buddhist sutras about sacred mountains into modern Mongolian. The plan is to use the texts to reconsecrate the mountains and thus remind the local people of their traditional responsibilities not to log or hunt in certain areas.

Enkhbayer, the country’s Prime Minister and an active Buddhist, says: ‘Which will be the more powerful argument? That you can’t log this mountain because the Government tells you not to or because it is holy? In my experience there is no question’.

WWF was one of the first environmental groups to work explicitly with religious leaders. HRH the Duke of Edinburgh, then its International President – who put forward the idea in 1986 – says: ‘It seemed pretty obvious. If your religion tells you (as it does in Christianity anyway) that the Creation of the world is an act of God, then it follows naturally that if you belong to the church of God then you ought to look after His Creation. I was not quite sure what the other religions believed about the creation of the world but I guessed that they had similar traditions.'
If there is one key area of agreement between all the world’s religions it is that it is important to look after the Earth
Despite considerable internal opposition, WWF took up the idea, and hosted a meeting of leaders of five major religions to talk about environmental issues. It turned out that each religion did indeed have its own conservation policy, even if most had never made it explicit before. The meeting succeeded partly because there was no attempt to get universal agreement on any particular point – no attempt to stem the diversity of theological beliefs.

Statements of commitment
Since then, WWF’s network for religions and ecology – which later became the independent Alliance of Religions and Conservation (ARC) charity – has grown to include 11 major faiths. Each, for the first time, has issued statements about its commitment to ecology and Creation.

Anglican Churches have transformed annual harvest festivals into lessons about conservation; Sikh leaders decided that the 300-year cycle starting in 1999 would be the Cycle of Creation (the last one was the Cycle of the Sword). Muslim leaders in Tanzania persuaded fishermen not to use explosives because it is against the Qu’.ran, succeeding where violent threats by police had failed. And Shinto groups in Japan are seeking to buy wood and paper from European churches which own large tracts of forests that they have only recently put under Forest Stewardship Council certified management.

And by the end of this year, in a move instigated by ARC, representatives from Buddhist, Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Jain, Muslim, Sikh and Zoroastrian communities are scheduled to set up an International Interfaith Investment group, in which they will collaborate in ethical investment decisions to make their billions of dollars of assets work to give maximum ethical clout as well as yield good profits

Victoria Finlay is media consultant for the Alliance of Religions and Conservation (ARC) and co-author of Faith in Conservation, just published by the World Bank.

PHOTOGRAPH: Urpradubporn Chanpen/UNEP/Topham

  • ‘We are witnessing a growth of an ecological awareness which needs to be encouraged so that it will lead to practical programmes and initiatives. An awareness of the relationship between God and humankind brings a fuller sense of the importance of the relationship between human beings and the natural environment, which is God’s creation and which God entrusted to us to guard with wisdom and love.’
    Common Declaration by Pope John Paul II and the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I

  • ‘Do not use anything belonging to nature such as oil, coal or forest, at a greater rate than you can replenish it. For example do not destroy birds, fish, earthworms and even bacteria which play vital ecological roles – once they are annihilated you cannot recreate them.’
    Swami Vibudhesha Teertha (one of the 12 hereditary leaders of Vedic teachings in India)

  • ‘Not only do we have to respect the lives of human beings, but we have to respect the lives of animals, the vegetable and mineral realms and the earth itself.’
    Thich Nhat Hanh, Vietnamese Buddhist monk

  • ‘Islam says that human beings should not use what they don’t need. And that they should plan their resources for a future use.’
    Sheikh Mohammad Hossein Fadlallah, one of the world’s leading Shia references in the world, Beirut

  • ‘We have a responsibility to life, to defend it everywhere, not only against our own sins but also against those of others. We are all passengers together in this same fragile and glorious world.’
    Professor Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg, Vice President of the World Jewish Congress

  • ‘The balance of nature is achieved and regulated by the functions of the forest. So the survival of the forest is essential to the survival of siladhamma [harmony] and our environment. It’s all interdependent. When we protect the forest we protect the world. When we destroy the forest we destroy that balance.’
    Phra Ajahn Pongsak Techathammo, Abbot of Wat Palad, northern Thailand

  • ‘Nature is the closest thing to religion, and religion is the closest thing to God.’
    Sheikh Ali Zein Eddine of Lebanon, President of Irfan, a Druze foundation for health and education

  • ‘The wise see with equal vision a learned and gentle priest, a cow, an elephant, a dog and an outcaste.’
    Bhagavad Gita

  • ‘When God created the first man he took him and led him round all the trees of the Garden of Eden and said to him: Look at my works, how beautiful they are! Take care that you do not corrupt and destroy my universe, for if you destroy it no one will repair it after you.’
    From the Midrash: the collection of Rabbinical commentaries on the Torah (first five books of the Bible) compiled in the first and second centuries)

  • ‘I find myself becoming more and more an advocate of the true ecologists where their recommendations are realistic. Many of these people have done us an essential service in helping us preserve and protect our green zones and our cities, our water and our air.’
    The Rev Billy Graham

  • This issue:
    Contents | Editorial K. Töpfer | Biological backbone | Benefits beyond boundaries | Common inheritance | Beauty or beast? | Wonders of the world | Protecting heritage | People | Parks and participation | At a glance: Protected Areas | Profile: Harrison Ford | Scorecard, catalyst, watershed | Coral Reef Fund | Coral jewels | Reef knots | Brief window for biodiversity | Books & products | Conservation amid conflict | News | Green, red or black? | Keeping faith with nature| Make parks not war

    Complementary articles in other issues:
    Issue on WSSD, 2002
    Issue on Mountains and Ecotourism, 2002
    Issue on Biological Diversity, 2000
    Issue on Tourism, 1999
    Issue on Culture, Values and the Environment, 1996

    AAAS Atlas of Population and Environment: