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Par Alex Muyebe, S.J., and Peter Henriot, S.J.
Oct 5th, 2015

It was a very tall and very full tree, branches thick and thin.  Ideal for cutting down to cook many meals and to warm many huts.  But over the years, no one has touched it, despite trees all around it having been cut down and the landscape left quite barren.

Why has this tree been preserved? A local Malawian villager told us very directly and simply: “The spirits protect the tree, to help us draw water locally.” A closer look at the roots of the tree reveals a small spring that provides good fresh water. But there’s more to the tree’s survival than this. The people of this village and other villages in the area have a very strong traditional belief in a spirit-filled world. And it is believed that this particular tree shelters spirits which provide water for all the communities around.

The belief in a spirit-filled world that has been created for the delight and the good of human beings is of course a central theme of Laudato Si, Pope Francis’s dramatic encyclical on the environment. The traditional African recognition of the sacredness of nature is echoed in its opening lines: “In the words of this beautiful canticle, Saint Francis of Assisi reminds us that our common home is like a sister with whom we share our life and a beautiful mother who opens her arms to embrace us.” (1)

The message of Laudato Si could not be clearer. Pope Francis not only firmly acknowledges the reality of climate change but insists on its close connection with human activity: “A very solid scientific consensus indicates that we are presently witnessing a disturbing warming of the climatic system … Humanity is called to recognize the need for changes of lifestyle, production and consumption, in order to combat this warming or at least the human causes which produce or aggravate it.”  (23)

The encyclical highlights in particular the need to respect and protect the dignity and lives of the poor. They are the most vulnerable to climate change. It emphasises that “a true ecological approach always becomes a social approach; it must integrate questions of justice in debates on the environment, so as to hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor.” (49)

The people of Malawi do not need scientific investigations to show them that climate change in their beautiful country is very real.  They have been undergoing its effects in dramatic ways in recent years: increased water scarcity, unpredictable weather patterns, recurring flooding and droughts, unpredictable start of rainfall with short rainy seasons, prolonged dry spells during rainy seasons, drying up of rivers and lakes with lowering fish supplies, heat waves, frequent bush fires, increased prevalence of water borne diseases, low and unstable hydro-electric production, declining flora and fauna, and declining natural species.

As a Malawian woman farmer told us, “In years past, I used to plant my maize field at the end of October or beginning of November, when rains are just beginning.  Then with rains stopping in late March I would have been assured of a good harvest. But in recent years, the rains don’t start until late November, then stop in mid-December, trickle in a bit in January, and dry up completely by February. No good harvest, and plenty of hunger in my family!”

Malawi is over-dependent on one export crop: tobacco. Serious ecological damage is caused by the clearing of land to plant tobacco and by the heavy use of trees for fires to cure the tobacco. Studies estimate that a hectare of wooded land may be needed to cure one hectare of tobacco. And that adds up fast to deforestation, with consequent climate change effects. Tobacco is not only devastating to the health of smokers. Tobacco production is devastating to the environment.

Even if Malawi did not suffer environmental damage because of its heavy dependence on tobacco production, it would still face the consequences of the heavy use of biomass to produce energy for cooking and heating. Most Malawians live in rural areas, and with less than 9% of households having access to electricity, large trees and scrubby bushes are eagerly cut for firewood and to make charcoal, significantly contributing to deforestation. Trees and forest soils absorb and store carbon. Diminishing forests result in this carbon being released as carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.

Of course it isn’t only deforestation that is causing climate change in Malawi. As Pope Francis forcefully points out: “a number of scientific studies indicate that most global warming in recent decades is due to the great concentration of greenhouse gases (carbon dioxide, methane, nitrogen oxides and others) released mainly as a result of human activity ….  The problem is aggravated by a model of development based on the intensive use of fossil fuels, which is at the heart of the worldwide energy system.”

Some steps can be taken at the local level that offer hope rather than despair. For example, the traditional three-stone open fire cooking method uses a lot of firewood. The Jesuit Centre for Ecology and Development (JCED) in Lilongwe is working with local women groups to construct simple stoves (mbaula) which reduce the use of firewood by 70-80%.  Apart from reducing the use of wood-fuel, the energy-efficient mbaula also reduces emission of carbon into the atmosphere.

Early on in Laudato Si, the Pope notes that “change is impossible without motivation and a process of education….” (15). Loyola Jesuit Secondary School (LJSS) in Kasungu, Malawi, embodies this message not only in its instruction, but in its construction. Soil-based bricks have been used in its new buildings rather than the traditional kiln-burnt bricks. The school’s desks and chairs and bunk beds have been made using trees from a lot where new trees are planted regularly to prevent deforestation. Solar water heaters have been installed. Small steps, but good steps.

Malawians alone can’t alter the climate change catastrophe the country faces. Very little of the global emissions of greenhouse gases come from a poor and non-industrialised country like Malawi. The people of the mighty fossil fueled economies of Europe, North America and China must be honest in looking at the situation, creative in designing effective responses and courageous in taking some hard and unpopular actions. Pope Francis repeatedly calls upon more effective international cooperation for the protection of our common home.

The United Nations Climate Change Conference to be held in Paris in December is a vital opportunity for action. As Pope Francis sadly notes, previous such conferences have not been effective: “International negotiations cannot make significant progress due to positions taken by countries which place their national interests above the global common good.  Those who will have to suffer the consequences of what we are trying to hide will not forget this failure of conscience and responsibility.” (165)

When Laudato Si speaks of “our common home,” it refers to is the whole of Mother Earth. But the message of Pope Francis is particularly meaningful and challenging for we who live in Malawi.  Our response – and that of the rest of the world – will determine our future.

 

Alex Muyebe, S.J., directs the Jesuit Centre for Ecology and Development, Lilongwe, Malawi (www.jced.amalocal.co.zm).  Peter Henriot, S.J., works with Loyola Jesuit Secondary School, Kasungu, Malawi (www.loyola-malawi.org).

[This article appeared in the British Catholic magazine, THE TABLET on 28 August 2015].