Pope Francis’ Encyclical Reminds Us Who Climate Change Hurts the Most

By Tessa Peoples, Communications Intern

Laudato Si, the Pope’s landmark encyclical, has ignited an international conversation about climate change. But no conversation about climate action can ignore the fact that the world’s poor—including the rural and indigenous communities that EcoLogic works with every day—are already being hit the hardest by the impacts of climate disruption.

“We are not faced with two separate crises, one environmental and the other social, but rather one complex crisis which is both social and environmental.”

So wrote Pope Francis in Laudato Si, his landmark encyclical on climate change and the environment, released June 18. An encyclical is a letter generally used to address a significant issue and is addressed to all bishops—or in this case, as Francis put it: all of mankind. Through the letter, the Pope wishes to “enter into a dialogue with all people about our common home.” He emphasizes the undeserved effect of climate change on the world’s poorest populations and wealthy countries’ obligation to push forward and find solutions to the issue that he asserts was caused by excessive industrialization.

Pope Francis, who wrote about climate change

Pope Francis, who released an encyclical about climate change, will visit the US in September

The encyclical was published just a few months before the Pope’s September trip to the United States, when he will address a joint session of Congress and, separately, the United Nations General Assembly. President Obama responded to the encyclical, saying, “We must also protect the world’s poor, who have done the least to contribute to this looming crisis and stand to lose the most if we fail to avert it.”

Pope Francis, born in Buenos Aires, is the first Pope from Latin America, and the first Pope from the Global South. The people of his home region are all too familiar with the disastrous effects of irresponsible development he condemns in Laudato Si. Latin America has a long history of being exploited for its rich natural resources, from the spread of mining under Spanish colonial rule to the modern-day destruction of rainforests for logging and agricultural purposes. Within Latin America, Central America and Southern Mexico are especially biodiverse—a remarkable 7% of the world’s biodiversity is concentrated there in only 0.1% of the Earth’s land mass—but have seen a dramatic loss of precious habitat. And as the climate continues to change, Mesoamerica is one of the regions that stands to suffer the most.

“Both everyday experience and scientific research show that the gravest effects of all attacks on the environment are suffered by the poorest,” Francis wrote. But in Laudato Si, the Pope wrote of what we know from our work in Mesoamerica. He wrote of what that unequal suffering looks like, seen through the eyes of poor communities who live it every day:

“For example, the depletion of fishing reserves especially hurts small fishing communities without the means to replace those resources; water pollution particularly affects the poor who cannot buy bottled water; and rises in the sea level mainly affect impoverished coastal populations who have nowhere else to go. The impact of present imbalances is also seen in the premature death of many of the poor, in conflicts sparked by the shortage of resources, and in any number of other problems which are insufficiently represented on global agendas.”

EcoLogic works in Central America and Mexico because of the region’s priceless but threatened natural riches. We work there in partnership with rural and indigenous communities because we, like Pope Francis, understand that what may seem at the surface like separate threats of environmental destruction, poverty, and unsustainable development are indeed “one complex crisis” in which all those threats are connected.

Two women who have taken on roles as "forest guardians" in Ixcán, Guatemala, thanks to training from EcoLogic. They work within their communities to care for the woods and to teach others about the importance of conservation. (Photo: Dan Grossman)

Two women who have taken on roles as “forest guardians” in Ixcán, Guatemala, thanks to training from EcoLogic. They work within their communities to care for the woods and to teach others about the importance of conservation. (Photo: Dan Grossman)

In partnership with grassroots partner organizations in local communities, we restore and protect Mesoamerica’s critical ecosystems in ways that are beneficial to the people, plants, and animals around them. In the basin of the Sarstún River, which forms a border between Belize and Guatemala, we work with small fishing communities in both countries to help local people sustainably manage fisheries and develop alternative sources of income. In Honduras, in the arid slopes south of Pico Bonito National Park, we have helped bring clean water to 28 rural communities—and restore and protect water sources so that families don’t go thirsty, even as climate change puts more stress on Honduras’ natural resources. And in southern Mexico, EcoLogic works side by side with indigenous Maya communities to establish systems to effectively engage in conservation and seek payment for the stewardship of the tropical forests they call home.

In a region where the rural poor are not only “insufficiently represented on global agendas,” as the Pope wrote, but where governments and NGOs are not always visible or reliable in the face of a crisis, EcoLogic prepares communities to take charge of their own land, resources, and livelihoods. In this way, our projects indirectly build local people’s capacity to respond to risks and change. Responding to the Pope’s call to relieve the poor from a fate dealt to them by developed nations requires deep respect and empathy, and a willingness to let communities who have been marginalized for so much of history to lead us in charting a better future for “our common home.”

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