Loss of Madagascar’s biodiversity is a loss for Earth, Pope says

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  • On a visit to Madagascar this weekend, Pope Francis denounced the “excessive” forest loss in the country.
  • He was speaking at the presidential palace, during a courtesy call to President Andry Rajoelina.
  • The pope also visited Mozambique before arriving in Madagascar, where he addressed the ecological disaster faced by the African nation after it was hit by two back-to-back cyclones this year.
  • His seven-day tour which includes a day trip to Mauritius on Monday comes to a close on Tuesday.

With three shovelfuls of soil in service of a baobab plant, Pope Francis underlined a central message of his trip to Madagascar: protection of the island nation’s natural riches is vital for the country and for the preservation of the “common home.”

The pontiff, who is on a seven-day visit to Mozambique, Madagascar and Mauritius, landed in Madagascar on Friday evening and met with President Andry Rajoelina on Saturday morning at the presidential palace in Antananarivo, where the tree-planting ceremony was held.

“Your lovely island of Madagascar is rich in plant and animal biodiversity, yet this treasure is especially threatened by excessive deforestation, from which some profit,” Pope Francis said addressing a gathering that included senior officials, diplomats and members of civil society. “The deterioration of that biodiversity compromises the future of the country and of the earth, our common home.”

Pope Francis planting a baobab tree at the presidential palace in Antananarivo, Madagascar as President Andry Rajoelina looks on. Image Courtesy: Foto ©Vatican Media

In doing so, he echoed concerns laid out in his widely cited 2015 encyclical Laudato Si’, which called on the faithful to act as stewards of the planet. The document, issued in the third year of his papacy, also notably addressed the issue of human-induced climate change.

The visit of the head of the Roman Catholic Church was eagerly anticipated in Madagascar, where 35 percent of people identify as Catholic, according to the Vatican, including President Rajoelina. Nearly a million people showed up for the mass held on Sunday. “People here see it as inspirational for the pope to come all the way to Madagascar,” said James Hazen, the acting country representative for the NGO Catholic Relief Services. “Of all the places he can go, he chose to come here.” The last pope to visit Madagascar was the late John Paul II, 30 years ago.

The motto for this papal trip was “Sower of Peace and Hope,” and the logo prominently featured Madagascar’s iconic baobab trees, towering, thick-trunked trees belonging to the genus Adansonia, and the traveler’s palm, Ravenala madagascariensis. Clovis Razafimalala, a Malagasy activist who heads Lampogno, an organization that fights illegal rosewood trafficking, said he was happy that the pope had weighed in on issues he had long advocated for. “He talked about the environment, corruption and human rights. The message was well-received,” Razafimalala said.

Grandidier’s baobabs (Adansonia grandidieri) an iconic tree species of Madagascar. Image by Rhett A. Butler

Various Catholic organizations in Madagascar already do humanitarian work and advocacy on  environmental issues, but the 2015 encyclical pushed them further in that direction.  There was also a move toward making dioceses go green. “They commit to educate people to take care of their environments. They do a lot of advocacy in order to put into practice the appeal of the pope in his encyclical Laudato si’,” Fulgence Ratsimbazafy, a Jesuit priest in Madagascar, said of the dioceses. “Let us not forget that the message of salvation has also to do with ecology that is a true and right reconciliation with God, with one another, and with our environment.”

Hazen said the Rajoelina government’s big announcements regarding reforestation meant authorities in Madagascar were receptive to these ideas. Razafimalala, however, said he was not convinced the country’s leaders had absorbed the import of the pope’s words.

Rajoelina vowed during his address on Saturday to alleviate poverty in his country, but did not address the environmental challenges facing Madagascar directly. “In this place on this day, I confirm my will and my engagement to repair and rebuild Madagascar,” he said. “I will pay attention to the weakest and the lowest. I will pay attention to justice and to equality, love and hope.”

The pope recognized the difficulties for a nation where so many people suffer from deep deprivations; almost three-quarters of the population in Madagascar lives below the poverty line. “It is also true, however, that, for the people concerned, a number of activities harmful to the environment at present ensure their survival,” the pope said. “So it is important to create jobs and activities that generate income, while protecting the environment and helping people to emerge from poverty.”

Pope Francis also got a firsthand look at opportunities created by the church for the poor, during his tour of the Akamasoa project located on the outskirts of Antananarivo. Pedro Pablo Opeka, a Catholic priest who, like Francis, hails from Argentina, has worked in Madagascar for more than four decades. He founded the Akamasoa association to reclaim a sprawling garbage dump near the capital. The association has also helped rehabilitate more than 20,000 people who worked in deplorable conditions there.

The need to address environmental challenges has been a recurrent theme of the pope’s tour of the three Indian Ocean countries. Prior to coming to Madagascar, Francis visited Mozambique, where he spoke of the devastation wrought by two consecutive hurricanes that pummeled the African nation this year: Idai in March and Kenneth in April. “Sadly, however, a few months ago you suffered the collision of two cyclones, and saw the consequences of the ecological disaster that we are experiencing,” he said.

He went on to emphasize the role that youth have to play in the campaign to tackle the ills plaguing Earth. “Many people, including a great number of young people, have already taken up the pressing challenge of protecting our common home,” he said. “I am convinced that you can be the agents of this much-needed change: protecting our common home, a home that belongs to all and is meant for all.”

After spending Monday in Mauritius, the pope will fly back to the Vatican from Madagascar on Tuesday morning.

Banner Image: Pope Francis in an undated file photo. Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

Malavika Vyawahare is the Madagascar staff writer for Mongabay. Find her on Twitter: @MalavikaVy

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