Reynaldo D. Raluto – « The Imperative of reforestation in fighting climate change in Asia »

Reynaldo D. Raluto

« The Imperative of reforestation in fighting climate change in Asia »

Stefanie Knauss – Carlos Mendoza Álvarez

Concilium 2019-5. Queere Theologien: Der queere Leib Christi werden
Concilium 2019-5. Queer theologies: becoming the queer body of Christ
Concilium 2019-5. Teologías queer: convertirse en el cuerpo queer de Cristo
Concilium 2019-5. Teologie queer: diventare il corpo queer di Cristo
Concilium 2019-5. Théologies queer : devenir le corps queer du Christ
Concilium 2019-5. Teologias queer: tornar-se o corpo queer de Cristo

I. Introduction

Scientists argue that we are presently experiencing a disturbing change in the climatic system due to the abnormal buildup of greenhouse gases (GHGs) in the atmosphere which traps the heat and makes the earth dangerously warm. Although scientists became aware of the greenhouse effect in 1896, the first scientifically well-founded models date from the 1970s. In 1988, the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) and United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) established the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to provide assessments of the scientific basis, impact and future risks of climate change.[i] In 1990, IPCC affirmed the scientific evidence that ‘greenhouse gas emissions lead to climate change’.[ii]

II. Two major contributors of anthropogenic GHGs in the atmosphere

There are two competing explanations of the abnormally increasing build-up of GHGs in the atmosphere. Some say that itis caused by natural factors such as volcanic activity, variations in the earth’s orbit and axis, or the solar cycle. Others argue that it is anthropogenic or the result of human activities since the advent of western industrialization in 1750 that relies on fossil fuels and other non-renewable energy sources. In their assessment, the IPCC scientists concluded that it is extremely likely (95% certain) that climate change is ‘caused by the anthropogenic increase in greenhouse gas concentrations’.[iii]  

Recently, unsustainable deforestation has been identified as another major contributor to the increasing anthropogenic GHGs in the atmosphere. When trees are burned or rot, they release the stored carbon dioxide (CO2) back into the air.Moreover, forests and vegetation are considered ‘live actors’ in the planet and have a ‘buffering effect’ on climate.[iv]Together with the atmosphere and oceans, they serve as an important planetary sink of CO2 and other GHGs. Thus, fewer forests and less vegetation could mean a hotter planet. 

III. Deforestation in Asia as an urgent ecological concern

Without neglecting the fact that many Asian countries have made a distinct contribution to climate change due to their reliance on fossil fuels and other non-renewable energy sources, this paper highlights the alarming disappearance of forests in Asia as a more urgent ecological concern. Around the year 1500, the estimated forest cover of Southeast Asia was about 90% of its land area, of which less than half remains in 2004.[v] In some countries like Cambodia, the Philippines or Vietnam, old-growth forests have nearly vanished.[vi]

Analysts show that the major causes of deforestation in Asia are due to unsustainable land use, such as the conversion of land to agricultural use.[vii] This unsustainable approach was initially introduced by the Europeans who came in large numbers to Southeast Asia between 1500 and 1900[viii] to colonize not only the people but also natural resources, especially forests. In the Philippines, for instance, the European colonizers promoted large-scale monocrop plantations of invasive alien species that replaced the indigenous species of the country. Indeed, this is a colonization of nature in the ecological sense of making the foreign species dominant. The systematic deforestation in Asia was dramatically worsened by the advent of western agrarian capitalism in the 19th century when ‘large tracts of climax forest were cut to make way for plantations’[ix] in the name of development. 

IV. Destroying the natural forests as ecological sin

As a focal ecosystem, the destroyed natural forests negatively affect almost all other ecosystems. Nevertheless, this is not the main reason why Christians need to be concerned with deforestation. From a theological perspective, it is ecologicallysinful for human beings to destroy the community of life and the integrity of creation. Laudato Si’ teaches that it is sinfulto destroy the biological diversity of God’s creation, to degrade the integrity of the earth by causing changes in its climate, to strip the earth of its natural forests or destroy its wetlands, and to contaminate the earth’s waters, land, air, and life.[x]The consequences of ecological sin are complex as it destroys our relationship with God, neighbors, the Earth and with present and future generations.[xi]

Laudato Si’ calls us to hear the ‘cry of the Earth’ without neglecting the poor who are most vulnerable to the impact of climate change as they ‘live in areas particularly affected by phenomena related to warming, and [whose] means of subsistence are largely dependent on natural reserves and ecosystemic services such as agriculture, fishing and forestry’.[xii] Expectedly, other living species of the planet ‘will not be able to adapt quickly enough to the changes and will simply become extinct’.[xiii] The destruction of their habitat due to massive deforestation means the loss of biodiversity. 

V. The imperative of ecological restitution 

We have inherited an abnormally warming planet due to the past generations that not only relied on fossil fuels but also exploited the forests. As we leave this planet to the next generations, it would be a violation of the principle of solidarity and inter-generational justice if we bequeath to them an uninhabitable planet.[xiv] How will their right to a healthy environment be protected? Some authors suggest that if the perpetrators are still alive and capable, they are obliged to give justice to their victims and should equitably shoulder the cost of adaptation measures to slow or prevent climate change.[xv]  

The sacrament of penance offers a helpful framework that includes confession of sins, conversion of the sinner, and restitution of the damages of sins. Jürgen Moltmann argues that repentant sinners must do their best ‘to eliminate the damage they have caused’.[xvi] In the context of deforestation, the main purpose of ecological reparation is not to let the forest recover itself so that we can resume plundering it again but to allow the Earth to reproduce and regenerate itself.[xvii] This living planet has ‘the right to regenerate its bio-capacity and to continue its vital cycles and processes free from human disruptions’.[xviii] James LaFrankie advocated to ‘rebuild our forests from native species’ because they have ‘a relationship to the land, water and other organisms that has developed over a million years’.[xix] In the face of climate change, regenerating the native tree species can be an efficient mitigating measure and an appropriate restitution for the ecological damages brought about by the colonization of our natural forests. 

VI. Reforestation as reparation for ecological sins 

Many Asian countries have opted to fight climate change through reforestation activities. In July 2017, about 1.5 million volunteers from the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh planted more than 66 million tree species along the Narmada river in just twelve hours.[xx] Since 2012, the Philippines has legally required all its able-bodied citizens over twelve years of age ‘to plant one tree every year’.[xxi] Some ecologically conscious parishes in the country also require the faithful to plant a certain number of trees before receiving the sacraments of baptism and marriage.   Reforestation activities should be viewed both as a means to mitigate climate change and as reparation for ecological sins. This entails enriching the prevailing meaning of reparation for our sins to include the ecological damages we have done to nature. Thus, the ministers of the sacrament of confession should give a penance that is appropriate for the sins committed. For instance, they may ask the penitents to plant trees rather than simply pray the Lord’s Prayer three times as penance for destroying the forest. They may also use the Season of Creation (September 1 to October 4) as the most appropriate moment to ritualize the community’s ecological repentance through reforestation activities. In any case, reforestation advocacy should go beyond legal requirements. 


[i] IPCC Factsheet: What Is the IPCC? at

[ii] Cited in Dominic Roser and Christian Seidel, Climate Justice: An Introduction. Translated by Ciaran Cronin, London and New York: Routledge, 2017, p. 125. 

[iii] Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Climate Change 2013 – The Physical Science Basis: Working Group I Contribution to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014, pp. 12–13.

[iv] See James Lovelock, The Revenge of Gaia: Why the Earth is Fighting Back – and How We can Still Save Humanity, London: Penguin Books, 2007, pp. 63–64. 

[v] Navjot Sodhi et al., ‘Southeast Asian Biodiversity: An Impending Disaster’, Trends in Ecology and Evolution, 19.12 (2004), 656.

[vi] William Laurance, ‘Forest Destruction in Tropical Asia’, Current Science, 93.11 (2007), 1548. 

[vii] Sodhi et al., ‘Southeast Asian Biodiversity’, 656. 

[viii] Peter Boomgaard, ‘Environmental Impact on the European Presence in Southeast Asia, 17th – 19th Centuries’, 26, at

[ix]Boomgaard, ‘Environmental Impact’, 26. 

[x] Francis, Laudato Si’: On Care for Our Common Home, no. 8, at

[xi] See John Zizioulas, ‘A Comment on Pope Francis’ Encyclical Laudato Si’’, at

[xii] Francis, Laudato Si’, no. 25. 

[xiii] See Seán McDonagh, Climate Change: The Challenge to All of Us, Dublin: The Columba Press, 2006, p. 48.

[xiv] See Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, Cittá del Vaticano: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2005, no. 468. 

[xv] See Roser and Seidel, Climate Justice, pp. 90, 94. 

[xvi] Jürgen Moltmann, Ethics of Hope, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2012, p. 183.

[xvii] See Leonardo Boff, ‘Respect and Care for the Community of Life with Understanding, Compassion, and Love’, in Peter Blaze Corcoran (ed.), The Earth Charter in Action: Toward a Sustainable World, Amsterdam: KIT Publishers, 2005, p. 44. 

[xviii] Universal Declaration of Rights of Mother Earth, Cochabamba, Bolivia, 22 April 2010), Article 2, 1.c; at

[xix] James LaFrankie, ‘Why Native Trees?’, in Marietta Marciano (ed.), Philippine Native Trees 101: Up Close and Personal, Quezon City: Green Convergence for Safe Food, Healthy Environment and Sustainable Economy; and Hortica Filipina, Inc., 2012, p. 309. 

[xx] Lorraine Chow, ‘1.5 Million Volunteers Plant 66 Million Trees in 12 Hours, Breaking Guinness World Record’, 3 July 2017, at

[xxi] Section 8 of Republic Act No. 10176, at


Reynaldo D. Raluto is a Roman Catholic priest of the Diocese of Malaybalay (Philippines). He holds a licentiate and doctorate in theology from the Catholic University of Leuven (Belgium). He serves as Academic Dean of St. John Vianney Theological Seminary in Cagayan de Oro. His recent publications include Poverty and Ecology at the Crossroads(2015).

Address: St. John Vianney Theological Seminary, Camaman-an, 9000 Cagayan de Oro, The Philippines.