Why caring for the Earth matters in the fight against poverty
April 22, 2021 is Earth Day. Here’s why caring for people in poverty requires caring for Creation.
Last fall in Honduras, in the aftermath of Hurricane Eta, 12-year-old Daniela and her family had to row her stepfather’s light blue fishing boat through the flooded streets of their neighbourhood to inspect the damage to their home. “There [was] no other way to move around the community,” Daniela shared.
Several months earlier, on the other side of the world in Bangladesh, another 12-year-old girl, Aduri, weathered a historic tropical storm: super-cyclone Amphan. In the midst of the highly uncertain early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, Aduri’s family chose to leave their home and evacuate to a shelter.
“I hugged my mum and prayed with her all night long for the storm to pass,” said Aduri.
In the aftermath of the storm, her family returned to a devastating sight: where their home once stood, there was nothing left.
Daniela and Aduri’s experiences highlight an alarming reality: the devastating consequences of environmental disasters, damage and degradation fall disproportionately on people living in poverty.
The United Nations states that rising temperatures “continue to exacerbate the frequency and severity of natural disasters, which affected more than 39 million people in 2018.”
And these disproportionate effects on people living in poverty are not just relevant when it comes to large environmental disasters that make headlines. Other effects of environmental degradation are just as devastating, if not more. Land degradation and changes to rainfall have devastating consequences for small-scale farmers. The world’s worst pollutants often end up in the poorest and most vulnerable communities, leading to poor health and increased disease.
In his book Rich Christians in an age of Hunger, Ron Sider writes:
“Tragically, the poor are on the front lines when it comes to the harmful impacts of pollution and environmental degradation. In many instances they are the first to suffer and they absorb the brunt of the destructive consequences due to their poverty and vulnerability.”
If we care about people living in poverty, then addressing environmental degradation needs to be a top priority.
Caring for Creation
Caring for the Earth isn’t only the modern “cause” many think it is. Rather, our mandate to care for the land, environment and created world around us comes right from the beginning, in the Creation story found in Scripture: “God blessed them and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.’” (Genesis 1:28)
In this famous command in Scripture, humans are made stewards of Creation by our Creator God. Like the parables Jesus taught about servants who were put in charge of their master’s resources or affairs, we’ve been put in charge of Creation. As such, the concluding line of one such parable in Luke 12 rings true for us: “From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.” (Luke 12:48)
We live in a broken world, marred by selfishness and sin. As a result, our relationship with the created world is fractured. We haven’t been good stewards of Creation and it’s had devastating consequences for the most vulnerable among us.
The question God asks in Ezekiel 34:18 is relevant to us today: “Is it not enough for you to feed on the good pasture? Must you also trample the rest of your pasture with your feet? Is it not enough for you to drink clear water? Must you also muddy the rest with your feet?”
But as with any fractured relationship, the good news we carry as followers of Jesus is that we can be agents of reconciliation. We’re called to be reconcilers, peacemakers, restorers — for the sake of the Earth and all her inhabitants.
The work of poverty alleviation is, in many ways, the work of restoration: to restore human dignity and flourishing. The work of environmental stewardship is also about restoration. Like restoring a piece of artwork, we must urgently work to restore all that is “very good” about Creation, even as we wait with expectation for the ultimate restoration when “the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.” (Romans 8:21)
Children in Compassion’s programs around the world are engaging in this work to care for and restore Creation.
Cochabamba, Bolivia is known by locals as the “Garden City”. Ironically, it is also considered one of the most polluted cities in Bolivia.
Cochabamba is home to Lilian, Noe, Karen and their peers — a dynamic group of teenagers that won’t stand for the pollution of their city. It’s a passion that first bloomed in their Compassion centre classrooms.
“We were taught that God created everything beautiful, but we are destroying it. God gave us the authority to take care of what He created, so we have to do that,” says 17-year-old Lilian.
“God teaches us to take care of what He has given us,” adds 19-year-old Noe. “We have to be good stewards.”
That’s why these teens took part in an initiative with 119 of their peers to clean their community and raise awareness about pollution. Splitting into four groups, each in charge of picking up a different kind of waste, they cleaned along the borders of a main road in their city. They also put up signs and talked to their neighbours about the importance of properly recycling or disposing of waste.
Karen says that raising awareness is an important step in changing attitudes and habits. “When we [pollute], we don’t think it’s affecting us, but we are destroying our planet and contaminating our environment, [and] that is destroying us, too.”
In total, the teens collected 50 bags of waste. They inspired many of their neighbours and are confident that they will make this initiative a regular practice.
In Thailand, protecting the country’s forests is the top priority of the Royal Forest Department. Unfortunately, local villagers that live near National Parks are often seen as a threat to this cause by the Department’s Park Rangers. For many locals, burning, hunting and cutting down trees in the forest is their source of livelihood.
The situation has unfortunately led to mistrust between the villagers and rangers. “[The rangers] come and observe the villagers, and people are afraid they might take their homes,” says Ekkachai, the director at TH0811, a Compassion centre near Mae Moei National Park.
Building trust and rapport between the locals and rangers has become an important project, and the youth at TH0811 have taken the lead in their community.
As part of the programming at their Compassion centre, Compassion-sponsored teens participate in training camps with the Park Rangers twice a year. They learn about forestry conservation and gain practical skills, such as how to create firebreaks in the dry season and dams in the rainy season. They also learn how to observe and take notes on the health of the ecosystem. Then, once a month, they venture into the forest to put all that they’ve learned into practice.
“When we come to the forest to make a record in our notebooks, it’s my favourite,” says Naphat, one of the program’s participants.
Ekkachai has observed tangible signs of increasing trust. “Since we started the program, [the rangers] don’t come to bother [the villagers] anymore.”
For the youth, the program is instilling in them hope for a bright future — one in which they will continue to live with a thriving forest for generations to come.
Reconciling all things
The Psalms are filled with praise for God as Creator. Psalm 65:9–13 says:
“You care for the land and water it; you enrich it abundantly. The streams of God are filled with water to provide the people with grain, for so you have ordained it. You drench its furrows and level its ridges; you soften it with showers and bless its crops. You crown the year with your bounty, and your carts overflow with abundance. The grasslands of the wilderness overflow; the hills are clothed with gladness. The meadows are covered with flocks and the valleys are mantled with grain; they shout for joy and sing.”
This Psalm paints a beautiful picture of abundance and flourishing, what Creator God calls “very good” in the account of Creation in Genesis 1:31. In the Garden of Eden, humans had enough to eat and enjoy. We had good work to do in tending and caring for the Garden.
But all that was “very good” broke when sin entered the world. Today, we see the consequences of that brokenness. We’ve built systems and structures of materialism and consumption that harm the Earth and her inhabitants and unjustly push the most vulnerable among us deeper into poverty.
But the promise we find in Scripture is one of reconciliation in our broken world. Colossians 1:19–20 tells us that “God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in [Jesus], and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.”
Through Christ, God is reconciling all things. And we’re invited into that story. We can play a part by caring for Creation and caring for the most vulnerable among us. As we celebrate Earth Day in 2021, let’s resolve to step into the fullness of our role as stewards of Creation, so that we may experience collective flourishing, together.
Alyssa Esparaz works for Compassion Canada, telling stories that inform and inspire Canadians towards compassionate action for children living in poverty around the world.
Photography and field reporting by Juana Ordonez Martinez (Honduras), J. Sangma (Bangladesh), Galia Oropeza (Bolivia) and Piyamary Shinoda (Thailand) for Compassion International.