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F&A Series: Religious activists translating and co-creating environmental care in Indonesia

Faith & Activism

Jonathan D Smith recently completed his PhD in Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Leeds. His research on religious environmental movements in Indonesia was conducted with the support of the Centre for Religious and Cross-Cultural Studies at Gadjah Mada University.

How do environmental activists use religious concepts to change people’s environmental attitudes and behaviour? In 2017, I conducted a review of literature on religious environmental social movements in Indonesia. One of the findings of this review was how these movements act as translators and co-creators of religious ideas of environmental care. In this blog, I want to share some examples from this study and how they might be relevant to other researchers working on issues of faith and social activism.

Indonesia provides a rich context for studying faith and environmental social movements. It has the largest Muslim population in the world, with Muslims make up 87.2% of Indonesia’s more than 240 million people. Indonesia also recognises Buddhism, Christianity (Protestant and Catholic), Confucianism, Hinduism and Indigenous Religions as official religions. As religion has an important social function in Indonesia, religious leaders are expected to contribute to public discussions and work together to solve common problems at the local and national level.

With its thousands of islands, Indonesia is highly vulnerable to rising sea levels and other extreme weather events caused by human-made climate change. It is feeling the negative impacts of the climate crisis earlier than many other countries due to its location. Indonesian responses to climate change regularly involve religious concepts such as well as deep involvement by religious leaders and activists. There is an increase of eco-friendly “Green Mosques” and “Green Churches”, as well as Hindu and Buddhist initiatives to plant trees and increase recycling. Religious groups have also joined with other activists to create strong and diverse coalitions for environmental campaigns. These campaigns are often led by indigenous groups who try to protect their lands from appropriated and exploited.

One way that these movements operate is by what the sociologist Peter Beyer calls ‘translation’. They interpret scientific environmental concepts into ‘specifically religious idioms and symbolic clusters’. Beyer argues that this expert translation by movements into religious discourses enables ‘religious remedies to a problem which has been articulated in religious language’.

A prominent example of religious environmental translation is Pope Francis’ 2015 encyclical on the environment entitled Laudato Si’: On Care for Our Common Home. This influential document encourages Christians to protect the environment and calls on governments to take action to reduce carbon emissions.

In Indonesia, the Indonesian Council of Islamic Scholars (Majelis Ulama Indonesia) has developed numerous fatwas (religious edicts) on environmental conservation. One of these fatwas in 2011 provided guidelines for environmentally friendly mining, featuring rationales using Islamic language and arguments. Although there’s not effectiveness of these fatwas in changing logging practices in Indonesia, the religious edicts represent innovative efforts to translate environmental policy into religious languages to preserve forests and reduce global heating.

This emphasis on movements as translators, while useful, has some limits. It focuses perhaps too heavily on the translators and not enough on their context. Effective communication involves a two-way process between activists and communities, as demonstrated by the uncertain audience for the fatwas on environmental care and questions about their impact in changing behaviour. Local people’s understanding of the environment is crucially important for two reasons: 1) although climate change is global, it affects communities at a local level, and 2) local communities perceive climate change based on local frames of reference, frames which include religious worldviews.

Rather than being objects of a process of translating global policy and national policy on deforestation into local concepts, local communities are key actors in shaping ideas of climate change and adaptation. Willis Jenkins calls this process adaptive management, which he defines as inventing new ways of living by re-framing and adapting beliefs to address environmental challenges. Without local participation and engagement in environmental discourses, climate science and policy remain disconnected from daily practice. Adaptation results from a process whereby activists work in cooperation with local communities to co-create new practices with local ownership rather than imposing them from outside.

A fascinating example of this process of co-creation at the local level is a multi-year project with Islamic and indigenous religious leaders to create a shared understanding of environmental management among the Minangkabau ethnic group in West Sumatra. The Minangkabau live in a region with a large area of rainforests, and their religious practices are influenced both by Indigenous Religions and Islam. Working with local government, international conservation NGOs and a diverse cross-section of local community groups (religious and traditional leaders, youth and women’s groups, schools and local farmers), numerous initiatives to protect the environment and preserve local land rights were pursued together.

As a result of multiple workshops exploring Islamic principles and local traditional Minangkabau beliefs about the environment, participants co-created a discourse that incorporated Islamic teaching, indigenous concepts and environmental ethics. They took Islamic concepts and defined them in a way that fit with indigenous religious conceptions of the natural environment. For example, the Islamic concept of hima was applied as ‘management zones established for sustainable natural resource use’; harim was used to designated nature reserves, and ihya al-mawat for areas of neglected land that required reviving to become productive. The resulting discourse of environmental care reinforced a respect for local customs and local environmental management whilst also incorporating Islamic teachings to support care for the environment.

These examples highlight how the effectiveness of social movements on the environment (and other social issues) depend ultimately on the actions of millions of local communities like those in Western Sumatra. As researchers study how activists translate scientific and environmental concepts into religious language, they should also pay close attention to processes of co-creation. This can help us better understand how movements ‘integrate and formalize religious principles’ into local conceptions of environmental management. Studying these dynamic social movements in their distinctive contexts can provide important insights about both how religious beliefs and practices change and how social movements adapt to the needs and priorities of local communities.

Written By: Dr. Jonathan Smith

Feature Image Credit: Rainforest Action Network @flickr