Photo: CJI.

“I can’t breathe” – the heart wrenching words uttered by George Floyd as he was choked to death, unarmed, by a policeman, have become the rallying cry against police brutality and racial inequality underpinning our societies. These words come to mind as I listen to people whose lives are being snuffed in the Amazon, the Congo Basin and the Boreal forest, due to violence and the pursuit of profit at all cost. These forests are referred to as the lungs of the world – the source of breath and life for humanity. They are being destroyed.

There is a reason why they are called the lungs of the world. Together, the three forests store and release huge quantities of carbon, playing an important role in the fight against climate change, not to mention the fact they are home to innumerable species of plants and animals. They are being destroyed by unbridled development, as denounced in the encyclical Laudato Si’. Their destruction has a significant impact on climate change and on all our lives. Yet, despite all the evidence around us – rising sea levels, uncontrollable fires, floods, loss of species – we still delude ourselves that we can postpone action to mitigate the impact.

The people living in these forests do not have this luxury. For them the destruction of the Earth’s lungs has immediate and often fatal consequences. The Karipuna people in the Amazon were almost decimated by outsiders invading their territory. Outside businesses conduct illegal activities and appropriate their land for economic and political gain. Indigenous people live under constant death threats by developers. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), the increase in demand for rare earth materials used in green technology has an impact on the lives of artisanal miners, especially women and children. They are forced to work in dangerous conditions to clean and process minerals such as cobalt, endangering their health, their communities and their environment. Climate change is also expected to affect the Boreal ecosystems at a higher rate than equatorial ecosystems. Industrial development such as mining, hydropower development and forestry impact Indigenous communities, endangering the way of life that they have known for centuries.

As we hear from the contributing authors in this issue, another way is possible. As Laura Vicuña in the cover article says, Indigenous people consider these forests as a true “vital organ” of the planet. They are the “source of ancient wisdom and care for humanity and Earth”.

The Amazon, the Congo Basin and the Boreal forest are the source of breath; the breath that marks the beginning and the end of our lives. Let us take care of them, so that we can all breathe and all live.