The Great Lakes Region of Africa is arguably one of the most biodiverse regions on the continent. Covering about 11 countries, and seven major lake/river basins, the region presents tremendous opportunities and challenges for natural resource conservation. The region also supports the livelihoods of over 60 million people, including indigenous peoples. However, sustainable management of natural resources has been compromised by political instability and economic dependence.
With this background, and to mark the 5th anniversary of the encyclical letter Laudato Si’, the Jesuit Urumuri Centre in Kigali hosted the ‘International Conference on Youth Engagement in the Great Lakes Region of Africa’.
In his remarks at the opening of the conference, the Archbishop of Kigali, *His Eminence Antoine Cardinal Kambanda, noted the impact of the encyclical Laudato Si’ both within and outside the Church. He appreciated the efforts of the Government of Rwanda in addressing environmental challenges, but reminded the audience that “political efforts or the force of law alone will be sufficient to prevent actions which affect the environment because when the culture itself is corrupt, and objective truth and universally valued principles are no longer upheld, then laws can only be seen as arbitrary positions or obstacles to be avoided”. He added that the contribution of the Church, is to help develop the culture and spirituality of respect for the environment. “The environment is part and parcel of Christian life and spirituality”, he continued, and added that “the Congo basin is a vital natural reserve that should be a concern of the whole world.” Highlighting the tragic 1994 genocide, he pointed out that the journey of reconciliation involves “reconciling ourselves with God, reconciling ourselves with our brothers and sisters, but also with nature, because the environment was defiled in the killings and the soil that absorbed so much blood of innocent lives, requires reconciliation”. He concluded that “we are in the same boat and no one can be indifferent in the care for our common home”.
The Honorable Dr. Jeanne d’Arc Mujawamariya, Minister of Environment in the Government of Rwanda, said that youth need to be engaged in activities aimed at environmental protection and fighting against the effects of climate change. “We only have one planet that we call home and we do not have a planet B to go to”, she said. Minister Mujawamariya noted that the influence of religion has not been taken sufficiently into consideration in finding sustainable solutions to those related to environmental degradation and impacts of climate change. She highlighted the importance of partnerships between government and faith-based institutions, and called upon young people to join the Government of Rwanda in the launch of tree planting season, 2020/21 and the target to plant 2 million trees.
Other speakers who spoke at the high level opening session included Monsignor Bruno Marie Duffe, Secretary of the Dicastery for Promoting Human Development. Monsignor Duffe invited the audience to consider the spiritual dimension needed to realize ecological conversion, and called for dialogue between generations. “Spirituality of encounter and fraternity, communion and reconciliation is the spirituality we receive from Jesus which can help us realize a new model of development”, he concluded.
The two-day gathering, October 21st to 22nd was co-organized by the Jesuit Urumuri Centre, the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development, Jesuit Missions UK and CYNESA Rwanda chapter. Despite the challenge of the Covid-19 pandemic, 200 young people representing all the Catholic dioceses in Rwanda and representatives from environmental youth NGOs participated in the forum. Many more from around the world were able to participate in the conference that was also streamed on virtual platforms.
*On October 25th 2020, Pope Francis announced he would create 13 new Cardinals including the Archbishop of Kigali, H.E. Antoine Cardinal Kambanda, just 3 days after he spoke at the conference.