Global voices on the Synod: South-east Asia

“What happens in one part of the world affects us all.” Anita Sebastian from Caritas Singapore talks to us about forest fires in Indonesia, and how her team is caring for our common home.

“The Synod, with its focus on human rights and the care of our common home is really relevant to us,” says Anita, “because what happens in one part of the world, affects us all. It’s just a matter of time.

“The air we breathe is shared by all. In Singapore our air quality can be badly affected by forest fires in Indonesia.”

Aftermath of fire in Indonesia.

Aftermath of forest fires in Indonesia. Photo by Caritas Indonesia

The blanket of smog from Indonesian fires is a longstanding problem in south-east Asia. The latest report in from Karina, Caritas Indonesia, shows that fire damage has surged in comparison with last year.

By September 860,000 hectares of land across Indonesia had been destroyed by over 80,000 fires – an increase of over 50 per cent on the whole of 2018. This is comparable to the situation in the Amazon, where an estimated 906,000 hectares of forest have been lost so far this year.

“All it takes is for the wind to change direction, and the haze reaches our beautiful island,” says Anita.

Living with smog

Life in Singapore can be dictated by the latest pollution rating. “On hazy days, I do a quick online check of the PSI [Pollutant Standard Index] levels before leaving my flat,” explains Anita.

“If I need to, I pack my N95 face mask. This year, I got a sore throat and headaches. You can smell the haze. I often wonder, what happens to all the animals breathing in this polluted air?”

In Indonesia, diocesan Caritas have been distributing these N95 face masks for filtering out harmful particles to thousands of people affected by toxic haze. Meanwhile Caritas volunteers in Central Kalimantan province are providing medical assistance including oxygen therapy, blood pressure testing and respiratory treatment.

Caritas Indonesia offers medical service to local community affected by forest fire in Kalimantan.

Caritas Indonesia offers medical service to local community affected by forest fire in Kalimantan. Photo by Caritas Diocese of Palangka Raya/Caritas Indonesia

Are you caring for the earth?

Against the reality of environmental damage the Caritas Singapore team have been reflecting deeply on Pope Francis’s encyclical Laudato Si’.

“What is our role as Catholics?” writes Fr David Garcia OP who leads many of their workshops. “The call has always been there but we have been slow to hear it… We are called to a frugal lifestyle, effective forms of recycling, and a more responsible and sustainable use of our resources.” (Caritas in Mission, Issue 3)

The team has taken this to heart. “We are passing on the message to reduce, reuse and recycle,” they explain. “We asked the staff at our HQ, what do you carry in your bag to care for the Earth?”

Left: Metal straws, reusable shopping bag and two water bottles. Right: Reusable containers and shopping bags.

Takeaway meals are a huge part of the Singapore lifestyle, so reusables are a great idea. “We love our food,” says Anita. “We are spoilt for choice in deciding what and where to eat. But let’s consider as well what goes to waste in our food-abundant, time-pressed culture.” The Singapore Environmental Council calculates that the city state gets through 1.76 billion plastics bags, bottles, and disposables annually.

Washing up as ministry

This means that even washing up can be part of a Christian commitment to care for the Earth. “Our volunteers lovingly prepare home-cooked lunches for our programmes,” explains Eve from Caritas Singapore. “We use only reusable crockery and utensils. This requires a willing washing-up team. Everything is left sparkling clean for next time.”

Caritas Singapore has also created a rooftop garden, to reduce their carbon footprint and provide a peaceful space. Cultivating its fruit and vegetable patch brings together volunteers and community. Recently, the team added a green leaf to their logo, to symbolise the commitment of staff to care for the earth.

“It is urgent that there be a global awareness of the need to protect our common home, and that we be reconciled with creation. ‘Later will be too late’.” – 10th General Congregation summary of the Synod


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