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Reforestation as Redemption – Forest Sunday

September 3, 2017


A Sermon preached by The Rev. Jeffrey Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on the First Sunday in the Season of Creation (Forest Sunday), September 3, 2017.

Isaiah 55:6-14         Isaiah 14:3-8

It was about eight o’clock in the evening when our tour bus, climbing a twisting highway in the Guatemalan Highlands, came to a dead stop. The sun had gone down an hour earlier, and all we could see ahead was a line of brake lights leading up to the next switchback around the mountain. As we speculated among ourselves as to the reason we were all stopped, cars ahead of us began to shut off their lights. We were going to be here a while, and they knew it. When our driver, Don Roberto, shut off our engine, we lost our air conditioning. The temperature was only in the mid-80s, but without air the humidity quickly crept in until we were all sweating profusely. A little more than an hour later we began to hear engines firing up ahead of us, and soon enough we were on our way. About half a mile past where we had stopped we discovered the cause of our delay: part of the mountain had slid down over the highway, covering it with mud and rock, and we had been waiting for crews with heavy machinery to clear the way. The road, now slick with mud and narrowed by the debris, allowed for only a single lane of traffic. Trucks were lined up to carry it all away. No one appears to have been swept off the road when it happened, thank God. An hour and half after we squeezed through the narrow lane, we were home.

Mudslides are common in Guatemala, and take hundreds of lives every year. Torrential rains, heavier and wetter every year due to climate change, drag rain-sodden and degraded hillsides down over roads and villages. Frequent earthquakes and hurricanes intensify the problem. The Caribbean and North American tectonic plates meet in Guatemala’s central highland region, which throws up steep and pointed mountains like so many sharks’ teeth – and is home to 37 volcanoes (four of which are active). It may be the most mountainous place I have ever visited, and for a hiker, one of the most beautiful. As I flew into the country it appeared that almost every surface was being farmed or used for pasture, and every hillside terraced. Coffee, vegetables and bananas are grown everywhere for export. I took a hike one day and took about an hour to descend once side of Pino Dulce, the mountain I was on. Across the valley was another mountain, terraced from top to bottom with coffee, farmers climbing up and down, and I tried to imagine walking up and down the mountain every day to first grow and then harvest the beans. Trust me, I drank my next cup of coffee slowly.

All of this, the land and the mountains, was once blanketed with lush, dense forest, which is why George Lucas chose Guatemala’s Tikal National Park for filming the jungle moon of Yavin 4 in the original Star Wars movie. But the country is also experiencing the most rapid deforestation rates in the world, with a consequent loss of biodiversity. Corporate production of sugar, palm oil and beef are the main culprits, pushing poor and indigenous people off their land and cutting down the trees. “Guatemala has had a long and tumultuous history of corporate interests trumping community claims to land, which has resulted in a horrifying track record for human rights and environmental stewardship.” [1] 17 percent of Guatemala’s forest has been lost in the fifteen-year period between 1990 and 2005 alone. Displaced communities then move deeper into the forest and cut down trees themselves (though on a smaller scale) to re-build subsistence farms in a vicious downward spiral.[2]

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Ann Hallum, co-founder of the International Alliance for Reforestation, a nonprofit organization working with villagers protect themselves from mudslides, explains, “Trees are cut for firewood and to make room for the crops, and without realizing it … they’ve taken away their protection. Where it used to be rainforest becomes an open space for the mud to come right on through.” More than 373 square kilometers of trees are destroyed each year in Guatemala. Without the protection of trees, the soil is eroded and simply gives way, destroying lives and the means for living.[3]

* * * * * * *

My friends, it is good to be back with you in worship. I have been away from you for four whole weeks, and apart from a Sabbatical in 2008, that is the longest I have ever been away from a congregation I call home. While I have missed you, I have had a rich, rewarding and inspiring time apart. My first and last weeks were vacation time with my family. We spent them together in Florida with my mother and grandmother, both of whom are doing just fine. The middle two weeks, however, were part of my continuing education. I was a participant in a travel/study seminar called “Peacemaking, Climate Justice, and Faith,” organized by the Presbyterian Peacemaking Program and the Presbyterian Environmental Ministries Office.


Our delegation on behalf of the denomination was made up of ten Presbyterians from across the country and one national staff-person. Our purpose was to learn about the ways natural resource extraction is intimately linked to conflict, poverty, corruption, as well as environmental and human rights abuses, in Central America. In Guatemala, our first stop, Presbyterian mission co-workers introduced us to indigenous communities who are resisting the Canadian and U.S. owned chemical mining companies that are poisoning the local watersheds, and in Costa Rica, our Presbyterian mission co-worker there introduced us to community groups who are fighting industrial pineapple growers and the corrupt government officials who turn a blind eye to their toxic practices.

We met with and listened to a former Minister of Culture and University professor, a city mayor, village council members, local citizen organizations, investigative journalists, human rights advocates, and lawyers (one of whom spent three years in the hospital after an attempt to assassinate him failed). We met with peaceful resistors from indigenous communities – women, men, and children who have been threatened, beaten, gassed, arrested, and even shot for defending their a land and protecting their water; we met courageous politicians who have resisted generous bribes, grassroots community organizers, church leaders, a Roman Catholic bishop, the head of the Presbyterian Church in Guatemala, as well as hundreds of very brave farmers, indigenous organizations, and students (most of whom were women). In many cases we were told that we were the first U.S. church delegation to visit their community. It was difficult, truly, to see with my own eyes and to hear directly from these people the devastating effects extractive industry has on their communities. But I was also inspired by the strength and courage and faith of the people I met. For me, the trip was about moving many things I knew with my head down into my heart. I have not come back the same, and I want to thank you for the opportunity.

When Presbyterian News Service interviewed me for their story about our delegation, I chose to describe the impact of meeting a father who was my age, Don Adolfo Fernando. In 2013, the head of security for one of the mining companies in Guatemala referred to peaceful protesters as terrorists and gave an order to shoot with intent to kill. Don Adolfo’s son, Luis Fernando, was shot in the face that day. Luis was hospitalized and has since gone through seven surgeries for facial reconstruction. In January of this year, 2017, he was finally able to breathe through his nose for the first time in over three years. There was sadness in Don Adolfo’s face as he talked about his son and that day, and the last three years, recognizing that he had no choice but to continue doing this work of resistance for the good of his community.[4]

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Luis Fernando, in a resistance campaign poster

According to Global Witness, an international NGO that reports on extractive industry, those who defend the earth and protect water, like the people our delegation met with, face an ever growing epidemic of violence worldwide.

“In 2016, at least two hundred land and environmental defenders were murdered, the deadliest year on record. Not only is this trend spreading – killings were dispersed across 24 countries, compared to 16 [countries] in 2015. With many killings unreported, and even less investigated, it is likely that the true number is actually far higher.”[5]

In other words, this is just the tip of the iceberg, and does not even count the harassment, death threats, and physical injury that fall short of death. “The tide of violence is driven by an intensifying fight for land and natural resources, as mining, logging, hydro-electric and agricultural companies trample on people and the environment in pursuit of profit.” The liturgical Season of Creation invites us this year to discover divinity in the very places these industries threaten, the forests, land, wild places, and rivers of creation. Unsurprisingly, we will find that our scripture has quite a bit to say to us about these topics.

Biblical scholar Ched Myers has written that “forest preservation is a life and death struggle between communities who are reliant upon the forests and who value them spiritually, and the powerful interests who pillage old growth forests for economic and political gain, destroying treasured commonwealth. This is, it turns out, one of the oldest struggles in human history.”

The prophet Zechariah, for example, cries out for the trees that were being destroyed by the greed of ancient empires that cut down ancient forests in order to clear land for export crops like olives, displacing people and enriching royal families who traded these goods for extravagant silks, gold, and other opulent displays of luxury. Sound familiar?

Open your doors, O Lebanon, so that fire may devour your cedars!
Wail, O Cypress, for the cedar has fallen, for the glorious trees are ruined!
Wail, oaks of Bashan, for the thick forest has been felled! (Zech. 11:1-3)

The prophet Jeremiah was forever warning Israel that the nearby forests were in danger:

The destroyers, with all their weapons,
will cut down your choicest cedars
and cast them into the fire. (Jer. 22:6)

And the prophet Isaiah talks about what it looks like when all creation is restored – the prophet doesn’t just talk about people, and just relationships among them, but he also describes what justice looks like for all of creation – including the trees. Isaiah imagines a restored creation taunting the fallen empires of the earth:

When the Lord has given you rest from your pain and turmoil and the hard service with which you were made to serve, you will take up this taunt against the king of Babylon:
How the oppressor has ceased!
   How his insolence has ceased! 
[For] The Lord has broken the staff of the wicked,
   the scepter of rulers, 
that struck down the peoples in wrath
   with unceasing blows,
that ruled the nations in anger
   with unrelenting persecution. 
The whole earth is at rest and quiet;
   they break forth into singing. 
The cypresses exult over you,
   the cedars of Lebanon, saying,
‘Since you were laid low,
   no one comes to cut us down.’ (Is. 14:3-8)

“What a remarkable image” writes Ched Myers, “trees taking up the chant of praise for the downfall of kings who clear-cut them! It is an extraordinary hymn to environmental justice.” And Isaiah’s full vision of redemption include reforestation.[6]

The corporations who have, over the last 150 years, slashed forests throughout Guatemala to produce coffee and bananas, have not been held accountable for reforesting; for repairing the damage they have created and which the poorest Guatemalans experience as loss of livelihood and lives on a regular basis.

But ordinary people are reforesting; they are doing what they can do, even as they work to continue their subsistence farming.[7] On our final day in Guatemala our delegation visited Alianza Internacional Reforestation, or the International Alliance for Reforestation. There I met Don Miguel Lopez, a man a few inches shorter than me who told us that the name of his country, Guatemala, comes from a Nahuatl word that means, “land of trees.” The Alliance roots its work in the vision of Isaiah 55 (which Pastor Lynn read today) of “trees clapping their hands in joy.” The Alliance’s vision is to work “tree-by-tree, day-by-day, person by person, collaborating for a better world.”

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Standing in a demonstration garden of mixed use trees and plants, Doña Florinda, an indigenous woman and community educator who grows trees for her village, explained to us how the program works. Local communities maintain nurseries to grow trees. From September to May they grow trees from seeds. “Nine-months,” she points out, making sure we understand that the care required to grow a tree is analogous to human birth. Volunteer groups, from churches like ours, come down each June to plant the trees, but that, she points out, is the easy part. Organizations that plant trees often experience a loss of between fifteen to forty percent. The Alliance for Reforestation sees almost 95% success, because they focus on growing trees, not just planting them.

But growing and planting are only the first two of seven parts of the Alliance’s work. There are other parts of their program: scholarships for students to go to school, so that students can become leaders in their communities; the use and marketing of the medicinal properties of plants (I used the aloe lip balm Doña Florinda’s community makes), and the promotion of food security through harvesting fruits and nuts from the forest. But really important was the installation of new kinds of home stoves. Two million people die every year, globally, from cooking fire smoke. The Alliance uses mission groups from churches like ours to build new smokeless stoves that use a fraction of fire wood to not only cook food but heat homes efficiently. The Alliance makes a five-year commitment to each participating community to maintain and hand over sustainable practices. Next week Doña Florinda will be at the United Nations to receive the Annual Equator Prize, which is awarded biennially to recognize outstanding indigenous and local community efforts to reduce poverty through the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity.[8]

In this Season of creation we are reminded that the well-being of people and the well-being of the planet are intertwined. On our part, we are invited to keep the vision of Isaiah before us — of the whole earth at rest and quiet which comes to be when we refuse to exploit people or the earth, but instead learn to touch the earth lightly. For us in North America, that means we need to look at what our government and what U.S. corporations enable in other parts of the world. And where those policies or practices harm people or the earth, we must hold our leaders accountable and do our part to stop their devastation. And it also means doing what we can in our own community. While the indigenous people of Chimeltanango, Guatemala are reforesting their mountainside, this past month our congregation was installing solar panels on our church’s roof. My first stop when we pulled into White Plains, was not to our apartment. Rather August, Noelle and I went first to the church so that we could see with our own eyes the completed installation of our solar array.

This month has allowed me to see much with my own eyes. And what I have seen is ordinary people standing up against the odds, doing everything they can, putting their bodies on the line for not only their future but the future of the land and our common life. As we prepare to come to the communion table, we remember sisters and brothers gathering in the north and south, the east and west, around a table that is set with hope, with love, and with justice; who come as we do to find strength for the journey. So as we come, we know, we do not come alone. We come with companions on the way to that vision of an earth at rest and peace.







[6] Ched Myers, “The Cedar has fallen!” The Prophetic Word vs. Imperial Clear-Cutting.”

[7] Some business are embracing community management as well, though there are important critiques of the potential for greenwashing.


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