Papal tour timely in push for sustainable use of resources

If Pope Francis were prone to repetitions, he would probably have tweeted a familiar 140-character message to his nearly eight million followers on Twitter by now.

That message would read: “I ask you to join me in praying for my trip to Kenya, Uganda and Central African Republic.  I need your prayers.”

Replace the African states with US and Cuba, and what emerges is the original tweet posted by the pontiff just a few days before he began his trip to the Americas in September.

Still, how the 266th head of the Roman Catholic Church chose Kenya for first stopover during the November 25 – 30 inaugural visit to Africa remains a matter of speculation.

David Omwoyo, director of communications at the Kenya Conference of Catholic Bishops, believes the recent spate of terrorist attacks may have played a role.

“At that time (when Pope Francis first hinted to the visit), he intended to show solidarity with the Church, which felt really persecuted,” he says.

“The intention has since expanded to include showing solidarity with the youth and bringing together religious and political leaders in national reconciliation and peace-building.”

But a visit by Pope Francis — an aocate of radical change in the global economic order — may be richer in significance and symbolism than officially stated by the Vatican and the Catholic Church in the country.

Kenya is on the cusp of making history. Next month, Nairobi becomes the first African city to host the World Trade Organisation’s ministerial conference. The powerful organ makes the rules of global trade.

But just before the world gets together to review its trading rules in Nairobi, Kenya which hosts the top global environmental organ — the United Nations Environmental Programme (Unep) — has been rolling up its sleeves for a big fight.

The country is expected to lead developing nations in demanding fairness in exploitation of earth’s resources at the Paris Climate Change Conference (COP 21) slated for December 7-8.

An official schedule indicates that the Pope will make his first stop at State House, Nairobi, where a meeting has been organised with top political leaders and foreign diplomats upon his arrival on Wednesday.

But Kenyans will get a hint of the Pope’s other hidden interests in Kenya on Thursday when he pays a visit to Unep headquarters in Gigiri after a public Mass and long meetings with religious leaders.

While many critics have questioned the ability of a religious leader to tackle something as physical and scientific as climate change, the counsel of Pope Francis, described by Vatican as “champion of the poor”, can only be handy.

READ: At 78, busy schedule shows Pope Francis is as fit as a fiddle

Just like Kenya, Pope Francis has been keen on drawing the world’s attention to climate change. A month before he hinted at the visit, he tweeted: “Leaving an inhabitable planet to future generations is, first and foremost, up to us. We need an integrated approach to combating poverty and protecting nature.”

The tweets, based on his June encyclical letter titled Laudato si (Praise be to you) add: “The present world system is certainly unsustainable from a number of points of view. We need only to take a frank look at the facts to see that our common home is falling into serious disrepair.”

To lead by examples, Kenyan authorities have to pay attention to the pontiff. On a global stage, the country has provided a strong voice in demanding responsible use of environmental resources from rich states.

At home, the country has no weapon against its own activities deemed destructive to environment.

Despite eight years of spirited campaigns to limit use of fossil fuels in the economy that has seen a significant shift to green (renewable) energy, the country lacks a legal framework to back the change.

The Climate Change Bill 2013 has been gathering dust on the shelves of Parliament.

Kenya is working on a tight programme to develop its recently discovered oil resources for export and domestic consumption within the next seven years.

The country has also licensed firms to either mine coal or set up coal-fired electricity stations in Machakos and Kwale counties.

When he meets government representatives today, Pope Francis will obviously not give them a pat on the back because of keeping these conflicting domestic policies.

He tweets: “Each community has the duty to protect the earth and to ensure its fruitfulness for coming generations. An integral ecology includes taking time to reflect on our lifestyle and our ideals.”

The Pope, however, appears to endorse the general view that action taken by rich states would offset environmental transgressions of developing counterparts.

“A true ecological debt exists, particularly between the global north and south. Developed countries ought to help pay this debt by limiting their consumption of non-renewable energy.”

Unep executive director Achim Steiner says the frequent exhortations by the Pope are more powerful than political statements made at key global forums.

“Unlike the usual political rhetoric, Pope’s message sounds genuine. He is directly appealing to the power in all of us — the governments, leaders, youth, everyone — to do all within their control to protect the environment,” Dr Steiner told the NTV.

A number of Kenyans have responded positively to the call by Pope Francis. In August, a group of about 300 youths ended a 61-day period of prayer and fasting as part of the Catholic Church’s effort to draw the world’s attention to benefits of responsible use of the environment.

“We started this campaign quite late in Kenya but still made our point,” says Cyprian Ogoti, one of the participants. “Because of participating in the fasting, I have even been invited to take part in the Paris conference (COP 21) even though I can’t raise money for transport,” he told the Business Daily.

Similarly, Strathmore University, through its Energy Research Centre, is coordinating a project to train a minimum of 1,000 solar technicians to enable more Kenyans turn to the clean energy source.

While the programme funded by USAid has been on the cards since September last year, the institution sees it as part of its response to the Pope’s Laudato Si call — all for the good of humanity and society.

Then there is the WTO 10th ministerial conference (MC10) forum to be chaired by Kenya’s Foreign Affairs and International Trade secretary Amina Mohamed.

Just like leaders from other developing countries, Ms Mohamed has stated her desire to steer the MC10 towards rules that promote integration of poor nations into the world’s economic order.

She too needs to pay attention to the religious leader. Pope Francis has blamed “extreme consumerism” rather than population growth on the inequality that has plagued the world.

He tweeted on October 23: “Economic development needs to have a human face, so that no one will be excluded.”

He went on: “By itself, the market cannot guarantee integral human development and social inclusion. Economic interests easily end up trumping the common good. There is no room for the globalisation of indifference.”

The WTO’s forum in Nairobi is not expected to address the poor countries’ push for a level playing ground in agriculture — their economic mainstay. Apart from pledging market access and development support to least developed countries, the MC10 is expected to reach agreement on the list of environmental goods on which tariffs will be slashed.

It is also expected to finalise agreement on the extension of $1.3 trillion IT pact.

Just like the NGOs, the pontiff has cautioned that rapid shift to technology could isolate the poor. He tweets: “The alliance between economy and technology ends up sidelining anything unrelated to its immediate interests.”

Apart from the external problems, the visit by Pope Francis comes at a time that the country’s unity faces threat from ethnic and religious tensions sparked by competition for resources and terrorist attacks.

Rising cases of corruption and ongoing trial at the International Criminal Court have also triggered new political fault lines.

When he met Kenya Bishops during ad Limina visit to Rome a few weeks ago, Pope Francis was candid: “In the fulfilment of her apostolic mission, the Church must take a prophetic stand in defence of the poor and against all corruption and abuse of power.  The official address added: “The Church in Kenya must always be true to her mission as an instrument of reconciliation, justice and peace.”