St. Peter's College Professor Lesya Sabada reports on her conference in Uganda!

“Science and Religion can provide solutions to poverty and injustice”. This was the theme of the 3rd International conference on Sustainable Alternatives for Poverty Reduction and Ecological Justice (SAPREJ) that took place in Kampala, Uganda, from April 4th to 7th 2016.

Introduction

The aim of the SAPREJ conference is to engage multidisciplinary and ecumenical dialogues on key social, economic and ecological concerns from a variety of perspectives.  Among others, the goal of the conference is to build a permanent partnership and long life learning process to promote eco- justice. The conference is a blend of learning and discussion, while sharing the perspectives of local communities and attending to the magnificent physical and cultural beauty of the hosting country.  

1. Religion and (political) science in Uganda: Black Monday, corruption and poverty

After the welcome addresses by the members of the SAPREJ organizing committee (photo 1), a Bishop, from the Roman Catholic Church of Uganda, Rev. Zak D. Niringyej, opened the conference as first invited keynote speaker. He emphasized the collaboration between religion and (political) science in tackling poverty and injustice. He pointed out that 67% of the population of Uganda lives in absolute poverty and over 70% or 80% in other places- of the Ugandan youth are without jobs. Corruption is among the worst causes of poverty and ecological injustice in Uganda but some churches remain passive or even collaborate with the corrupted system. Religion and science can provide solutions to poverty and ecological injustice when both are actively working for the poor and the common goods. However that is not always the case; so, instead of nurturing its people with sustainable food, religion may push vulnerable communities into the irreversible pitfall of poverty.  

2. Highlights from the conference

The 3rd SAPREJ was attended by more than 120 representatives from Africa (Kenya, Uganda, Nigeria, Rwanda, South Africa and Madagascar), Europe (UK, Germany, and Greece), the Americas (Canada and the USA), Middle East (Qatar) and Asia (Taiwan). Forty-eight (48) abstract proposals were submitted and many students from the faculty of Education and development studies of the Kyambogo University followed all the presentations without fees. Kyambogo University Students expressed their enthusiasm and gratitude for the opportunity to attend an international conference, such as the SAPREJ, because poverty has been always a limiting factor. Students and presenters were eager to ask questions and the entire day was filled with non-stop discussions both during the Q & A sessions and during the breaks and meals. “It is a life time chance to interact and discuss with advocated international scholars”, mentioned TusubiraMathelo, a young student at Kyambogo University, during the conference.

After the blessing and opening speeches made by church leaders. Participants discussed seven major topics: economical ethics and eco-theology; financial crisis, global market and poverty; ecological crisis, climate change and eco- justice; sustainable policy, religion and ethics; production, distribution and consumption patterns; food science and biodiversity conservation; ecological justice and ecological economics; permaculture, sustainable practices and case studies. Presentations were short in length to promote more discussions and interactions between participants. 

 Critical questions such as “Can Christianity provide an ethical framework for land grabbing in Africa” (By Prof. Alan Weber from Weill Cornell Medicine-Qatar) and “Can biotechnology help poverty reduction and eco-justice in Africa” (By LoukAndrianos from the Foundation for Research and Technology - Hellas) were discussed during the conference. Dr. Jim Chou, from Taiwan, brought Western theology and Eastern Wisdom together to illuminate eco-justice issues. He cited Jesus calling to “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all Creation (Mark 16:15) and some Chinese cultural wisdom stating that “Too much is as bad as less”; “Loving people and all Creation” and “God is looking at what we do every day”. Prof Lesya Sabada, from the St. Peter's College and St. Thomas More College at the University of Saskatchewan, Canada, talked about religious peace building noting that "Faith brings profound social responsibility and the mandate to work for justice in society. “It is amazing to see Ugandan people being hungry for information and discussions after each presentation”, noted Prof Lesya Sabada, who has been an active a member of the SAPREJ committee since 2012.  

The second day of the conference, along with many presenters from Kenya and Uganda which were shared in two parallel sessions, DrLoukAndrianos stressed the need for shaping limits to greed to tackle corruption and poverty. “Corruption kills lives” and it is the first causal factor of poverty and ecological injustice in Uganda, says “Samuel”, a postgraduate researcher at Kyambogo University.

Rev. Dr. Grace Lubaale, lecturer at Kyambogo University in Kampla and national convenor for SAPREJ in Uganda, noted that this is the first time that the term ecological justice has been so largely discussed among scholars and the general public in Uganda. The same statements have been expressed by the other African participants from Kenya, South Africa, Rwanda, Botswana and Nigeria. The SAPREJ has become an Pan-African initiative, remarked Prof Lesya Sabada, while delivering her keynote speech on “Religious peace building” and its necessity for eco-justice. 

3. Pilgrimage of justice and peace in the “wounded” heart of Uganda wildlife

The remaining days of the conference were dedicated to interactions with local people (students, university staff, religious leaders and villagers) and a pilgrimage of justice and peace in villages around Kampala.  

On Friday, two representatives from the SAPREJ international committee spoke to three classrooms encouraging them and trying to help them take control of their lives under a military dictatorship.  One of the strong messages that came through, according to Rev Grace Lubaale, the SAPREJ Ugandan convenor, was what Prof. Lesya Sabada was emphasizing: "You are the captain of your ship.  Take responsibility for your lives." This was the attempt to address a victim mentality that was inherent within the population. The first classroom had 175 students. And the other two classes had about 75 students each.

The ivory trade is pushing elephants to the edge of extinction. Uganda is suffering from illegal animal hunters and poaching said “Emma”, our guide at the Natural Park. He noted that during Idi Amin"s military occupation, the elephant population went from 15,000 down to about 1,000. The top “big five animals of Africa” (Lion, Elephant, Buffalo, Leopard and Rhinoceros) are threatened to extinction. In Africa, 100 elephants are killed for ivory every day and the illegal trade of wild animals amounts to 19 billion US dollars, reported the team of Avaaz in their petition against the slaughtering of elephants in Africa (1,334,353 signatures in the first week of April 2016).