By Lulu Brenda Harris
A local environmental lobby group, Isandla Esihle, has embarked on a programme to educate religious groups, especially those who practice open-air worship on the importance of safeguarding the environment.
This programme was necessitated by an observation that a number of churches have sprouted in several places across various suburbs where members, who are not environmentally conscious, harm the environment while creating health hazards for themselves particularly during the Covid-19 pandemic.
In an interview with CITE, the country’s National Tree Ambassador, Never Bonde, who is part of Isandla Esihle, said they wanted to issue guidelines to religious gatherings in order for them to comply with an environmental impact assessment.
“Non-compliant churches, religious gatherings and all risk banishment from congregating, deregistration and facing full wrath of the law. We are supported by the Ministry of Home Affairs and Cultural Heritage in conjunction with the Forest Act, Environmental Management At, which is why failure to register for this compliance can lead to prosecution.”
Bonde said once the churches register, Isandla Esihle would do an assessment of their place of worship and give recommendations.
“After the first visit, we will teach them how to protect the environment and give them three trees to plant. We will go back again to see if they are complying with what we taught them. If they fail to comply, we then write a report to the minister of environment,” he said.
The national tree ambassador, said this precedent was set in other countries such as Botswana to deal with mushrooming of churches.
“This mushrooming is growing to be a health hazard because it has come to a point that churches just set up sites anywhere. You find churches praying at this particular site, only to move again and in one week, a church would have visited several sites. If numbers of members increase, the churches divide and we see multiple camps going to separate sites,” Bonde said.
“Some churches hold all night prayers, where they chop firewood to keep warm throughout the night but imagine having several churches doing the same. This is why we are concerned and why we will give them trees to plant in respective areas.”
He noted that Isandla Esihle wanted to bring sanity to places of worship, so that members learnt how to conserve the environment while protecting themselves.
“If you look at the issue of toilets, some open air churches do dig holes but some do not which is disastrous as they continue changing sites. We propose that churches work with companies such as Nyaradzo, who can provide mobile toilets for them. The health safety of members should be a priority especially now with Covid-19. We are not saying people must not worship but we are saying it must be done orderly,” Bonde said.
Bonde also commended Bulawayo City Council rangers for raising environmental awareness to open air churches.
“Our work will complement council rangers, who have been going around educating churches on whether their site is suitable or not,” he said.
After focusing on open air churches, the next target group for Isandla Esihle would be vendors who prepare food and firewood choppers.
“We have written a letter to police, to the president’s office, the Zimbabwe Environmental Law Association (ZELA) and the Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights (ZLHR) about this initiative. We have knowledgeable people who are members of those churches, people who know the law, who are authorities yet do not educate other church members on the environment. We wonder why they are not assisting in conserving the environment,” said Bonde.