By Luis Andres Henao and Jessie Wardarski
The Associated Press
POINTE-AUX-CHENES, LA. »
On a boat ride along a bayou that shares the name of his Native American tribe, Donald Dardar points to a cross marking his ancestors’ south Louisiana burial ground — a place he fears will disappear.
He points to the partly submerged stumps of oak trees killed by salt water on land where he rode horses as a kid, and to his mother’s home, gutted by Hurricane Ida. He and his wife have a mission: protecting Pointeaux- Chenes and other communities at risk in a state that loses about a football field’s worth of wetlands every 100 minutes.
For years, Donald and Theresa Dardar have joined forces with the Rev. Kristina Peterson. Working with scientists and members of Pointe-au-Chien and two other tribes, they’ve set out thousands of oyster shells to protect sacred mounds, obtained financing to refill abandoned oil field canals and built an elevated greenhouse to save their plants and medicinal herbs from flooding.
“It’s saving what we know that’s going to be destroyed from both the change of the heat and the rising of the water,” said Peterson, the pastor of Bayou Blue Presbyterian Church in Gray, La., and a former professor of environmental planning at the University of New Orleans.
Their vital work to save their bayou home and heritage is part of a broader trend around the world of faith leaders and environmental activists increasingly joining the fight against climate change.
From Hindu groups joining river cleanups and Sikh temples growing pesticide free food, to Muslim imams and Buddhist monks organizing tree-planting campaigns, the movement knows no denominational boundaries but shares as a driving force a moral imperative to preserve what they see as a divinely given environment for future generations.
But some of them believe systemic change to protect those most vulnerable to the climate crisis must also come from world leaders meeting at the U.N. climate conference in Glasgow, Scotland.
“It’s up to them to step up to the plate and do what they’re supposed to do,” Theresa Dardar said at the tribal center where she handed out supplies to members of her tribe and others who lost their homes after Hurricane Ida hit the small fishing community 80 miles southwest of New Orleans.
“It’s up to you not to just give lip service, but to take action against climate change and sea level rise,” said Dardar, a longtime religion teacher at a local Catholic church and head of the environmental nonprofit Lowlander Center.
Pope Francis and dozens of religious leaders recently signed a joint appeal to governments to commit to targets at the summit in Glasgow. The summit aims to secure more ambitious commitments to limit global warming to well below 2 degrees Celsius with a goal of keeping it to 1.5 degrees Celsius compared to pre-industrial levels. The event also is focused on mobilizing financing and protecting threatened communities and natural habitats.
Louisiana holds 40% of U.S. wetlands, but they’re disappearing fast — about 2,000 square miles of the state have been lost since the 1930s. That’s about 80% of the nation’s wetland losses, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.
Peterson arrived in Pointe-aux-Chenes in 1992 after Hurricane Andrew, following a call to link scientists with communities hit by storms, sinking land and sea rise from climate change. Through the Lowlander Center that she cofounded, she worked to protect sacred sites from coastal erosion, refill canals dug by oil companies that allow for saltwater intrusion and build the greenhouse set to open in October. Instead, it was repurposed as a food pantry supply room after Ida.
“There’s been so much that has been interrupted ... and these are all critical, critical things,” Peterson said.
“We’re not going to wait on world leaders to take action. We’re doing it now,” she said. With Theresa Dardar, they’re part of the Greater New Orleans Interfaith Climate Change Coalition, which includes Buddhist, Baha’i, Christian, Jewish and other faith leaders.
They’ve also worked closely with Chief Shirell Parfait-Dardar of the Grand Caillou/Dulac Band of Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw Indians. She’s the first woman to lead her tribe and the only Indigenous woman on the Louisiana governor’s climate change task force. Last year, her tribe and Pointe-au-Chien were among those that filed a formal complaint to the U.N. in Geneva, saying the U.S. government violated their human rights by failing to act on climate change.
“We should be caring for Mother Earth, not abusing her. This is a result of all of the abuse that we’ve done to her,” she said, tearing up and pointing to her home, destroyed by Ida. “If we don’t listen to the science, if we don’t listen to the wisdom of the elders, we’re going to ... keep seeing these massive amounts of destruction.”