Catholic cartographer Burhans wins national environmental award | Earth beat
Molly Burhans, pictured in 2017 at the Third Loggia of the Apostolic Palace in the Vatican, received the Sierra Club EarthCare Award. Its mission is to help the Catholic Church put its immense global land holdings at the service of good. (Courtesy of GoodLands)
Molly Burhans remembers various milestones along her journey towards green conversion.
There was the study in Mali, where she realized that providing clean drinking water to people meant not only drilling wells, but also fighting climate change. There was a project in Portland, Maine where she overlaid information on a map to create a plan for urban pollinator habitat.
Most importantly, there was her work with a religious community of women, where the mapping helped convince the sisters that instead of selling part of their property, they could keep it while meeting their future needs.
Today, Burhans’ mission is to help the Catholic Church put its immense global land holdings at the service of good on a planet where billions of people face a climate crisis.
On September 17, the Sierra Club honored the 32-year-old founder of the nonprofit Good lands with its annual National EarthCare Award. Burhans sees it as a validation of the importance of science maps in making the social and economic decisions needed to tackle climate change, but also a recognition of the growing role of faith groups working to reduce global temperature.
Maps, she says, allow people to see the relationships between environmental, social, and financial factors in ways spreadsheets don’t.
“This integral approach to environmental stewardship, social impact and finance … allows people to do what impact investing does with a big [stock] portfolio, but with a real estate portfolio, ”Burhans told EarthBeat.
This is extremely important for an institution like the Catholic Church, which, with some 177 million acres, is the the world’s largest landowner, according to the Fitzgerald Institute for Real Estate at the University of Notre Dame. When Burhans launched GoodLands, she was surprised to find that not everyone saw the possibilities.
“When I first started the idea of making the land work for good, I thought everyone would understand food security, regenerative agriculture, conservation, all that,” she said. “And it was such a shock at the very beginning to see that people just don’t understand this at all and can’t see the value of it.”
The Sierra Club honored Molly Burhans, founder of the nonprofit GoodLands, with her annual National EarthCare Award. (Sierra Club / Ron Haines)
A second shock came when she discovered that not only did the Vatican lack digitized records of its land holdings around the world, but many dioceses did not even have all of their property records in one place, let alone a spreadsheet listing the addresses.
“Not only do we probably oversee the largest network [of landholdings] under any unified umbrella globally, ”she said of the church,“ but we don’t know what we have. “
The risks of this lack of information – and the lack of transparency it can create – have become evident with the recent Vatican indictment of a once powerful cardinal and nine others in a case involving 350 million euros ( $ 410.4 million at current exchange rate) London real estate transaction.
Following this scandal, the Vatican in June published its most detailed real estate records ever, showing some 5,000 holdings.
“I hope so much that [the scandal] will help religious communities to wake up a little bit and be very careful, a lot more about their land, ”said Burhans,“ because it is billions of dollars in assets in the world ”.
Burhans initially found little interest among church officials in mapping ecological planning, which was his passion. financial and real estate.
Over the past year, however, there have been more requests from dioceses and religious congregations interested in a more holistic approach. Among the maps available for free on the GoodLands website “Catholic Geohub“is a showing which properties of the Archdiocese of Boston are at high risk of flooding.
While GoodLands has now digitized most of the church land holdings in the United States, collecting the data needed for mapping in other countries is taking place more slowly. Nevertheless, the GeoHub also includes maps showing ecclesiastical jurisdictions around the world, the Catholic population and even the 10 dioceses with the greatest biodiversity.
The land holdings of the Catholic Church include not only churches, schools and hospitals, but also monasteries, retreat centers and convents with farmland and forests, as well as property donated by individual Catholics.
Burhans considers GoodLands’ work crucial, because as church properties are sold to developers, the possibility of managing the land as “green infrastructure”, to help fight climate change. , decreases. Multilayer maps can show not only where properties exist, but also how they can best be managed.
“We are such an important player,” Burhans said of the church. “If we don’t … we won’t address biodiversity and climate change in time.”
Seeing those opportunities disappear, as the properties that were on GoodLands’ first map have been sold, has been “a process of constant mourning,” she said. “We have the infrastructure. It falls into our hands like holding water in a sieve right now, unfortunately, but we still have the infrastructure to really make conservation a charisma and become one of the most important. major global players in the transition to sustainable agriculture and land use and conservation. “
Molly Burhans is working late into the night in 2016 on a project that created a digital map portal of the Catholic Church’s global land holdings. (Courtesy of GoodLands)
But for Burhans, technical expertise is not enough.
“We need the ecological conversion of many people,” she said, echoing the call that Pope Francis repeated in documents like Laudato Si ‘ and Querida Amazonia. “Nothing really works until we get this conversion.”
Amid climate change and other human-caused environmental crises, she added, “it almost feels like you’ve reached this climax of original sin … Ecological conversion is an opening of the world. heart. It involves contrition. “
This is, she said, a perspective that a faith-based organization like her brings to a highly technical field – and a reason she feels the recognition she has received from non-groups. religious, including the Sierra Club, the United Nations Environmental Program and the Ashoka Foundation, is important.
“One of the beautiful, original visions of GoodLands that we still have,” she said, “is to see Catholic conservation [reach] the scale of Catholic health care and education around the world, as the largest global network the world has ever seen. “
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