By Ngala Killian Chimtom
If you’re seeking spots where Pope Francis’s ecological message in his 2015 encyclical Laudato si’ has found an echo, look no further than the African nation of Benin, where a Catholic prelate recently led a protest march against the use of non-biodegradable plastic bags on June 29, the feast of Sts. Peter and Paul.
“No more plastic bags in Benin!”, “I say no to plastic bags, what about you?”, and “Let’s op for biodegradable bags” were among the messages expressed on placards as 1,500 Benin Christians followed Archbishop Roger Houngbédji for more than three miles through the streets of the national capital of Cotonou in what was billed as a “Green March.”
The rally was described was an opportunity for “the Church to raise its voice in the face of the danger we run by continuing to use non-biodegradable plastic bags.” Despite a blazing sun on June 29, many participants said they couldn’t stand back watching the 60-year-old Houngbédji, a member of the Dominican order, on the front line.
Benin is a West African country of 15 million people, where more than half of the population is Christian and about a quarter is Catholic.
Houngbédji said he initiated the march “to show our gratitude to the Creator-God who dresses the lilies of the field and who has given us this common home, the earth.”
“By leading this walk in person, [the aim was also] to show the profound communion of our local Church with the Holy See, as well as its fidelity to the teachings of the sovereign pontiffs who have succeeded one another over the last few decades,” Houngbédji said.
The march falls in line with the “Green Church” program launched by the President of the Benin Episcopal Conference on March 16. Among other things, the program identified the use of non-biodegradable plastic bags as one of the “bad behaviors that are at the root of the destruction of the ecosystem, a practice that we find difficult to get rid of.”
According to figures from the World Bank-sponsored West African Coastal Management Program, Benin imported almost 15 million pounds of plastics in 2019, with 89 percent of that volume being polyvinyl chloride and polyethylene, which are known to be hazardous to health and the environment.
The widespread consumption of plastics comes despite the fact that the country adopted a law in 2017 that prohibits the production, import, export, marketing, possession, distribution and use of non-biodegradable plastic bags on its territory. The law punishes violators with fines beginning at roughly $8,300, along with the freezing and confiscation of assets.
Article 14 of the law also states, “Anyone who diverts or discards plastic bags in the infrastructures of sewage networks, in the sea, the courts and bodies of water and their surroundings, is punished with a fine between $40 and $1,700 and a prison sentence of three to six months. In case of repeated offenses, the fine is doubled.”
The archbishop said the “educational march” was meant to change behavior and adopt a “new lifestyle” that excludes non-biodegradable plastic bags.
Alain Gnansounou, president of a Catholic educational institute in Benin, said it was a great idea for the church to raise its voice through this march “to show us the danger we run by continuing to use plastic bags.”
He pointed out that “for some time now, there has been an increase in the prevalence of certain chronic illnesses in Benin, such as diabetes and cancer,” illnesses that he linked to the use of non-biodegradable plastic bags to pack hot meals, for example.
Beyond Laudato si’, Houngbédji also linked his appeal to a post-synodal exhortation Africae munus, signed in Ouidah in southern Benin by Pope Benedict XVI in 2011, which urged “the Church in Africa to encourage governments to protect the fundamental goods of land and water for the human life of present and future generations.”
During a press conference to mark the end of the “Green March,” some partners of the Cotonou Archdiocesan Foundation, which runs a “Green Church” program, said they were satisfied with the large number of people who turned out at the event and the importance of the initiative.
Mohamed Abchir, resident representative of the United Nations Development Program in Benin, who took part in the march, said he was “very impressed and even more convinced of the mobilizing power of the Catholic Church.”
The resident coordinator of the United Nations System in Benin, Salvator Niyonzima, echoed the sentiment, saying “it is very important for religious leaders to engage political leaders, civil society and everyone else to raise awareness about the environment in general and plastic production in particular.”
Niyonzima expressed hope that “if we continue to get the message across in this way, the Beninese and even the African community will eventually listen.”
“We only have one planet; we don’t have Planet B. So, it’s important that we work together to find a solution. It’s important that we work to leave future generations a livable planet,” he said.
Houngbédji called the use of plastic bags “a way of life and a practice that is difficult to abandon,” but expressed optimism that the march could bring about a change in behavior.