by Eric Genilo
In June 2013, the Philippine government destroyed five tons of ivory, representing almost its entire stock of seized illegal ivory. This act was hailed as the first time that a country that trafficked in ivory has eliminated most of its stockpile. The government hoped that this act of destruction would send a strong message that the country is committed to doing its part to stop illegal ivory trade.[i] The Philippines is a major transit point for smuggled African ivory destined for other Asian countries. Ivory is brought into the country not only by professional smugglers but also by returning Filipino diplomats, tourists, pilgrims, sailors, and overseas workers.
The Philippines is also a consumer of ivory. Since the 17th century, ivory has been traded in the country and has been used for images of saints for churches and private altars. Some of the most venerated religious images in the country today have ivory heads and limbs. Smuggled ivory pieces find their way to local craftsmen and shop owners who are commissioned by collectors and devotees to create these religious images.
Presently, the Philippines is a signatory to the 1990 CITES convention[ii] prohibiting the commercial trade of raw and processed ivory. The president of the Catholic Bishops Conference, in response to a 2012 National Geographic article exposing the use of illegal ivory in the country for religious images[iii], declared that the Church does not condone ivory smuggling and that it does not encourage the use of ivory of new church ornaments.[iv] These words denying official church involvement in illegal ivory trade are not enough to change the centuries-old cultural and religious preference of Filipino Catholics for ivory laden images. A stronger message should be sent to the faithful.
As a start, a pastoral letter from the country’s bishops can describe the transport, sale and purchase of illegal ivory as a form of participation in unjust structures of human and animal violence, corruption, and environmental destruction. In the same way that the bishops strongly denounced unregulated mining and logging in the country as acts contrary to the common good, they should also speak out forcefully against the killing of elephants to show support and solidarity with countries directly harmed by the ivory trade. Such a pastoral letter can denounce the inordinate attachment to ivory religious statues as a distortion of true worship and devotion. Items in the Church’s possession that are proven to be made of illegal ivory should be surrendered to the authorities as a form of reparation.
The Church need not go as far as destroy all its ivory images just as the government had done with its seized ivory. However, the Church should send a strong and credible message that it opposes the illegal ivory trade through prophetic word and effective action.
Eric Genilo is a member of the Society of Jesus. He is an assistant professor at Loyola School of Theology in the Philippines. He finished his doctorate at the Weston Jesuit School of Theology in Cambridge, Massachusetts (currently the School of Theology and Ministry of Boston College). His doctoral dissertation was on the methodology of the American moral theologian John Cuthbert Ford, S.J.