PUERTO MALDONADO, Peru ( – From deep in the scorching Amazon rainforest, Pope Francis demanded Friday that corporations stop their relentless extraction of timber, gas and gold from God’s “holy ground,” and called on governments to recognize the indigenous peoples living there as the primary forces in determining its future.
Bare-chested and tattooed native families, many sporting feathered and beaded headgear, interrupted Francis repeatedly with applause, wailing horns and beating drums as history’s first Latin American pope declared the Amazon and its indigenous peoples the “heart of the church.”
In the highlight of his weeklong trip to Chile and Peru, Francis warned that the Amazon people are now more threatened than ever before, and called for a three-fold defense of their life, their land and their cultures.
“You are a living memory of the mission that God has entrusted to us all: the protection of our common home,” the pope said.
Francis travelled to the steamy city of Puerto Maldonado, the gateway to Peru’s Amazon, before even calling on President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, a protocol-bending change to the itinerary undertaken because of weather concerns that had the unintended effect of signaling that the Amazon natives were Francis’ top priority in Peru.
Francis did meet later with Kucyznski in the presidential palace in Lima, where he blasted corruption as a “social virus” that must be stopped – a charged comment given the Peruvian president is under investigation in Latin America’s biggest corruption scandal.
Francis’ trip to the Amazon came as the expansion of illegal gold mining, new roads, dams and farming have all turned thousands of acres of once lush green forest into barren, contaminated wastelands. In his landmark 2015 encyclical, “Praise Be,” Francis demanded world leaders do more to protect what he called “one of the lungs” of God’s creation, and denounced the profit-at-all-cost business interests behind its steady demise.
The issue is so important to the Argentine pope that he has called a global church meeting next year on the Amazon and its native peoples. Friday’s encounter served in many ways as an unofficial opening to the synod, giving the native peoples themselves the floor.
“The sky is angry and is crying because we are destroying the planet,” Hector Sueyo, a member of the indigenous Harakbut people, told the pope in between performances of traditional songs and dance in a steamy stadium in Puerto Maldonado.
Yesica Patiachi, also Harakbut, told Francis that loggers, oil workers and gold diggers all come to their lands to take the resources without even consulting with the indigenous people whose ancestors have lived there for centuries, cutting their trees, killing their fish and polluting their rivers with runoff that turns them into “black waters of death.”
“We ask you to defend us,” she said to applause.
Answering the call, Francis condemned big businesses that want to “lay their hands on” the Amazon’s riches. But he also criticized conservation efforts that claim to preserve the rainforest but end up walling off vast swaths of its resources from the people who live there and need it to survive.
“These problems strangle her peoples and provoke the migration of the young due to the lack of local alternatives,” he said. “We have to break with the historical paradigm that views the Amazonia as an inexhaustible source of supplies for other countries without concern for its inhabitants.”
He said it was “essential” for governments and other institutions to consider indigenous as legitimate partners when negotiating development and conservation projects and said their rights, cultures, languages and spirituality must be respected and recovered.
The crowd responded with a rhyming Amazonian riff on a popular papal chant: “Papa Franciso, la selva esta contigo” –”Pope Francis, the jungle is with you.”
After his speech, an indigenous man in a wheelchair who was left partially paralyzed after being shot by police during a protest placed a headdress of red and yellow feathers on the pope’s head and a necklace of native beads around his neck.
Thousands of indigenous men, women and children had traveled through the jungle by boat, on foot and in buses and cars to reach Puerto Maldonado to participate in what many hoped would be a turning point for the increasingly threatened ecosystem. Though many didn’t quite know why Francis was coming, others saw in him a bridge with Peru’s government to resolve long-standing issues like land rights.
“It was what we’d hoped to hear from the pope,” Lizardo Cauper, the president of the Amazon’s largest indigenous organization, said after Francis’ speech. “He expressed what we have been demanding for some time.”
The Amazon’s native peoples hail from about 350 indigenous groups, some of whom live in voluntary isolation. In the centuries after Spanish colonization, most traces of native, spiritual beliefs were lost as missionaries converted indigenous Peruvians to Catholicism.
In his speech, Francis called for special protections for these isolated groups, “the most vulnerable of the vulnerable.”
Among them, he said, were women who have been trafficked to work as prostitutes in the bars to service clients that work in the illegal gold mining operations. “It is painful to see how in this land, which is under the protection of the Mother of God, so many women are devalued, denigrated and exposed to endless violence,” he said.
In a letter sent to Francis this week, the leaders of three predominant indigenous groups urged the pope to back their call for the state to grant 50 million acres in collective land rights to native peoples. They also asked him to urge Peru’s government to clean up rivers now tainted with mercury as a result of illegal gold mining.
Rather than a halt to all mining and exploration in the Amazon, indigenous communities want to be a part of discussions to decide where and how those activities are conducted, said Edwin Vasquez, an indigenous leader who traveled to Puerto Maldonado to hear the pope.
Studies confirm that contamination from mining is already having an impact on the health of many living in the Amazon.
“They have lead in their blood,” Vasquez said. “Is that development?”
Francis referred to the spread of certain diseases among the indigenous, and also the forced sterilization of native women.
The remark was a clear reference to the more than 300,000 women who were sterilized during the 1990-2000 government of former President Alberto Fujimori. Officials said at the time that the campaign was aimed at reducing poverty; more than 2,000 later came forward saying they had been forced into it.
Francis’ tucked his remarks into a footnote that he read aloud, perhaps knowing they would be politically sensitive in Peru, where just last month Kuczynski set off nationwide protests by pardoning Fujimori after he served less than half of a 25-year sentence for human rights abuses.
Francis made another political point in his speech back in Lima later Friday to Kuczynski and other Peruvian authorities, denouncing corruption as a “social virus” that infects all aspects of life and must be combatted. He called for greater transparency between civil society and public and private sectors and added that “no one can be excluded from this process.”
Kuczynski narrowly escaped impeachment over his private consulting firm’s ties to Odebrecht, the Brazilian construction company at the center of Latin America’s biggest corruption scandal. Many Peruvians saw his pardon of Fujimori as payback for support from Fujimori’s son during the impeachment vote.
The pontiff’s warm reception in Puerto Maldonado, where he was greeted by singing children and people who ran alongside his motorcade with Vatican-colored yellow and white balloons, was a stark contrast to the pope’s visit to Chile earlier in the week, where his visit provoked protests and drew smaller crowds to greet him.
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