‘Powerful words of understanding’: Pope backs indigenous in Amazon

LIMA, Peru — Saying the world has much to learn from Amazonian indigenous peoples, Pope Francis declared the Catholic Church their ally in their struggle to protect the region’s forests and rivers.

In “Querida Amazonia” (Beloved Amazonia), the apostolic exhortation issued Feb. 12, the pope called on Catholics to respond to environmental destruction in the Amazon region with outrage and indignation while building networks of solidarity with its traditional inhabitants.

Indigenous people are seen on the banks of the Xingu River during a media event in Brazil’s Xingu Indigenous Park Jan. 15, 2020. (CNS photo | Ricardo Moraes, Reuters)

The document is Pope Francis’ response to recommendations made by participants in the Synod of Bishops for the Amazon, held in October 2019 at the Vatican.

With its often lyrical language, the exhortation takes another step toward a closer relationship with native peoples, which the pope launched in Peru in January 2017. At an encounter there with several thousand Amazonian indigenous people, Pope Francis asked his listeners to help church leaders understand their culture and their lives.

Church must listen to Amazonian indigenous

With the exhortation, the pope has made it clear that the church — and the world — must listen to them and recognize them as equals, said Moema Maria Marques de Miranda, a lay Franciscan who was an observer at the synod.

“After 500 years, indigenous peoples are recognized in their wisdom and their abilities. That is a paradigm change,” Miranda told Catholic News Service.

That message is woven into the document from the beginning, where Pope Francis describes four dreams. He says he dreams of an Amazonia that fights for the rights of indigenous peoples, an Amazonia that preserves its cultural riches, an Amazonia that preserves its natural beauty, and Christian communities that give the church “new faces with Amazonian features.”

That image of dreams has a double meaning. For most Westerners, dreams express hopes for the future, but for indigenous people, they transmit messages from God, just as they did for some Biblical figures, Miranda said.

Such dreams are visions “that connect with something very deep within the person,” said Medical Mission Sister Birgit Weiler, who works in Peru and was an expert at the synod. “It commits you to taking a new path.”

Defending land against loggers, miners, ranchers

One message that stands out clearly in the exhortation, she said, is that the church sides with indigenous people who defend their lands against extractive industries like logging and mining or the encroachment of industrial-scale farming and ranching.

That is also a sign the church workers “have the backing of the pope” when they accompany communities in those struggles, she said. Such efforts sometimes draw criticism from others in the church, but the pope has made clear that “they can’t call you communist” for opposing industries or infrastructure projects that threaten communities, she said.

The exhortation “is a response from Pope Francis to the cry of pain of the Amazon, from its peoples, nations and indigenous organizations, Jose Gregorio Diaz Mirabal, coordinator of an umbrella organization of Amazonian indigenous groups, said in a statement released Feb. 12.

“These represent powerful words of understanding, solidarity and a commitment to stand with us against the pain, murders and criminal prosecution of the unique and legitimate defenders of the Pachamama” or Mother Earth, Diaz, who was an observer at the synod, said in the statement.

Pope Francis’ message comes as threats against the environment and those who defend it are on the rise in Amazonia and other parts of Latin America and the world.

Widespread fires in southern Brazil and northern Bolivia, where forests were razed for farming and ranching, made international headlines in 2019. Africa’s Congo basin, which faces similar threats, also suffered a fierce fire season.

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro has submitted draft legislation to that country’s Congress seeking to open indigenous territories to extractive industries.

“The businesses, national or international, which harm the Amazon and fail to respect the right of the original peoples to the land and its boundaries, and to self-determination and prior consent, should be called for what they are: injustice and crime,” the pope wrote.

When businesses seek profit above all, corrupt authorities give companies easy access to timber and minerals, and companies “raze the forests and pollute the environment, economic relationships are unduly altered and become an instrument of death,” he added.

At least 164 land defenders killed

For those who defend their lands against loggers, miners and ranchers, the stakes are high. At least 164 people were killed worldwide in such efforts in 2018, according to the nonprofit organization Global Witness, which says the figure is probably low. In many cases, the killers are never brought to justice.

A leader of the Celia Xakriaba peoples walks along the banks of the Xingu River in Brazil’s Xingu Indigenous Park Jan. 15, 2020. (CNS photo | Ricardo Moraes, Reuters)

The deadliest countries include Brazil, Colombia, Guatemala and Mexico. The pope’s exhortation was issued Feb. 12, the anniversary of the 2005 murder of Notre Dame Sister Dorothy Stang, who worked with small-scale farmers in Brazil.

Although Pope Francis warns that extractive industries are a new form of colonialism in a region where the church must work to dismantle the vestiges of a colonial past, the exhortation is not a political statement, Archbishop Roque Paloschi of Porto Velho, Brazil, told CNS.

The pope’s words “make us aware that we must respond to the cry of God in the cry of the poor and the cry of creation,” Archbishop Paloschi said. “More than a political impact, it needs to have an impact on the church and require us to take a united stand.”

Nevertheless, the church “must become more and more prophetic” in speaking out against policies that threaten indigenous peoples and the environment, Brazilian Sister Rose Bertoldo, a Missionary Sister of the Immaculate Heart of Mary who was an observer at the synod, told CNS.

Concept of ecological sin not addressed

For Sister Bertoldo, one notable omission in the exhortation was the concept of “ecological sin.” Synod participants had recommended that actions like pollution, environmental destruction and environmental injustice that endanger future generations be recognized as “ecological sins of commission or omission against God, against one’s neighbor, the community and the environment.”

Archbishop Paloschi said that in leaving that out of the exhortation, the pope chose to encourage the church toward a necessary conversion rather than taking a punitive approach.

Helping indigenous people defend their rights, their land and their culture takes various forms, Father Ron MacDonell, a Scarboro missionary from Antigonish, Nova Scotia, told CNS.

A linguist, he works with indigenous groups in Brazil, including the Macuxi and Kokama, to help them recover their languages, which are in danger of being lost if parents and grandparents no longer teach their children.

Learning native languages

The mission is important for the church, he said, because some early missionaries punished children for speaking their native languages in school, although other missioners learned languages, compiled dictionaries and translated Scripture into native languages.

Language, he said, enables missionaries “to experience the world from another point of view.” It also underscores the great cultural diversity that exists in the Amazon basin along with the region’s biological diversity.

The message of Beloved Amazonia should echo far beyond the region’s boundaries, Josianne Gauthier, executive secretary of CIDSE, an international consortium of Catholic development agencies and an invited guest at the synod, told CNS.

Catholics worldwide can learn from the synod process, which has involved “so much listening — listening to the voices of the people, listening to the Amazon, listening to the cries, the screams,” she said.

“There’s something we need to learn from that — how do we listen?” she said, adding that people can practice that in their own parishes.

Catholics can also respond to the exhortation’s invitation to seek ways of “just standing back and learning to love creation and nature in the way traditional peoples do,” she added.

And they can respond to the synod’s call to envision new ways of being church.

“Can we bring something from the synodal process into our parishes?” she said. “Can we learn to listen again, to each other and to ourselves?”