Sunday Star-Times

Pope brings green crusade to Amazon


From deep in the scorching Amazon rainforest, Pope Francis demanded yesterday that corporatio­ns stop their relentless extraction of timber, gas and gold from God’s ‘‘holy ground’’, and called on government­s to recognise 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 week-long trip to Chile and Peru, Francis warned that the Amazon’s people were now more threatened than ever before, and called for a threefold defence of their life, land and 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 calling on President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, a protocol-bending change to the itinerary undertaken because of weather concerns. It had the unintended effect of signalling that the Amazon natives were Francis’s 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 that the president is under investigat­ion in Latin America’s biggest corruption scandal.

The expansion of illegal gold mining, new roads, dams and farming have turned thousands of hectares of once lush, green Amazon rainforest into barren, contaminat­ed wastelands. In his landmark 2015 encyclical, ‘‘Praise Be’’, Francis demanded that 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. Yesterday’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 between performanc­es of traditiona­l songs and dance.

Yesica Patiachi, also Harakbut, told Francis that loggers, oil workers and gold diggers came to their lands to take the resources without even consulting with the indigenous people whose ancestors had lived there for centuries, cutting their trees, killing their fish and polluting their rivers with runoff.

‘‘We ask you to defend said to applause.

Francis condemned big businesses that want to ‘‘lay their hands on’’ the Amazon’s riches. us,’’ she But he also criticised conservati­on efforts that claimed to preserve the rainforest but ended up walling off vast swaths of its resources from the people who lived there and needed it to survive.

He said it was ‘‘essential’’ for government­s and other institutio­ns to consider indigenous peoples as legitimate partners when negotiatin­g developmen­t and conservati­on projects, and said their rights, cultures, languages and spirituali­ty must be respected and recovered.

After his speech, an indigenous man in a wheelchair who was left partially paralysed 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.

‘‘It was what we’d hoped to hear from the pope,’’ Lizardo Cauper, the president of the Amazon’s largest indigenous organisati­on, said after Francis’s speech. ‘‘He expressed what we have been demanding for some time.’’

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 20 million ha in collective land rights to native peoples. They also asked him to urge Peru’s government to clean up rivers tainted with mercury as a result of illegal gold mining.

Rather than a halt to all mining and exploratio­n in the Amazon, indigenous communitie­s wanted to be a part of discussion­s to decide where and how those activities were conducted, said Edwin Vasquez, an indigenous leader who travelled to Puerto Maldonado to hear the pope.

Francis referred to the spread of certain diseases among the indigenous peoples, and also the forced sterilisat­ion of native women. This was a clear reference to the more than 300,000 women who were sterilised during the 1990-2000 government of former Peruvian president Alberto Fujimori.

 ?? AP ?? Pope Francis greets representa­tives of the Peruvian Amazon’s indigenous peoples during a rally in Puerto Maldonado, during which he declared the Amazon the "heart’’ of the Catholic Church.
AP Pope Francis greets representa­tives of the Peruvian Amazon’s indigenous peoples during a rally in Puerto Maldonado, during which he declared the Amazon the "heart’’ of the Catholic Church.

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