By Pablo Mora*, SJ
The celebration of the Pan-Amazonian Synod was the breath of the Spirit that the Church of the Amazon needed to discern new paths in its missionary activity. It was truly a “Kairos” that manifested itself as an overflow of the waters of the Amazon. Those Amazonian waters joined the flowing waters of the Tiber River in Rome, coming together to form new rivers and tributaries, which will carry abundant life to new destinations. The Spirit has manifested itself in Rome, the cradle of Western Christianity, through this Synod as “rivers of living water” (cf. Jn 7:37-39).
The Church of the Amazon region, purified by these waters of the Spirit, takes up again with new strength and renewed hope, its fertilizing mission in the Amazon. The peoples of the Amazon have always considered the Church as their most faithful ally. Since the beginning of the evangelization of this part of the continent, the Church has never abandoned them, and even less will it do so at this crucial moment for the life of this region and of humanity as a whole. Pope Francis reminds us, the Church in the Amazon “is still present and critical to the area’s future.” (cf. Pope Francis, Address to the Brazilian Episcopate, Rio de Janeiro, July 27, 2013)
In this evangelizing mission of the Church today, the care and defense of the Amazonian territory and of the indigenous peoples who inhabit it, has become a banner of struggle that wants to sustain the eco-pastoral activity of the Church in the Amazon. The cry of mother earth, the cry of the “pachamama” (“Mother Earth” or “Pachamama” in Quechua language) has been heard at the Synod but continues to haunt us with its lament. The prophetic spirit of the Church in the Amazon must continue its course, accompanying the peoples of the Amazon in the defense of the forest and the most vulnerable.
The urgency in the defense of the land/forest
I remember the day before Pope Francisco came to Puerto Maldonado, on January 18, 2018, where the indigenous peoples of Brazil, Bolivia and Peru met to prepare for his visit. There were more than two thousand in attendance and bishops representing all the Amazonian countries were there. The representatives of the different indigenous ethnic groups of these countries took the microphone to answer a question: What will you ask the Pope when you see him?
In their answers they repeated again and again with emotion the word land. They denounced the abuses committed against the “pachamama” and against themselves, who cared for her, and would ask the Pope to help them. The next day Pope Francisco, in his speech to the Amazonian peoples, echoed this distressing call in Puerto Maldonado, and said that he was standing together with them to “reaffirm a heartfelt option for the defense of life, defense of land and defense of cultures.” (cf. Pope Francis, Meeting with Indigenous People of Amazonia, Puerto Maldonado, January 19, 2018)
For the indigenous, land is life. If we defend their land, we defend their life. (Ibid. “(…) The defense of the earth has no other purpose than the defense of life.”) We can say that the most difficult battle in evangelization for an integral ecology in the Amazon is to accompany the original peoples in their struggles for the right to the delimitation, demarcation and titling of their own lands. It has been demonstrated that they are the ones who best take care of the territory of the Amazon region. (cf. The Amazon: new paths for the Church and for integral ecology. Instrumentum Laboris, n. 29.) Therefore, any attempt at evangelization will not be complete or authentic if it leaves aside that which is essential for them to have a dignified life. (cf. International Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), Indigenous and Tribal Peoples’ Rights on their ancestral lands and natural resources, arts. 94-95)
A historic milestone in the defense of indigenous lands of Brazil, a country that covers more than 60% of the total Pan-Amazonian territory, was the Federal Constitution of 1988. The bishop of Xingu, Dom Erwin Kräutler, described this Constitution as “Copernican” in terms of indigenous legislation. This constitution, unlike the previous ones, stopped considering the indigenous person as a minor and gave them a letter of citizenship like the rest of his compatriots. Sadly, the promise to demarcate indigenous lands within five years of the promulgation of the Constitution stayed on paper and was not fulfilled. To this day, the denial of this right constitutes “the cause of almost all conflicts affecting indigenous peoples” (cf. Felicio Pontes JR., Povos da Floresta. Cultura, Resistência e Esperança, Paulinas, São Paulo, 2017, Prefacio, pp. 14–18, p. 17 (translation from Portuguese).
The land in the context of a technocratic and globalized model
This conflictive situation has been accentuated and has worsened in all the Pan-Amazonian territory. This takes place in the context of the last decades, of the transformation from a capitalist economy to a more technocratic and globalized economy, which has contributed to change the perspective on the treatment of land and agrarian reform. (cf. Plinio Arruda Sampaio, in: “La Reforma Agraria en América Latina: una revolución frustrada”, dph, March 2011. In the Amazonian countries, agrarian reform, that is, the redistribution of land excessively concentrated in the hands of large landowners, took place in a significant way during the 20th century in Bolivia and Peru; and superficially in Brazil, Venezuela, Ecuador and Colombia. These reforms were sponsored by the United States within the framework of the so-called “Alliance for Progress.”).
Before, it was a question of denunciations and claims for enormous extensions of lands that were not used in the large haciendas or latifundos. This unjust situation sought to be remedied by an agrarian reform with an alliance between the peasantry and the national industrial capital, to convert unproductive lands into productive ones and contribute to national economic development.
But this situation has changed and today the World Bank, transnational corporations and international finance capital are transforming large tracts of land from unproductive latifundia into agribusiness, large-scale monocultures and mining (cf. Plinio Arruda Sampaio, in: “La Reforma Agraria en América Latina: una revolución frustrada”, dph, March 2011. In the Amazonian countries, agrarian reform, that is, the redistribution of land excessively concentrated in the hands of large landowners, took place in a significant way during the 20th century in Bolivia and Peru; and superficially in Brazil, Venezuela, Ecuador and Colombia. These reforms were sponsored by the United States within the framework of the so-called “Alliance for Progress.”).
This also happens in the Amazonian region. Thus, the problem is no longer the abandonment or misuse of the land, but the pretension to use it all, destroying an integrated ecological complex. It begins with the felling of the trees whose woods are more valued in the international market; then the remaining wood is exploited and finally comes the total elimination of vegetation for industrial agriculture or extensive livestock. (cf. El País, June 11, 2019. Francesc Badia i Dalmases, “Ednei: Here is indigenous land Maró.”)
In the old latifundista system, there were several owners or possessors of diverse haciendas with their own name. In the case of the Amazon, the owner always acts incognito because, remembering some indigenist novels, it is about “Mr. Government”.
In some countries there has been a positive government attitude to the recognition of indigenous community lands within a legal framework. However, this position is increasingly weakened. Now, more than ever, there are many pressures from powerful national and international groups that want to have a direct impact on the Amazon, in the shortest possible time and looking for the largest extension of land to exploit. Therefore, it seeks to annul or modify the laws that protect indigenous lands, in order to usurp their forested lands and give way to abuse in the exploitation of the natural resources of this region.
The validity of these laws is in grave danger in the face of the large number of applications from mining companies waiting for the necessary permission to seize some slice of this immense green cake that is the Amazon. In 2016 alone there were 17,509 mining processes (research and land use applications) involving Indigenous Lands (4,181) and Conservation Units (It refers to natural protected areas in Brazil, within the National System of Nature Conservation Units (SNUC) instituted in 2000) (14,076) in this region in Brazil. Mining on indigenous lands is not permitted in Brazil, but the regulation of these lands depends on the government and this can become a tragedy for indigenous peoples. (cf. Guenter Francisco Loebens, “Ecologia politica ed economica/1,” p.231 (translation from Portuguese) in: Verso il Sínodo Speciale per l’Amazzonia. Dimensione Regionale e Universale, Lorenzo Baldisseri (ed.) Librería Editrice, 2019.)
The cancer of corruption (cf. Instrumentum Laboris, Chapter VI (nn. 80-83.))
The struggle for land demarcation in the Amazon is also linked to the problem of corruption. Corruption in Latin America has caused a big sore in the fabric of states and governments, difficult to cure. It is a deep cancerous tumor that also affects the Amazon countries, increasing the weakness and fragility of the care of nature with this moral scourge. The Lava Jato (The Operation “Car Wash”, which began in March 2014 by Brazil’s Federal Police and is still ongoing, is considered the largest corruption investigation in Brazil’s history.) case and other cases tell us about the fierce competition of transnational companies that blatantly include in their projects a budget of money and royalties to corrupt intermediaries in the acquisition of road construction projects or resource extraction in all countries. This macro-level corruption has become so widespread that it has become a major risk for the entire Amazon region.
Also, the extraction of natural resources in the technocratic model is accompanied by sabotage of the moral resources of the Amazonian populations. The cancer of corruption seeks to corrode or break the ethical and moral norms of people’s behavior, in this case those that make up indigenous populations. Indeed, corruption stimulates dialogues between companies and indigenous populations, where the lack of transparency and injustice affects local populations, with the coexistence of their own authorities.
The strategy of “divide and conquer” in negotiations with the community is very common through bribes, promises and privileges that benefit only the authority and its family. In this sense, the companies, with the help of these community leaders, seek to appease the demands or protests of the entire community by offering very little in exchange for what they want from the indigenous communities, such as the construction of a school, a medical post or a sports field, etc.
Prophecy and martyrdom in the Amazon: Defense of land and human rights
In the biblical tradition the prophet was not primarily a visionary of the future. The prophet was rooted in the present and daily reality of the people of Israel. The prophet was sent by God when the king, the caretaker of the weakest, the poor, the widow and the orphan, failed in his mission. He spoke in the name of God before the king and did so with truth, with courage and denouncing everything that contradicted the kingdom of God, especially the injustice committed against the most defenseless in society.
This prophetic action has always been alive and active in the Church of the Amazon territory. From the beginning of the evangelization of this territory there were martyrs not only because of the conversion to the faith of the natives but also for defending them from the colonizers. From the beginning they “taught us that the defense of the original peoples of this Continent is intrinsically linked to faith in Jesus Christ and his Good News.” (cf. Final Document of the Synod on Amazonia, n. 75.) The question that martyrs always ask us is what and how much we are willing to lose for the cause of the Kingdom of God. They have given up their own lives.
*Pablo Mora, SJ, Doctor of Ministry, currently works at the Synod of Bishops in Rome.