Pope Francis landed in the Amazon on Friday, bringing his environmental crusade to a rough-and-tumble corner of Peru’s jungle that is besieged by deforestation and illegal mining.
The visit to Peru, the second leg of a trip that ends Sunday and also took him to neighboring Chile, gave the Argentina-born pontiff a chance to highlight the links between the environment and indigenous people. He met with Mapuche people in Chile early this week and gathered here Friday with thousands of indigenous people decked out in traditional dress.
Arriving just after 10 a.m. in the jungle heat, the pope was greeted with chants of “Francis, Francis, you are now Amazonian.”
He arrived at his first official event aboard his popemobile and circumvented a phalanx of men wearing loincloths. Addressing a crowd of indigenous people from Peru and neighboring countries, he stressed the environmental ills facing the Amazon, including agribusiness, logging, mining, and oil and gas drilling. He also cited “certain policies aimed at the ‘conservation’ of nature” that he said did not take into account people who inhabit the rain forest.
“We have to break with the historical paradigm that views the Amazon as an inexhaustible source of supplies for other countries, without concern for its inhabitants,” he said during a 20-minute speech. “Defense of the Earth has no other purpose than the defense of life.”
He said that the Amazon is not only about biological riches but is a “cultural reserve” under threat by new forms of colonialism. “Limits have to be set that can help preserve us from all plans for a massive destruction of the habitat that makes us who we are,” he said.
The visit and the meeting with indigenous people are meant to build on his groundbreaking treatise on the environment — the 2015 Laudato Si encyclical, passages of which were read in five languages by indigenous leaders — and to plan for a synod of Amazon Basin bishops that has been called for October 2019.
The pope’s message and the encyclical, basically guidance to clergy and the faithful on key environmental issues, were applauded by the crowd. But inhabitants also expressed fear that not enough is being done as environmental destruction in this massive sea of green continues to gain speed.
“The Amazon is our home, but it is also the lungs of the world. We have to work much harder to stop deforestation,” said the Rev. Juan Elias, a priest in Bolivia’s jungle state of Pando, across the Peruvian border.
Elias echoed the pope’s concern, saying that forests are being clear-cut to make way for large-scale agribusiness, including sugar cane. He said the new fear is the expansion of soy, which already covers huge tracts in Bolivia’s eastern plains. “There are plans for soy. Can you imagine what that will do? It would be devastating,” he said.
The pope did not make specific references to some of the controversial issues being pushed by indigenous peoples, such as territorial demarcation, property titles and consent, specifically the right to veto extractive or infrastructure projects, including roads and dams for energy projects that they say degrade the environment.
“The church has to get our governments to see that their policies are destroying the environment and us with it,” said Angeltom Arara of Brazil’s Arara do Pará people. “We want more support from the church, and we want our governments to follow what the church says.”
Wearing an ample feather headdress and covered with red and black body paint, Arara was part of a delegation representing 32 indigenous peoples from Brazil who traveled to Peru to present their case to the pope. “We can no longer just talk. There needs to be real action, because we are being killed while we wait,” he said.
Brazil’s Indigenous Missionary Council reported that more than 100 indigenous people were killed in the country in 2016. Brazilian authorities continue to investigate the killing in September of 10 members of an indigenous group that lives in voluntary isolation near the border with Peru.
The pope dedicated part of his address to people living in isolation, who he said were the “most vulnerable of the vulnerable” and should not be considered a “kind of museum of a bygone way of life.”
The largest concentration of people living in voluntary isolation are found along the long, inaccessible border between Peru and Brazil.
The World Wildlife Fund’s director for climate and energy, Manuel Pulgar-Vidal, who previously served nearly five years as Peru’s environment minister, said he hoped the testimonies from indigenous people would help ground the encyclical in everyday issues.
“There need to be priests who are capable not only of talking about the environment but anchoring it in real issues. This has not been done, which is why the message [of the encyclical] has not had the impact it should have,” he said.
Pulgar-Vidal said Puerto Maldonado and the surrounding southeastern Amazon rain forest, home to some of the most biologically diverse spots in the world, offer tragic examples that could be used to drive home the pope’s vision.
Peru lost nearly 407,000 acres of tropical forest in 2016, 5.2 percent more than the previous year, according to the state’s protected areas service. It lost nearly 4.9 million acres between 2001 and 2016 — more than the combined area of Connecticut and Rhode Island — from deforestation caused by farming, illegal mining and road construction. The state of Madre de Dios — Mother of God in English — of which Puerto Maldonado is the capital, lost 42,125 acres in 2016, and initial estimates put the number at roughly the same for last year.
The big problem in Madre de Dios is illegal gold mining, which not only eliminates forests but contaminates the air, soil and water with toxic chemicals, including mercury used to extract river gold. Some of the large camps where gold is extracted are just down the road from where the pope landed here.
They are sprawling and barren wastelands where few plants can return after miners move on. And mining is big business. Madre de Dios does not have any large-scale formal gold mines, but the state produced 12 million grams of gold in the first 11 months of last year, according to the Energy and Mines Ministry. That represents just shy of 9 percent of the country’s gold production. Peru is the world’s sixth-largest gold producer. The government last year destroyed 284 illegal mining camps, the bulk of them in Madre de Dios, and launched dozens of criminal investigations, including for human trafficking.
Although he did not go after illegal mining directly, the pope did not avoid it.
“There exists another devastating assault on life linked to this environmental contamination favored by illegal mining,” Pope Francis said. “I am speaking of human trafficking: slave labor and sexual abuse.”
David Barbosa, an Ashaninka indigenous leader from Peru, said he hoped the pope would leave his country with an understanding of what is happening in the Amazon.
“I think what we are hearing is good, but the church needs to do more. It has to take a stand,” he said.
“The issues in Madre de Dios are the issues the pope addresses in the encyclical,” said Pulgar-Vidal of the World Wildlife Fund. “The focus on the Amazon is the opportunity to get the traction that is needed.”