As the upcoming Synod of Bishops on the Amazon draws near, preparations in the region are taking place against a complex backdrop, with indigenous communities launching more protests against political policies they say interfere with their rights.
In a recent interview with Italian paper La Stampa, Pope Francis said one of the biggest challenges to the Amazon region is the “threat to the life of the populations and territory which derives from the economic and political interests of the dominant sectors of society.”
A political solution to this threat, he said, would be to “eliminate one’s own connivance and corruption,” and assume concrete responsibility for the people who live in the area.
Although the Amazon basin touches several South American countries, about 60 percent of the Amazon region is in Brazil, where indigenous people suffer tremendous injustices.
Although the country officially abolished slavery in 1888, the government has acknowledged that some 25,000 people in the Amazon currently work under “conditions analogous to slavery,” clearing land and working for cattle ranches, soy farms, and other labor-intensive industries. Some groups say the true figure could be ten times that amount.
As the Catholic Church prepares to take a deep dive into these issues, tensions over indigenous rights continue to mount in Brazil.
Most of these tensions, including months of protest, involve populist Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro.
The conservative former military officer has often been called “Brazil’s Donald Trump,” a comparison he openly cultivates.
Bolsonaro, who took office Jan. 1, has vowed to freeze demarcations of new indigenous reserves, to revoke the protected status of others, and to free up commercial farming and mining on territories such as the Yanomami, one of Brazil’s largest indigenous reserves.
The 1988 Brazilian Constitution said that all indigenous lands should be demarcated into special “indigenous territories” within five years. However, more than 30 years after its promulgation, only 400 demarcations were completed - a situation that resulted in permanent conflict in several regions occupied by indigenous peoples.
Brazil’s indigenous population numbers just less than a million people, making up only about 0.6 percent of the population.
On the day he took office, the president issued a provisional measure transferring decision-making power on indigenous reserve demarcations from Funai, the country’s indigenous agency, to the Ministry of Agriculture, which is controlled by members of a powerful farming lobby with a long history of opposing indigenous rights.
Bolsonaro’s move was immediately challenged as unconstitutional in Brazil’s Supreme Court, but the measure was eventually passed April 24, sparking protests from indigenous communities throughout the country.
Further protests were launched this weekend by indigenous women, who on Saturday marched on the Brazilian capital Brasilia for a 3-day meeting, demanding respect for their rights and protesting the policies of the federal government they said go against indigenous peoples.
Compounding these tensions has been a reported increase in recent years in the number of environmentalist leaders murdered for their activism.
Emyra Waiãpi, a leader of Brazil’s Waiãpi indigenous community, was found stabbed to death July 24 near the village of Mairry in Amapá state. Just three days later some 50 gold miners, known as garimpeiros, stormed the Waiãpi reserve, leading many to believe that the garimpeiros were responsible for Waiãpi’s death.
Waiãpi’s death has widely been blamed by activists on Bolsonaro, who is accused of inciting tensions with his demarcation proposal.
The Vatican’s embrace of indigenous rights activists is a change from the past, when the relationship was often more contentious.
In 1992, Rigoberta Menchu, a K’iche’ political and human rights activist from Guatemala who has dedicated her life to promoting indigenous rights in the country, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
Four years later, she asked for a private audience with St. Pope John Paul II during his 1996 visit to Guatemala to discuss the destruction of indigenous communities; however, the Vatican feared the meeting would be politicized.
They invited her to be part of a larger group scheduled to meet the pope, but she refused, leading to a major communications fiasco in which former Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro Valls briefed the press on the “audience” - later he had to admit the meeting never happened.
The incident was seen as a symbol of the ambivalent relationship between Church authorities in the Vatican and indigenous communities of the Americas.
Fast forward to today.
Not only has Francis called a special synod on the Amazon, but in May he met privately with Chief Raoni Metuktire, a leading indigenous rights activist from Brazil.
Speaking to participants in the Fourth Global Meeting of the Indigenous Peoples Forum in February, Francis called indigenous communities “a living cry of hope.” With their “variety of languages, cultures, traditions, knowledge and ancestral methods,” he said, they should “become for all a wake-up call, which highlights the fact that man is not the owner of nature, but the one who manages it.”
Other prelates in the region involved in organizing the synod have also come out in defense of indigenous communities.
Speaking to journalists during a May 16 conference in Rome, Brazilian Cardinal Claudio Hummes, General Relator for the Synod of Bishops on the Amazon and president of the Pan-Amazonian Ecclesial Network (REPAM), said indigenous communities in the Amazon “have the right to be consulted, listened to,” not only for show, “but seriously.”
Rather than having people speak for them, including the Church, he said it’s important that indigenous communities make their own decisions and have a voice in key discussions.
Similarly, in a recent interview with Crux, Peruvian Cardinal Pedro Ricardo Barreto said the “pluri-ethnic” and “pluri-cultural” dimension of the Amazon, which boasts some 345 different indigenous populations speaking roughly 240 different languages, must be preserved.
“Indigenous questions have always been postponed - ‘you are few, you are someone who is not from Western culture’,” he said. “I would say there is a contemptuous attitude, or in most cases, indifference, but they are not taken into consideration.”
With so many big-hitters from the Amazon participating in the October synod, the Catholic Church could emerge as an effective intermediary in ensuring indigenous rights at a political, as well as pastoral, level.