“I have come here to visit you and to listen to you; to come together within the heart of the church, share your challenges and embrace sincere alternative solutions to defend life, the Earth and its cultures”, said Pope Francis in front of 3,500 indigenous representatives in the Madre de Dios Arena.
The Pope’s visit to this region in the Peruvian Amazon has been surrounded by great expectations. Not only because it is his first official stop while in Peru, but mainly because it is the setting for several serious social and environmental conflicts, such as those related to illegal goldmining. During the past 15 years, this activity has caused the loss of over 160,000 ha of forest, according to the Ministry of the Environment in Peru, besides triggering other illicit activities such as sexual exploitation and human trafficking.
Francis arrived in Madre de Dios minutes after 10:00 a.m. amidst the cheers and chants of hundreds of local children. Thirty minutes later, his holiness entered the Arena where he met with Bolivian, Brazilian and Peruvian indigenous representatives, who shared their concerns regarding the threats they face within their territories, such as weak land tenure governance, the impacts of extractive projects, pollution and climate change.
“We, indigenous peoples are survivors of injustice and cruelty. We suffered because of the overexploitation of natural resources. Foreigners, such as oil companies, gold miners and road builders invade our territory without consulting us. We ask you to defend us; if they take away our lands, we may disappear”, lamented Yésica Patiachi a harakbut woman, whose people have a long story of suffering since the rubber fever in the XIX century, and later because of illegal mining. “Harakbut people as well as all indigenous peoples, care for and protect our land to live in harmony” concluded Luis Tayori Kendero, a harakbut man.
Past 11:00 a.m. Pope Francis called for the inclusion of indigenous peoples and criticized the unproportionate use of natural resources, a statement that is the core of the encyclical Laudato Si. “We must break the historic paradigm which considers the Amazon an endless pantry for the States, without considering its inhabitants” he said. His holiness severely criticized the oil spills and related pollution several families suffer from in the Amazon, as well as illegal gold mining, and highlighted the Amazon as a “cultural reserve that needs to be protected from new colonialisms”.
“This visit has been fundamental, since the Pope has given visibility back to indigenous peoples. He has emphasized, in a very emotional and convincing way, the role which these peoples play as stewards of the Amazon and nature. Also, he evidenced that this meeting was a celebration between him and indigenous peoples in the face of a joint commitment towards sustainable development”, said Mariela Cánepa, Policy Director in WWF Peru.
One of the most important moments during the event was when Julio Cusurichi, President of the local indigenous federation gave Pope Francis his organization’s official statement which includes the indigenous peoples’ main concerns and proposals to mitigate climate change.
Madre de Dios is considered one of the most biodiverse regions on Earth, but at the same time is one of the most severely impacted by illegal mining and other activities. In 2017, the annual loss of forest cover exceeded 20,000 hectares (over 28,500 soccer fields), according to the Monitoreo de los Andes Amazónicos (MAAP) project.
Photo: © ANDINA / Carlos Lezama