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Pope in Peru: Defending the Amazon, its land, its culture and above all its people

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Lima (AsiaNews) – Pope Francis arrived in Puerto Maldonado this afternoon, the first stage of his visit to Peru. In his address, the pontiff made a heartfelt defence of the Amazon region, its people, traditions, vast green spaces, which are heavily exploited by those who want to take its wealth, the gold. But Francis also warned against turning the region into a shrine with no place for the people who have lived there since time immemorial.

Some four thousand people filled the local sport arena, the Coliseo Madre de Dios, representing the peoples of the Amazon, wearing traditional garments, as well as singing and dancing for Francis, a meeting centred on criticism of various forms of exploitation and on demands for the preservation of local traditions and languages.

As he looked on, the pope mentioned the “different native peoples of Amazonia: Harakbut, Esse-ejas, Matsiguenkas, Yines, Shipibos, Asháninkas. Yaneshas, Kakintes, Nahuas, Yaminahuas, Juni Kuin, Madijá, Manchineris, Kukamas, Kandozi, Quichuas, Huitotos, Shawis, Achuar, Boras, Awajún, Wampís, and others.” At the venue, translations of Laudato Si’ were available to them. One of them gave the pontiff a crown of flowers to go on his head and body.

“I have greatly looked forward to this meeting,” Francis said. “Those of us who do not live in these lands need your wisdom and knowledge to enable us to enter into, without destroying, the treasures that this region holds. And to hear an echo of the words that the Lord spoke to Moses: “Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground” (Ex 3:5).

In a long, thought out speech, the pope attacked various forms of exploitation. “The native Amazonian peoples have probably never been so threatened on their own lands as they are at present. Amazonia is being disputed on various fronts. On the one hand, there is neo-extractivism and the pressure being exerted by great business interests that want to lay hands on its petroleum, gas, lumber, gold and forms of agro-industrial monocultivation. On the other hand, its lands are being threatened by the distortion of certain policies aimed at the ‘conservation’ of nature without taking into account the men and women, specifically you, my Amazonian brothers and sisters, who inhabit it. We know of movements that, under the guise of preserving the forest, hoard great expanses of woodland and negotiate with them, leading to situations of oppression for the native peoples; as a result, they lose access to the land and its natural resources. These problems strangle her peoples and provoke the migration of the young due to the lack of local alternatives. We have to break with the historical paradigm that views Amazonia as an inexhaustible source of supplies for other countries without concern for its inhabitants.

“I consider it essential to begin creating institutional expressions of respect, recognition and dialogue with the native peoples, acknowledging and recovering their native cultures, languages, traditions, rights and spirituality. An intercultural dialogue in which you yourselves will be ‘the principal dialogue partners, especially when large projects affecting your land are proposed’. Recognition and dialogue will be the best way to transform relationships whose history is marked by exclusion and discrimination.”

Exploiting women who cry “out to heaven”

Whilst there are initiatives full of hope that seek to preserve the rights of indigenous people who “are a living memory of the mission that God has entrusted to us all: the protection of our common home [. . .] there exists another devastating assault on life linked to this environmental contamination favoured by illegal mining. I am speaking of human trafficking: slave labour and sexual abuse. Violence against adolescents and against women cries out to heaven.”

With respect to the “Indigenous Peoples in Voluntary Isolation” (PIAV), the Holy Father also said that they are “the most defenceless”, [. . .] the most vulnerable of the vulnerable. Their primitive lifestyle made them isolated even from their own ethnic groups; they went into seclusion in the most inaccessible reaches of the forest in order to live in freedom. Continue to defend these most vulnerable of our brothers and sisters. Their presence reminds us that we cannot use goods meant for all as consumerist greed dictates. 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.”

“The recognition of these people – who can never be considered a minority, but rather authentic dialogue partners – as of all the native peoples, reminds us that we are not the absolute owners of creation. We need urgently to appreciate the essential contribution that they bring to society as a whole, and not reduce their cultures to an idealized image of a natural state, much less a kind of museum of a bygone way of life. Their cosmic vision and their wisdom, have much to teach those of us who are not part of their culture. All our efforts to improve the lives of the Amazonian peoples will prove too little.”

Urging indigenous people to preserve their traditions, the pope said that “in the face of the new forms of colonialism” the “family is, and always has been, the social institution that has most contributed to keeping our cultures alive. In moments of past crisis, in the face of various forms of imperialism, the families of the original peoples have been the best defence of life. Special care is demanded of us, lest we allow ourselves to be ensnared by ideological forms of colonialism, disguised as progress, that slowly but surely dissipate cultural identities and establish a uniform, single… and weak way of thinking. Listen to the elderly. They possess a wisdom that puts them in contact with the transcendent and makes them see what is essential in life.”

Francis also expressed appreciation for “all those young men and women of the native peoples who are trying to create from their own standpoint a new anthropology, and working to reinterpret the history of their peoples from their own perspective.”

Lastly, the pontiff turned his thoughts to the “many missionaries, men and women, [who] have devoted themselves to your peoples and defended your cultures! They did so inspired by the Gospel. [. . .] Each culture and each worldview that receives the Gospel enriches the Church by showing a new aspect of Christ’s face.”

After the meeting with indigenous people in Puerto Maldonado, the pontiff met the local population at a local educational institute, the Instituto Jorge Basadre. Noting that “This area has a beautiful name: Madre de Dios, Mother of God,” he forcefully added that theirs “is not a land of orphans, but a land that has a Mother! And if it has a mother, it has sons and daughters, a family, a community. Where there is a mother, a family and a community, problems may not disappear, but we certainly find the strength to confront them differently.”

“It is painful to think that some want to reject this certainty and make Madre de Dios a nameless land, without children, a barren land. A place easy to commercialize and exploit.”

A culture that only “wants to consume”

“On a number of occasions, I have spoken of the throwaway culture. A culture that is not satisfied with exclusion, but advances by silencing, ignoring and throwing out everything that does not serve its interests; as if the alienating consumerism of some is completely unaware of the desperate suffering of others. It is an anonymous culture, without bonds, without faces. A motherless culture that only wants to consume. The earth is treated in accordance with this logic. Forests, rivers and streams are exploited mercilessly, then left barren and unusable. Persons are also treated in the same way: they are used until someone gets tired of them, then abandoned as ‘useless’.

“Speaking of these things, allow me to bring up another painful subject. We have become accustomed to using the term ‘human trafficking’, but in truth we should speak of slavery: slavery for work, sexual slavery, slavery for profit. It is painful to see how in this land, which is under the protection of the Mother of God, so many women are devalued, denigrated and exposed to endless violence. Violence against women cannot be treated as ‘normal’, maintaining a culture of machismo blind to the leading role that women play in our communities. It is not right for us to look the other way and let the dignity of so many women, especially young women, be trampled upon.”

As he urged people to resist “False gods, the idols of avarice, money and power, [which] corrupt everything,” the pontiff also encouraged them “to continue organizing into movements and communities of every kind in order to help overcome these situations. I likewise encourage you to gather, as people of faith and vibrant ecclesial communities, around the person of Jesus. Through heartfelt prayer and hope-filled encounter with Christ, we will be able to attain the conversion that leads us to true life. Jesus promised us true life, authentic life, eternal life. Not a make-believe life, like the one offered by all those dazzling false promises; they promise life but lead us to death.”

Finally, the last event of the day took place at the Hogar El Principito (The Little Prince House) for abandoned children. In his greetings, the pope said that “Not long ago, we celebrated Christmas. Our hearts were touched by the image of the Child Jesus. He is our treasure. You children are his reflection, and you too are a treasure for all of us, the most precious treasure that we have, and one that we are called to guard. Forgive us those times when we adults have not cared for you, and when we did not give you the importance you deserve. Your faces, your lives constantly demand a greater commitment and effort on our part, lest we become blind or indifferent to all those other children who suffer and are in need. Without a doubt, you are the greatest treasure that is ours to care for.”

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