Intricately balanced ecosystems provide the breath of life for many
by Dennis Smith | Mission Crossroads
BUENOS AIRES, Argentina — In recent months, the world’s attention has focused on the Amazon rainforest, widely considered to be one of the most important lungs of planet Earth. Covering parts of nine countries in South America, this vast and incredibly diverse region both traps carbon dioxide that leads to global warming and creates the oxygen vital to many forms of life.
For decades these nine countries have debated with the world community how to balance environmental concerns with their desire to exploit abundant natural resources, ranging from medicinal plants, tropical hardwoods and water to petroleum and precious minerals.
The debate is whether the Amazon rainforest belongs to nine nation states or to all of humanity. Can exploitation for profit be allowed to supersede the common good?
One alternative has been an international agreement where Brazil, the country that hosts the largest portion of the Amazon rainforest, receives payment from other nations, including Norway and Germany, to prohibit deforestation. Studies suggest that under this program the rate of deforestation fell significantly.
Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, a far-right nationalist, insists that Brazil has the right to exploit the Amazon for economic gain. Both Norway and Germany have ceased payments to Brazil as deforestation under the Bolsonaro government has increased sharply.
According to the Rev. Romi Bencke, a Brazilian Lutheran minister who serves as general secretary of the National Council of Christian Churches in Brazil, under Bolsonaro large landowners — especially soybean farmers and cattle ranchers — have been given free rein to displace traditional communities and slash and burn the rainforest to make way for the cultivation of export crops. More than 70,000 fires were documented in Brazil in 2019, the highest number on record.
Bencke notes that the Amazon region is currently under threat “because both the minister of agriculture and the president deny climate change and have backed a major social media campaign claiming that the fires were started by environmental organizations, which is terribly false.”
Bencke continues: “The current government is proposing the industrialization of the Amazon to grow the GNP and insists that indigenous peoples are expendable and getting in the way of Brazil’s right to progress.”
The Amazon region is home to many indigenous peoples. Some have had little or no contact with the outside world. Over the years, their ancestral knowledge of this complex web of intricately balanced ecosystems has played a vital role in conservation efforts.
The Indigenous Missionary Council of the Roman Catholic Church reports that several indigenous groups in northern Brazil face the threat of genocide. News reports describe how miners and loggers invade indigenous lands, displacing whole communities, while farmers and ranchers set fire to the forest. Reported assassinations of indigenous leaders have also increased sharply under the current government.
A pastoral letter circulated last October by several dozen ministers of the United Presbyterian Church of Brazil (IPU), a mission partner of the PC(USA), stated that:
“Reports of criminal activity resulting in forest fires in the Amazon — confirmed by serious scientific studies — are ignored, distorted or attributed to the innocent practice of burning off crops. The enforcement apparatus to control these practices has been dismantled with the cancellation of fines and of programs to maintain equipment used to combat deforestation.”
Later in their pastoral letter, the IPU notes that environmental depredation is closely related to the plight of indigenous peoples and of the landless in Brazil:
“In addition to threatening the lives of ‘the least of these,’ discourse that values money and the economy above all else jeopardizes our ability to see in the poor a key for discerning the nature and means of divine revelation.”
Finally, the letter laments the increasing polarization of Brazilian society and notes that religion, too, has become deeply divisive:
“Disguised under a godly mantle, false prophets have promoted death and division in our country and in our churches. … Faced with this situation, we, as ministers of Word and Sacrament of the United Presbyterian Church of Brazil, come together to denounce publicly any religious discourse that camouflages hatred and prejudice against skin color, gender, ideology or any other characteristic used to define a person’s position in the world and in society.”
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Dennis Smith is World Mission’s regional liaison for South America. Based in Buenos Aires, he works with 16 mission partners from Colombia to Argentina.
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