Pope Meets with Indigenous Communities in Peru

Amazonic tribes and Andean communities are celebrated by Pope Francis as models for caring for our Common Home

By Jed Koball | Mission Co-worker Peru

Leaders of the community of Santa Rosa de Sacco in the province of La Oroya rest on the hillside overlooking the town after a day of exploring clean water sources to further their reforestation and remediation efforts in the area.

On a hot and humid January day, gathered in the town of Puerto Maldonado in a region of the Amazon Rainforest devastated by massive deforestation and the contamination of rivers from toxic metals and oil spills, indigenous leaders and environmental activists anxiously awaited to hear what truth the author of Laudato Si would speak to the powers of destruction of our Common Home. It was here that Pope Francis chose to meet with indigenous communities to hear their cries and to offer his first public statements during his visit to Peru.

Indeed, it was a striking juxtaposition to see the Holy See of the Roman Catholic Church dressed in religious garb as he sat listening attentively to indigenous leaders dressed in traditional clothing and headdress making clear demands of the Peruvian government and the mining, oil, and lumber industries to respect their rights and way of life, while calling on the Church to accompany them in their struggle.

Nearly five hundred years after the Church initiated a violent repression of indigenous beliefs and practices as part of the Spanish and Portuguese conquests of what is today South America, the long-anticipated words of Pope Francis were welcomed and celebrated.

Speaking in an intimate space with the representatives of various Amazonic tribes and Andean communities, the Pope said, ¨For some people, you are considered an obstacle because you are a living memory of the mission that God has entrusted to us, which is to care for our Common Home. You are not a model of life of yesteryear; you are a model of living that we must recuperate now.¨

Addressing more directly the historical challenges of the Church and all humanity, the Pope continued, ¨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.¨

Encouraged by Pope Francis´ platform to restore harmonious relations between the Earth and humanity, the Red Uniendo Manos Peru – the Joining Hands network in Peru – signed onto a letter delivered directly to the Pope at his residence in Lima.

The letter, written by a network of Peruvian civil society organizations (of which Red Uniendo Manos Peru is an active member) addresses the grave human, environmental, cultural and economic impacts of the extractive industry in Peru:  “There is an imposition of a series of economic activities in countries such as Peru that are seen geopolitically only as producers of raw materials at low cost and cheap labor, and subservient to industrialized countries.”

Pope Francis´ words in Puerto Maldonado appeared to respond directly to the concerns of our partners as he proclaimed, “We cannot use goods meant for all as consumerist greed dictates. Limits have to be set that can help preserve us from all plans of massive destruction of the habitat that makes us who we are.”

The irony that presented itself during the Pope´s visit with the indigenous leaders in Puerto Maldonado was the presence of Peruvian President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski who carefully tried to position himself near the Pope.

During a five-month period (October 2016 – March 2017) of Kuczynski´s ongoing term, the government issued 112 legislative decrees, 65 of which were approved under the slogan of reactivating the economy. Far from their objective, these changes in the regulatory frameworks have led to a climate of social conflict in the country because most of them violate fundamental rights of communities and the population in general.

Among legislation passed under President Kuczynski´s watch was the weakening of sulfur-dioxide emissions standards in the Andean town of La Oroya, which is already considered to be one of the ten most contaminated cities in the world where nearly 99% of the children have been tested to have severe lead poisoning among other toxic metals and contaminants. The cause of the contamination is a metals smelter owned by a U.S. holding company.

Over the past twenty years, community leaders from Santa Rosa de Sacco in the province of La Oroya have reforested the lower hills of their community to help capture water, remediate the soils and make the land productive again. Red Uniendo Manos Peru is partnering with them to enhance their efforts with technical support and other resources. Photo by Jed Koball

While the smelter filed bankruptcy nearly nine years ago, Kuczynski initiated his presidency with a declaration to restore the operations of the smelter towards the end of stimulating the economy, even if it meant weakening environmental protections which would put at further risk the health of the population.

Red Uniendo Manos Peru has been accompanying the affected population of La Oroya and surrounding areas for nearly twenty years, fighting for specialized health care, environmental protections, and industry and government accountability. And so, it was in the days leading up to the Pope´s visit, our global partners returned to their spiritual roots (quite literally!) and spent time with a gathering of women leaders from La Oroya who have dedicated the past twenty years to planting trees on the hillside where they live in order to help remediate the soils and recuperate productivity of the land on which they depend.

As noted in our partners´ letter to the Pope, ¨Indigenous peoples and communities do not want a way of life to be imposed upon them. They want to live harmoniously with nature which they feel they are part of.¨  In fact, is this not merely what they want, rather what we all need?

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