Guardian – in Lima

  • Pontiff addresses representatives of 400 indigenous groups in Peru
  • Amazon is ‘cultural reserve’ threatened by new types of colonialism


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Pope Francis addresses heads of indigenous groups on his first visit to the Amazon biome – video

Pope Francis has warned that the Amazon’s indigenous people have “never been so threatened in their territories as they are now” and demanded an end to the relentless exploitation of the region’s timber, gas and gold.

Addressing an indigenous audience in Peru’s jungle city of Puerto Maldonado, the pope expanded on the environmental message of his 2015 encyclical, taking aim at the multiple threats faced by the Amazon rainforest and telling its indigenous inhabitants they were a “call to conscience for a way of life which could not measure its own costs”.

“We must break with the historical paradigm that sees the Amazon as an inexhaustible larder for other countries without taking into account its inhabitants,” he told native Amazonians, many of whom were wearing traditional feathered headdresses, patterned tunics and intricately beaded jewellery.

Pope Francis said the Amazon was not only a source of biological riches but a “cultural reserve” under threat from new types of colonialism.

He also referred to the issues of territorial rights, land titles and informed consent, including the right to veto infrastructure projects.

On his first visit to the Amazon biome, the pope met members of several indigenous groups who described the threats to their way of life posed by illegal mining, logging, oil and gas exploitation, monoculture and roads invading their territory.

Thousands of native Amazonians had travelled to see Pope Francis in Puerto Maldonado, a city on Peru’s Amazon frontier and the capital of Madre de Dios, a region assailed by illegal gold mining, which has made it an epicentre for people trafficking and modern-day slavery.

“The pope is a means to make our demands heard by the state,” said Edwin Vásquez, the Peruvian representative of the pan-Amazonian alliance of indigenous organisations Coica, who was at the stadium.

“The [regional governments] do absolutely nothing to help us, in fact they blame us for opposing development,” said Vásquez, a Huitoto member of a delegation representing more than 400 indigenous Amazonian peoples.

Indigenous representatives listen to Pope Francis in Puerto Maldonado, Peru, on Friday.
Indigenous representatives listen to Pope Francis in Puerto Maldonado, Peru, on Friday. Photograph: Rodrigo Abd/AP

The group hoped the pope would call on the Peruvian state to grant them formal land titles for some 200,000 sq km of land, it said, as well as urge the government to clean up rivers poisoned with mercury used in illegal gold mining.

Most of Puerto Maldonado’s residents have mercury in their systems at well over safe levels while measurements for indigenous communities are even higher – particularly women and children, according to a 2013 study by the Carnegie Amazon Mercury Project.

The pope drew parallels between the devastation of gold mining and human trafficking, calling the slave labour and sexual abuse of young people and women an “outcry that reaches heaven”.

He also highlighted the need to protect indigenous people living in voluntary isolation in the biodiversity hotspot on Peru’s south-eastern border with Bolivia and Brazil, but said they should not be considered a “kind of museum of a bygone way of life”.

Amazon leaders said they would call for the intervention of United Nations agencies to halt the “ethnocide of 60 isolated peoples”, the spread of HIV/Aids and the “criminalisation of nature’s defenders” across the nine Amazon countries.

More than half of Peru’s territory is forest, and much of that land is indigenous territory. Peer-reviewed research shows that titling community lands in the Peruvian Amazon led to an immediate reduction in deforestation by three-quarters.

“No Peruvian president has ever given such a complete speech about the Amazon indigenous agenda as has Pope Francis,” tweeted Iván Lanegra, a former minister responsible for indigenous affairs. “It’s a national disgrace.”

Andrew Miller of the NGO Amazon Watch said the pope’s words “deepened prior comments in favor of indigenous rights and protecting the Amazon”.

“Now the question is: will Pope Francis make similar comments before larger crowds in Lima and in dialogues with Peruvian decision makers?” he said.


Pope wades into indigenous conflict telling Chile’s Mapuche to shun violence

Pope Francis greets Mapuche people during a mass mass at Maquehue airport, near Temuco, Chile, on Wednesday.

Pope Francis greets Mapuche people during a mass at Maquehue airport, near Temuco, Chile, on Wednesday. Photograph: Luca Zennaro/EPA

Pope Francis has denounced the use of violence to achieve political gains as he travelled to the heart of Chile’s centuries-old conflict with the indigenous Mapuche people, where a spate of church burnings have been blamed on radical activists.

Hours after another church and three helicopters were torched, Francis celebrated mass at a former military base that not only lies on contested Mapuche land but was also a former detention center used during Chile’s military dictatorship.

“Violence begets violence, destruction increases fragmentation and separation. Violence eventually turns a most just cause into a lie,” he told an exuberant crowd at Maquehue air base in Temuco.

Before the pope’s visit, the Araucania region that is the heartland of the Mapuche had been hit by repeated attacks by protesters who burned or bombed churches, logging trucks and schoolhouses. Prosecutor Enrique Vásquez told local media on Wednesday that investigators found a sign and pamphlets demanding the release of Mapuche prisoners at the scene of the burned church, while pro-Mapuche pamphlets were found at the scene of the burned helicopters.

At the start of a mass, Mapuche dressed in traditional garb of colourful woven ponchos and headbands made of silver trinkets played indigenous wind instruments and small drums.

“A culture of mutual esteem may not be based on acts of violence and destruction that end up taking human lives,” said Francis.

Indigenous communities of south-central Chile have long accused the state and private companies of taking their ancestral land, stripping it of natural resources and using heavy-handed enforcement against their communities.

About 600,000 Mapuche live in Chile, many in the forested, hilly provinces ringed by volcanoes and lakes of Araucania and Bio Bio, roughly 400 miles (650km) south of Santiago.

“Solidarity … is the only weapon we have against the ‘deforestation of hope’,” Francis said. He quoted national poets on the struggles of Chileans and the beauty of their land.

Chilean investigative police inspect a helicopter burned at the Arauco forestry company in Caranilahue, Temuco, on Wednesday.
Chilean investigative police inspect a helicopter burned at the Arauco forestry company in Caranilahue, Temuco, on Wednesday. Photograph: Manuel Araneda/AP

Mapuche relations with the state and settlers of European descent have been fractious since the Chilean army invaded the territory of the Mapuche in the late 19th century.

“I hope that the pope gives us the opportunity to tell the world our story,” said Isolde Reuque, a Mapuche leader from Temuco. “It’s the Chilean government that needs to resolve our problems, not the pope.”

Francis, whose homily was interrupted repeatedly by applause and at times by the blowing of tribal instruments, asked for a moment of silence for those who had suffered “so much pain and injustice” in the past.

Last year Chilea’s president, Michelle Bachelet, asked for forgiveness from the Mapuche community for such “errors and horrors”.

Her government accelerated a programme giving property titles to indigenous communities, and launched initiatives to improve infrastructure and access to drinking water in remote areas.

But the Araucania region that is home to the majority of the country’s Mapuche is still the poorest in the country.

The Maquehue airfield near Temuco, where the pope celebrated mass on Wednesday, was one of the principal torture centres of the region during the early days of the 1973-1990 dictatorship of the late Augusto Pinochet.

“We offer this mass for all those who suffered and died, and for those who daily bear the burden of those many injustices,” Francis said.