By: Emily Green
Impunity Watch Reporter, South America
PUERTO MALDONADO, Peru – Pope Francis traveled to a distant corner of the Amazon on Friday, January 19. In Peru’s jungle, he met with indigenous people to discuss the deforestation and illegal mining that wreak havoc on their livelihood.
The Pope arrived at his first official event in Puerto Maldonado aboard his popemobile. He was greeted by thousands of indigenous people decked out in traditional dress. Men in loincloths and colorful costumes surrounded him and chanted, “Francis, Francis, you are now Amazonian.”
Puerto Maldonado is the capital of one of the Peruvian Amazon’s most threatened regions, Madre de Dios. Deforestation has escalated to the point that scientists at the Mapping of the Andean Amazon consider it a “deforestation crisis.” Calculations have tracked an increasing trend of annual forest loss since 2001 that peaked in 2017. In 2017 alone, 208 square kilometers (80 square miles) of forest were lost. Gold miners and farmers are taking down trees with little regard to the effects of their operations. Logging and mining devastates the forest and contaminates the air, water, and soil with toxins. As a result, indigenous people who rely on those resources are suffering.
Pope Francis arrived with a plan to highlight environmental issues and human rights violations. During a 20-minute speech, the pontiff said, “We have to break with the historical paradigm that views the Amazon as an inexhaustible source of supplies for other countries, without concern for its inhabitants. Defense of the Earth has no other purpose than the defense of life.” He regarded the Amazon as a source of biological riches as well as a “culture reserve.” He recognized that it was under threat by new forms of colonialism, and suggested that limits be set to help preserve the habitat from massive destruction.
The visit was meant to build on his treatise on the environment, the 2015 Laudato Si encyclical, which is a plan for a council of Amazon Basin bishops. The message guides the clergy and their followers on key environmental issues. The crowd applauded this message, but some express concern that it does not go far enough to protect the rights of inhabitants. The pope did not specifically reference some of the controversial issues faced by indigenous peoples such as territorial demarcation, property titles and consent, and the right to veto extractive or infrastructure projects.
However, the pope did dedicate part of his address to people living in isolation. Many leaders and representatives of indigenous groups were in attendance to present their case to the pope. Pope Francis said that they were the “most vulnerable of the vulnerable” and should not be considered a “kind of museum of a bygone way of life.” He did not go after illegal mining directly, but did not completely avoid it. He said, “There exists another devastating assault on life linked to this environmental contamination favored by illegal mining. I am speaking of human trafficking: slave labor and sexual abuse.”
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