World / Social Issues

Vatican synod to shine light on Amazon's indigenous communities


Pope Francis will gather Catholic bishops at the Vatican on Sunday to champion the isolated and poverty-struck indigenous communities of the Amazon, whose way of life is under threat.

The eyes of the world have recently been on the world’s largest rainforest, which is vital for the planet but is suffering from its worst outbreak of fires in years, due in part to an acceleration in deforestation.

The working document for the “synod,” which mainly brings together bishops from nine Pan-Amazonian countries, denounces in scathing terms social injustices and crimes, including murders, as well as suggesting a church action plan.

This past week, the Roman Catholic Church in Mexico and six Central American countries launched a network to coordinate efforts to benefit the environment and indigenous people in the region.

The Vatican’s information service says that “like the Amazon, the Mesoamerican biological corridor is a devastated territory and threatened by state concessions to transnational corporations.”

It warned that large extractive projects, mono-cultivation and climate change threaten land, the environment, culture and self-determination.

Gustavo Rodriguez Vega is archbishop in Mexico’s Yucatan and head of the new Ecclesiastical Ecological Network of Mesoamerica. He said Friday that church representatives discussed the needs of each country and indigenous people, “who tend to be the most susceptible and those who suffer more from all the ravages of industries that go to their regions to deforest or excavate.”

The run-up to the three-week synod, or assembly, saw some 260 events held in the Amazon region involving 80,000 people, in a bid to give the local populations a voice in the document.

It comes just as Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, a climate-change skeptic, told the United Nations that the world’s media was lying about the Amazon, and attacked indigenous leaders as tools of foreign governments.

“Listen to the cry of ‘Mother Earth,’ assaulted and seriously wounded by the economic model of predatory and ecocidal development … which kills and plunders, destroys and devastates, expels and discards,” the 80-page document says.

In his 2015 encyclical on ecology and climate change “Laudato Si,” Francis denounced the destruction of the Amazonian rainforest in the name of “enormous international economic interests.”

Last year the world’s first Latin American pope visited Puerto Maldonado, a village in southeastern Peru surrounded by the Amazon jungle, to meet thousands of indigenous Peruvians, Brazilians and Bolivians.

There he slammed in particular “illegal mining” of gold and the “slave labor or sexual abuse” it created.

That trip was the first step toward this synod, which opens Sunday with a Mass in St. Peter’s Square.

Francis champions what he terms “integral ecology” — or the inextricable link between humans and nature.

“To the aboriginal communities we owe their thousands of years of care and cultivation of the Amazon,” the working document reads.

It also reflects the pope’s desire to protect the world’s poor, vulnerable and downtrodden, and his criticism of a socio-economic model that discards them as “waste.”

His hopes of bringing the Catholic faith to far-flung populations will see the bishops gathered in Rome debate a highly controversial proposal — allowing married men to become priests.

“We have a shortage of ordained priests to celebrate Mass. Eighty percent of the communities in Brazil have a very poor sacramental life,” said Brazilian Cardinal Claudio Hummes, president of the Pan-Amazon Church Network.

The issue deeply upsets some traditionalists, who argue that making an exception for the Amazon will open the door to the end of celibacy for priests, which is not a church law and only dates back to the 11th century.

The German Catholic Church in particular, which has an influential progressive wing, has been hotly debating the subject.

The synod, which runs until Oct. 27, will also reflect on making official roles for women, who already play a central part in the Amazonian church.

“If women are excluded, half of the church is excluded,” said Sister Laura, an Italian missionary who has worked in the Pan-Amazon region for 10 years.

Of the 184 prelates at the synod, 113 hail from the Amazonian region, including 57 from Brazil.

Others taking part include 17 representatives of Amazonian indigenous peoples and ethnic groups, and 35 women — who will not have the right to vote on the final document.