In Peru Jungle, Francis Offers a Stirring Defense of Indigenous Peoples

PUERTO MALDONADO, Peru — In this sweltering Amazonian city, Pope Francis on Friday gave a stirring defense of the region’s indigenous people, whose lands and way of life are threatened by industry and government, leaving almost no institutions to protect them.

It was a departure from an otherwise purely religious visit to Peru, where Francis arrived on Thursday from Chile, but it fit squarely within his advocacy for environmental preservation.

Facing a crowded sports arena — where the main stage was neatly divided between clerics sitting on chairs and indigenous people in traditional garments sitting on the ground — Francis said he understood the local challenges.

He deplored, on one hand, “the pressure being exerted by great business interests that want to lay hands on its petroleum, gas, lumber, gold and forms of agro-industrial monocultivation” and, on the other hand, threats from policies that ostensibly aim to conserve land “without taking into account” its inhabitants.

He also criticized those who call indigenous rights a “hindrance” to economic development.

“The fact is, your lives cry out against a style of life that is oblivious to its own real cost,” he said.

The speech resonated with indigenous leaders here, who have expressed hopes that the papal visit would finally cast a spotlight on their plight. But they also asked why indigenous leaders had been left to stand on the sidelines.

“It’s incoherent, it’s contradictory, to have an event to show the world the problems of the indigenous people and not let their principal authorities speak,” said Julio Cusurichi, a native Shipibo and president of the Federation of Natives of the Madre de Dios River and Its Tributaries, or Fenamad.

“We are again expected to be subdued by the Church?” asked Edwin Vásquez, who leads the Coordinator of Indigenous Organizations of the Amazon River Basin, or Coica, an umbrella group. “I’m Catholic, I believe in God, but I’ve learned not to trust priests.”

Mr. Vasquez and Mr. Cusurichi, among the most prominent indigenous leaders here, said they had been denied, at the last minute, a chance to address the pope. (Mr. Cusurichi gave Francis a present, but did not speak.)

“We’re scared because people who are from other places want our people to disappear,” said Luis Miguel Tayori, an indigenous man who spoke at the event.

The pope’s visit has overwhelmed Puerto Maldonado. The stadium had capacity for 100,000 attendees, more than the city’s total population. The city was closed to traffic, forcing everyone to commute to events on foot. More than 2,500 police officers dotted almost every corner of the city. Hundreds more were dispatched from other cities.

Small and remote, Puerto Maldonado seemed an unlikely candidate for a papal visit. Unlike Peru’s bigger cities, its history does not trace to the Andean nation’s colonial past, when Spaniards urbanized and evangelized at the same time.

But Puerto Maldonado represents the gateway to two bluntly contradictory worlds that sit within Francis’ interests. The city provides access to pristine rain forest, jungle lodges and biodiversity research stations, but it is also the entry point to a 21st century gold rush that has not only eroded trees and rivers but also the rule of law.

From above, the mined areas look like orange scars piercing a green blanket made of trees. From the ground, the rise of illegal mining in the region has been accompanied by a rise in violent crime and human trafficking, which Francis called a “devastating assault on life.” Mining also has threatened the territories where indigenous populations live. Tons of mercury, a byproduct of gold mining, have been poured into rivers.

“We the indigenous people are the ones who drink water directly from the rivers and eat its fish,” Mr. Cusurichi said. “City dwellers don’t do that.”

In his message, Francis seemed to agree.

“We have to break with the historical paradigm that views Amazonia as an inexhaustible source of supplies for other countries without concern for its inhabitants,” he said.

Others say mining is facing too much of a stigma in a city that has boomed in the past decade partly because of it. Maria Quispe Ccoca, from Huepetuhe, a town that has come to symbolize the region’s gold rush, said she had hoped the pope would strike a conciliatory note without demonizing miners.

“We need peace, reconciliation, especially in the far-flung towns of our Amazon jungle,” said Ms. Quispe Ccoca, who traveled to Puerto Maldonado to see Francis.

But indigenous leaders say they have had enough.

“We need a proper indigenous economy that is based on a sustainable use of the rain forest,” Mr. Vásquez said. “We need an alternative to hell, and hell is mining.”

By Marcelo Rochabrún – Follow Marcelo Rochabrún on Twitter: @mrochabrun.


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