Indigenous, accompanied by church, fight for rights in Amazon rainforest

IMAGE: CNS photo/Tyler Orsburn

By Barb Fraze

WASHINGTON (CNS) — The railroad runs more than 550 miles
through 27 communities in the Brazilian Amazon. It runs so close to people’s
homes that the houses have cracked, and some people have hearing loss.

The trains carry minerals out of the rainforest to the
coast. But the tracks separate families from their schools, health centers and
fields and, sometimes, the trains stop on the tracks.

Sister Jakelyn Vasquez, a member of the Oblate Sisters of
the Sacred Heart of Jesus who works with communities along the tracks in
Maranhao and Para states, said the trains often sit for hours, sometimes an entire day.

In early March, a 336-car train stopped on the tracks in one
of the villages. Sister Vasquez told Catholic News Service that the closest ramp to
cross over the tracks was more than four miles away. So, as local residents
sometimes do, a mother and her baby climbed under the train to cross — and the
train began to move.

The mother lost her fingers; the baby lost an arm. It was not
the first such accident, said Sister Vasquez. Many people have been run over by
the train, she said, and they receive no financial compensation from the
multinational company than runs the trains and mines — “just the

Sister Vasquez was one of about a dozen members of the
Pan-Amazonian Church Network that visited Washington in March. The group, which
included indigenous leaders who testified before the Inter-American Commission
on Human Rights, also met with church and government leaders and the public to
help spread the word about what members describe as injustices and human rights

Brazilian Cardinal Claudio Hummes, president of the
Pan-Amazonian Church Network, or REPAM, as it is known by its Spanish acronym,
told CNS that the Amazon “is at the center of the many ecological issues that
are debated in our time, and climate change is one of them.”

The cardinal said that Pope Francis’ 2015 encyclical,
“Laudato Si’, on Care for Our Common Home,” made it clear that the
church “must participate in the defense of the Amazon.”

“It is the poor who are going to be the most affected
by climate and environmental problems,” he added.

The cardinal told an audience at The Catholic University of
America March 23 that when Pope Francis met with the Brazilian bishops in 2013,
the pope emphasized that the Amazon was at “a decisive moment for the

“And that’s why the church can’t get it wrong in the
Amazon,” Cardinal Hummes said. Although some people are looking to exploit
the Amazon, others are looking to protect it.

“It’s one of the great lungs of the planet,” he
said, noting that indigenous people and small-scale farmers who have been
living in the region have the wisdom to help keep the planet breathing.

The church in the Amazon must “be very prophetic and
very brave,” which means denouncing bad projects and finding ways for
sustainable development, he said.

Part of that means teaching communities to stand for
themselves. Mauricio Lopez, executive secretary of the Pan-Amazonian Church
Network, said the organization has had workshops and seminars in which
“Laudato Si'” was presented. He emphasized that the church is not
looking to solve the problems for local communities, but to accompany them.

At one public meeting in Washington, indigenous community
leaders from Colombia and Peru cited constitutions, peace agreements and
international documents to illustrate government violations of their rights.

Rosildo da Silva, Chauwandawa leader from Brazil, said the
government is always changing the laws and promising small-scale farmers that
things will get better.

“This is a joke,” he said at a March 21 forum.
“We cannot trust them,” because with one hand they offer something,
but the other hand does something different.

Marco Martinez Quintana, who works with family farmers in
southeastern Colombia, said one day a man showed up with papers from the
National Agency of Land and claimed he had permission to use about 20 families’
land to produce palm oil. Already, he said, thousands of hectares in the region
have been committed to palm oil.

These small farmers, on the edge of the Amazon, use a
process he described as “the edible forest.”

“It’s kind of a supermarket in the jungle,” he
said. The farmers plant diverse crops that produce food. Once they have fed
their cattle, they trade with farmers who do not have room to grow animal feed.
The process builds community, he said.

He also spoke of a Colombian government decree signed with
the U.S. government that says the local farmers cannot use their own seeds, but
must purchase genetically modified seeds — and all the chemicals that go along
with them.

“Sovereignty is when we are able to sow our own seeds
and grow our own food,” he said.

Cardinal Hummes said he understands the need for the country
to grow economically, but he added that agribusiness has had a serious impact on
the environment. For instance, new highways allow for goods to be moved and
sold, but if they are overused, they can lead to destruction of the forest.

He also said there is a public perception that the
rainforest does not produce anything, that “in order to produce and be
productive, you need to remove the forest.”

The challenge “is to demonstrate that the forest as it
is, the trees as they are — the forest, the water, the biodiversity, can offer
more … wealth than the forest that is taken out,” or mined and farmed on
a large scale, he said.

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Follow Fraze on Twitter: @BFraze.

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