Amazonia Synod #4: The extinction of peoples and diversity

Picture: Indigenous leaders from across the Amazon Basin met in Bogotá calling for the consolidation of the biggest environmental and cultural corridor in the world (Cesar David Martinez/Avaaz).

This is the fourth Columban article on October's Synod on Amazonia, and the theme is taken from the Synod's preparatory document. The author is a member of the Columban Center for Advocacy and Outreach in Washington DC.

“The expressions of cultural and spiritual richness are signs of hope.”
-Cardinal Pedro Barreto of Huancayo, Peru; Vice President of REPAM

Sirito’s grandfather was a spiritual leader for his indigenous community, whose ancestral land is on the coast of Suriname in the Pan-Amazon region.

When colonial hunters came to their land, Sirito’s grandfather prayed for the sea turtles and all the animals. Later, when the tourists came and polluted the local rivers, Sirito’s grandfather performed a ritual asking for the water’s forgiveness.

These prayers and rituals are unique to Sirito’s community. They offer up a small glimpse of just how diverse the world’s cultural and spiritual traditions are, especially in the Pan-Amazon region.

The Pan-Amazon region is well known for its biodiversity, but it’s equally dense with cultural diversity. The region is home to 2,779,478 indigenous people, who belong to 390 groups-nationalities, including 137 isolated or uncontacted groups.[1] Within the region, 240 languages are spoken ​​belonging to 49 linguistic families.[2]

But the story doesn’t end there. When Sirito’s grandfather eventually died, his spiritual practices died with him. According to Sirito, the younger generations aren’t interested in practicing their ancestral religion because they’re “brainwashed by money.” Those that are interested in keeping the practices alive are afraid to.[3]

If this story illustrates how diverse the world’s cultural and spiritual traditions are, it also illustrates the peril that that diversity is in. Of the indigenous groups that were known to exist in the Pan-Amazon region in 1900, one-third of these groups are now extinct. That is a vast treasure of natural, cultural, and spiritual wisdom lost forever.

We are accustomed by now – perhaps even anaesthetized – to hearing about the growing rate of species extinction. What we hear about less frequently is this faster rate of cultural extinction.

To examine this claim more closely, let’s look at the extinction of languages, since it is language that makes culture, including religion, possible.

The Oxford Research Encyclopaedia of Linguistics notes that a “representative count lists as endangered or critically endangered about 13% of mammals, 6% of birds, 20% of amphibians, and 1% of plants … [In comparison,] 45% of all languages are currently listed as endangered.”

Michael E. Krauss, a linguist and early educator on the problem of endangered languages, warns that “at the rate things are going, the [twenty-first] century will see either the death or the doom of 90% of mankind’s languages.”[4]

It’s true that languages and even cultures can go extinct naturally (as with the Etruscans or the Hittites) in the same way that species can (as with the dinosaurs or the trilobites). However, the magnitude and the rate of both cultural and biological extinctions are greater now than at any other time in human history.

What’s responsible for this? Simply stated, that cultural knowledge isn’t being handed down from one generation to the next.

Here Sirito’s story offers another glimpse. The younger generations of his community are hostile or dismissive of their cultural knowledge (in this case, their spirituality). In other communities though, it could be that the older generations are hesitant (for any number of reasons) to teach their descendants.

In either scenario, the Oxford Research Encyclopaedia of Linguistics identifies four factors that cause this generation-to-generation breakdown.

  • Economic factors
  • Political factors
  • Subjective attitudes (or motivations)
  • Institutional support

Sirito describes the younger generations of his community as “brainwashed by money.” He explained that they give up their heritage in order to blend in with the dominant culture and take advantage of the economic resources they now have easier access to. This economic pressure is also wrapped up with longstanding national stereotypes and prejudices that discriminate against their heritage if they try to hold on to it.[5]

What Sirito’s story illustrates is how these four factors can feed off each other, creating multiple “pressure points” that cause the generation-to-generation breakdown.

As the Oxford Research Encyclopaedia of Linguistics states, language (and by extension cultural) loss “is often not voluntary; it frequently involves violations of human rights, pushed by repression, oppression, prejudice, violence, and at times by ethnic cleansing and genocide.”

In contrast to this alarming trend, over the past several decades the Catholic Church has affirmed the importance of cultural diversity.[6]

Pope St. John XXIII wrote in his 1961 encyclical, Mater et magistra, that the church “does not aim at a uniformity which would only be external in its effects and would cramp the natural tendencies of the nations concerned. Every nation has its own genius, its own qualities, springing from the hidden roots of its being” (181).

Pope St. Paul VI then expanded on this teaching in his 1967 encyclical, Populorum progressio:

Every country, rich or poor, has a cultural tradition handed down from past generations. This tradition includes institutions required by life in the world, and higher manifestations— artistic, intellectual and religious—of the life of the spirit. When the latter embody truly human values, it would be a great mistake to sacrifice them for the sake of the former. Any group of people who would consent to let this happen, would be giving up the better portion of their heritage; in order to live, they would be giving up their reason for living. Christ's question is directed to nations also: "What does it profit a man, if he gain the whole world but suffer the loss of his own soul?'' (40-b)

What these two Popes make clear is that diversity is one way God’s abundant goodness enters the world. As diversity decreases then, so too will our access to God and the life that God provides.

Despite this recent support however, it is important for the Church to acknowledge the periods of its history when it has not celebrated this beautiful multitude. We must not only apologize but also make amends for the times “Christian[s] have denied the Gospel; yielded to a mentality of power, violated the rights of ethnic groups and peoples, and shown contempt for their cultures and religious traditions.”[7]

In particular, the Church’s missionary societies must take a leading role in this reconciliation and restoration, since we were often at the forefront of these contemptuous attitudes. In partnership with indigenous and other historically vulnerable communities, we must reimagine our theology of mission (or “missiology”), one that’s based on solidarity and mutual friendship, and work to communicate it to the wider church.

Specifically, at the heart of the Missionary Society of St. Columban is a commitment to cross-cultural exchange, the belief that God speaks to us through the experiences of others, particularly those who are marginalized or living in poverty. Our faith calls on us to open our hearts to learn from these experiences, to put into practice St. Columban’s famous teaching: “a life unlike your own can be your teacher.”

We should all see the on-going evangelization of the Church on this issue as a return to our scriptural roots. In the Acts of the Apostles, God reveals to St. Peter this truth: “God has shown me that I should not call any person profane or unclean” (Acts 10: 28).

In his first letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul explains what this truth teaches us about living in a multi-faceted society:

Now the body is not a single part, but many. If a foot should say, “Because I am not a hand I do not belong to the body,” it does not for this reason belong any less to the body. Or if an ear should say, “Because I am not an eye I do not belong to the body,” it does not for this reason belong any less to the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? But as it is, God placed the parts, each one of them, in the body as he intended. […] The eye cannot say to the hand, “I do not need you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I do not need you” (1 Cor 12: 14-18,  21).

So how can we slow or reserve the tide of cultural extinction? Any efforts toward this must go deeper than language reclamation projects or public debates about cultural inclusion in the media (though these are certainly important pieces). To truly address this crisis, we must ground ourselves in the Church’s teaching on solidarity.

When we’re in solidarity with others, we commit ourselves to advancing what’s good for them. In other words, we live our lives with the faithful and persistent determination to act as each other’s keepers (Gen 4: 9-10).

As a Columban missionary once remarked, “without solidarity there can be no love, and therefore, no peace and justice.”[8]

How do you put solidarity into practice? It begins with listening.

We must respect indigenous communities as the protagonists of their own destinies. In many cases, they’ve already developed solutions to the problems they face, and their challenge implementing these solutions is that they don’t have the cooperation of governments, corporations, and other power-brokers. As citizens and consumers, we have a responsibility to hold these institutions accountable.

And as individuals, we too have a responsibility to listen to indigenous communities. We can do this by enjoying their art, learning their histories, reading their stories, and, if we can, listening to them in person at community forums or public events. If we have access to immersion or exchange programs, we should take advantage of them.

The goal with any of these activities is not to erase differences but to build bridges, learn with humility, and create lasting friendships.

But friendships are not based on listening alone. They’re also based on action, or else we fall into the trap that the Letter of James describes: “For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks at his own face in a mirror. He sees himself, then goes off and promptly forgets what he looked like” (Jam 1: 23-24).

When acting, as with listening, we take our cues from our indigenous sisters and brothers. If indigenous communities are protesting an extractive project that’s being built on their land, we must protest with them. If they’re advocating to get the public school district to provide classes on their ancestral language, we must advocate too. And, if after thoughtful and open listening there are disagreements on matters like these, then, like with any friendship, we should communicate these disagreements with respect and compassion.

The point of solidarity is that we need to treat each other’s grief and anguish as our own; their joys and hopes are ours as well. Solidarity is about understanding that we’re different parts of the same body. This is how God created the world. Because when Sirito’s grandfather died, ours died too. When his ancestral spirituality was lost, ours was lost too.


An edited version of this article was originally published by Independent Catholic News


[1] The region is home to almost 35 million people in total.

[2] This information is taken from the concept note of “Integral Ecology: a synod response from the Amazon and other essential biomes/territories for the care of our common home,” an international conference organized by the Pan-Amazon Ecclesial Network (REPAM) and hosted at Georgetown University from March 19 – 21, 2019.

[3] Sirito-Yama Aloema is the chair of the foundation of the National Memorial Day of the Indigenous People in Suriname and president of the Organization of Indigenous People in Suriname. He shared this story on March 22, 2019 at an event called “Amazon Leaders Share Hopes for Church Gathering” in Washington, DC, which was hosted by the Inter-Religious Working Group on Extractive Industries and Amazon Watch. What is reproduced here is a paraphrasing of his comments and should not be interpreted as a direct quote, except where explicitly notated.

[4] From his 1992 article, “The world’s language in crisis”

[5] What I’ve presented here is a sketch of the more complicated picture. And, even though similar situations are happening throughout the Pan-Amazon region and the world, each indigenous community’s picture will look a little different.

[6] Gaudium et Spes, 38-c; Laudato Si’, 146

[7] Adapted from St. Pope John Paul II’s “Confession of Sins and Asking for Forgiveness,” delivered on March 12, 2000.

[8] From Fr. Niall O’Brien 1987 autobiography, A Revolution from the Heart