Signs of the Time: The Amazon Is at the Heart of the Church

“Hear the Cry of the Earth! Hear the Cry of the Poor!” Indigenous and Pastoral Leaders from the Amazon Visit Washington D.C.,

By Scott Wright, Director of the Columban Center for Advocacy and Outreach

From March 15 – 30, the Columban Center for Advocacy and Outreach helped to host a delegation of indigenous and pastoral leaders from the Pan-Amazonian Church Network (REPAM). Indigenous and pastoral leaders from communities in Brazil, Peru, Ecuador and Colombia, shared stories of survival and hope. They were accompanied by Cardinal Claudio Hummes, a Brazilian Franciscan, former archbishop of Sao Paulo Brazil, and a close friend and advisor to Pope Francis.

In the face of growing development and globalization, indigenous and peasant communities in the Amazon region face many threats to their people, environment and way of life. The church plays an important role in accompanying and standing in solidarity with these communities as they work to gain respect for their territories and human rights.

The delegation came to the United States to testify before the Inter-American Human Rights Commission about the destructive impact of oil and gas production, as well as mining and logging on the land and water, and on the biodiversity of their habitats, and on the cultural diversity of their indigenous communities.

The delegation was especially inspiring as it featured several presentations by Cardinal Hummes, who told the newly elected pope: “Don’t forget the poor!” Dom Claudio, as he is known in Brazil, is also the president of the Pan-Amazonian Church Network (REPAM), the network that sponsored the delegation to the United States.

Dom Claudio shared with the people gathered the deep concern that Pope Francis has for the people of the Amazon region, and for the protection of its natural resources. Pedro Barreto, SJ, Archbishop of Huancayo, Peru and Vice-President of REPAM affirmed that sentiment: “The Amazon is at the heart of the Church,” he said, and Pope Francis wants to promote a Church in the Amazon with a face that reflects the cultural and indigenous diversity of the Amazon.

Mauricio Lopez, the Executive Secretary of REPAM, reminded us that all of creation is connected to the Amazon. Much of the earth’s water and oxygen is produced by the rich biodiversity of the region. In that sense, one out of every five glasses of water comes from the Amazon; one out of every five breaths we take comes from the Amazon.

REPAM is a project of the Latin American Bishops’ Conference (CELAM), the religious communities of the continent (CLAR) and the Caritas network of social service agencies. It was created in 2014 in Brazil as a project of the nine countries that compose the Amazon region. REPAM seeks to share the reality of indigenous people in the Amazon, the role of the Catholic Church in the pastoral accompaniment of those communities, and the importance of the Amazon biome to the rest of the planet. In the past half century, the Amazon rainforest has lost 18 per cent of its original forest cover, and up to 50 per cent of the forest has been partially destroyed, due to the destructive impact of the fossil fuel and other extractive industries.

All of this is highlighted by Pope Francis in his encyclical letter on the environment, Laudato Si’, in which he calls on the faithful and people of good will to hear “the cry of the earth” and “the cry of the poor,” and to care for creation and the most vulnerable communities that inhabit it.

Laudato Si’ calls on all people to show reverence for God’s creation, and highlights how our abuse of creation harms the poor.

The Amazon region is home to more than 30 million people; 1.6 million of these people are indigenous and belong to 400 different indigenous groups. Some are isolated tribes who choose to avoid contact with the outside world. Over thousands of years, the indigenous population of the Amazon has managed, protected, and enriched the rainforest while being a fully integrated part of it.