The Prophetic Commitment of the Church in the Amazon and Integral Human Development

September 1, 2019 — Last month, Fr. Michael Czerny, recently named cardinal, published in L'Osservatore Romano a text on the upcoming Synod of Bishops for the Pan-Amazon region, prophetic words given the intensity of the fires that are destroying this region today, threatening the living environments of many Indigenous peoples. "We cannot separate the social and the natural, we must not separate the environmental from the pastoral," writes Fr. Czerny. Below the full text:

The Prophetic Commitment of the Church in the Amazon and Integral Human Development

Like the Good Samaritan, the Church wishes to act in the Amazon on the Gospel commitment to  compassion  and  justice.  It  must  observe,  understand,  then  reach  out  and  act. This is the reason why our Holy Father Francis convoked a Synod of Bishops for the pan-Amazon region. With the help of the Synod, it will be possible to introduce pastoral and environmental initiatives in the Amazon and there by affirm the modes of being the Church that such actions entail.

This readiness for commitment is usefully synthesized in the final chapter of the Instrumentum Laboris (IL) which sums up the challenges and hopes of a prophetic Church in the Amazon basin. The horizon within which it moves, without which there can be no justice and no life, is the fact that “everythingis  connected”  as  Pope  Francis  explained  in  Laudato  si’  (138). The  social  and  the  natural  cannot, the  environmental  and  the  pastoral  must  not  be  separated.  Dangerous  compartmentalizations  – intellectual  and  spiritual,  economic  and  political  –  have  put  human  life  in  jeopardy  on  Earth,  the common home of humanity.

The  upcoming  Synod  is  committed  to  helping  heal  the  breaches  in  a  part  of  the  world  where  the consequences of contemporary misconceptions and pernicious practices are particularly serious. It is time for the Church to grapple with this challenge. Hence the words of the Synod theme, “New paths for the Church and for integral ecology”, and the title of the final chapter of the Instrumentum Laboris, “The prophetic role of the Church and integral human promotion”. Both speak about dimensions or dynamics  which  must  go  together  in  the Church’s  mission:  pastoral  ministries,  human  promotion, integral ecology, new paths and prophetic roles. Like  Laudato  si’  with  its  extensive  historical,  scientific,  economic  and pastoral  exposition,  the  IL also provides a lengthy analysis of current conditions in the Amazon. In the words of Pope Francis:“Amazonia is being disputed on various fronts... There is neo-extractivism and the pressure being exerted  by  great  business  interests  that  want  to  lay  hands  on  its  petroleum,  gas,  wood,  gold  and forms of agro-industrial monocultivation”.[1] The IL adds: “The manifold destruction of human and environmental life, the diseases and pollution of rivers and lands, the felling and burning of trees, the massive loss of biodiversity, the disappearance of species (more than one million of the eight millionanimals and plants are at risk), constitute a brutal reality that challenges us all. Violence, chaos and corruption are rampant. The territory has become a space of discord and of extermination of peoples, cultures and generations” (23).

The  conditions  in  the  Amazon  have  various  causes.  There  are  local  and  multinational  interests which support and encourage public or private investments at the cost of devastating impacts on the Amazon’s environment and its inhabitants. However, a key starting point is that indigenous peoples see their territories threatened, undermined by interests that exploit them, and they are often denied title to their own lands.

This  is  in  contravention  of  international  law  and  conventions.  “The  United  Nations  Declaration  on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (adopted on 13 September 2007), to which the pope has referred on  several  occasions,  contains  rights  as  important  as  the  right  to  self-determination,  by  virtue  of which indigenous peoples determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development (art. 3). In the exercise of their self-determination, indigenous peoples have the right to autonomy in matters relating to their internal and local affairs (art. 4). And article 6 of the1989 Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention 169 of the International Labour Organization (ILO) concerning Indigenous and Tribal Peoples in Independent Countries gives rise to their right not to be affected by legislative or administrative measures which may affect them directly without first being consulted ‘in good faith and in a manner appropriate to the circumstances’ in order to obtain their free, prior and informed consent”.[2]

In  fact,  it  is  precisely  the  disparity  of  forces  and,  in  many  cases,  the  flagrant  disrespect for  constitutional  rights,  as  well  as  the  imposition  of  a  so-called  model  of development,  that are  continually  causing  great  social  upheavals  in  many  indigenous  communities:  vulnerability, deteriorated relationships, migration, unemployment, violence and hunger. The lack of recognition, demarcation and title in the territories (a sine qua non for personal security, community stability and cultural survival) has led to an alarming number of martyrs in the Amazon. “To question power in the  defense  of  territory  and  human  rights  is  to  risk  one’s  life,  to  step  onto  the  path  of  cross  and martyrdom” (IL 145).

The IL gives the example of 1,119 indigenous people murdered between 2003 and 2017 and adds abroad explanation, “for defending their territory”.[3] In fact, these murders are sometimes attributed to circumstances of drunkenness, domestic violence or local disputes. In general, though, they should be understood as consequences of environmental as well as social and structural causes, problems flowing from the lack of demarcation of the territories and their invasion by powerful outside interests.

The Church in its pastoral role works closely with victims, and in its prophetic role opposes abuses. It is called to be “the advocate of justice and defender of the poor”, as Pope Benedict XVI reminded the Aparecida Conference in his opening address (Aparecida 395). The Church’s presence is, in reality, “a prism through which one can identify the fragile points of the response of our States and societies as such to urgent situations and over which, independently of the Church, there are concrete and historical  debts  that  we  cannot avoid”.[4] “Seeing  with  a  critical  conscience”  as  the  Church  does wherever it ministers, it also observes “a series of behaviours and realities of the indigenous peoples that go against the Gospel” (IL 144).

The  Supreme  Pontiffs  beginning  with  Pope  Leo  XIII  in  the  1890s,  Vatican  II  and  Catholic  Social Teaching  all  provide  clear  guidance  on  how  the  Church  should  react.  In response  to  a  dominant model  of  society  that  produces  exclusion  and  inequality  and  an  economic  model  which  kills  the most vulnerable and destroys our common home, the mission of the Church includes a prophetic commitment to the dignity of every human being without distinction, and to justice, peace, and the integrity of creation.

As  Pope  Francis  states  so  clearly,  “I  believe  that  the  central  issue  is  how  to  reconcile  the  right to  development,  both  social  and  cultural,  with  the  protection  of  the particular  characteristics  of indigenous peoples and their territories. [...] In this regard, the right to prior and informed consent should  always  prevail”.[5]  At  Puerto  Maldonado  he said,  “I  consider  it  essential  to  begin  creating institutional expressions of respect, recognition and dialogue with the native peoples, acknowledging and recovering their native cultures, languages, traditions, rights and spirituality”.[6]

In the Amazon, the good living (buen vivir) of the indigenous people depends on the just demarcation of their territories and on scrupulous respect for the same. Politics, in the words of St John Paul II, “is the use of legitimate authority in order to attain the common good of society”.[7] The basic political task is to assure a just social order, and the Church “cannot and must not remain on the sidelines in  the  struggle  for  justice”  (EG  183,  cf.  Deus  caritas  est,  28).  So  the  Church  is  at  the  indigenous people’s side in the care of their territory.

With  all  these  great  difficulties  and  dynamics,  threats  and  promises  in  our  minds  and  also  in our  prayer,  let  us  recall  the  words  of  Pope  Francis  which  serve  to  open this  final  chapter  ofthe  IL.  “From  the  heart  of  the  Gospel  we  see  the  profound  connection  between  evangelization and  human  advancement,  which  must  necessarily  find expression  and  develop  in  every  work  of evangelization” (EG 178).

Michael Czerny S.J.

Under Secretary, Migrants and Refugees Section

Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development

Special Secretary, Synod for the Pan-Amazon

[1] Pope Francis, Meeting with Indigenous People of the Amazon, Coliseo Regional Madre de Dios (Puerto Maldonado, Perú), 19 January 2018.

[2]  Pedro  Barreto  S.J.,  “Sínodo  de  la  Amazonía  y  derechos  humanos:  Pueblos,  comunidades  y Estados en diálogo,” Civiltà Cattolica 2019

[3]  Cf.  Consiglio  Indigenista  Missionario,  CNBB,  Brazil,  “Relatório  de  violência  contra  os  Povos Indígenas no Brasil – Dados de 2017”, pp. 84ff. This report is presented by Dom Roque Paloschi - 4 -“Na ausência da Justiça, a violência cotidiana devasta as vidas dentro e fora das terras indígenas”, Brasília 2018, p. 9.

[4] Pedro Barreto S.J., art. cit.

[5] Pope Francis, Address to III Global Meeting of the Indigenous Peoples' Forum of the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), 15 February 2017.[

[6] Pope Francis, Meeting with Indigenous People of the Amazon, Coliseo Regional Madre de Dios (Puerto Maldonado, Perú), 19 January 2018.

[7]  John  Paul  II,  Address  for  the  Jubilee  of  Government  Leaders,  Members  of  Parliament  and Politicians, 4 November 2000, § 2.

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