The Amazon crises & the Amazon Synod (October 6-27 2019).

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Rowan Ireland.

Posted 28 November 2019.

This year, several international crises in the Amazon have come to the boil, just as planning and preliminary jousting led up to the Amazon Synod of Catholic Bishops, which concluded in Rome on 27 October.

The three Amazon crises: the ecological, the human, and the political.

The ecological crisis, local and global.

The ecclesial network, which was formed to pool information and bring attention to the importance of a region in crisis and to report on the plight of the indigenous population, has made sure that these basic facts about the Amazon region fed into the Synod: this is a 2.1 million square mile region which is home to 33 million people; it contains a fifth of our planet’s fresh water, and an astounding one third of its forest resources.

Based on facts like these, the network claims that the region comprises ‘the lungs of the world’, so that its irreversible destruction, well under way, is not only a problem affecting the 33 million locals, but the whole world.

The whole world has recently been stirred, for a while at least, by the reports of the annual fires out of control and burning three times as much forest in 2019 than in the year before. But the Network documents remind us that the ecological crisis involves more than fire: it relates to the destructive effects of land clearing for cattle grazing and various other agribusiness enterprises, and to the depredations of small- and large-scale mining.

One of the Indigenous leaders claimed not to be against development in the region, but against prevailing private and government forms of ‘development with destruction’.

The human crisis. Indigenous inhabitants and small farmers.

Destruction is not only ecological, but also includes physical and cultural destruction of Indigenous populations. Whole Indigenous populations have been violently displaced from their lands, forced into “camps with abysmal living conditions”, dying from water contaminated with mercury and other contaminants, and starving as fish and game are depleted.

The political crisis.

There have always been severe political constraints on governments trying to address the two Amazon crises just outlined. But, this year, it is appropriate to speak of an Amazonian political crisis, especially in Brazil, as the new president installed in January 2019, Jair Bolsonaro, set about dismantling already weak legislative and regulatory provisions protecting the Amazon from the incursions of agribusiness and big landowners.

In January, the Guardian newspaper reported: “Hours after taking office, Brazil’s new president, Jair Bolsonaro, has launched an assault on environmental and Amazon protections with an executive order transferring the regulation and creation of new indigenous reserves to the agriculture ministry, which is controlled by the powerful agribusiness lobby”.

And so it has gone through the year, with attacks against and administrative restraints on local and international NGOs devoted to addressing the ecological and human crises of the Amazon. All in the name of sovereignty and national development.

Most recently, we’ve seen the rejection of offers to help with the fires from French President Macron and others, always with the populist mantras that this is our Amazonia, and we know best how to harness its bounty to the cause of national economic development.

The synod

A synod in the Catholic Church is a gathering of bishops concerned to assist and advise the Pope. Under Canon Law, a Synod doesn’t constitute collegial governance, and has no deliberative functions per se. Pope Francis has been encouraging the development of Bishops’ synods into a form consistent with a collegial governance model of the Church, and a form which would include lay people as voting delegates. But he’s yet to win out on all of that.

The Pope called for a synod of the Amazon a couple of years ago. Its title was to be Amazonia: New Paths for the Church & for an Integral Ecology (NB that last phrase). Its episcopal delegates were to be from all the countries of the region – Brazil, Peru, Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia, Guyana, Suriname, and French Guiana.  

Why did Francis choose Amazonia? Not on the basis of some sort of Trumpian impulse. He is, after all, an Argentinian South American, and for a long time he has been urging his Church and all Latin Americans of goodwill to consider their great moral responsibility to care for the whole Amazon basin and its indigenous populations.

Before he was Pope, he urged a turning to the Amazon by his Church at the Aparecida Conference of Latin American Bishops (CELAM) in 2007. The Amazon, as ‘the lungs of the world’, figures often in his famous letter Laudato Si‘. Then, in 2018, Pope Francis made a point on his visit to Peru of spending time, as he put it, listening to voices in Amazonian Peru, in the town of Puerto Maldonado.

The Synod’s integral ecology framing of the Amazon crises

Deploying the notion of integral ecology in regard to Amazonia, Francis declares, “we are not faced with two separate crises, one environmental and the other social, but rather one complex crisis which is both social and environmental”. As a result, “Strategies for a solution demand an integrated approach to combating poverty, restoring dignity to the excluded, and at the same time protecting nature”.

In such an ‘economic ecology’, the protection of the environment is then seen as “an integral part of the development process and cannot be considered in isolation from it”. In turn, Church communities should see it as part of their mission to care for our common home.

Organisers from the Vatican Synod office and the Amazon region consulted for 18 months with hundreds of communities across nine South American nations, as they hosted nearly 300 local, national, and regional assemblies. What are the main social and economic problems experienced in your area? What can you in your Church communities do about the problems? What obstacles, both in religious life and in local politics are encountered in your attempts to develop an integral ecology? These were major questions put to the communities and assemblies.

The results of those consultations — including the controversial recommendation to allow married priests on a regional basis — were eventually condensed and made public in the form of the Synod’s initial working document.

A look at the religious sphere in the Amazonian countries counters any hubris about any Catholic Church salvation of Amazonia. Looking just at Brazil, we see a Catholic Church with vastly reduced influence, replaced by Pentecostal Churches of the Prosperity Theology persuasion. These Churches have remained the core of support for President Bolsonaro.

On the other hand, the consultation process which has produced the Synod documents reveals an astonishing richness of civil society in the Amazon region, linking organised indigenous groups to a range of NGOs.

Predatory commercial incursions into the Amazon

For the bishops, the issues of the Synod are personal. Brazilian Bishop Erwin Kräutler, for example, spoke passionately of the damage done by the building of the Belo Monte hydroelectric power plant in the prelature of Xingu, which he headed from 1981-2015.

“This is not clean energy”, he cried. Huge swaths of forest were destroyed by the dam, rivers ran dry, tons of fish were killed, and the Indigenous people were forced out of their territory into camps with abysmal living conditions.

All the promises about how the project would benefit the people were broken, he said. Decisions were made in Brasilia, the capital of Brazil, without consulting the locals. Economic interests trumped the needs of the people and the environment.

Other bishops spoke of the damage done by mines. Rainforests have been bulldozed to reach precious metals. Rivers have been polluted by toxic chemicals used in the mining process. Fish, on which the Indigenous survived for centuries, were killed off. Aquifers have also been contaminated, and in many places the water is no longer drinkable. Mercury levels have risen dangerously in the blood of local residents.

“The church has been urged to denounce the distortions of predatory, illegal, and violent extractive models, and to support international regulations that protect human, social, and environmental rights”, according to a summary of the sessions produced by the Vatican press office, “because the cry of the pain of the plundered land is the same as that of the peoples who inhabit it”.

Nor has logging or agribusiness treated the territory any better. Trees have been cut down with no concern for sustainability of the forest. Cattle ranchers have burned forests to create grasslands for their herds. The same is true for farmers who practice monoculture after destroying the biodiversity of the rainforest.

Cardinal Reinhard Marx of Munich-Freising, one of the non-Amazonian bishops at the synod, called for “an end to corruption, exploitation, and global indifference” allowing this exploitation to happen. There is a need “to review our actions again and again for the effects they have on nature and on people in the world”, he said. 

Other speakers called for an ecological conversion that would make people perceive destruction of the environment as a grave sin against God, against neighbour, and against future generations. Theological literature, they said, needs to include ‘ecological sins’ with the traditionally known transgressions.

None of these bishops argued against development, or wanted the Amazon preserved as a museum. But they favour sustainable development which protects the biodiversity of the rainforests, and respects the rights of the Indigenous residents. In his 2015 encyclical Laudato Si, the pope speaks of this as “integral ecology.”

Francis responds at the Synod

In his intervention responding to the two days of talks, the Pope spoke about violence in the Amazon, especially violence against women. Bishops had spoken about how Indigenous leaders have been treated as criminals. Thousands have been killed with impunity, because the state has neither the ability nor the will to defend them. The bishops spoke of those killed as martyrs.

Those forced off their lands, as well as criminal gangs and migrants and refugees from civil wars, have fled to the cities in the region, and bishops were also attentive to their needs. Having been uprooted from their traditional lands and culture, these people are especially at risk of poverty, alcoholism, and drug-taking In many ways, their situation is worse than that of those who remain in the forest.

Speakers also called for the creation, where they do not already exist, of diocesan, national, and international networks to support solidarity and social justice for the Indigenous. They also recognised the need for ecumenical and inter-religious cooperation on these issues.

The preliminary and final documents of the Synod can be found on the Vatican website. Pope Francis will prepare a formal document responding to the discussions and recommendations for safeguarding the Amazon and its peoples.

Rowan Ireland has lectured at La Trobe University, and undertaken extensive specialist field work in Brazil, studying interaction between civil societies, religion, and political movements. He is a regular contributor to Social Policy Connections.
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