Last week millions of people took to the streets in protest in 185 countries to underscore the urgency of the climate crisis that is wreaking havoc across many parts of the world, while extensive fires in the Amazon are expanding destruction of tropical forests whose protection is essential to preserve our planet from catastrophic climate change.
Despite the serious damage caused by the fires, the indigenous people who live in the Amazon rainforests have received little attention. The ancestral territories of some 400 different indigenous peoples extend across the nine countries of the Amazon. For these peoples, their territory — the land, forests, natural assets and animals that live there, as well as the waters that originate and run through the area — is more than their home and livelihood. It sustains their culture, feeds their spirit and constitutes their “common home”. The massive fires destroy all of that.
As this horrific tragedy is occurring, preparations are underway for the Synod of Bishops for the Pan-Amazon Region, which will take place at the Vatican October 6–27. Since Pope Francis convened the Special Assembly of the Synod two years ago, the Catholic church and the Pan-Amazonian Ecclesial Network (REPAM) have undertaken an extensive process of direct listening across the Amazon region. Through assemblies, thematic fora, and consultations, the voices of those living in the Amazon — indigenous leaders and residents, laity and secular groups as well as religious communities and church leaders — have informed the working document for the Synod, “The Amazon: New Paths for the Church and for Integral Ecology”.
The document affirms that:
“Life in the Amazon is threatened by environmental destruction and exploitation and by the systematic violation of the basic human rights of the Amazon population. In particular, the violation of the rights of indigenous peoples, such as the right to territory, to self-determination, to the demarcation of territories, and to prior consultation and consent. According to the communities participating in this synodal listening, the threat to life comes from economic and political interests of the dominant sectors of today’s society, especially resource-extractive companies…” [paragraph 14]
Although the Synod itself is a religious event, it can also be seen as an appeal to the entire world to listen and learn from the peoples of the Amazon, to recognize their rights as an essential step toward ensuring the health and well-being of the entire planet.
Guardians of the forest
For centuries, indigenous peoples — with their ancestral wisdom and traditional knowledge — have been the guardians of the forests. Indigenous territories have much lower rates of deforestation than other comparable tropical forest areas, and it is widely recognized that tenure security of indigenous territories results in more sustainable management of lands and forests.
This Synod, which will address issues highlighted in Laudato Si, “can be an important sign of the effective response promoting justice and the defense of the dignity of the people most affected,” according to Cardinal Barreto, one of the three delegate presidents appointed for the Special Assembly of the Synod. It is occurring during a time of climate emergency and of severe danger for the survival of the peoples of the Amazon.
Increasing pressures on indigenous lands
Increasing pressure on the Amazon is the result of expansion of the agricultural frontier for extensive cattle farming and large-scale monoculture and timber plantations, increase of oil, gas and mining operations, and construction of large-scale infrastructure projects such as big damns and roads.
This has exacerbated inequalities in the Amazon and highlights an unjust paradox: enormous wealth in the form of resources generated by nature, which should be considered as common goods, are extracted from land populated by indigenous peoples, Afro-descendent and small farmer communities who have the highest rates of inequality and poverty. Women and youth are the most adversely affected.
All this has been made possible under the banner of promoting economic growth, justifying the weakening of environmental regulations and violating internationally-recognized rights of indigenous peoples. It has resulted in adverse effects on indigenous peoples’ territories and protected areas, enriching the few who hold power and who use that power to ensure policies that further increase their wealth and power.
In this context, the massive fires in the Amazon should come as no surprise. Analysis of satellite images has detected fires in forest areas that border agriculture and livestock farming. This tragedy should move all of us to take action to protect the Amazon as well as its peoples. In response to outrage from their populations and from around the world, government leaders of seven countries in the Amazon recently signed the Leticia Pact, though doubts remain as to whether the actions they agreed to can move forward and have impact, or whether they will simply remain as good intentions.
Unlike the pact among governments, which did not address the causes of the problem, the working document for the Synod recognizes that:
“The Amazon is being contested on several fronts. One of them responds to great economic interests eager for oil, gas, wood, gold, agro-industrial monocultures, etc. Another is an ecological conservationism that cares about the biome but ignores the Amazon’s peoples. Both threats injure the land and the peoples.” [paragraph 45]
Protecting indigenous land rights is protecting the environment
Real, long-term change happens from the bottom up, generated by active citizens, rather than from the top down. This Assembly of the Synod makes a contribution to generating such change, as its fundamental point of departure is “the fact that the indigenous peoples see their territories threatened by interests that exploit them, and often deny their right to their own land,” according to REPAM. Bishops from around the world will be joined in their deliberations at the Synod by a number of Amazonian indigenous leaders.
This Synod will hopefully be a spark that generates widespread actions at all levels that will lead to full recognition and respect for the territorial rights of indigenous peoples and communities in the Amazon, and at the same time will stop deforestation and protect the environment in the entire Amazon rainforest. This spark is needed to push governments to fulfill their commitments and to push companies to respect human rights and the environment.
It is time for all to recognize that the future of the Amazon depends on the future of the peoples of the Amazon. Ensuring the territorial rights of indigenous peoples is an urgent and essential imperative.
Watch: Learn more about Oxfam’s work with indigenous people and the impact of the Amazon forest fires.