Indigenous leader makes impassioned plea: If we don't do anything for the Amazon, we are all going to disappear
His decree rocked the room.
"If we don’t do anything for Amazon, we are all going to disappear."
Those words from José Gregorio Diaz Mirabal, general coordinator of the Coordination of Indigenous Organizations of the Amazon Basin (COICA) tolled low like the church bells of my youth -- a death toll that frightened me and got my attention.
There was silence.
Referring to the unrest and killings in Quito, Ecuador, Mr. Mirabal talked about "the cry of our brothers and sisters, over 30,000," who had gone there to "protect the earth."
Over the past 10 days, there have been protests that are being violently quashed by authorities, protests that began over President Lenin Moreno's cutting of fuel subsidies and raising of taxes. But for indigenous protesters, it has grown into a much bigger cause -- the government's violent treatment of indigenous people and their land.
What we're asking for is peace, tranquillity, and that the government understand that we, the people and [indigenous] nationalities act peacefully.
Look, even now, we weren't even doing anything and they started launching tear gas. We are women of peace, defenders of our territories and our families.
Even before Mr. Mirabal spoke his ominous decree, he first thanked Pope Francis, "for remembering the Amazon people," and REPAM for being, "the only institutions crying out."
A project of nine Churches in the Amazon region, it is a Catholic Church network that promotes the rights and dignity of people living in the Amazon. It is inspired by Pope Francis and backed by the Latin American Bishops’ Conference, CELAM. The network was founded by Caritas International and national Caritas offices in the Amazon countries, Europe and North America.
REPAM's goals include:
- Enabling indigenous leaders to be heard on the world stage: REPAM led a delegation to the European Union in September 2018 with two indigenous leaders from Brazil detailing rights abuses on their territories. Community leaders spoke at the UN in April 2018 on human rights violations and environmental destruction in Peru and Brazil.
- Creation of a School for the Promotion of Rights to train community leaders and pastoral workers in their human and environmental rights.
- Support for human rights defense cases: REPAM took part as an advocacy agent in a hearing at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) to defend territorial property rights of local communities.
- Dialogue between the Church and indigenous peoples’ communities. REPAM also seeks to reach communities the Church may not easily access.
- Protection for the 137 ‘contactless tribes’ of the Amazon and affirmation of their right to live undisturbed.
- Mappings of the Amazon.
- Communications: radio programs to share the messages of the encyclical Laudato Si; support for 30 indigenous youth communicators in Ecuador.
After thanking Pope Francis and REPAM, Mr. Mirabal spoke passionately saying, "We want to have a say over our lands and we want to stop the violent invasion of the multi-nationals who plunder through mining, mono culture agriculture, and land grabbing."
His voice rang loudly, "We cry against this and our cry is heated."
"Many [of our people] are put in prison, or killed, and we invite the media to disseminate this news," said Mirabal.
He invited the Synod and Pope Francis to help the Amazonian people to speak to the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the European Union, and the governments of the Amazon.
You could hear a pin drop as he spoke. And, I think, hearts opening.
Presente: Sr. Dorothy Stang is at the synod
There is a church down the road from St. Peter's Square that is holding parallel educational and prayer events for those who want to immerse themselves in the realities of the Amazon. I have been there several times to learn and to pray.
Today, I was able to join women religious from Sr. Dorothy Stang's community, the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, who knew Dorothy personally and still live in the region, Para, where she lived.
They fully understand her ongoing presence in the lives of her people and the threat she continues to pose against those profiteers exploit the land and the people.
Sr. Sandra Acaujo dos Santos, SND spoke, and Sr. Rebecca Spires, SND served as the interpreter.
Sr. Sandra explained that Dorothy Stang was a missionary in body, soul, and with all her spirit who had a heart "as big as the world."
She was also an educator and someone who was always open to learning more.
She was also an educator and someone who was always open to learning more so it didn't take long for Dorothy to recognize that the Amazon was at risk.
She was a woman of the Gospel and the church and she was a soft spoken but "tough as nails" defender of her people and the land.
Dorothy also was very involved in empowering women. She was "synodal" always bringing two or three indigenous with her when she confronted someone in the government.
What was really new to me about Dorothy's legacy, is the extent to which the profiteers and the large landowners are still trying to take her down, almost 15 years since her assassination on February 12, 2005.
During the trials of those who murdered Dorothy, their attorneys tried to make the case that she was not really a religious sister, but that she was a spy for the CIA. The women of her community had to affirm, under oath, that she was a woman religious of good standing. Today, there are books being written about her seeking to defame her.
More recently, at a private university, they were planning to have a seminar called, "fake martyrs of liberation theology." Dorothy was to be one of their featured "fake martyrs." After a group of church and indigenous people protested, the seminar was never given.
A plaque that was placed on a tree where Dorothy was murdered is riddled with bullets from landowners and their terrorizers, all efforts to intimidate and destroy the spirit and resolve of the people.
The police chief of the region also wrote a book, "Dorothy Stang: Crime and Vengeance", another attempt to smear her reputation and her power among the people today. A similar book is to be released soon.
As Sr. Sandra explained, these kinds of activities are just what the government wants. They want to do away with indigenous people, farmworkers, and anyone who tries to stop their plans to hand over land to agribusiness and other exploiters of the land.
The Good News is that Dorothy Stang is alive and well in her people (and in the whole church). Annually, they celebrate her Spirit and they continue to gather in her name as they fight for their rights to protect the land they love and the people who care for it.
The Wisdom of Indigenous Women: The Church Has Been Part of the Problem; Women Should be Given Larger Roles in the Church
Barbara J. Fraser of Catholic News Service interviewed Anitalia Pijachi, a member of the Ocaina Huitoto indigenous people from Leticia, Colombia. She is an observer at the Synod of Bishops and said she agreed to participate in the synod to carry a message from the elders of her people to the elder of the Catholic Church, Pope Francis.
Here is the interview and Ms.Pijachi's wisdom.
The first Europeans to arrive in the Amazon were invaders.They never asked permission of mother nature or of the people who lived there. They imposed the cross and the Bible. That caused a great deal of resentment, and in some cases forced indigenous peoples from their territories.
For many indigenous peoples, evangelization meant relocation from their territories to church-run communities known as reductions, as well as the loss of their languages and traditions.
"The pain is alive and still there," she said.
But Pope Francis has started to change that. When he visited Peru in 2018, he asked the Amazonian people what they wanted and how the Church could help.
For Ms. Pijachi, that was a sign of respect because the Pope "asked permission." She then spoke to the elders of her people, who approved of her participation in pre-synod gatherings as long as the church respected indigenous cultures.
"The elders said that, first, the Catholic Church and all churches must recognize us as having a right to our own culture and customs, our own spirituality," said Ms. Pijachi. "They must not impose themselves and change" those beliefs.
The culture and spirituality of Amazonian indigenous people remain strong "as long as we have our territory, our rivers, our sacred places, food and our seeds, the elements of our rituals," Ms. Pijachi said.
She said she sees the synod as an opportunity to talk with "a great friend, a great elder, (Pope) Francis, who can carry our voice" to places where it otherwise would not be heard.
Environmental destruction by extractive industries such as logging, mining and oil companies has been a recurring theme in the synod.
"The people who come to extract (natural resources) don't live there," Pijachi said. "They live in Europe; they live in mansions in the big cities. All they're interested in is money."
The damage to the environment "is a spiritual death and a cultural death" for indigenous people, she said, adding that some whose actions or policies result in destruction are Catholic.
"The same person who received first Communion, who was married in the church, is the one who is cutting down the forest, who does not understand respect for creation," she said.
"The same one who was baptized, who went to confession, who received Communion, who goes to Mass on Sunday is the governor of a state and pays no attention" to how public policies affect people.
"I asked (the bishops), 'Is that important to you?'" she said. Pijachi addressed the synod assembly Oct. 9.
As an indigenous woman, Pijachi said, she also called for church leaders to listen to women.
During the first days of the synod, when she heard bishops refer to the "holy mother church," the words reminded Pijachi of the "maloka," the spacious, round-sided communal building where her people gather for special occasions.
The maloka, she said, "is the woman, the womb that brings her children together, the place of abundance."
Although many synod participants spoke of the important pastoral work done by women, some remained reluctant to give women a larger role, she said.
That is partly because some bishops do not understand the reality of ministry in the Amazon, she added.
A priest must administer the sacrament of the sick, for example, but where there is no priest, parents will ask a religious sister to bless a dying child. She has seen sisters telephone a priest to give the blessing by phone.
"I believe it is very important that the synod give women a place in decision-making (and) the autonomy to act," she said.
"I reminded the men that they do not have to be afraid of us," Pijachi said. "The only way a man can be born is if he comes from a woman. Before he saw the light of day, he was born through a woman's vagina."
"So why, after I gave him life, I who am his mother, why does he reject me and send me off to a corner?" she asked.
In her people's creation story, Pijachi said she told the bishops, "God put man and woman together in the world ... to walk together." If the two are not working in harmony, one indigenous elder told her, "it's like walking with only one leg."
Women and Bishop want more
From Sao Paulo, Brazil, Eduardo Campos Lima of Crux Now wrote an extraordinary article in September that deserves our attention again because it comes from women in Brazil and because a bishop who was just in the press room on Friday wants much more for women.
The suggestion of a need to identify the “type of official ministry that can be conferred on women” included in the working document of the upcoming Synod for the Pan-Amazon region has been controversial, but Bishop Adriano Ciocca Vasino of the Territorial Prelature of São Félix in Brazil thinks the document is “timid” about the role of women in the region, which he says “in many communities is already diaconal.”
“Women are already doing the work of ordained deacons in many places, so I don’t see why such a reality can’t be acknowledged. I believe this is only a matter of power,” Vasino told Crux.
According to him, the Instrumentum Laboris - the official preparatory document of the synod - didn’t stress the importance of women for the Amazonian Church, and the synod must “go back to this subject in order to adequately discuss the female role in the ministries and in defense of the biome.”
According to a story published by Catholic News Agency, in an August letter to his fellow cardinals, German Cardinal Walter Brandmueller expressed concerns about some “nebulous formulations” of the working document, especially the ones regarding the “priestly ordination of the so-called viri probati” (married men) and “the proposed creation of new ecclesial ministries for women.”
However, many of the local clergy and lay missionaries argue the Amazonian reality demands new solutions.
Many remote regions of the rainforest, only reachable by boat, are visited by a priest no more than once a year. Many times, female missionaries are the sole Catholic presence in such communities.
“In the Prelature of São Félix, the missionary women are the ones who work most closely with the indigenous peoples,” Vasino told Crux.
Sister Laura Vicuña Manso has been working with indigenous nations in the Amazon for 23 years. A member of the Brazilian Congregation of the Franciscan Catechist Sisters, Manso said there are numerous women missionaries in the Amazon, frequently woking in bordering areas with marginalized people.
“In most of the territories inhabited by indigenous peoples, rubber tappers and quilombolas [descendants of African slaves who fled captivity], the Church is not institutionally present. But the female missionaries are there,” she told Crux.
Manso remembered that 25 years ago, in the Amazonian Diocese of Rio Branco, nuns usually performed baptisms and served as the official witness at marriage ceremonies.
“Women have been performing these activities for a long time in the Amazonian Church, even though they didn’t have the official acknowledgement. Nowadays, it’s up to the local bishops to let them perform such a ministry or not.”
Pastorally, Catholic women can usually play a more significant role in their communities, since they have been there much longer than a priest.
Manso said it takes a long time to really connect with an indigenous group, in order to understand their needs and to assist them.
“We arrive without great plans and we just listen to them and accompany them. We make ourselves available.”
For the past two years, Manso has been working with the Karipuna, a people that has been under threat from land grabbers in the Amazonian State of Rondonia. “I share the same fate as they do. If they’re attacked, I’ll be attacked.”
Maria Petronila Neto, a lay agent of the Pastoral Land Commission - a committee of the National Conference of the Bishops of Brazil - said without the burden of clerical responsibilities, women can spend more time with people.
“A doctor’s appointment doesn’t change the lives of the communities. When I visit the quilombolas, I always spend a couple of days with them. We celebrate together the word of Jesus, but we also talk about their concrete problems. There should be no separation between faith and real life,” she told Crux.
Many people in the Amazon live in very patriarchal communities, so female missionaries have an advantage when it comes to connecting with indigenous women.
“They tend to see a priest the same way they see their husbands and other men in the community. I usually organize discussions only for women and they open their hearts to me,” said Petronila Neto.
For her, the possible diaconal ordination for women is a necessary step; at the same time, it wouldn’t be enough to solve the problems of the Church in the Amazon.
“The communities like us precisely because we’re different [from the priests]. It wouldn’t be good if we assumed a clericalist role. We need to change our missionary pedagogy,” she said.
Petronila Neto said she wouldn’t like to become a deacon if the Church allows women to do so in the future. “It wouldn’t bring anything new to my work.”
Leila Meurer, a Catholic small farmers association leader in Rondonia, agreeswith her.
“I think new ministries for women are necessary, but the changes would not be automatic. Patriarchy is a very strong layer of society,” she said. Meurer stressed that the role of women in Amazonian Catholicism is deeply connected with the social pastoral activities of the Church.
One reason for this contradictory attitude towards ordained ministry for women in the Amazon region may be the historic role “base ecclesial communities” (CEBs] played in Brazil beginning in the 1970s.
“The CEBs were a church centered in the houses of the people and not in churches,” Vasino explained to Crux. “At home, the women always had a special role.”
The existence of the Church in many Amazonian communities, he added, depends on the active role of women. “And not only in the Amazon, but in the whole world.”
Now those are authentic witnesses! Amen! Amen! Amen!