By Inés San Martín, Special to The Tablet
PUERTO MALDONADO, Peru – In the middle of Peru’s Amazon jungle, Pope Francis on Friday delivered what could be considered a “seamless garment” speech – stressing ecology and issuing a strong appeal for protection of the Amazon region, which he said is not an “inexhaustible source of resources,” while also insisting that human life has equal, if not greater, value.
Pope Francis said he wanted to affirm “a whole-hearted option for the defense of life, the defense of the earth and the defense of cultures.”
The term “seamless garment,” associated with the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago, refers to an approach to the sanctity of life stressing opposition to abortion and attempts to redefine the family in tandem with other social justice issues, such as defense of the poor and the environment.
“The defense of the earth has no other purpose than the defense of life,” Pope Francis said during his first speech in Peru after arriving Thursday night.
“We know of the suffering caused for some of you by emissions of hydrocarbons, which gravely threaten the lives of your families and contaminate your natural environment,” he said.
Yet, the pope warned, there is also an equally worrying “distortion” of certain policies, which aim to conserve nature without considering the men and women who live in the area. There are movements, the pope told a stadium with some 4,000 people from the Amazonian region, trying to preserve the forest that also “hoard great expanses of woodland and negotiate with them, leading to situations of oppression for the native peoples.”
Saving the trees and wildlife, in other words, is not good enough, if the people who live in the region are not equally protected.
On the day of the annual March for Life in Washington, D.C., Pope Francis also delivered a strong pro-life message.
Speaking about the family and how it’s contributed to keeping cultures alive, he said that today there are “ideological forms of colonialism, disguised as progress, that slowly but surely dissipate cultural identities and establish a uniform, single… and weak way of thinking.”
“Ideological colonization” is a papal shorthand for attempts by Western governments and NGOs to compel impoverished nations to accept measures such as contraception, abortion and gay marriage as a condition of development assistance.
Referring out loud to what was originally a footnote in his prepared text, Pope Francis also spoke of the need to “raise our voices” against pressure in favor of the sterilization of women, which, he said, at times happens without their knowledge.
That’s a highly sensitive issue in Peru, since former President Alberto Fujimori launched a family planning program in 1996 that involved the sterilization of thousands of women. Justified at the time by a desire to reduce poverty, the program stirred controversy when many women, mostly members of the country’s Amazonian indigenous groups, reported that they had been sterilized without their consent.
In general, the pope presented a comprehensive case for the defense of life, both natural and human, in the Amazon.
“Praise to you, Lord, for your marvelous handiwork in your Amazonian peoples and for all the biodiversity that these lands embrace!” Pope Francis said Friday.
The pope was paraphrasing a prayer by St. Francis of Assisi, “Canticle to brother son and sister moon,” which gave the title to the pope’s first-ever encyclical on the environment, Laudato Si’.
The Argentine pontiff has long called for greater protection of the environment, insisting that climate change is at least partially man-made.
“This song of praise is cut short when we learn about, and see, the deep wounds that the Amazon and its peoples bear,” Pope Francis said.
Prior to the pope’s remarks, he heard from indigenous persons urging a defense of the peoples and cultures of the Amazon.
María Luzmila Bermeo told Francis that forests have been attacked, fish killed, trees cut down, animals hunted, and rivers polluted by mining, gold and oil extraction.
“Now we do not have many natural resources,” she said, adding that it seems “we don’t care. We don’t respect nature. Rather, we pollute all nature.”
Pollution, she said, has heavily impacted the Amazon, which today suffers the effects of climate change.
“What can we do? The authorities can help conserve the forests, to keep our environment clean and breathe pure air, like when I was little,” she said.
Arguably, the pope said, the Amazon’s peoples have never been so threatened in their own land, which is under pressure on many fronts, including what he called a “neo-extractivism, and the pressure being exerted by great business interests that want to lay hands on its petroleum, gas, lumber, gold and forms of agro-industrial monocultivation.”
In recent years, the Peruvian Amazon has been plagued by illegal mining that damages the delicate ecosystem. Yet this practice, the pope said, also leads to another “devastating assault on life”: human trafficking, slave labor and sexual abuse.
“Violence against adolescents and against women cries out to heaven,” the pope said.
“Where is your brother or sister who is enslaved? Let us not look the other way. There is greater complicity than we think. This issue involves everyone!” he continued, quoting his own document, Evangelii Gaudium.
Francis also referred to the “most vulnerable of the vulnerable,” meaning what are called “Indigenous Peoples in Voluntary Isolation,” who went into seclusion in inaccessible reaches of the forest to “live in freedom.”
“Their presence reminds us that we cannot use goods meant for all as consumerist greed dictates,” he said. “Limits have to be set that can help preserve us from all plans for a massive destruction of the habitat that makes us who we are.”
Puerto Maldonado is a steamy rainforest city often used as the gateway to deeper, more remote parts of the Amazon jungle and a jumping-off point for eco-tourists who want to explore the natural riches of Tambopata national park.
There are over 50 ethnic groups living in the Peruvian Amazon, and representatives from several of them traveled to participate in the gathering with Francis. Also present were bishops from eight of the nine countries that make up the Pan-Amazonian region. Last year, the pontiff called for a 2019 synod of bishops to focus specifically in this region, and some on the ground perceived this meeting as a prelude of the one to come.
One of the organizers of the event told The Tablet on Thursday that many had to “travel by boat, then go into the mud, then on another boat” to get to Puerto Maldonado, in the Madre de Dios region.
Respecting and recognizing the native peoples, acknowledging their cultures, languages, traditions, rights and spirituality is key, and can only be done with the indigenous being the “principal dialogue partners, especially when large projects affecting your land are proposed.”
The Amazonian people, the pope said, are not an obstacle, but a cry against a style of life that ignores its own real cost. Instead, indigenous peoples are a “living memory” of the mission God has entrusted to humanity: “the protection of our common home.”
On another topic, the pope said that education, which helps create a culture of encounter, must be a priority of the state, yet respectful of their ancestral wisdom and bilingual.
Pope Francis closed his remarks praising the missionaries who devoted their entire lives to the people of the Amazon and the protection of the region.
“Do not yield to those attempts to uproot the Catholic faith from your peoples,” Pope Francis said. “The Church is not alien to your problems and your lives, she does not want to be aloof from your way of life and organization. We need the native peoples to shape the culture of the local churches in Amazonia.”
Pope Francis has a busy day ahead. After meeting with the indigenous peoples, he was scheduled to encounter the local population at an education center, and then head to the Hogar Principito, home to some 35 orphan children.
He will then have lunch with representatives of the Amazonian peoples, and then head back to Lima, where he’ll address the local civil authorities and have a private meeting with President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski.