The Catholic Church and Indigenous Peoples: Unlikely allies in the fight to save the Amazon

From Peru, David Agren reports on efforts toward — and challenges to — reconciliation and climate protection in South America.

By: /
November 1, 2019
Pope and the Amazon
Pope Francis meets with those from Indigenous communities in the Amazon at the Vatican, October 17, 2019. Vatican Media/­Handout via REUTERS

On a day in July in Caballococha, Indigenous artist Santiago Yahuarcani unfurled a painting he called “The Amazon is Dying” for a gaggle for foreign reporters in a thatched-roof gazebo behind the Catholic parish in this oft-lawless Peruvian outpost, deep in the Amazon.

In keeping with its name, the painting portrayed a dystopian Amazon landscape of chainsaws, oil spills and $100 bills falling from the sky — all as shamans try to save the Indigenous population.

“People are not valuing the Amazon,” he said. “Governments only see it as a source for riches, where they can come and get money.”

Yarhuacani, a member of the Huitoto community, is among the many Indigenous people expressing concerns about the future of the Amazon. The rainforest plays an outsize role in the world’s ecology, but is increasingly under threat from deforestation, big agribusiness and extractive industries. All influence Yahuarcani’s art.

He has found few allies in his struggle as wanton development has pushed in and fires raged over the summer. Some in Brazil’s new government have shown a special contempt for ecological preservation and Indigenous peoples. He has found one supporter in his quest to keep his corner of the Amazon from turning completely into a scene from his paintings, however: the Catholic Church.

It’s an institution with which Indigenous peoples share a complicated history, starting with early colonialism and continuing with cases of violence, domination and forced conversions. But in recent years, the church has advanced an agenda of ecology and respect for Indigenous culture, including its customs and spirituality.

“The Catholic Church is the only religion which is interested in the original cultures,” Yahuarcani said, referring to the many non-Catholic missionaries arriving in the Amazon with messages of personal salvation and condemnation for Indigenous cultures as something akin to witchcraft.

His uncle, a Huitoto artisan named Juan Enocaisa, agreed and went further, saying the church “is the institution most interested in defending original peoples.”

A papal warning against exploitation

The Amazon has captured international attention in recent months for the fires raging through the region — and the belligerent response to the blazes from Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro. But it also caught the attention of Pope Francis — the first pope to hail from the Americas — who has promoted an environmental agenda and has put peripheral places like the Amazon at the centre of his papacy. He also called a special council of the church, or synod, on the Amazon, which took place at the Vatican throughout October, raising hopes among Catholics in the region of creating “a church with an Amazon face.”

The synod ended October 27 with Pope Francis warning against exploitation of people in the Amazon and of the “destruction of their cultural identity.” The synod’s final document also included the recommendation of an “Amazonian rite” which would incorporate local traditions and spirituality.

"Conservative Catholics accused the synod of promoting 'pantheism' and 'pagan' practices.”

The Catholic Church’s interest in the Amazon is partially about self-preservation, synod proponents admit, pointing to problems such as priests visiting remote communities sporadically — if at all — and non-Catholic congregations converting many in the population.

“It’s time for change because without it, the church has no future in the Amazon,” said Mauricio López, executive director of the Pan-Amazonian Ecclesial Network (REPAM). The synod “is trying to respond to a concrete reality, especially to Indigenous people, who we are losing.”

Pope Francis has acknowledged the complicated relationship the church has had with Indigenous peoples. In a 2015 speech in Bolivia, he apologized “not only for the offense of the church herself, but also for crimes committed against the native peoples during the so-called conquest of America.”

Yet the synod proved controversial for conservative Catholics, who expressed alarm with a proposal — approved by the recent synod — to address the shortage of priests by ordaining local men of “proven virtue,” or “elders” in Indigenous communities, says Father Ron MacDonell, a Canadian missionary priest and linguist based in Boa Vista, Brazil.

“Celibacy is not a value that the Indigenous recognize or understand culturally,” he said.

Conservative Catholics, who have mused of a schism in the church and publicly opposed Pope Francis, also accused the synod of promoting “pantheism” and “pagan” practices. Such is the resistance that an Amazonian statue of a pregnant Indigenous woman representing life was stolen from a Roman church earlier this month and thrown in the Tiber River.

“Since 1492 it has been about racism — the idea that only Europe can have safe customs, safe spirituality, that all things in America [the continent] are suspicious just because they are not European,” said Rodolfo Soriano-Núñez, a Mexican sociologist and church expert, who attributed synod opposition to “anti-Francis” agendas.

For his part, Pope Francis rebuked critics of incorporating Indigenous customs in the church, saying on the synod’s opening day, “I was pained to hear, right here, a sarcastic comment about a pious man with feathers on his head who brought an offering. Tell me: what’s the difference between having feathers on your head and the three-peaked hat worn by certain officials in our dicasters?”

A reconciliatory church?

The divisions within the church over the Amazon, and those that remain between the church and Indigenous communities, reveal the challenges in finding long-term climate allies, especially in more remote areas. They also reflect the need for more inclusive change to take hold in historical and cultural institutions such as the Catholic Church.

Many Catholics in the Amazon are already attempting to create a church with more Indigenous customs. They promote celebrating the Eucharist in malocas — similar to longhouses — incorporating traditional beverages made from plants like yucca into the liturgy, as well as the burning of local plants such as tobacco or coca in place of incense. These Catholics would also like to see a church that listens more, preaches less and trades traditional evangelism for “intercultural dialogue” — with missionaries spreading messages of human rights and ecology and providing support for communities often abandoned by the state or facing dispossession.

"The Indigenous see that their rights, the victories they’ve won since 1985, are now on hold.”

REPAM says it consulted widely for the development of the synod document, which MacDonell says “talks about unlearning colonialism, unlearning practices, even within the church liturgical practices, and opening up to new cultural practices.” REPAM received input from 87,000 individuals and carried out consultations across the nine countries in the Amazon basin — often avoiding parishes and meeting Indigenous communities on their terms. A February consultation in the outskirts of Leticia, Colombia, occurred in a maloca. The discussion didn’t dwell on the past, but rather focused on “walking together,” said Anitalia Pijachi, a member of an Ocaina community and REPAM representative.

Speaking with some in attendance, it was clear not all Catholics at the synod consultation were comfortable with the setting and incorporation of Indigenous practices. The road to reconciliation is long. MacDonell, a member of the Toronto-based Scarboro Missions, says it’s hard to compare the colonial experiences of Canada and the countries in the Amazon. But Canada is further along in at least trying to reconcile with First Nations, he says, and the discourse in Canada has advanced in recent years.

“The Indigenous peoples in Canada have been recognized as First Nations and that has never happened here in Brazil. Even to move from being called ‘tribes’ to ‘Indigenous peoples’ has been a major attitude change, a paradigm shift,” he said. “The Indigenous [in Brazil] see that their rights, the victories they’ve won since 1985 [when the military dictatorship ended] are now on hold, and they have to defend those rights.”

Brazil’s government under Bolsonaro — which has blasted the synod — has pushed an anti-Indigenous agenda, and has vowed not to recognize any new Indigenous territories. It has scrapped environmental protections and has transferred authority for regulating the country’s Indigenous territories to the agricultural ministry. Deforestation has surged, meanwhile, along with land invasions.

“The problem is bad and is getting worse,” said Cristina Larrain, a Chilean lay missionary working with the Indigenous Missionary Council (CIMI) — an organization established by Brazil’s bishops to protect Indigenous populations against genocidal policies during the military dictatorship.

“The government is allowing more land invasions,” she said. “It’s an extreme right that wants to develop [the land], and Indigenous people impede that.”

In the municipality of Atalaia do Norte, gateway to the Javari Valley in Brazil — created to keep out intruders and home to 16 communities living in voluntary isolation — the government’s Indigenous institute, FUNAI, has a small team of around 18 employees to monitor a protected area of 8.5 million hectares. Budgets are stretched so thin that there’s no money to buy antidote for snake venom, according to those working with CIMI.

Increased incursions are already occurring, say residents of the area — whose main priority is keeping existing Indigenous territories intact.

“There’s no state, no police, no soldiers — and if there are, they’re allied with these mafias,” said Cloves Maruba, a leader with the Maruba community, referring to groups exploiting the region, such as timber cutters and illegal miners. “All of [Bolsonaro’s] policies are in favour of people violating our territory.”

That leaves the Catholic Church as one of the few groups working with the residents there.

Maruba considers his people to be Catholic “due to the conquest,” but called the land and water “the basis of our spirituality.” As for the current efforts of the church? “Pope Francis strengthens the church’s defence of Indigenous people’s lands,” he said.

The author travelled to the tri-border region of the Amazon with support from the Pan-Amazonian Ecclesial Network (REPAM) and the CIDSE, an international alliance of development agencies that includes The Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace.