Amazonia Synod 11: Commodifying Amazonia
The first time I connected with the Amazon was a few months after beginning work with the Columban Center in Washington DC. Columban Fr Peter Hughes had traveled from Peru to Washington DC (or the ‘other jungle’) to lay the groundwork for the upcoming visit of REPAM, the Pan-Amazonian Ecclesial Network. Created in 2014, REPAM is a transnational network created to respond to the challenges facing the people of the Amazon and their natural environment.
A year after Fr Peter’s visit, a group of indigenous and pastoral leaders from the Amazon visited Washington DC as part of REPAM’s school of human rights. We heard many stories of destruction and corruption, but one in particular epitomised for me the deep impacts of the extractive industries in the Amazon.
Zebelio Kayap is an indigenous leader representing the Awajún Wampis people of Peru. Zebelio’s community is the site of an oil extraction project that the government of Peru had approved without the prior consultation of the community. The drilling contaminated the water in the surrounding rivers, which resulted in the reduction of fish for subsistence, more digestive diseases in children, and division in the community.
The spiritual practices of the Awajún Wampis people also require the brewing and drinking of a specific type of tea. They had been collecting their water for this from the river that was now contaminated, and so Zebelio and his community were effectively denied the ability to practice their spirituality. Not only had this extraction project threatened their food and water sources, it stripped them of their identity as a people.
As I listened to Zebelio’s experience, a whole new world emerged. He emphasised that contaminated water in the Amazon was a problem for the whole world, not just the Awajún Wampis. As someone living half a world away, my very being was linked to this place I had never seen. Not only does the Amazon provide air for me to breathe and water for me to drink, it acts as a stabilising force for the world in the face of an impending climate crisis.
As the world’s largest tropical rainforest, the Amazon rainforest accounts for 40% of the world’s tropical forest. But even though it is located in South America, what happens in the Amazon carries implications for the entire planet. The dense rainforest acts as a carbon ‘sink’, storing up to a quarter of the carbon dioxide human society emits every year. It also is a major source of water globally as it influences the water cycle, creating a ‘river in the sky’.
In addition to ecological importance, the Amazon is incredibly diverse – not only does it contain 1 in 10 of the known plant and animal species on earth, it is also home to around three million indigenous people representing 390 groups/nationalities. The health of the Amazon rainforest and the well-being of its indigenous inhabitants are inextricably linked. It is not just the place that they call home, but the foundation of their spirituality.
Unfortunately, caring for this ecological and cultural beauty is not what motivates economic interests in the region. For decades, global corporations, federal and local governments, and international financial institutions have used the Amazon as a location for industries such as massive-scale agriculture, mining projects, and logging. Such industries have scarred this sacred place that selflessly provides for us, whether we know it or not. As Fr Peter put it, “the Amazon is first link in the production chain that fuels consumer culture”. Here in the ‘other jungle’ we sit at the opposite end of that chain.
Deforestation is one impact of these industries. Forests throughout the Amazon are decimated to make way for large-scale cattle ranches, palm oil plantations, mineral mining infrastructure, and hydroelectric dams. The World Wildlife Fund estimates that over a quarter of the Amazon biome will be deforested if current rates continue.
Nowhere is the situation more dire than in Brazil. As the largest country in South America, Brazil is home to 60% of the Amazon rainforest. It is also where deforestation is occurring most rapidly.
The devastating, ongoing fires in Brazil are destroying huge swathes of the rainforest. Many of these fires are being attributed to human activity, such as forest clearing for cattle ranching, and as Brazil approaches the annual dry season, the situation is likely to worsen. Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro has paved the way for increased deforestation and has also decreased protections for indigenous communities. Recent reports place the current rate of deforestation in Brazil at over three football fields every minute.
Unfortunately, deforestation is not the only impact of an economic structure built on extraction. Extractive industries, such as mining and drilling for fossil fuels and minerals, pollute the surrounding area and leave communities who live there to suffer the consequences.
Indigenous leaders all over the world, like Zebelio, have been at the forefront of efforts to fight back against the corporations and governments that sell and devastate their life sources. This resistance comes at a great cost. Global Witness’ most recent findings report that more than three people were murdered each week in 2018 for defending their land and environment. Private security forces hired by corporations, state forces, and contract killers often carry out these murders. The mining and extractive industries sector account for the highest number of killings and two Amazonian countries (Brazil and Colombia) are in the top five countries.
The Amazon’s intricate web of life cradles the rest of the world, but we have reduced it to a list of natural resources and peoples that can be sacrificed and extracted. The demands of our economy based on fossil fuels and industrial agriculture begin in the Amazon. From the destruction of forests and species to the murder of indigenous peoples, the very life of the Amazon has become a commodity for the world.
The Catholic Church, however, says life cannot be measured in economic value. The upcoming Synod on the Amazon in October seeks to re-centre our relationship with the region and its peoples, around this belief. Based on hundreds of listening sessions with local and indigenous communities, the working document for the Synod hopes that, “this Synod revolves around life: the life of the Amazon territory and its peoples, the life of the Church, the life of the planet”.
The Synod is an opportunity to re-imagine and redefine our relationship with the Amazon – an invitation to create an alternative to our exploitative economy. As Patricia Gualinga, a Kichwa leader from Sarayaku, Ecuador, put it during her recent visit to Washington DC: “Now is the time for the church to get angry at this economic activity destroying Earth, like Jesus did [when he turned over the money tables] in the temple.”
We are challenged in this moment to ensure our global economic systems treat the Amazon not as a commodity for our use but as an integral region that supports life on Earth. This is not an easy task, but our first step must be to recognise our deep connection to the Amazon, no matter where we live.
Rebecca Eastwood is the Advocacy Coordinator at Columban Center for Advocacy and Outreach in Washington DC. This is the eleventh in a series of Columban articles this year, leading up to the Synod on Amazonia in October 2019 at the Vatican. All the articles are available on ICN under ‘Amazonia Synod’.