By Philip Pullella and Mitra Taj
PUERTO MALDONADO, Peru (Reuters) – Pope Francis issued a ringing defense of the people and the environment of the Amazon on Friday, saying big business and “consumerist greed” could not be allowed to destroy a natural habitat vital for the entire planet.
Francis, who has made the environment and climate change a focus of his nearly five-year-old pontificate, made his appeal while visiting a corner of the Amazon in Peru where pristine rainforest and biodiversity is being blighted by mining and logging, much of it illegal.
“The native Amazonian peoples have probably never been so threatened on their own lands as they are at present,” the pope told a crowd of indigenous people from more than 20 groups including the Harakbut, Esse-ejas, Shipibos, Ashaninkas and Juni Kuin.
Thousands of representative of the groups from across Peru walked before him, dressed in traditional regional costumes and feather headdresses and speaking in their native languages, as traditional wind instruments sounded mournfully in a small stadium built to look like a hut in the city of Puerto Maldonado.
Francis decried the “pressure being exerted by big business interests” seeking petroleum, gas, lumber, and gold and plundering “supplies for other countries without concern for its inhabitants.”
The pope, whose speech was punctuated by repeated applause and beating of drums, spoke after listening to rainforest residents decry what they called the rape of their land.
“They enter our territories without consulting us and we will suffer a lot when foreigners drill the earth… and destroy our rivers turning them into black waters of death,” Hector Sueyo, an indigenous Harakbut, told the pope forcefully.
The southeastern region of Peru known as “Madre de Dios,” Spanish for “Mother of God,” has been badly blighted in recent years by unregulated gold mining, with one effect being dangerous levels of mercury in rivers. Illegal loggers and drug traffickers in other parts of the Peruvian Amazon have killed activists and attacked indigenous tribes that shun contact with outsiders.
While more regulated, foreign companies have eagerly eyed the Camisea gas reserves in the neighboring region of Cusco. In northern Peru more than a dozen oil spills from a state-operated pipeline have polluted native lands.
“We cannot use goods meant for all as consumerist greed dictates. 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,” the pope said.
On the first papal visit to the Amazon since John Paul II visited the northern Peruvian city of Iquitos in 1985, the Argentine pope said he had heard the “cry of the people.” He promised that he and the Church would offer them “a whole-hearted option for the defense of life, the defense of the earth and the defense of cultures.”
Indigenous chiefs in Peru hope the pope’s visit will persuade the government of President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, a former Wall Street banker, to give native communities titles to ancestral land and help preserving it.
“We’re the ones who have been fighting to protect the Amazon the longest,” Julio Cusurichi, the chief of the indigenous federation FENAMAD in Madre de Dios, said in an interview.
COLONIALISM ‘DISGUISED AS PROGRESS’
Alberto Fernandez, a 44-year-old flower shop owner in Puerto Maldonado, said he hoped the Pope would help contain the social ills that have accompanied the city’s rapid growth.
“There’s a lot of need here … every day there are more bars and cantinas, more prostitution, more illegal mining … 30 years ago Puerto wasn’t like this,” Fernandez said. “There were only a couple paved streets, but we lived in peace.”
The pope urged local authorities and bishops to work to defend young people and women from violence and human trafficking and to improve education and preserve local cultures.
“Special care is demanded of us, lest we allow ourselves to be ensnared by ideological forms of colonialism, disguised as progress, that slowly but surely dissipate cultural identities and establish a uniform, single … and weak way of thinking,” he said after watching traditional Ashaninka and Shipibo dances.
Isolated tribes that shun contact with outsiders were the most vulnerable and must be defended, he said.
Francis, who has also visited neighboring Chile on his trip to South America, bade goodbye to Puerto Maldonado in the Quechua language, and was presented with a native headdress and tapestry.
(Writing by Caroline Stauffer; Editing by Frances Kerry)