SAO PAULO (RNS) – As Brazil’s ecological crisis continues to deepen, the country’s Catholic bishops have become more vocal about its causes, decrying the collaboration between government officials and companies to carry out mining projects destructive in areas occupied by indigenous peoples.
On May 5, Bishop José Ionilton Lisboa de Oliveira of Itacoatiara, in the state of Amazonas, issued an official decree declaring that his diocese would not accept “financial support, in cash or other goods, from the part of politicians, forestry companies, mining companies… who contribute to deforestation and the expulsion of indigenous peoples, “quilombolas” (descendants of escaped African slaves), local communities and small farmers from their land.
Although intended for internal distribution within his diocese, Brazilian media caught wind of de Oliveira’s decree, and it garnered attention throughout South America.
The bishop said he did not expect his decree “to reverberate so much or to inspire other bishops to do the same.” But he hopes other bishops in the Amazon region will agree to a collective statement when they meet in September.
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Since the Vatican Synod for the Pan-Amazon Region in 2019, the bishops of Brazil’s Amazon region have been discussing ways to strengthen their stance against deforestation. “Of course the bishops act independently,” de Oliveira said, but the reaction to his decree signaled “our adherence to the conclusions of the synod,” he told Religion News Service.
Enforcing Vatican guidelines on the Amazon has not always been easy, de Oliveira said. When he took office in 2017, he found that local communities had not studied Pope Francis’ 2015 encyclical on the environment, Laudato si’.
“We held meetings with all of our parishes and read it together. Later, we established that we were going to implement 12 recommendations based on the document,” de Oliveira said. Discussions focused on financial donations, creating environmental education programs and reducing waste.
“But after a few years, nothing had changed,” he lamented.
With local and national elections slated for October, de Oliveira, the president of the Episcopal Conference’s Pastoral Land Commission (or CPT in Portuguese), has watched violence rise in Amazon communities overrun by herders. , miners and loggers.
According to the pastoral commission, 109 people died as a result of land disputes in 2021, a huge increase from 2020, when only nine people died. These figures include homicides as well as deaths indirectly linked to rural violence, such as those caused by the poisoning of water and fish with heavy metals, a byproduct of mining operations.
In April, 462 square miles of the Amazon were destroyed, according to Imazon, a nonprofit dedicated to rainforest conservation. This represented a 54% growth from April 2021, making it the worst April in 15 years.
More than 2,600 miles southeast of the Diocese of de Oliveira, Auxiliary Bishop Vicente Ferreira of Belo Horizonte, Minas Gerais state, is planning similar efforts.
“Starting with Catholics, we need to raise awareness of the need to divest from mining,” Ferreira told RNS.
Ferreira is the secretary of the Special Commission of the Episcopal Conference on Integral Ecology and Mining, created in 2019 after the collapse of a tailings dam in Brumadinho that claimed the lives of 270 people and spilled 423 million. cubic feet of mine waste in the Paraopeba River Basin. .
In January, when heavy rains caused major flooding in the area and many homes were covered in mud, Ferreira visited locals and said the effects of the 2019 tragedy were still apparent.
“This mud brought in by the flood was not real mud, but a toxic mass of residue mixed with water. The company talks about remedial measures, but some things are irreparable: the lives lost and the ‘contaminated ecosystem,’ Ferreira said.
“Mining should be profoundly changed in Brazil, because there is something inherently unsustainable about it,” the bishop said.
In late March, he joined a delegation of Latin American religious leaders visiting five European countries, where they campaigned against mining investment. The group met with political and religious leaders, including Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich, head of the Commission for Episcopal Conferences of the European Union, as well as officials from the Vatican and international Catholic charities..
Ferreira wants to see Brazil’s Catholic hierarchy take more drastic action against mining pollution, pointing to the recent decision by the church in the Philippines to stop receiving donations from environmentally destructive industries.
“Our biggest challenge is to… take concrete action to confront this enormous power (of the mining industry). We still don’t know how to stop this Goliath,” he said.
Archbishop Roque Paloschi of Porto Velho, in the northern Amazon basin, has been another vocal critic of Brazilian mining companies. He heads the Indigenous Missionary Council of the Episcopal Conference (CIMI in Portuguese) and has witnessed firsthand the impact of mining operations in indigenous areas.
“Mining represents death for indigenous peoples,” he told RNS. “It contaminates their water, opens the door to alcohol consumption in their villages, resulting in the rape of women and girls.”
Paloschi cited the case of the Yanomami in the Amazon. Around 26,000 members of the indigenous group have to share their land with around 20,000 workers for illegal mining operations.
Mining spreads diseases such as malaria, thanks to abandoned mining pits becoming breeding ponds for mosquitoes. Rapes and homicides have become more common. The rivers have been contaminated with mercury, and the heavy machinery used by the invaders hunts the animals that the Yanomami depend on for hunting.
CIMI and other civic organizations protested against a bill introduced by President Jair Bolsonaro in 2020, which is currently before Congress. The bill proposes to legalize mining and other industrial activities in indigenous territories, which current legislation prohibits.
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Bolsonaro’s bill would contribute to further deforestation and destruction of natural habitats, activists say, given that indigenous territories now serve as sanctuaries.
Paloschi thinks most Brazilian Catholics don’t understand the scale of deforestation in the Amazon, or all of its implications.
“Brazil is a country that bears the marks of slavery and the colonial system. A lot of people think the aboriginal way of life is not fair. We still have a long way to go in the church to realize the need to protect God’s garden,” he reflected.