Laudato Si:  Support for the Indigenous of the Amazon Benefits Us All

By Birgit Weiler*

Group of men and women stand behind a banner

Members of the Awajún community mobilize in Peru. / Andina Archivo / Creative Commons

Issuing his Laudato Si encyclical in 2015, Pope Francis put himself on the side of Latin America’s original peoples in protecting the environment in their ancestral lands, in what will be a long struggle to counteract climate change and safeguard the earth.  Laudato Si emphasized that different religions, including the indigenous peoples’, can make “rich contributions … towards an integral ecology.”  Francis wrote:  “Given the complexity of the ecological crisis and its multiple causes, we need to realize that the solutions will not emerge from just one way of interpreting and transforming reality.  Respect must also be shown for the various cultural riches of different peoples … their interior life and spirituality.”   He spoke of their wisdom especially in dealing with the earth and all the living beings.

  • For the Awajún and Wampis in Amazonas Department in northern Peru, their cosmovisión (world view) and traditional religion are an important source of inspiration and endurance in their struggle for safeguarding their living space. In the integral vision of the world they share with other indigenous peoples, all living beings – not only human beings – are considered agents within a single big energy.  Everything is connected – similar to the “integral ecology” mentioned in Laudato Si.
  • Highlighting the urgent need of a “bold cultural revolution,” the encyclical implicitly embraces the indigenous people’s concept of “Buen Vivir,” an alternative way of life based on respect for the earth and on living in relationships of interconnectedness and interdependence. This demands a change in lifestyle reducing significantly our negative impact on our planet; caring for the integrity of the ecosystems and of human life; and a real change in our way of understanding and practicing economy, “progress,” and “development.”

Governments have been slow to respond to these calls – which threaten to disrupt longstanding arrangements between the extraction industry, regulators, and legislators – but there have been some significant public signs of progress.  Last March, for example, the Fourth Constitutional Court in Lima declared that the Awajún and Wampis have the right to approve oil exploration in their ancestral lands, particularly an area known as “Lot 116.”  The court ordered exploration activities to cease and withdraw from the region until full consultation with local indigenous groups was completed.  In another case, in the Iquitos–Pucallpa region, a court ordered that the state consult with respect the indigenous people’s right to a full consultation, forcing the government to step back and begin the process anew.

 Despite this halting progress, the environment and cultures that Laudato Si reveres are under constant and, in some cases, worsening threat.  Illegal deforestation of precious tropical lumber is reaching alarming levels.  An explosion in new oil palm farms, the construction of hydroelectric power stations, and the expansion of roads and other infrastructure to facilitate extractive industries are all inflicting permanent damage.  Scientists have repeatedly pointed out that the ecosystems of the Amazon won’t be able to bear much longer the devastating impact of these activities.  As the Pope wrote, loss of the region’s tropical forests – the biggest lung of our world – and the vanquishing of peoples like the Awajún and Wampis would be a tragic loss for us all.

October 11, 2017

* Birgit Weiler is Director of the Area of Research at the University Antonio Ruiz de Montoya in Lima; collaborates closely with the Vicariate of Jaén (Catholic Church) and with the Awajún and Wampis; and contributes to CLALS’s project on religion and climate change.

The Papal Encyclical: Driving Debate in Latin America

By Evan Berry*

Pope Francis

Photo Credit: Raffaele Esposito / Flickr / Creative Commons

Pope Francis’s encyclical on human ecology, due to be published this week, seems likely to contribute to a range of ongoing debates.  Entitled Laudato Sii, the document has already become a touchstone for debates about the moral dimension of climate politics and triggered heated debate within the global Catholic community about the pontiff’s authority on climate change.  It links care for the poor with environmental stewardship and makes a theological case against the “culture of consumerism.”  A vocal Catholic environmental movement has embraced it, while detractors are raising concerns about the fusion of theology and science, and some Church conservatives fear it will feed into arguments for “population control.”  Non-Catholics, including secular environmental organizations, the progressive media, and leaders from other religious traditions, are also studying it.

Champions of the document claim that it could have broad implications.  They expect it to legitimize civil society organizations committed to the climate and justice; affect the behavior of millions of individual Catholics; influence Catholic political leaders who are skeptical or obstructionist about climate change; and become a factor in ongoing international negotiations.  Perhaps zealously, these claims imply that tectonic changes are underway in the international political landscape, especially in the United States, where Hispanic Catholics are the demographic group most concerned about climate change, and in Latin America, a region both shaped heavily by Catholic tradition and uniquely imperiled by the threat of global warming.

For Latin America, which has been front and center in climate politics in recent years, the implications of the encyclical are potentially deep.  Peru and Brazil have hosted recent international conferences on climate change, and the Amazon, a key global carbon sink, ensures governments’ high interest in the international environmental dialogue.  The region’s vulnerability to glacial melt, storm intensification, drought, and rising sea levels also give the issue salience.  The challenges posed by climate change come at a time that many lower-income countries believe that Latin America can be a source of development models that address income gaps, raise literacy rates, and expand access to health care while protecting the environment.  Francis’s teachings on ecology and consumerism will resonate with and reinforce existing ecological movements – Buen Vivir and other groups link the issues – and his imprimatur could even facilitate rapprochement between leftists and centrists within the Church.  On a political level, the region’s reliance on energy exports, such as in the Pope’s native Argentina, may make it harder for public officials to advocate oil and gas development without seriously addressing the climatic impact.  The situation is similar in Brazil, where Pope Francis’ popularity and ecological orientation are starkly contrasted with the President Rousseff’s abysmal ratings and poor oversight of Petrobras.  But religion, environment, and politics are nowhere more likely to come into confluence than in Peru, where an upcoming election touches on several intensive socio-environmental conflicts, and where public awareness about climate change is well established.  Whether or not the Latin American leader of the region’s historically dominant religion has all the solutions, his encyclical seems likely to play into the moral and political debates the region needs and welcomes.

June 16, 2015

*Evan Berry is Associate Professor in the Department of Philosophy and Religion at American University.

Brazil: Sustained Attention to Sustainable Development?

By Evan Berry*

Photo Credit: Rodrigo Soldon / Flickr / Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

Photo Credit: Rodrigo Soldon / Flickr / Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

Media coverage of the approaching World Cup in Brazil has touched on the country’s contemporary ecological challenges, but they have glossed over their underlying causes.  Because of Brazil’s association with international sustainability accords, large international events – such as the “Rio+20” sustainable development conference two years ago and the 2016 Olympics – provide vehicles for global news media to focus on Brazil’s performance on environmental issues.  Among this flurry of journalistic coverage, two distinct narratives emerge.  In one, journalists look at sustainability with reference to economic modernization, suggesting that environmental problems are the outcomes of policy failures and ineffective governance.  Commentary in this vein calls for greater technocratic competency and a commitment to the development pathways of the global north.  In the other narrative, sustainability is set in the context of social justice and economic inequality.

These views lead to different responses.  The international bodies overseeing the upcoming sporting events – such as FIFA and the International Olympic Committee – demand that the Brazilian government do more to clean up beaches, improve transportation infrastructures, and purchase carbon offsets to compensate for the impact of new construction.  These prescriptions ignore, however, that environmentalism in the developed northern economies emerged from a distinctly middle- and upper-class preoccupation with aesthetically pleasing environments, such as wilderness, scenic landscapes, and exotic game.  Frustration with the pollution in southeastern Brazil’s Guanabara Bay, for instance, echoes the North American desire for well-managed spaces for outdoor recreation.  So too does the narrow focus on the plight of Brazilian armadillos, the vulnerable species chosen as the World Cup mascot.  This emphasis corresponds with a narrative that many Brazilian leaders would want to put forward – that the natural splendor of Rio de Janeiro in particular, and Brazil in general, can be secured by the kind of straightforward cleanup efforts that attended economic prosperity.  However, Brazil’s ecological woes cannot be solved by garbage scows, and endangered armadillos and the lack of clean recreational spaces are hardly Brazil’s most pressing obstacles to environmental sustainability.  Guanabara Bay is fetid because so many Cariocas, or Rio residents, lack access to basic sanitation.  Armadillos are threatened by deforestation that is as much a byproduct of global economic demand.

As elsewhere, environmental problems in Brazil are caused by myriad social, economic, and political factors.  Ameliorating the most visible impacts of these factors – protecting a charming creature or purifying noxious waters – addresses only symptoms.  International attention to sustainability issues in Brazil should be more mindful of social justice.  Brazil’s current political unrest centers on deeply shared public concerns about injustice, and addressing the problems giving rise to contemporary social movements will offer an important corrective to mainstream public discourse about sustainability.  International attention to the negative environmental impact of international sporting events, and accompanying investments in infrastructure, risks overlooking the unjust structural processes that complicate solutions to environmental problems.  Rather, the global popularity of sport provides an opportunity to deepen and expand international discourse about the human dimensions of ecology.

 *Evan Berry is an Assistant Professor in American University’s Department of Philosophy and Religion.