On October 15, 2017, Pope Francis convoked the Special Assembly of the Synod of Bishops on the Pan-Amazonian region, with the objective of “finding new ways for the evangelization of that portion of the People of God, especially of the Indians, often forgotten and without the prospect of a serene future, also because of the crisis of the Amazon forest, a lung of fundamental importance for our planet.”
As described on its Web page, the Amazon Synod implies a “social, civic and ecological project, which seeks to surmount borders and re-define pastoral lines, adjusting them to the contemporary times.”
However, before beginning to reflect further on this Synod, it’s necessary to clarify a series of prior questions about the Amazon region, such as the delimitation of the territory that conforms it; the history and evolution of the native population; the threats suffered by its inhabitants; and the importance of this Amazonian ecosystem for the world’s climate.
A Wide and Heterogeneous Territory
The Amazon basin is made up of all the rivers that flow into the Amazon River. According to data offered in the Synod’s Preparatory Document, it is one of the greatest reserves of biodiversity, as it has 30 to 50% of the world’s flora and fauna, and 20% of the unfrozen sweet water of the whole planet.
Moreover, over a third of the planet’s primary forests are concentrated in Amazonia, so that its endeavor to capture carbon is significant.
In so far as its extension is concerned, the basin encompasses nine countries: Brazil, Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Guyana, Peru, Surinam, Venezuela, including French Guyana as overseas territory: in total, over seven and a half million square kilometers.
Amazonia isn’t homogeneous; different types of “Amazons” exist within it, which share the Amazon River as their integrating axis.
History of the Population
The occupation of this region probably precedes colonization by thousands of years. The same source points out that, traditionally, the population was concentrated on the margins of rivers and lakes, before the arrival of the colonizers.
When colonization took place, as the Indians were enslaved, many of them fled to the interior of the forest, and new settlements were created on the banks of rivers and lakes.
In general, the peoples of Amazonia have always had an interdependence with the water resources, “life directs the river” and the “river directs life,” points out the mentioned source, and its peoples — farmers, gatherers and /or hunters –, act as custodians of the forest and its resources.”
Forced Move to the Cities
Despite all, the Amazon’s cities have grown very rapidly, in part because they have welcomed migrants that have settled on the outskirts of cities, which spread towards the interior of the forest. These brothers and sisters, in the majority riverine and Afro-descendants, left their lands forcefully given the mining and oil activity and wood extraction, affected as they were by the consequent socio-environmental conflicts that the latter generated.
These cities reflect great social inequalities and their poverty has generated subordination, and political and institutional violence, in addition to an increase in alcohol and drug addiction.
In recent times, between 70 and 80% of the Pan-Amazonian population has resided in these urban areas and the Indians of the forest have led the greatest mobilization. Many of them are undocumented, refugees or find themselves in other vulnerable situations.
These circumstances lead to the criminalization of these displaced peoples, who are subjected to evils such as the human trafficking, and especially the sexual and commercial exploitation of women.
The wealth of the Amazon’s biodiversity and, therefore the survival of its inhabitants, who depend on the resources that this ecosystem gives them, have been and are put in danger by the consequences stemming for the economic use of their resources: intensification of the felling of the jungle; the contamination of the rivers, tributaries and lakes given the use of agro-toxic products, oil spills, legal and illegal mining and the production of drugs as well as drug-trafficking.
In a word, the over-exploitation of the Amazon basin through the stated activities has damaged the ecological richness of the region, of its jungle and its waters and has forced a non-integral and non-inclusive urban development of the region, which has contributed not only to its economic but also to its social and cultural impoverishment.
The Indian Communities’ Identity
The people and cultures that coexist in the Amazon basin are very varied, with different ways of life. According to the mentioned Preparatory Document, the nine countries that make up the Pan-Amazon region have some three million Indians, with some 390 nationalities and different peoples.
Moreover, according to the Church’s specialized institutions, such as Brazil’s Missionary Indigenous Council, there are between 110 and 130 different Indigenous Peoples in Voluntary Isolation (PIAV) or “free peoples.”
On the other hand, there is a group made up of Indians that live in an urban area.
As fruit of the mentioned heterogeneity, it can be affirmed that there are many cultural identities and historical collections, which give place to cosmo-visions and particular relations with the surroundings.
The Fight against Threats
The indigenous peoples and Amazon communities organize themselves and fight against the known threats to defend their lives, cultures, territories, and rights.
The most vulnerable group is that of the PIAV, as they haven’t developed instruments of dialogue and negotiation with outside actors that occupy their circumscriptions.
The Indians social situation is damaged by their exclusion and poverty, despite the fact that, as Pope Francis remarked in Puerto Maldonado, Peru, “Their cosmo-vision, their wisdom, have much to teach those of us that don’t belong to their culture. All the efforts we make to improve the life of the Amazon peoples will always be little.”
Importance of the Amazon Tropical Forest
The World-Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) explains that “the plants extract the carbon dioxide of the atmosphere and absorb it in photosynthesis, a process creator of energy that produces oxygen, which is again freed in the air and . . . carbon, which enables the plant to grow.”
So the destruction of the forests would make the greenhouse effect even more pronounced and, therefore, the situation of climate change would worsen in the future.
Moreover, the WWE stresses that both the tropical forests as well as woody regions exchange great quantities of water and energy with the atmosphere, and it’s believed that they play an important role in the control of local and regional climates. The water released by plants rises in the atmosphere through evapotranspiration (evaporation and transpiration of the plants) and flows through the air to different parts of America in real “flying rivers.” This phenomenon added to the great quantity of water that the basin brings to the ocean, influences the global climate and circulation of the oceanic currents.”
Translation by Virginia M. Forrester