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Holy See Insists on Rights of Indigenous Peoples

Archbishop Auza Statement to UN Forum

Indigenous peoples should always be treated as dignified partners of their development and destiny, with free, prior and informed consent in all matters concerning them, according to Archbishop Bernardito Auza, Permanent Observer of the Holy See to the United Nations.

His comments came April 19, 2018, a Side-Event entitled “Violation of Human Rights in the Amazon: Networks to Respond to and Redress Them” that took place during the 17th Session of the United Nations’ Permanent Forum for Indigenous Issues in New York.

He mentioned Pope Francis’ and the Catholic Church’s advocacy on behalf of indigenous peoples and looked ahead to the Synod on the Amazon that Pope Francis has convoked for October 2019. Archbishop Auza recalled Pope Francis’ remarks during his visit with indigenous peoples in Peru earlier this year in which he said, “The native Amazonian peoples have probably never been so threatened on their own lands as they are at present,” and noted the challenges of neo-extractivism and forms of conservation not attentive to the needs of indigenous peoples. What is needed, he said, is to change the view that looks to the Amazon as an endless mine of supplies for other countries as well as to pay much closer attention to the solutions that indigenous communities and the
organizations assisting them, like REPAM, have come up with so that the indigenous themselves may be guardians of the areas they inhabit.

His remarks follow.

Madame Special Rapporteur, Distinguished Panelists, Dear Ladies, and Gentlemen,

I am happy to welcome you this afternoon to this important event on protecting and promoting the human rights and dignity of indigenous people in the Amazon, which the Holy See is pleased to sponsor together with the Panamazonian Ecclesial Network (REPAM) and the Mining Working Group of Non-Governmental Organizations.

Last April we marked the tenth anniversary of the adoption of the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. During the high-level event organized by the President of the General Assembly to mark the occasion, States spoke alongside representatives of indigenous peoples from around the world to reaffirm their commitment to the values and collective rights of indigenous peoples enshrined in the Declaration. That important and concrete example of solidarity should exemplify the way forward to make the participation and integration of indigenous peoples within the work of the United Nations more meaningful and effective.

The Catholic Church, and Pope Francis in particular affirms and exhorts that indigenous peoples should be treated as dignified partners, whether within this United Nations system or in their relationship with States and society at large. This is not simply an idea, but the application of the duty of States, as enshrined within the Declaration, to consult with and to seek the free, prior and informed consent of indigenous peoples in all matters concerning them. The just demand of the indigenous peoples that nothing should be done about them without them should be given utmost consideration.

In practice, this means upholding the collective right of indigenous peoples to their lands and resources. By doing so, we guarantee not only that their voices are heard, but that indigenous peoples are given the political, economic and social space necessary to affirm their identity and their right to become agents of their own development and destiny; we also ensure that redress and true reconciliation between States and their indigenous populations can be achieved for the good of both parties and for the common good of the whole nation.

Pope Francis, on various occasions but especially during his visits to Latin America, has expressed his desire to be a “spokesman for the deepest longings of indigenous peoples” and to raise public awareness about the fact that indigenous peoples continue to be “threatened in their identity and even in their existence.” He has sought to be a voice crying out throughout the world about the way indigenous lands, culture, rights and dignity are being overlooked or even trampled upon for the narrow economic interests of others. He has praised the way that indigenous peoples look at the land as a sacred gift in which they interact with God, their ancestors and each other. He has lifted up their sense of love and responsibility for our common home and their heightened sense of intergenerational solidarity as a model for all peoples.

These general thoughts of Pope Francis and the Holy See apply all the more in the vast region of the Amazon, the largest tropical forest in the world, covering 2.1 million square miles and nine countries, embracing 2.8 million indigenous people, 390 indigenous tribes, 240 spoken languages and as yet 137 uncontacted peoples.

When Pope Francis went to Brazil in 2013, he accentuated the sense of responsibility that the Church feels for the peoples and lands of the panamazonian region. He said that the Church’s presence in the Amazon is, unlike some others, “not that of someone with bags packed and ready to leave after having exploited everything possible. The Church [rather] has been present in the Amazon Basin from the beginning, in her missionaries, religious congregations, priests, laity and Bishops and she is still present and critical to the area’s future.” He said, however, that the “Church’s work needs to be further encouraged and launched afresh,” especially through the training of Church workers, native teachers and clergy “suited to local conditions and committed to consolidating, as it were, the Church’s ‘Amazonian face.’” He urged everyone to be courageous in these efforts.

As a real sign of the commitment of the Church to the indigenous peoples of the region, he has convoked a Synod, or meeting, of Bishops in Rome for October 2019 to focus specifically on what is working and what still needs to be done to foster the integral development of indigenous individuals and peoples throughout the vast area, to protect their lives, rights, cultures and lands, and to help all those who do not live in those lands to learn from the wisdom and knowledge of the indigenous how to enter into, without destroying, the treasures that the region holds.

Exactly three months ago, on January 19, Pope Francis visited the Amazon personally to meet with indigenous peoples in Puerto Maldonado in the Peruvian Andes. There he listened to the indigenous explain their needs and hopes and afterward spoke, seeking to awaken the consciences of those across the world to what is happening there. “The native Amazonian peoples,” he emphasized, “have probably never been so threatened on their own lands as they are at present.” He spoke of two particular challenges they face.

The first comes, he said, from what he termed “neo-extractivism and the pressure being exerted by great business interests that want to lay hands on its petroleum, gas, lumber, gold, and forms of agro-industrial monocultivation,” about which we will be hearing much more from our speakers Elvia de Jesús Arévalo Ordóñez from Ecuador and Agostina Mayán Apikai of Peru. This new wave of extractive exploitation, the Pope said, also leads to a “devastating assault on life likened to [the] environmental contamination [fostered] by illegal mining.”

The second challenge, he underlined, comes from “the distortion of certain policies aimed at the ‘conservation’ of nature without taking into account the men and women… who inhabit it.” He was describing “movements that, under the guise of preserving the forest, hoard great expanses of woodland and negotiate with them, leading to situations of oppression for the native peoples; as a result, they lose access to the land and its natural resources [as] these problems strangle [indigenous] peoples and provoke the migration of the young due to the lack of local alternatives.” He said that the world cannot reduce indigenous cultures to an “idealized image of a natural state, much less a kind of museum of a bygone way of life.” Such an approach to keep the Amazon as a museum for ecological tourism doesn’t help the situation of the indigenous peoples either.

What needs to happen, he said, is first to break “the historical paradigm that views Amazonia as an inexhaustible source of supplies for other countries without concern for its inhabitants.” As he wrote in his encyclical on Care for Our Common Home, Laudato Sì’, we cannot ignore “the huge global economic interests that, under the guise of protecting them, can undermine the sovereignty of individual nations” and serve only “the economic interests of transnational corporations.” All of us must, he said, “draw public attention to these issues,” “offer critical cooperation,” employ “legitimate means of pressure” and help each government to carry out “its proper and inalienable responsibility to preserve its country’s environment and natural resources, without capitulating to spurious local or international interests.”

What must occur, second, is to acknowledge the existence of promising initiatives coming from [indigenous] communities and organizations [themselves], which advocate that the native peoples and communities themselves be the guardians of the woodlands,” and which trust in their “capacity for resilience and … ability to respond to these difficult times.” This is the crucial work done by groups like the REPAM and other networks to respond to and redress the violation of indigenous rights and to support and accompany indigenous peoples, particularly those who are most excluded and in need, with courage and determination as they assert those rights and assume their responsibilities to serve as guardians of their lands and cultures.

Doing so will allow the indigenous peoples in general and of the Amazon, in particular, to help everyone discover how to become better guardians of the treasures found in the beauty, truth, and goodness of each culture and to become better stewards of the planet that is our common home.

I thank you all once again for coming today and for the support you are showing to our indigenous brothers and sisters and all those working in the Amazon and here at the United Nations to protect and promote their rights and gifts.

Copyright © 2018 Permanent Observer Mission of the Holy See to the United Nations, All rights reserved.

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