Eye on the Amazon

While in Peru, Pope Francis Should Speak Out for Indigenous Rights

Photo credit: Amazon Watch

This week, Pope Francis will visit the Peruvian Amazon for the first time, traveling to the southeastern province of Madre de Dios. For indigenous peoples like the Ese Eja, Harakbut, and Matsiguenga peoples, this region represents their ancestral territories, where they have lived for time immemorial. Their representatives, along with other indigenous leaders from around Peru, Brazil, and Bolivia, eagerly await the Pope's arrival. He will meet with them in an exclusive gathering on Friday, the 19th in the town of Puerto Maldonado, where they will present a manifesto outlining the threats they face and indigenous-led solutions.

Unfortunately, Peru is experiencing a political moment which portends a difficult period for indigenous peoples. In the best-case scenario, they are likely to suffer a central government that ignores their demands while dealing with corruption scandals and the repercussions of the ‘humanitarian pardon' of former president Alberto Fujimori. In the worst case, mortal threats to the survival of Amazonian indigenous peoples will accelerate with the imposition of mega-projects and a weakening of Peru's environmental regulations in favor of large-scale investments in infrastructure and extractive industries.

The threats faced by indigenous peoples in the Peruvian Amazon are multiple and serious. Amongst them one finds activities that are both illicit – gold mining, illegal logging, and coca cultivation – and those sanctioned by the Peruvian government, such as road construction, mega-projects like dams, and extractive concessions for oil and gas.

Toxic pollution from illegal mining is an extremely worrying issue in Madre de Dios and other provinces. Scientific studies have shown that even indigenous communities far down river from the mining are suffering high levels of mercury in their blood and resulting health crises. The Peruvian State needs to effectively address this emergency, not only issuing new laws but also helping find alternatives to the status quo.

Indigenous peoples living in voluntary isolation (the so-called "uncontacted peoples") are particularly vulnerable. Between the rainforests of Madre de Dios and Ucayali departments, evidence has been found of a people referred to as the Mashco Piro. They are currently at grave risk from a new law that would promote road construction through remote areas of the Amazon, including through State-recognized ‘territorial reserves' that were creates specifically to protect them. This law was passed by the congress and is currently being considered by President Kuczynski. It is no exaggeration to say that these roads could lead to an ethnocide, given that any contact with the Mashco Piro could imply death by illness or violent confrontation.

And like many who defend the environment, indigenous leaders of the Peruvian Amazon face harassment, threats, and criminalization. We will never forget the four Asháninka leaders, amongst them Edwin Chota, who were assassinated in 2014 for their campaign against illegal logging around the community of Saweto.

Responding to all of the threats, indigenous peoples of the Peruvian Amazon have been struggling for centuries against the historic discrimination and genocide. In recent years, they have mobilized from their remote communities to demand respect for their rights at international spaces like the annual UN climate summits, multi-lateral banks, and the annual shareholder meetings of multinational corporations. All of this work is an important contribution toward humanity writ large, as it helps conserve their bio-diverse territories and forests.

We hope that Pope Francis, as he has done in other occasions, will add the considerable prestige of his voice in support of Peruvian indigenous peoples demands. For example, it would be helpful for him to reiterate the exhortation he made last year that "The right to prior and informed consent should always prevail. Only then is it possible to guarantee peaceful cooperation between governing authorities and indigenous peoples, overcoming confrontation and conflict." Implicit within respect for the right of consent is to not impose mega-projects like roads and oil concessions in areas inhabited by isolated peoples.

Another priority issue for the Pope's attention is that of indigenous land titling, offering legal security to future generations of indigenous peoples. In Peru, many peoples are demanding their integral titles (collective title for their ancestral territories), not just the community-by-community titles provided by the current Law of Native Communities. There have been advances toward greater titling of indigenous peoples – thanks to a permanent campaign by indigenous organizations like AIDESEP – but political will continues to be lacking on the part of the Peruvian government at the national and local levels.

Finally, it would be important for the Pope to publicly support the valiant work of indigenous leaders. He should encourage the Peruvian State to take urgent measures to protect them when they are facing death threats and to not criminalize their peaceful activities.

With much joy and hope indigenous peoples will receive Pope Francis in Puerto Maldonado. They are appreciative of the privileged spaces he has opened for direct dialogue. Thereafter, they hope that he will translate their concerns and solutions into concrete words as he addresses the public and Peruvian decision-makers.

Julio Cusurichi is President of Native Federation of Madre de Dios (FENAMAD) and 2007 Goldman Prize winner
Leila Salazar-López is the Executive Director of Amazon Watch

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