Brazil's bishops sound alarm about the Amazon

by John L. Allen Jr.

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ROME -- This week Catholic bishops from the Brazilian state of Pará are in Rome for their ad limina meetings with Pope Benedict XVI and the various offices of the Vatican. While here, the Brazilian prelates are desperately struggling to grab the world’s attention about what they see as a massive human and environmental crisis in the Amazon.

Here’s part of the reason for their sense of urgency: Of the fifteen bishops from Pará currently in Rome, three are facing death threats back home for their outspoken criticism of the government, social elites, and powerful ranching, mining and energy interests.

On Thursday afternoon, five Brazilian prelates met the press in Rome, acting as what they called “voices of our people.” They were: Bishop Carlos Verzeletti of Castanhal; Bishop Erwin Kräutler of Xingu; Bishop Esmeraldo Barreto de Farias of Santarém; Bishop Bernardo J. Bahlmann of Óbidos; and Bishop José Lu's Azcona of Marajó.

“The Amazon is like a garden rich in natural resources and with an absolutely unique biodiversity,” Verzeletti said, “which is continually being colonized, plundered and exploited. Its people live in poverty and social exclusion.”

Kräutler insisted that since the Amazon generates roughly twenty percent of the world’s oxygen supply and is home to 15-20 percent of its life forms, this isn’t just a matter of local concern.

“A threat to the Amazon is a threat to the entire planet, and everyone has an obligation to defend it,” Kräutler said.

While the injustices surrounding the Amazon region are hardly new, the bishops wanted to sound a particular alarm about what they see as the latest chapter in that story: Construction of a massive hydroelectric dam, called Belo Monte, which has recently been approved by the Brazilian government.

Verzeletti asserted that the giant dam, slated to start production in 2015 at a cost of $10.5 billion, will jeopardize the homes and livelihoods of some 30,000 already marginalized people, especially indigenous groups and fishermen. Their dislocation, he predicted, will lead to a rise in drug use, prostitution and violence, which are already endemic to the region.

The bishops hope to mobilize global support in an effort to block the project, or at least to ensure stronger remedies for the human and ecological fallout.

Verzeletti stressed that the bishops are not opposed to economic and technological development, but they want it to be a form of development that benefits the poor of the Amazon region rather than leaving them further behind.

While Brazilian officials have pledged that the dam will actually benefit the local population, the bishops said they’d heard similar pledges before and have learned not to take them seriously.
Barreto de Farias said that twenty years ago, a similar construction project displaced large numbers of indigenous persons in his diocese, and two decades later they still don’t have new homes or jobs and are dispersed around the peripheries of Brazilian cities.

Kräutler predicted the damn will spell “social chaos and environmental disaster” for the region, saying a “merciless plunder” of the Amazon has been underway for a long time and the Belo Monte project is effectively the “coup de grâce.”

Barreto de Farias said that the local people in the area had not been adequately consulted about the project.

“The church is very worried about the lives of the people, their culture, their history, their very existence,” he said. “They have the right to be involved in determining the vision of development that effects them.”

Azcona read from a recent document from the bishops of the Amazon region, which asserts that their people are victims of “economic and political tyranny,” and that the Amazon itself is at risk of becoming “a corridor of exploitation and privatization.”

Azcona then addressed one social problem in particular – the sexual abuse of underage youth, often linked to human trafficking between the Amazon and Europe. He said the church has taken a lead role in condemning that sexual exploitation, sometimes at considerable personal risk, since the problem involves some “important social figures” in Pará,

A government commission backed by the church, Azcona said, found some 100,000 accusations of abuse of minors within just the past five years in the state of Pará, which has an overall population of seven million. In truth, Azcona said, that real number could be closer to 300,000 or 400,000.

Inevitably, Azcona’s reference to the sexual abuse of youth beckoned a question about the crisis currently afflicting the Catholic Church. I asked him if he believes there’s a problem with sex abuse not just in the broader society but also in the Brazilian church, and if so, what response is needed.

Azcona’s answer was direct.

“Once or twice the head of the government commission called me to say there had been a charge against a priest, and asked me what I would suggest,” Azcona said. “I said that if there’s an offender in the church, he has to be investigated. If he’s guilty, he has to be punished like any other citizen.”

[John Allen is NCR senior correspondent. His e-mail address is]

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