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Rev. Seamus P. Finn, OMI Headshot

100 Years in the Amazon Basin

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A recent trip to the Peruvian Amazon served to remind me of the vast expanse of the region and the great diversity that lives within its boundaries. While I was ready for the heat and humidity that Iquitos is known for, I was hardly prepared for the great network of major rivers that are an essential part of transportation in the region resembling a system of roads with which we are more familiar. Canoes, boats and barges of all sizes, instead of big trucks or railroads, facilitate the movement of people, produce and other products over great distances.

One of the reasons for traveling to the area was to familiarize myself with the work of my Oblate colleagues in Santa Clotilde and other communities along the Napo River and to explore opportunities for collaboration and solidarity. I had heard stories of this challenging and unique mission including the great diversity that existed in the various communities and villages that stretched out from the banks of the river as it flowed south to the join the Amazon. In addition, the pressure of increased exploration for oil and gas, in the region, by petroleum companies from different parts of the world had also been on the radar of our faith-consistent investing work for a number of years.

During the first day of my visit, I was reminded by my Oblate brothers and their collaborators that they were preparing to mark the centenary of the papal encyclical Lacrimabili Statu, written by Pope Pius X in 1912 to address the ethnocide of indigenous people who inhabited both the Peruvian and Columbian Amazon region. This was all news to me. The encyclical recalled the condemnation of slavery and the stern rebuke of the many practices associated with it that was issued by Pope Benedict XIV in 1741. It was addressed to church leaders in Latin America, deplored the continuing abuse of the indigenous peoples of the region 150 years later, and elaborated on the responsibility of religious and political leaders to protect and defend the dignity and rights of the native peoples.

In the encyclical, Pope Pius X lamented as follows about the atrocities that he had learned existed in the region; "For what can be so cruel and so barbarous as to scourge men and brand them with hot iron, often for most trivial causes, often for a mere lust of cruelty; or, having suddenly overthrown them, to slay hundreds or thousands in one unceasing massacre; or to waste villages and districts and slaughter the inhabitants, so that some tribes, as we understand, have become extinct in these last few years?"

On the occasion of the centenary commemoration, Pope Benedict XVI wrote as follows about the dignity and rights of the indigenous in the region:

"I implore the Almighty first of all to protect the sacred character of their life. May their existence not be restricted for any reason, for God does not want anyone's death and commands us to love each other as brothers and sisters. May their lands be properly protected! May no one, for any reason, exploit or manipulate these peoples and may these peoples never let themselves be lured by ideologies into their dangerous grip."

At a special gathering with the objective of recovering the living historical memory of those who suffered during the period of cruel suppression that was orchestrated by the Peruvian rubber baron, Julio Cesar Arana, the president of Colombia sent the head of indigenous affairs to ask forgiveness from the Huitotos, Ocainas, Boras, Muinanes people for the barbarous acts of their ancestors. The gathering took place in early October in La Chorrera which is located on the banks of the Igara Parana River in the Colombian Amazon.

One hundred years later, the growing demand for energy has brought numerous oil and gas companies into the region. Their presence is pervasive and the footprint of their concessions covers much of the region. Their social and environmental impact is experienced most directly by the many small communities that stretch out from the banks of the great rivers that flow throughout the area.

The centenary event that recalls the history of oppression, destruction and abuse that was visited on the indigenous of the region must be a chill reminder for all corporations who decide to explore the oil and gas reserves that lie beneath the surface of these lands. The numerous safeguards and voluntary principles that have been developed and adopted by corporations, governments an global institutions like the United Nations will ring hollow for readers, even 50 years from now, if the lives, livelihoods and cultures of the people who inhabit these areas are again ignored, suppressed or destroyed in the process.