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Issue Date:  January 25, 2008

Church leaders defend environment despite risks

At a time when Latin American church leaders are increasingly under fire for their defense of the environment, the May 2007 conference of bishops in Aparecida, Brazil, may be remembered as much for its call for stewardship of creation as for its reaffirmation of the option for the poor.

The two go hand in hand, according to Archbishop Pedro Barreto Jimeno, the Jesuit prelate of Huancayo, in the central highlands of Peru.

“The social doctrine of the church, and very specifically the section of the Aparecida document about the environment, clearly indicates that the church must be committed to stewardship of creation,” Barreto said.

In Aparecida, the bishops called for reinforcing “the presence of the church in the most vulnerable places. This indicates an option not only for the poor, but for a presence in the places most vulnerable to irrational investment in the extraction of resources,” he said.

That option, however, often brings reprisals.

Barreto has seen that in his own archdiocese, where the Mantaro River is born in Lake Junín, a body of water heavy with metals from mine tailings. The river tumbles down the valley toward the Amazon basin, producing hydroelectricity and picking up more pollutants from mine runoff and municipal waste dumping, before passing through the city of La Oroya, which the New York-based Blacksmith Institute has identified as one of the 10 most polluted places on the planet.

The Mantaro River Valley is considered Peru’s breadbasket, but farmers producing organic crops for export are threatened by acid rain, and most of the children living in the oldest part of La Oroya have been lead poisoned by a smelter owned by the U.S.-based Doe Run Co.

The archdiocese is spearheading an effort to clean up the valley, and Barreto’s outspokenness about the smelter has brought anonymous threats since he became bishop there in 2004.

Bishop Daniel Turley of Chulucanas, in northern Peru, also received threats when he defended the right of campesinos to vote on whether they wanted to allow large-scale mining on their lands in the highlands on the border with Ecuador.

Before a nonbinding referendum on mining in the district that was held Sept. 16, Peruvian President Alan García publicly attacked what he called “false Christs” who misled Peruvians and sought to keep campesinos living in poverty. García’s government has consistently framed the debate over environmental issues in the country as a choice between environmental protection and development, labeling environmentalists as recycled communists.

In Oruro, Bolivia, Br. Gilberto Pauwels, a Belgian-born Oblate of Mary Immaculate who has worked in the Andean country for more than three decades, was once burned in effigy by employees of a mining company. Although the figure did not carry a name, he said, “it was portly and had a beard -- it wasn’t hard to figure out who it was.”

During the Fifth Conference of Bishops of Latin America and the Caribbean in Aparecida last May, the Brazilian bishops spoke out most strongly on environmental issues, with the added voices of delegates such as Barreto.

Saying “it’s five minutes to midnight” for the Amazon, Austrian-born Bishop Erwin Krautler of Xingu, Brazil, made an impassioned plea at Aparecida to stop the destruction of the rain forest by soy farmers and cattle ranchers.

At the time, Krautler was under 24-hour police protection because of a death threat that had been posted on a Web site in December 2006. He has been an outspoken defender of the environment and the rights of indigenous peoples, rubber tappers and small farmers who live in the forest, and whose livelihoods are threatened by the destruction.

“From the standpoint of creation theology, when we defend the Amazon, we are defending the home of future generations,” Krautler said. “We are defending creation as a whole.”

The stakes are high. U.S.-born Sr. Dorothy Stang, a member of the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, was murdered in Pará, Brazil, in 2005 for her defense of the environment. While several people have been convicted in her death, Krautler said those who ordered the crime will probably never be brought to justice.

Courageous church leaders, both religious and lay, continue to speak out at great risk, a commitment that Peru’s Barreto said cannot be avoided.

“The magisterium of the church is very clear in denouncing the savage neoliberal system that irrationally exploits resources at the expense of the people’s life and health,” he said. “It may sound harsh, but that is the magisterium of the church and that is the Gospel.”

-- Barbara Fraser

National Catholic Reporter, January 25, 2008

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