Pope Francis climate message resonates with indigenous people in South American Chaco

Fionuala Cregan | September 23, 2015

Youth and women from El Bananal recently presented Pope Francis´s Environmental Encyclical to the newly appointed Bishop Monseñor César Daniel Fernández. Photo: ENDEPA

Youth and women from El Bananal recently presented Pope Francis´s Environmental Encyclical to the newly appointed Bishop Monseñor César Daniel Fernández. Photo: ENDEPA

“For Indigenous peoples, the earth is not a commodity but rather a gift from God and from their ancestors who rest there, a sacred space with which they need to interact if they are to maintain their identity and values. When they remain on their land, they themselves care for it best. Nevertheless, in various parts of the world, pressure is being put on them to abandon their homelands to make room for agricultural or mining projects which are undertaken without regard for the degradation of nature and culture.” (Laudato Si -146)

Using the words of Pope Francis, the Guarani People´s Assembly El Bananal sent a strong message to the new Bishop of Argentina´s Northern Province Jujuy during his installation ceremony earlier this summer.

El Bananal is located on the border areas of the Calilegua National Park in the north of Argentina in one of the most bio-diverse environments in the country , a unique cloud forest corridor linking the tropical yungus to the low land Chaco,  today at risk due to oil extraction activities.

Oil drilling has been taking place in this National Park since the early 1990s despite the fact it is a protected area.  High levels of pollution from chemicals such as chromium, chloride, cadmium and lead have been registered in local streams as well as in subterranean water sources — all of which are the main water supplies for indigenous communities.

These communities were shocked, therefore, when they learned last year of government plans to expand oil extraction in the park and grant a new concession to Chinese Oil Company JHP and state-owned Jujuy Mining and Energy.

With support from the South American Ecumenical Small Project´s Fund, an initiative of CWS and our Act Alliance Partner Centro Regional Ecuménico de Asesoría y Servicio, the Guarani People’s Assembly El Bananal and other indigenous communities have developed an awareness raising and advocacy campaign based on environmental and indigenous rights laws to prevent any further oil extraction in this National Park.

Presenters carried items symbolizing environmental destruction and items symbolic of gifts from nature. Photo: ENDEPA

Presenters carried items symbolizing environmental destruction and items symbolic of gifts from nature. Photo: ENDEPA

Wearing traditional Guarani dress and carrying objects symbolising environmental destruction – oil and  lithium – as well as fruits and flowers as symbols of gifts from nature and the common good — children, youth and women from El Bananal recently presented Pope Francis´s Environmental Encyclical to the newly appointed Bishop Monseñor César Daniel Fernández.

During their presentation, they emphasised the Pope´s climate message on an integral and sustainable development which cares for the environment and the human family.

“When we speak of the ‘environment,’ what we really mean is a relationship existing between nature and the society which lives in it. Nature cannot be regarded as something separate from ourselves or as a mere setting in which we live. We are part of nature, included in it and thus in constant interaction with it. Recognizing the reasons why a given area is polluted requires a study of the workings of society, its economy, its behaviour patterns, and the ways it grasps reality… We are faced not with two separate crises, one environmental and the other social, but rather with one complex crisis which is both social and environmental. Strategies for a solution demand an integrated approach to combating poverty, restoring dignity to the excluded, and at the same time protecting nature”  (Laudato Si – 139)

The Forum of Environment Ministers of Latin America and the Caribbean has declared the South American Chaco, which spans the border areas of Argentina, Bolivia and Paraguay  as the most vulnerable to climate change on the continent due to its unique climatic features and biodiversity. Despite this, deforestation for the agro-industry (soy and cattle ranching) continues at an alarming rate – on average 1500 hectares per day.  A semi-arid region prone to long periods of drought, deforestation coupled with rising temperatures and subsequent drying up of the subterranean water sources has had a devastating impact on indigenous communities in particular who depend on these water sources for their very existence.

The Guarani leaders find this passage of Pope Francis’ work key to describe their experience:

“Many intensive forms of environmental exploitation and degradation not only exhaust the resources which provide local communities with their livelihood, but also undo the social structures which, for a long time, shaped cultural identity and their sense of the meaning of life and community. The disappearance of a culture can be just as serious, or even more serious, than the disappearance of a species of plant or animal. The imposition of a dominant lifestyle linked to a single form of production can be just as harmful as the altering of ecosystems.” (149)

They also highlighted the Pope´s call for an integral ecology which includes, “taking time to recover a serene harmony with creation, reflecting on our lifestyle and our ideals” (225) and the fact that, “while the existing world order proves powerless to assume its responsibilities, local individuals and groups can make a real difference. They are able to instil a greater sense of responsibility, a strong sense of community, a readiness to protect others, a spirit of creativity and a deep love for the land. They are also concerned about what they will eventually leave to their children and grandchildren. These values are deeply rooted in indigenous peoples.“ (179)

The values of the Guarani leaders and people as they fight for climate justice have found  a voice and supporter in the prophetic voice of Pope Francis. I hope the historic visit of Pope Francis this week to the United States and Cuba will continue to help raise awareness and build the collective will to truly address climate change.

Fionuala Cregan is CWS’s Program Officer for the South American Chaco.


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