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The Amazon Comes to Rome

Pope Francis Thinks the Church Should Learn From Native Peoples—But Will His Opponents Listen?

Pope Francis arrives at a session of the Synod on the Amazon, Vatican City, October 2019 Stefano Dal Pozzolo / Contrasto / ​Redux

For three weeks in October, hundreds of Catholic bishops and priests mostly from the countries of the Amazon River basin convened at a special synod at the Holy See. The meeting signaled Pope Francis’s deep concern for the indigenous peoples of the South American rainforest. In his own words, the pope sought “drastic measures” to avert further harm to these communities. “Every kind of injustice and destruction,” he said, “has been practiced upon these people.” Francis knew this synod would upset some traditional believers who have little patience for his moral investment in the protection of indigenous groups. Although his opponents created audacious distractions, the pope persevered in advancing an agenda that facilitates concrete gains for officials, activists, and community leaders dedicated to saving the Amazon.

The pope has significant cause for alarm. In Brazil, an 80 percent increase in fires this year has led to the greatest deforestation of the Amazon in more than a decade. Indigenous communities struggle to fend off the illegal encroachment of miners, farmers, ranchers, and loggers, among others, with governments and security forces often turning a blind eye. Protesting these incursions can be fatal. In Brazil, 57 defenders of the forest were murdered in 2017 and 20 in 2018. A Guajajara leader was shot earlier this month. Some of the victims were missionaries: after 39 years in the Amazon, Dorothy Stang was shot in Brazil for objecting to the expansion of ranches. The British priest Paul McAuley, who taught indigenous students about defending the environment, was burned to death this year in Peru.

The pope convened this synod—a mechanism for bishops to advise the pontiff on ecclesiastical matters—not just to discuss strengthening the church in the Amazon but to inspire the world to take the plight of indigenous groups seriously. The pope believes that the sustainable practices and lifestyles of indigenous peoples hold useful lessons for modern societies facing the threat of climate change. Scientists confirm that biodiversity is best preserved in regions of the forest reserved for

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