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Environmental face-off: Catholic Church workers get ammunition for their fight in Latin America

Published by MAC on 2007-06-29

Environmental face-off: Catholic Church workers get ammunition for their fight in Latin America

By Barbara J. Fraser, Catholic News Service

29th June 2007


LIMA, Peru (CNS) – From the forests of Honduras and the highlands of Guatemala to the Andes Mountains and the Amazon rain forest, church leaders and grass-roots Catholics are facing off against loggers, gold miners, ranchers and oil companies. Some have paid with their lives. Others, such as Bishop Erwin Krautler of Xingu, Brazil, have received death threats. These defenders of the environment and the rights of indigenous peoples and small farmers do not always have the backing of their bishops' conferences. But at their meeting in May in Aparecida, Brazil, the bishops of Latin America and the Caribbean criticized the economic model that sees natural resources as wealth to be plundered and called for environmental awareness to be part of evangelization.

As the bishops refined their conclusions during the meeting, the references to ecology and the environment were whittled down. Nevertheless, the final draft of their document – which is expected to be officially released by the Vatican in July – provides ammunition for church workers who have been criticized for standing up to corporations over environmental issues. The bishops wrote that "as prophets of life" they were urging that "the interests of economic groups that irrationally destroy sources of life" not predominate in decisions about the use of natural resources. Archbishop Pedro Barreto Jimeno of Huancayo, Peru, said that "the position of the church in Latin America is a clear defense of life and clear defense of creation."

That stance bolsters his efforts to clean up the Mantaro River Valley, which cuts across his archdiocese. Once alive with fish and giant frogs, the lakes and rivers in the watershed have been polluted by heavy metals from decades of mining and bacteria from waste dumped by growing towns.

Archbishop Barreto said he sees an "opportunity for ecumenism in the defense of life and of (our) common home, which is creation." In early June, he and several Protestant church leaders traveled to the United States to press the Renco Group Inc., a private holding company based in New York, to move more quickly to clean up the air and water around a smelter it owns in the Mantaro Valley. Cleaning up the smelter – an environmental and health problem that has caused elevated lead levels in local children's blood – is a moral imperative, the prelate said.

In the Aparecida document, the region's bishops also pointed to the "moral responsibility of those who promote" the "devastation of our forests and biodiversity" with a "destructive and selfish attitude." Just before the Fifth General Conference of the Bishops of Latin America and the Caribbean ended, Bishop Alvaro Ramazzini Imeri of San Marcos, Guatemala, told CNS that environmental issues arose as soon as the bishops began to analyze the problems affecting the region. "We cannot ignore the trend of economic globalization, which has a physical and chemical impact in the form of pollution (and) encourages the arrival of large foreign multinational companies that come to strip us of our resources," he said.

Bishop Ramazzini has received threats because of his involvement in protests against a mine opened by the Canadian-based Glamis Gold Ltd. Largely because of protests by church people, early this year the Guatemalan government agreed to set up a commission to discuss mining in the country. While local mining companies are sometimes the targets of protests, more often the focus is on international companies, which operate on a larger scale, chewing away entire mountains to extract gold, silver, copper molybdenum and other metals whose prices have skyrocketed on international markets in recent years.

In many places, conflicts over the environmental impact of extractive industries become complicated because the industries create local jobs, although once the construction phase is finished most modern mines employ few unskilled local workers. The profits made by these companies, compared to the relatively small amounts they often pay in taxes in the countries where they operate, are one source of conflict. Another is the amount of water required by the mines, which are often located in farming areas.

In the highlands of Bolivia, a mine operated by the Denver-based Newmont Mining Corp. draws water from the already saline Desaguadero River, making the water and the surrounding land even saltier, said Oblate Brother Gilberto Pauwels, who heads the Center for Ecology and Andean Peoples in Oruro – and whose effigy was once burned for his environmental work.

Bishop Ramazzini said that one concern of the bishops meeting in Aparecida was that "Latin America offers its natural resources – its water, forests and rain forests – and receives nothing in return. On the contrary, it gets destruction and plundering." In their document, the bishops also warned against the environmental dangers of large-scale agriculture, as well as the "uncontrolled industrialization of our cities and countryside, which pollutes the environment with all kinds of organic and chemical waste."

Another issue that was raised, Bishop Ramazzini said, was "the responsibility of wealthy countries in the use of energy, the issue of global warming." While the final document particularly mentions the thawing of Arctic and Antarctic ice, the Andes Mountains will be one of the first areas to suffer directly from climate change.

The region has the largest mass of tropical glaciers in the world, but experts expect much of the ice in Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador to disappear within the next 25 years. Experts fear that this and other hardships created by global warming will have a disproportionate impact on poor people. In the Andes, glacial retreat will affect peasant farmers who use the water for irrigation, as well as towns that depend on glacial melt for drinking water and hydroelectricity.

The bishops meeting in Aparecida offered some pastoral guidelines, including "evangelizing our people to discover the gift of creation" and bolstering a "pastoral presence" in areas that are "most fragile and threatened by destructive development" practices. They also call for lobbying for public policies that "guarantee the protection, conservation and restoration of nature."

The Amazon was singled out several times because of its fragility and the many threats it faces from loggers, miners, farmers, ranchers, road builders and oil companies. One theologian whose work has focused on the Amazon reacted cautiously, however, saying it is not clear how the document will be translated into action.

Nevertheless, it is a step toward highlighting the problems, particularly the long-term effects of environmental destruction. In their final draft, the bishops made clear that this generation has a responsibility to its children and grandchildren. "The generations that follow us," they wrote, "have the right to receive a habitable world and not a planet on which the air is polluted, the water poisoned and the natural resources exhausted."

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