September 17, 2019

The Special Synod on the Amazon: A Call to the Universal Church to Consider New Pathways and an Integral Ecology

Members of the Yagua Tribe

“See, I am making all thing new.” Rev 21:5


In October, 2017, Pope Francis, conscious of the grave situation in the Pan Amazon Region, called for a Special Assembly, a Synod of the Amazon entitled New Pathways for the Church and for an Integral Ecology, which will take place from 6-27 October 2019. The Pan Amazon Region contains the most diverse rainforest in the world and is home to 2,779,478 indigenous people, belonging to 390 groups-nationalities, with at least 137 isolated or uncontactable groups. There are 240 spoken languages ​​belonging to 49 linguistic families. The region is often referred to as the “lungs of the planet” as it is a significant absorber of carbon dioxide. Therefore, the Amazon Region contributes to the clean air we breathe and it contains 20% of the frozen water of the entire planet. For decades, this region has been exploited and used by global corporations, governments and international financial institutions. Today we are witnessing a level of deforestation of the Amazon as never before in our history from the excessive growth of agriculture, extractive industries, and logging activities. Most forest clearing occurs around the “arc of deforestation” from Para in the north to Mato Grosso in the south and the Brazil-Peru-Bolivia area in the southwest.[1] Such activities damage the ecological diversity of the region as well as the social and cultural wealth of indigenous communities.

The oppression of indigenous communities forces them to migrate and leaves many open to exploitation and human trafficking. Recently approximately 80,000 wildfires have been raging through the rainforest, provoking global leaders to call it an international crisis. These wildfires are mainly set by loggers and farmers, to clear land for pasture for cattle or soya bean production. Today as throughout history, the Pan Amazon Region is a victim of bio-piracy.  The illegal appropriation of the resources of indigenous communities continues without any recompense or recognition of indigenous ownership.

Amazon at sunset

The Synod, New Pathways for the Church and Integral Ecology is a call for the universal Church. We are called to become aware of our duties towards our planet and to the indigenous communities who have been deemed “insignificant” throughout the course of history. This Special Synod transcends the strictly ecclesial-Amazonian sphere as it concerns the future of our entire planet. In the Preparatory Document it states: “We begin with a specific geographical area in order to build a bridge to the other important biomes of our world: the Congo basin, the Mesoamerican Biological Corridor, the tropical forests of the Asia Pacific region, and the Guarani Aquifer, among others.”[2] Therefore, this Synod offers a golden opportunity for all of us who are part of the universal Church.  We are asked to recognise the ‘ecological debt’ that we owe to the South (Laudato Si, 51), in this case the Amazon Region, and to begin to listen to what the people of the Amazon have to say through this Synod. It is imperative that we listen as the future of our planet is at stake.

In this article, I will outline the historical context to which the Synod is situated as it does not begin from a Tabula rasa, (clean slate). In highlighting some of the broad historical trends, I hope to enable the reader to link the past with the present to illustrate why this Synod will be one of the most vital of our time.

There is no intention in this article to present the complete history of the Catholic Church in Latin America, nor the process of colonisation by Spain or Portugal in the Americas.  This in itself would be almost impossible due to the complexities therein. However, it is possible to highlight some of the historical events that in my opinion provide an understanding as to why this particular Synod is both a challenge and an opportunity for the universal Church today...

[1] Global Forest Atlas

[2] Preparatory Document for the Synod for the Amazon: Amazonia: New Paths for the Church and for Integral Ecology, Preamble.

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