Pope Francis sounded a stark warning about the future of the Amazon and its peoples during a visit to the region on Friday, saying they had “never been so threatened.”
In a speech to thousands of tribe members on the edge of the rainforest in Peru, he said the Amazon and its peoples bore “deep wounds.”
Francis lamented “the pressure being exerted by great business interests that want to lay hands on its petroleum, gas, lumber, gold and forms of agro-industrial monocultivation.”
He later highlighted the “endless violence” endured by the region’s women.
Bare-chested tribesmen, their bodies painted and their heads crowned with colorful feathers, danced and sang for the pope when he arrived in the Peruvian city of Puerto Maldonado.
Thousands of indigenous people had traveled to meet the pontiff from throughout the Amazon basin region of Peru, Brazil and Bolivia.
Members of one of the tribes presented the leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics with a bow and arrow in a symbolic gesture aimed at urging him to defend land rights they say they have been stripped of.
“The native Amazonian peoples have probably never been so threatened on their own lands as they are at present,” said the pope, who appeared visibly moved by the reception.
“Amazonia is being disputed on various fronts,” he said.
“The problems strangle her peoples and provoke the migration of the young due to the lack of local alternatives.
“We have to break with the historical paradigm that views Amazonia as an inexhaustible source of supplies for other countries without concern for its inhabitants.”
The Amazon region will be the focal point of a world bishops meeting, or synod, to take place in October 2019.
Local tribal leaders and conservationists are increasingly concerned about rampant illegal gold mining and logging that have devastated ancestral lands.
The 81-year-old pontiff arrived in Peru, the second and last leg of a week-long South American visit, on Thursday afternoon. He was greeted at Lima airport by President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski and his American wife Nancy Lange.
During the first part of his visit, in Chile, Francis highlighted the plight of vulnerable immigrants, offered an apology to victims of sexual abuse by Catholic priests, prayed with survivors of Augusto Pinochet’s brutal dictatorship, and called for protection of Chile’s persecuted indigenous communities.
Before his visit to Chile, the US-based NGO Bishop Accountability said that almost 80 members of the Roman Catholic clergy had been accused of sexually abusing children in Chile since 2000.
At the pope’s first public mass in Santiago on Tuesday, he faced protests over the church’s handling of decades of sexual abuse by the clergy.
Scuffles broke out between riot police and demonstrators near O’Higgins Park, and police used water cannons on protesters. More than 50 people were arrested, authorities said.
At the end of his visit, he robustly defended a Chilean bishop accused of covering up sexual abuse, saying he would only fail to do so if he was given proof against him.