Pope Francis ventured to a bustling corner of the Peruvian Amazon on Friday and sounded an alarm for the fate of the lands and inhabitants of the vast rainforest.
“The native Amazonian peoples have probably never been so threatened on their own lands as they are at present,” the pontiff told thousands of indigenous people, many in colorful costumes, feathered headdresses and face paint, in Puerto Maldonado.
“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,” he said.
Many people lined up in the predawn hours to gain access to the venues where the pope was to speak.
“The pope is a good man, he is concerned about our ancestral lands, we know he is a friend,” said Joel Camaiteri, 40, who was part of a contingent visiting from an ethnic Ashaninka village 12 hours away in the forest.
“We need to preserve our forest,” said Camaiteri, who had rust-colored paint on his face and wore a feathered headdress, a striped gown and black sneakers.
Indigenous representatives presented the pontiff with gifts, including a necklace and traditional headdress. The pope spoke some words in indigenous languages. Traditional drums and other instruments played during his two major appearances.
This jungle boom town of 90,000 took on the air of a carnival as the pope’s visit neared. On Thursday, vendors along a main drag hawked T-shirts emblazoned with Francis' likeness, balloons with images of his face and all manner of pope-related trinkets.
The pope’s comments during his much-anticipated stop, on the fifth day of his weeklong swing through Chile and Peru, were in line with previous declarations from an unabashedly social activist pontiff who has championed environmental protections. He has put his moral weight behind the poor and immigrants and excoriated the “throwaway culture” that, Francis says, wastes lives and despoils the land.
During Friday’s addresses, he repeatedly expressed respect for indigenous people while assailing what modern society and consumerism had wrought in the Amazon region.
“Forests, rivers, and streams are exploited mercilessly, then left barren and unusable,” the pope declared in a second speech to a crowd of both indigenous and nonnative listeners. “Persons are also treated the same way: They are used until someone gets tired of them, then abandoned as ‘useless.’"
Puerto Maldonado is a gateway to the vast Peruvian Amazonian region known as Madre de Dios, or Mother of God. Mining and timber operations, many of them illegal, have ravaged large stretches of the rainforest.
The region — home to various national parks and reserves dedicated to maintaining the zone’s singular biological diversity — has also become infamous as a center of child labor, human trafficking and criminal gangs.
Human rights activists say indigenous groups have been forced from their lands as illicit activities expand. Critics say the Peruvian government has done little to stop the environmental and human devastation.
The pope clearly allied himself with the native peoples of the Amazon against what he called “great business interests that want to lay hands on its petroleum, gas, lumber [and] gold.”
Gold mining operations, many of them small-scale, have been a particular scourge. The use of mercury in the extraction process has accelerated the breakdown of the environment.
The Argentine-born pope, the first pontiff from the Americas, expressed sympathy for migrants who left poverty to seek their fortune in the rugged gold-mining trade, but suggested the allure of ore is often misguided.
“Gold ... can turn into a false god that demands human sacrifices,” the pope said. “False gods, the idols of avarice, money and power, corrupt everything. They corrupt people and institutions, and they ruin the forest.”
The pope didn’t offer many solutions to the problems ravaging the Amazon, but he clearly expressed his opinion that things had gone terribly amiss, from both economic and spiritual perspectives. Alternative approaches to development could be a theme of a Vatican Synod of Amazonian bishops that Francis has scheduled for 2019 at the Vatican.
At an address at an orphanage, Francis urged young people to get an education and to maintain family ties.
“The rivers that hosted your games and provided you with food are now muddied, contaminated, dead,” the pope told the orphanage audience. “Young people, do not be resigned to what is happening! Do not renounce the legacy you have received from your elders, or your lives and dreams.”
Applause frequently punctuated his speeches.
“He seems to understand the struggles we face,” said Lucio Ortega Pinareal, 55, part of a contingent from the Machiguenga ethnic group.
“We want to preserve our land, our forest, our culture,” said Pinareal, who wore a striped robe and necklace of shells.