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Vatican Discussion About Amazon Conservation Raises Anger of Brazil's Right-Wing Government

President Jair Bolsonaro appears to consider the topics to be discussed in the upcoming Synod, including climate change and indigenous peoples, to be part of a leftist agenda.
Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro.

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro.

A special three-week synod focused on the Amazon region due to be held at the Vatican in Rome, Italy, this October has antagonized the Bolsonaro government, which regards it as an interference in Brazil's national sovereignty.

The Synod has a seemingly innocuous sounding name: "Amazonia: New Paths for the Church and for an Integral Ecology." However, for the Brazilian president's National Security Adviser General Augusto Heleno, head of the Internal Security Cabinet, the GSI, "it's worrying and we want to neutralize it."

Heleno worries that the progressive clergy will use the Synod to criticize the government's Amazon policies, which, though still taking shape, are likely to include a ban on all further demarcation of indigenous reserves, the opening of indigenous lands to mining concessions, and the building of numerous infrastructure mega-projects, including roads, railways, and dams—policies that could heavily impact conservation areas and indigenous reserves, and cause a big uptick in deforestation, putting Brazil's 2015 Paris Climate Agreement carbon reduction targets at risk.

The synod arose out of Pope Francis' 2015 encyclical Laudato Si, "Caring for Our Common House," which called for action on global warming and pinpointed the pan-American Amazon region as an area of concern—the document caused considerable controversy in Latin America. Taking part in the Synod will be bishops and priests (and one nun) from the nine countries encompassing the Amazon rainforest, along with representatives of non-governmental organizations that work in the region. However, the right-wing government of Jair Bolsonaro appears to consider the themes to be discussed, including climate change and indigenous peoples, to be part of a leftist agenda.

The Catholic church has a long connection with the Amazon. Missionaries came to South America with the conquistadores and religious orders established churches, schools, and hospitals up and down the Amazon River and its tributaries over the next 400 years. Their aim was to convert indigenous peoples, but after liberation theology swept through the region in the 1960s and '70s, the focus changed to respecting indigenous cultures and defending their land rights.

In 1975, bishops working in the Brazilian Amazon formed the CPT—the Pastoral Land Commission—to denounce the violence being used against both traditional populations and the more recently arrived colonos, or peasant farmers, who had emigrated from Brazil's south to the Amazon, and who, once they had done the hard work of clearing land, were being violently evicted by ranchers and landowners.

The Church paid a heavy price for its advocacy, as bishops, priests, and nuns were persecuted. Several were murdered because of their work. Even after Brazil's military dictatorship ended in 1985, religious activists continued to be targeted. In 2005 Sister Dorothy Stang, an American nun of the Notre Dame congregation, working in the small town of Anapu on the Transamazon highway, was assassinated for defending peasant farmers. Her successor, Father Amaro, continues to face harassment, plus charges placed against him by local landowners and ruralistas—rural supporters of large-scale agribusiness.

Although today's Catholic church is no longer the powerful political force it once was, it seems the Bolsonaro government, elected with massive support from the evangelical churches, still is very concerned about its influence. Likewise, the retired generals and other high military officers who hold key posts in the government, who seem to be setting Bolsonaro's Amazon agenda. Many of them seem to maintain a mindset similar to that held during the 1964–85 dictatorship, where any foreign power that wields Amazon influence is suspected of plotting to internationalize the region, using indigenous territories as springboards.

The government's strategy for neutralizing the Amazon Synod reportedly includes the deploying of intelligence agents to monitor preparatory meetings and putting diplomatic pressure on the Italian government to intercede with the Vatican to avoid, or at least tone down, criticism of Brazil's Amazon policies. The government is also demanding the right to participate in the synod, an extremely unusual request.

In a sign of how big of a threat the government views the Synod, it has decided to sponsor a rival symposium in Rome, just a month before the Pope's meeting, to present examples of "Brazil's concern and care for the Amazon. Government-supported actions to protect environmental areas, quilombos (settlements founded by runaway slave), and indigenous groups will be showcased.

One such government initiative is a scheme to plant 4,942 acres of genetically modified soy within the Pareci Indigenous Reserve in Mato Grosso state, a project proudly shown off to the press a few days ago. The ministers of the Environment and Agriculture, flown in from Brasilia for a photo-op, awkwardly shuffled around, performing an indigenous dance. The renting of indigenous land for agribusiness development is banned under the 1988 Brazilian Constitution, and the producers have been fined by the Ministry of the Environment itself, but the ruralistas want to change the law.

Questioned by reporters about the government's opposition to the Synod, Heleno, defended the position, saying, "There are foreign [non-governmental organizations] and international authorities who want to intervene in our treatment of the Brazilian Amazon ... I'm worried that this Synod is going to interfere in our sovereignty." He added: "We know what we have to do. We know how to do sustainable development, to stop deforestation. We are the country with the lowest deforestation in the world." Brazil's curbing of deforestation, once a model held up to other nations, has seen a reversal in recent years, with a rise in deforestation.

Writing in the newspaper O Globo, Miriam Leitão, a well-known commentator, suggested that the administration's GSI "would do better to take advantage of the experience accumulated by General Heleno and other members of the government when they served in the Amazon [as military men] to tackle the real problems in the region: the invasion of national forests and parks by landgrabbers, illegal and predatory deforestation, the threat to indigenous peoples, the destruction of biodiversity, the falsification of land ownership documents, and the use of the region as a route for organized crime" including wildlife, drug, gun, and human traffickers.

In Rome, the defensiveness shown by the Brazilian government was met with some surprise. Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, the secretary general of the Synod of Bishops, admitted that "priority attention" will be given to the indigenous populations of the Amazon region in its nine countries—Brazil, Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Venezuela, Surinam, Guyana, and French Guyana. However, he emphasized that "the reflections of the Synod go far beyond the Amazon region, because they relate to the whole church and the future of the planet."

In his wide-ranging landmark 2015 encyclical, Pope Francis strongly criticized consumerism and irresponsible corporate development as well as environmental degradation and global warming. The pontiff called for a new dialogue about the planet's future, and a new direction based on Earth stewardship and care for the less fortunate, rather than a continued hyper-focus on economics. He seemed then to have anticipated negative government reactions, like that seen now by Bolsonaro's Brazil, when he condemned "obstructionist attitudes," calling instead for "a new and universal solidarity."

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