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Amazon Day and the Martyrom of Rainforest Protectors

Yasuní National Park

As the most biodiverse place in the world, the Yasuní National Park in the Ecuadorian Amazon teems with life.  Just one hectacre of of the park has as many species of tree and shrubs as all of Canada and the United States combined.

In addition to plants and animals, the rainforest is home to ingenious people such as the hunting-and-gathering Huaorani tribe who live in self-imposed isolation. In Ecuador, they are known in Ecuador as Tagaeri, “the last free people.”

Since the 16th century, Franciscan friars have served in the rainforest. In recent decades, the Franciscans have been focused on protecting the environment and promoting the dignity of the indingenous people while trying to preserve their rights against petroleum companies seeking access to Ecuador’s largest oil deposit on their ancestral lands.

On July 21, 1987, a Capuchin bishop and sister were dropped into the region by helicopter to facilitate a risky, last-minute mediation between the tensed warrior indigenous tribes and the petroleum companies.

Sr. Inés Arango and Bishop Alejandro Labaka, OFM, Cap.

Bishop Alejandro Labaka and Sr. Inés Arango of the Tertiary Sisters of the Holy Family had been in ministry among the native tribes. They did not want them wiped out. Alejandro said, “If we do not go, they will kill them.”

The next day, the bodies of the Capuchins were found imbedded with spears. The tribes had been living in the anguish of always being attacked and lashed out at the missionaries. Alejandro and Ines’ death and unwavering respect for the Huaorani communities called attention to the plight of indigenous communities.

This Saturday marks the 25th anniversary of Alejandro and Inés’ death. We honor the lives of two passionate people who were able to recognize the presence of God in others and who stood up to protect the oppressed. Like our missioners, they shared in the daily lives of those they served and learned the language and culture — after more than a decade in the Amazon, Alejandro was even adopted by an old Huaorani couple.

The Center of Cultural Investigation of the Ecuadorian Amazon started by Alejandro and the friars helped to preserve the rich oral traditions of the local indigenous tribes and help the Huaorani obtain official titles to ancestral lands. It also built up the capacity of indigenous leaders to organize and develop strategies to deal with the incursion of petroleum companies and inevitable consequences.

After he became bishop of Coca, Alejandro used his leadership and public position to promote peace and make the situation in his diocese more humane and just. He also had a deep love for the rainforest and called it his “green paradise.”

This Saturday we also celebrate Amazon Day and the continued effort to preserve this green paradise. It is a day for prayer, awareness raising and action in support of the needs of the Amazon region.

Deforestation in the Amazon. Photo from flickr, Threat to Democracy.

The Amazon rainforest is the lungs of Mother Earth and it’s being destroyed. Trees are still being cut down; rivers and lands polluted; and indigenous communities displaced and their cultures threatened.

What can you do to help the Amazon?

  • Reduce your meat consumption. Forests are cleared to plant more soy to produce more animal feed. The world’s vast cattle herds emit more greenhouse gasses than all the cars, planes and other forms of transportation put together. Soy is also the largest single factor of deforestation in the Amazon.
  • Reduce your fuel consumption. Vast expanses of cropland are used to grow modest amount of fuel, and biofuels jack up world food prices, endangering the hungry. Drive a more fuel efficient car. Or better yet, ride your bike and support public transportation efforts. 
  • Reduce your paper use. Logging is one of the factors that causes a loss of 7,500 square miles of Amazonian rainforest each year, so use reusable plates, cups and cloth napkins. Write or print on both sides of a piece of paper. If you must purchase paper products, go for post-consumer recycled content . There’s also tree-free products made from hemp or straw.
  • Learn and share #AmazonDay facts this Saturday on our Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest.
  • Support the Orders of Friars Minor in their Amazonia Project.
  • Pray that others learn the importance of the Amazon rainforest and the urgent need to protect its cultural and biodiversity.

Thank you to the Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation Office of Holy Name Province for contributing to this post.

We prepare and support lay Catholics for two-year international, one-year domestic and 1-2 week short-term mission service opportunities in solidarity with impoverished and marginalized communities across the globe.

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