The Amazon region, with an area of 550 million hectares, hosts the world’s largest tropical rainforest, the world’s second longest river and its largest with more than 20% of the entire planet’s flowing water, around 400 unique cultures and communities, and a third of all known terrestrial plant, animal, and insect species. Along with the other forests and oceans of the world, the Amazon is often described as one of the lungs of the earth for its capacity to absorb enormous amounts of carbon dioxide and is critical in reducing global warming.
While its central role in promoting and sustaining life around the world is recognized, the Amazon region’s vastness and tremendous resources also attract the construction of megaprojects like the Belo Monte Dam and the Volte Grande Project, massive deforestation, extraction of natural resources, and the search for oil and gas. These have huge impacts on its forests and rivers, its biodiversity, and its communities and cultures.
Deforestation of the Amazon has reached almost 20 percent, according to a 2016 study Land-use and climate change risks in the Amazon and the need of a novel sustainable development paradigm by scientists in Brazil. In conclusion, the authors recognize the “gargantuan global effort” needed in the decarbonization of the world economy: “Reducing tropical deforestation to nearly zero is necessary for biodiversity conservation, provision of ecosystems services, and, to some extent, climate mitigation by reducing land-cover change emissions, but it is not sufficient at all to avert the risk of global climate change. Unchecked climate change poses a great danger of exceeding tipping points for the forests. Therefore, a gargantuan global effort of decarbonizing the world economy is called for to avoid transgressing these boundaries and to meet the safeguards of maximum 2 degrees C global warming as set by the Paris Agreement…”
This forest cover loss not only affects the biodiversity but also the lives of up to three million Indigenous Peoples and local communities who depend upon the Amazon for their livelihood and sustenance. Their socio-economic marginalization means they often are not consulted and have little to no power to stop the changes to their environment.
A Jesuit response to the cry of the Amazon
In light of these concerns, Servicio Jesuita a la Pan Amazonía (SJPAM) was established in 2014 as a response by the Conferencia Provinciales en América Latina y el Caribe (CPAL) to “defend and promote life and a sustainable environment in Pan-Amazonia in solidarity with the poorest, the most excluded and in particular with the Indigenous Peoples.” SJPAM intends to pursue a global approach to the Pan-Amazon concerns in cooperation with Church and civil society actors. SJPAM has a presence in three Amazonian borders: Leticia in Amazonas, Colombia (Peru, Colombia, Brazil); Assis in São Paulo, Brazil (Bolivia, Peru, Brazil); and Bonfim (Roraima, Brazil)-Lethem (Upper Takutu-Upper Essuquibo Region, Guyana) (Brazil, Guyana) and has three work areas: awareness, education, and training; reflection, research and advocacy; and service to the Church and inculturation of Spirituality.
Like the Amazon River, Jesuit approaches run in different directions. There are 62 Jesuits working across this vast geography and establishing a unified response is a challenge. The Amazon is a key priority area of CPAL and starting a Jesuit community that bridges together a common response is not easy due to distance and communications. There is Jesuit presence in seven of the nine countries which constitute the Pan-Amazonian region (Colombia, Venezuela, Guyana, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, and Brazil). This covers an area of roughly seven million square kilometers and a third of all of South America.
The decision to locate SJPAM in Leticia was a strategic one. By situating itself in the “triple border” of Colombia, Peru, and Brazil, there is greater access not only in connecting the different works of Jesuits and laity, but also in reaching out to the various territories and cultures. Distances are bridged by building relationships, emphasizing Pope Francis’ sentiment in Laudato Si’ (6, 16) that we are all connected.
SJPAM collaborates with various organizations focused on the Amazon and a key relationship is with Red Ecclesial Panamazonica (REPAM), a Latin American Catholic church transnational network created specifically to respond to the challenges facing the people of the Amazon and their natural environment. REPAM is taking the lead in organizing the Special Assembly of the Synod of Bishops for the Pan-Amazon Region in October 2019 that seeks to hear the voices of those living in the Amazon and “transform the Church’s precariously thin presence” in the region.
Another key relationship is with Fe y Alegria, an organization providing educational opportunities to the marginalized, reaching out to over 144 centers in the Amazon, building awareness and conducting trainings.
A recent dialogue during the visit of the Ecojesuit team in Colombia for its annual meeting is expected to be a pivotal point in advancing the Amazon as a priority.
Gathered together were key officials and faculty ofthe Pontificia Universidad Javeriana led by Father RectorJorge Humberto Peláez SJ, CPAL President Roberto Jaramillo SJ, and the Provincial of the Society of Jesus in Colombia, Carlos Eduardo Correa SJ. The gathering brought together for the first time these various institutions in Colombia in a day of sharing and learning about efforts in the Amazon region and exploring needed collaborations. Other organizations who took part in the dialogue included Fe y Alegria, Centro de Investigación y Educación Popular, Instituto Mayor Campesino, Fundación Gaia Amazonas, and Fundación Caminos de Identidad.
SJPAM is building relationships and promoting communities of justice and action for the Amazon and is facing challenging work, but as SJPAM Coordinator Alfredo Ferro Medina SJ says, “we need to continue to connect and build bridges.”
“The multifaceted challenge of caring for our common home calls for a multifaceted response from the Society. We begin by changing our personal and community lifestyles, adopting behavior coherent with our desire for reconciliation with creation. We must accompany and remain close to the most vulnerable. Our theologians, philosophers, and other intellectuals and experts should contribute to the rigorous analysis of the roots of and solutions to the crisis. Jesuit commitment in regions like the Amazon and the Congo Basin, environmental reserves that are essential for the future of humanity, should be supported. We should manage our financial investments responsibly. And we cannot forget to celebrate creation, to give thanks for “so much good we have received.” (GC 36, Decree 1, 30)