Brazil: The Time of Choices

The Comboni Missionaries support indigenous peoples and local communities in defending their territories – a crucial mission in this time of change.

One can barely see the sky and the heat is unbearable. In Northeast Brazil, drought returns to threaten the work and the survival of many rural communities. The elderly still remember the times when it used to rain for six months a year in the Amazon region: from November until April. Today it barely rains for four months. But where might the smoke, which these days obscures the sun and prevents flights landing at airports, come from?

Some put the blame on the fazendeiros, the local farmers, who practice uncontrolled burning of pastures in order to prepare the soil for sowing when the rains start. They are burning the last two forest reserves of Maranhão, home to the Awá and Guajajara indigenous groups. The fire has been spreading through the reserves for two months now, and no one has managed to stop it – above all because of the lack of political commitment and substantial investments.

The fire is an instance of arson – set by illegal timber traders who are in conflict with the indigenous peoples. Many make a profit from the precious timber, including certain local politicians and corrupt officials. But, to use a local expression, “the forest standing” is the only guarantee for the future of many indigenous villages and the lives of their inhabitants. The struggle began when the natives started to openly oppose the looting of timber. Some local environmental leaders even had to flee their land because they received death threats.

The Comboni Missionaries, acting as part of the Pan-Amazon Ecclesial Network for the defense of the Brazilian state Maranhão and its communities, submitted an open letter, which was signed by nuns and bishops from 14 different countries. Now governments must demonstrate their willingness to implement the commitments made at the Paris Climate Conference and turn declarations and principles into real action.

The pressure on the Brazilian Government is strong: President Dilma Rousseff declared at the Climate Conference that the rate of deforestation of the Amazon has decreased by 80% over the last decade. While this is correct, the rate actually increased by 16% in 2014-2015. The recently revised Forest Code, in fact, favours agribusiness and the conversion of natural land and forests into a monoculture crop. President Rousseff also announced that the illegal deforestation of the Amazon will be reduced to zero by 2030. But since deforestation is illegal already, shouldn’t it be ended now and forever?

We, as missionaries, feel that our place is at the side of the indigenous people of Maranhão, supporting them in defending their livelihoods and promoting their educational development. We participate actively in the Pan-Amazon Ecclesial Network by denouncing the looting of the region and making alternative environmental proposals. We take part in the debate on climate change and support the pressure put on national governments to make courageous choices in support of sustainability and the defense of future generations.

When we look up to the sky and see the pale sun behind the smoke screen, we feel demoralised; the organised protest of indigenous peoples and local communities is currently achieving more than the promises of politicians.