Speaking in the Peruvian Amazon Friday, Pope Francis said the region’s gold mining industry had become a “false god that demands human sacrifice” because it chews up people and nature and “corrupts everything.”
In back-to-back speeches in this humid river town in southeastern Peru, where illegal gold mining is rampant, Francis touched on some of his most common themes: how avarice and greed are destroying the planet.
Much of the gold mined illegally in Peru and other Latin American countries is exported to Miami and used to make jewelry, electronics and coins, as a Miami Herald investigation this week revealed.
But while the pope condemned the exploitation of poor nations, he also cautioned about those who take environmental protection to such an extreme that their good intentions end up harming traditional communities.
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Francis kicked off his first full day in Peru in Puerto Maldonado, the country’s gateway to the Amazon, near the borders of Brazil and Bolivia. His opening event included more than 3,500 indigenous leaders from across the region, wearing ceremonial headdresses, colorful jute wrappings and spare reed skirts.
Francis said that perhaps never before in history had traditional Amazon cultures been so threatened.
In an impassioned speech interrupted by applause, the Argentine pope said traditional communities are being trapped between capitalistic greed and misguided conservation efforts.
“On one side … there is the pressure of the great economic interests that aim their avarice at petroleum, gas, wood, gold and monoculture agriculture,” he said. “On the other side, there is the threat to your territories that comes from certain perverse policies that promote the conservation of nature without regard to humans, more specifically, you, our Amazon brothers.”
But Francis saved his harshest criticism for the human trafficking that has been spawned by the illegal gold trade. In sprawling mining camps in the southeastern region of Madre de Dios that includes Puerto Maldonado, young men and women are often lured by the promise of riches, but end up as exploited laborers and sex workers.
Francis characterized them as “slaves,” saying everyone was responsible for the problem.
“I want everyone to hear God’s cry: ‘Where are your sister and brother slaves?’ ” he said. “There is so much complicity. And it’s a question for everyone.”
Francis said he wanted to kick off his visit to Peru, which hasn’t seen a papal visit since Pope John Paul II in 1988, in the heart of the Amazon because he believes traditional communities have much to teach the world about protecting nature.
The Madre de Dios area is one of the most biodiverse regions on the planet, but it’s also troubled. Illegal gold mining is tearing up forests and polluting streams. The region is also under pressure from the oil industry and from government plans to build roads through sensitive areas.
The environmental devastation stems largely from demand for gold and other precious resources from consumers in the United States and other wealthy countries.
On Friday, shortly before the pope spoke in Puerto Maldonado, two Miami gold traders who had benefited from exploiting the region stood before a federal judge. Juan Granda and Samer Barrage had pleaded guilty to buying $3.6 billion of illegal gold extracted from mines in Latin America, including some in Puerto Maldonado. They were sentenced to six and nearly seven years in prison, respectively. Judge Robert Scola said their illegal activities contributed to “deforestation,” “poisoning” of workers and other “social ills.”
Those problems, leaders in the Amazon hope, will receive global visibility from the pope’s visit.
Luz Britaue Kuakuibehue, of the Harakbut ethnic group, said the national government would now be forced to take indigenous communities seriously.
“Nobody this important has ever been here,” she explained. “[The central government] has to listen to us.”
While indigenous demands are varied, many groups are asking for more territorial rights and autonomy. The organizations claim, backed up by research, that giving native communities land rights is a good way to preserve forests.
Julio Ricardo Cusurichi, president of the Native Federation of Madre de Dios and its Tributaries, or Fenamad, and winner of the prestigious 2007 Goldman Prize for conservation, said he hoped the pope’s visit — and recognition of native communities and their efforts — would help strengthen their hand as they try to fend off oil and construction projects.
“Because of our efforts, a large part of humanity can still breathe clean air,” he said of their stewardship of the Amazon rainforest. “We need territorial [rights] without concessions.”
Francis also weighed in on another controversial issue in the Amazon: tribes living in voluntary isolation.
While some of the region’s governments have set up reserves for the isolated groups, some say it would be more compassionate to pull them into the safety of society.
Francis said these groups shouldn’t be idealized or thought of as a living “museum” but that their way of life needed to be protected.
“The disappearance of a culture can be as or more important than the disappearance of an animal or plant species,” he said. “Their wisdom has much to teach those of us who are not part of their culture.”
On Saturday, Francis will be traveling to the coastal community of Trujillo, where he is expected to talk about climate change, and then will hold his final Mass in the capital, Lima, before returning to the Vatican on Sunday.
Peru is the eighth Latin American country that Francis has visited since assuming the position in 2013.
Miami Herald staff writers Nicholas Nehamas and Jay Weaver contributed to this story. Follow Jim Wyss on Twitter @jimwyss