Mongabay Series: Conservation and Religion

Indigenous land and forest rights in the spotlight during pope’s visit to Mexico

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During the pope’s recent five-day visit to Mexico, indigenous and community groups from throughout Latin America gathered to discuss land rights issues.

Indigenous land and forest rights in the spotlight during pope’s visit to Mexico
  • As an organization rooted in religion and faith, Pope Francis' support for peace, marginalized people, and the environment strongly resonates with Las Abejas members, most of whom are Catholic.
  • Pope Francis' second encyclical, Laudato Si, continues to resonate with many people and organizations in Latin America.
  • More than 100 people from 15 Latin American countries attended the event, held the weekend immediately preceding the Pope's visit to the southern Mexican state.

Green wooden crosses line the edges of the open air auditorium overlooking the highlands of Chiapas, in southern Mexico. Below the cement floor lies the tomb where 45 Maya Tzotzil children, women and men are buried after having been massacred in Acteal by a paramilitary group in 1997. Killed while they were praying in the local chapel, the Acteal massacre victims belonged to Las Abejas Civil Society, a grassroots faith-based pacifist organization formed five years earlier.

“We’re still here, taking care of the survivors and of the blood of the martyrs,” Las Abejas president Sebastián Pérez Vásquez told Mongabay and a handful of other publications during a visit to Acteal last week, a few days before Pope Francis’ February 15 visit to Chiapas.

Las Abejas Civil Society association president Sebastián Pérez Vásquez welcomes the pope's message speaking up for people and the planet. Photo by Sandra Cuffe.
Las Abejas Civil Society association president Sebastián Pérez Vásquez welcomes the pope’s message speaking up for people and the planet. Photo by Sandra Cuffe.

The December 22, 1997 massacre took place in the context of the Mexican government’s counterinsurgency campaign in Chiapas following the Zapatista uprising of 1994, when a guerrilla army of thousands of Mayans descended on cities and towns in the state, demanding land, autonomy, and democracy. Las Abejas supports the Zapatistas’ vision and demands, but does not support armed struggle. However, that did not stop the pacifist group from becoming a target in the ongoing low-intensity conflict.

Justice for the massacre of unarmed villagers continues to be a central focus for Las Abejas, but the group also defends land rights and speaks out against government reforms, natural resource exploitation, and other threats to indigenous territories, forests, and organizations. Indigenous communities in Chiapas face the imposition of hydro-electric dams, mining, infrastructure, and other projects in their lands, and community leaders organizing against such projects in the state have been threatened, jailed, and killed.

As an organization rooted in religion and faith, Pope Francis’ support for peace, marginalized people, and the environment strongly resonates with Las Abejas members, most of whom are Catholic.

“The pope brings an important message,” said Pérez Vásquez, adding that the pontiff defends Mother Earth. During the pope’s recent five-day visit to Mexico, Las Abejas participated in a gathering with indigenous and community groups from throughout Latin America to discuss that message. “It’s not just here that we’re struggling to defend territory, but in other countries too,” said Pérez Vásquez.

Pope Francis’ second encyclical, Laudato Si, continues to resonate with many people and organizations in Latin America, where the majority of the population is Catholic. The 184-page document published by the Vatican in June 2015 deals with climate change, environmental destruction for economic gain, development, inequality, and the gospel of creation, among other themes. Addressed not to bishops but to all people, the crux of Pope Francis’ message is reflected in the encyclical’s subtitle, On Care For Our Common Home.

“I urgently appeal, then, for a new dialogue about how we are shaping the future of our planet. We need a conversation which includes everyone, since the environmental challenge we are undergoing, and its human roots, concerns and affects us all,” states the Laudato Si document.

Indigenous people and organizations discussed Pope Francis' second encyclical during the pontiff's February 2016 visit to Mexico. Photo by Sandra Cuffe.
Indigenous people and organizations discussed Pope Francis’ second encyclical during the pontiff’s February 2016 visit to Mexico. Photo by Sandra Cuffe.

The encyclical also directly addresses indigenous people and the large-scale extraction and infrastructure projects affecting their lands. For indigenous people, land is not a commodity, paragraph 143 explains, but a sacred space that is key to identity.

“When they remain on their land, they themselves care for it best. Nevertheless, in various parts of the world, pressure is being put on them to abandon their homelands to make room for agricultural or mining projects which are undertaken without regard for the degradation of nature and culture,” the encyclical states.

Indigenous nations and organizations gathered on February 13 and 14 in Chiapas to discuss the encyclical together with theologians and with campesino, human rights, and environmental groups. Along with the encyclical, participants presented and discussed struggles in and threats to their own lands, forests, water, and territories.

“We see how Laudato Si describes the planet-wide ecological devastation caused by capitalism,” participants in the Latin American event in Chiapas wrote in a declaration addressed to Pope Francis and to the people of the world. “We see how government and companies insist on despoiling and destroying our Mother Earth, exploiting and commercializing her, without considering that she is the sum of our ancestral territories.”

Cándido Mezúa traveled to the gathering from Panama, where he is an elected leader in indigenous Emberá territories located near the border with Colombia. He also has a leadership role in the Mesoamerican Alliance of People and Forests (AMPB), which coordinated the event together with the Fray Bartolomé de las Casas Human Rights Center (FRAYBA), the Coordinating Body of Indigenous Peoples of the Amazon Basin (COICA), and the Mexican Network of Peasant Forestry Organizations (MOCAF).

“There’s a significant change in the church regarding the situation of the planet,” Mezúa told Mongabay. “We saw that it was a good moment to engage in deeper reflection,” he said, referring to the pope’s visit to Mexico.

Indigenous Emberá leader Cándido Mezúa traveled from Panama to attend a Latin American gathering during Pope Francis' visit to Mexico. Photo by Sandra Cuffe.
Indigenous Emberá leader Cándido Mezúa traveled from Panama to attend a Latin American gathering during Pope Francis’ visit to Mexico. Photo by Sandra Cuffe.

The Emberá continue their decades-long struggle for the legal recognition of collective land rights. At the same time, they are dealing with encroachment into their lands, the long-term impacts of dam construction, and the threat posed to their forests from oil companies and other interests. The issues the Emberá face are the same as those in many communities and indigenous territories up and down Latin America, said Mezúa.

“All of this is connected. Countries in the region are managed by macro-regional policies,” he said.

Mezúa sees the Laudato Si document as an important tool. Whether or not people are Catholic, the message contained in the encyclical coincides with the world view of many indigenous peoples and their defense of territorial rights, he said.

“For us, the sustainability of Mother Earth is a spiritual issue,” said Mezúa.

The Emberá leader and other participants in the Chiapas event hope the pope’s encyclical can help influence policy in the region. Words are not enough, they concluded, calling on governments and church authorities to follow the pope’s lead and take action for the future of the planet.

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