- Dom Roque Paloschi, president of the Indigenous Missionary Council (CIMI) and archbishop of Porto Velho in the state of Roraima, Brazil, has been under attack because he denounced Indigenous people’s rights violations.
- It has always been risky to live in Amazonia and defend social-environmental issues, but Paloschi says the situation has worsened greatly in the last four years — the period that coincides with Jair Bolsonaro’s administration.
- In 2021, 355 attacks against Indigenous people were reported in Brazil — the most since 2013, according to a CIMI report.
Targeted by threats and intimidation even while celebrating Mass, Dom Roque Paloschi faces the double challenge of being a religious leader and defender of Indigenous rights in a world where environmental degradation and violence against traditional communities are increasing.
Aside from being president of the Indigenous Missionary Council (CIMI), a part of the Catholic Church connected to the National Brazilian Bishops’ Conference (CNBB), since 2015 he has also been archbishop of Porto Velho, state capital of Rondônia, which is one of the most deforested states in Amazonia and which is undergoing intense pressure. Paloschi is also secretary of the Pan-Amazonian Ecclesial Network (REPAM-Brasil).
The challenges Paloschi has experienced for some time were illustrated in a recent episode of intimidation involving the archbishop of Aparecida (in the state of São Paulo), Dom Orlando Brandes, on Oct. 12th. Brandes was celebrating a Mass in honor of the patron saint of Brazil, Nossa Senhora Aparecida, and, as is customary on this date of national religious importance, he reflected on the challenges impacting the nation’s most vulnerable populations. He also drew the attention of his followers to the increasing levels of violence in the country.
But this year’s celebrations were attended by President Jair Bolsonaro, joined by members of his administration and many of his followers, who demonstrated acts of religious disrespect and aggression toward journalists. They did not like the criticisms they heard during the archbishop’s sermon, including that “a beloved homeland is not an armed homeland,” a reference to the government’s slogan promoting arming of the general population, which has grown in popularity under the current federal administration. The archbishop of Aparecida also defended the rights of Black and Indigenous populations and spoke out against hate campaigns and disinformation. Since then, reports of attacks suffered by various religious leaders in the country have increased.
Paloschi’s interview with Mongabay was held before Oct. 12, but many details about the daily pressures he faces, such as attempts to curtail his speech during Mass and attacks he has suffered on social networks for his critical beliefs, are similar to the problems that other Brazilian religious leaders are facing in the current scenario of political instability and polarization.
The risks involved in defending Amazonia
The CIMI president tells of innumerous instances of intimidation in the state of Rondônia involving attitudes and claims that make it clear they are coming from individuals intending to impose emotional and psychological pressure. Every Mass celebrated as well as other religious responsibilities have been difficult for this southern religious leader who holds a degree in philosophy from Pelotas Catholic University and another in theology from Rio Grande do Sul Catholic University.
The current situation is no different from the dilemmas he faced as acting bishop in Boa Vista, Roraima, from 2005-15, except that he says he feels the recent repercussions have become more worrisome.
“We live in this region that is typified by attitudes opposing not only the issue of Indigenous people but also of poor people’s rights. Our lives are shaped by this economy of destruction. And the traditional communities here are no longer seen as individuals but simply as obstacles to so-called development,” states Paloschi.
The daily pressures the archbishop is experiencing are the result of his critical stance. He headed denouncements of rights violations against Indigenous peoples and their territories during the CNBB assemblies in 2017, 2018 and 2019. He has also been outspoken at other national and international forums, including at the Vatican, where he has spoken about the problem with Pope Francis in the presence of other acting bishops in Amazonia.
Paloschi recalls that when he arrived in Roraima in 2005, the Raposa Serra do Sol Indigenous Territory (IT) had been recently ratified. “There were many objections at the time. I remember the communities having to wait nearly six months to be able to celebrate the ratification so as not to create tension.”
On that IT, inhabited by Macuxi and Wapichana people, there were intense clashes between the Indigenous communities and the rice growers who had occupied their traditional territories. Once the IT’s demarcation had been ratified, the farmers had to close down their activities. More recently, tensions have been provoked by Indigenous acts of resistance against illegal gold mining.
“This is what it’s like to live the Episcopal ministry here. This is the scenario in Brazil’s North, where Indigenous peoples, traditional ex-slave communities, riparian communities and the men and women of the rainforest are ignored. To make it worse, today the people who invade these territories feel they are authorized to do so by the president’s speech and the speech of most of his ministers,” states the archbishop.
Paloschi points out that, given the current unsafe situation, he has made the personal decision not to drive by himself in the Rondônia countryside. He says he prefers to travel by bus, as it is also a way to avoid accidents and other events common to the region. “Many leaders have lost their lives in car accidents, many of which were deliberately caused,” he reports.
Questions raised about ideological biases in sermons
The pressure usually begins at the beginning of Mass. The archbishop reports that people come to his church yelling intimidating phrases in an attempt to control what he says during sermons. “They warn that anything, any word I say aside from what they expect could bring about rebellion, objections and demonstrations,” he observes.
Paloschi, who maintains a critical stance with his flock, says he is frequently criticized for letting his speeches be ideologically biased. “When I ask why this poor person has no food or why no one is caring for them, they call me a communist. They have had demonstrations against me on social networks because of this,” he adds.
“And when you bring up the pope’s position on Indigenous rights, there’s the other dilemma,” says Paloschi. The topic has been gaining more attention from the Vatican all the time, and Pope Francis has also taken a critical stance — so much so, this year he named Dom Leonardo Steiner, archbishop of Manaus, as the first cardinal of Amazonia.
On Nov. 3, the CNBB released the documentary film The Letter in Brazil, one month after it was released by the Vatican. Inspired by Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato si’, the production features dialogues between the head of the Catholic Church and five leaders about the need for humans to prevent global ecological crisis. One of these leaders is chief Dadá Borari from the Indigenous group Maró, native to the Brazilian state of Pará.
With regard to the report “Violence Against Brazilian Indigenous Peoples — 2021 Data,” released by CIMI in August, Paloschi argues the data reveal “a sad and embarrassing portrait” of the country. Still, he points out the importance of making information on the current Brazilian reality broadly available. “We do this so that society can know how the Brazilian government treats the original people of this land,” says Paloschi.
The report shows there were 355 violent acts committed against Indigenous people in 2021, the largest number since 2013. The three states with the most murders (a total of 176 reported in the year) were Amazonas with 38, Mato Grosso do Sul with 35 and Roraima with 32. These same states led the ranking in 2019 and 2020.
“The numbers have shown that things really have gotten worse since 2018 when the current administration took office. Not only because of denied constitutional rights, but also because of the violence, which is more intense all the time, of a crueler nature,” affirms Paloschi. One example he mentions: the murders of Indigenous activist Bruno Pereira and English journalist Dom Phillips in the Vale do Javari, Amazonas, in June of this year. The occurrence spread throughout the international press, revealing the absence of governmental controls in the region, which today is at the mercy of organized crime.
The president of REPAM-Brasil, Dom Evaristo Pascoal Spengler, sent a letter to president-elect Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and his transition team on Nov. 11, stating, “we have great hopes for an Amazonian Policy Coordination Secretariat,” which would focus on solutions for the region.
With the Karipuna people in Brasilia
As CIMI president, Paloschi accompanied the leaders of the Karipuna Indigenous people on a trip to Brasilia in September to visit the embassies of many nations and denounce the violence caused by people invading their territories in Rondônia. They were seeking support in finding solutions for resolving the situation. He reminds us that in the 1970s, only eight of the Karipuna were still living after a failed integration proposed by Funai. Following demarcation of the Karipuna Indigenous Territory in 1988, the group has managed to increase its population to 61.
“But today, this Indigenous Territory, which should be protected, is in a devastated state — divided into lots with no protection from any public agency, not even Funai [the National Indian Foundation],” he reports. According to Paloschi’s arguments, these people are asking for nothing more than what is stated in the Brazilian Constitution of 1988.
“And the people who stand by them have to answer for everything.” Paloschi says the Karipuna committee was respectfully and warmly received at the embassies they visited, while he felt the federal agencies they visited did not give them proper attention or recognize demands they presented.
Even given the pressure and intimidation that Paloschi is facing every day, he says he does not take part in any official protection program. “I don’t think we should give in to threats,” he says. But he reiterates that he takes care to avoid personal risk and situations where tempers can flare, as well as any conflicts, either direct or indirect.
He mentions that aside from being careful about where he goes in the city and its outskirts, he never enters into discussions on social networks; neither does he respond to people trying to provoke him in the media. “It’s not just to avoid conflict. It’s also a way of not giving these people any attention.”
Peoples decimated by the death economy
Paloschi reiterates that most of the original Brazilian Indigenous groups have already been decimated and that many remaining in the country are fighting for their survival, as are the Karipuna. “They have the right to the use of their territories. But [invaders] keep taking from them, even after the Indigenous Territories have been demarcated. Throughout the North especially, this violence is increasingly being fed back by the greed of the death economy,” he states.
The archbishop says the violence is worsening because, aside from the dismantling of public polices, Brazil has, historically, a misguided mindset. “We are a prejudiced, discriminating nation that continues to look at Indigenous people as if they weren’t people. This is denial of the first right of recognition of the other. There are many people undergoing hardships because the judiciary system is so slow — cases go on for years and years. And now it seems to be an uncertain path with regard to time frame.”
Even with the uncertainty surrounding this issue — the judgment of which continues to be postponed — Paloschi says that CIMI is confident “the Federal Supreme Court will defend the recognition of rights and prevent the time frame proposal,” which would alter demarcation policy so it would only recognize ITs established before Oct. 5, 1988, the date when the Federal Constitution was enacted.
In terms of solutions for the future that will put Brazil back on track in the international scenario, Paloschi says, “the Indigenous people have to be left to live their own way and to be who they are.” He reaffirms his critical stance: “What sort of development destroys biomes in order to place riches in the hands of the few, producing large quantities of food for export while we have so many people begging for a piece of bread here?”
Paloschi raises other questions as to the direction of Brazil’s political institutions. “And what sort of nation is it that signs international treaties and accords like the International Labor Organization’s Convention 169,” which protects Indigenous rights, including establishing their right to be consulted in the case that any undertaking may impact their territories or ways of life, “only to not carry them out or to disrespect them afterward?” He concludes: “What sort of nation is it where suddenly the presidential administration of the day can just have its way with federal public policy?”
Banner image: Dom Roque Paloschi protesting with Indigenous communities in Amazonia. Photo by CIMI/press office
The Missionary Council for Indigenous Peoples (CIMI). (2022). Violência Contra os Povos Indígenas no Brasil. Retrieved from https://cimi.org.br/wp-content/uploads/2022/08/relatorio-violencia-povos-indigenas-2021-cimi.pdf