Amazonians want Pope Francis to come to their defense, with a bow and arrow
By: Katell ABIVEN
Indigenous leaders from the Amazon who will meet Pope Francis in Peru on Friday will present him with a bow and arrow, a gift rich in symbolism for a vulnerable people clinging to a simple past, facing an uncertain future.
“We are a people who have been stripped of their original lands,” summed up Cesar Jojaje Eriney, the 43-year-old head of the Ese Eja tribe.
Adjusting his crown of colorful parrot feathers and slipping on a necklace made from the teeth of jaguars and wild pigs, Cesar says he looks to the pope’s visit “with hope” that it can spur the return of indigenous lands by the state.
“It’s a unique window. A unique opportunity,” he said.
His and other leaders’ main concern is rampant illegal gold mining and logging that have devastated their ancestral lands.
His tiny settlement of 230 inhabitants, at Palma Real, is accessible only via a two-hour boat trip into the Amazon rainforest from the dusty river town of Puerto Maldonado, in Peru’s wild southeast.
Children run barefoot through flocks of scattering chickens. Modernity has largely been kept at bay despite the gradual appearance of motorbikes, some mobile phones and the ubiquitous soccer jersey.
The 81-year-old head of the Roman Catholic Church will visit remote Puerto Maldonado for a meeting with 3,500 indigenous people from the Amazon basin on Friday.
For the Ese Eja, it’s a big day. A total 187 people have signed up for the trip – almost the entire local community — will be transported up the Amazon tributary Madre de Dios river on boats chartered by the Catholic Church.
– ‘Kind old man’ –
Eight boats were chartered for Palma Real and whole families settled in, loaded with luggage, food and water for the three days their stay is to last. Armed with a megaphone, Cesar shouted out instructions to those boarding the vessels.
But who is the pope for them? “They know he is the great bishop of all,” said Martin Ramirez, sent by Catholic charity Caritas to oversee the transfer.
However, he said the Church had to send a delegation “to explain who the pope is and why this meeting is taking place.”
“We call him Papachi, the kind daddy, the little old man,” says Cesar. Other indigenous neighbors in the region refer to Francis as “Apaktone” – the old man.
On Friday, Cesar said he wants to give the pope a message: “Thank you for saving our lives” — remembering that the Catholic Church protected the community in a volatile period of the 1940s when rubber prices soared and many indigenous people were killed.
“We were 25-30,000 people, today there are barely 600 of us left,” he said, counting the two other Ese Eja Tribes in the area.
A second message is even starker: “That he saves our lives a second time, so that we won’t disappear altogether,” he said, denouncing the Peruvian state for appropriating more and more tribal lands.
– Gold panning threat –
Though the Ese Eja live a subsistence existence mainly through cultivating chestnuts, their lands sit atop vast reserves of gold, gas and oil that has made them irresistable to fortune hunters.
Gold panning is already a scourge in the area, creating huge craters of mud in the forest and spilling mercury, used to extract gold, into the water system.
“Yesterday they killed us by shooting at us, today they want to exterminate us by starving us,” lamented Cesar, accusing the government of ceding to commercial interests drawn by Peru’s gold-rush.
In addition to crafts made by local women, the community will offer Francis the gift of a bow and arrow “so he can defend us.”
Nearby, Jacinto Savera Chatawa, a 70-year-old father of 12 children, was unmoved by all the excitement generated ahead of Francis’ visit.
Evangelizers have long imposed their own rules on a people who lived differently to them, he said.
“We were civilized, and the natives had the right to three or four wives, but the priest forbade it,” he said, a small black monkey lounging on his knee.
“Our God, it’s Edosikiana,” and not the Catholic god, said Jacinto, who wont’ be going to Puerto Maldonado to see the pope on Friday.
“If it would be a God who came from the sky with wings that were two meters long, then maybe,” he said, laughing with his family.