Indigenous Amazon Federations Address the Pope

When the Pope visited Peru last month, indigenous federations sent a letter outlining the need for an indigenous economy.

When Pope Francis spoke to a crowd of more than 100,000 people in the remote Amazonian city of Puerto Maldonado, Peru, last month, he denounced the interests that are ravaging the area—namely, illegal gold mining, which has generated a rise in violent crime and human trafficking, razed pristine rainforests, and sent tons of mercury into rivers. Before such destructive outside forces arrived, indigenous people in this region lived in harmony with nature.

"We need an alternative to hell... We need a proper indigenous economy that is based on a sustainable use of the rainforest."

COICA general coordinator Edwin Vásquez

The Amazon’s umbrella indigenous federation, COICA, knows first-hand about these ever-increasing assaults on indigenous lives and ancestral lands—and it has an answer: the creation of indigenous economies. As COICA general coordinator Edwin Vásquez told a New York Times reporter at the Pope’s Puerto Maldonado event in January, “We need an alternative to hell, and hell is mining,” he said. “We need a proper indigenous economy that is based on a sustainable use of the rainforest.”

That’s why the Rainforest Alliance, COICA, and AIDESEP (Peru’s federation of indigenous people, and a member of COICA) joined forces to do just that: build indigenous economies throughout the Amazon. With 10-plus years of experience advancing community forestry in the region, the Rainforest Alliance is well-suited to scaling up rural, sustainable livelihoods that can help communities resist outside pressures to clear forest and degrade land. “As indigenous people, we make use of our natural resources,” Vasquez said. “But we do it sustainably, without laying waste to our Amazon.” More and more, indigenous communities throughout the Amazon are obtaining title to their lands—a quarter of Peru’s rainforest, for example, is now under indigenous control—providing an excellent foundation upon which to build robust economies that honor cultural values.

COICA, along with AIDESEP and FENAMAD (a regional indigenous federation), presented Pope Francis with a letter at Puerto Maldonado, exhorting him to support these wide-ranging efforts to build an indigenous economy, to title more ancestral lands to indigenous people, and to address environmental travesties—all with the aim of halting the destruction of the Amazon. Read the letter here:

The Earth and her abandoned people cry out for a change of course

(Laudato Si, item 53)

Puerto Maldonado, January 13, 2018

Your Most Holy


With our highest esteem:

On the occasion of your visit to this abandoned corner of the planet, we greet you. We represent the indigenous Amazonian people: 8 communities of Madre de Dios (Harakbut, Shipibo, Ese Eja, Yine, Amahuaca, Kichwa Runa, Matsigenka), 50 in Peru and 400 in the South American basin, represented locally by the Native Federation of the Madre de Dios River and Tributaries (FENAMAD-Federación Nativa del Rio Madre de Dios y Afluentes), the Inter-ethnic Association for the Development of the Peruvian Jungle (AIDESEP-Asociación Interétnica de Desarrollo de la Selva Peruana) and Coordinator of Indigenous Organizations of the Amazon Basin (COICA-Coordinadora de Organizaciones Indígenas de la Cuenca Amazónica).

The Amazon continues to suffer ever-increasing levels of deforestation and pollution—environmental travesties that threaten to become uncontainable and irreversible, impacting climate, water, food, and biodiversity around the world. As you can see, your 2015 call in the encyclical "Caring for our Common Home" has not been heeded. In confronting the catastrophe into which we are sinking, we encourage you to support the vision for climate action that our communities are developing, which can be summarized as follows:

In Madre de Dios, we are strengthening an indigenous economy in standing forests to have an alternative to the temptations of mining hell; and we also demand effective state action for addressing the mercury contamination that has affected our communities and inhabitants, including those of Manu National Park and others. Respect for the right to live and the ancestral territories of isolated indigenous peoples is strengthened by these vulnerable communities coming together.

In Peru, the collective titling of integral territories for at least 20 million hectares should end the historical debt incurred in 200 years of the republic and act as a safeguard against advancing forest destruction by agribusiness plantations and large infrastructure projects. Public policies are inadequate, lack effectiveness, and are informed by external mentalities. For a good government we urge the creation of a Ministry of Indigenous Peoples that would be led by indigenous people.

In the South American Basin, the preparation of an emergency mission of UN agencies to confront trans-boundary threats such as the ethnocide of 60 peoples in isolation, the spread of malaria and HIV/AIDS, and the criminalization of the defenders of nature. This must be accomplished soon, recognizing the heroism of those committed to the less favored.

These indigenous demands and actions are consistent with and supported by your Encyclical, which mentions, for example, that:

  • Multinationals leave environmental liabilities, people without life, and pollution (LS, 51)
  • Despicable insistence on plundering nature to offer immediate consumption and revenues (192)
  • Policies that are not subject to economy or technocracy, rather both should serve life (189)
  • Encouraging those who struggle to protect the home we share (13)
  • The communities are not minorities, they are the main interlocutors (146)
  • Incorporate the rights of the peoples and their protagonist action based on their own culture (144)

We the Communities reaffirm our identity; we will continue fighting; we await your support.

Julio Cusurichi Palacios, President of FENAMAD
Lizardo Cauper Pezo, President of AIDESEP
Edwin Vásquez Campos, General Coordinator of COICA


Burning Peruvian forest - photo by Mohsin Kazmi

Forests are falling at an alarming rate.

Each minute, 85 acres are destroyed.