Missionaries of the jungle

Missionaries of the jungle

Church in the Indian village © Alexander Pitz (KNA)

Two weeks before the Amazon Synod at the Vatican, committed missionaries hope for a tailwind for their work in the affected areas. In the Ecuadorian Indian village of Sarayaku, too, people are looking to Rome with anticipation.

When Sister Rosa Elena Pico received her current assignment, she reacted with horror. "Oh God, they sent me to the jungle," had been her first thought. The 58-year-old from the community of the Missionaries of Mary of the Coredemptrix accepted the challenge.

Wearing a white veil and gray robe, she boarded a rickety light aircraft in November 2017 and landed on a grassy airstrip in the green sea of the Ecuadorian rainforest. Since then, she has been living with two fellow sisters in a wooden hut in the Indio village of Sarayaku – far from civilization.

Amazon Synod gives hope for new impetus

One of the women is currently out of action due to illness. In general, life in the jungle entails a number of difficulties. There is no road network in Sarayaku, but mosquitoes and other bloodsuckers are omnipresent. One must also beware of poisonous snakes.

Nevertheless, the sisters persist in pursuing their goal: spreading the Catholic faith. "We share the life of the indigenous inhabitants," says Pico, who comes from the Andean city of Cuenca. Of the planned Amazon synod in the Vatican (6. to 27. October), she hopes for new impulses. Latin America's rainforest is in great danger, she says. More needs to be done to protect it, not least by the church, she says.

Sarayaku is a symbol of indigenous resistance

In fact, the 135.Sarayaku's 000-hectare territory has been under constant threat for years. Because under the huts of the approximately 2.000 Kichwa Indians is located petroleum. International corporations would be only too happy to start exploiting them right away.

Deforestation and pollution would be the inevitable consequences; the self-determined lifestyle of the Indians with fishing, modest agriculture and a little ecotourism could hardly be preserved in this way. But while indigenous peoples around the world are being overrun by civilization, Sarayaku has become a symbol of indigenous resistance beyond Ecuador's borders.

Oil companies want the "black gold"

After a long dispute with countless skirmishes, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in Costa Rica handed down a verdict in 2012 that caused a sensation: it ruled in favor of the Kichwa people: the Ecuadorian state had violated international agreements when awarding oil production concessions for the Sarayaku region.

The "petroleros," already 1.450 kilograms of explosives planted in the ground had to retreat. But the danger is not over. In Sarayaku's meeting hut, built on a sandy plateau in the center of the village, the members of the community council report on ever new dubious actions by the oil companies to get their hands on the "black gold" after all.

Harmony with nature as a goal

"Our fight against the corporations continues," say the tribal leaders. One of them is Franco Gualinga, the ex-president of the settlement. "We continue to resist colonization," stresses the 50-year-old. The goal is to live in harmony with nature, as the ancestors did.

Support comes from the Catholic Church. The cross-national church network Repam (Red Eclesial Panamazonica) is particularly active in promoting the interests of the indigenous peoples. Founded in 2014 by bishops, priests, religious and lay people from the Amazon – as the church's response to the ongoing destruction.

Schools not particularly good

Sister Rosa Elena is one of those who provide help on the spot. She sees deficits first and foremost in education. As she walks through the village square surrounded by huts at lunchtime, she is greeted by Indio children playing. "They can go to school here, but it's not very good," missionary says.

She therefore tries to set her own accents in dealing with the children – for example, on the subject of sexual morality. Many would have sexual intercourse at the age of twelve or thirteen. "That's normal here," Pico says with a critical undertone.

"They love the forest and want to protect it"

She resists romantic jungle cliches and an overly glorifying view of indigenous culture. "They love the forest and want to protect it."But by no means all would be born environmentalists. Gasoline residues, for example, are often disposed of in the nearby Rio Bobonaza out of ignorance.

The criticism of the sister and her strictness in some matters of faith are not always well received. "I have also been asked to leave again," she admits. They point out in such conversations that it is the bishop alone who has to decide about it.

Priest shortage in the Amazon region

Conflicts like these show: The villagers have accepted Catholicism in many respects, but the priests have not. The chapel in the heart of Sarayaku bears witness to this. Nevertheless, people are reluctant to let newcomers interfere in their private lives. Pico cites the lack of priests in the Amazon as the biggest problem in her work. A Colombian clergyman from the nearest town comes to visit by boat only every few weeks.

"We urgently need more representatives to administer the sacraments," the missionary demands. She hopes that a solution will be found at the synod in the Vatican. That, she is convinced, would make God's message much more heard in the threatened rainforest.

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