PUERTO MALDONADO, Peru (AP) — Pope Francis traveled deep into the Amazon rainforest demanding an end to the relentless exploitation of its timber, gas and gold and recognition of its indigenous peoples as the primary custodians to determine the future of "our common home."
Speaking to a coliseum filled with indigenous men, women and children, many of whom were bare-chested and wearing brightly-colored headdresses, Francis declared the Amazon the "heart of the church" on Friday (Jan. 19) and called for a three-fold defense of its life, land and cultures.
Warning that indigenous peoples are now more threatened than ever before, Francis said it was "essential" for governments and other institutions to consider tribes as legitimate partners when negotiating development and conservation projects and that their rights, cultures, languages and traditions must be respected and recovered.
"You are a living memory of the mission that God has entrusted to us all: the protection of our common home," the pope said.
After his speech, an indigenous man in a wheelchair who was left paralyzed from the waist down after being shot by police during a protest placed a headdress of red and yellow feathers on the pope's head and a necklace of native beads around his neck.
Francis' trip to the Amazon comes as the expansion of illegal gold mining and farming as well as new roads and dams have turned thousands of acres of once lush green forest into barren, contaminated wasteland. Francis has previously called on world leaders to protect the Amazon, likening it to one of the "lungs of our planet."
He is also using the trip to set the stage for a big church meeting next year on the Amazon and the native peoples who reside there.
Before Francis' speech, Hector Sueyo, a member of the indigenous Harakbut people, told the pontiff that native peoples are worried about the Amazon as they watch trees disappear, fish die and rivers become contaminated.
"The sky is angry and is crying because we are destroying the planet," he said.
The pontiff's warm reception in Puerto Maldonado, where he was greeted by singing children and people who ran alongside his motorcade with Vatican-colored yellow and white balloons, was a stark contrast to the pope's visit to Chile earlier in the week, where his visit provoked protests and drew smaller crowds to greet him.
"His desire to be with us signals a historic reconciliation with the Amazon's indigenous communities," said Edwin Vasquez, an indigenous leader who traveled to Puerto Maldonado to hear the pope. "We consider it a good step forward."
The Amazon's native peoples hail from some 350 indigenous groups, some of which live in voluntary isolation. In the centuries after Spanish colonization most traces of native spiritual beliefs were lost as missionaries converted indigenous Peruvians to Catholicism.
The Catholic Church still maintains a strong presence in the region, though these days few indigenous men and women go to Mass and most identify as evangelicals, said
Lizardo Cauper, president of the Amazon's largest indigenous organization.
Many Peruvian native peoples are curious about why Francis wants to meet them, Cauper said, while also hoping he can serve as an influential messenger.
"We are hoping for a reflective message that will help those in power," he said.
In a letter sent to Francis this week, the leaders of three prominent indigenous groups called on Francis to back their call for the state to grant 20 million hectares (50 million acres) in collective land rights to native peoples. They also want him to urge Peru's government to clean up rivers tainted from illegal gold mining.
Rather than a halt to all mining and exploration in the Amazon, Vasquez said that what indigenous communities want is to be a part of discussions to decide where and how those activities are conducted.
Studies confirm that contamination from mining is already having an impact on the health of many living in the Amazon.
"They have lead in their blood," Vasquez said. "Is that development?"
Cesar Yojaje, leader of the Palma Real indigenous group, was among the many trekking by boat to greet the pontiff Friday. After a three-hour journey along a brackish river he said he hoped to hear a forceful message from the pope.
He said he wants the state to return indigenous lands and publicly apologize "for robbing us of our lands and turning them into a park."
Armario reported from Lima, Peru.