QUITO, Ecuador — According to arguably the most important indigenous leader of the Amazon, Pope Francis is putting his life on the line by defending the rainforest itself as well as the rights of the people who live in it, among other things by convening a Synod of Bishops on the Amazon next month in Rome.

“Brother Francis,” according to Gregorio Diaz Mirabal, is “risking his life” for the Amazon, ticking off Russia, China, the U.S. and Europe as global powers unhappy with the pope’s efforts to shine a spotlight on the situation in the region.

The pope isn’t alone, according to Diaz Mirabal. He said several cardinals, bishops and priests risk their lives “for taking our side, that of saving the planet.”

Diaz Mirabal is the coordinator of COICA, an umbrella group that reunites the more than 4,500 communities that live in the Amazon region. An estimated 500 different indigenous groups live in an area with some four million inhabitants.

While his assessment may seem dramatic, it’s hardly spun out of whole cloth. So far in 2019, an estimated 200 indigenous leaders have been killed for denouncing the damage caused by extraction projects and mining companies.

A participant in October’s meeting of bishops in Rome, Diaz Mirabal said the presence of indigenous persons in the Eternal City “won’t be a photo op.”

“It’s an opportunity to have a pope who speaks the truth, a historical reality that is the indigenous question, and he’s assuming it with great courage,” he said. “So we have a moral duty to support him in this struggle,” he said.

“To leave the pope alone right now,” Diaz Mirabal said, “is to guarantee the destruction of the world.”

Though Diaz Mirabal doesn’t describe himself as a Catholic, he said he has strong ties with the Church and is happy to attend the summit.

Francis is “very brave and has an enormous sensitivity,” Diaz Mirabal told a group of journalists, including Crux, in Quito on Friday.

“We want to go to the synod not to have our picture taken with the pope, but because we need to propose short-term and long-term solutions to save the planet, because if we save the Amazon basin, we save humanity,” he said.

According to Diaz Mirabal, private companies, governments and also people living in the nine countries that are a part of the Amazon basin see the region not as a rainforest where people live, but as territories from which to extract oil, gold, water or coltan.

Diaz Mirabal met Francis in June in Rome during a United Nations event. He said Francis told him he supports the indigenous peoples because they are “the only ones who have been considering the salvation of the planet.”

The pope also told him that indigenous communities understand that the current economic model harms the planet and the lives of those who live on it.

In return, the indigenous leader told the Argentine pontiff that COICA is working with REPAM, an ecclesial network that brings together different Catholic institutions that work in the Amazon region; CELAM, the bishops’ conference of Latin America; Caritas, the umbrella group for Catholic charities; and various local churches.

Hours before talking with journalists, the group Diaz Mirabal leads signed an agreement with Greta Thunberg, the Swedish teenager who’s credited with raising global awareness of the danger of climate change. On Sept. 20th she’ll lead a rally in New York, and Diaz Mirabal will be there.

Despite the hopes for the upcoming synod, Diaz Mirabal said that what he’s truly interested in is “what will happen after the synod, because if it all stays in Rome, then it will be a failure.”

“It’s our hope that we will all together commit ourselves to create a new global agenda, made stronger by Pope Francis and the indigenous people, to hopefully awaken the planet, because there’s too much callousness with what’s happening, and we must shake the world into action,” Diaz Mirabal said.

Asked about his view regarding the Catholic Church, given that it played a key role in the colonization of the region by Spain and Portugal, the indigenous leader said the priority today is “to overcome past mistakes,” and that even though they remain in their memory, the Church today is key in the protection of their rights and home.

However, he also said that there’s a “historical call” for the “army” that is the Church to act: “we need your prayers, yes, but we also need your actions. We all have to come together to save the planet.”

Follow Inés San Martín on Twitter: @inesanma

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