ROME – During a Rome conference last week, one of the key organizers of the upcoming Synod of Bishops on the Amazon said the meeting will be an opportunity not only to discuss the challenges the region faces, but to give indigenous communities a louder voice both in the society and in the Church.

One of these opportunities for the indigenous to be listened to will come today when Pope Francis meets Raoni Metuktire, a world-famous indigenous chief and defender of the Amazon who will bring to the pope’s ear the plight of indigenous communities in the vast region.

According to a Vatican statement, the May 27 meeting between the pope and Metuktire is an example of Francis’s attention for both the Amazonian people and the environment, “as well as to his commitment to safeguard our Common Home,” and is part of the preparation process for the Oct. 6-27 special Synod of Bishops on the Amazon, which has as its theme, “Amazonia: New Paths for the Church and for an Integral Ecology.”

The Amazon covers 2.7 million square miles and includes parts of Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, French Guyana, Guyana, Peru, Venezuela and Suriname, representing 20 percent of the earth’s oxygen and is home to between 15-20 percent of its life forms. It’s also home to tremendous injustices; while Brazil officially abolished slavery in 1888, the government acknowledges that at least 25,000 people in the Amazon today work under “conditions analogous to slavery,” clearing land and working for cattle ranches, soy farms, and other labor-intensive industries. Some groups say the true figure could be ten times that amount.

Also known as “Chief Raoni” or “Ropni,” Metuktire, one of the leading voices of the Amazon, was born either in or around 1930 and is a chief of the Kayapo tribe, a Brazilian indigenous community from the Mato Grosso and Pará area of Brazil.

Raoni is easily distinguishable by the painted wooden lip plate, called a botoque by Kayapo warriors, which stretches his bottom lip. He is one of the last men in his tribe to wear it.

An international symbol of the fight to preserve the Amazon rainforest and its indigenous cultures, Metuktire gained international attention largely through a longstanding partnership with Sting, the former lead singer for The Police and a multiple Grammy winner.

In 1987, Sting came to meet with Metuktire in the Xingu region of the Amazon, and a year later, in October 1988, Sting joined the chief in a press conference to promote the “Human Rights Now!” Amnesty International Tour.

Following the event, Sting helped establish the Rainforest Foundation, with its initial purpose being to support Metuktire’s projects.

Sting met Francis in the Vatican during a papal general audience in 2018 after composing the music for the show, “The Last Judgement. Michelangelo and the Secrets of the Sistine Chapel,” which debuted at the Conciliazione Auditorium, which sits near the Vatican, in March of that year.

Together Metuktire and Sting visited some 17 countries between April and June 1989 in a bid to raise awareness about increased deforestation in the Amazon.

Since then, he has traveled the world to give voice to the plight of indigenous people in the Amazon region and to fight back not only against deforestation, but also projects which put their land at risk, such as the Belo Monte Dam project, which was launched as a means of establishing new and stable energy sources in Brazil, but which has been steeped in controversy as the construction plan jeopardized indigenous territories on the bank of Brazil’s Xingú river.

In September 2011, Metuktire spoke at the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva, and he participated in the Rio+20 U.N. sustainable development conference in June 2012.

Speaking to journalists during a May 16 conference in Rome, Brazilian Cardinal Claudio Hummes, General Relator for the Synod of Bishops on the Amazon and president of the Pan-Amazonian Ecclesial Network (REPAM), which is playing a leading role in organizing the synod, said indigenous communities in the Amazon “have the right to be consulted, listened to,” not only for show, “but seriously.”

Rather than having people speak for them, including the Church, he said it’s important that indigenous communities make their own decisions and have a voice in key discussions. To this end, he recalled a recent assembly with indigenous communities in Ecuador, noting how during the discussion, one leader had said, “Today we are here not to hear your proposals, but we have proposals to make to you.”

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Ahead of the October synod, several organizers have stressed the need to listen to indigenous communities and to allow them to have a leading voice in the discussion.

In a recent interview with Crux, Jesuit Cardinal Pedro Ricardo Barreto, vice president of REPAM and Archbishop of Huancayo, Peru, said the “pluri-ethnic” and “pluri-cultural” dimension of the region, which boasts some 345 different indigenous populations speaking roughly 240 different languages, must be preserved.

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“Indigenous questions have always been postponed – ‘you are few, you are someone who is not from Western culture’,” he said. “I would say there is a contemptuous attitude, or in most cases, indifference, but they are not taken into consideration.”

As an example, he noted how many communities have been present in the Amazon for decades, some for centuries, yet they don’t have property titles for their land. That means the state allows foreign extraction companies to pillage for resources, such as gas, petroleum and palm oil.

In many cases this leads to a forced migration of indigenous people from their ancestral lands, he said, explaining that the calling of the synod has “lifted the spirits of the indigenous populations and it has also raised the socio-environmental problem that the Amazon is living.”

Follow Elise Harris on Twitter: @eharris_it

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