ROME – Peruvian Cardinal Pedro Barreto, the new leader of the Church’s largest network in the Amazon, has said his top priorities are to protect indigenous communities and to fight poverty as COVID-19 continues to ravage Latin America.

“Structural inequality is present in the world and especially in the Amazon. Impoverishment is growing,” said Barreto, archbishop of Huancayo, Peru and the new president of the Pan-Amazonian Ecclesial Network (REPAM).

Speaking to Crux, Barreto said the situation has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, “which has decimated the Amazon population due to the lack of adequate healthcare.”

“There is greater pressure on the territories due to an extractive impulse without regard for the anguish of the people who want to get out of the economic crisis,” he said, adding that wealthy large extractive companies have increased their production, “seriously affecting the land and the quality of life of the communities and peoples of the Amazon.”

It is a priority for REPAM not only to assist the increasing number of poor as the pandemic carries on, but also to protect the land, cultures and traditions of indigenous communities that are so characteristic of the Amazon region.

Established in September 2014, REPAM is a joint initiative of the Latin American Bishops’ Conference (CELAM), the Confederation of Latin American Religious (CLAR), Caritas Latin America, and the Brazilian bishops’ conference’s commission for the Amazon.

Pope Francis charged the organization with coordinating the prep work for the 2019 Synod of Bishops on the Amazon.

For years the body was led by Brazilian Cardinal Claudio Hummes, 86, who formerly served as archbishop of Sao Paulo and prefect of the Vatican’s Congregation for Clergy.

In June, Hummes was tapped to lead the new Pan-Amazonian ecclesial conference (CEAMA), established as a direct result of the Amazon synod. He was elected the body’s president during their founding assembly, held June 26-29, and Barreto was immediately named as Hummes’s successor as president of REPAM. He is set to formally take charge during a Nov. 9 inauguration ceremony.

Barreto, a long-time vocal advocate for the environment who for years served as REPAM’s vice president and a rising star in Latin America’s ecclesial scene, told Crux that one of his main priorities in his new role is to support the newly-minted CEAMA.

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“CEAMA is unprecedented in the history of the Church, for being a synodal channel and for being Amazonian,” he said, and because of this, “it is a sign of love and service to the Church of the Dear Amazon, the title of the post-synodal exhortation.”

He also stressed the need to reinforce collaboration between different ecclesial entities active in the Amazon region and said he will urge REPAM to “continue its mission of accompanying very closely the indigenous communities and river peoples of the Amazon, listening to their cries and the clamor of the earth.”

Part of this mission, he said, entails responding to environmental concerns as well as issues of human rights in partnership with native communities in the Amazon.

Recalling discussion during the Amazon synod, Barreto noted that a key point of discussion was “the request of the native peoples that the Church be their ally.”

It is REPAM’s job, he said, to accompany these communities, “offering their collaboration and respecting their own rhythms and definitions.”

“We want to affirm that they are subjects of their own history, illuminated by the Gospel of Jesus,” he said, explaining that REPAM serves “as a bridge to allow them to be subjects of their own history and defenders of life, of the land and of their rights and cultures.”

Barreto stressed the need to support local community initiatives both through ecclesial entities, and through collaboration with non-ecclesial bodies, insisting that REPAM is meant to be “a complement to the tasks that CEAMA assumes as an ecclesial body at the service of the people of the region.”

Noting that REPAM is currently undergoing an organizational shake-up given the change in leadership and a relocation of the body’s headquarters, Barreto said every change that is being made is meant to implement the guidelines that came out of the Amazon synod.

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“The synodal process continues to respond to the signs of the times and to the commitments of the Synod in communion with CEAMA and with other ecclesial bodies in the territory,” he said, adding that CEAMA will offer guidelines that REPAM as an “organic” entity will execute.

The relationship between the two, he said, is “one of complementarity for a better and greater evangelistic service in the Amazon.”

Noting that there were more than 170 commitments proposed by the final document of the Amazon synod, Barreto said the plan for the moment is to have each ecclesial body in the region to take up the tasks most suited to them in order to “respond, promptly and effectively, to the pastoral challenges of the land and of the synod itself.”

Speaking to the growing importance of Latin America and the Amazon in the Catholic Church, Barreto said attention to this corner of the world has always been there, as is evidenced by the creation of CELAM in 1956 and subsequent II Latin American Episcopal conference in Medellin, designed to implement directives of the 1962-65 Second Vatican Council.

Similarly, he said the Amazon has been a priority for evangelization as far back as the 16th century, and native communities decimated amid the Amazon Rubber Boom in the early 20th century were defended by Pope Pius X, who “defended their rights and denounced serious violations of their dignity as persons, created in the image and likeness of God.”

“Now, it is true, the Church has made the Amazon and the value of its cultures and peoples more visible,” Barreto said, adding that a spotlight is being shed on “the importance of the Amazon biome for humanity and the value of the native Amazonian peoples who have been, for centuries, the ‘guardians’ of their natural environment.”

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