ROME – Earlier this week it was announced that Cardinal Pedro Barreto, who was among the chief architects of last year’s Synod of Bishops on the Amazon, would be taking charge of the Catholic Church’s leading entity dedicated to protecting the region.

The Pan-Amazonian Ecclesial Network (REPAM) was established in September 2014 as 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.

Since its establishment, the REPAM has been led by Brazilian Cardinal Claudio Hummes, 86, who previously served as archbishop of Sao Paulo and prefect of the Vatican’s Congregation for Clergy.

A towering figure in the Latin American Church, Hummes has long been seen as a friend of Pope Francis, and in June was tapped to lead the new Pan-Amazonian ecclesial conference (CEAMA), which was created in June as a direct result of the Amazon synod. He was elected the body’s president during their founding assembly, held June 26-29.

In an Oct. 15 statement posted to REPAM’s website, Hummes announced that given his responsibilities with CEAMA, he would be stepping down from his job at REPAM and had named Barreto to take his place.

Barreto, a Jesuit who serves as archbishop of Huancayo in Peru, was one of three co-presidents tapped by Pope Francis for the synod on the Amazon and until now has served as REPAM’s vice president. He was given a red hat by Pope Francis in 2018 and is also a key player in the Peruvian bishops’ conference, making him a rising star not only in Latin America, but in the Francis papacy.

In his statement, Hummes noted that REPAM is currently undergoing a process of “discernment and reorganization,” as they are not only changing leadership for the first time, but are moving their headquarters from Quito, Ecuador to Manaus, Brazil.

However, he stressed the importance of remembering REPAM’s commitment to promoting a Church with an “Amazonian face,” with particular attention paid to the environment and the protection of indigenous communities and their cultural traditions.

Hummes said his decision to step down from REPAM’s leadership was the result of “a deep and prayerful process of discernment,” and assured that Barreto is the right man to take his spot, having been part of the organization since its inception.

Accepting his new role, Barreto stressed that he will continue “to work together, hand in hand, but knowing that CEAMA is the expression of an ecclesial structure that opens the way to a renewal of the Church.”

“Count on me in everything that is needed in REPAM, as a complement to CEAMA,” he said, adding that he will make it his priority to implement the guidelines and resolutions that came out of the Amazon synod.

Barreto will officially take charge of REPAM during a Nov. 9 inauguration ceremony during the body’s assembly, which this year will be held virtually because of the coronavirus. A new vice president will be named after a period of consultation with national REPAM offices.

For months, Barreto has been among the most outspoken Latin American prelates on the need to protect the poor and vulnerable during the coronavirus outbreak in the region, particularly in his native Peru.

During a largescale virtual assembly of more than 3,000 indigenous leaders, small farmers, environmental activists, and women from the nine countries composing the Amazon region, Barreto spoke directly to indigenous communities about the impact of the coronavirus, saying the Church, “will live and die with you” if necessary.

Latin America is among the hardest hit areas by COVID-19, sparking concern among many about its impact on the poor and vulnerable, including remote indigenous communities who do not have immediate access to healthcare services.

In his speech, Barreto said that as a result of last year’s synod, “Rome has been ‘Amazonified’ and the Amazon region is no longer invisible.”

Barreto compared the impact of the coronavirus, which targets the respiratory system, on the lungs of those who are infected to the ongoing “attack” on the lungs of the planet, saying, “The virus gets into our lungs and suffocates and kills us.”

“In the history of humanity, the virus of greed and extractivism and a lack of respect for human beings has corroded the Amazon and nature and destroyed by genocide the Amazon culture and original peoples,” he said, but stressed that, “Life is much stronger than the virus.”

REPAM is currently spearheading numerous initiatives throughout the Pan-Amazonian region aimed at assisting communities impacted by COVID-19 and spreading the message of Pope Francis’s environmental encyclical Laudato Si, which is being commemorated by a special year-long celebration of its publication in 2015.

It is likely, then, that much of Barreto’s immediate responsibilities will be dedicated to environmental advocacy and protection, and setting up Amazon support systems for the aftermath of the pandemic.

Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen