PUERTO MALDONADO, Peru (AP) — Indigenous men, women and children wearing brightly colored headdresses greeted Pope Francis up his arrival in the Amazon Friday, urging the pontiff to help them protect the delicate ecosystem from an onslaught of new threats dramatically changing the biome.
Francis arrived in the scorching hot city of Puerto Maldonado, where he was welcomed by native people who ran along the pontiff’s motorcade carrying Vatican-colored yellow and white balloons while others cheered and waved. Inside the giant coliseum where thousands awaited his arrival, indigenous performers danced and played music on reed instruments.
The scene 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.”
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,” and is widely expected to reiterate that message when he speaks in Puerto Maldonado Friday.
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.
A meeting with members of Chile’s indigenous Mapuche community was one of the highlights of the first-leg of the pope’s weeklong trip to the region. Francis urged Mapuche leaders to refrain from political violence and called on the Chilean government to better engage its indigenous communities.
The call for peace came as 11 firebombs damaged and in some cases burned churches to the ground in several parts of Chile during the pontiff’s visit. Investigators found pamphlets promoting the Mapuche cause at some of the churches.
The Amazon’s native peoples hail from about 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 evangelical, 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 on all mining and exploration in the Amazon, Vasquez said that what indigenous communities want is to be a part of any discussions that take place 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 of those who live 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.