“Human Rights Violations in the Amazon during the Time of COVID-19”
UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues
20 April, 2021
Mr. Special Rapporteur, Distinguished Panelists, Dear Ladies and Gentlemen,
I would like to thank the Pan-Amazonian Ecclesial Network (REPAM) and the NGO Mining Working Group for their gracious invitation to participate in today’s important virtual event on human rights violations in the Amazon during the time of COVID-19.
When Pope Francis visited the Amazon in 2018 to meet with indigenous peoples in Puerto Maldonado in the Peruvian Andes, he brought the attention of the world with him as he listened at length to the indigenous describe their needs and hopes. In his comments to them afterward, he emphasized, “The native Amazonian peoples have probably never been so threatened on their own lands as they are at present.”
Those threats have only grown during the COVID-19 pandemic. Earlier this month there was an article in the press about how the last surviving member of the Juma people in the Brazilian Amazon, Aruká Juma, had sadly died of COVID-19 in a hospital in Porto Velho. We know that previous epidemics, outbreaks and diseases have decimated indigenous tribes, which have always been particularly at risk due to their remote geography, poor access to health care, genetic vulnerabilities and difficulties in socially isolating infected members.
Other perennial threats to indigenous peoples have also been exacerbated because of the pandemic. After more than a year of economic turmoil brought about by COVID-19, some governments are attempting to jumpstart their economies by giving freer rein to extractive industries like mining and logging, which even before the pandemic frequently “fail[ed] to respect the right of the original peoples to the land and its boundaries, to self-determination and prior consent” and turned “economic relationships [into] an instrument of death.”
By viewing the Amazon not as a home of native peoples but as an inexhaustible resource to be exploited, these extractive industries, and the governments and transnational corporations that support them, often act without adequate concern for the dignity and rights of the inhabitants affected. Many of the employees of the extractive industries have actually brought the coronavirus disease with them to previously unaffected regions of the Amazon. The human rights violations that are happening are two-fold: against the indigenous peoples and against their natural habitat and home. That is why Pope Francis has underlined that “the care of people and the care of ecosystems are inseparable.” And the international community must address both with determination and urgency.
Since his election in 2013, Pope Francis has repeatedly expressed his desire to be a “spokesman for the deepest longings of indigenous peoples” and to raise public awareness about the fact that indigenous peoples continue to be “threatened in their identity and even in their existence.” One way he did so was by convening a Pan-Amazonian Synod — or meeting on the Amazon — in October 2019 in the Vatican. He brought indigenous leaders together to focus on the threats indigenous people face and to mobilize the members of the Catholic Church, regional governments and the international community to address them.
A few months after the conclusion of the Synod, he wrote an apostolic exhortation entitled Querida Amazonia [“The Beloved Amazon Region”] to synthesize the concerns and needs expressed and to sketch out proposed remedies. In response to the human rights abuses that have taken place, he said, “We need to feel outrage” and “profound abhorrence.” There’s a danger, he added, that we can “become inured to evil,” that we can have our social consciousness “dulled” before the widespread exploitation, destruction and death jeopardizing both lives and habitats.Rather than becoming desensitized, however, he said we must become aware of the “current forms of human exploitation, abuse and killing” taking place, to work to “overcome various colonizing mentalities, and to build networks of solidarity and development.”
He expressed his “dream” of an Amazon region that “fights for the rights of the poor, the original peoples and the least of our brothers and sisters, where their voices can be heard and dignity advanced,” where their “distinctive cultural riches” can be upheld and perpetuated, and where the region’s “overwhelming natural beauty and superabundant life teeming in its rivers and forests” can be “jealously preserve[d].”
That is a dream that, together with the peoples of the region, we should all share. Such a dream is not an unachievable fantasy, but a realistic hope. In order for it be achieved, however, the injustices, crimes and human rights violations that are endemic to the region must first cease. The indigenous peoples must be given protection, space and assistance to preserve their culture and common home as sacred gifts. They must be recognized as “principal dialogue partners … from whom we have … to learn, to whom we need to listen…, and from whom we must ask permission before presenting our proposals.”
The Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues is an important annual opportunity for the international community to hear the cries and aspirations of the people of the region and to rally in support of them.
We are privileged today to have the opportunity to hear first-hand from leaders of the region who will describe for us the human rights situation and what help they need. I am eager to hear from Jeremias Mura of the Mura tribe in Brazil, Veronica Grefa of the Kichwa Tribe in Ecuador, and Alberto Ynuma of the Amahuaca Tribe in Peru, as well as the comprehensive perspective of U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Francisco Cali.
Thank you all very much for your participation.
 Meeting with Indigenous People of Amazonia, Puerto Maldonado, January 19, 2018.
 “The Death of the Last Juma Elder in the Amazon,” New York Times, April 2, 2021
 Querida Amazonia, 14
 Querida Amazonia 42
 Pope Francis, Monthly Prayer Intention, July 2016.
 Querida Amazonia 15
 Querida Amazonia 15, 17.
 Querida Amazonia 7
 Querida Amazonia 26