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Story Publication logo September 2, 2015

Religion and the Environment in Peru

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Image by Justin Catanoso. Italy, 2015.
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Pope Francis has issued an encyclical on a topic of global significance: saving the planet from...

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Father Jose Antonio Caselli, the lone Catholic priest in a small town that is home to the most contentious environmental conflict in Peru, is thus far ignoring the papal encyclical. He is determined to remain neutral in the battle between farmers trying to protect their land and a copper company whose proposed mine threatens the valley. Image by Justin Catanoso. Peru, 2015.

A month after the June 18 release of Pope Francis' encyclical on climate change and environmental protection, his sky-high popularity in the United States plummeted.

According to Gallup in July, the pope's approval rating fell among U.S. Catholics (89 percent to 71 percent), and plunged among all U.S. adults (76 percent to 59 percent), especially among conservatives (72 percent to 45 percent).

Every Republican presidential candidate told the pope to steer clear of the issue.

But in his home region of Latin America – Peru in particular – he remains something of a rock star. His approval ratings still hover above 80 percent.

Peru, with its vast tropical forests and enormous biodiversity, is often seen as Ground Zero in the fight against climate change. That's because it is rife with environmental conflicts given a fast-growing economy based largely mineral, fossil fuel and fish extraction.

It's an ideal country to test the potential influence of the encyclical in the pope's backyard.

After three weeks of reporting in July and August in Peru, a country that is 75 percent Catholic and whose Conservative Opus Dei Cardinal, Juan Luis Cipriani, offered only tepid support for the encyclical, I found many differences among Peruvian Catholics and clergy in their embrace of the teaching document targeting 1.2 billion Catholics worldwide.

"This pope has opened up the idea that you cannot be a good Catholic, or a good Christian if you don't have a commitment to society and the environment," says Jose "Pepe" Alvarez Alonso, a former Augustinian monk who spent a dozen years working to preserve Peru's Amazon jungles. He is now director of biodiversity for the country's Ministry of the Environment.

"His call for a change in the global economy and how markets work is breathtaking," Alonso adds. "People are saying he is a Communist, a revolutionary, that he's crazy. For me, he's Jesus Christ. I can't hear a word this pope says that I wouldn't say myself."

Yet Roque Benavides, CEO of BuenaVentura, the nation's largest and most influential precious metals mining company, read the encyclical quite differently. The lapsed Catholic told me: "It's not going to change the world; nothing changes the world."

Among the clergy – three of whom I interviewed at length in north, central and southern Peru – reactions were mixed. What follows are portraits of three priests coming to grips with Laudato si', On Care for our Common Home.

Two miles high in the Andes northwest of Lima, Pedro Barreto, the archbishop of the region Huancayo, is fighting a lonely battle against a closed copper, zinc and lead smelting plant. The plant, which operated from 1922 to 2009, has placed the town of La Oroya on every list of most polluted cities in the world.

For his efforts, Barreto receives regular death threats. Some no doubt come from company goons; but some also come from former plant employees – poisoned by lead and sulphur dioxide exposure – who want the 77-year-old smelting plant to be sold to a new owner and reopened. They want their 1,600 jobs back, no matter the damage to their and their children's health.

"I understand it's important for these workers to make money; they know nothing else," Barreto says. "But it's important to have a non-polluting plant and healthy workers."

As to the encyclical, he calls it the right document at the right time: "It is a big present to us all, not only for the church, but also for society and mankind. It is trying to bring us the harmony that must exist between the people and the environment."

Barreto gives credit to Francis' predecessors, Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI, for sounding the alarm on environmental degradation. But he notes, "With previous popes, it was a reflection, a side note. With Pope Francis, it is a focused statement. Now we have a clearer mandate on how we must take care of our home."

He adds that for the last several years, he has been inviting a diverse group of community leaders from the local government, universities, NGOs and the private sector to discuss the environmental damage wrought by so much mining in the region and how damage can be mitigated. Some progress has been made, he says.

"The encyclical," he says, "is actually going to encourage and strengthen the message from the church and civil society to have a stronger opinion and position. It will be an important tool to help us take action.

Gaston Garatea is not one to toe the line. At a time when Pope Benedict XVI and most conservative parishioners were in staunch opposition, Father Garatea spoke out in 2012 in favor same-sex civil unions and the end to priestly celibacy.

His progressive candor was quickly punished by Cardinal Cipriani, who forbade him to work as a priest in Lima, and did not renew his ministerial license. Garatea shrugged off the punishment and found refuge at the liberal Pontifical Catholic University of Peru in Lima. There he speaks out about environmental abuses and tries to mediate disputes between extraction companies and communities.

He sees the papal encyclical as a brave, vital document that he wishes more church leaders in Peru would embrace with the same vigor as Archbishop Barreto. At the moment, many have not.

In Arequipa in southern Peru, for example, the priests there have remained mostly silent over an approved copper mine in the fragile Tambo valley which supports 15,000 farm families in the town of Cocachacra.

There has never been a mine there. Opponents fear the proposed 1,300-foot-deep, open-pit mine, which is hard against the Tambo River, will destroy the valley's only water source. Rainfall there is virtually nil.

"When mining starts, it often is the end of our farming culture," Garatea says. "Yes, I believe church leaders there are defying the pope and his message. The archbishop (in Arequipa) should read the encyclical closely and share it with the people. But it's not happening."

Still, Garatea says, the opposition's protests, which have stalled the $1.4 billion copper mine for six years, have had an impact. Southern Copper of Mexico, which owns the rights to the mine, has promised not to use the Tambo River as a water source, but rather draw water from the nearby Pacific Ocean and desalinate it.

"The company is now opening its eyes and hopefully they will do many more investments to help reduce their ecological footprint," says Garatea, though farm opponents remain wary. "The encyclical will help in this regard."

The lone Catholic priest in Cocachacra, home to what many consider the most contentious environmental battle in Peru, Jose Antonio Caselli, 43, would much rather celebrate Mass, baptize babies and officiate funerals. He was not cut out for courage.

With the Peruvian government siding with Southern Copper in the village just above the Chilean border, Peruvian soldiers have killed seven farm protesters since 2011 and imposed martial law.

"I am a priest. It is not my role to be for or against the mine, "Caselli responds meekly. "I try to maintain that position, but no matter what I do or say, I am perceived by both sides as being for the other."

I read to him a passage from Section 214 in the encyclical, suggesting his boss in Rome has made this decision for him: "All Christian communities have a role to play in ecological education."

It's mid-July, a month after the encyclical's release, and Caselli says, "I have vaguely heard about the document, but have read nothing about it."

Meanwhile, he describes a moment when he did actually try to do something. On Dec. 29, 2014, violent protests raged outside his church during Mass. Several bleeding members of the pro-mine faction took refuge in the pews. Caselli could hear the chaos outside. He grabbed a crucifix nearly twice his height and ran out into the mayhem. He stood amid rock-throwing protesters and soldiers in riot gear.

"I started yelling, 'Drop your weapons; drop your stones! Stop fighting!' There was tear gas in the air. It stung my eyes and I started crying. How could I not?"

Caselli admits he is not an environmentalist, not like Pope Francis. But with some resignation, he adds, ""I will learn more about it [the encyclical] in the coming months. I will take a stand if I have to, if I am instructed to. But right now, I intend to remain neutral."

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