Amerindian eco-activist speaks out on climate change and social justice

Jesuit Missions recently hosted a Seasons of Creation webinar which focused on beauty, justice and hope in the Amazon.

Leah Casimero and Joel Thompson SJ joined the panel to help us think about our relationship with nature and how it affects climate change.

Leah is an Amazonian activist and an indigenous woman of the Wapichan tribe. She attended last year’s Synod on the Amazon in Rome. Leah gathered together with bishops, indigenous witnesses and other experts to find new ways for the church to accompany those living in the Amazon. She even met Pope Francis!

Joel, a Jesuit scholastic who was born in Georgetown, Guyana and is now studying theology at Santa Clara University, California. He is interested in questions surrounding the relationship between technology, ethics, the environment and spirituality.

Guyana has strong links to the Society of Jesus, Father Britt-Compton from the British Province spent more than 50 years working there. Jesuit Missions has a long-standing association with Guyana, most recently supporting the Quality Bilingual Education Programme which seeks to equip indigenous children with English language skills, while helping them to retain their native language and culture.

Leah and Joel reflected on the natural beauty of their home country and spoke of the direct relationship that people of the Amazon region have with nature. Leah said, “Indigenous people look at relationships… a long time ago humans, plants and animals were respected on the same level, most people have lost that.”

Joel echoed this, “We have so much in common with the natural world.” He used an image of a leaf in a hand to demonstrate this. In the image, you can see the leaf has veins just like us. Joel said, “It reminds us that we too are nature.”

In recognition of this relationship, both echoed Pope Francis’s encouragement to consider how we look after the planet.

“If someone has not learned to stop admire something beautiful, we should not be surprised if he or she treats everything as an object to be used and abused without scruple.” Laudato Si’ 215

Unfortunately, this harmonious relationship between people and nature has not been maintained. This can be seen by the impact climate change is having on Guyana. Climate change is not only an environmental issue but a justice issue. Both Leah and Joel highlighted that climate change is having a disproportionate impact on Indigenous people. Leah said, “We are losing ourselves.”

Leah talked about the unsustainable practices that confront indigenous communities. Mining accounts for over 90% of forest destruction in Guyana (Forest Peoples, 2015). It is contaminating the water and causing high levels of mercury in the fish that people are eating. The mining industry is also exploiting young men and women and causing them to lose their knowledge of the forest.

Joel mentioned that flooding is a real threat for people of Guyana, as it is causing food insecurity. He also highlighted that huge proportions of the rainforest is being burnt illegally to accommodate the meat industry in America and Europe.

However, hope can be found through the ways that indigenous people live. Leah said, “Indigenous life is not ordinary life but something the world needs.” Joel explained that “Indigenous people can safeguard forests, they have rules and regulations, and can extract resources in a sustainable way.”

To help harness this, Leah mentioned the Quality Bilingual Education programme. It ensures that children go to school and continue to learn in their indigenous language and English, the national language of Guyana. Joel stressed the importance of this and said, “In preserving a language, you preserve a world view and values that have roots.”

Joel also identified another hope that can be found in land rights. And said, “On a practical level, deforestation would occur at a much lower level if indigenous people have land rights. It is the large industries that extract the resources and cause the damage, not the people.”

Final reflections
In finding hope through empowering indigenous communities, Leah said, “It is a time to rejoice!” and refers to Pope Francis message on the World Day of Prayer for the Care of Creation, “We rejoice to see how young people and communities, particularly indigenous communities, are on the frontlines in responding to the ecological crisis. They are calling for a Jubilee for the earth and a new beginning, aware that ‘things can change’”.

Leah and Joel’s insights present a challenge to us all to think about climate change and the impact that it has on others. What attitudes and behaviours can we learn from indigenous communities to help us to look after creation?

As a final quote from reflection, Leah said, “We cannot fight for the environment and social justice separately, they go hand in hand.”

Season of Creation

Each year during the month of September, the Christian family unites to celebrate the Season of Creation, a worldwide celebration of prayer and action to protect our common home. This year’s theme Jubilee for the Earth presents an invitation to consider the integral relationship between rest for the earth and ecological, social, and political ways of living.

Jesuit Missions has organised a number of ways that you can get involved and help to create a sustainable legacy for future generations. This includes reflections from around the world, including Fr James Martin SJ and Brother Guy Consolmagno SJ, as well as a webinar with Amazon activist, Leah Casimero. 

Check out the Season of Creation website here