Protect the Amazon and its people
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While visiting indigenous people in Peru, Pope Francis said the future of the Amazon and its peoples had “never been so threatened.”

Since the financial crisis of 2008, many pension funds and other large investment funds have invested heavily in agricultural land in developing countries. Unfortunately, some of these investments have contributed to human rights violations and environmental destruction.

Nowhere have these injustices been more glaring than in the Amazon region, which spans parts of nine countries in South America (Brazil, Peru, Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia, Guyana, French Guiana and Suriname).

Pope Francis delivered a grave warning about the future of the Amazon and its peoples during a visit with indigenous people there in January, saying they had “never been so threatened.” He came to Chile and Peru to witness to their suffering at the hands of mining and logging corporations that extract petroleum, gas, lumber, and gold from the world’s largest rainforest and governments that have, at times, enacted policies that push indigenous peoples from their lands. (See Pope stands on ‘holy ground’ story.)

“These problems strangle [the Amazon’s] peoples and provoke the migration of the young due to the lack of local alternatives. We have to break with the historical paradigm that views Amazonia as an inexhaustible source of supplies for other countries without concern for its inhabitants,” the pope said.

Large plantation farms in the Amazon typically grow single crops such as soybeans, palm oil and corn. When investors buy land, indigenous people are often forced to leave and tens of thousands of trees are cut, killing off plants and insects that make the Amazon biodiverse. Then, miles of a single crop are planted and massive amounts of water and synthetic fertilizers and pesticides are applied. Large parts of a rainforest that blesses the world with clean water and air, as well as plants that make our medicines, are lost.

Pension funds, like those managed by TIAA (Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association, the leading provider of financial services for retired teachers and public workers) and Harvard University’s endowment fund have steadily built up their agricultural land holdings around the world over the last decade. In 2016, TIAA became the world’s largest global investor in agriculture. The pension fund giant is accused of buying land in Brazil that was essentially stolen from local communities, a charge corroborated by both the New York Times and National Public Radio.

Beautifully dressed and tattooed indigenous families, many wearing the traditional beads and headgear of their tribes, interrupted Pope Francis repeatedly with applause, drumming and shouts of “We ask that you defend us!” during his speech to thousands of indigenous people in Puerto Maldonado, a small city in Peru known as the gateway to the Amazon. “You are a living memory of the mission that God has entrusted to us all: the protection of our common home,” Pope Francis told them.

Faith in action:
• Read and share Pope Francis’ speech, “Meeting with Indigenous People of Amazonia,” delivered in Peru on January 19, 2018.
• Ask TIAA to disclose information, about all land investments and commit to a deforestation and land grab-free policy.
• Check your investments for links to tropical deforestation and land grabs by using this free online database.

World Watch is prepared by Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns, based in Washington, D.C., a resource for Maryknoll on matters of peace, social justice and integrity of creation, and brings Maryknoll’s mission experience into U.S. policy discussions. Phone (202) 832-1780, visit or email

Featured Image: Young members of indigenous groups from the Amazon listen to Pope Francis’ words at Madre de Dios stadium in Puerto Maldonado, Peru. (CNS photo)


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About the author

Susan Gunn

Susan Gunn is director of the Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns.