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A Conversation with Laura Vargas Valcárcel, Religions for Peace, Bishops’ Conference

With: Laura Vargas Berkley Center Profile

August 26, 2022

Background: This discussion between Laura Vargas and Katherine Marshall is part of a Religions for Peace and World Faiths Development Dialogue exploration of the roles that women play in the Interfaith Rainforest Initiative (IRI). The discussion was in Spanish, with an English translation here, and took place by telephone while Laura Vargas was in Peru. The focus was Laura’s involvement both in the protection of the Amazon rainforests and in the creation and development of the Interfaith Rainforest Initiative. The discussion also focused on women’s roles, both in leadership of IRI and similar efforts and the distinctive issues and challenges they face.

What is the nature and role of work in the region to protect the rainforests? What are the common problems that you confront?

The shared problems are basically the lack of awareness. While there may be laws, the countries do not have firm positions to respect forests and to stop deforestation. So for us, an important thing that we are seeking moving forward is to establish a clear set of borders of the forest regions, as now that does not exist. Sure, you should be able to go to the boundary, but not beyond. 

We (IRI people and many other partners) are engaged in a discussion with the Loreto government, which is trying to build a road from Iquitos to Samiriza, going towards the Peruvian coast. However, it crosses an area that, according to specialists, is an area that offers great promise as carbon reservoirs. In the area the wetlands are important, as well as the forests. There are other planned projects in border areas, both at the altitude of Loreto and of Ucayali, as well as plans to build another highway from Cruzeiro do Sul to Pucallpa, towards the Pacific. That would also condemn a very large area. The indigenous populations are already agitating actively against these plans.

The issue of illegality in Peru has grown enormously.


Because of increasing lawlessness and corruption.

But why is that? Is it political factors alone or other factors?

There is a large increase in drug trafficking. The drug traffickers do what they want . They come in with a lot of money, corrupt the leaders, divide populations, or confront them with violence. So, it is a difficult situation, very difficult for the people. We are very close to some of the local governments, and we are working well with them, but they also feel that the government says one thing, but in practice, what they say is not applied. So people feel very fragile. 

Another important factor is that there is a lot of gold in the jungle river regions; too much gold. So what happened in Iquitos, in Madre de Dios, in the southern jungle, the gold panning, the dredgers, and the mercury contamination; are really killing the earth. And this unfortunate situation is also taking place now in the northern jungle; throughout the Cenepa area, where there is a lot of gold in the rivers . The dredgers have entered in force, most of them illegal, some of them legal.

There have been confrontation, but thank God, no loss of lives.

Another issue is that the communities are deeply divided. In one area, the two strongest indigenous groups used to be warriors, the Awajún and the Wampis. The local administration has considerable power and automny. They take strong steps to stop the protests and demand a presence from the government. What the government does is send people, police, who stay for a week o two, then leave, and people are totally unprotected; and the illegals come back in. So, the situation is very complicated.

We are now in the electoral process. The candidates that appear to have the best prospects are not the most suitable, because they are people who invest in the jungle, to take advantage of it.

How do they take advantage of it?

Through illegal mining, deforestation, and trafficking of wild animals; all of which destroy the ecology, the environment, and the area. Those who pay the price for this situation are the indigenous peoples. During the time of the pandemic, 18 people were killed, almost all indigenous.

We are pleased that the Interfaith Rainforest project has been approved, already in the second phase. The project has been approved for three more years.

Are you at the meeting in Colombia?

No, I have just arrived in Lima. I came back with a very bad back, maybe because of the airplane seat; I have hardly done anything for a couple of days because my back would not allow me. Today I woke up much better. I already feel that I can move more easily. 

But the Colombian experience was interesting. I wish I had visited a local IRI. Unfortunately, the area they chose did not have an active leadership at that time; it was more a moment to get to know a very beautiful region of Colombia; the area in Macarena called Caño Cristales, so beautiful. It is an area where the rain and the water have eroded the rocks. And that formed spectacular landscapes. We got to see that. But unfortunately there was no leadership team in the area to talk to. But what the Colombians have shown is that they have achieved a very good relationship in some sectors, and people are very committed and very convinced of the urgency and the need to protect the Amazon. And now with Petro’s government, which is appointing very capable people, it seems that the Minister of the Environment is a very competent person, with a lot of experience. We are very happy with that appointment.

I am very interested in two issues. The first is how you got involvedd, why you are so interested and also engaged with the problem of the rain forests of the Amazon? And the second is that Azza Karam has asked me to explore the roles of women from different perspectives. And you, I think, have a particular experience there. There is also an idea to make a video, later. But for now, the idea is to explore the matter to better understand what the ideas are.

But what is your story?

As you know, I spent many years (30 years) working for the Peruvian Bishops’ Conference. For almost half of those years, more than 16 years ,I was the director at CEAS. That gave me a privileged position within the Church so that I was able to focus on fundamental things. The period of terrorist violence coincided with a good part of those years. We could do little else than to accompany the victims, offer legal defense, and raise awareness. We did accompanying social work with those displaced by the violence, who came to us in very large numbers because the logic of the Sendero Luminoso was so brutal. And the military were no less brutal; the truth is that people were trapped between two fires; and were deeply affected. Much of the work we did during those years, and after Guzman was arrested in 1992, ,focused on reducing terrorism. A good part of our efforts worked around that. 

Once terrorism subsided, we began to work across a triple dimension. On the one hand, we continued with the challenge of caring for the victims or the people who were badly affected by terrorism; CEAS did a lot of work with miners and with campesinos. But in the new stage, we began to gather people’s concerns about how we should take care of the environment. That's where we started to get more into environmental issues. And above all this was reinforced by the accompaniment and closeness at that time of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace. Later, the focus was the leadership of the Dicastery for Integral Human Development. They worked very hard on the whole issue of the care for nature; a special message from 1990 was about peace “If you want peace, take care of creation" (something like that). That gave us a guideline for the direction we should take moving forward. Creation is so mistreated, by economic and political interests that do not understand the urgency and the need to take care of nature,. They see nature only as a source of immediate, quick resources, and lack a long-term perspective.

We began to work on the topic of caring for creation with these messages and it went well. Then came the change in the Papacy and Laudato Si’. From the moment he became Pope, Francis raised it as one of the central themes of his work. He noted this very openly, saying "we have acted badly towards creation; we must take care of creation". We had already seen his clear concern, in Evangelii Gaudium, his first apostolic exhortation; this raides the topic forcefully and clearly; then Laudato Si' appeared and that made our work even more central as a part of the mission of the Church. But we had to ask ourselves, what exactly does Laudato Si' mean for Peru? Clearly it implied a clear focus on care for creation at a general level. 

At a meeting at the United Nations in 2017 (Laudato Si’ came out in 2015). Religions for Peace was involved. Then, in Oslo, a large interreligious consortium met: Religions for Peace, the World Council of Churches, the Parliament of Religions, the Network of the Catholic Church (REPAM), Faith and Forests of Yale University, and the Rain Forest Foundation of Norway. Those were the significant partners, and they invited indigenous groups to participate. The Interfaith Rainforest Initiative (IRI) was born in these circumstances, as a proposal to provide a leadership that was religious, and that took on the care and defense of tropical forests as a central task.

Why tropical forests? Because compared to forests overall, they have a much greater capacity to sequester carbon than the rest of the world's forests. And because there is also a very great concentration of carbon in peat bogs, in wetlands throughout the region. So, we set our eyes on the Amazon there. It had always been there, but not with the same urgency.

Thus what IRI represents is an urgency: we are not facing just one more problem; we are facing the central problem, because everything else will depend on resolving this one.

As one reads about of the importance of tropical forests, for biodiversity and more, it is very clear that forests are important for so many things, and that lends a great urgency that appears as a very great urgency. If we must do anything, it is to take care of the forests, because that way we are taking care of all life on the planet. But that means confronting very powerful interests which have only seen in the Amazonian forests, and in the tropical forests more generally, ways to make money quickly and easily. Over the entire tropical forest region, not only in Peru, forests were badly treated.

How did the IRI take root in the Amazon region?

The initiative was born in 2017, and in 2018 we saw the Pope’s visit to the Amazon region. I had met people from the United Nations in Puerto Maldonado. The Pope came to Peru from Chile, and the first thing he did after he landed in Lima was to fly to Puerto Maldonado, early the next day for a meeting with the indigenous people. The Pope has been very clear, very firm on the need to learn from the indigenous people, because they are the ones who know; so a Church must lend an attentive ear and great respect for the ancestral wisdom of the indigenous people, value their knowledge, all of that. And, on the other hand, the Church must begin to work very hard on the issue of caring for the Amazon as a whole: rivers, lagoons, wetlands and forests, in addition to biodiversity.

After the Pope’s visit, he focused on the Amazon Synod, preparations had begun. I was still working in the CEAS, and was much involved in those preparations. We had already begun to make contact with the United Nations, as that seemed useful to us. But there was a time gap, between when we met in January and when they came back to ask us to take a leadership role in leading the IRI.

I was there at meetings in Rome, with the Pope around the Synod. They were very heartwarming. In truth, the Pope was joyful. We also met him in Rome., at a meeting, before the Synod. The Pope was really excited about everything that has to do with the indigenous people. He experiences this with great affection, great closeness. They are his main guests, and he shows an ability to listen to them, and his respect for their traditions; They came into Saint Peter’s with their feathers, their headdresses, their attires, and the Pope was pleased to have them present as they were. It had a meaning for them. And the Pope accompanied them, walking with them.

As IRI came into focus, we thought it was fundamental and a priority. So I left the CEAS, telling my colleagues there, "Look, this is very important, a great opportunity to be able to collaborate with this proposal”. CEAS authorized me to do so with out question, and I started spending a lot of time organizing the United Nations visit for IRI’s installation and launch; at the level of the churches, the NGOs, and other official organizations: the Ministry of the Environment, the Ministry of Agriculture, thus those who had to do with forestry issues. They immediately responded that they would participate and accompany us.

I think what people like the most about something like IRI is that the project objectives are so clear. They center on two fundamental actors: religious leadership and indigenous leadership, as the vanguard of this project. And they are accompanied by the State at its different levels, and by private companies.

How did IRI’s work unfold?

From IRI Peru, we launched an interesting proposal: the Pact for the Amazon and healthy forests. This brought together more than 100 personalities and institutions, based on informed dialogues on fundamental issues. This made it possible to create greater awareness and better linkages among the different actors in connection with the defense of forests and Amazonian ecosystems in general.

We learned many things: for example, that 97 or 98% of the water consumed in Peru does not come from the mountains or, of course, from the arid coast (it does not rain along the Peruvian coast). It comes from the jungle; thus, the jungle is key to Peru’s water supply. At the outset, we were told: "if we destroy the jungle the whole of Peru will be a desert", because Peru’s water comes almost entirely from the Amazonian watershed, which is very large and spread across South America. That was a first warning bell. If we really want to keep our country as it is, or improve it, we have to take care of the Amazon. Our forests are key to the Amazon. And along similar lines, we have gained new insights., as IRI made possible exchange and learning. We launched the pact, dialogues, and alliances with the indigenous peoples. It has gone well and I have appreciated the work from the very start. I am learning and learning: learning never stops with age! I feel very happy with all the progress. 

We now have 12 local IRIs, in regional or provincial capitals. Thus the initiative has expanded in interesting ways. We were thinking of supporting five more this year; but unfortunately, the funds were adjusted a bit; the budget that we had put together for 12 months in the end had to cover 16 months, so we had to cancel several interesting proposals, among them visits. These are very important because people need to feel accompanied, and that we are with them, that we listen to them, and that we are fighting side by side so that the efforts in which they are involved can really materialize. Most of them are people who are already involved in Amazonian projects, in projects of care, and who are even fighting against the times. For example, in the San Martin area, planting corn is the boom of the moment, because corn prices have gone up. But these people who are with us, who have formed the different IRIs (there are four IRIs in San Martín), have said “we do not leave our plots to plant corn. We continue to maintain our small forests, our small spaces, because that is what we need”. Thus they are rising their ability to earn more money. They prefer to keep what they already have and have understood the importance of forests. Or as a doctor who chairs another of the IRIs told us during the pandemic, "I think people are just realizing that we need the oxygen to save ourselves from COVID," because there was a great demand for oxygen. People before had not realized that the jungle is an enormous reserve of oxygen, which is why we have to take care of it. The people themselves were giving the answers. That has been very interesting.

As I said before, this year we saw a downturn because the budget was adjusted. We have, however, contionued to work and we have taken advantage of several opportunities. For example, I went to the Vicariate of Yurimaguas because they invited me to give a speech, and I took the opportunity to visit the IRI of Picota, the IRI of Bellavista, to get closer to the people. Eduardo did the same and visited several towns. We try to maintain a presence. And we will begin next year energetically, because we will have steady financing. 

That sounds fantastic. But what about women? How have women have been part of these different religious and indigenous groups? And, looking at the agendas and their particular concerns, are there many aspects that focus particularly on women?

I emphasize that women are key to caring for the forests. In Puerto Inca in the Huánuco jungle area, which borders on Ucayali, drug trafficking is significant. The men got involved with drug trafficking, growing coca leaf issue and all that. The women opposed the men and said that they did not accept this money and continued to protect their land and crops as a clear priority. Last year an environmental defender from an indigenous community, Liz Chicaje, from one of the Loreto areas, was recognized by the Goldman Prize for protecting a very large area. She saved it. That was very important. And if we hear the witness and note the presence of women in each locality, in each zone, we appreciate their strength and contributions. Yesica Patiachi is a teacher, and she was at the Synod. She is someone who is working hard to raise the cultural identity of her people, the Harakbut people, who are in the southern jungle, in Puerto Maldonado. There are many very interesting examples of women who are working hard, even standing up to men, to defend their land.

Women are the ones who have to feed their families. They realize that, if their rivers are polluted, if the land no longer produces because there is mining or whatever, in the end they will have no source. As; they say "it is our market, it is our pharmacy, it is everything for us. We have to take care of our forests.” But the role of women is not yet sufficiently recognized; I think few women have leadership recognized as the leaders and representatives of the community. Most of the leaders are male. 

There are examples of what I am saying, some that have happened to me. I went to give a talk in an area in Awajún region, in the north; and the majority of those gathered there were men. There were about 150 men and perhaps 40-50 women, in the large group. At the end of the meeting one of the women approached me and others followed her. What she told me was: "Sister, you also have to listen to us; don’t listen just to men." That gave me a reason to sit down to talk with them about how they were seeing things. And the vision of women is very interesting, because it is a vision from below, from the everyday. They do not enter much into political preaching, into speeches. No; they go into very concrete things. "We have to give food and we don't know where to get it." "We no longer have fish in the river, we have to walk more kilometers to get water". Things like that. I think it is a very interesting question. It would be necessary to investigate it a little more,. The fact is that we have not done it. But women have very active roles.

Next year the IRI teams will meet in Peru (they just met in Colombia). We get together to analyze, discuss, and look to the future. The agenda will be up to Peru, so we need to start thinking about it. The issue of women needs more work. There are very interesting women leaders, and there is recognition among some indigenous women that this is also very important. I think that the role of women is beginning to be slowly recognized, within the indigenous federations, but it is not yet very strong. That is already an important step forward, but we have to strengthen it, as there is still a long way to go.

I am hopeful that this project can advance the discussion of people, but also of ideas, of topics. It would be very interesting if you could identify people with whom we can talk.

That would be very interesting. We have contacts and are present throughout the Amazon region, I think we could gladly assist. And Religions for Peace has been part of the IRI proposition from the beginning.

If you need to talk to an indigenous woman, we can do that, with pleasure. There are several nuns who are wonderful, I have a lot of affection for the nuns, because they are extremely committed, and they really go to the bottom of things. In IRI Yurimaguas there is a nun, and in Puerto Inca there is another,. They are people who are taking a gamble. In the Ucayali area as well. If you are interested, we could try to speak with them.

Laura, it is always a pleasure to speak to you. I will follow up. Thank you!