A Conversation with Sister Lucero Guillén, Interfaith Rainforest Initative
September 26, 2022
Background: Religions for Peace has pioneered interreligious support for the Interfaith Rainforest Initiative (IRI), which is implemented in three world regions: the Amazon, Congo Basin, and Southeast Asia. RfP is supporting a WFDD exploration of gender roles, both in leadership of the IRI and on the roles of women in program implementation and challenges.
This discussion between Sister Lucero and Katherine Marshall took place by What’s App on September 26, 2022, and focused on the challenges facing people and forests in the Amazonian region where she has worked for 30 years. There, the Catholic Church is in a leading role. While in the past, the work of the Church focused on pastoral care of health, education, now, as companies have taken over much land, the Church has had to deal with this issue. The Church is a constant presence, working with the people. It is, she argues, the institution that best knows the people’s problems of the population in these areas. In the discussion Sister Lucero describes the changes taking place as new settlers and companies come to the region with much destruction of forests, water resources, and soil fertility. She laments the weak roles of governments in controlling the situation. On women’s roles, she describes her approach to participation that seeks to engage women and youth more actively, not by forcing or artificial requirements but by highlighting the integral family roles that characterize farming. The pull of the cities is a strong force for change, that needs to be countered by education approaches that highlight the potential for a decent life in farming and the skills that are called for to make that possible.
A video interview with Sister Lucero is at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Akbvj9iKm94.
I do not simply need to talk about God in the places where I work, so the people know about God. God is there, and he speaks to us through material and practical things. And for us, here, it’s about the forests. If we do not take care of the forests, life will not go well for all of us.
It is very difficult for women and also for men to take on these challenges. When there are decisions to be made, men tend to be asked, but not women. And when women begin to participate, they are seen badly; some stay back and others stand their ground. But it is difficult and hard because women have to muster a lot of courage to survive in those environments, and stick to their principles. But there are doing it.
Everyone has to know how to play to win. In the community, the game is against poverty. If the entire community is not playing for the community welfare, only a small group, that does not work. That’s true also for men, if their useful life as citizens if they are told at 50-55 years old that their worth has already ended and they should turn to other tasks. So there may be a perception that only a small segment of the community is “useful” and worth listening to. If you stick to such a small group, we will not make it.
A dangerous assumption in the Amazon is that so many have a fixed idea that it has no end, that it is vast enough. A second dangerous assumption is that to develop agriculture, I need large areas. But the shifting agriculture that was done in the past is no longer feasible because there is no more space.
To start, can you give us some background on your involvement in the issues around environmental protection and the Interfaith Rainforest Initiative? How did you get involved? What has been your interest in the topic?
I started working on issues affecting forests many years ago; it was not just recently. I have been a missionary since 1983, and the topic of nature has always been a concern for me. However, it caught my attention more sharply when I arrived in the Amazon region. When I took on the role of coordinating the Roundtable for the Fight Against Poverty, I was able to have a broader and more integrated vision of the links and realities that drive the poverty of the people. There were so many problems: health was just one. But one important aspect had not been taken into account, which was land rights, and how the people took care of their lands.
Around 2002-2003, many people from the Andes, from further north, arrived in this part of the Amazon. They were good people, who were looking for land. They came to the community, asked for permission, and waited for the community assembly to act. But there were others who came, with the attitude that "these people don't know anything, they are ignorant or inferior to us". So, they came and settled on the land they chose; they never wanted to work for or with the community, because collective labor was involved. So, we reached an agreement, to address the issues for the area and the land tenure issue, to establish boundaries within the area.
At the time, some people took advantage of the situation, not only to enlarge their farms but also to move into and cut the forests. So the communities decided to set boundaries in the area, separating different communities, and thus to control what people could enter and settle. At the time, we thought that the central government was not interested in or concerned about us. I did learn later that even though they were concerned about the region, their concern was not about the people but about the land and its resources. I came to realize that later. But at that time, I was fresh from the city, worse still, from Lima. We needed to figure out for ourselves some plan to escape from poverty.
So, what was there at hand that allowed us to live and that promised a more dignified life? We could hunt the little animals, we fished; we had water because there are forests, that must be taken care of. Obviously, you had to take care of the forests, the water sources. You had to determine which areas you would not let anyone touch; it’s okay to harvest small things, but not to cut down the trees. All the communities in the district I was in did that. They set what were called untouchable zones, zones of care.
Over the years, we have seen the problems in the region grow, as did the government’s and the business community’s eagerness for resources, but not so much their concern for the people. I began to study the subject more intensively, and I saw how important the forests are for the survival of the people, and for the survival of the Amazon region itself. If the forests are no longer there, life is over. That is very clear. I’ve seen the forests deteriorate over the years, and the people’s capacities have also declined.
Another factor is that while, clearly, we have a Ministry of Agriculture, it works for large projects and above all production that can be sold at a national or international level, that is, exports. Their interest was in monoculture projects and production and they did not dedicate energy to family farms, small scale agriculture, for daily bread, which in practice support a decent economy. But they do not look at it from that angle, only targeting the region for large extensions of cultivation, massive destruction of forests, and proposed monoculture plantations. Immense swamps, wetlands, and also forests are being destroyed. At the same time, water sources are also decreasing; polluted waters, due to agriculture, the small cities that are being built, with drains contribute. Thousands of things like that are happening.
As I looked at the people and accompanied them in their situations, I have become more and more convinced that when we achieve the recovery of the forest and the land, the people will have a much greater chance for a good life. There will also be rewards for everyone, because the forests work not only for those of us who live here, but they also contribute to the whole world
Where are you living?
I am in Yurimaguas. The parish is in a small town in the Department of San Martin, in the Province of Lamas, Barranquitas. I lived there for quite a few years, from 1983 to 2002. Then the Vicariate asked me to take on the Pastoral Care of this area. I am now in Yurimaguas.
Where were you born?
For the IRI initiative, what are the strengths, the most positive aspects, but also the challenges? And what are the roles that religion plays?
The Interfaith Rain Forest Initiative is a very good idea. And it seems to me that it is an excellent idea that the pastors work to protect the forests. They can benefit from training on the subject and know better what is needed to support the program.
Laura [Vargas] is very much part of that process and dialogue, and she works closely with the clergy. But in the places where we are located, many are not so open on the subject. They tend to see us as antagonistic. And that is why it is not easy. I have tried really hard to bring all the pastors together; especially the Protestants. However, I haven't been able to do so because they don't have time. It’s not their job, or they see me as a Catholic, so nothing to do with them. As if one wanted to compete with them or push them so that they become Catholics. I haven't seen much acceptance. It is not easy.
But it’s very clear for me. I do not simply need to talk about God in the places where I work, so the people know about God. God is there, and he speaks to us through material and practical things. And for us, here, it’s about the forests. If we do not take care of the forests, life will not go well for all of us.
Yes, that’s very clear.
On the issues for women and IRI, we are focusing on two aspects: one is women’s roles in the the project/program, but also how women are affected by the problems and processes that promise to address them.
First, looking at the broad subject of women’s roles and challenges. In rural communities, men are normally those who think about and are directly involved in development work, as a group. Women are educated to be recipients of their decisions. Thus there is much work left to be done before women participate more actively; not in a competitive way, but in roles that must be of capable beings, whose duty is to contribute to improving life. It is very difficult for women and also for men to take on these challenges. When there are decisions to be made, men tend to be asked, but not women. And when women begin to participate, they are seen badly; some stay back and others stand their ground. But it is difficult and hard because women have to muster a lot of courage to survive in those environments, and stick to their principles. But there are doing it.
At the core is the fact that it is the women who bear the brunt of the threats to the forests, because they are the ones who have to do the laundry, cook, and must travel for hours to collect water. Those basic details of daily life are vital, and many times men do not think about them. It is important that women begin to assume central roles, not as a favor that men do to them, but because it is our duty to take on that mission.
And in the concept and design of IRI, is this situation clear? Do the leaders accept it or are there any problems?
It's a bit difficult, but I am always happy to observe and see the results of the minimum interventions or development activity. I focus on the results.
There is discrimination and negative patterns affecting women. I have always been very ready to confront these patterns but I am aware that that is not the best path to pursue towards solutions. I focus a lot on participation of communities. There are some simple ways forward. We give the men the example of a football team. The coach trains everyone, the main eleven and the alternates, to play the game. Everyone has to know how to play to win. In the community, the game is against poverty. If the entire community is not playing for the community welfare, only a small group, that does not work. That’s true also for men, if their useful life as citizens if they are told at 50-55 years old that their worth has already ended and they should turn to other tasks. So there may be a perception that only a small segment of the community is “useful” and worth listening to. If you stick to such a small group, we will not make it. There are other groups, that include older men, who can continue to contribute through old age. If half the population are women and they are not included, the community loses. And then there are the young people, the children. We all have to participate. Following this theme, I have seen broader participation being accepted. I have seen greater participation of women, without major conflict, also children, young people. Someone observed that if you take a man and plant a seed, it has some benefits, but with a child and a woman, the seed produces not only a plant but a living environment. You can see it grow and you see all of its manifestations.
We need to explore and identify such nuances, to avoid wasting time in confrontations. That is my experience. We can encourage such leadership and see it increasingly accepted as we press harder. We want women more involved, but not by shoving them. That will exhaust us, and we’ll get old without having achieved much. I am applying my alternative methodology and it is working for me. The women feel more involved, men are welcoming them. It is not all rosy yet, but there is already greater momentum.
On the other hand, looking at agriculture, we work on the entire subject of a diversified agriculture that can assure food for the family and their financial welfare. It is the family overall, as a team, that must do the farming; it is not just the father. But the usual practice is that the father goes to the training; he takes care of all the technical farming issues, while the mother and the children help. But that is not true not here; here, everyone goes for training, everyone does farm work. So if for whatever reason Papa has to travel somewhere or gets sick, the farm cannot be neglected. Many are aware of this and argue that this approach works best: "Things work better for us that way.”
It’s also better for the children. I have always liked working with children, I once asked them (there were about 60 in the room), if when they were older, they would like to be farmers. Only 2 out of 60 said yes. And I asked them why. The answer? “Because the life one leads is dirty, because one lives with hunger, one is illiterate”; all the misfortunes that can be painted. The two children who told me they would like to be farmers said it was because they had their little farm of cocoa and other fruit trees, and other crops and they had, more or less, an economic system that allowed them to lead an untroubled life. And the children know, from childhood, what suffering and pain are, and they don't want it. It’s only human. How can we fight that?
From this foundation, what I try to work on is to give children a different, fresh perspective on agriculture, going to the very social roots of the matter. If they tell you from your school days: "study so that you become someone" so that you escape from, leave your land; we are going to leave the community uninhabited. Let the boys go out to train, to increase their knowledge, but not because their community has no worth, or merit.
Thus, I am working a lot to help children see agriculture in a different way, with a different perspective and knowledge. They need to master as set of information that can take someone to high school or university, and they can then return and develop within their community and get ahead. They need to appreciate that the only way to live a decent life is not in the city. Life in the city is often very hard. You can also lead a good life in the community.
What are the schools like in the region? Are there any Fe y Alegría schoos there?
In our region, there are some schools that have an agreement to work with the Catholic Church, and the Church works with the State. One that has an agreement with Fe y Alegría, but not all of them are like that. Most are ordinary schools, rural schools, with a teacher and the usual management and curriculum.
What about quality? How good is it?
There’s a lot missing. In schools that work under the agreement with the Church, there is a great effort, so that the kids come out better prepared, but that is less true for rural schools. The tendency is always to look to the city. Children are educated with the city in mind. This is, in my view, that we must work on in-depth. There are efforts, in some areas more than in others, on how to link approaches and support kids to prepare for agriculture as a profession -which they are already doing in their activities- as a useful trade, good, beneficial, not just to get by.
And for women, are there organized movements to improve their lives?
Not so much here, no. There are some institutions trying to develop one or another activity; but there are not many working to prepare women to assume roles within the community and society.
Is there much of interest in religious vocations?
Not that much. One or two have their eye on the possibility, more or less where the curiosity of young girls goes. For me, what I want most is that women participate much more and that they solve their life problems. If someone is interested in joining an order or being a missionary, we accompany her, we motivate her. But, above all, it is about how to help women participate in the processes of improving the family and the community, but with less violence, more pleasure, and fearless.
In the schools that work with an agreement and that have established residences, places where girls can stay to study, that is a tremendous advantage. Before, the girls could not study, because the parents thought “she is going to get pregnant and anyway why, if she is going to get married and her husband will support her?” But as a result of implementing boarding schools, many girls are already studying; there are some who are already professionals.
That offers hope.
Yes, step by step, but that’s the right direction. Things are progressing, slowly. We would like it to be different, with many more opportunities, with everything that society is supposed to have. But, within the limits of our realities, we make efforts from the Church and other sectors as well, and we have what we have. Not everything is zero; we are moving, more or less.
Are there other interesting aspects that I don't know or don't know how to ask you?
As for women, there are large differences between the rural areas and the city area. We are still seeing many people moving to the city, especially families, seeking education. This is less true for the indigenous communities. There are issues that overwhelm them. The indigenous population did not used to be so concerned about the education of their children, but that has changed. Today they want their kids to study outside the area they come from. They want their children to study, go to high school, and then also have a profession. This means generating an income, a concern that we see throughout the indigenous population.
The lives of many who live along the rivers are also changing. Many are more collectors than farmers. In the past, the forest offered them sufficient riches, and the rivers also. But as the years have passed, today we have less wildlife in the forests, and less fish in the rivers, due to indiscriminate fishing and also due to pollution, which is taking place in different places. Both the indigenous people and the riverside people, those in rural areas, use the forest, especially wood. When one asks them why they insist on cutting trees, they say “how are we going to buy the kids' school supplies? And other things we need to buy, like medicines?” There are a thousand reasons to justify the sale of wood, almost all of it is illegal. A reality is that the fine wood, the hardwood, is largely gone and now they are using the softer and less fine wood.
Cutting wood is a serious problem, one that the State still does not dare to address. I have participated in a commission to address this issue and each institution spoke about what they have included in their projects. I saw several huge proposals: the Camu-Camu Project, the Sacha Inchi Project, and the Palma Project. As I said there, I don’t question the projects, I don't undermine them. But the issue is that we have to solve the problem of hunger. People need food. Soil management is another issue. We always talk about natural resources, insisting that we must take care of the forest and water. But the problems around soil are rarely mentioned. I think that it is a key problem for the Amazon. I used to think that way too, but as I work and accompany people, I understand things better.
The governments promise land rights, in a formula that links titles to land worked: “I will give you a title deed for the land that you have worked”. So, to have more hectares, I must cut down the forest, because I have to prove that it is mine. This is a wicked logic. On the other hand, farmers never use large land areas: they can in practice cultivate one hectare, two, at most, though there are those who can work more, and a big businessman may need four or six. But normal people are going for one. Some people who work with us have a quarter or half a hectare. But the crux of the matter is that you have to work on caring for the soil so that it is kept in good condition permanently, because if you don't take care of it, it degrades and what people do is abandon it, saying "this land is useless", and they go on and on deforesting. If the nutrients are washed away in the Amazon, all the richness of the soil vanishes and the people become poorer than they already are.
A dangerous assumption in the Amazon is that so many have a fixed idea that it has no end, that it is vast enough. A second dangerous assumption is that to develop agriculture, I need large areas. But the shifting agriculture that was done in the past is no longer feasible because there is no more space. Those who want to take over more land will need to deforest. Soil is a difficult issue, something that has to be taken care of.
Production needs to be concentrated in small areas [small farms] that should be sufficient for livelihoods. That is where the State needs to intervene, to work. But that’s a golden dream; still with us. As we work on the issues, we can sense it; people can feel that it is possible to use local inputs, without getting into the chemical inputs that poison the soil and water. Thus everything organic and everything at hand. But it is important to realize that when people do not follow this dream, it's not that they do it out of an ill will, but that there is a lot of ignorance.
What about COVID? How did people there live that frustrating period?
With a lot of fear at the beginning, because we watched television and saw all the deaths that were happening. It was very sad for the whole world. We did not know have much detailed information. The governments forced us not to leave the communities or leave our houses in the first period. But not in rural communities; in rural areas I was free to go out.
In rural communities, the situation was not so bad. People who got sick were said to have had: "the flu"; some had bad cases and some died, perhaps because they already had some serious illness, and faced by the impact of COVID they could not resist. But for the most part, people have not suffered much. They did very well with medicinal plants, and we believe, and there is analysis, that these helped the health of the communities. They generally have a healthy environment and despite everything, their food is still healthy. Thus they have done quite well. and have been able to handle it well.
During the first phase, people were careful, with restrictions by local governments, the police, the army. Everyone here was guarded. That meant people could not leave their communities. But then those controls ended, starting in May, in August I had already visited the communities and brought some medicine, and was able to explain to them what COVID was. We have already begun to go on with our normal lives. And people were fine. When we went out wearing masks, they laughed: "Why are you wearing a mask?" "Because we have to take care of ourselves". "No, there's nothing here, nothing is going on." Where it was difficult was in the cities. And apart from disease, hunger, poverty, and fear are serous problems. Very sad.
Are things normal now?
It’s more normal now. In the rural communities it is quite normal, and in the cities, it is getting back to normal
Hopefully lessons have been learned, because there are many lessons, about inequities and many other things.
Yes, in rural areas, from what I have heard, there has been a sharing of help, especially with medicines, If Paracetamol or something else was needed, they share. The same was true for the local medicinal plants. People helped each other. Solidarity has not been lost. In the city, it has been much more competitive, and I think there has been an attitude of taking care of oneself, for medicines, hospitals, etc. Fear has also played its role there, very strongly.
Psychological factors have been important.
And that has helped us to further empower rural communities to take care of their environment so that it protects them, because that is what has protected us, that has preserved us. Such a small bug, and it has unsettled us all. That gives us plenty of reasons to protect the forest. As long as those lessons get stronger, that will maintain a momentum. But if not, it will flag, because of the business world, the occupation of the territory by people who come and offer land to them, or invade arbitrarily.
It is a difficult period.
Yes, indeed, for many people.
Thank you very much for this interesting conversation that taught me a lot.