By evangelising and helping the Ticuna indigenous people, the Capuchin friars, with support from Aid to the Church in Need, are helping to preserve the Amazon rainforest.
“I have never left this place, I know nothing of the world, but I believe in God, He gives me eternal life. I called the friars here to baptise my children. I don’t want anybody to die without having gotten to know God. Now the names of all my children are written in Heaven.”
So speaks Sônia Pinheiro, vice-chief of Enepü village, of the Ticuna tribe, speaking not only of her biological children, but of the entire community.
To reach Enepü the Capuchins from Belém do Solimões – located in the dangerous region of the Brazilian Amazon which borders Colombia and Peru – have to travel four hours by boat and over six hours in an uncomfortable canoe, the only vessel capable of navigating the local narrow waterways. Without material support, such as fuel, provided by Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), the friars’ mission would be nearly impossible.
Sônia Pinheiro’s community is composed of about 30 people, though she can’t say the exact amount, because the Ticuna vocabulary doesn’t have words for numbers above 10. Nonetheless, she knows each member by name, and holds them close to her heart, as a mother would.
She says that the friars are the only outsiders who come to visit them. Other groups who reach the area are often armed and only interested in tearing down the forest. Her traditional culture already had the concept of a God, but she says they have felt much more beloved since they learned that Jesus came for them as well, and that they have a Mother interceding for them in heaven.
Protecting culture, protecting the land
The Capuchins have been in this region since 1910. Long before environmentalism was a thing, they already helped the natives remain on their lands by protecting their culture and introducing the Gospel into their lives.
Over this time the Franciscan community has witnessed how whenever the indigenous populations are tricked into leaving their lands the region is devastated in just six months by the felling of trees, predatory fishing, hunting and mining, drug trafficking and other evils. The natives really are the natural guardians of these forests, the Capuchins explain.
Just as they helped save the Ticuna from slavery in the previous century, today the friars help save the new generations from modern forms of bondage such as alcoholism and suicide, which spiked as modernity encroached upon the rainforest. The tool for this help is always the same: living the Gospel among them.
“When I first came here, I quickly felt the deep joy of living with a humble people, people who evangelise us through their lives, and who have helped me to be a better Franciscan. I think that Saint Francis would have loved to live here among them, because they have a natural simplicity, fraternity and harmony with nature. Nature is their home, and they know how to let themselves be cared for by nature. If I were to get lost here, I might survive for three or four days, but they know how to make shelters, find food, water and even medicine in nature”, says Friar Paolo Braghini, who currently heads the Belém do Solimões mission.
The community of Enepü is an example of this relationship. It is the natives who sustain the Capuchin friars, sharing with them their fruit, fish, and anything else they happen to catch or gather. What the natives cannot help with is material to further their evangelisation work, including boats, fuel to be able to visit more communities and a house to host new vocations. For these, the friars are thankful for the support received from ACN.
Rather than imposing their own habits, the friars do their best to learn from the Ticuna, which includes trying to master the difficult language, even though, Friar Paolo says, “words are not very important to them. They listen with their hearts. They have a very sharp, strong and well-honed sensitivity, they understand with their heart. If you give yourself to them fully, then they will give their lives for you. But if you hold a prejudice against them, they will understand it immediately.”