Originally published on Oxfam Poverty to Power platform.
On the 12th February, Pope Francis released Querida Amazonia, a poetic love letter to the Amazon region and its peoples, and from them to the whole world. The letter is one outcome of a gathering last October of 200 religious leaders working in the Amazon region, indigenous peoples and other representative of local communities. The letter accompanies a final document summarizing the discussions. The assembly was preceded by extensive consultations with more than 80,000 people living in the region.
The title of the letter echoes the opening words in the report’s original language. ‘The beloved Amazon region stands before the world in all its splendour, its drama and its mystery’, it opens. The original Spanish plays with the double meaning of ‘querida’: the ‘dear’ that one starts a letter with to a beloved friend, and the ‘beloved’ as the person who is the subject of our love. The letter wants to ‘awaken our affection and concern for the land of the Amazon, which is also ours’ (paragraph 5), as the world ecosystems are connected to that of the Amazon. The letter invites the reader to ‘to feel outrage’ at what is happening to the forests, to the rivers, to indigenous peoples, and gives ample room for their voices to be heard:
‘We are being affected by the timber merchants, ranchers and other third parties. Threatened by economic actors who import a model alien to our territories. The timber industries enter the territory in order to exploit the forest, whereas we protect the forest for the sake of our children, for there we have meat, fish, medicinal plants, fruit trees… The construction of hydroelectric plants and the project of waterways has an impact on the river and on the land… We are a region of stolen territories” (from consultation exercise conducted by the Pan Amazonian Ecclesial Network in Brazil, paragraph 45 of working document of assembly)
Development veterans may say, ‘Well, this is the World Bank’s Voices of the Poor all over again, Catholic Church version’, a bit more radical in its questioning of the economic system that keeps people in poverty, deprives them of their land, destroys their culture, if it doesn’t kill them. The massive participatory World Bank exercise of the late 1990s that consulted more than 20,000 people who lived in poverty in 23 countries, and which fed into its World Development Report 2000/1, was unparalleled in the history of global development organisations reporting. Though flawed by many ‘losses in translation’ and ‘Chinese’ whispers (original quotes did not always match final quotes in the Report), the World Bank consultation exercise led to some radical rethinking of the way poverty is conceived, measured and addressed.
Voices of the Poor is remembered because it changed the way people thought about poverty. That is notable because most development reports do not. So many reports are being churned out by so many development organisations, getting longer and longer as the years go by: the World Development Reports, the Human Development Reports, the Global Education Monitoring Report, the World Employment and Social Outlook Report, etc.
I certainly don’t undervalue the necessity of these reports. Where to go otherwise when one wants to know e.g. how long a woman needs to walk to collect water and firewood, how much more care work women do than men, how big inequality in life expectancy is worldwide, how many days girls miss school on average every year, etc.
But I keep wondering, do these reports lead to any self-questioning, or questioning of existing structures of power? Do they make any difference in people’s lives, including mine? I may have been more informed about the state of the world, but more information about institutions not being right doesn’t necessarily lead to ‘making institutions right’, to quote a once favourite development buzz sentence.
‘Another’s need is a problem of the community, not that individual’
Back to the Pope. Since the turn of the millennium, development organisations have been very keen to form partnerships with faith communities. Arguments such as ‘religious leaders are more trusted than local politicians’, ‘a large number of health and educational services are provided by faith communities’, have now been well rehearsed. But what if this engagement went beyond this instrumental reasoning, beyond seeing faith communities as ‘value for money’ in the fight against poverty? What if they started to embrace the language of love and poetry, and include the voices of people whose lives are destroyed by some development activities? What if they started to include, as in Querida Amazonia (paragraph 47) poems like this one by Colombian poet Juan Carlos Galeano:
“Those who thought that the river was only a piece of rope,
a plaything, were mistaken.
The river is a thin vein on the face of the earth…
The river is a cord enclosing animals and trees.
If pulled too tight, the river could burst.
It could burst and spatter our faces with water and blood”.
I write this as the rivers have burst in many places in the UK after two weeks of storms and unprecedented rains. The time has perhaps now come to talk differently about development. The process of the Synod of the Amazon could be an inspiration for global development organisations to follow. Perhaps, if they started reporting differently, they could start challenging a vision of development that is ‘provoking a cry that rises up to heaven’, for:
“Many are the trees
where torture dwelt,
and vast are the forests
purchased with a thousand deaths”.
“The timber merchants have members of parliament,
while our Amazonia has no one to defend her…
They exiled the parrots and the monkeys…
the chestnut harvests will never be the same” (paragraph 9)
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