They call it 'The Beast', the 'Train of Death', or the 'Devourer of Migrants'. There are many names given to the train that carries thousands of Central Americans from southern Mexico towards the United States and the dream of a better life. Many stories of people that unravel and overlap.
José Marti, 25, comes from Matagalpa in northern Nicaragua. He has friends in Houston who told him that there he could make enough money to build a decent house and buy a plot of land back home.
José Trinidad is from El Salvador and he was deported from the United States a year ago. Now he is trying to go back. “I want to return to Los Angeles – he says – because I have my children and a good job there. The police thought I belonged to a Pandilla (gang), but it wasn't true. That’s why I was deported”. In the first five months of 2012 alone, over 15,000 Salvadoreans were deported from the United States.
Maria Guadalupe comes from Nicaragua and dreams of the Florida coast. There is a large Nicaraguan community in Miami. “I have been offered a job – she explains – and now the important thing is to get there”.
Many people are waiting for the train in the heat of the sun that reaches 45°C. Frustration, worry, and fear will be their companions for the journey.
The train draws up and stops. There is shouting, shoving; eyes meet, hands push, bags fly. Everyone knows that the Cemex train will not stop for long. That is truly the case; the train starts moving again and gathers speed. Some make the sign of the Cross that has accompanied them from the day they set out. It will be a long journey. They lie down on the wagon roofs. José Fernando looks for his friend Chico but cannot see him. They had set off together from Estoril nel Nord, in Nicaragua. Suddenly he spots a face that he knows by heart at the end of the train. He smiles, lies down, and starts to dream.
Veterans of the journey include Luis who, like many others, is from El Salvador. This is the third time he has climbed onto the train. “It is important to hold on, the train can sometimes play dirty tricks,” he says to a group of young Hondurans who are chasing each other. They are playing more to mask their anxiety than to have fun. “Last year a boy fell from the train and lost both legs,” says Luis. “The next stop is in four hours. Stay still and try not to fall asleep”.
Each year nearly half a million Central Americans cross Mexico in the direction of the United States. In most cases they travel without documents to avoid being deported in the event that they are stopped. Their greatest fear is of being kidnapped by a criminal gang for ransom. Luis nods his head: “Once a migrant is kidnapped he is forced to call home; if the money does not arrive within a couple of days they are killed mercilessly and thrown into mass graves. They must pay between $1,500 and $5,000 to regain their freedom”.
Fernando from El Salvador has this to say: “We were at the town of Ixtepec on a freight train heading for Veracruz when four armed men suddenly climbed down from the roof and began to round us up. They then demanded a telephone number for our families in order to ask for a ransom before kidnapping nine of us. A few hours later the police found the body of one of the nine not far from where the incident had taken place; the others disappeared without a trace”.
The migrants remember clearly what happened in August 2010, when 72 Central Americans were murdered by drug traffickers from the Zetas cartel in the state of Tamaulipas and then thrown into a common grave. Over 20,000 migrants were kidnapped in 2010 alone according to Mexico's National Human Rights Commission. “Migrants represent a turnover of $50 million a year,” calculates Leticia Gutiérrez, a Commission member.
Sometimes the police themselves take advantage of the migrants by demanding money. “Even then there is no guarantee of release: many are sent back to where they came from,” explains Luis.
Mexico's National Institute of Migration says that roughly 24,500 people were repatriated in the last few months of 2012, mostly to Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras.
Miguel is another migrant on the train. He is a Mexican from the state of Chapas and is heading for San Antonio in Texas. He has a cousin who returns to Mexico every December to celebrate Our Lady of Guadalupe. Miguel plans to spend a few years in Texas in order to put together a bit of money and start a small business in his native village.
Remittances to Mexico grew by 6.86% in 2012 to reach a volume of $22.73 billion according to the Bank of Mexico. The average money transfer was $326.26.
“Remittances are an essential source of income for many poor families in Mexico and a stimulus for domestic demand,” says Francisco Lopez, a lecturer in economics in Mexico City. “They are the second source of foreign currency in Mexico after crude oil. The majority of remittances to Mexico come from the United States, which are home to around 12 million Mexicans and at least a further nine million Americans born of Mexican parents”.
“Mexico is going through a time of crisis particularly as a result of the violence caused by the war on drug trafficking, but also because of corruption within the institutions and the general culture of impunity,” says Father Alejandro Solalinde Guerra, founder of the Hermanos en el Camino migrants' shelter in the southern state of Oaxaca, one of the poorest in the country. “The migrants bear the brunt of the violence in this troubled country. They are extremely tired when they arrive, they are all poor and most are young people who have left their homes and families to study, work or escape the violence. They often arrive after hours spent on the roof of a freight train, exposed to the rain, the sun and the cold. They arrive hungry, thirsty, sometimes without clothes, without money,” continues the priest.
In total 11,000 migrants have been kidnapped for ransom or killed. “Hundreds are buried in mass graves especially in Chapas and Veracruz, the capital of Los Zeta. The problem is that there is no more land available for mass graves so the criminals now dissolve the bodies in acid,” says the priest. “It is simpler and leaves no trace”. How many bodies have been disposed of in this way? “No one knows, they do not exist”.
Father Solalinde has received numerous death threats. “In fact I have been threatened all my life,” he says. “I have received six death threats in the last two months alone. But I am not afraid, my life is in the hands of God. I am not concerned for myself, but for the migrants and for the situation in Mexico”. In December Father Solalinde received the 2012 National Human Rights Award.
The border with the United States is marked by a metal barrier running for 3,200 km and is under constant surveillance by satellite, aerial drones, mobile towers, and infrared cameras. Thousands of border patrol agents, members of the National Guard, and Minutemen volunteers are responsible for tracking down the 'illegals'.
The border is porous and impermeable at the same time: large quantities of drugs make it across by air, sea, overland, or even underground, and so do large quantities of weapons.
Operation Fast and Furious of the US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) led to the arrival in Mexico of at least 2,500 illegal weapons, according to Estebàn Fernandez, a human rights activist living in Mexico City. Many of these ended up in the hands of the Sinaloa drug cartel.
Drugs, weapons and many other goods cross the border but, as Estebàn stresses, “the passage of people is very highly controlled”. The American dream maintains its lure in spite of the economic downturn.
Good living, or buen vivir in Spanish – living in harmony with oneself, other members of the community, nature and one’s surroundings – is central to indigenous life.
“Each indigenous community has its own way of interpreting the concept of buen vivir,” says Cecilia Ramírez, a representative of the International Indigenous Women’s Forum and member of the Mixtec community in the state of Oaxaca, Mexico. “In my community we talk about banjá, which means ‘being well’ (in the Mixtec language). For us it means continuing with our traditional crops, looking after the land, and safeguarding our language.”
It is also about collective rather than individual welfare. “In my community everyone cooperates and works together when a road or a primary school needs to be repaired,” she explains. “If one uses a service, one has to contribute to its maintenance. We call communal collective work tekia.”
Another aspect of this collective sense of self, according to Ramírez, is how families help each other. “When there’s a religious celebration or a funeral, everyone contributes to the expense. That’s called guesa (in Mixtec) or vuelta de mano (in Spanish).”
“Buen vivir is the integral development of indigenous people, it stems from our daily life and includes a series of social and cultural elements,” says Mayan lawyer Odilia Chavajay, from the municipality of Santa María Visitación, in the department of Sololá, Guatemala.
“It’s a way of life in which we all look after our collective wellbeing rather than the wellbeing of a single person,” she adds, noting however that, “nowadays, only the remotest communities that live far from state paternalism practice this way of life”.
Like the Mixtec in Ramírez’s community, the Mayan people of Santa María Visitación also practice collective work. “When someone doesn’t have a home, the entire community gets involved and a house can be built in one day,” says Chavajay.
She also cites traditional Mayan gastronomy and its emphasis on organic, home-grown products as another example of good living. “Nowadays, there are many products available that are bad for people’s health. However, in isolated communities, people don’t eat canned food,” she says.
As well as living in harmony with oneself, neighbours, and the community, good living also means being in harmony with nature. “The indigenous way of life is based on sustainable development, not on the relentless exploitation of natural resources,” says Gerardo Jumí Tapies, who heads the Andean Coordinator of Indigenous Organizations (CAOI). “Indigenous people have lived in the forest and by the rivers without killing those resources. Those resources are now running out due to the actions of multinational corporations.”
Pedro Calderón, of Bolivia´s Syndicalist Confederation of Intercultural Communities, explains that for South America’s indigenous people, trade is viewed in terms of solidarity and exchange rather than profit, with tropical communities trading oranges and bananas with highland communities for corn, potatoes, okra, and other products.
Achievements and setbacks
During the recent Indigenous Fund Assembly, held in Guatemala City, indigenous representatives reflected on the meaning of buen vivir and unveiled the results of the “System for Monitoring the Protection of Rights and the Promotion of Indigenous Peoples’ Buen Vivir,” which was created during the 2006 summit.
That year, the Fund for the Development of the Indigenous Peoples of Latin America and the Caribbean, known as “The Indigenous Fund,” a Bolivia-based multilateral aid agency promoting indigenous rights and development, met in Guatemala and agreed to create indicators to measure progress in rights and development among the region’s indigenous people.
Researchers from Mexico’s Centre for Investigation and Superior Studies in Social Anthropology (CIESAS), compiled information from Bolivia, Chile, Ecuador, and Mexico on how governments have complied with international treaties and conventions on indigenous rights, to establish whether legal rights became concrete improvements in the wellbeing of indigenous peoples. Six major areas were assessed: diversity, land rights, self-determination, wellbeing, indigenous development, and participation.
Diversity, for example, was divided into two areas: culture and citizenship, each of which was assessed according to variables relating to rights, such as the state’s recognition of multiculturalism, the protection of indigenous culture, the prohibition of racial and cultural discrimination and the legal recognition of collective rights. There were also variables relating to buen vivir, like the official use of indigenous languages, intercultural education, the expression of traditional cultural practices and the establishment of collective indigenous entities.
The report noted that Bolivia and Ecuador both stand out in terms of legal recognition for indigenous rights, with the approval of new constitutions that incorporate multiculturalism and buen vivir, also known by its Quechua name of sumak kawsay in other indigenous South American communities.
However, in the four countries studied, legal and constitutional rights continue to exist on paper but not in practice. “With regard to the application of indigenous people’s rights,” the document concluded, “a lack of coherence between discourse and practice has been observed.”
“Indigenous people continue to face huge disadvantages in comparison with the rest of the population,” says Luis Contento, vice-president of the Kichwa Confederation of Ecuador (ECUARUNARI). “Indigenous communities have the least access to services and are not allowed to exercise basic rights such as the right to prior consultation.”
In 1955, the Comboni Missionaries arrived in Ecuador. Until then, they had worked mainly in Africa, and they were called in Latin America especially to work among the Afro-American. Father Raffaello Savoia and Bishop Enrico Bartolucci – who previously worked in Burundi – immediately started to live among black communities in Esmeralda. They realized there was no concerted pastoral work targeting them. They reflected on what to do, and especially they asked themselves if anything could be done to coordinate the pastoral work targeting the community of Afro-Americans in Ecuador, but also in other countries along the Pacific coast.
It was the beginning of a journey that led to calling pastoral workers among the black community to meet and discuss. The meeting became an international Encounter on pastoral work among Afro-Americans, involving people from all Latin American countries, but also the States.
In July, the EPA (Encuentro Pastoral Afro) met for its 12th meeting in Guayaquil, Ecuador. Guayaquil was one of the stops in the lengthy journey that brought African slaves to Lima, Peru. It is in Guayaquil that Saint Martin de Porres – a Dominican friar of Afro-European descent – lived for a time, curing the sick and helping the poor.
The 250 delegates that met in Guayaquil reflected on how the life and faith of the black community in Latin America can interact with Church and society. They were coming from Brazil, Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Mexico, Argentina, Panama, Bolivia, Haiti, Dominican Republic, Paraguay, Chile, Uruguay, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Honduras, Guatemala and Jamaica. The meeting stressed, once again, the need to give preferential attention to the poorest, and to favour the insertion of Afro-American, but also indigenous people, in the Church at all level. Groups discussed and shared about acculturated evangelization, missionary animation and sending missionaries to other communities.
The major themes of discussion focused also on how to coordinate the work among Afro-Americans in the countries they are present and how to tackle poverty, which is particularly felt among these peoples. Working among women, facing the presence and incidence of AIDS, the questions of drug dependencies and undocumented people were some of the areas explored by the delegates. The quality of their presence within society was also tackled. In most countries in the Americas, black people are disadvantaged. They seldom achieve important roles in the political and financial arenas.
Participants were happy to receive a personal message from Pope Benedict XVI who insisted on the need to “deepen the cultural values, the history and the traditions of Afro-Americans. This is important to allow the Church to present Jesus Christ as the authentic answer to the more profound questions of the human being, animated by the Holy Spirit, who came to fecundate all cultures. The Spirit acts purifying cultures and enabling to grow, and guiding them in the ways of the Gospel”.
The Encuentro had time to celebrate. The delegates animated a procession through Guayaquil celebrating Afro values and cultural traits , and ended at the cathedral to celebrate the Eucharist. This meeting is growing in importance and it is recognized by the Latin American Bishops’ Council (Celam) which also met in Guayaquil alongside the EPA to evaluate and reaffirm the continental pastoral plan to work among the Afro American.
Ii was a good trip for the Pope to Mexico and Cuba at the end of March. Both countries have seen terrible confrontations between Church and state and political wounds still need to be bound up and peace promoted. “The light of the Lord, has shone brightly during these days”, Pope Benedict declared, “may that light never fade in those who have welcomed it; may it help all people to foster social harmony … which can be the basis for building a society of broad vision, renewed and reconciled”.
As he prepared to bid farewell to President Raúl Castro and leave Havana for Rome on 28 March, Benedict made an optimistic appeal for greater civic understanding in the seriously rent fabric of a Cuban society. None of his hearers could be unaware of the intense efforts made in 1959 and the first years of Castro rule to strengthen social change in the sometimes corrupt and rotten structures of the island - to the intense hostility of many leading figures in the Catholic hierarchy. Beside such efforts as agrarian reform there was the darker side of Fidel Castro’s removal of Christmas from the Cuban civic calendar, the removal of believers from state structures, the eclipse of Catholic education and the ejection of many non-Cuban clergy.
On the part of the Church there was the flight of several senior Cuban pastors from their diocese as the revolution got under way. Pope John XXIII had to order the aged Cardinal Manuel Arteaga, for long a supporter of Batista, who like Bishop Manuel Rodríguez of Cienfuegos had gone to the Argentine embassy in the capital, to stay at his post as Archbishop of Havana. Among Vatican and US clergy there were successful efforts to persuade thousands of catholic parents to send more than 14,000 of their children to the US in Operation Peter Pan. Washington provided the youngsters with visas, but denied such visas to their parents. This resulted in the scandalous destruction and scattering of many families.
It was only the efforts of such men as Mgr Cesare Zacchi the papal nuncio in Havana - who found words to applaud the good actions of the government and declare Fidel Castro to be “a man with deep Christian values” and thereafter went on to head the diplomatic academy in the Vatican - that Church-state relations were not damaged further. Though he did not mention Washington by name in the same farewell speech to President Raúl Castro the Pope, as expected, made firm reference to the US illegal blockade of Cuba’s foreign trade and finance, consistently condemned by overwhelming votes in the UN General Assembly. Following the example of Pope John Paul II in 1998 he roundly condemned the boycotters by declaring that “international restrictive economic measures, imposed from outside the country, unfairly burden its people.”
There was one immediate response to Benedict’s visit. Good Friday this year was declared a public holiday amid expectation that the celebration would become permanent in the same way as John Paul’s visit brought an end to decades of official boycott of Christmas.
Benedict and Fidel found half an hour to talk together, an occasion which was described by both sides as a cordial – even jocular – encounter between two old men: the Cuban asked the Pope to recommend him books he could comment on in his frequent columns on the web.
On his outward flight to Mexico amid references to the that country’s demented import of firearms from the US and to the bloodshed generated by US demands for drugs from Mexico, Benedict had said, “Today it is obvious that the Marxist ideology as it was conceived no longer corresponds to reality …. New models must be found, patiently and constructively.” The two Castros have been abandoning the Marxism-Leninism which in the time of the USSR had been declared the official ideology of the state. Now the Cuban government favours the ideas of José Martí - the Cuban national hero who fell in battle against Spanish rule shortly before 1898 when Washington decided to invade the island and incorporate it into the US orbit. The papal visit afforded an opportunity apply healing balm on past conflicts not only in Cuba but also in Mexico a country where memories persist of the savage Cristero war in the 1920s between believers and unbelievers. At the end of March Cardinal Norberto Rivera, archbishop of Mexico City, gave Manuel Franciscio Aguilera, the Cuban ambassador there, copies of the marriage lines of Martí and his bride Carmen Zayas Bazán who wed at 6.30 a.m. in the Sagrario, adjacent to the city’s cathedral on 20 December 1877, one of which was dispatched to Raúl Castro. The gesture, affecting as it did Mexico, Cuba and the Vatican, was all the more telling given that Martí was widely known as a freemason and no great friend of the Church. Indeed the fact that he and his bride had a Church wedding would have surprised many Cubans.
In his words of farewell amid a rainstorm at Havana’s José Martí International Airport Raúl Castro concentrated on a claim to always seek the full dignity of the human person and said, “We are conscious that this dignity is not built on material bases along but also on spiritual values, such as generosity, solidarity, a feeling for justice, altruism, mutual respect, honesty and an adherence to truth.” He even went on to quote Father Félix Varela, a priest and an early 19th century supporter of Cuban independence from Spain, as one who inspired work for the common good.
Many opponents of the Cuban government will certainly be mistrustful of Raúl’s remarks. But the Pope’s and the President’s words would have seemed inconceivable years ago in the bad old days when Marxism-Leninism was all-powerful in the government. Now peace was being given a chance.
The whole world was moved and indignant when it learned of the presumed kidnapping of 33 children during the full-blown crisis of the Haitian people caused by the powerful earthquake of January 12, 2010. The government of Haiti was annoyed by the public media attention that this news received. Perhaps unconsciously, this governmental reaction revealed an acknowledgement of what they assume as the normal state of affairs. Why? Because “everyone in this country knows about the trafficking of children: there are the mafias of lawyers, the leaders of sects, the small, established ‘ad hoc’ power groups, the fraudulent doctors … - says Fr. Miguel Jean Baptiste, a parish priest in Haiti - this is the normal state of affairs in this country”. It is nothing new; international trafficking has been present in Haiti since the time of French colonialism. In this Haiti is no different from other poor countries. People are vulnerable, even more so if they are children and orphans.
In Haiti, it is common to send small children from poor families to richer homes in towns. There, they work for a pittance, without rights or rest. They are called restavek, a slang word from the French rester avec - stay with – and they are a new form of slaves. These children, of various ages, have poverty in common. In their new “residence” they eat little, rarely sleep and work a lot, according to persons directly familiar with the reality. Some of these children end up being sold to people who take them outside the country. They might in turn be illegally adopted by a family in the States, or ‘bought’ by one of the many cartels controlling the sex trade in the Caribbean.
Since independence, the various governments that led Haiti paid little attention to the life of peasants. There was never an agrarian policy, and the poorest are left to fend for themselves. Haitians are poor, much more so the rural population. There are no adequate schools or educational centres for children. Families have no money to support their children. This is why many do not hesitate to give their children away. This is the hard reality in so many poor countries.
In Haiti, it is often the ‘religious intermediary’ of a sect that collects children from the countryside and places them in the care of ‘good families’ in Port au Prince. Parents usually know that they will never see them again, but they would give the children over to these people again, since they are not able to support them. This is the tragedy for many families of this country who are not able to neither give their children a piece of bread nor take them to school. This is the phenomenon that repeats itself over and over. The reason is that since the independence of Haiti there has not been a clear effort to free its people from a mentality of slavery. In fact, it has been cultivated.
It is calculated that there are some 300,000 restaveks. While not all of them are victims of mistreatment, a disturbingly high percentage of them are. Ages range from 5 to 17 years old. Almost 70 per cent are girls; the majority subjected to even greater abuse. Between January, 2007 and June, 2008, 238 rapes were documented. In reality there are many more. These young boys and girls are “the poor of the poor.” The look in the eyes of these children is the saddest in Haiti. The only positive aspect is that many “welcoming families” have experienced what it is to be restavek.
Alongside these families that take in as many children as they can into their homes, there are persons who dedicate their lives for these unfortunate little ones. Fr. Miguel Jean Baptiste is one of them. His parish is poor but it is very rich in humanitarian commitment and in fraternity. There, on the heights of a hillside, sunny and dusty, surrounded by pitiable housing, is his parish and his work. Among the many good things there, he has created a shelter for the restaveks, in the Carrefour area of Port-au-Prince. This shelter cares for almost 400 children. There, they are given food, taught to read and write, and given affection, which is what these children need most. Tragically, some of them disappeared forever with the earthquake. A few of them died and were buried in mass graves; other found their way to the States or other countries where unscrupulous people took them for personal profit.
In 1979, Daniel N˙Òez, bishop of Panama's David diocese, wrote: 'The children play outside with smiling faces, despite the worms and malnutrition. Their mother weaves a multicolour ch·cara [an elaborately patterned string bag], while a naked months-old baby crawls around her. The grandmother brings water and firewood together with two children; the father and two other children come from clearing brush and are received joyously. There's a breeze and the tranquillity is palpable. In the midst of their poverty there's a lot of affection among them; there's love. They don't know it, but they're under threat.'
Today, many things have changed, including in the indigenous zones, but many others have not. A legally defined territory called Ngöbe-Buglé District has existed in Panama since 1997, the product of a long and bloody struggle. A little over 110,000 Ngöbe and Buglé indigenous peoples live in the Ngöbe-Buglé District, 55% of a total population of 200,000. To work out the law for the Ngöbe-Buglé District, an Organic Act was first approved, which the government changed last August without the consensus of those affected. There are more schools and health posts in the zone now, as well as some poorly constructed roads. The indigenous presence is also 'felt' more in the media; more indigenous people are studying at university; the political parties have thoroughly inserted themselves in their territories; many projects have been developed, and a lot of money has been invested.
And yet, 95% of the population of this district is still living in poverty, while 60% are considered 'illiterate' in Spanish and treated as pariahs because they speak their own languages and have a different-colour skin. Many now migrate to western Panama and to Costa Rica. They emigrate to get better paid jobs, but those who only go as far as the Panamanian cities of David and Santiago end up even poorer and more marginalized, as many research studies have shown.
As if the problems these peoples already have weren't enough, projects and more projects are now being proposed for 'the country's development.' All have a history behind them' In 1977, the project to exploit Cerro Colorado hovered over the Ngöbe-Buglé District like an eagle ready to swoop. Since then technical studies have analyzed and denounced the mortal danger in which the indigenous of the entire district found themselves, as well as the negative consequences of this particular mining exploitation not only for these communities but for the whole country. It was documented at the time that an 'open cast' mine meant ecological and ethnic death for many communities. International solidarity abounded and many united to confront the 'monster.' The project was denounced by multiple groups, and especially by Bishop David N˙Òez, later joined by all the country's Catholic bishops.
Meanwhile, with the Cerro Colorado project shelved, they turned their sights on Veraguas, the gold mine in CaÒazas. They were there for ten years getting gold out and leaving behind contaminated rivers, soil and, above all, people. When they left, all they bequeathed was a lunar landscape and many sick people. As all these project need electricity, they next went after the beautiful, abundant and deep rivers that bathe our small country. They had already exploited the R'o Bayano in the eastern part of the country in the seventies, building a dam that flooded part of what is today the Kuna District of Madungand'. The Kunas are still waiting for their benefits and compensation. The peasants and indigenous people of the R'o Cobre have been struggling for eleven years to keep from being thrown off their land. In Valle RiscÛ, the Ng‰be have suffered evictions, dispossessions, loss of lands and crops, marginalizing of communities, and the destruction of the ecology and the Protector Forest of Palo Seco, all to the construction of the Chan-75 dam.
With great stealth, as if to keep many people from finding out, the Canadian Dominion Minerals company was granted a concession for over 24,000 hectares in 2006 with no environmental impact study, to exploit a copper, gold, silver and molybdenum deposit in the middle of the Ngöbe-Buglé District. The Environmental Authority, on which the laws on reserves and districts depend, said nothing. Nor have the owners of these lands been consulted. Not until April 2009 did the Supreme Court suspend the mining company's actions, and then only temporarily. So the sword is still hanging over the heads of the Chorchas and all Panamanians.
'Clean mining' has been the banner proclamation of exploitation, as is currently the case in CoclÈ-ColÛn, where Petaquilla Gold and Minera Panam· are exploring for copper, gold and silver. But the reality is that there's no such thing as clean mining; in all cases it's an oxymoron. Panama's Chamber of Mining recently declared that 'if mining weren't good, there wouldn't be so many mines in Chile, Peru and Brazil.' But history and the evidence in those three countries point to dirty and polluting mining there.
With international copper and gold prices now rising, they are back to exploit mines in Panama, and the Panamanian government has already taken various steps to permit it. These include approving a reform to the 1963 Mining Code, which has sparked the opposition of all of the country's environmentalist groups. Another was to reform the Organic Act of the Ngöbe-BugléDistrict, thus opening the way for 'authorization' of this mining exploitation. Those opposed to this outrage have banked on organization, consciousness-raising and commitment. The first step has been to 'organize the rage' produced by the determination to exploit riches by going over people's heads. The organization of that rage has been reflected in community groups, traditional authorities, solidarity groups, civil society, pastoral groups and international support. After demonstrations and protests, the issuing of communiquÈs and the blocking of highways, in which people were wounded, beaten and imprisoned, we got the government to back off and repeal the mining law.
The second step is consciousness-raising. Much still needs to be said to the entire country. Incredibly, there are still supposedly well-educated professionals (doctors, engineers, etc.) who think that culture is synonymous with backwardness, that land is only possessed by purchase and that all investment is progress. We're frequently surprised by the racist statements and justifications born of the ignorance of many Panamanians.
The third is commitment. Panama's Catholic Church spoke clearly in a January 13 Bishops' Conference CommuniquÈ. 'Not all investment is desirable. Such is the case of mining, which together with deforestation has become the greatest threat to environmental sustainability in the region. In general, countries have weak laws regarding foreign investment and lax regulations that do not guarantee that contaminating substances such as cyanide are handled safely for the health of the population. Nor have legitimately recognized consultations been conducted to truthfully inform affected communities and make sure their demands are recognized.'
In numerous meetings, bishops and pastoral agents (priests, nuns and committed lay people) who work in the country's districts have demonstrated our concern about the mining projects, given that the marginalization and extreme poverty are now exacerbated by the growing threat of dispossession and the despoiling of their ancestral territories by mining concessions and hydroelectric projects in the name of 'national progress.' Many indigenous accounts support this struggle. As a Church, we must remain at the side of these peoples even if we have to pay a high price. It's the only task the Gospel of Jesus Christ asks of us.
Sarsaneda is a Jesuit, member of the Panama national indigenous pastoral coordinating body.
In the 1960's, Bishop Samuel Ruiz Garcìa' speaking out against Chiapas' unwritten laws - such as those prohibiting Indians from walking the streets after dark and forcing them to step off city sidewalks into the gutter whenever non-Indians approached. He said his faith led him to examine the roots of the injustice and prompted his writings on the exploitation of Native Americans and his research into indigenous cosmology and theology. His remarks against the powerful landlord class were construed by some as originating from Marxist class theory, rather than the Gospel. During Pope John Paul II's 1990 visit to Mexico, landowners published an open letter, accusing Bishop Ruiz of being communist and fomenting class hatred.
Starting in 1970, Bishop Ruiz ordered translations of the Bible and other religious texts in the indigenous languages of Chiapas. He trained Indian catechists, or instructors, to organize village assemblies throughout the mountains and jungles of the diocese. By the end of his tenure, there were more than 20,000 Indian catechists in Chiapas. He made the Word of God accessible to the people. Bishop Ruiz learned to speak four Mayan languages and often traveled by mule through his diocese, where he was affectionately called Don Samuel or "Tatic," which means father in the Mayan language.
Samuel Ruiz Garcìa's own life had started in poverty: he was born on November 3, 1924, in Irapuato, in central Mexico. He was the eldest of five children, and his parents struggled to survive on a shared smallholding and a little grocery shop. His schooling was irregular at first, in part because of the stringent laws against Catholics and their schools in the years of persecution of the Mexican Church in the 1930s, after the Mexican revolution. At the age of 13, however, things changed when he joined the diocesan minor seminary. After his ordination in 1949, he obtained a doctorate in biblical studies in Rome. On his return to Mexico, he became a teacher, then rector of the diocesan seminary in LeÛn and, subsequently, a canon of LeÛn Cathedral, before being made Bishop of San CristÛbal.
When Bishop Ruiz first arrived in Chiapas the Church in Latin America had begun a process of change, although the new bishop was not at first fully aware of the shape this was taking. He explained that he initially followed his predecessor in encouraging the work of catechists who, by their service and the example of their own lives, inspired the rest of the community. However, in hindsight, he criticized this approach for its orientation towards Western attitudes and organization from the top down rather than from among the people themselves using their own cultural values.
A bishop's conversion
He was present at the Second Vatican Council and was particularly impressed by the part played by the bishops from Africa in putting together the decree Ad Gentes about the Church's missionary activity. They were lobbying strongly for a new approach to Christian anthropology which would help them more with their missionary work and value the dignity of different cultures. He referred often to the influence that Ad Gentes had on him at a time when he says he himself was still thinking of ways to teach his people to substitute Spanish for their own indigenous languages in order to evangelize them and help them economically. And here was Ad Gentes, advising Christians to familiarize themselves with their own national and religious traditions and seek out the seeds of the Word that lay latent within these.
The 'conversion' did not stop there. In 1968, CELAM held its second conference, this time in Medell'n, Colombia, to look at ways of making Vatican II more readily applicable to the Latin American context. There was a dramatic shift in focus towards the widespread misery on the sub-continent which was diagnosed as coming from unjust social and economic structures which the poor were powerless to change. This attention to what was described famously as 'institutionalized violence' made a profound impression. So the catechists in Don Samuel's diocese became the spokespeople of their communities, which were considering all aspects - social, political, economic and cultural - of their situation in order to work out where the Spirit of God was leading them.
The next point of departure on Don Samuel's road was the Congress of the Indigenous that he held in San CristÛbal in 1974. The communities had elected speakers whom they felt led straight lives and could represent them. The catechists of the diocese now were not just there to help with traditional catechism, with services and singing, but were genuine representatives of their communities in all the matters most important to them.
There followed three days of lament for all the abuses that the indigenous peoples had suffered, with details, but also concrete suggestions about what to do in each case. By this time, Don Samuel could speak two of the four languages of the indigenous present and had a working knowledge of the others. He said that he learned enough at the meeting to see the inadequacy of his diocesan pastoral plan, which he scrapped there and then and developed another based on what he had heard.
Obviously, all this sustained work - to make his people aware of the sources of their problems and then encourage them to discover and apply solutions - was sooner or later going to lead to conflict with those causing the problem: the large landowners and ranch owners and their political backers in the state of Chiapas, as well as in the federal government.
The only mediator
When the frustration of the people finally broke out into the rebellion of the Zapatista Liberation Army (EZLN) in 1994, the first person to be blamed was Don Samuel. Supposedly, it was his scheming and his orchestration of the theology of violence that had driven the indigenous to join the rebel army and invade several towns. But this phase of blame passed when it became clear that he was the only mediator that the rebels would accept to deal with the government, and the parties met, under his mediation, in the cathedral in San CristÛbal.
A truce was agreed and eventually an agreement on greater autonomy for the indigenous was made between the representatives of the government and the EZLN. What was more surprising was the tensions that Bishop Ruiz had with the Church. At a certain moment, he was asked to resign and replied that if asked to by the pope, of course, he would do so. This did not happen and his later prestigious role as mediator further protected him.
In 1996, Bishop Ruiz was awarded the Pacem in Terris Award. It was named after a 1963 encyclical letter by Pope John XXIII that calls upon all people of goodwill to secure peace among all nations. He won the SimÛn Bol'var International Prize from UNESCO in 2000 due to his efforts to fight poverty, exclusion, corruption, violence and for his help in the mutual understanding of Latin Americans.
Like prophet Jeremiah
'I haven't evangelized them, they have evangelized me!' So, Bishop Samuel Ruiz Garc'a replied, with directness and humility, to a compliment about his work in his diocese of San CristÛbal de Las Casas in Mexico. This quiet, chubby, unassuming little man gave everything that he had of his mind and strength to the people of his diocese, over the forty years that he was their bishop. Bishop Samuel Ruiz Garc'a died on January 24, 2011, of complications from long-standing illnesses. Wearing a miter and stole embroidered with Mayan motifs, his body was buried in the cathedral of San CristÛbal accompanied by lamentation by the indigenous people to whom he had dedicated himself. At his funeral Mass, Ra˙l Vera, Bishop of Saltillo, recalled how Bishop Ruiz 'always had eyes to see the image of God in each one of his brothers and sisters.' "Don Samuel was like the prophet Jeremiah, a man who lived amidst and experienced contradiction," said Bishop Vera.
Mexican President Felipe CalderÛn said Bishop Ruiz's death "constitutes a great loss for Mexico.' 'Samuel Ruiz strove to build a more just Mexico - egalitarian, dignified and without discrimination in it - so that indigenous communities have a voice and their rights and freedoms are respected by all," the president said in a statement. Don Samuel has left, as important and tangible example of his work, the Fray BartolomÈ de Las Casas Human Rights Center that he set up in 1989. Its website shows just how terribly his people in Chiapas still suffer. We can only hope that Don Samuel's commitment to the people of his diocese lives on through his prophetic legacy and those who continue his work.
Costa Rica is a small but busy country. Many years of political stability, an industrious population and the right environmental characteristic, allowed the country to become the more prosperous in Central America. The Church, with its centuries old presence, is however aware that there are still areas were the Gospel did not reach or it did not take hold on the people. One such area is the diocese of Tilaran. Southworld has met Vittorino Girardi, a Comboni Missionary and bishop of Tilaran.
Bishop, can you expand on the diocese of Tilaran?
Tilaran was founded in 196, taking the territory from the older diocese of Alajuela. At that time, comprising the regions of Guanacaste, Puntarenas, and part of Alajuela, it was covering about half of the territory of Costa Rica. Today, with the creation of the dioceses of Puntarenas and Ciudad Quesada, the diocese covers about 12,500 km2, still the largest in the country, with a population of about half a million people. This area is also the one that shows greater population growth. The presence of the Church goes back to three centuries ago, yet much of the diocese is still a missionary territory. When I became bishop of Tilaran in 2002, I found that there were no religious personnel in the diocese, and only a handful of diocesan priests. I invited various Institutes, both male and female, to come and work in the diocese and help with the catechesis and the pastoral care of the people. Now we have 34 parishes, more than 600 communities, and 60 priests, but we still have to see a growth in the local clergy. Most of our personnel are from Latina America - Colombia, Chile, Salvador, Nicaragua - and Europe.
Who are the people living in Tilaran?
Most Costa Ricans are of European descent. There are some Blacks, mostly freed slaves that came on the coast of Limon to work in plantations, they were coming from Jamaica and surrounding islands. The smallest group is that of Amerindians. Here in Tilaran we have a diversified population; very few Blacks, but a good group of people of Indian origin. This indigenous group has embraced Spanish as their language, even though one can still hear words in Nawat, the language that connected them to Mexico. This area was at the fringe of the Aztec Empire. These Amerindians are now not much different from the other Costa Ricans, even though they do have distinct characteristics.
What are the most important pastoral challenges?
When we prepared the diocesan pastoral plan, the people identified a few areas of concern. First of all the family. Because of the lack of pastoral care and the distance from the heart of the country, people have developed a tradition of coming together without officialising their bond. Most families are temporary, and often it is the woman who sends the man away if she is not satisfied by their living together. The instability of families has great repercussions on the formation of youth and on the self esteem of people, especially of men.
A second area of concern is the youth. Many come from broken families and lack direction. There are few opportunities for employment, and so people try to make a living with small jobs, tilling the land. Lately, with the growth of tourism, drugs and prostitution have become a way of life for some. We are also worried about poverty. This is the poorest region of Costa Rica. We are now trying to put in action a few projects to offer training and open up new perspective for the younger generation.
You were mentioning the need of local priests ...
When I arrived in the diocese I found a few seminarians, none of which became a priest. We do have some new priests; they come from families that arrived in Tilaran from other regions. At the moment there are 14 seminarians who are originally from Tilaran, I hope to ordain the first one in a few years time. The issue is linked to that of men's self esteem. However I see a change taking shape. The presence of missionary priests and sisters is pushing some youth to enter into a vocational journey. Many decide to marry in Church; others have asked to join religious institutes. These examples are the best catechesis we could ask for. Their greater participation in Church's life is an open proclamation of the Gospel.
Does this local Church have missionary awareness?
I believe that yes, we can say the Church in Tilaran is opening up to mission. People understand ever more clearly the importance of looking beyond our borders. I am sure that the presence of so many ministers from different countries is helping people to realize that they too have to share their experience with others. A simple example comes from the annual mission appeal. Tilaran is the diocese that collects more per head than any other in Costa Rica, and the third one in absolute. If you consider that our people are generally poorer than the average ... you realize that they have accepted the importance of mission. We are also witnessing the blossoming of missionary vocations, especially among young ladies.
At the same time, I should never forget that this Church still needs support to continue the journey. We need more people to explore their vocations, more to accept a ministerial presence within their community. I see some charismas and ideas emerging here and there, yet the journey is still long.