The Apostolic Vicariate of Beni spans six of the eight provinces that make up the Amazonian department of Beni, in north-eastern Bolivia. Since 1987, Julio María Elías Montoya, a 67-year-old Spanish Franciscan has been its bishop. Southworld spoke with him in Trinidad, the capital of Beni, about the situation of the indigenous peoples and the environment in that region.
In Bolivia, around 60 percent of the population is indigenous, and at least 36 different ethnic groups are recognized. What is the situation in Beni?
I am responsible for a vicariate with a large territory but a low population density. That being said, most of the population are mestizos [people of mixed European and American-Indian ancestry]. The indigenous peoples are a minority that, I believe, does not reach 30 percent of the total. There are many communities, but they are all very small. The most numerous ethnic group is the Moxeños, called Moxo during the time of the Jesuit Indian reductions.
In the neighbouring department of Santa Cruz, the old “Indian reductions,” or Jesuit missions that were developed among the Chiquitano people, are well-known, in addition to being a tourist attraction. What is the impact of the history of these missions in Beni?
You must have noticed that Beni’s cities are all named after saints. The reason for this is that Jesuit missionaries arrived here in the 17th century. Almost all the population clusters emerged from these famous Indian reductions. The first Jesuit mission was founded in 1682 with the name Our Lady of Loreto. Trinidad was founded in 1696, the other cities followed. After the expulsion of the Jesuits [in 1767], the indigenous dispersed, but they conserved Catholic traditions. One just needs to think of the celebrations during the religious holidays [Christmas, Easter Week, or patron saints’ days], eagerly awaited by all inhabitants.
Getting to Trinidad and Beni is not easy, especially during the rainy season. What is the situation like in this department?
Beni is slightly isolated with respect to La Paz, Santa Cruz, and Cochabamba, the country’s main cities. However, having lived in Trinidad since 1974, I can say that I have seen progress, although difficulties are not lacking. There are no industries here. Our only source of wealth — at least until now — is extensive ranching.
What do you think Bolivia’s main problems are?
First, without doubt, poverty. Let me explain: food is not lacking today in Bolivia, but it continues to be a subsistence economy. Moreover, there are shortcomings in the health and education sectors. If one gets sick, it is not easy to be cured. Likewise, we don’t have an adequate education system.
In 2014, there will be presidential elections. When President Evo Morales was elected for the first time in December 2004, there were many expectations. Travelling through the eastern plains, we noticed plenty of hostility towards him. How do you explain that?
With the election of Evo Morales there was a lot of hope, which persists albeit mainly among the population of the highlands. Likewise, it is true that the citizens here have felt as if colonized by the people originally from the western region of the country.
Do you think there is an element of racism in this dispute between the eastern departments (with a majority of whites and mestizos due to migration) and the rest of the country (with an indigenous majority)?
No, I don’t think so. For example, Beni has always been open [to newcomers]. Here there are people from the highlands and, personally, I don’t see racism towards them. On the other hand, it is also true that eastern Bolivia is culturally different from the rest of the country.
The 2009 Bolivian Constitution talks about “sacred Mother Earth.” Unfortunately, even in this country, like in the rest of the world, environmental problems are increasing at an impressive rate. It is so true that, in March 2012, the bishops of Bolivia presented a pastoral letter — entitled “The Universe, Gift from God for Life” — precisely dedicated to the environmental issue, the consumerist model, and the ecological crisis. As a Franciscan, I remember that Saint Francis spoke not only of “Mother Earth,” but also of “Sister Mother Earth.” At the root of the environmental problem is the fact that we cannot think only of ourselves, but we must think about those who will come after us.
Concerning the interventions of the Bolivian Church, do you think that people still listen to the Catholic institution?
We have a voice in Bolivian society, and we are respected by the people, who feel close to us. Some politicians and governments think that bishops and priests must dedicate themselves only to the salvation of souls. This is not the case. Evangelization is not only for the soul, but for the entire reality of a person. As priests and bishops, we must not look out for money, power, or pleasure, but we must truly put ourselves at the service of our neighbour. (P.M.)