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Pope Francis' visit to South America shifts to troubled Amazon

Patrick J. McDonnell, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Religious News

PUERTO MALDONADO, Peru -- Pope Francis' South America visit shifts focus Friday to one of the world's most challenging but critical environments -- the Amazon rain forest -- where both the land and native peoples face threats from illegal logging, illicit mining and other activities.

On the fifth day of his swing through Chile and Peru, Francis is scheduled to fly here to Puerto Maldonado, the southeastern Peruvian town that has become a symbol of the vulnerability of the Amazon.

Puerto Maldonado, a bustling city of more than 90,000, is the gateway to Peru's Madre de Dios region, which has emerged as a notorious hub of illicit gold mining and logging in large stretches of the jungle.

The region -- home to various national parks and reserves dedicated to maintaining the zone's singular biological diversity -- has also become infamous as a center of child labor, human trafficking and criminal gangs.

Human rights activists say indigenous groups have been forced from their native lands as illicit activities expand. Critics say the Peruvian government has done little to stop the environmental and human devastation.

Puerto Maldonado has grown rapidly, attracting migrants from elsewhere in Peru, including indigenous people from the highlands who have moved here for economic opportunity. But despite the paved roads and modern airport, Puerto Maldonado still retains the feel of a somewhat ramshackle boomtown, home to numerous transient hotels and lively bars.

Satellite photographs show large tracts of forest disappearing each year in the region as miners seek new rivers and streams from which to extract gold. The extraction process, making extensive use of mercury, inevitably renders land and water toxic and threatens native peoples.

"Their territory is increasingly being invaded, their space is becoming smaller and smaller," Father Manuel Jesus Romero of the Apostolic Vicariate of Puerto Maldonado said in an interview published on the Vatican's website. "The livelihoods with which they have survived for so many centuries are being destroyed, fishing, hunting. Trees and rivers are more and more in danger. Therefore their lives are in danger."

His visit here is the latest example of Francis' engagement with social issues and his preoccupation with "throwaway" culture that, he has argued, wastes both lives and natural resources.

The pope is also slated to visit a home here for orphan children before returning to Lima, the Peruvian capital.

Francis, the first pope from the Americas, has long spoken out on behalf of indigenous peoples and the environment.

The church has scheduled a Synod of Amazonian bishops for next year at the Vatican, underscoring the pontiff's concern for the area.

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In advance of the pope's visit, a carnival-like atmosphere overtook Puerto Maldonado on Thursday.

Various indigenous bands and performing groups made their way through the city streets, playing music, dancing and hoisting aloft likenesses of the Virgin Mary and Jesus Christ. Some celebrants donned masks and colorful costumes. The celebrations continued after midnight.

On the streets near the central square, hawkers sold all stripes of pope paraphernalia -- T-shirts, medals, banners, flags and other objects, all featuring the image of Papa Francisco. The merchants appeared to be doing a brisk business.

Authorities in Puerto Maldonado have banned most vehicular traffic on Friday, to coincide with the papal visit. That will ground the town's most popular conveyances -- motorbikes and motorcycle rickshaws, which usually clog the streets. Thousands of extra police officers have been deployed.

Francis is to arrive here after a four-day swing through Chile, Peru's southern neighbor, that saw him address many themes -- the pope denounced clerical sexual abuse; he praised indigenous culture; he extolled the role of immigrants and called for peace in Chile's central Araucania region, where tensions have mounted between indigenous Mapuche people and other residents.

The pope is scheduled to return to Lima Friday afternoon, and then head north on Saturday to celebrate Mass in the Peruvian city of Trujillo. He is to conclude his week-long trip on Sunday in Lima with a recitation of the Angelus prayer in the central Plaza de Armas and a Mass at an air base.

(Special correspondents Adriana Leon in Lima and Liliana Nieto del Rio in Puerto Maldonado contributed to this article.)

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