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The voice of mud

· A journey among witnesses of an inhuman development ·

People have a right to have children born in a place where they can grow up. A part of humanity, for example, lives in the basin of the River Matanza in Argentina, the eighth of the ten most polluted places in the world. Indeed a multiplicity of structures that pollute the environment, filling the atmosphere with poisons is concentrated in the space of a few kilometres – a strip 60 kilometres long where numerous manufacturing factories, especially those that produce chemicals, have been pouring out their waste material for years. Such zones are deemed unfit for human presence and yet are densely populated.

In recent years the State has earmarked many millions for interventions of redevelopment and the rehabilitation of the river but the first results will be seen only in 20 years time. Pope Francis’ green encyclical, currently under preparation, is precisely this: a document composed of pages of true life, bound with a long steel thread, namely the stories of refugees who fled from a place where their social dignity was denied, victims of the exploitation of resources and of the “culture of waste”.

Pope Bergoglio in fact frames his environmentalism in these situations, without ever disconnecting it from the condition of the earth’s poor who are the first to suffer their consequences. And as we know the burden of poverty falls more heavily on women than on men. For this very reason, thanks to their practical knowledge of the area and of natural resources, women have become protagonists in the front line in the fight for environmental protection. For Francis, speaking of the safeguard of creation means talking about globalization, about development in solidarity and about women.

The idea of “waste” that is often found in the Pope’s discourses applies to everything, starting with man, for we live in a culture that discards people who are useless. Francis starts with the validation and centrality of the human being to whom creation has been entrusted and whose task is to bring it to fruition and at the same time to pass it on to his children as intact as possible. Bergoglio has asked for many opinions and contributions, he has worked for long months alternating and overlapping – between his desk and the altar – newspapers, texts marked by former collaborators, and liturgical readings. But this is not all.

The opinion of women in this document’s planning phase has been fundamental. This was particularly true of Clelia Luro’s who died at the end of 2013. She would usually telephone the Pope every Sunday at three o’clock in the afternoon. As a great expert on Andean history and cultures, Clelia told Bergoglio with great passion how widespread among the local indigenous peoples respect for the environment still is today: “human beings are not the lords of the earth, they do not own it but rather are part of it: we are the earth, we nourish ourselves with it. We are part of mother earth; how can we claim for ourselves the right to possess it?” How can we pretend to possess space and time? Who is equal to taking possession of it? It is impossible.

One peaceful Sunday in September 2013, Clelia Luro, sitting in the living room of her colonial house – which miraculously was still resisting the siege of the apartment blocks in the heart of Buenos Aires – among her pictures, bamboo furniture and indigenous craftwork in terracotta, received the Pope’s telephone call. Excited, Clelia told Francis that with her was Leonardo Boff, who in those very days had just finished writing his latest work, Dignitas terrae, in which he affirms what green militancy is: “It is not merely a matter of protecting the environment as such, but of working out the paradigm of a new way with which the human being can and must enter into a relationship with nature”.

Boff maintains that “the greatest victims of pollution are the poor, obliged to live in slums without water and without hygiene, but today the whole of humanity, and not only the poor, is oppressed. We are all victims of an inhuman development. Our economic activities are contributing to the loss of biodiversity and habitats: this undermines the natural systems on which we depend for the food we eat, the air we breathe and the stable climate we need”.

Pope Bergoglio moves so swiftly that he succeeds in listening to a great many people in an informal way. Among them is Pino Solanas, an Argentine film director and politician who holds that it will not be an encyclical that indulges in a certain type of green ideology but rather a document which it would be somewhat reductive to describe as green or ecological. According to UN sources, Solanas maintains, there are currently still 130 million people throughout Latin America who have no access to drinking water. We are speaking of a continent that can rely on impressive water reserves. The Amazon, Paraná and Orinoco are among the most important rivers in the world, and Brazil alone possesses one fifth of all the water on the planet. Lake Titicaca, which stretches between Peru and Bolivia, and Lake Maracaibo in Venezuela, satisfy on their own the water needs of millions. In Brazil the situation is more critical. It is the country with the largest reserves of fresh water in the world, yet it is finding itself having to face even the risk of rationing in the large cities because water is increasingly taken from domestic consumption and preferentially redirected to agro-industrial use, under the management of transnational companies.

This is one of the great paradoxes of Latin America, a land extremely rich in water sources whose inhabitants are nevertheless unable to have their water adequately and “democratically” at their disposal. This is happening in Latin America, and it is in Latin America that Cardinal Bergoglio began to fill in this “log book” with experiences in places where “the logic of the market spare nothing and no one: from creatures to human beings”.

Another fundamental contribution is that of Msgr Victor Manuel Fernández, Rector of the Pontifical Argentine Catholic University, one of the Argentine ecclesiastics closest to the Pope. He worked in the Latin American Bishops’ Conference in the area of pastoral theological reflection and collaborated with Bergoglio in drafting the final text of the Aparecida Document.

For Fernández “All human beings are called to assume responsibilities in the environment in which they live. Reflection on God’s work and on the marvels created by man is closely interwoven and since faith in the Creator is an essential part of the Christian creed, it is the Church’s task to manifest her responsibility in the safeguard of creation, defending the planet earth, the air and water, as well as man against the destruction of himself”.

This is because, Fernández continues, “the vocation of safeguarding does not concern solely us Christians but has a dimension that is simply human, it concerns everyone. It is safeguarding the entire creation, the beauty of creation. I am sure that Francis’ green encyclical will only suggest doctrine that is certain and not hypotheses”.

Cardinal Peter Turkson and the experts of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace have gathered material from various parts of the world, developed various drafts that Pope Francis has seen and corrected, sending the third draft to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, to the Secretariat of State and to the theologian of the Pontifical Household. Time is short, Pope Bergoglio would like the encyclical to be published before the beginning of the Conference on Climate Change in Paris: “The meeting in Peru was nothing great….Let’s hope that in Paris the delegates will be more courageous”, the Pontiff said during his flight from Sri Lanka to Manila with regard to the previous international conference on this subject. The sadness of Buenos Aires, the sadness of the mud that claims a soul, said Adán, a character in a book [Adán Buenosayres] by the Argentine writer Leopoldo Marechal. Today the souls of the river and mud are presenting their bills and remind us that nature’s resources are not inexhaustible.

Silvina Pérez




St. Peter’s Square

Jan. 26, 2020