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Marist Bulletin - Number 47

 

Br. João Gutemberg interviewed by Br. Lluís Serra
15.01.2003

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MARISTS AT WORK IN AMAZONIA

João Gutemberg Mariano Coelho Sampaio is the Brother in charge of the Marist District of Amazonia, created last July and relying for support on the Province of Río Grande del Sur, Brazil. João, 40 years old, heads a group of 35 brothers working in ten localities throughout the region, home to the most extensive rainforests in the world. There our brothers are giving personal witness to Marcellin’s charism in educating and evangelizing children and young people.

Everyone knows that the region where you’re living and working is the world’s greatest supplier of oxygen for our environment and the greatest freshwater reservoir on Earth. Tell us about the wonders of the Amazon.
Even I, who come from there, am fascinated on my visits to the brothers. Their communities are located along the rivers Purus, Juruá and Solimões, listed among the greatest on the planet. I get around in several: light planes and commercial airliners, large ships and smaller-sized river craft. I travel for hours and days at a time on immense waterways. The Amazon River captures the flow of 1100 tributaries that amount to a fifth of the earth’s freshwater supply. Plant life is luxuriant. I’m amazed at the abundance of fish and the wealth of wildlife. The region is believed to be home for up to 30 million species of plants, of which barely 30,000 have been analyzed, and accounts for 10% of the earth’s vegetation. The climate is hot and humid, with six months of abundant rainfall during the year.

What’s happening with regard to indiscriminate logging, land speculation, and the depletion of the region’s enormous riches?
Until the 1970’s, Amazonia was well taken care of. The local population had a greater respect for nature. In recent decades, the region was invaded by waves of immigration, consisting mostly of people from the southern part of the country. The discovery of minerals attracted investment and gave rise to serious social problems. Cities sprang up and expanded in helter-skelter ways. The stripping of natural resources failed to take into account the need to replenish the environment and prevent plundering. Another thing that lead to the destruction of large areas of the forest was the logging industries penchant for exporting lumber and the imposition of a system of agricultural development and animal husbandry unsuited to the region, filled with deposits of clay and sandy soil unable to sustain them. Speculation in real estate and conflicting ideologies pose another big problem as foreign capital has been pouring in to appropriate huge tracts of land, imperiling the self-determination of our people. We are fighting to patent our rich strains of medicinal plants coveted by pharmaceutical companies.

Don’t you feel the world is taking unfair advantage of Amazonia, and that therefore you need to take the lead in protecting and cherishing nature when the rest of us are not doing so in our own countries?
Listening to international opinion about Amazonia, even we are tempted to believe that only nature exists here, devoid of human presence. It’s clear that people in this part of the world need opportunities to develop. For that reason, we cannot always rise in opposition to development just to leave nature the way it is. What’s involved here is maintaining a balance between conservation and development. Happily, a new political and economic awareness is being born among us, one that aims to put into practice what is known as sustainable development. That kind of development envisions taking local natural resources and processing, replenishing, and making a profit from them right here, generating jobs, preserving the environment, enhancing the dignity of this wooded region, and avoiding the imposition of development models inappropriate for this part of the world. Naturally, to implement such plans we will always need new technologies. The people of Amazonia cannot lives insulated from progress. But that progress must fully respect their particular culture. On the international level, we regret the scant attention that first-world countries have given to this issue, failing to back plans to improve the environment at conferences in Kyoto, Rio de Janeiro, and Johannesburg.

One hears talk about the indigenous population, the caboclos, ribeiriños... Tell us about the people who inhabit Amazonia.
Now we’re getting to the heart of our discussion: the human being, the masterpiece of God’s creative act. I’m fond of saying that our environment recalls the beginning of the world and humanity. Even though we have large cities like Manaus, with about 2 million people, and thousands of immigrants from other parts of the country, I stop in towns that are unique for us. Amazonia encompasses hundreds of indigenous towns and communities. Some are still far-removed from urban life. Others already possess a high degree of awareness about their rights and have succeeded in preserving their space and culture. On the other hand, we’re using complicated terms here, for the local inhabitant leads a nomadic existence and has no inkling of the possibility that tracts of land can be fenced in and parceled out. Land is considered sacred and belonging to all. The Caboclos are descended from white immigrants and the original inhabitants, and make up most of the population. Ribeiriños are those who live along the banks of rivers and streams, which have always been the gateway to Amazonia. We mustn’t overlook the Seringueiros, immigrants or local people who settled in the rainforest more than a century ago to collect the milk-like sap from the serengueira tree used in making rubber. Sad to say, the fact is that the Seringueiros don’t get to see the costly products that result from their labor. They are a down-to-earth, openhearted people who enjoy a very harmonious relationship with nature.

What fields of endeavor have been assigned top priority by the brothers in recent years?
Here too we see providing formal schooling as an important mission for us. As yet we do not own any schools. We work in both public and Catholic schools accredited by the government. We are also very involved in various types of ministry: youth groups, teaching catechism, and vocation work. Social outreach is present in the different communities. We serve as moderators for Basic Ecclesial Communities. A very typical feature of our mission in the local culture is the care we give in the ribeiriñas, the riverside communities, where the brothers take up residence several times a year to provide various religious and educational services.

In the interest of refounding the Institute, the brothers are setting out to deal with new challenges. What innovations in Marist presence are taking place in your part of the world these days?
First we are forming fraternal communities, inserted and rooted in the culture of the broader community of the people we serve. We seek to play a meaningful role in the life of that wider community, giving priority to living a simple lifestyle and maintaining a dialog with the local people in the situation in which they find themselves. A consequence of taking on this challenge is the need to find ways to be self-sustaining. The brothers want to earn their own living in solidarity with the people around them. We intend to go on mission in a more itinerant way, meaning, stopping in places where society needs some assistance, training local leaders to provide such assistance, and then moving on to other venues. For this reason, we cannot hold on to living arrangements that weigh us down and hinder this dynamic approach. Thus it’s preferable not to own the centers where we work, and to collaborate with other Congregations, Dioceses, and Institutions. We begin to put these principles into practice from the time of initial formation, which is experienced through placement in small communities.

What challenges do the brothers face in their mission, and what needs do they see as most important?
We need to make our own a new way of thinking about our consecrated life as Marists. Or, to put it another way, to truly return to our basic traditions and adapt them to life in today’s Amazonia. The ideas I referred to in answering the previous question are firmly rooted in the mind of the brothers, but putting them into practice demands yet greater decision. We still don’t have many brothers who come from the region and have lived our Marist life for a considerable length of time. Providing our young people with a suitable Marist formation, respecting their cultural values and taking on a realistic style of life is a great challenge for us. Another need we have is to develop an ecological spirituality, firmly implanted in our real situation and radically centered in Jesus and in Mary, our Good Mother. From a practical point of view, some of the biggest difficulties we face are the distances involved and the effect this has on the efforts of our communities to keep in touch with each other. Keep in mind that our District covers 3,101,405.9 square kilometers. Were it not for our Marist and church communities being fraternal and stable enough, it would be difficult to overcome the sense of isolation that geography imposes on us.

How do you go about recruiting vocations and providing training for our life as Marist brothers? How many novices are there at the present time in your “Mary of Nazareth” formation center?
Our ten communities should promote and accompany vocations. In 2002, each community welcomed and accompanied at least one young aspirant or a young brother in formation. This is a great victory for us and the brothers are open to all of this. All stages of formation are represented throughout the District’s communities. We have twelve young brothers who come from the District, two of whom recently made profession of vows. Next year we will have two novices and seven postulants. We need to acknowledge the drawing power of our apostolic efforts, the vibrant handing on of St. Marcellin’s vision and plans that tens of brothers have brought us over the last four decades. They were the ones who laid the foundations for creating our District, and they will continue to help us in furthering its development.

How do you practice the presence of God in that earthly paradise?
The men and women of Amazonia are contemplative by nature. They live in touch with the natural wonders that surround them: water, the flora and fauna, birds. To lose contact with these realities is keenly felt by those who see no alternative but to migrate to large cities. Another characteristic very much our own is the strong family ties that bind family members together across several generations. This is all sacred, it is where God reveals His presence! In addition, our vocabulary is very religious. We have many typical expressions for thanking God and waiting on Divine Providence. At times this union with things divine can be carried to extremes, religious zealotry. Our relationship to the sacred is expressed in a very spontaneous way, instinctively.

The Marist brothers have been on mission in the Amazon for 35 years. What are your hopes for our future there?
Right now things are going well for us and prospects are bright. At this time when people around the world are stressing the importance of the Amazon, we feel an integral part of that treasure. However, as Tiago de Melo, poet and writer of this land says, “The most endangered species in this part of the world is humankind.” Consequently, we – brothers and lay Marists – are being called to opt for serving the most needy curumins and cuñatãs (the indigenous words for boys and girls) in the region. The challenges are enormous. We want to live with these people in a simple and committed way. We hope to recruit and support more local vocations. We also want to continue welcoming lots of brothers and lay Marists from Brazil and other parts of the world who would like to join us in this mission.

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