PUERTO MALDONADO, Peru – After lengthy treks through the muddy Amazon, indigenous men, women and children will greet Pope Francis Friday in a visit to the world's largest rainforest that native leaders hope will mark a turning point for the increasingly threatened ecosystem.
Francis is expected to meet with several thousand indigenous people gathering in a coliseum in Puerto Maldonado, the scorching city considered a gateway to the Amazon, in the first full day of the pontiff's visit to Peru.
Indigenous leaders, many sporting headdresses with brightly colored feathers and intricate beaded jewelry, said they are optimistic the pope can serve as a bridge with Peru's government to help resolve long-standing issues like land rights.
"His desire to be with us signals a historic reconciliation with the Amazon's indigenous communities," said Edwin Vasquez, an indigenous leader who traveled to Puerto Maldonado to hear the pope. "We consider it a good step forward."
Francis' trip to the Amazon comes as the expansion of illegal gold mining and farming as well as new roads and dams have turned thousands of hectares of once lush green forest into barren, contaminated wasteland. Francis has previously called on world leaders to protect the Amazon, likening it to one of the "lungs of our planet," and is widely expected to reiterate that message when he speaks in Puerto Maldonado Friday.
He is also using the trip to set the stage for a big church meeting next year on the Amazon and the native peoples who reside there.
A meeting with members of Chile's indigenous Mapuche community was one of the highlights of the first-leg of the pope's week-long trip to the region. Francis urged Mapuche leaders to refrain from political violence and called on the Chilean government to better engage its indigenous communities.
The call for peace came as 11 firebombs damaged and in some cases burned churches to the ground in several parts of Chile during the pontiff's visit. Investigators found pamphlets promoting the Mapuche cause at some of the churches.
The Amazon's native peoples hail from about 350 indigenous groups, some of which live in voluntary isolation. In the centuries after Spanish colonization most traces of native spiritual beliefs were lost as missionaries converted indigenous Peruvians to Catholicism.
The Catholic Church still maintains a strong presence in the region, though these days few indigenous men and women go to mass and most identify as evangelical, said Lizardo Cauper, president of the Amazon's largest indigenous organization.
Many Peruvian native peoples are curious about why Francis wants to meet them, Cauper said, while also hoping he can serve as an influential messenger.
"We are hoping for a reflective message that will help those in power," he said.
In a letter sent to Francis this week, the leaders of three predominant indigenous groups called on Francis to back their call for the state to grant 20 million hectares in collective land rights to native peoples. They also want him to urge Peru's government to clean up rivers tainted from illegal gold mining.
Rather than a halt on all mining and exploration in the Amazon, Vasquez said that what indigenous communities want is to be a part of any discussions that take place to decide where and how those activities are conducted.
Studies confirm that contamination from mining is already having an impact on the health of many of those who live in the Amazon.
"They have lead in their blood," Vasquez said. "Is that development?"
Cesar Yojaje, leader of the Palma Real indigenous group, was among the many trekking by boat to greet the pontiff Friday. After a three-hour journey along a brackish river he said he hoped to hear a forceful message from the pope.
He said he wants the state to return indigenous lands and publicly apologize "for robbing us of our lands and turning them into a park."
Armario reported from Lima, Peru.