Category Archives: Latin America

Peru bishop warns of harm to environment, livelihoods from oil spill

Biologists from the National Service of Protected Natural Areas work on a bird Jan. 21, in Ancon, Peru, affected by an oil spill near Lima. (CNS/Reuters/Pilar Olivares)
Biologists from the National Service of Protected Natural Areas work on a bird Jan. 21, in Ancon, Peru, affected by an oil spill near Lima. (CNS/Reuters/Pilar Olivares)

Lima, Peru — After an oil spill fouled nearly 100 miles of shoreline north of Peru’s capital city, the bishop of Callao, the seaport where the accident occurred, called for officials to repair the damage and care for “our common home.”

In a Jan. 23 message, Bishop Luis Barrera Pacheco called for those involved to “assume their responsibilities and commit to the immediate solution of this huge environmental damage that puts life in danger.”

The spill, which occurred Jan. 15 as a tanker was offloading oil at a refinery, has left a tarry slick on beaches and wildlife. Less visible, however, is the long-lasting effect it will have on thousands of people who depend for food and a livelihood on the fish they catch or the shellfish and crabs they collect along the shore, Barrera told Catholic News Service.

“Those families have already seen a huge drop in their income,” he said. “And once the seabed is contaminated, those products lose their value in the market and harm those who eat them.”

The spill’s cause is being investigated. Initial reports said the tanker lurched and a pipe broke because of unusually high waves caused by the eruption of an underwater volcano in Tonga.

Ocean surges killed two people and damaged homes and businesses in some coastal towns in Peru, which did not issue a tsunami alert after the eruption, unlike its neighbors Chile and Ecuador.

The local subsidiary of Spanish-owned Repsol, which operates the refinery, initially played down the spill, saying it amounted to less than a barrel, and blamed the Peruvian Navy for not issuing a tsunami alert. Government officials later put the amount at about 6,000 barrels and said the company had been slow to react.

“Instead of arguing and avoiding responsibility, it is urgent to repair the damage to the commons, the beaches and the marine species that belong to all Peruvians,” Barrera wrote in his message.

Besides fishing families, the spill is affecting people who live close to the polluted shoreline, breathing fumes from the oil slick, and those with small businesses that depend on summer crowds that frequent the beaches that are now off limits, the bishop told CNS.

In a country where most of the economy is informal, those people live on what they earn from day to day, and weeks or months without an income are devastating. The diocesan Cáritas office aids families in some of the poorest neighborhoods and is considering how to address the long-term crisis families will face.

“We don’t see the greatest impact yet, but in the long run, we’ll see the effect on people’s income, lives and health,” Barrera said.

The disaster offers a chance for politicians and civic groups to meet and discuss serious measures to clean up the environment in Callao, where residents of some neighborhoods have high levels of lead in their blood from inhaling dust from ore-loading facilities in the port.

“We need leadership from politicians so disasters like this are not repeated,” Bishop Barrera wrote. “We call on public officials to take an integral approach to environmental issues and to be concerned about the interrelated ecological, social, cultural and economic dimensions of creation.”

Religious network condemns slaying of Honduran rights activist

People are seen in El Paraiso, Honduras, July 24, 2021. (CNS photo/Yoseph Amaya, Reuters)
People are seen in El Paraiso, Honduras, July 24, 2021. (CNS photo/Yoseph Amaya, Reuters)

Mexico City —  An ecumenical coalition of religious representatives and laypeople has condemned the murder of an Indigenous leader in Honduras and called for a thorough investigation of the death.

The Churches and Mining Network said in a statement that Pablo Isabel Hernández, a leader of the indigenous Lenca people in western Honduras, was shot “in the back while he was on his way to church, where he as an active pastoral agent.”

Hernández was ambushed Jan. 9 as he traveled to a local church with family members in the municipality of San Marcos de Caiquín, a police spokesman told the Associated Press.

The Jan. 10 statement from the network, which focuses on the effect of mining on local communities and the environment, comes at a time when attacks on environmental and Indigenous leaders in Honduras often go unpunished.

Hernández worked as director of Terán Community Radio and in various environmental, education and human rights initiatives, according to the network. He also was a pastoral worker in his parish.

“We join our voices to the national and international people and institutions that condemn this murder because silencing the voices of those who defend human rights, the rights of Mother Nature, and those who inform society is an attack against democracy and the rights of communities,” the network’s statement, issued in English and Spanish, continued.

Hernández had spoken out against municipal officials and had received threats, which he made public. His radio station’s electrical equipment was sabotaged in February 2021.

Hernández had spoken out against municipal officials and had received threats, which he made public. His radio station’s electrical equipment was sabotaged in February 2021.

Hernández was the second Lenca leader killed in less than a year. And in 2016, Berta Cáceres, perhaps the highest profile indigenous Lenca leader and environmental defender, was murdered in her home in western Honduras for organizing opposition against a hydroelectric project, provoking an international outcry. Eight individuals, including a former army intelligence officer, were convicted in the killing of Cáceres.

“In 2021, violent incidents against some 208 human rights defenders and 93 journalists were recorded (in Honduras) of which 10 were murders of human rights defenders,” the network said.

In November, Honduras overwhelmingly voted for Xiomara Castro in the presidential election in an expression of fatigue and frustration with outgoing President Juan Orlando Hernández, whose eight years in office were marked by impunity, corruption and accusations of close ties with narcotics traffickers.

“The Honduran population is fed up with the way the country has been governed, with the abuses of power and private interests, and because the country’s major issues have not been treated responsibly, such as in the case with the pandemic,” Jesuit Father Ismael Moreno Cota told Catholic News Service on the eve of the elections.

He described people wanting to “punish those who have governed the country in recent years,” rather than supporting a specific candidate.

Illegal gold mining booms in Brazilian Amazon, harming environment, health

An illegal miner shows gold extracted from the Madeira River, in Nova Olinda, Amazonas state, Brazil, on Nov. 26. (AP/Edmar Barros)
An illegal miner shows gold extracted from the Madeira River, in Nova Olinda, Amazonas state, Brazil, on Nov. 26. (AP/Edmar Barros)

Hundreds of illegal mining dredges converged on Brazil’s Madeira River in November, creating a floating city near the town of Autazes in the state of Amazonas. The rush — involving as many as 600 vessels, by some estimates — apparently began after news spread that a miner operating illegally there had found gold.

Although the unprecedented event attracted the attention of environmentalists around the world, illegal mining in the Madeira River and other Amazonian waterways is nothing new. Politicians — who sometimes are involved in the ventures — tend to downplay the environmental and social damage caused by illegal mining.

The problem has intensified since President Jair Bolsonaro took office in 2019, partly because of his public support for the miners. In addition, a top government official recently authorized seven mines in protected areas, including Indigenous reserves.

Several Catholic Church organizations have spoken out about illegal mining and its impacts, but the complexity of its causes and the great financial interests behind it transform their effort into a David-and-Goliath kind of struggle.

“Illegal mining in the Amazonian rivers requires great investment. Those organizations use helicopters, airplanes and heavy machines in their operations. There’s evidence that they rely on local politicians’ support,” Italian-born Comboni Fr. Dario Bossi, a founding member of the Brazilian bishops’ Mining and Integral Ecology Commission, told EarthBeat.

Indeed, a delegation of local mayors traveled to Brasilia Dec. 1 to meet with Brazil’s defense minister and with legislators from Amazonas, in an effort to pressure them to suspend a police crackdown on the mining boats.

Several members of Congress from Amazonas told the press that although they lamented the environmental impact of mining, people — especially the poor — should be allowed to continue working.

“Every time an operation against mining is launched in the Amazon, local politicians show their support to miners and claim that it’s an activity that generates income,” Danicley de Aguiar, an activist with the environmental group Greenpeace, told EarthBeat. “No doubt it does, but that’s a shortsighted idea. The price we’ll have to pay later is much higher.”

Miners help bankroll the election campaigns of Amazonian politicians, de Aguiar said, adding, “And many times, the politicians themselves are miners — not the ones working in the mud, but those who profit” from the mining.

Amazonian rivers wash vast amounts of sediment from the Andes Mountains in western South America to the Atlantic Ocean on the eastern side of the continent. The sediment contains minerals, including gold. Early miners panned for gold along the rivers, but their modern counterparts use large dredges, suction hoses and sluices.

In rivers, the operations churn up huge amounts of mud, increasing the turbidity of the water, which affects aquatic fauna. When miners move inland, dredging along smaller rivers or in forested areas where rivers used to flow, the destruction is compounded, leaving a denuded landscape pocked with water-filled craters.

A longer-lasting impact comes from mercury used to separate tiny flecks of gold from fine sediment. Typically, workers mix mercury with the gold-bearing sand to form a lump, then blast it with a torch, vaporizing the mercury and leaving behind a lump of gold.

Direct exposure to mercury can cause health problems for workers, including lung, kidney and neurological problems. This kind of unregulated or poorly regulated small-scale mining is also the largest source of atmospheric mercury, which can enter the food chain when it settles onto the land and oceans.

And although miners claim that they don’t use mercury when mining in rivers, de Aguiar has his doubts.

“If the government is unable to minimally control the flux of mining boats, how can we be sure they are not using mercury and dumping it in the river?” he asked.

Dredging in riverbeds also stirs up heavy metals — including mercury that occurs naturally in some Amazonian soils — or pollutants deposited in the past, re-contaminating the water and its plant and animal life, de Aguiar said.

When mercury in rivers or streams comes into contact with bacteria, it changes into a form that accumulates in the flesh of fish. The toxic metal becomes more concentrated higher up the food chain, as smaller fish are eaten by larger fish, which are consumed by humans, not only in rural areas but also in large cities like Manaus and Belém.

Consuming large amounts of mercury can cause neurological problems, especially in children, and in pregnant women the mercury can affect the developing fetus.

But mercury is not the only health hazard posed by illegal gold mining in Brazil. For decades, church workers have denounced the presence of illegal miners in the Yanomami Indigenous Territory, an area that borders Venezuela and is slightly larger than the U.S. state of Indiana.

Some Yanomami continue to shun contact with wider Brazilian society, making them especially vulnerable to diseases introduced by miners, even common ones like colds or flu. With the COVID-19 pandemic, however, the danger is great even for Yanomami who have resistance to common diseases.

“Mining produces gold and death — death caused by mercury emissions, but also by COVID-19. There are more than 20,000 miners operating in the Yanomami territory. Those invaders have taken the novel coronavirus to the indigenous communities,” Bossi said.

Violent encounters also occur between miners and the territory’s Indigenous inhabitants, including some in the past year that have been related to the pandemic.

Earlier this year, there was a wave of attacks against Yanomami villages by miners angry that the Indigenous communities had put up barriers to keep outsiders away, in an effort to stop the spread of COVID-19. In one assault caught on camera, miners in boats shot at residents of a Yanomami village, causing women and children to flee.

“There has always been illegal mining in the Yanomami land, but now it has assumed a gigantic proportion. It has been impacting their lives in various ways,” said Luis Ventura, a lay missionary working with the Brazilian bishops’ Indigenous Missionary Council, known as CIMI.

Ventura said villagers who are closest to mining areas avoid contact with the miners, but as a result, they are gradually displaced by the invaders.

“They also feel the impact of mining on their daily lives. They see the water is more turbid, that there are fewer fish,” he said.

Júnior Hekurari, a Yanomami health worker, agreed.

“The water became mud. Even the great rivers are now yellow. We cannot fish anymore in several places where we used to fish,” he told EarthBeat.

Hekurari also said the invaders brought malaria with them.

“They destroyed forest areas and brought the disease,” he said, adding that as many as 1,500 malaria cases have been diagnosed every month among the Yanomami in recent months.

“We see and hear planes and helicopters flying all day long in our territory,” he said. “They move tons of materials and equipment every day.”

In October, two Yanomami children, ages 4 and 5, who were playing by a riverbank were killed when a mining dredge swept them into the river’s deeper water and swift current. The circumstances are not clear, but observers believe they were pulled into deeper water by the dredge’s suction hose.

“Yanomami kids learn how to swim as soon as they can walk. Those kids knew how to swim. They were killed by a machine. It was not an accident,” Hekurari said of the case, which is still being investigated by the police.

Hekurari fears the effects of mercury on his people’s health. A recent study by the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation, a governmental health research agency, showed that 60% of the Munduruku people, in the state of Pará, have higher levels of mercury in their blood than the maximum recommended by the World Health Organization.

Franciscan Sr. Laura Vicuña Manso, a member of CIMI in the state of Rondônia, said mining also creates internal conflicts in indigenous territories, pitting anti-mining and pro-mining members of the communities against each other.

“Mining is always a source of conflict,” she told EarthBeat. “And it also impacts the indigenous groups living in isolation.”

The impacts of illegal mining stretch far beyond the areas where the miners work, Greenpeace’s de Aguiar said, as some successful miners invest their money in cattle ranches in the Amazon — leading to more deforestation and emission of greenhouse gases.

Meanwhile, people living in communities in the mining areas do not reap benefits.

“The city of Itaituba, in the state of Pará, has been a center of mining for 50 years. If mining really brings progress, it should be a city comparable to London,” de Aguiar said. “But it’s not — it’s a rather poor city.”

Church organizations like the Mining Commission and the Pastoral Land Commission not only denounce the illegal miners operating in the Amazon, but they also try to promote economic alternatives in the region.

“With the high international prices of gold, many traditional communities suddenly became mining communities. We have been trying to stimulate other forms of production that will allow good living conditions, based on agroecology and local production,” Bossi said.

Meanwhile, the bishops’ Mining and Integral Ecology Commission has been campaigning to raise awareness among people who purchase gold about the impacts of mining in the Amazon — much like campaigns aimed at stopping the purchase of “blood diamonds” from Africa. Bossi and Jesuit Fr. Thomas Reese raised the issue during the Synod of Bishops for the Amazon region in October 2019, when they suggested that the church stop using liturgical vessels made of gold.

But with the international price of gold driven higher by the pandemic, illegal mining in the Amazon basin is unlikely to end soon. And even if it did, the land devastated by mining will be slow to recover, scientists say.

Even if mining stopped today, the mercury pollution would linger for decades, de Aguiar said, adding, “Decontamination takes a long time.”

Brazil faces economic pain as Amazon forest destruction dries up water supplies

A crushed bottle is seen on the dry ground of the Jaguari dam, which is part of the Cantareira reservoir system, during a drought in Joanopolis, near Sao Paulo, Brazil, October 8, 2021. REUTERS/Amanda Perobelli

AO PAULO, – Recurring drought, regular power outages and a devastated farming industry – these are the problems scientists say Brazil could face as research suggests the rainforest-rich country is drying out at an alarming rate.

Several studies in recent months have pointed to deforestation, a warming climate and weak governance as the main drivers of drier conditions in Brazil’s midwest and southeast, leaving farms parched and hydro-power plants struggling to meet electricity demand.

According to research released in August by deforestation mapping initiative MapBiomas, Brazil has lost nearly 16% of its surface water over the past three decades.

Using historical satellite images, researchers identified parts of the country that have changed from water areas to soil or vegetation and vice versa, said Carlos Souza Jr., a geologist at Imazon (the Amazon Institute of Man and Environment).

“I expected some (images) would show impacts on the environment, but I didn’t think they would be this clear and evident,” said Souza, whose 2018 research on aquatic ecosystems in the Amazon rainforest provided data for the MapBiomas study.

“This means we will have less water for basic activities, such as industrial needs, energy production, (supplying) urban centers and traditional communities, and more,” he said.

The National Electric System Operator has said Brazil, which holds 12% of the planet’s freshwater reserves, is experiencing its worst drought in more than 90 years.

With reservoir water levels dropping fast, especially in the southeast where big cities Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo are located, the nation’s electricity supplier said in August it would add a “water scarcity flag” to the power tariff system.

National electricity rates are determined by colored flags representing water levels at hydropower plants.

Green means they are running at sufficient capacity, while yellow, red and the new “scarcity” flag signal low or critical levels, triggering a price rise to cover the costs of activating thermal energy plants and other measures to avoid blackouts.


Climate change is already cutting into the volume and variety of crops Brazil’s farmers can grow, according to a September report by Planet Tracker, a nonprofit financial think-tank.

Its researchers said increasingly erratic weather is hitting the double-cropping system Brazil relies on to maintain its status as a major soy and corn exporter.

Double-cropping is when farmers use the same land twice in one year – and to do that successfully, they need stable rainfall patterns to know what to plant and when.

The report predicted that by 2050, the net loss to Brazil’s export revenue could be $701 million-$2.1 billion per year.

Brazil’s farmers are now caught in what Planet Tracker calls a “negative feedback loop” – changing rainfall patterns result in lower crop yields, leading farmers to clear forest to grow more crops, which further impacts rainfall patterns.

From August 2019 to July 2020, the Amazon lost more than 10,850 sq km (4,190 sq miles) of trees, a jump of more than 7% compared to the previous 12 months, according to the National Institute for Space Research (INPE).

Forests in the Amazon basin play an important role in generating rainfall – about 20 billion tons of vapor evaporate from the region every day, later coming down as rain in the rainforest and other parts of Brazil.

But climate change is shifting rains that have historically fallen in central Brazil to the south, said physicist Paulo Artaxo, a member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and a lead author on its last three assessment reports.

At the same time, as global temperatures rise, the amount of moisture the atmosphere can hold increases, meaning less is released as rainfall, he explained.

“All IPCC climate models show that central and northeast Brazil will become drier and the south will have more precipitation. It’s already happening today,” Artaxo said.


Lack of governance and environmental oversight are exacerbating Brazil’s water troubles, said Angelo Lima, executive secretary of the Water Governance Observatory, a network of researchers, public institutions, private sector and civil society groups.

Right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro has been weakening the environment ministry’s authority over forestry and water agency services, while promoting development of the Amazon.

“The dismantling of environmental management in Brazil … has a direct impact on the water and on the climate,” Lima said.

Brazil should have learned lessons from past water crises, he said, such as the rain shortage in 2001 that resulted in planned blackouts across the country, and the severe drought that hit Sao Paulo, Brazil’s most populous state, in 2014.

Lima would like to see the government apply an existing law that allows it to charge residents and businesses to use untreated water.

Officials also should focus on ending deforestation across Brazil and invest more in rehabilitating water basins and riverbanks, which would stop – or at least ease – its water crisis, he added.

Simone Santana, owner of the Pontal do Lago inn at the edge of a lake created by the Furnas hydropower dam in the southeastern state of Minas Gerais, said she had been feeling the impacts of Brazil’s water crisis for the past 10 years.

Last month, the water level in Furnas reached its lowest point in two decades, leaving the dam with less than 15% of its usable volume.

Once a popular spot for water activities and fishing, the fast-emptying dam no longer attracts the same number of tourists. Between 2014 and 2019, just before the pandemic, the inn saw bookings dive, said Santana.

“Our business was very affected. We used to have 11 employees, now we have only four. We have gone through a very rough time,” she said.

A private well ensures a steady water supply to the inn even in times of drought, and Santana protects her business from fluctuating electricity prices with a mini solar-power system she installed two years ago.

“Companies have to invest in (solar) to have more tranquility and be less affected by the water crisis,” she said.

Brazil: Amazon sees worst deforestation levels in 15 years

Smoke billows from a patch of forest in the Amazon
Image caption, Deforestation increased in the Amazon by 22% during the 2020-21 period

Deforestation in Brazil’s Amazon rainforest has hit its highest level in over 15 years, official data shows.

A report by Brazil’s space research agency (Inpe) found that deforestation increased by 22% in a year.

Brazil was among a number of nations who promised to end and reverse deforestation by 2030 during the COP26 climate summit.

The Amazon is home to about three million species of plants and animals, and one million indigenous people.

It is a vital carbon store that slows down the pace of global warming.

According to the latest data, some 13,235 sq km (5110 sq miles) was lost during the 2020-21 period, the highest amount since 2006.

Environment Minister Joaquim Leite said the data represents a “challenge” and said: “We have to be more forceful in relation to these crimes.”

He added that the data “does not exactly reflect the situation in the last few months”.

Deforestation of the Amazon has increased under President Jair Bolsonaro. who has encouraged agriculture and mining activities in the rainforest.

He has also clashed with Inpe in the past over its deforestation, accusing the agency in 2019 of smearing Brazil’s reputation.

But at November’s climate conference in Glasgow, Brazil was among a number of nations who signed a major deal to end and reverse the practice.

The pledge included almost £14bn ($19.2bn) of public and private funds. Some of that will go to developing countries to restore damaged land, tackle wildfires and support indigenous communities.

Close links have previously been uncovered between the deforestation of the Amazon and international supply chains.

Last year, a Greenpeace investigation discovered links between the mass deforestation of the region and food sold in British supermarkets and restaurants.

The investigation found that Tesco, Asda, Lidl, Nando’s and McDonalds were selling meat, sourced from a UK supplier, which had been fed on soy grown on farms built in deforested areas.

Just this week, Jair Bolsonaro, on tour in Dubai, told investors that attacks towards Brazil on deforestation were “unfair”.

“We want people to know the real Brazil,” he said, adding that 90% of the forest is still preserved.

Well, these latest figures reveal the real Brazil – a country whose government has from the very beginning talked up the opportunities in developing the Amazon and at the same time, belittled environmental concerns.

Not only that, these figures were actually dated 27 October – it appears they were held until after COP26.

Jair Bolsonaro didn’t turn up to COP26, but his delegation wanted to go to Glasgow and convince the world that people were wrong about Brazil – it even said it would move forward its commitment to ending deforestation by 2028.

But with numbers like these, who can believe Jair Bolsonaro now?

Meet the Catholic nun who has helped Haitians through multiple earthquakes

HeridosHaiti CatholicReliefServices 091018
Victims of the Oct. 6, 2018 earthquake in Haiti./ Catholic Relief Services.

Sister Marilyn Marie Minter was praying when she felt an earthquake rock Haiti.

“My chair began to shake,” she told EWTN News In Depth on Aug. 27. “And I’m going, ‘What the heck is going on?’”

As one of four Felician Sisters of North America serving in Haiti, Sr. Marilyn detailed her experience of the 7.2-magnitude earthquake that struck the country on Aug. 14. That morning, she and her Felician sisters were at their convent in Jacmel, 80 miles from the earthquake’s epicenter in Les Cayes. They ran.

“Sister Inga, who’s in the room next to me, she yells out, ‘Get out of the house quickly! It’s an earthquake! Get out! Now! Fast!’” Sr. Marilyn said. “Because our other two sisters that are with us, this is their first experience ever with an earthquake.” 

The four sisters – Sr. Marilyn, Sr. Inga Borko, Sr. Mary Izajasza Rojek, and Sr. Mary Julitta Kurek – run a mission complex that includes a mobile medical clinic, a pharmacy, a volunteer house, an activity center, a playground, a computer lab for students, and a kitchen that feeds nearly 100 children.

Internationally, the Felician Sisters represent more than 1,000 religious women who practice a Franciscan way of life across four continents. Founded by Blessed Mary Angela Truszkowska in 1855, they began in Poland and arrived in North America in 1874. 

In 2009, the Felician Sisters of North America formed Our Lady of Hope Province, which consists of eight Felician provinces across the U.S. and Canada. They strive to live out their mission to “cooperate with Christ in the spiritual renewal of the world.” This means ministering to children, at-risk youth, college students, seniors, individuals with disabilities, those in prison and detention centers, and others who are marginalized and living in poverty.

Sr. Marilyn first traveled with her order to Haiti in 2010, after the country suffered a 7.0-magnitude earthquake that killed an estimated 250,000 people. They returned in 2012, and, in 2018, they dedicated their mission to serve Haitians in four core areas: healing the sick, providing clean water, feeding the hungry, and educating tomorrow’s leaders. 

When the sisters realized they felt an earthquake, they ran out of the house. Sr. Marilyn remembered hearing yelling and screaming from their neighbors. After waiting outside for roughly 20 minutes, the sisters returned to their house and wrote to their superior in Pennsylvania to assure her of their safety.

Others in Haiti weren’t so lucky. The earthquake killed more than 2,200 people and more than 300 people are still missing. According to Haiti’s Civil Protection Agency, the natural disaster left 12,268 injured and nearly 53,000 houses destroyed. World Vision reported that another 77,000 homes were damaged, along with 60 places of worship, 20 schools, 25 health centers, and 48 foster homes that care for 1,700 children.

“We heard how devastating it was in Les Cayes, Jeremie, and other villages west [of] us,” Sr. Marilyn said. 

Twenty people died when St. Famille du Toirac Church near Les Cayes collapsed. In Les Anglais, the earthquake ruined Immaculate Conception Church, killing 17 people younger than 25 years old. 

“A church in Les Cayes was having a baptism, and we saw photos of these dead children in their white outfits,” she told OSV. “It makes your heart cry.”

Even after the earthquake, the danger wasn’t over for the sisters: At 2 p.m., they felt an aftershock and ran outside once more.

Three hours later, Caritas announced that it was collecting emergency materials for those directly impacted by the earthquake. The sisters sprang into action.

“We gathered what we had in our container – and our container was getting pretty low as it was – but we gathered medications, bandages, surgical gloves,” Sr. Marilyn told EWTN News In Depth. “We gathered clothing, towels, sheets, shoes that we had left over and we boxed them.” 

Sr. Marilyn spoke from Lodi, New Jersey, where she was gathering supplies to bring back to Haiti, including clothing, medications, and 50 buckets for filtering clean water.

“With a bucket and filter, you can take rainwater and you can filter that water and give them purified water,” Sr. Marilyn emphasized. “You give one bucket and filter to a woman – a family – and then she gives clean water to three other families. You can have sustainability. You can have empowerment. And you can have independence.”

OSV reported that the sisters are currently raising money for Haiti to buy supplies, including medical and school materials, hygiene products, bedding, and baby items. Sr. Marilyn is also hoping to send laptop computers or tablets back to Haiti. Donations can be sent to Felician Sisters of North America, 871 Mercer Road, Beaver Falls, PA 15010, with “Haiti” in the memo. They are also accepting donations online at

Faith groups band together to help Haitians camped at US-Mexico border

Haitian immigrants make their way along a rope suspended above the Rio Grande on their way to the United States Sept. 22. (Nuri Vallbona)
Haitian immigrants make their way along a rope suspended above the Rio Grande on their way to the United States Sept. 22. (Nuri Vallbona)

Ciudad Acuña, Mexico — Clusters of Haitians stood on the riverbank, removing tennis shoes, putting belongings in garbage bags and hoisting children on their shoulders. The waters of the Rio Grande had risen, and the current was gaining momentum. As they plotted their path, they found an unlikely ally that could potentially lead to a better life in the United States: a yellow rope.

The migrants clung to the nylon cord as they forged the river’s chest-deep waters between Ciudad Acuña, Mexico, and Del Rio, Texas, on Sept. 22. Ignoring a row of law enforcement vehicles and a Humvee lined up along the U.S. shore, the procession of immigrants continued toward the international bridge where an estimated 15,000 had once camped, overwhelming immigration officials in the tiny town of Del Rio.

“There was food and shade on the Mexican side, but their dream was to be free in the U.S., so it was like, ‘Oh, my goodness, this is terrible that we have this whole blockade up,’ ” said Sr. Ursula Herrera, a Benedictine Sister of Boerne, Texas. “People are just seeking a better life for themselves, for their children, and here, they are so close and yet so far.”

Recent images of immigrants crammed under the international bridge, and officers on horseback trying to grab and corral them drew outrage across the political spectrum. The threat of deportation left many migrants in limbo, too afraid to take their chances with the asylum process but stuck in Mexico without work permits or a means to support themselves.

As the number of Haitian arrivals at the border swelled, Catholic sisters, religious organizations, nonprofits and churches banded together with a common goal: provide basic services and restore human dignity.

“If God has allowed these different religions, then we need to support each other. Therefore, it doesn’t matter what your religious beliefs are. We are all God’s children. We were all created equal, so we need to treat each other with respect,” Herrera said.

On the Mexican shore, other Haitians, aid workers and journalists stood watch over those who ventured into the Rio Grande. When one man swam downstream to rescue a bag that floated off with the current, the crowd gasped. His struggle to return to the rope was fruitless. As he emerged from the bushes further down, sighs of relief arose.

“I always think, knowing the sacrifices they’re going through, they still want something better for their children, and they’re willing to sacrifice their own lives just to get their children over here where they feel they can have a better life,” Herrera said from her home in Eagle Pass, Texas.

The sister joined a team of volunteers from Casa Hogar Getsemaní, a Baptist orphanage in Morelos, Mexico, on Sept. 22 to pass out lemonade and more than 130 plates of hot dogs, rice, beans, tortillas and pork stew to the migrants milling around an immigration camp in Ciudad Acuña.

The call from the orphanage’s director, Paulina Bivens, came amid a tragic week for Herrera, who lost her friend and fellow Benedictine sister Germaine Sutton after a stroke days before.

“I just feel that if God is calling me to do something, he’s going to provide me with the means and the time,” Herrera said.

Throughout September, Matt Mayberry, a pastor at the Southern Baptist City Church Del Rio, said he was inundated with calls from churches across the country offering to support his congregation’s efforts to feed those camped under the bridge. He estimated volunteers handed out more than 16,000 sandwiches and numerous snacks to immigrants and border officials until the federal government stepped in to provide food Sept. 15.

Members from one Baptist church drove four and a half hours to deliver their sandwiches, Mayberry said.

“Our understanding of Scripture is that we were made in God’s image — all humans,” he said. “And so, regardless of our ethnicity or nationality, every human is worthy of human dignity and value. Our church and all the churches who have joined us believe the same thing.”

Herrera and Bivens’ volunteers were among dozens of aid workers feeding several hundred Haitians who were able to spread out under trees across large fields of open space in Ciudad Acuña, a contrast to the thousands who had sheltered across the river under the Del Rio bridge.

All who were interviewed said they had traveled from either Brazil or Chile, where many Haitian expats tried to make a life amid political turmoil at home. The trek to the U.S.-Mexico border took between one to three months by bus and on foot. But soon after arriving, the migrants faced a new threat: deportation.

Around 4,000 Haitians have been deported from the United States in the last two weeks, Alejandro Mayorkas, secretary of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, told CNN on Sept. 26. His department estimated that 30,000 had been processed in Del Rio since Sept. 9 and that 8,000 returned voluntarily to Mexico. Currently, no migrants are camped under the international bridge.

After hearing expulsions were possible, some migrants had second thoughts about taking the final step across the river.

“I’m afraid to go back to Haiti,” Fredelin Jean said, leaning against the wall of a small structure that provided shade to a few of his friends. About 10 cellphones sat charging a few feet away. “Right now, Haiti is going through a difficult situation: the earthquake … political problems. I was in danger every day.”

In Haiti, Jean was an elementary school teacher who taught English, Creole and French. He later moved to Brazil for three years, but the lack of work permits kept him from finding a similar job. Tired of the stress, he and his friends headed to the United States, spending around $6,000 each to travel by bus and on foot just to reach the U.S.-Mexico border.

“There were thieves. There were women that had been whipped by thieves because they didn’t have money,” he said, adding that women had also been raped. “A lot of my friends saw a lot of dead people.”

Jean said he wanted to have legal status and hoped he might be able to do that in Mexico. Others had the same idea: Nearby, nearly two dozen lined up to speak to a worker from the Comisión Nacional de los Derechos Humanos, the National Commission for Human Rights, hoping she could help them secure Mexican work permits.

When about 400 Haitians arrived on foot at San Fernando, Tamaulipas, Mexico, on Sept. 17, Fr. Francisco Gallardo, a Catholic priest and director of the Casa del Migrante shelter in Matamoros, Mexico, drove almost two hours south to meet them. There, he and Juan Sierra, a lay assistant, joined ministers from other faiths to guide the caravan as it came to a fork in the road, hoping to avoid a repeat of the August 2010 mass killing of 72 immigrants in the town.

As the group neared Reynosa, Mexico, the next day, Gallardo alerted the news media and met them at the town’s immigration checkpoint to facilitate the group’s passage into the border town, Sierra said.

“The whole process was reported live [in the media], so then, the authorities felt forbidden to confront the Haitians,” Sierra said. “We convinced the entire caravan not to be aggressive — to pass with joy, yes, but with respect. “

Sr. Norma Pimentel, executive director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley, regularly visits thousands of Haitians sleeping in the plaza in Reynosa. The Missionaries of Jesus sister praised the way pastors from local evangelical churches and the Catholic Church were working together to find housing for the town’s newest residents because they were more vulnerable to crime.

At a Sept. 23 public hearing for the Homeland Security and Public Safety Committee of the Texas House of Representatives, Pimentel called for the state and federal governments to support the community’s efforts to make sure immigrants were treated with dignity and respect.

“Families are coming here because they are afraid for their lives, especially of their children,” she said. “They’re looking not for a better life, but just life. They want to be safe.”

Slaves to deforestation: Labor abuses fuel Brazil’s Amazon destruction

Brazilian labor inspectors and police find workers in slavery-like conditions in the makeshift camp where they were living while building structures with illegally logged timber, in the state of Para, Brazil, June 25, 2021. Handout/Magno Riga

RIO DE JANEIRO, – When labor inspectors arrived in a rural area of the Brazilian Amazon state of Para in late June, they expected to rescue illegal loggers working in slavery-like conditions. But the trees were already cut down and the loggers gone.

Instead, the officials from Brazil’s anti-slavery mobile enforcement group found four men and a boy of 15 building fences and cattle sheds nearby with the illegal timber, on the orders of a local farmer who kept them in a ramshackle camp.

“They had no water, they had no bathrooms,” said Magno Riga, the inspector in charge of the rescue. “They told us they had never been in such a precarious condition.”

Deforestation surged in Brazil after right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro took office in 2019, giving a green light to mining and agriculture in protected parts of the Amazon and weakening environmental enforcement agencies.

But while the forest loss itself sparked international outcry among foreign governments and the public, little attention has been paid to the labor abuses underpinning the practice, legal specialists told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Historically, Para is the state where workers are most often found in slavery-like conditions, accounting for at least 13,259 of a total of 56,000 people found across Brazil since 1995.

The state is also a hot-spot for deforestation, topping the list for Amazon region states since 2006, government data shows.

“The relationship (between deforestation and slavery) is permanent,” said Lys Sobral Cardoso, who leads anti-slavery efforts at Brazil’s Labor Prosecutor’s Office, an independent body of public officials.

“It has been that way for 20 to 30 years,” she added.


While there is no hard data on deforestation and slave labor, more than 1,324 workers have been rescued from slavery-like conditions while felling wood from native forests since 1995, said Mauricio Krepsky, head of the government’s Division of Inspection for the Eradication of Slave Labor.

But there are likely many more such cases going undetected, said Krepsky, as inspectors find it hard to get information and rescue workers in remote areas where most deforestation occurs.

“Many workers do not report (their employers) for fear of not getting more work or even of being murdered,” he said.

In 2019, when deforestation jumped, 12 workers were rescued in Para and 17 in Roraima, both Amazon states, with several more rescues carried out since.

Traditionally, unscrupulous farmers have used slave labor to clear land for cattle, which feeds Brazil’s powerful meat-packing industry – but recently mining is also attracting attention from the authorities as a driver of deforestation.

“We do not have consolidated data saying that there is deforestation in all (illegal) mining areas, but in all cases in which I worked, there was deforestation,” said Cardoso, who has worked on about 20 such cases.

As illegal logging and gold mining – both highly profitable industries – have expanded in the Amazon, labor officials have stepped up efforts to tackle the slavery issue.

In 2018, Brazil set up the Labor Prosecutor’s Office to fight abusive working conditions in illegal mines.

On July 28 this year, more than 100 federal police officers drove to a farm in Para, near the city of Ourilandia, to investigate reports of a huge illegal gold mining operation.

“The whole area was deforested illegally,” said labor prosecutor Edelamare Melo, who took part in the raid.

During the operation, federal police arrested six men found responsible for the illegal mining and apprehended machinery. Melo interviewed about 50 workers who were left in the mine but many others fled as soon as they saw the police arrive.

Besides living in flimsy sheds without walls, the workers had no protective gear and drank water left over from the mining process, which Melo said was likely contaminated by mercury.

“All this forms the conditions for slave labor,” she added.

Slavery in Brazil is defined as forced labor but also includes degrading work conditions, long hours posing a health risk or work that violates human dignity.


Three workers from the raided illegal gold mine were sent to a halfway house for rescued slaves in Maraba, in Para state, run by the Comissao Pastoral da Terra (CPT), a Catholic charity that has pioneered anti-slavery efforts in Brazil.

Like most workers rescued from activities linked to deforestation, they were from neighboring states with few employment opportunities, said Geuza Morgado from the CPT.

“We’ve had cases of people being rescued for a second or third time,” said Morgado. “The standard story is that in their towns there are no jobs, so they need to migrate.”

The Labor Prosecutor’s Office, the CPT and Para’s State Commission for the Eradication of Slavery (Coetrae-PA) have all run programs among workers to raise awareness of their rights and slave labor in Para and neighboring states.

But the impact is limited due to a dearth of other job opportunities, said Leila Silva, a social activist in Para and Coetrae-PA member from 2013 to 2020.

“They don’t have access to an alternative,” said Silva. “To break (the cycle) we need effective public policies.”

States and cities should offer job training to rescued workers so they can build a better life, she said.

“Some want to study, but they have no access to a school. So they go back to the slavery cycle,” she explained.

Riga, who rescued the four men and the teenager in Para, sees little chance of a brighter future for them and others trapped in similar slave-like conditions.

“There’s a huge demand for this sort of work, and they live off of it,” he said.

Dispute over COVID-19 deaths pits indigenous Brazilians against gov’t

ARCHIVE PICTURE: Indigenous Leader Sonia Guajajara of the Guajajara tribe looks on after meeting with the parliamentary front in defense of the rights of indigenous people at the chamber of deputies in Brasilia, Brazil February 18, 2020. REUTERS/Adriano Machado

RIO DE JANEIRO, – The government agency created to protect Brazil’s indigenous people is out to destroy them, a prominent native leader said on Thursday after Funai asked the police to investigate her for fake news.

Police subpoenaed Sonia Guajajara, head of Brazil’s largest indigenous coalition APIB, at the request of the native affairs agency Funai, after she accused the government of genocide for not protecting indigenous people from the coronavirus pandemic.

“Bolsonaro’s Funai does not recognize the indigenous movement, and has no dialogue with those who diverge from the government’s position”, Guajajara said, referring to right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro, who has been in office since 2019.

“They want to end the indigenous culture in the country once and for all,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Funai did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The agency said in its submission to the police that it had invested 26 million reais ($4.9 million) to fight the pandemic in indigenous lands, including distributing food and setting up barriers to stop outsiders entering indigenous lands.

Funai was set up in 1967 to coordinate and implement government policies to protect the indigenous population, especially isolated and recently contacted people.

That function has been curtailed under Bolsonaro who has criticized indigenous people for having too much reservation land and advocates commercial mining on their lands. Bolsonaro named a policeman, Marcelo Xavier, to run the agency.

“Inside Funai there are many serious civil servants who are trying to do a job that corresponds to the interests of indigenous peoples,” said Guajajara.

“But Funai’s management no longer serves those interests.”


Funai asked that the police investigate Guajajara last week for “perfidy and the crime of slander” because of APIB’s documentaries about the lethal impact of the government’s poor handling of the COVID-19 crisis on native people.

“The biased content of fake news … reveals serious illegality. Although possible criticism is tolerated, what in fact happened was an authentic abuse of freedom of expression,” Funai wrote in its submission.

On Wednesday, a judge halted the police probe into Guajajara, saying in court documents that its main goal was to “silence political demonstrations” by APIB.

Funai is not the only government agency under Bolsonaro to be accused of turning against indigenous people that it is mandated to protect.

Sesai, the agency responsible for providing medical care to indigenous people, has come under fire for allegedly underreporting COVID-19 deaths.

While Sesai reports about 663 deaths due to COVID-19 among indigenous people, a tally by APIB shows 1,063 fatalities among the country’s 900,000 native people.

“When the pandemic started, it exposed how bad indigenous health was,” said Eriki Paiva from the Terena peoples in the centre-west state of Mato Grosso do Sul, one of the groups with the most deaths, according to APIB’s data.

“It saddens us that beyond not doing the basics, they have now used intimidation tactics against our leaders.”

Sesai did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Funai has also rejected APIB’s tally.

“(The) data presented was inflated, with the intent to manipulate, almost doubling the number of deaths among indigenous people,” Funai wrote in its submission to the police.

Cristiane Juliao, a leader of the Pankararu people in the north-eastern state of Pernambuco, dismissed Funai’s claim that it set up barriers to stop outsiders entering indigenous lands during the coronavirus pandemic.

“Funai’s presence basically involved the delivery of a basic food baskets,” she said, adding her tribe set up the barriers and Funai provided equipment, transport and funding for a short while and then vanished.

Catholic groups work to feed Brazilians affected by job loss, COVID-19

People in need receive food aid in São Paulo April 14 during the COVID-19 pandemic. (CNS/Reuters/Carla Carniel)
People in need receive food aid in São Paulo April 14 during the COVID-19 pandemic. (CNS/Reuters/Carla Carniel)

Sao Paulo — As unemployment increases and COVID-19 infections surge in the country, Catholic entities in Brazil are ramping up efforts to feed the increasing number of people going hungry.

“The pandemic did not only affect those who live on the streets. It has hit even those who have homes,” Fr. Revislande dos Santos Araújo of Our Lady Consolata Parish in Boa Vista, told Catholic News Service.

The priest, who started a social project dubbed Stirring the Pot in 2015 to distribute meals to drug addicts and homeless people, now also serves meals and distributes food to Venezuelan refugees camped on the streets and to Brazilians who lost their jobs.

Back in 2015, the priest cooked and distributed the meals around the neighborhoods of Boa Vista. “In the beginning, 40 meals were made per day, but at the end of the first year, with the help of donations we were distributing 70 meals,” he said.

With the arrival of Venezuelans in 2016, he explained, the initiative became a bigger project.

“We saw that many did not make it into the shelters and set up camp around the main bus station. They often did not have food to eat, so we extended our Stirring the Pot to help them, too,” he said. “With the pandemic, we offer 1,200 to 1,500 meals per day for those who live on the streets.”

In addition to the homeless and refugees, he said, his parishioners, people with very little means, are also suffering.

“We live in a poor area; our parishioners are poor people. The majority are construction workers, cleaning ladies, etc. With the pandemic, these people lost their jobs. There was a huge increase in poverty and people frequently do not have enough to eat — something that before [the pandemic] we did not see often,” he said.

“For the Venezuelans who live in tents near the bus station, we send meals, while, for the Brazilian families, we send them food packages, so they can cook at home,” he told CNS.

However, donations are decreasing.

“Those who used to donate a kilo of beans, a kilo of rice, now are asking for donations. I try to reach out, doing live events on the internet asking for help, but there are many of my parishioners who used to help and now no longer can because they are finding it hard to put food on the table themselves,” he said.

Araújo, who teaches at the city’s public schools, recalled more than one of his students reaching out to him saying, “‘My mom has lost her job, we don’t have enough to eat at home.'”

The dwindling number of volunteers and donations are also seen in other parts of Brazil. Now, a campaign promoted by the São Paulo Archdiocese along with the charitable aid agency Caritas not only aims to collect money and food for the vulnerable but also to encourage new volunteers to step up and contribute.

“Despite the solidarity, things are getting more difficult. The people who helped are now out of a job,” said Father Marcelo Maróstica Quadro, Caritas director and pastoral coordinator of the Belém region in São Paulo.

The campaign, dubbed Animating Hope, plans to collect food and financial resources to purchase food baskets to distribute to vulnerable families.

“Hunger is a reality that goes against God’s plan,” said Quadro.

He said Caritas has mapped out 450 “points of hope,” where it collects and distributes meals and food baskets. Most of the parishes around São Paulo serve as points of hope.

At the beginning of the pandemic, he said, St. Joseph Parish distributed 40-50 food baskets per month. “Now we distribute more than 300,” he added.

With unemployment rising and food insecurity increasing, the archdiocese, through Caritas, also created a Committee to Fight Hunger and introduced a number of actions to mobilize and unite parishes and parishioners.

“There are a lot of people suffering. Let us help. Let us reach out as best as we can so that these people do not have so much suffering,” Cardinal Odilo Pedro Scherer said during his weekly radio show.

Other entities linked to the Catholic Church have also stepped up to help. The Brazil branch of AVSI, a Milan-based organization founded on Catholic social teaching, has run three separate programs to deal with the issue: two food basket campaigns and now a program offering meal vouchers for 500 families whose children attended a day care center funded by AVSI. With the schools closed, these children are unable to eat breakfast and lunch at the center.

“We are now trying to get the day care center reopened, because many of those children depended on those meals,” said Fabrizio Pellicelli, president of AVSI in Brazil.

Situations like these are repeated throughout the country.

“In a country like ours, everything that is planted grows,” said Quadro. “There shouldn’t be a reason for our people to go hungry. There is a lack of policies by the government to reduce food insecurity in this country.”