Valerio Di Fonzo - The Role of Catholic Church in Peru: Searching for Religious Discourses in the Era of Neoliberal Reforms
The Catholic Church has played a central role among the social and political institutions in Latin America since colonization in the 15th century. Despite the fact that the religious presence among Latin American countries has endured for more than five hundred years, the nature and manifestation of the Catholic Church in the political and social life has changed dramatically throughout this time. From the time of the conquest of Inka Empire, when missionaries were complicit with Spanish soldiers in the colonization and christianization of the Americas, to the twentieth-century struggles for liberation of the poor from the injustices, in which the Church was directly involved, the Catholic presence has undertaken a continual process of redefinition of its role in society (Brooks 1999). During the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), and particularly during the Conference of Latin American Bishops in Medellin (1968) and Puebla (1979), the Catholic Church established its preferential option for the poor and vulnerable, marking the beginning of liberation theology. In the last decade, Peru and Latin America as a whole have been experiencing new ethnic oppressions, gender discriminations, and ecological and human rights threats that warrant research and study. All of these factors are important to address in society and in research, however, due to the vast scope of topics that need to be addressed, I focus on ecology discourses.
A significant proportion of Peru’s mineral and hydrocarbon deposits are located on or near lands owned by peasant and indigenous communities (Bebbington and Williams 2008). Peru’s significant amount of resources unravels conflicts. In fact, over 50% of reported conflicts are caused by socio-environmental disputes. For example, in the Amazon, the Asháninka, Shawi, Wampis and Awajun indigenous communities live in the rainforests between Peru and Brazil; despite legal protections of their lands, they still face external threats from extractive industries. (Bebbington 2009; Salisbury, Lopez and Alvarado 2011). In addition, urban populations also face environmental issues. One issue is the lack of access to clean water resulting from poor quality housing and the exclusion of grassroots communities from decision-making processes over how to distribute water (Ioris 2012).
This raises questions for me-, how has the progressive wing of the Peruvian Catholic Church become involved in environmental issues? How are Peruvian Catholic communities processing the conditions of global capital and modernity through engaging with ecological discourses? How are rural and urban communities, indigenous groups, and the Catholic Church coming together to oppose new investment projects involving extractive industries? Looking for ethnographic answers, I undertook fieldwork in Peru between May and June of 2017. The aim of my preliminary research trip to Lima, Cusco, and Jaen, Peru was to establish contacts with members of the Catholic Church and explore the connections fostered through the Catholic Church between urban and rural communities centered on environmental concerns.
Planning my Fieldwork
Since I planned to arrive in Peru during the summer of 2017, I started to organize my fieldwork around October of 2016. This gave me enough time to read the relevant literature and send emails to people in Peru to explore the feasibility of my research and establish contacts. Sending emails to create a connection with local leaders in Peru was an essential part of my project and made it easier to me to get oriented once I arrived in Lima.
I should admit that at the beginning I was discouraged by the lack of email replies. I started questioning the possibility of making contacts with people in another country who do not have any idea about my aims. Surprisingly, when I was about to give up, I received an email from a person I had contacted several months earlier. In the email, this person replied enthusiastically about my research project and offered to collaborate with me. I felt invigorated and with the help of this person I was able to contact more people; I then received additional replies.
For those undertaking fieldwork, making preliminary connections is very important for several reasons. First, since one may be arriving to a country that one may be unfamiliar with, it is important to know where to go and with whom to meet. Second, preliminary research usually covers a short period of time and getting preliminary contacts can save a lot of precious time. Third, in the case of Lima, it is a big city with a population of more than ten million. It is certainly safer to know someone for city orientation. Finally, but not less important, the Field Research Grant application requires proof of in-country support. Therefore, making contacts by sending emails helped me with my grant application because it indicated my efforts in searching out support for my research project, and it also helped me once I arrived in Peru.
Into the Field
Since I was looking for ethnographic answers, my methodology basically consisted of participant observation and unstructured interviews. In order to orient myself to the Catholic communities in Peru, I spent six weeks conducting ethnographic research between the provinces of Lima, Cusco, and Jaen. As this was a preliminary and exploratory research trip, in each site I worked to orient myself to the history of the Church in each province. To this end, in Lima, I visited the Archivo Arzobispal, Archivo Nacional, the Biblioteca Nacional, the Bartolome de Las Casas Institute, and the Episcopal Commission for Social Action (CEAS). In Lima, I interviewed members of Catholic communities in the districts of Los Olivos and Surco, and I explored how the Church is involved in the problem of environmental degradation. I also interviewed members of the Red Muqui and CEAS.
The Red Muqui is a nonprofit organization born with the support of CEAS, and its members represent several Peruvian institutions that advocate for sustainable development and social justice. I was able to connect with the members of the Red Muqui, who introduced me to the work of the organization. I had long conversations with them regarding the role of the Church in Peru and its involvement in environmental issues. Their help has been crucial in understanding how the Catholic community is processing environmental disputes in Lima and other Peruvian rural places.
In the province of Cusco, I visited the Archivo Arzobispal and Archivo Departamental with special attention to the representation of the historical development of the Catholic religion in the region, and of the progressive Church in particular. I also attended everyday activities and organized religious events such as Corpus Christi, which is one of the biggest and most important religious festivals of the calendar year. The celebration of Corpus Christi used to be celebrated in the whole country, but the Fiesta is most impressive in Cusco. Fifteen saints and virgins, organized in several processions, arrive from different places to the cathedral of Cusco where to came to “greet” the body of Christ, sixty days after Eastern Sunday. It mixes indigenous and Catholic practices. This festival provided an important opportunity for me to establish contacts with groups of comuneros (communities of farmers) and religious organizations in predominantly Catholic communities in the southern Andes of Peru, as well as to note any reference to environmental issues.
In Jaen, located in the Amazon jungle of Peru in the border region with Ecuador, I visited the local Catholic community, Caritas of Jaen, and a cooperative of farmers. Though Jaen is just one hour by plane from Lima, it presents a very different landscape; it is smaller, rural, not without as much traffic, smog, and buildings found in Lima. Nonetheless, what it surprised me the most was the charisma of the Catholic leaders. They have a lot of energy and passion. It would be impossible to summarize even briefly the history of their activism, and I plan to discuss the details of my conversations with them in a more structured and focused article.
For now, it is worth mentioning the history of the cooperative Sol Y Café that was founded in 2005 with the support of the Caritas Jaen technical team. The cooperative, which includes small local producers of coffee and cocoa, acquired the necessary organic and sustainable trading certificates to sell into North America and Europe. For the members of the cooperative and for the Caritas of Jaen, it represents a sustainable alternative to the mining industries.
I would like to stress again the importance of establishing contacts in the place one wants to conduct fieldwork. They are not only important for orientation in the country and for making grant applications stronger, but they also are an essential part of one’s research. Checking websites, universities, magazines related with one’s research, and literature reviews can surely help one find people that are interested in one’s research and that are willing to provide support during fieldwork. Also, from my personal experience I can say that time runs out very fast in the field, so it is best to be organized and make a timeline of goals and activities. Finally, in this document I did not outline the IRB process (IRB approval or exemption is required for the Field Research Grant) because the information regarding it can be found online. However, in regards to the IRB, I suggest filling out all the required documentation as soon as possible because the process requires time.
To conclude, this fieldwork experience has been an essential part of my anthropology training. It allowed me to explore, engage, listen, observe, understand, and establish contacts with the members of the communities with whom I want to do research. Also, this fieldwork experience was crucial for collecting data that will inform my future research.
This preliminary fieldwork was made possible by funding from the Latin American & Iberian Institute and the Tinker Foundation Field Research Grant (FRG). I am also thankful to my professors, in the department of Anthropology at UNM, Dr. Suzanne Oakdale, Dr. David Dinwoodie, and Dr. Les Field, the member of CEAS, Red Muqui, and Caritas Jaen for guiding and supporting my research interests.
Valerio Di Fonzo
Department of Anthropology
University of New Mexico
Bebbington, Anthony, and Mark Williams. "Water and mining conflicts in Peru." Mountain Research and Development 28, no. 3 (2008): 190-195.
Bebbington, Anthony. "The new extraction: rewriting the political ecology of the Andes?" NACLA Report on the Americas 42, no. 5 (2009): 12
Brooks, Sarah. "NEW STRATEGIES FOR THE NEOLIBERAL AGE." Latin American religion in motion (1999): 67.
Ioris, Antonio AR. "The geography of multiple scarcities: Urban development and water problems in Lima, Peru." Geoforum 43, no. 3 (2012): 612-622.
Salisbury, David S., Jose Borgo Lopez, and Jorge W. Vela Alvarado. "Transboundary political ecology in Amazonia: history, culture, and conflicts of the borderland Asháninka." Journal of Cultural Geography 28, no. 1 (2011): 147-177.