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A must-read letter from Peru

1 January 2011

I want to share one of the many Christmas letters we received this year.  It comes from Gerry Hanlon who as a mature student years ago worked with me for his MA at the University of Leeds.  It did me a lot of good to have him as a student.     Gerry is a priest of the Roman Catholic diocese of Leeds, who has ministered in Peru for over forty years and is still working there in his semi-retirement. 

Dear Relatives and Friends,

Following a most enjoyable three months’ holiday in Leeds, the Lake District, France and London, I returned to Peru at the end of July, arriving in Iquitos after a few days in Lima and immediately contracted a heavy cold – in spite of the most appalling heat. The heatwave lasted two months. No rain at all. It is frightening to see the great Amazon rivers almost empty and one realizes what could happen if ecologists’ warnings are not heeded. There was not a great deal of pastoral work for me to do in Iquitos since a newly ordained local man had been named P.P. of my old parish of St John. As I tried to accommodate myself to semi-retirement I thought of Malcolm Muggeridge’s twist on Milton’s phrase: “They also serve – ‘who only sit and sleep'”!

The Peruvian economy is booming: a growth rate of more than 7% thanks to our mineral wealth. Peru is high on the list of countries producing silver, zinc, copper, gold and many more raw materials and once again the riches of the Amazon – its water, fish, timbers, oil and minerals – are tempting governments and international companies. Some 72% of the Peruvian Amazon is now set aside for exploration although the native peoples are rarely consulted about the effects of mining on their ancestral lands and way of life; some of the areas due to be exploited are, supposedly, protected. When we buy our cars, refrigerators, laptops, we are often enjoying the products of raw materials which have destroyed beautiful environments, exploited native peoples, polluted their lands and contaminated their waterways. The consequences are sometimes horrendous. Recently I spoke to a woman who told me of the short life-expectancy in her mountain town where the men work in the mines and where the housewives and children use water contaminated with waste products. Students from riverside villages now studying in Iquitos tell me of their polluted rivers and streams even when foreign companies are simply exploring for oil.

Some of you will have read, or seen on TV, notice of the extradition from Peru of an English de la Salle brother working in Iquitos to defend the native peoples and their environment. The case has become a cause celebre throughout Peru and Bro. Paul has been supported by his order, the Peruvian Episcopal conference, the conference of Peruvian religious and the people of Iquitos. A pastoral letter from one of our neighbouring bishops expressed concern “that the work of some missionaries is considered criminal when they simply inform the people of their rights or join with them in protests, whilst at the same time [the government] fails to condemn the polluting of rivers, deforestation and the negligence of some who are paid to work in the Amazon yet who fail to report how their work affects the health of those who should be benefiting. We [the Church] have attempted to penetrate to the remotest corners in defence of justice and the rights of the humblest, building schools and social centres and promoting development…[and whilst] the State in many instances has publicly acknowledged our work, especially on the frontier, where the State itself is absent, we have tried to contribute to peace and have supported the rights of the Amazon communities”.

Throughout history the UK government has not been entirely without blame in Peruvian affairs. British interests supported Chile in the War of the Pacific, in the 19th century when Chile invaded southern Peru to appropriate its nitrate fields. A little later the British government, concerned about the abuses in the Amazon during the rubber boom sent Sir Roger Casement to investigate, but did nothing about the ill treatment and massacres of the natives Casement reported. And today some international companies working here are linked with British interests. The Peruvian government has recently issued a another extradition order against an Italian priest working in remote provinces for his defence of the countryside and its people.

Soup Kitchen

Photo of Soup Kitchen

As I walked around the streets near where I live in Iquitos and noted, though not for the first time of course, the extreme poverty of some of my neighbours, I thought: ‘How could I live in my simple bungalow like Dives at the rich man’s table whilst ‘Lazarus’ the beggar sat at the door starving’? So, with the help of a group of women we opened a kitchen to provide a midday meal for a group of small undernourished children. They say here that if you want something doing, ask the women; it you want something said, ask the men! We formed a women´s committee and engaged a cook. Every weekday morning the treasurer buys the day’s ingredients at a local market and at 12.30pm the small children troop in from school for their meal. We have the help of nutritionists, doctors and nurses for, as these people rightly pointed out, it is no good feeding the children if they are full of parasites or their blood levels are awry. I seem to be prone to infections myself which were discovered by the doctor in Lima who insists I remain in the capital until they are removed. This means I spend many weeks in the capital, but try to make myself useful in the immense parishes on the south side of the city run by the priests of the St James’ Society. Villa el Salvador was founded in 1971 when a group of poor people invaded the sand hills some 10 miles south of down-town Lima. Skirmishes ensued with the police and a youth was killed. The auxiliary bishop offered a mass for the invaders and spoke of Christ still suffering in the homeless. The bishop was arrested and the Cardinal Archbishop had to intervene with the President of Peru to get the bishop freed. Land was then set aside for the squatters and Villa el Salvador became a model township. John Paul II visited it in 1985 and it was there that he coined the phrase: “Hunger for bread, no; hunger for God, yes”

Dental Surgery

Dental Surgery

Another small project in which I have been involved, with the help of the Wharfedale Catenians, is the setting up of a dental surgery in the school at the town of Ancón, thirty miles north of Lima. The surgery will be fully functioning shortly. If this newsletter reaches the Harrogate parish which kindly made a collection last year for a new edition of my book for catechetics, they should know that the edition was printed and was distributed to catechists in the jungle area and that money left over from their collection was used to publish a new edition of another of my books – a sort of catechism – which is also in use in parishes around the country. A happy Christmas to you all and when buying your ‘goodies’, buy Fair Trade.

Padre Gerardo.

If anyone would like to donate please send a cheque to Rev. G.E. Hanlon via: Mr. Leo Hanlon, 49, The Drive, Crossgates, Leeds , West Yorkshire LS15 8ER

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