Latin America

Ecuador, much more than what is in the news

When the country is more topical than ever for its convulsive and violent electoral process and for making history with a referendum to stop oil exploitation in the Yasuní National Park, we interviewed Monsignor Adalberto Jiménez, Bishop Apostolic Vicar of Aguarico (Orellana, Amazonas) and president of REPAM (Pan-Amazonian Ecclesial Network) in Ecuador.

Marta Isabel González Álvarez-August 22, 2023-Reading time: 13 minutes
ecuador_mon adalberto

Photo: Monsignor Adalberto Jiménez ©Marta Isabel González Álvarez

His name is José Adalberto Jiménez Mendoza O.F.M. and he is celebrating his 54th birthday (23/6/1969, San Plácido, Portoviejo, Manabí) just on the days when we meet him in person in the middle of the Ecuadorian Amazon. Specifically, we met him at the headquarters of the Apostolic Vicariate of Aguarico, located in the town of Puerto Francisco de Orellana also known as "El Coca" (Orellana, Oriente Region).

Although her academic training is in Philosophy and Theology, she has also done higher studies in Spain, in Madrid, the Master in Family and Couple Therapy for Health Professionals at the Complutense University and Specialist in Humanistic Therapy, focused on the Person by the Laureano Cuesta Institute; and in Salamanca studies on Vocational Discernment and Spiritual Accompaniment and says she is very grateful for all this training because it has given her a professional depth from spirituality to her natural vocation of listening to people. 

Since 2017 he has been the Vicar Apostolic Bishop of Aguarico, canton where the Cuyabeno Natural Reserve and Yasuní National Park are located. He belongs to the Franciscan family through the Congregation of Capuchin Fathers and this year 2023 he has been appointed president for Ecuador of REPAM (Pan-Amazonian Ecclesial Network). The Amazon has moved him and transformed him interiorly.

He defines himself as a humble successor to Monsignor Alejandro Labaka, the Spanish Capuchin bishop (Beizama, Guipúzoa) who dedicated 25 years of his life to studying the Waoranis or Huaoranis (one of the fourteen indigenous nationalities of Ecuador) and who, together with the Colombian nun Inés Arango, were martyred when they died. brutally murdered riddled by spears July 21, 1987. 

What was it like to arrive in the Ecuadorian Amazon and what was the internal process of "ecological conversion"? 

-Although I am now known as "the Bishop of the Amazon", I am first and foremost a Capuchin missionary. During my religious formation, when I was 18 years old, I had the opportunity to discover the Amazon for a year when I was a postulant. This period marked me enormously and awakened in me a special sensitivity for this region.

And although my studies and other missions that were entrusted to me did not allow me to resume contact with the Capuchin mission in the Amazon, this missionary spirit remained latent within me, which finally came to fruition with my appointment as Bishop of the Province of Francisco de Orellana.

I had asked the Lord to send me as a missionary to another region of the world and when I was appointed Bishop I was sent to this Church which is missionary in every sense. I believe that it was the place where the Lord was waiting for me to live my vocation as a missionary disciple, as Pastor of this Church in the Amazon.

In my long apostolic experience I cannot fail to mention the importance that the life of the Capuchin martyr Bishop Alejandro Labaka has had for me: his story and his commitment were a source of inspiration that soon awakened in me a deep concern about how to respond to the legacy of Bishop Alejandro from the Apostolic Vicariate. The doubt that assailed me was that, although I love the idea of becoming fully a missionary Bishop, I did not know deeply the whole region and its reality. Sometimes I am overwhelmed by the many needs and realities so numerous and varied. But I have already set out on the road by frequently visiting the territory and the communities, which has allowed me to be closer to the people in their struggles, sorrows and joys. 

Upon my arrival in the Amazon, I immediately joined the preparatory work for the Synod for the Amazon,The meeting was attended by Bishops of the Amazon, committed lay people, and various organizations such as Caritas and REPAM. This preparatory work was immense and allowed me to get to know in a concrete way the reality of this region that shares the same problems throughout the nine countries that are part of the Amazon basin. 

This was undoubtedly the deep awakening of my option for the defense of life in the Amazon. I felt that, as pastor of the Church of Aguarico, together with all the pastoral agents, evangelization would only be possible if we are able to get involved in the defense of the Common Home, our Amazon rainforest, as Pope Francis asks. I felt the call to a pastoral care as a whole that, as a transversal axis, would have concrete people as its main objective, to the point of leading them with Christ to watch over the care of creation in this sacred Amazon rainforest. 

In our vicariate the three main ecological problems we face are: 

Irresponsible oil exploitation that has produced more than a thousand oil spills in the last 10 years.

2.- Predatory deforestation that destroys hundreds of hectares every day, without considering reforestation. 

Illegal mining without respect for the most basic ecological norms has poisoned the rivers with heavy metals such as mercury, cadmium and cyanide.

The process of ecological option is for me a legacy transmitted to me by Pope Francis, who, when he received me at the Vatican during my presentation as a new Bishop, told me: "Take care of the forest and its people". In reality, I still have to take steps towards the "ecological conversion", but I am on the way together with the missionaries of my Vicariate. 

For those who read us and do not remember, tell us about the martyrdom that Monsignor Alejandro Labaka and Sister Inés Arango experienced at the hands of the indigenous people and what this testimony means for their Vicariate and for the whole Church in America and the world.

-Alejandro Labaka, born in Guipuzcoa (Spain), left China expelled in 1953 by Mao Tse-Tung and asked to come as a missionary to the Vicariate of Aguarico. At that time he was a friar and priest. He came to Ecuador and once he got to know the Amazon he fell in love with the jungle and its people, especially the most vulnerable, the Waoranis. He was adopted into a family. His adoptive father named Inigua is still living. When he was later appointed Bishop, he wanted to be surrounded, not only by his pastoral agents, missionaries, whites and mestizos, but he put at his side the Waorani family, as a clear sign of what his preferences were: the most vulnerable human groups of the jungle.

Another great missionary was Sister Inés Arango, a Tertiary Sister of the Holy Family. They met in the mission. She brought a great missionary fire in her heart to be close to minorities and concretely to uncontacted peoples (without contact with the dominant society and/or who having had some contact have chosen to live in isolation).

In 1987, seeing that the oil extractive operations were going to endanger the life of the peoples still without contact, these two great missionaries, in order to save these peoples from reduction and death, offered themselves and decided to go down to the hut where the Tagaeri-Taromenani were. The brothers and sisters of the community of these two missionaries told them not to go, that it was very dangerous, but they went in, leaving them this phrase that endures in time as a spiritual legacy for the new missionaries: "If we don't go, they will kill them".

I recommend our readers these two videos to learn more about Alejandro and Inés and the context we are talking about:

  • By accessing VIMEO you can watch with this link the complete documentary by Carlos Andrés Vera "Taromenani, the extermination of the hidden people" from 2007 and winner of the public award at the "One World" festival, Berlin:

Today these two missionaries, Inés and Alejandro, have been declared "Servants of God". They are the guide of our journey for the Church of the Amazon in Ecuador and in these 36 years we follow their missionary impulse. We are waiting for a miracle to continue their journey to holiness. Their bodies rest in the cathedral of El Coca and there they are visited by many people who come to the tombs of these martyrs of charity in the service of the faith.

In her honor, for 17 years, the missionaries of the Vicariate, together with the Capuchin friars and the Capuchin Tertiary Sisters, have organized a walk of more than 300 km and led by the Franciscan Friars, we travel from the Sanctuary of the Virgin of the Cloud (Azogues, Cañar) to El Coca. This walk invites to personal, pastoral, spiritual and ecological conversion. 

Our wish is that Alejandro and Inés continue accompanying us and promoting the mission of Christ and that they raise from Heaven new vocations for the Priestly, Religious and Lay life. We ask them to help us to be the missionary and synodal Church that our elder brother, Jesus Christ, the missionary of the Father, expects from us.

What is the current situation of your Vicariate and how is it, in terms of extension, natural wealth and population?

-The Vicariate of Aguarico is located in the province of Orellana, in the Amazonian Oriente Region of Ecuador and extends for some 22,000 km (14,000 miles).2. The river that crosses the entire province is the Napo River which, together with the Aguarico River, is one of the main tributaries of the Amazon River. The Yasuní National Park is located here, one of the most diverse places in the world, inhabited by peoples in voluntary isolation such as the Tagaeri and Taromenani. 

The 55,95% of the population lives in the urban area while the remaining 44,05% are scattered in rural areas. There are 86,493 inhabitants. 80% are indigenous, 17% are mestizos, 3% are tribes in isolation and 3% are uncontacted. The existing indigenous groups in the area were Kichwas, Sionas, Secoyas, Cofanes, Tetetes and Waoranis. 

The Vicariate of Aguarico makes the following service centers available to the community:

Sector ofl serviceDescriptionQuantityLocation
EducationPadre Miguel Gamboa Fiscomsional Educational Unit1El Coca
Boarding school for indigenous female students1UE Gamboa - Coca
Student dining room - Students from distant communities1UE Gamboa - Coca
Fiscomsional Educational Unit PCEI Yachana Inti (Matriz Coca)1El Coca
Fiscomsional Educational Unit PCEI Yachana Inti: 23 tutorial centers located in cantons4Frco Orellana 13 Aguarico 4; Sachas jewel; Loreto:3
Monsignor Luis Alberto Luna Tobar Fiscomsional Educational Unit1Dayuma - El Triunfo
Health and social pastoral careFranklin Tello Fiscomsional Hospital1Nuevo Rocafuerte
Shelter for the sick1Quito
Huaorani shelter1El Coca
Technical Office of the Social Pastoral1El Coca
Our Lady of Guadalupe Monastery1El Coca
Pastoral formation and spiritualityAlejandro and Inés Spirituality Center1Tiputini Community
Pastoral training centers - Course houses4El Coca; Joya de los Sachas; Nuevo Rocafuerte; Pompeya; El Coca; Joya de los Sachas; Nuevo Rocafuerte; Pompeya
Environment and impactLABSU Environmental Laboratory1El Coca
Alejandro Labaka Foundation1El Coca
TOTAL21Considering the 4 cantons where Yachana Inti has tutorial centers

The following table will show us the number of communities (villages, pastoral centers) that the missionaries attend, and also an estimated number of Catholics and non-Catholics. This gives us the approximate number of inhabitants that belong to the communities or pastoral centers where the missionary, evangelizing, social and environmental work is developed.

Nuevo Rocafuerte295.3001605.460
Indigenous Coca7317.57128817.859
Urban Coke1665.84318.00083.843
Yucca - Foxes247.0007407.740
v. Aucas N264.4007605.160
v. Aucas S692.4454752.920

Below, I will tell you, by pastoral zones, the places served, the chapels, catechists and animators. This information will actually mark the pulse of pastoral work starting from catechesis, as one of the significant pastoral activities of the vicariate.

Nuevo Rocafuerte246404
Indigenous Coca716610595
Urban Coke18151718215
Yucca - Foxes32056818
v. Aucas N32056818
v. Aucas S261894015

Living in the Amazon has meant for me, to open myself to the variety of cultures, so I have met and shared with the indigenous nationalities Kichwas, Shuar, Secoyas, Waoranis and Cofanes. I live with admiration how, in this creation of God, all these peoples live in harmony with their cultural identity and their own language. 

In addition to their own language, most of them have also learned Spanish and in sharing with the missionaries we can see the unity, joy and beauty of this "Living Pentecost" that the Spirit grants us. 

Between indigenous and mestizos we have about a thousand catechists. One of the transversal axes of our evangelization is to promote the care of the "Common House", of this marvelous creation that God has given us. 

I am very happy with the missionaries, men and women giving themselves with "parresia" to the mission, thus living the fourth dream that Pope Francis rules us in the exhortation "Dear Amazonia" "I dream of ecclesial communities full of life" (QA 61-69). 

And I am especially pleased that some young indigenous people of different nationalities are committing themselves to the values of the Gospel from their own language and without losing their cultural tradition.

A lot of natural and human wealth, no doubt, but we also know that the Amazon is not simple, what are the main challenges you are currently facing? 

-The Ecuadorian Amazon region occupies approximately half of the national territory and is inhabited by a small number of indigenous people and peasants, which makes it a complex region with a particular situation because successive governments have seen in this apparently unpopulated territory an area for mining and vegetable exploitation, but at the same time a territory to be colonized.

In the 1950s, oil exploitation began in our country, which also encouraged the settlement of workers, who unwittingly invaded the territories of the indigenous peoples.

These peoples are victims of the oil boom that transforms their ancestral lands into a simple source of resources to be exploited.

The 2019 Synod for the Amazon highlighted the serious abuses suffered by these peoples who find in the governments of the day a total indifference to the injustice of which they are victims in the name of a supposed development in which they do not participate, because, in exchange for the exploited wealth, they have reaped poverty, lack of access to education and health, They have reaped poverty, lack of access to education and health, even more so when the extraction of the Amazon's wealth has caused the appearance of catastrophic diseases related to mining and oil exploitation, such as skin and stomach cancer, as well as congenital malformations.

It is a great contradiction that, in this national space that generates the greatest wealth of our country, there are no educational or health centers that can respond to the urgent needs of its inhabitants.

As an evangelizing church that proclaims the good news to all peoples, we have also been faced with the prophetic challenge of courageously denouncing these abuses, inviting local and national government authorities to become ecologically and socially aware.

What has the celebration of the Synod for the Amazon, the final document and the Apostolic Exhortation "Dear Amazonia" meant for you and your Apostolic Vicariate?

-In the context that I have explained before, the Synod for the Amazon has been a strength for our church, because it has traced apostolic lines of struggle for integral and ecological conversion.

The Synod for Amazonia is the practical application of the encyclical Pope Francis' Laudato si'This encyclical is an urgent invitation to all humanity to save our planet. Its concrete application in our region is what is called the Synod of the Amazon, which the Pope concretized through the apostolic exhortation "Dear Amazon". where he encourages us to continue working for people in particular, fighting for their rights. This is what he tells us in the first dream: "the Church at the side of those who suffer" (QA 9-14). (QA 9-14).For me as pastor of the church, the concrete reality of the Vicariate and the Amazon has meant a fundamental option for the defense of this territory, defense translated into constant denunciations of the contamination of large companies that work in the extraction of soil resources, also after the Synod for the Amazon we have strengthened the integration into the liturgical celebrations of the population of indigenous peoples, in order to allow them through the appreciation of their own cultural expressions, integrated into the liturgy, to be more visible to the Ecuadorian society.

In the social area, the Vicariate accompanies several complaints before international tribunals demanding the environmental remediation of contaminated rivers and territories. We also support indigenous leaders who are being persecuted and threatened for their struggle in defense of their territory.

In the cultural field, we have developed forums, festivals, intercultural conferences with the participation of different social actors, so that these spaces of exchange allow us to continue embodying the dream of Pope Francis to preserve the richness of what today is the most important lung of humanity "where human beauty shines in so many different ways" (QA, 7). (QA, 7)

As a pastor I am committed to the fulfillment of the fourth dream, the "Ecclesial Dream" of Pope Francis in "Dear Amazonia", which is a call to our whole Church to be a present reality, "I dream of Christian communities capable of giving themselves and becoming incarnate in Amazonia, to the point of giving the Church new faces with Amazonian traits". (QA 61-110)

As if all this were not enough, he is also the president of REPAM in Ecuador. What does this responsibility entail?

-This responsibility of being in front of a network is a call to fraternal struggle where we listen to each other, we strive together sharing sadness, joys, hopes and the dream of saving our jungle, where the children of God who await his saving message are sheltered.

REPAM-Pan-Amazonian Ecclesial Network, has meant for me to adopt the theology of care and solidarity, because every Christian in the Amazon must make an evangelical commitment to care for each of the sources of life to preserve the peoples that are nourished by these sources: water, air, fauna, vegetation, culture.

Our joint struggle in solidarity is translated into our motto "YES TO LIFE AND NO TO DEATH IN THE AMAZON". Being part of REPAM is for me a personal and pastoral option that translates into: moving from the Christ of the tabernacle to the Christ who suffers in each Amazonian indigenous person, dispossessed and impoverished. To translate the ceremonies and celebrations into a concrete application of the Gospel in the person of the suffering, the weak and the persecuted, because the word only makes sense when it becomes life and transforms us.

REPAM promotes a diverse church "with an Amazonian face" in which the variety of peoples living in unity and communion is reflected, where -as the Final Document of the Synod for Amazonia- "Everything is interlinked."

The work we carry out at REPAM has four axes that respond to the 4 dreams of Pope Francis.

These axes are:

  • Human rights - social dream
  • Training - cultural dream
  • Communication - ecclesial dream
  • Nature care - Ecological dream

A concrete project of REPAM Ecuador, which is being carried out with the participation of the 6 Amazonian vicariates, is the reforestation of the Amazon through the planting and care of one million trees in the next 3 years.

In addition, we have been strengthened by linking up with groups such as Caritas EcuadorLaudato si` Movementor the Ecumenical Movement Churches and Miningamong others, who are in favor of life at the national level and we have joined forces to denounce the abuses and not allow the damage to the peoples and territories to remain invisible. 

Bishop José Adalberto Jiménez Mendoza O.F.M. with Pope Francis

We were able to participate with you in an Amazonian liturgy. How are the sacraments being inculturated here? What differences would there be with a classic rite? What do you think of the proposal to create the Amazonian Rite promoted by CEAMA and which we talked about with Mauricio Lopez, here at OMNES?

-In the larger cities of the Amazon, traditional church rites are respected in Eucharistic and sacramental celebrations. However, in the indigenous communities it is important that certain cultural symbols that connect with their spirituality, such as music and dance, allow these populations to express their feelings and find bridges of communication with the God of Life, from whom they gradually receive his saving message, in their own culture. 

In the liturgical celebrations, both of the Word and of the Eucharist, we respect and welcome the liturgy offered by the Universal Church and it is within this liturgy that we have welcomed cultural manifestations of the peoples that enrich and fill with life and meaning the indigenous celebration. 

For example, in the Eucharistic celebration, after asking God for forgiveness, there is an external human forgiveness that consists in approaching the other person (parents, compadres, godparents, godparents, siblings, children) and asking for forgiveness. The one who receives the words gives him a "kamachina", that is to say, he advises him to change the bad into good.

How are the young people of your Vicariate receiving the recent creation of the PUAM-Amazon University Program?

-Every education project is a hope for the Amazonian peoples and I am optimistic about the realization of this project, which will provide opportunities for young people who until now only had access to secondary education. Having a higher education center inserted in the middle of a territory, with a concrete reality, will allow the young beneficiaries, not only to acquire academic training, but also a training that will strengthen their awareness of the resources of their territory, creating new leaders who will defend the Amazon, one of the most important eco-regions in the world.

I congratulate and thank the Pontificia Universidad Católica del Ecuador - PUCE and the Conferencia Eclesial de la Amazonía for having created the PUAM-Amazon University Program.

At the moment, about 20 young Huaorani are benefiting from this project and are being accompanied so that they can achieve their goals. The accompaniment of religious communities is vital for their formation.

We hope that in the future these professionals will be the ones to take over and in turn be teachers of future generations in their own languages, which so far has not been possible in other universities.

The authorMarta Isabel González Álvarez

D. in journalism, expert in institutional communication and Communication for Solidarity. In Brussels she coordinated the communication of the international network CIDSE and in Rome the communication of the Dicastery for the Service of Integral Human Development with whom she continues to collaborate. Today she brings her experience to the department of socio-political advocacy campaigns and networking of Manos Unidas and coordinates the communication of the Enlázate por la Justicia network. Twitter: @migasocial

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