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Environmentalism from Below: Rethinking Catholic Mission at the Frontiers of Neoliberal Capitalism

  March 25th 2021

Ricardo Vargas Posada

Ecological concerns are some of the most pressing issues facing humans today. In academia, ecological catastrophe has replaced the terminology of ecological crisis because the damage to the natural world has entered the level of a disaster which humans cannot overcome. Religious communities are also discussing ecology. The Catholic Church’s Laudato Si, an encyclical letter concerning the environment has played a central role not only for the Catholic community but at the policy level all around the world because of what it says and what it defends. Regarding this issue, Dr. Ricardo Vargas Posada, alumnus of the Indonesian Consortium for Religious Studies, shared his dissertation research entitled ‘Environmentalism from Below: Rethinking Catholic Mission at the Frontiers of Neoliberal Capitalism’ at Wednesday Forum, a weekly discussion hosted by ICRS and CRCS on March 10, 2021. In this presentation, Ricardo explores the impact that female Catholic missionary congregations have had in multicultural spaces at the margins of neoliberal capitalism in the Uraba region, western Colombia, and the Manggarai region, western Flores, eastern Indonesia. His research shows the different ways through which the Catholic Church has re-signified the concept of "mission" in frontier spaces characterized by ethnic and religious diversity, and determined by unequal dynamics of wealth and land distribution as well as environmental degradation.

The core question of the study was "How has the Catholic Church redefined the concept of "mission" at the frontiers of resource extraction in Indonesia and Colombia, characterized by a wide ethnic and religious diversity, and determined by the dynamics of neoliberal capitalism and environmental degradation?” The aims of this research are first to assess the transformation that the concept of mission has experienced in the last decades within the Catholic Church. Secondly, to study the intercultural dialogue between indigenous cosmologies and Catholic worldviews and the impact that these dynamics generate in the actors involved, in terms of the mental and social configuration of the local people in frontiers of resource extraction and the way contextual theologies are constructed in these spaces. In his research, Ricardo focuses on female orders because their work is rarely acknowledged in scholarly literature despite the influential roles they have had among indigenous populations in frontier spaces. Therefore, Ricardo also argues that grassroots cooperation between missionaries and indigenous groups has been successful in advancing the collective interests of indigenous and ethnic communities while generating creative multicultural encounters.

At the beginning of his presentation, Ricardo argued that the environmental catastrophes are inseparable from economic and political interests. Ricardo also explains that today from an economic perspective, there is a trend of green capitalism in which the capitalist system tries to incorporate a green discourse which has been termed as a green washing. In this system, capitalists attempt to involve an overall rethinking of the system itself which has been termed shareholder capitalism instead of stakeholder capitalism to consider all the social aspects and impacts that the system produces and how to deal with that. Furthermore, from a political perspective, there is also a large problem related to identity politics of the indigenous community which have been racing steadily since the 60s and 70s as an important force in politics, and this dilemma between recognition and redistribution of the indigenous community remains a very important topic until today. Therefore, from a scholarly perspective, the trend of decoloniality is also pivotal. It may not be very familiar, but it shares a lot of similarities with post-colonialism. However, although decoloniality is similar to post-colonialism, it tries to differentiate itself from post-colonialism because it is not rooted in literary criticism or Indian authors living in the diaspora, but it was an academic trend that was started in Latin America in the last decade and mostly by scholars that were into social sciences like anthropology and sociology that propose by Walter Mignolo, Enrique Dussel, and Arturo Escobar. From this debate, it can be conceived that the topic of redistribution is not necessarily sidelined by recognition issues but there was a reconfiguration that allowed threatening communities to advance recognition to their identity in terms of the indigenous population. Especially in Indonesia and Colombia, the topic of free distribution seeks to lower the gap in terms of wealth equality.

In Indonesia, Ricardo researched the Manggarai region, western Flores, eastern Indonesia. This area is characterized by diverse ethnic groups such as the Manggarai, Bima, Bugis, and Javanese, but Manggarai people are overall the vast majority. Furthermore, they are religiously diverse, including adherents to Catholicism, Protestantism, Islam, and traditional spiritualities. Catholicism, however, is central to the Manggarai people with around 90% of the population. Thus, Catholicism has a lot of leverage and influence on a lot of issues. However, in this research, the focus will not only be on the Catholic community but also on the traditional spirituality community because they have infused Catholicism with a particular flavor that is very interesting to see. Moreover, regarding the natural resources, in Manggarai there is timber, rice, magnesium, and gold. These natural resources were the primary resources being exploited around western Flores. In the first part of the 20th century, these mining ventures were stopped because in the lobby of the Catholic missionary community there was a moratorium for new mines to be open. The female congregation concerned in this research is SSpS (Servarum Spiritu Sancti) or Servants of the Holy Spirit. This congregation was founded by St Arnold Janssen on December 8, 1889, in Steyl, the Netherlands. This congregational mission arrived in the 1920s in the Manggarai region.

Like in the Manggarai region, the Uraba region in Colombia is also characterized by wide ethnic diversity. The Embera are the largest indigenous group in Colombia. However, they are divided into sub-ethnic groups, and this research focuses on Embera Eyabida. There are also Afro-Colombian people, migrants from Antioquia, Cordoba, and Bolivar provinces. Moreover, like the Manggarai, the Embera are religiously diverse, with followers of  Embera spirituality, Catholicism, Evangelical Protestantism, Pentecostalism, and Adventists. Regarding the natural resources, the Uraba region has timber, gold, cattle ranching, and palm oil. The Catholic congregation that was studied in Colombia was the Congregation of the Missionary Sisters of the Immaculate Virgin Mary and Saint Catherine of Siena, founded in 1914 by Colombian Roman Catholic religious sister Saint Laura Montoya (26 May 1874-21 October 1949) – known as Laura of Saint Catherine of Siena. This congregation were known as “crazy women” because they went to the fringes of society to evangelize the savages.

Through his research, Ricardo found that these two regions have a different relationship with Catholicism. People in Manggarai accepted Catholicism openheartedly and now Catholicism is seen as an integral part of the Manggarian identity. Some say to be Manggarai is to be Catholic and to be Catbolic is to be Manggarai.  Nevertheless, this condition in Manggarai is different from the Uraba region because there is no incorporation of Catholicism with Embera Eyabida spirituality. According to some Colombian anthropologists that study Embera Eyabida spirituality, the presence of Catholicism among this people is very marginal. The differences between these two regions and two communities reveals some interesting dynamics for this research. Missionary activity has been prevalent for more than a century and these places have shared a lot of exploitation by economic ventures and are forgotten by the central government, and in this place, the Catholic Church is a main source of the public good throughout the decades. However, the relation to indigenous peoples had been very different in these two regions. In Manggarai, there is a religious ritual that is central to Catholicism which is the mass in Mukun village, the Penti celebration. This ritual takes place after a person passes away. The family and friends congregate and some animals like cattle and pigs are slaughtered. In this ritual, Catholicism and indigenous spirituality are mingled in one very interesting ritual. However, in the Uraba region, for example, El Pital village it was very difficult to discern any mixture of Catholicism with indigenous rituals because the people are not open to outsiders.

The concept of development was very central to this research as well because not only the concept of mission changed but also the concept of development. Missionary congregations have re-conceived the concept of development in different ways with the central government and international donors or capitalist understandings. However, Ricardo also found that indigenous worldviews were impacting the way Catholic missionaries understand their relation to the environment and their role in reversing this environmental situation that we are confronting today. In the context of Manggarai, there are the Franciscan Brothers (OFM) who are very active with indigenous communities and, therefore, almost all congregations in Manggarai have had an environmental concern for decades.