Erwin Kräutler
( 2010 , Brazil )

...for a lifetime of work for the human and environmental rights of indigenous peoples and for his tireless efforts to save the Amazon forest from destruction.

I'm convinced that another world is possible, in which indigenous and poor people finally shall live in dignity and peace.


Erwin Kräutler, a Catholic Bishop motivated by liberation theology, is one of Brazil’s most important defenders of and advocates for the rights of indigenous peoples. Already in the 1980s, he helped secure the inclusion of indigenous peoples’ rights into the Brazilian constitution. He also plays an important role in opposing one of South America’s largest and most controversial energy projects: the Belo Monte dam.

Contact

Erwin Kräutler
Prelazia do Xingu
Av. João Pessoa, 1212
Bairro Catedral
68371-040 Altamira PA
BRAZIL

Tel./Fax: +55 9335151935

http://www.prelaziadoxingu.com.br/
http://www.cimi.org.br/site/pt-br/

Biography

Kräutler was born in Austria on July 12th, 1939, became a priest in 1965 and shortly after went to Brazil as a missionary. In 1978, he became a Brazilian citizen (though also keeping his Austrian citizenship). He worked among the people of the Xingu-Valley, who include indigenous peoples of different ethnic groups. In 1980, Kräutler was appointed Bishop of Xingu, the largest diocese in Brazil. From 1983-1991, and since 2006 he is the President of the Indigenous Missionary Council (CIMI) of the Catholic Church in Brazil.

Kräutler is motivated in his work by the teachings of liberation theology. He teaches that a Christian has to take the side of the powerless and to oppose their exploiters.

Working for indigenous peoples’ rights

For five centuries, the population of Brazil’s indigenous peoples has constantly decreased – and the downward trend still continues. Today the causes are well-known and documented, including direct (yet rarely investigated) violence in connection with the appropriation of indigenous land; land grabs for energy, settlement, mining, industry, farming, cattle, and agribusiness projects; and military projects for national security that aim to open up areas.

During Kräutler’s presidency, CIMI has become one of the most important defenders of indigenous rights, with a focus on land rights, self-organisation and health care in Indian territories. In 1988, CIMI’s intensive lobbying helped secur …

Kräutler was born in Austria on July 12th, 1939, became a priest in 1965 and shortly after went to Brazil as a missionary. In 1978, he became a Brazilian citizen (though also keeping his Austrian citizenship). He worked among the people of the Xingu-Valley, who include indigenous peoples of different ethnic groups. In 1980, Kräutler was appointed Bishop of Xingu, the largest diocese in Brazil. From 1983-1991, and since 2006 he is the President of the Indigenous Missionary Council (CIMI) of the Catholic Church in Brazil.

Kräutler is motivated in his work by the teachings of liberation theology. He teaches that a Christian has to take the side of the powerless and to oppose their exploiters.

Working for indigenous peoples’ rights

For five centuries, the population of Brazil’s indigenous peoples has constantly decreased – and the downward trend still continues. Today the causes are well-known and documented, including direct (yet rarely investigated) violence in connection with the appropriation of indigenous land; land grabs for energy, settlement, mining, industry, farming, cattle, and agribusiness projects; and military projects for national security that aim to open up areas.

During Kräutler’s presidency, CIMI has become one of the most important defenders of indigenous rights, with a focus on land rights, self-organisation and health care in Indian territories. In 1988, CIMI’s intensive lobbying helped secure the inclusion of indigenous people’s rights in the Brazilian Constitution. The Council has also raised awareness within the Church about indigenous people’s issues and rights.

Since 1992 and besides CIMI’s advocacy work, Kräutler has continued working tirelessly for the Xingu on the ground. The projects he has initiated include building houses for poor people, running schools, building a facility for mothers, pregnant women and children, founding a ‘refugio’ for recuperation after hospital treatment, emergency aid, legal support, and work on farmers’ rights and land demarcation.

Opposing the Belo Monte dam

For 30 years, Kräutler has been very active in the struggle against the plans for the huge Belo Monte dam on the Xingu River, nowadays heavily promoted by President Lula, which would be the third largest dam in the world. The dam would destroy 1000 square km of forest, flood a third of the capital city, Altamira, and create a lake of stagnant, mosquito-infested water of about 500 square km, which would make life in the rest of the city very difficult. 30,000 people would have to be relocated.

Threats

Kräutler’s commitment and outspokenness have put him at constant personal risk. In October 1987, some months before the decision to grant full civil rights to indigenous peoples was taken in the constituent assembly, he was seriously injured in a, suspected planned, car crash. Since 2006, Kräutler has been under round-the-clock police protection, partly because he insisted on a full investigation following the murder of the environmental activist Sister Dorothy Stang in 2005 who, since 1982, had worked closely with him. More recently he has received death threats because of his opposition to the Belo Monte dam and because he took legal action against a criminal group involved in sexual abuse of minors.

Awards & books

In 1989, Kräutler received the Grosser Binding-Preis für Natur und Umweltschutz (Principality of Liechtenstein) and in 2009 an Honorary Doctorate from the University of Salzburg, Austria. The citation called Kräutler “the personification of outrage against societal conditions that violate human dignity for all those who consider that human dignity and the preservation of Creation are more than just void words without meaning, and he embodies for us the hope that another world indeed is possible”.

Kräutler has written a number of books, most recently Rot wie Blut die Blumen – Ein Bischof zwischen Leben und Tod (Flowers Red as Blood: a Bishop Between Life and Death), published in German in 2009.

 
 

Interviews with Erwin Kräutler

Interview conducted in September 2010 — free to use! Bishop Kräutler answered the questions in German, therefore the original German version is given below each answer.

Q: Why did you decide as a young priest to go to Brazil? What were your expectations?

When being a young priest, going to Brazil felt like a natural thing to do: Two uncles from my mother’s side were living at the Xingu already in the 1930s. Three or four times a year we would receive letters from them which were handed to everyone in the family. Therefore, already when I was a child, I knew about the indigenous peoples’ problems. There were pictures of Kayapó families and we regarded these people as distant parts of our family: Relatives we did not know but who we loved dearly.

When I finished my studies at the University of Salzburg and just before my ordination to the priesthood, I told my Superior that I wished to realize my mission as a priest at the Xingu.

Meine Entscheidung, als junger Priester nach Brasilien zu gehen, wurde mir irgendwie schon in die Wiege gelegt. Zwei Onkel mütterlicherseits waren schon in den 30er Jahren am Xingu. Drei oder vier Mal im Jahr erhielten wir Briefe, die dann in der ganzen Verwandtschaft herumgereicht wurden. So war ich schon als Kind mit der Problematik der indigenen Völker vertraut. Es gab Fotos von Kayapófamilien und wir sahen in diesen Menschen so etwas wie weit entfernte “Verwandte”, die wir zwar nicht persönlich kannten, aber die wir sehr liebten. Als ich dann meine Studien an der Universität Salzburg zum Abschluss brachte, habe ich kurz vor der Priesterweihe meinen damaligen Oberen den Wunsch unterbreitet, meinen priesterlichen Einsatz am Xingu zu verwirklichen. 

Q: What does missionary work mean according to you?

Right at the beginning I knew that I would not go to Brazil to practice religious colonialism: to “civilize” the people or to force my or the European culture on them. I wanted to approach them with respect and love. I also wanted to respect their cultural and religious forms of expression – and I still do. To put it short: I wanted to become one of them. It was very important to me to speak their language without any accents and to be able to communicate with the indigenous peoples in their native language.

In the Second Vatican Council’s Decree on the Missionary Activity of the Church it says: The Church is “sent by Christ to reveal and to communicate the love of God to all men and nations” (Chapter II, 10). This sentence has impressed me very much. It doesn’t refer to a fixed and definite set of beliefs, but rather to the “revelation” and “communication” of the love of God. This “mission” has to adjust to the realities the respective people live in.

If the physical and cultural survival of people is threatened, if others want to erase complete ethnic groups in order to get access their land – then it is our prime responsibility to reveal and to communicate “life” to the threatened people. If the world of these people is destroyed, then the Gospel requests us to protect their native land and thus to ensure their survival.

Von Anfang an war mir klar, dass ich nicht nach Brasilien kam, um religiösen Kolonialismus zu betreiben, um die Menschen zu “zivilisieren” oder ihnen die Kultur meiner Heimat oder Europas überzustülpen. Ich wollte – und will das immer noch – den Menschen mit Achtung und viel Liebe begegnen, ihre kulturellen und religiösen Ausdrucksformen respektieren. Ich wollte einfach einer von ihnen werden. Es war mir wichtig, ihre Sprache akzentfrei zu sprechen und auch mit den indigenen Völkern in ihrer Muttersprache kommunizieren zu können. Ein Wort aus dem Missionsdekret des II. Vatikanischen Konzils hat mich immer wieder besonders beeindruckt: “Die Kirche ist von Christus gesandt, die Liebe Gottes allen Menschen und Völkern zu verkünden und mitzuteilen” (AG 10). Es geht nicht um die Übergabe eines fest verschnürten Glaubenspaketes, sondern um die “Verkündigung” und “Mitteilung” der Liebe Gottes. Und diese “Mission” muss sich natürlich an die Realität anpassen, in der ein Volk lebt. Wenn ein Volk im physischen oder kulturellen Überleben bedroht ist, dann ist unsere erste Aufgabe, diesen Menschen “Leben” zu verkünden und mitzuteilen, wenn andere interessiert sind, ganze Volksgruppen schlicht auszulöschen, um an ihr Land heranzukommen. Wenn diesen Völkern die “Mit-Welt” zerstört wird, dann sind wir im Namen des Evangeliums aufgefordert, ihr angestammtes Land zu verteidigen, und damit auch das Überleben zu sichern.

Q: You are doing your work under considerable threats – what has motivated you to carry on all these years?

My commitment for the poor, for the excluded, for the indigenous peoples does not only make me friends, but, unfortunately, also enemies. These are people, who ruthlessly want to access the natural riches that are located in the indigenous territories and elsewhere. If a Bishop stands up and puts his foot down – he has to be “eliminated” and it doesn’t take much time until the first unmistakable threats are heard.

A Brazilian proverb says: “One cannot light a candle for both, God and the Devil!”. This means: I have to put the cards on the table; I cannot hide my position in public. I owe this to my people and I am convinced this is my mission as a Christian and a Bishop.
Many of our people have been subject of attacks and assaults. But this has not paralyzed us – to the contrary: it gives us the courage and the strength to continue.

I am not able to surrender and turn my back on the people of the Xingu, on the indigenous peoples, on the people living at the rivers or in the cities and villages –  despite the threats of a mafia which, even though small by number, is very dangerous. It is my responsibility as a Bishop to defend these people, to protect them with my life – including those who do not necessarily avow themselves to the same faith.

Mit dem Einsatz für die Armen, für die Ausgegrenzten, für die indigenen Völker schaffe ich mir nicht nur Freunde, sondern, leider Gottes, allzu oft Feinde. Das sind Leute, die rücksichts- und skrupellos an die Naturreichtümer herankommen wollen, die sich in indigenen Gebieten oder sonstwo befinden. Und wenn sich da ein Bischof quer legt, dann muss er “eliminiert” (sic!) werden und es dauert nicht lange, bis die ersten unmissverständlichen Drohungen kommen. Ein brasilianisches Sprichworte sagt: “Man kann nicht gleichzeitig Gott und dem Teufel eine Kerze anzünden!”. Das heißt: ich bin gefordert, Farbe zu bekennen, meine Position auch in der Öffentlichkeit nicht zu verheimlichen. Das schulde ich meinem Volk und ich bin überzeugt, dass dies auch meine Sendung als Christ und Bischof ist. Viele unserer Leute sind Opfer von Anschlägen geworden. Diese Tatsache hat uns bisher nicht gelähmt, sondern gibt und weiterhin Mut und Kraft, den Weg weiter zu gehen. Ich bin nicht imstande, aufgrund einer zahlenmäßig verschwindend kleinen, wenn auch sehr gefährlichen Mafia, den Völkern am Xingu, den indigenen Völkern, aber auch den Flussbewohnern und den Leuten in den Städten und Dörfern den Rücken zu kehren und aufgrund der Drohungen das Handtuch zu werfen. Es liegt in meiner Verantwortung als Bischof, diese Völker zu verteidigen und mein Leben für sie einzusetzen, und dies auch für alle jene, die nicht unbedingt denselben Glauben bekennen.

Q: Please describe the situation of those whose lands are grabbed.

Millions of people in Brazil have been displaced from their property. Agribusiness is responsible for this and the government, also the Lula-administration, has always been against agricultural enterprises run by families, claiming they are not as “productive” and “profitable” as the large-scale plantations of soy and sugarcane or the pastures created on areas that used to be tropical rainforest.
The fate of the families that are displaced, who have been fobbed off with symbolic reparations and become landless farmers, is incredibly sad: They often move to the outskirts of the bigger cities, trying to get along with barely enough to keep body and soul together.
Standing up for the families and insisting on their rights to their land inevitably leads to conflicts with the large landowners and too often, these conflicts end badly. A sad example is the murder of the US American Sister Dorothy Stang, who had been working with me since 1982. Large landowners have private militia and don’t shy away from murder and manslaughter – but they hardly ever convicted. Even if found guilty in a trial and being sentenced to prison, they often come free within no time. Impunity is a big problem in our region, and a dangerous one, as the assassins and their principals don’t have to fear any harsh punishments and can count on a mock trial.

Es gibt in Brasilien Millionen von Menschen, die von Grund und Boden vertrieben wurden. Das Agrobusiness ist weitgehend dafür verantwortlich und die Regierungen Brasiliens, auch die Regierung Lula, sind immer gegen die familiären landwirtschaftlichen Betriebe gewesen, weil sie anscheinend nicht so “produktiv” und “lukrativ” sind wie die großangelegten Plantagen von Soja oder Zuckerrohr oder Weideflächen, denen der tropische Regenwald zu Opfer fällt. Das Los der vertriebenen oder mit einer nur symbolischen Entschädigung abgespeisten und zu “Bauern ohne Land” verurteilten Familien ist denkbar traurig. Meistens siedeln sie sich in den Randbezirken der größeren Städte an und fretten sich durch, “zum Sterben zu viel, zum Leben zu wenig”. Wer sich für diese Familien einsetzt und darauf beharrt, dass sie Recht auf ihr Anwesen haben, kommt sofort in Konflikt mit den Großgrundbesitzern und oft gehen diese Konflikte fatal aus, wie es der Mord an der US-amerikanischen Schwester Dorothy Stang beweist, die seit 1982 mit mir zusammenarbeitete. Großgrundbesitzer verfügen meist über Privatmilizen und schrecken vor Mord und Todschlag nicht zurück und werden auch nur in ganz seltenen Ausnahmen zu Gefängnisstrafen verurteilt. Selbst durch einen Gerichtsentscheid in aller Form verurteilt, sind sie meist in kürzester Zeit wieder auf freiem Fuß. Leider ist die Straflosigkeit in unserer Region wohl das größte Übel, das immer mehr Opfer fordert, weil ja die Mörder und deren Auftraggeber kaum etwas zu befürchten, oder eben nur mit einem “Pro-forma-Prozess” zu rechnen haben.

Q: You have opposed the Belo Monte dam for 30 years. Is it a success that it hasn’t been constructed so far, or are you rather pessimistic about the future?

The military dictatorship initiated the Belo Monte project and we opposed it. I say “we”, as I have never been alone in this: The National Conference of Bishops in Brazil and their chairperson decided to back our position in opposing the dam. I feel connected to a number of organisations in Altamira that also fight against this monstrous project. One cannot underestimate the fact that we have managed to prevent the project for 30 years. Nowadays the contested project is renowned worldwide, as are the campaigns against it.

Right now, we are waiting for 15 court cases to be completed. The Brazilian prosecutors hold that the project breaks the constitution and does not comply with international treaties, signed by Brazil. Unfortunately, President Lula believes to stand above the constitution, which threatens the rule of law in Brazil. The truth is that Lula acts just like a dictator when it comes to Belo Monte. Should the project be completed, there will be apocalyptic consequences for the Xingu region and for its people. I hope that common sense will win in the end.
In any case: We won’t give up and will continue fighting.

Belo Monte war ursprünglich ein Projekt der Militärdiktatur und wir haben uns dagegen gestemmt. Ich spreche von “wir”, denn ich war in dieser Opposition nie allein. Ich habe Rückendeckung von der Brasilianischen Bischofskonferenz erhalten, deren Vorsitzende entschieden, meine bzw. unsere Position zu unterstützen und sich gegen das Kraftwerk geäußert haben. In Altamira fühle ich mich mit vielen Organisationen verbunden, die genauso gegen dieses Monsterprojekt ankämpfen. Dass wir durch 30 Jahre hindurch das Projekt verhindern konnten, darf nicht unterschätzt werden. Das umstrittene Projekt ist inzwischen weltweit bekannt und unser Einsatz dagegen ebenso.

Im Moment warten noch 15 Prozesse auf einen gerichtlichen Entscheid. Die Brasilianische Staatsanwaltschaft klagt wegen Verfassungsbruch und Nichtbeachtung internationaler Abkommen, die Brasilien unterzeichnet hat. Leider wähnt sich Präsident Lula über der Verfassung. Damit ist die Rechtsstaatlichkeit Brasiliens gefährdet. Lula führt sich im Zusammenhang mit Belo Monte wie ein populistischer Diktator auf. Das ist nun einmal die pure Wahrheit. Sollte das Projekt tatsächlich zur Durchführung gelangen, hat die Xinguregion und die Völker, die dort leben, mit apokalyptischen Konsequenzen zu rechnen. Und ich hoffe, dass zu guter Letzt, doch Einsicht und Verstand den Sieg davon tragen werden. Wir geben jedenfalls nicht auf und kämpfen weiter. 

Video interview in Portuguese

Publications

Indians and ecology in Brazil. Catholic Institute for International Relations, London 1990.

My life is like the Amazon: From a Bishop’s journal. Messenger Press, Carthegena 1994.

A selection of German books can be found here:

http://www.domerwin.com/buecher.html

Links