"If we lose nature, we lose ourselves, too."

Those were the words of one female faith leader whose community was endangered by construction of the Belo Monte Dam in Altamira, Brazil. The dam, which started operating in 2016, flooded Indigenous land and displaced more than 40,000 families, many of whom are still waiting for adequate resettlement. Construction also led to severe environmental damage, leading local fishers to talk of "the dam killing off the river."

This faith leader is one of countless members of local communities standing up to threats facing the forests, rivers and ecosystems they rely on for their food, medicine, livelihoods and cultural traditions. It's an increasingly dangerous prospect: Latin America is the deadliest region for environmental defenders, with over 1,000 losing their lives since 2012 and many more facing intimidation, harassment and threats to their lives and families.

But they do not stand alone: New research from WRI and the Laudato Si' Research Institute finds that faith communities in Latin America play a critical role in defending life and territory.

Indeed, some faith communities in Brazil, Colombia and Mexico are redefining their roles beyond traditional religious practices to become active defenders of territories, ecosystems and the people protecting them. These faith groups provide not only moral and spiritual support to environmental activists, but also practical resources and networks that enhance their safety and effectiveness.

Halting Oil Exploration in Caquetá, Colombia

In the department of Caquetá, Colombia, nestled at the heart of the Colombian Amazon, faith communities are organizing to resist oil exploration led by multinational companies with support of the Colombian government. If completed, the El Nogal oil bloc would be the largest oil exploration project in the Colombian Amazon, covering 239,415 hectares. And it would threaten the health of people and ecosystems in the region due to water and soil contamination.

A group of people hold signs protesting an oil project in Colombia.
Demonstration against the El Nogal oil project in Caquetá, Colombia. Photo courtesy of  CVA via Facebook

Caquetá and its residents are no strangers to socio-environmental conflict. For decades, government policies have promoted foreign investment in industries like fossil fuels and mining and export-oriented crops, and have loosened environmental regulations. This encouraged extraction of the region's rich natural resources and the expansion of agriculture. As a result, Caquetá has seen rapid deforestation: It lost 791,000 hectares of forest cover between 2000 and 2021, an area nearly the size of Puerto Rico. Nearby communities say Caquetá's river basin, which represents 31% of the Colombian Amazon, has also been depleted and polluted by these activities.

Local people bear the brunt of this environmental degradation. Many have experienced chronic health problems driven by pollution, lost access to drinkable water, lost their livelihoods and even been forced to migrate.

The Catholic Church's Vicaría del Sur was created to defend Caquetá's people and nature from these threats. The group's work centers on supporting environmental defenders and fostering unity rooted in a spiritual belief that "water is life." Its Comisiones por la Vida del Agua ("Commissions for the Life of Water") emerged in direct response to new oil exploration projects in the 2010s. These are non-formal and non-hierarchical civil society organizations where local faith communities meet to coalesce, reflect and strategize actions of resistance that protect water, on which all life depends. Their work is grounded in a faith-based worldview which motivates social and ecological transformation and gives perseverance and strength to carry on despite adversity.

By blending spirituality and human rights, the Comisiones por la Vida del Agua have become hubs for nonviolent collective action and have so far halted the proposed El Nogal project and others in the region. They have acted through protests and symbolic activities of resistance across Caquetá, such as special water liturgies, and organized rural communities to care for the Amazon "as practice of faith." Collaborating with other social actors in the region, the Comisiones have provided local communities critical training about human rights, land titling and more. They have also facilitated community water monitoring, giving local communities the tools to defend their rights and protect their land.

It has been eight years since the companies behind El Nogal entered Caquetá to begin oil exploration. Despite receiving their environmental license, they have not been able to carry out exploratory studies beyond seismic studies. As the license expired in September 2023, it is very likely that such explorations will not take place. The Comisiones continue their work, increasingly joining with other civil society organizations to provide alternative economic and social opportunities in harmony with Nature such as through agro-ecology initiatives.

A group of farmers watch a presentation by a group of Catholic priests.
The Catholic Church’s Comisiones por la Vida del Agua not only oppose environmentally destructive projects, but also support communities in developing more sustainable economic opportunities. Its Finca Amazónica (“Amazonian Farm”), seen here, teaches regenerative agricultural techniques in harmony with nature. Photo courtesy of CVA via Facebook

Resisting the "Highway of Cultures" in Chiapas, Mexico

The "Carretera de las Culturas" (Highway of Cultures) in Chiapas, Mexico is a planned 157 km highway due to connect the municipalities of San Cristóbal in the southwest of Chiapas to that of Palenque in the northeast, and to connect there with the Tren Maya, the intercity railway currently under construction on the Yucatán Peninsula. In addition to land loss and ecological damage from the highway, local communities fear it will bring industrial, extractive and other ecologically damaging economic activities to the region.

The project activated a large faith-led social movement known as the "Movimiento en Defensa de la Vida y el Territorio" (Movement in Defense of Life and Territory, or "Modevite"). Modevite comprises a wide range of Catholic and Indigenous communities, including tseltales, tsotsiles, and ch'oles, and is part of the Diocese of San Cristóbal de las Casas. The movement is working to resist the Highway of Cultures by empowering local indigenous people to establish a robust civil society foundation, acquire comprehensive knowledge of their rights, and foster extensive social cohesion.

A group of environmental demonstrators on a march.
A Modevite pilgrimage in November 2023. Photo by Araceli Téllez Haro

Modevite argues against the dominant narrative that mega-infrastructure projects will bring greater socio-economic opportunities to local communities in the region. It works instead toward developing alternative models of socio-economic development, such as agroecology and social and solidarity economy initiatives. It aims to create local and dignified employment for youth and protect what the group calls "Mother Earth" and all life in the territory.

Our research shows that faith has played an integral part in Modevite's efforts. Its work has been facilitated by the historical and current work of the Diocese of San Cristóbal de las Casas in human rights training, biblical formation, social programs, and nonviolence education, among others. These have helped foster a sense of belonging, unity, solidarity, persistence and hope in the face of structural violence and systemic adversity.

The group faces complex and overwhelming challenges. Modevite members cite threats of organized crime, poverty, social exclusion, racism and ecological degradation related to the highway project. In 2023, five indigenous people from the Cancuc Modevite branch who opposed the highway were sentenced to 25 years in prison, charged for a murder of which they are innocent. Yet, faith, understood as connection with God and all life, is what gives them strength to overcome these challenges. As an informant from Modevite shared, "Having [a] connection to Nature within us is the basis of the defense of life and territories. The spirituality that our ancestors have given us is the only thing that gives us strength. Without spirituality, we cannot walk in this struggle."

Roadside sign protesting the construction of a highway in Mexico.
A sign protesting the Highway of Cultures in Chiapas, Mexico. Photo by Araceli Téllez Haro

Bolstering the Power of Faith Communities to Defend Life and Land

Faith communities can help build critical transformations in the fabric of Latin America's civil society. They can forge a deep sense of hope and unity among diverse ethnic groups and inspire a sense of solidarity in the face of immense environmental and development challenges.

Local faith communities can also leverage powerful networks. Recognition and support from global religious institutions can amplify the efforts of local communities, providing them with the visibility and resources needed to continue their work. For example, in Caquetá, the Catholic Church facilitated the funding of an alternative environmental impact assessment. More generally, Pope Francis has drawn attention in global media and policy platforms to the lives of indigenous communities and the situation in the Amazon region. In the words of one local religious leader in Altamira, Brazil, speaking about the Belo Monte dam, "The Church has always defended life. Nature is life. She is defending Nature, the life that comes from God. The Pope draws attention to this modern way of life of mercantilism and utilitarianism, we must fight against this."

However, these faith communities need more recognition and collaboration both within and outside of their organizations to make an even bigger impact.

A group of indigenous women holding a protest sign.
In Chiapas, Mexico in 2016, women members of Modevite joined an 11-day pilgrimage in defense of Mother Earth and dignified life. Photo courtesy of Indymedia Mexico

In particular, despite their significant contributions, women within faith communities often lack formal recognition for their leadership roles, a disparity which underscores deeper ecclesial and societal structures. Yet, they are frequently at the forefront of movements, driving initiatives that not only challenge existing development models but also reimagine them. For example, in the Vicaría's work in Colombia, strategies of territorial protection include prioritizing women's empowerment, addressing gender exclusion and gender equality, and emphasizing female leadership. Addressing gender-based violence is also a priority of Modevite.

To truly realize the promise of sustainable, community-led development, international organizations, governments, and civil society must recognize and engage faith communities as essential partners in environmental defense. This involves:

  • Explicitly acknowledging the role of faith communities in socio-environmental disputes and their contributions to defending life and territories.
  • Supporting women's leadership and ensuring their contributions and the roles they play in defending life and territories are formally acknowledged and supported.
  • Embracing community-led development strategies that integrate the visions and values of local faith communities.
  • Providing financial and legal support so that faith communities have the financial resources and legal protections needed to continue their advocacy safely and effectively.
  • Using policy and civil society platforms — from community radios to social media activism, engagement in political advocacy coalitions and more — to amplify the voices and stories of faith communities and environmental defenders, making their struggles and successes visible to a broader audience.

With Faith Comes Hope

Faith communities bring unique perspectives and strategies to socio-environmental disputes that can play a key role in protecting both human and ecological life. But they cannot do it alone; all stakeholders must work together to support and amplify the efforts of these dedicated environmental defenders.

As the community leader from the Belo Monte case study explains, "The connection with life is the source of hope to reconstruct what has been destroyed. Without that connection, that strength coming from connection with forests, rivers and ancestors, there would be no motivation for the struggle... Our struggles are survival struggles. Rivers and forests are everything, without them, there is no life."