I AM PART OF THE TREE
On Sunday past, two days after my 72nd birthday, I finally met a model of what I would like to be like when I grow up.
Frei Heitor Turini, is an 84 year old Italian missionary with the Servants of Mary who has been unrelenting in the struggle for the forests and peoples of the Amazônian hinterlands and is well known for his political outspokenness in Acre.
To meet Frei Heitor I traveled to the small city of Sena Madureira northwest of Rio Branco with Foster Brown and Vera Reis who explained that the Friar had only recently returned for a three month visit following a year and a half of receiving medical treatment in Italy for a variety of ailments. They said this might be a last opportunity to visit. Of course, I brought my camera.
When I asked Frei Heitor if I might get some video material to share with my English-speaking friends, he explained that he had learned English long ago in the States during a medical visit but had not spoken it much since a brief stint in the Philippines 20 years ago. He was a bit concerned but I knew that, if the subject were right, language would present no problem…
There’s only one error of language that needs correcting: Frei Heitor says that for 57 months he has been giving his life, his spirit and his dreams night and day for the jungle. Actually, it’s been 57 YEARS. I know that you will join me in praying that he might continue much longer.
Frei Heitor is not only a torrent of words. As the following recollection written by Foster Brown reveals, he is a man of deeds, acting – using the currently popular phrase – in the power of now.
A FEW LESSONS FROM THE FRIAR
by Foster Brown
This past Saturday (01Sep07) I traveled with a Brazilian friend, Cazuza, to Sena Madureira, 140 km NW from Rio Branco, Acre in Brazil's westernmost Amazon. Our mission was to pay back wages to field assistants of Vanessa Sequeira, a Ph.D. student who was murdered a year earlier in the Toco Preto settlement project. The wet season and various other factors had delayed our visit and Saturday was nearly a year to the day after her death. I had felt that this trip would be a pilgrimage of sorts; I didn't realize that it would provide lessons for life.
We went first to the town of Sena Madureira to meet with Friar Heitor Turrini, an 82-year old Italian missionary with the Servants of Mary (Order of Servites). Friar Heitor had arrived in Sena Madureira in 1950, and aside a few stints in the Philippines and China, as well as in hospitals in the US as a patient, he has devoted his life to the poor and to protecting the Amazon. He and Father Paolino Baldassarri have become noted figures in this part of the Amazon for their dedication and outspokenness. The Friar offered to go with us to Toco Preto and pray for Vanessa.
Our departure from Sena was uneventful until we stopped at the house of Amado, a cattle rancher with over 3,000 hectares of pasture. Frei asked us to stop for three little minutes that later became over an hour as Amado and his wife graciously offered us lunch. In return, the Frei gave them a lecture about stopping the destruction of the Amazon. The rancher responded that he had seen the light and had already decided to stop deforestation.
As we left the ranch, Frei Heitor offered us two options – the faster route via the asphalted highway to Toco Preto or the more 'poetic' route. While the Friar tried to disguise his preference, the choice of word poetic was a clear sign, so we continued along the old Sena Madureira-to-Rio Branco road to the settlement at Toco Preto. On the way, we nearly got stuck in ankle-deep layers of dust. Every time we passed someone on foot or on bicycle, the Friar would ask them if they were deforesting and then urge to stop doing so and keep the forest alive.
Around one turn, we came across a secondary forest that had burned on the right side. The fire had jumped the road and had entered 20-30 meters into the secondary forest on the left. Two thin columns of smoke floated above the burned forest, a sign that the fire wasn't completely out. At that point, I was about to lament about uncontrolled burning and drive on, when the Friar asked me to stop because we needed to put out the fire. Before I could get my machete out, the Friar had rolled up his pant legs, grabbed a branch, and was crossing the road. Cazuza and I asked him to wait a few minutes while I used the machete to clear a trail to the smoking dead trunks where the fire lingered.
Once at the trunks, I could see that we needed more tools and returned to my truck and brought a hoe, ax, gloves and protective glasses. Vincenzo, an Italian truck driver who was visiting the Friar and had come with us, was a little bewildered by our actions. The Friar watched him for a few seconds and then decided to give him a lesson in fire fighting. When I asked him what would be the lesson, the Friar responded, “I'm teaching Vicenzo never to burn the forest.” He then proceeded to grab a branch and beat a recalcitrant trunk with red embers into a black mass.
Then we heard a chainsaw start into operation. Friar Heitor decided to talk with the workers and headed off as Cazuza, Vicenzo and I pounded, cut and buried the embers until they stopped emitting a spiral of smoke.
As we finished our work, the Friar returned and asked if we could spare 10 little minutes to talk with the chainsaw gang; he hadn't been able to locate them. He could see from my expression that I didn't think that it was a high priority item when we needed to get to Toco Preto and pay the debts before dark. The Friar, however, knows how to win an argument. He said, “The best honor that we could do for Vanessa would be to stop the deforestation.” I was trumped and we started to drive back on the road.
On the way, we met an old-timer coming up the road, pushing his bike. The Friar waved him over and asked him if he was deforesting. Then he proceeded to ask about the family where the chain saw was operating. He learned that the man of the family was making posts, not clear-cutting. Friar Heitor asked the old man to pass on the message not to deforest or burn and then said that we could proceed to Toco Preto. Relieved, I then drove up the road, heading to Toco Preto where the Friar led a prayer in remembrance of Vanessa in the local church.
In a half-hour, the Friar taught me lessons for a lifetime. Due to his leadership, within twenty minutes we had stopped a fire from penetrating into the forest. I had seen the problem, lamented it, and was about to drive by when the Friar made us stop and follow him. Once on the problem, we had all the means to address it – machetes, hoe and ax. We could probably have extinguished it even if we only had a branch. What I didn't have
initially was the will strong enough to solve the problem even though we had the means to do so. The Friar's message was clear: many of the problems that we face in this world could be solved if we just tried. To recall an old aphorism, most of us would rather curse the darkness than light a candle.
The Friar's second lesson focused on remembering the deeper reasons why we do things. The real reason for this trip was to honor and remember Vanessa; the payments were just a detail. I had become goal-oriented, i.e. wanting to make the payments before nightfall, forgetting that Vanessa had been in harm's way because she wanted to help prevent the destruction of the Amazon. In truth, our stomping on fire embers honored Vanessa's memory more than getting funds to certain persons that day.
The Friar is impatient; he feels that he has only a few years of life left, and the wants to make a difference. He is adamant about stopping the destruction of the Amazon and has been working on a publication called “The Amazon That We Do Not Know” that he hopes will spread the message. [ed note: to date 100,000 copies have be printed, 60,000 in Italian and 40,000 in Portuguese.] But this is just for starters.
Action comes next. I am learning that if there is will to make things happen, then the means also happen. Perhaps, Frei Heitor may be able to guide our action in person but, if not, we know from the lesson of Vanessa the best way to honor his memory.
A little slideshow of our visit with Frei Heitor is below…
Note: the log of petrified wood is from the upper-Purus watershed and is thought to be between 3 and 4 million years old. The present forest – a product of all that evolution -- is ours to protect.