Saturday, July 24, 2010


RB Binho Frei Heitor 6jul10
Governador do Acre, Binho Marques, awarding the Order of the Star of Acre to Frei Heitor Turini.

Amidst fanfare and award, our dear friend Frei Heitor ("I AM PART OF THE TREE") Turini has departed his beloved Acre for his Italian land of birth. Foster Brown, rainforest ecologist and Federal University of Acre professor, wrote a homage to the friar's unique personality and devoted service to the people and trees of Acre.

Innocence in Brazil
July 2010
Foster Brown

Friar Heitor Turrini teaches the mathematics of hope

(7 July 2010)

Exponential growth is the monster under the bed of most environmentalists. We don’t think much about it until we reflect what a 10% growth rate would do to energy demand (doubling it in 7 years, quadrupling it in 14 years). My philosopher- friend, Reginaldo Castelo, recently reminded me of the monster when he sent me a link to Albert Bartlett’s excellent lecture on exponential growth.

The classic example portrays lily pads that double their size each day and cover a pond, killing the fish in 30 days1. The question is when do the lily pads cover half the pond? The answer is on the 29th day. With such examples, exponential growth seems like a fungal disease to be avoided. Then I listened to one of Friar Heitor Turrini’s informal sermons. The Friar is an Italian missionary who had come to Brazil in 1950 and yesterday said good-bye to Acre, returning to Italy due to his fragile health. As always, he gave me hope, but this time with a calculation.

Imagine, he said, that he and Father Andre, another Italian missionary, convinced each other how to live in harmony with the earth and with each other. On the next day, Friar Heitor and Father Andre convinced two others. On the third day the four of them convinced four more, and so on for subsequent days. How many days would it take to convince the world’s population to live in harmony? Friar Heitor worked out this calculation during a canoe trip up the Acre River in April.

When I posed this question to colleagues, they came up with months to years, but the Friar showed that it would take only 33 days. “Thirty-three days!” He exclaimed, banging his fist on my knee. “We can change the world, in a month, if we want to!”

Friar Heitor doesn’t believe that he will return to to Acre. During his stay, his systolic blood pressure dropped briefly to 50 mm. The doctor said that if it had slipped to 40 mm, he would have gone to Paradise much sooner than anticipated.

Once I had thought that the Friar was going back to Italy to die; but he soon corrected me. “Italy,” he said, “is in the midst of a moral crisis with abortions and violence.” He feels that he has much to do and awaits Vera’s and my visit to Bologna. And if we don’t make it, then “we will meet in Paradise and figure out how to spend several billion years together.” The Friar always thinks large.

His departure motivated the Governador do Acre, Binho Marques, to award him the Order of the Star of Acre. In his speech at the ceremony, the evening of Friar Heitor’s departure, Binho said that his theory of why Acre is special has much to do with the arrival 60 years ago of a group of Italian missionaries that have made such a difference. Friar Heitor replied that of the nine that arrived, only four are still alive.

RB convento Freis Andre Heitor Foster Paolino 2jun10
Freis Andre, Heitor, Paolino and Foster Brown

A key person in this award was Eufran do Amaral, Secretary of the Environment. The link is long between them; Friar Heitor baptized Eufran in Sena Madureira.

Both Friar Heitor and his fellow missionary Padre Paolino Baldassarri have served as a conscience for the region. Whenever I visited the Friar I would receive a lecture and a question, “When will the U.S. stop its wars in Iraq and Afganistan. When will it stop the killing?” My lack of response spoke to me as well.

[editor's note: Frei Heitor's "knee-banging" style expressively leaves little doubt, as revealed in the following video.]

Both Friar Heitor and Padre Paolino do not support sustainable development the way that they see it in Acre. They find that the logging permitted for sustainable management isn’t sustainable. As Padre Paolino said to me, in the past they protested against their enemies, now they protest against their friends.

Friar Hector’s final words at the ceremony accentuated what we need to do: let the forest live; help the poor; and find alternative sources of energy to preserve the planet.


Post script. Friar Heitor has a joie-de-vivre that has served him well. Besides telling me about his experiences of celebrating a Mass in Communist China in 1970 and having survived several crash landings as an Amazonian bush pilot, he once tried to show me a pair of old water skis at the Sena Madureira Convent. I had forgotten about them until I saw the picture below, of the Friar skiing on one of Acre’s rivers when he was in his mid-sixties.

Sena Frei Heitor esquiando jul10


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