Page last updated at 14:34 GMT, Sunday, 1 March 2009

The Amazon's most ardent protector

By Alicia Trujillo
BBC World Service

Father Edilberto Sena has added preservation of the Amazon to his already heavy pastoral load.

Father Edilberto Sena

The Brazilian Roman Catholic priest founded the Amazon Defence Front to protect the forest against government plans which he believes put commercial development ahead of environmental concerns.

Father Sena created the Front because he feels the Brazilian government has betrayed the Amazon and the commitments it made to the people of Brazil to protect it.

In 2002, he voted for President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, after dreaming for more than 20 years that there would be a change to the way Brazil was governed.

Father Sena had hoped social issues would take priority over the economy.

But he told the BBC World Service that "'social issues have only been a drop in the ocean" during President Lula's five years in office.

A long-standing campaigner against the destruction of the Amazon, Father Sena has fought together with Greenpeace against large multinationals, including the American company Cargill.

I am a human being and see what is happening there, and I am a native Amazonian, so I can't cross my arms and close my eyes
Father Edilberto Sena

In 2006 the firm was building a new port in Santarem, halfway between the Atlantic coast and the city of Manaus.

In 2007, the Brazilian government forced Cargill to close the port down.

Sense of duty

For nine years, Father Sena has run a Catholic rural radio station in his home town of Santarem which reaches at least 500,000 people in the Amazon. He uses his station to highlight many of his campaigns.

"I am a human being and see what is happening there, and I am a native Amazonian, so I can't cross my arms and close my eyes," he says.

Woman at protest
Father Sena says threats to the Amazon come from government and big business

"I have a duty as a leader, a social leader and have a duty to help my people fight, and stimulate my people to confront the enemies of our region."

Father Sena says that the Amazon faces five main threats: agri-business chiefly from soya farmers, loggers, cattle ranchers; mineral companies and the Brazilian federal government.

He includes the government in this list because it is planning to build 10 hydro-electric dams in the Amazon region.

"This would cause great devastation to the environment by changing the ecosystem and for the people who live there because they depend on the forest and the river for survival," he says passionately.

We are like little ants pinching the food of the giant but we pinch
Father Edilberto Sena

Father Sena, born 60 years ago 45km from Santarem, in the state of Para, is one of 12 brothers and sisters. His father worked for the Ford Company as a researcher into the diseases of rubber trees in Santarem.

After studying in the United States at a Franciscan College, in Quincy, Illinois, Father Sena was awarded a scholarship to study radio communication in the Netherlands.

In 1979, he left the Franciscan order and entered the diocesan priest group in Santarem, after being inspired by the radical South American movement of Liberation Theology.

Liberation Theology was born as a response to the poverty and the ill-treatment of ordinary people.

Global purpose

Father Sena says he understands that he cannot preach God to people by closing his eyes to reality. This is why he feels the Amazon Defence Front is important.

"Jesus, when he came to Palestine, he was talking about the life of the people that's why he gained interest of the people, he didn't preach doctrine he preached love," he says, referring to his faith.

Father Sena argues that his campaign is not just important for his local community in Santarem but for everyone, as damage to the Amazon affects climate change, and this, he says, affects all of us.

In 2007 the Brazil government gave an initial go-ahead for the construction of two hydro-electric dams on the Amazon's longest tributary.

This decision, which caused an intense debate, both inside and outside government, summed up the challenge in Brazil to reconcile the ambitions of a developing country alongside the need to protect the environment.

Brazil suffered extensive power cuts in 2001 and President Lula was determined this was an episode that would not be repeated.

The government believes the two dams, when built, could supply around 8% to 10% of the national demand for electricity.

It says the environmental consequences will be minimised by the conditions attached to the proposed schemes.

Father Sena recognises his campaign has a long way to go.

"We are like little ants pinching the food of the giant but we pinch," he says.

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