IN 1920 it took the first missionaries more than 156 days, travelling on foot and by boat from Rio, to reach Sena Madureira, deep in the heart of the Brazilian rainforest. Now a jet can fly in from the capital in seven hours. Fr Hector Turrini still needs weeks to get around the settlements in his parish which is spread out over many thousands of square miles. In this remote area, his order of Servite Friars have set up community schools, hospitals and churches, working with the indigenous peoples, fishermen, farmers and rubber tappers. For years, their main problems were poverty and illness. Many missionaries died of tropical diseases. But in recent years the mission has had to face a far more terrible problem - rich landowners moving up from the South and destroying the jungle. Each day they come closer, and Sena Madureira is set in the last corner of forest untouched by fire and chainsaws. Since 1968, uncontrolled deforestation has caused terrible environmental damage, driving thousands of people from their homes. Many have been killed. "First they cleared the forest for cattle pasture," said Fr Hector. "Now they cut the mahogany tree, which took 500 years to grow. We are the last mahogany outpost. When they have finished their destruction, what is left is a swamp. Our people are living in incredible poverty. "In 1500 there were between three and five million Indians living in Brazil. Now than are less than 200,000. In my parish when I arrived there were 50,000 people. Now there are less than 2,000. We whites have done so much harm we should fall on our knees and ask God's forgiveness," said Fr Hector. Besides destroying the environment and wildlife and poisoning the rivers, the landowners, who bought huge stretches of land for the price of a box of matches, are exploiting the Indians by forcing them to work for slave wages, Fr Hector explained. And western businesses play a large part here - buying tropical woods and paying rock-bottom prices for products such as Brazil nuts. "If they don't stop, Brazil will have a desert comparable to the Sahara," Fr Hector said. He added: "In the summer, there is so much smoke from burning trees, the sky over Rio Branco is black. The airport has to be closed. Many children are overcome with lung problems and die." A recent satellite photographed 68,988 fires burning in the Amazon. Fr Hector is appealing to the west to enforce a ban on the sale of mahogany and introduce sustainable agriculture. Current laws should permit rubber tappers to own the land on which they work after five years - but in practice they are being forced out. He said: "We are calling for existing laws to be enforced. We would also like to see a boycott on mahogany, like the fur ban. Western people say they are worried about the plight of the rainforests but their governments continue to buy tropical wood. They are prepared to sacrifice people for money. "In the end - we will all suffer anyway. Only one per cent of the plant and animal species have been surveyed - yet a quarter of the world's medicines come from Amazonian plants. There are probably many more medicinal plants there which could save lives. Instead millions of biosystems are being destroyed. "Our climate around the world is changing now and will be dramatically affected if we lose the rainforests. Fifty years ago the earth had 9,375,000 square miles of jungle. Today less than 50 per cent remains and half of this is in the Amazon. To save the jungle is to save the planet. To save the planet is to save mankind. "I have lived in Brazil so long I feel I am a native now myself. These people are in my heart," said Fr Hector. Many campaigners have died in the fight to save the rainforest, including Nobel prizewinner Chico Mendez, who Fr Hector baptised. Along with the other priests at the mission, he has received several death threats, but he says he is not afraid to die. Fr Hector Turrini said: "We would be happy to give our lives. We went to preach the Gospel. But in order to evangelise first the people must have life. If we don't help them, we are not evangelising. Jesus came down to earth from heaven. What use is religion if we ignore what is here and always look up?" He said: "I would like to ask all your readers to cry out for us to save the rainforest as we have never cried out before, telling people honestly what the situation is." Fr Hector is campaigning for the government of Brazil to introduce laws to protect the rain forest from further destruction and assign land to the Indians where they can live safely. He has called on readers to support his work through prayer and practical help. If you would like to get involved, adopt a tree or sign a petition which he is sending to the President of Brazil, write to him at: Paroquia NS da Conceicao, 69940-000 Sena Madureira Acre, Brazil.
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