In May I participated in the 2014 Amazon Consultation (AC-14) in Quito, Ecuador. Prepared and hosted by ALTECO every year since 2004, this annual event draws together hundreds of individuals from ministries and organizations with a common focus on empowering Amazon tribes to complete the Great Commission in that region and beyond. For Megan and I, these gatherings have for years been a source of encouragement, and an opportunity develop friendships and working relationships with many people we might have never otherwise met.
AC-14 was exceptional. It signaled a huge shift in momentum of Amazon missions work from the foreigners towards national and tribal ministries, which is our goal! Until recently, Amazon missions was largely considered the work of foreigners, including North Americans, Europeans, and (more recently) Koreans. And while foreign missionaries are still active across the region, our role is evolving more towards empowering Christians from national and tribal-led ministries. Field research is key to their success, and while in Ecuador I led a research workshop attended by a mixed group of North American, European, nationals from several South American countries, and tribal leaders. Practical research – the intentional gathering and use of coordinated field data – is helping ministries work smarter and closer together with better information to assess and meet the many needs of unreached and uncontacted Amazon tribes. Now more than ever national and tribal ministries want to do their own research, from field surveys, to database development and building maps.
Mapping serves a big role in this work. I was amazed by the reactions of several indigenous attendees from Ecuador when I gave them printed copies of a map I created showing the locations of Ecuador’s Amazon and lowland tribes (from best available sources), in relation to national biological reserves and parks. Their excitement and follow up questions indicated that by simply having in hand a map of the need somehow brings us closer to solving certain problems. As I’ve found in many similar situations, the map brought up discussions about a range of issues. One tribal leader in particular mentioned a specific issue of great concern: indigenous land rights. Tribal cultures are very closely tied to their land. Without it, their societies and cultures crumble. When tribal communities lose their land they become poor peasants dependent on the benevolence of governments and charities to sustain them. This issue is worsening as national governments claim ever larger tracts of indigenous territory for the sake of resource (oil, lumber, minerals) extraction and development in the name of national ‘progress’. I believe we as Christians should do more to engage this matter. Land rights issues do not have to be solely championed by secular NGOs that do not care about the eternal interests of the tribal people. Through ALTECO we have an opportunity to work directly with Christian leaders of tribal communities, empowering them with tools and skills to not only identify and reach other tribes with the Gospel, but tackle very practical, felt needs in such matters as land rights, conflict resolution, resource development and public health.
In summary, there are significant challenges ahead for us all, from broad trends such as corruption and racism to specific issues as land rights. All of these are strongholds that the enemy will continue to employ to prevent the Gospel from transforming hearts across the region. That the seeds for a research movement across the ALTECO network have been planted is an answer to prayer. Megan and I are grateful to serve in an expanding role coordinating this movement, and we look forward to training more workers to do the same. We pray that we can soon have research teams across the region that help us all work together more effectively as the Body of Christ.