Illustration by Gordon Schmidt

For a man of God, Father Miguel Piovesan seems awfully concerned with earthly matters. From his parish in the hinterlands of the Peruvian Amazon, he oversees an influential magazine and radio programs that apply religious teachings to, of all things, transportation policy.

The priest is pushing a proposed 270 km road that would connect his tiny town to a regional hub and, hence, the wider world. Environmentalists and advocates of the region’s indigenous peoples say it would be disastrous, threatening thousands of acres of the Amazon and exposing the people of the region to ruinous economic forces.

C. Melissa Velasco Alarcón, who spent a semester at UR as an international exchange student from Ecuador, is one of the road’s opponents.

“This road is not for improving the lives of the people but for making the rich richer,” she said.

Velasco, a recent graduate of Universidad San Francisco de Quito, said she wasn’t familiar with this particular road project when she came to UR, but she knew about ones like it in parts of the Amazon in her country. Working alongside David Salisbury, an associate professor of geography and the environment, she developed an intensive analysis of the communications coming out of Piovesan’s parish.

The results are telling. In a decade of issues of the parish’s magazine, for example, carreteras (road) appears 1,515 times, while Dios (God) appears just 854. Other words yield comparable numbers. Their paper, co-written by them and a professor at the University of Texas, made the cover of the Journal of Latin American Geography.

“You’d never think about religion and geography mixing together,” Velasco said. “But there’s a message everyone can take from it, that powerful people use tools like religion to get other people to do what they want. It’s like in colonial times. We are in 2018, and people are still doing that.”