Cleric battling to save rainforest from loggers fights expulsion

Hero to Amazon tribes is ordered out after 20 years of campaigning against oil giants

To the indigenous peoples of the Peruvian Amazon, Paul McAuley is a hero who has helped them stand up to the legions of rapacious mining, oil and logging companies operating in their jungle homeland.

His enemies have a different opinion of the Catholic missionary. They have branded him a "Tarzan agitator", a "white terrorist" and an "incendiary gringo priest".

Last night Mr McAuley, 62, was desperately trying to launch a last minute legal appeal to stop his expulsion from Peru after the government revoked his residency status.

Mr McAuley, a lay member of the De La Salle Christian Brothers order, has lived in Peru for more than 20 years and has spent much of the past decade urging indigenous tribes to stand up for their rights and protect the local environment.

But Peruvian President Alan Garcia's government, which has eased restrictions on oil and gas companies operating in the jungle, accuses him of inciting unrest.

Last week, Mr McAuley was informed that he was being expelled from the country because he was engaged in activities that "put at risk the security of the state, public order and the national defence".

The fight to keep him in Peru has attracted supporters from a broad spectrum, including the Catholic Church, Hollywood actress Q'orianka Kilcher, environmentalists and Amnesty International.

Kilcher, best known for her portrayal of Pocahontas in the 2005 film The New World, first met "Brother Paul" four years ago in the Loreto, Peru's north-eastern jungle state where much of the mining in the Amazon is carried out. Writing on her blog, the 20-year-old actress – whose father is Quechua Indian – angrily attacked the Peruvian government over their decision to expel the lay preacher.

"Brother Paul has never advocated violence but has promoted education and negotiation as the way to enact social change," she wrote.

"Yet he stands accused of taking part in political protest and is to be deported from the country to which he has devoted his life, without any chance to defend himself." She added: "The revoking of his residency sends a message of intolerance, inequality and a complete lack of respect for human rights and free speech."

The exact whereabouts of Mr McAuley was not known last night. A spokesperson for the De La Salle Brothers in Britain said they had reached him by telephone earlier in the week but had since lost contact with him.

Indigenous people in Loreto's capital, Iquitos, have been holding protests over the deportation. According to local reports, a number of indigenous women have offered to marry the missionary to keep him in the country.

Mr McAuley denied breaking any laws in a telephone interview with the BBC World Service. "Education is often accused of inciting people to understand their rights, to be capable of organising themselves to ensure their human rights," he said.

"If that's a crime, then yes, I'm guilty. As a member of a Catholic order my life's been dedicated to human and Christian education."

Indigenous tribes have long complained that the Peruvian government has given multinational companies carte blanche to operate in the Amazon with little compensation for locals.

Last summer tensions boiled over when the government sent in police to break up a roadblock that had been built by indigenous protesters outside the city of Bagua. At least 23 police officers and 10 civilians lost their lives as the protest was forcefully broken up.

In April, violence flared up once again, when six miners were killed after police fired live rounds to disperse a crowd of 2,000 demonstrators in the town of Chala. Alberto Pizango, president of a group which represents 65 Amazon indigenous peoples, wrote to Mr McAuley to express solidarity. "This government only thinks about the earnings of big foreign companies, which have become the main beneficiaries of the state," he said.

Mr Pizango was only recently released from prison after he was accused of organising the protests in Bagua. The deadline given to the British-born environmentalist to leave the country was due to expire last night but his supporters were hoping a legal challenge would give him at least a temporary reprieve.

Godly campaigners

Sister Dorothy Stang

An American-born nun who spent most of her adult life in the Brazilian rainforest, her passionate environmentalism eventually led to her death. She was gunned down by two men. Ms Stang fought for years for indigenous people in the Brazilian rainforest as illegal logging cut vast swathes through the jungle. After a series of mistrials, her killers, Vitalmiro Moura and Regivaldo Galvão, were convicted earlier this year and sentenced to 30 years.

Oscar Romero

Regarded by many as the unofficial saint of Latin America, the Salvadoran bishop was a prominent supporter of liberation theology in Latin America and lambasted the US for its support of right-wing dictatorships. He was assassinated in 1980 while celebrating mass. Hailed as "San Romero" by Salvadorans, Archbishop Romero's path to sainthood has stalled in recent years.