Eye on the Amazon

Pope Francis to Ecuador: Protecting the Amazon Is No Longer a Choice

Photo Credit: Jeffrey Bruno_Aleteia, Flickr CC

"The tapping of natural resources, which are so abundant in Ecuador, must not be concerned with short-term benefits. As stewards of these riches which we have received, we have an obligation toward society as a whole, and toward future generations." Pope Francis
July 7, 2015, Quito, Ecuador

Not long ago we asked our international community to send a message to Pope Francis calling on him to urge President Correa to leave the oil in the ground in the Amazon and to respect indigenous rights. Thanks largely in part to the many thousands of you who took action – it worked!

On Tuesday during his visit to Ecuador Pope Francis echoed the voices of our indigenous partners and called on Ecuador to protect the rainforest and its peoples, noting again its vital importance to the planet's ecosystem.

"The tapping of natural resources, which are so abundant in Ecuador, must not be concerned with short-term benefits," he said speaking before a group that included indigenous people of the Amazon. "Ecuador – together with other countries bordering the Amazon – has an opportunity to become a teacher of integral ecology. We received this world as an inheritance from past generations, but also as a loan from future generations, to whom we will have to return it."

Two weeks ago Vatican officials had said that Francis would not address the environment during his trip to South America. However, after pleas from indigenous leaders, civil society, and the many thousands of you who called on the pope to urge President Correa to leave the oil in the ground in Yasuní National Park and to respect indigenous rights, the Vatican appeared to have a change of heart.

The pope has said that protecting the planet is no longer a choice but a moral duty and has called for "a new social justice" where access to Earth's resources would be based on equality over economic interests. "One thing is certain: we can no longer turn our backs on reality, on our brothers and sisters, on Mother Earth," Francis told students at the Pontifical Catholic University of Ecuador, urging them to take action.

Pope Francis' words are especially critical in Ecuador, where President Correa is attempting to open up over ten million acres of pristine rainforest to oil drilling against the will of the indigenous people who call the Amazon home. Much of the proposed expansion is being driven by China, which has lent Ecuador billions of dollars in oil-backed loans. State oil company Petroamazonas is looking for financing from China to drill in the most fragile part of Yasuni National Park. The area is home to Ecuador's last communities living in voluntary isolation and is said to be one of the most biodiverse places on Earth.

In a fantastic article – Pope Francis, in Ecuador, Calls for More Protection of Rain Forest and Its People – published this week, The New York Times cited a similar plea from indigenous leader and Amazon Watch partner Franco Viteri, who is the head of the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of the Ecuadorian Amazon (CONFENIAE). In a letter to Pope Francis from Ecuador's indigenous peoples, Viteri wrote "We ask you to intercede and call upon the Ecuadorean government to not expand the oil frontier and mega-mining in indigenous territories, especially in Yasuní. We ask you to call upon them to respect the constitution and international treaties and agreements on the environment and human rights." Pope Francis received the letter from the young daughter of indigenous leader Jorge Herrera, who approached him on the altar with their words in hand. The pope responded by giving her a big hug.

The Times also quoted Amazon Watch Ecuador program director Kevin Koenig, who stated, "President Correa's environmental policies are at odds with the message of the pope's encyclical." Koenig rightly called oil exploration "the major indigenous rights environmental battle in the Amazon right now."

​T​he Ecuadorian government has redoubled its efforts to drill in the most controversial areas of the Amazon, including in Sarayaku, ​w​here the government lost a landmark legal case at the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACHR) that set a legal precedent that obligates companies and governments throughout the Americas to gain communities' right to free, prior, and informed consent (FPIC) before operating on indigenous peoples' land. The government was also forced to publicly apologize and pay reparations. However, it seems that the Ecuadorian government has a short memory. Not only has it directly violated that ruling, it's doing so in the very community where its poor practices produced the ruling. Last month Sarayaku traveled to Ecuador's National Assembly to denounce the government's illegitimate consultation and wrote a letter to Pope Francis urging him to stand up for indigenous peoples and the environment​.​

It seems that the pope is listening. Doubling down on his landmark environmental encyclical "Laudato Si" published last month, Francis noted that the Amazon needed "greater protection because of its immense importance for the global ecosystem." Francis said there was a "very solid scientific consensus" on global warming and its human causes and called for policies to drastically reduce polluting gases and cut dependence on fossil fuels. The pope says he wants the encyclical to influence the UN COP21 climate change summit in Paris in December and has now effectively taken his campaign around the world.

And the world is listening to His Holiness! A Google News search of the words "Pope Francis," "Ecuador," and "environment" shows over 3,300 results. The same search in Spanish brings nearly 1,400 results. Everyone from the New York Times to Ecuador's El Universo to The Globe and Mail to CBS News, Reuters to MSNBC to Agence France-Presse to The Christian Science Monitor covered Pope Francis' message. Even the notorious climate change deniers at Fox News ran the Associated Press' article about Francis' environmental message.

"We are also invited to care for it [the planet], to protect it, to be its guardians," Francis urged Ecuadorians and the world. "Nowadays we are increasingly aware of how important this is. It is no longer a mere recommendation, but rather a requirement."

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