Taking his green vision to the masses, Pope Francis on Tuesday called for stepped-up preservation of the Amazon rainforest and the native tribes who have depended on it for centuries.
Speaking in Quito, the capital of Ecuador, the pontiff decried the “short term benefits” of development in the Amazon, building on his sweeping defense last month of “our common home.” Francis called for a “cultural revolution” to protect the poor and the planet.
"The goods of the earth are meant for everyone," the pope said Tuesday, "and however much someone may parade his property, it has a social mortgage."
The pope’s remarks are a near-explicit rejection of the policies of Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa, who recently announced his intention to open Yasuni National Park’s untouched interior to oil exploration. That’s likely to bring previously isolated tribes into a decidedly non-consensual relationship with the global economy, and release 800 million tons of carbon into the atmosphere.
“The tapping of natural resources, which are so abundant in Ecuador, must not be concerned with short-term benefits,” Francis told a group of civil society and indigenous people at a church in Quito. “As stewards of these riches which we have received, we have an obligation toward society as a whole, and toward future generations.”
Almost a fifth of Ecuador is technically protected land, but historically this has been a bit like wearing a fifth of your pants to work in the morning. A lot is left exposed.
Oil companies have been drilling in the Ecuadorian Amazon since about 1960, allegedly leaving behind fetid water, a trampled habitat and a concentric circle of ghastly cancers among the indigenous population. Some environmentalists have dubbed it “a rainforest Chernobyl.” Others organized a lawsuit, convincing the country’s supreme court to award $19 billion in damages.
But last year, a federal judge in Manhattan ruled that the case itself was marred by corruption and fraud, potentially giving the lead company – Chevron – a get-out-of-trouble free card.
Environmentalists are afraid the new drilling will open a new chapter of trouble, and last weekend, in an online open letter to the pope, they made a fresh call for intervention.
“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,” the letter said. “We ask you to call upon them to respect the constitution and international treaties and agreements on the environment and human rights.”
To be fair, President Correa did give the world the chance to avoid the issue. He asked for a $3.6 billion gift—compensation, he said in 2013, for leaving the oil in the ground. Actor Leonardo DiCaprio donated money. Most of the world, however, did not abide.
In the new comments, Francis cited his own encyclical, which argued that faith compels one to protect the earth and reject the idea that humans have “dominion” over nature. There is no biblical right to harvest the earth, he argued.
“We are not God,” he wrote. “The earth was here before us and it has been given to us.”
On Wednesday, Francis headed to Bolivia, where more environmental problems await.