Met by more than a half million enraptured worshipers, Pope Francis on Monday delivered the first mass of a three-nation tour through South America.
The visit comes shortly after his call for a “cultural revolution” capable of answering “the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor.” He’s expected to return to those themes this week, as he travels through a continent where both cries are particularly loud.
Here's what's likely to be on his mind on Tuesday in Ecuador, Wednesday in Bolivia, and Paraguay later in the week. Besides God, of course.
Ecuador: Almost a fifth of this country is technically protected land, but in Ecuador this is 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.
At the same time, President Raffael Correa recently announced his intention to open Yasuni National Park’s untouched interior to oil exploration. That’s likely to bring previously “uncontacted” tribes into a decidedly nonconsensual relationship with the global economy. It’s also likely to release 800 million tons of carbon into the atmosphere.
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To be fair, Correa did give the world the chance to avoid this new fondling of his country’s natural jewels. He asked for a $3.6 billion gift—compensation he said in 2013, for leaving the oil in the ground. The world did not abide. But perhaps Pope Francis has that kind of cash?
Bolivia: The country contains the eastern side of Lake Titicaca, which mostly remains an oasis of reed boats framed by snow-capped mountains. Parts of this national treasure now have an eye-watering smell that stems from what our more adolescent readers might assume is in the water anyway: human feces.
Thousands of destitute works lack basic sanitation on the shores of the rivers that feed the lake. In the cities, meanwhile, many of the factories are not monitored for illegal dumping or are not themselves legal in the first place. Heavy metals and vicious pesticides wash through the water, choking frogs and fish and leaving vast blooms of algae.
Clean-ups happen, especially near the tourist town of Copacabana. But experts compare these periodic swabs to wiping the puss from a wound without ever addressing the source of the injury.
All of this is despite the happy face sticker that President Evo Morales slapped over the country’s environmental problems in 2011. He declared 11 rights of “mother earth” including the right to life, freedom from pollution and, most controversially, the right "to not be affected by mega-infrastructure and development projects.”
Well, so much for that last one. Bolivia is sitting on 48 trillion cubic feet of shale gas. And Morales seems poised to start fracking it very, very soon.
Paraguay: In 2004 an ad for a swiss agro-giant dubbed Paraguay the “United Republic of Soy.” The ad was condemned, but its truth is undiminished. A third of the country’s forests have been clear cut in the last three decades, making way for soy, soy, soy. The crop feeds cattle in China and supports biofuel in Europe.
It also drives an outrageous land grab that would knock the Pope’s white skull cap off faster than the Andean winds. In recent years more than a 100,000 farmers have been uprooted from their lands and replanted in urban slums, making room for multinational growers, according to Oxfam International. As a result nearly 77% of the arable land belongs to just 1% of the population.
The soybean boom has feed a run on Audis in Asuncion, the national capital. But the little guys, the people of Pope Francis’s heart, haven’t shared much in the economic growth.
We can only hope they get a good seat at this week’s mass.