Pope supports environmental justice in Ecuador, will he in the US?

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by Vesta Davis

Since being elected pope in March 2013, Pope Francis has been ruffling some feathers. Many consider him to be the most progressive pope yet. He has openly stated that the Catholic Church has been too focused on the topics of gay marriage, birth control, and abortion, while neglecting the poor and the marginalized. Pope Francis has frequently mentioned climate change, the environment, and the people who will suffer the most from global warming.

Before coming to the United States for his 3-city tour of the country, the Pope spent his July traveling through Bolivia, Ecuador, and Paraguay, He made history by focusing on the poor communities, prisoners, and youth, rather than endorsing politicians. Perhaps one of the most notable illustrations of this change was in Ecuador when he spoke at the Pontifical Catholic University. He spoke to both students and professors, urging them to not be blinded by their privilege. He implored to them to value their physical environment and to recognize that they are equal to the less privileged, regardless of any difference in education.

For decades now, there has been a building tension in Ecuador between many of the indigenous communities and the president of Ecuador, Rafael Correa. Before the Pope’s arrival, he received numerous requests from indigenous group leaders and environmental activists to address oil extraction in Ecuador and its impact on the poor and indigenous communities. Just this past May, Pope Francis published his second encyclical letter entitled “Laudato si,” in which he argues the importance of environmental stewardship and sustainable development, particularly for poor and indigenous communities.

Since Correa assumed the presidency in 2007, oil extraction has become a major issue in Ecuador. In 2007, Correa initiated the Yasuni-ITT project, with the hopes of receiving outside funding and making local oil drilling unnecessary.  However, this plan was scrapped in 2013. Thus, Correa auctioned off about 3 million acres of land to the Chinese oil conglomerate PetroOriential in exchange for $1.2 billion. The oil extraction in Ecuador will occur within the Yasuni National Park, one of the most bio-diverse regions of the world and home to numerous indigenous communities.

While it is unlikely that Pope Francis held a private discussion with Correa about oil drilling, he did make a public appeal, claiming that “the tapping of natural resources, which are so abundant in Ecuador, must not be concerned with short-term benefits.” This is all well and good, but it’s not exactly what the indigenous groups and activists were asking for. One of the major benefits of Correa’s plan is that it will decrease poverty throughout Ecuador—1.3 million people have already be alleviated from poverty since Correa became president. However, is a plan to alleviate poverty really successful if it destroys the homes and heritage of a whole other group of people? I think not.

With Pope Francis now arriving in D.C., I am curious to see what social issues he will discuss with President Obama and Congress. Will he perhaps address the Keystone Pipeline fiasco? Or mention other environmental justice and land rights issues that occur in the United States? We’ll have to wait and see.

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