Ecuadorians had a lot to be excited about on Sunday, as Pope Francis began his week-long visit to South America. While the crowds have gathered to cheer and wave at Pope Francis, I am quietly cheering at my desk.
Francis has some great opportunities on this trip. He is continuing his advocacy for and commitment to the continent's poorest and most vulnerable populations, AND he has the opportunity to raise some important environmental concerns with Ecuador's current president, Rafael Correa.
Correa is no stranger to environmental messages, and criticism. In 2013, the Ecuadorian President made headlines when he withdrew his offer to protect nearly 4,000 square miles (!) of the Amazon jungle from oil drilling. Several years earlier, Correa had offered to suspend oil extraction in part of the Yasuni National Park in exchange for $3.6 billion USD from international donors (half of the revenue Ecuador would have realized from deals with countries seeking oil supplies). After Ecuador received only $13 million in funds, Correa quickly ditched the initiative.
While Correa loudly blamed the world for its lack of support, some are skeptical that he made every effort to see the initiative through to completion. There are reports
that while he was raising funds to protect the Yasuni National Park from oil drilling, he had a behind-the-scenes deal with China that would allow drilling access...dun dun dun!
I recently visited the Amazon jungle in Ecuador, making Correa's decision to exploit the jungle's oil supply a devastating, and surprisingly personal, blow. I experienced major jaw-drops while gazing at the jungle's unique flora and fauna and discovering some of their incredible medicinal properties. I experienced heartbreak while learning about the day-to-day challenges faced by indigenous peoples trying to maintain traditional lifestyles.
Correa has the power to conserve Ecuador's rich biodiversity and protect indigenous peoples living in voluntary isolation. Furthermore, if he went through with his decision to protect the jungle from oil drilling, the world could have avoided the release of 400 million tons of carbon into the atmosphere.
Into this crisis steps Pope Francis. The pope’s recent encyclical on the environment gives me hope that he'll attempt to knock some sense into Correa, or at least publically hold him accountable for Ecuador's impact of profit-motivated development on the environment.
And it's not just Correa who needs a talking to--similar issues have arisen in Bolivia. The pope's South America trip will also include a stop in Bolivia, where I hope he will bring a similar message. If global citizens are going to fight the battle of environmental degradation and climate change, the world needs to work together to drive economic development while also protecting the world's most vulnerable resources and populations.