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Why Pope Francis focused on environment in Ecuador

Pope Francis highlighted the tensions between environment, business, and the plight of the poor in Ecuador.

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Pope Francis, third right, walks to celebrate Mass at Bicentennial Park in Quito, Ecuador.

L'Osservatore Romano/AP

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Pope Francis is appealing for better care of the Amazon rain forest and the indigenous people who live there, as he wraps up the Ecuador leg of his South America trip.

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

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Ecuador is a key example of the tensions between environment, business, and the plight of the poor at the heart of this year's papal encyclical. The country has a diverse ecosystem that includes parts of the Amazon rain forest, the Andes Mountains, and the Galapagos Islands. It also boosts a growing oil industry and heavily relies on mining.

Pope Francis focused exclusively on the environment in his first encyclical, released to global attention last month. In the encyclical titled "Laudato Si" ("Praise Be"), the pope called for a bold cultural revolution to correct what he calls the "structurally perverse" economic system of the rich exploiting the poor and destroying the planet.  

Environmental issues have been contentious for much of President Rafael Correa's eight-year-old administration. While mining and oil extraction have brought Ecuador unparalleled revenues, the accompanying deforestation and pollution have degraded rain forests and disrupted the lives of indigenous peoples. 

According to Latin American Science, Ecuador contributes around 0.1 percent of the globe’s greenhouse gases, but the effects of climate change are evident throughout the country, especially around sources of water.

“Between 1996 and 2008, for example, Ecuador’s glacier coverage went down by 28%. Cotopaxi, one of the most active volcanoes in the world—and one of the main sources of water for the Ecuadorian capital of Quito—saw a 30% reduction in glacier coverage between 1976 and 1997.

Ecuador’s main power company Empresa Eléctrica Quito, in turn, confirmed that the amount of water available to the capital was reduced by 50% between 1978 and 2008. Between 2050 and 2100 we expect glaciers to retreat at least 55% in the Andes in tandem with an increase in temperature between 2 and 8°C in the Amazon region.”

Speaking at Quito's Catholic University, Pope Francis challenged youth to be on the forefront of the environmental campaign. "It is no longer a mere recommendation, but rather a requirement because of the harm we have inflicted on (the Earth) by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed it," he said, quoting his encyclical.