Ecuador, first stop on Pope tour, highlights environment exhortation

Ecuador, first stop on Pope tour, highlights environment exhortation
PHOTO: AFP

QUITO - Ecuador is one of the most biodiverse nations on earth, boasting the Amazon rainforest, Andean mountains and the Galapagos Islands, where Charles Darwin formulated his theory of evolution.

Yet with a heavy reliance on oil and mining, Ecuador, where Pope Francis begins his South America tour this weekend, is a prime example of tensions between politics, business and the environment at the heart of last month's landmark encyclical.

In the first papal document dedicated to the environment, the Argentine-born pontiff urged world leaders to hear "the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor" and reverse mankind's degradation of the planet.

"This century may well witness extraordinary climate change and an unprecedented destruction of ecosystems," warned the Pope, who arrives in Quito, the capital, on Sunday on the first stop of a tour also including Bolivia and Paraguay.

Ecuador's leftist leader, Rafael Correa, who won election in 2006 in part on a promise to preserve the country's unique biodiversity, is under fire from environmentalists who say he gives a greater priority to business.

Though activists are not scheduled to meet him, they hope the Pope's mere presence, and recent international public attention over his encyclical, will strengthen their causes: from halting oil exploration in the Yasuni jungle to blocking a new law they believe will overcommercialize the Galapagos.

Anti-Correa protesters, who have been on the streets in recent weeks to complain about tax increases and alleged autocracy in government, may also raise the environmental banner to try to embarrass the president during Francis' visit.

OIL DEPENDENCE

One of the poorest nations in South America, the small Andean country of 15 million people encapsulates tensions replicated across the Pope's native, resource-rich continent.

Colonizers first ventured through South America on a quest for gold and silver half a millennium ago. Riches including oil and copper still drive the region's economies today.

OPEC member Ecuador relies on oil for half its foreign income, according to the World Bank, and produces about half a million barrels per day.

That sustains steady economic growth that has fueled welfare policies and development, but has also meant drilling around important environmental sites.

Some scientists think the number of all types of species in Ecuador could be around a million, more than a tenth of the world's total.

Ecuador is home to 2,308 threatened species - including mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, fish and plants - far more than any other country, according to the latest data from the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

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