QUITO, Ecuador (AP) – Pope Francis wraps up the first leg of a three-nation South American pilgrimage Wednesday after issuing an impassioned call for a new economic and ecological world order where the goods of the Earth are shared by everyone, not just exploited by the rich.
Francis will visit the elderly and give a pep talk to local priests before flying to Bolivia, where the environment, ministering to the poor and the government's tense relations with the Catholic Church are high on the agenda.
Bolivian President Evo Morales, an Aymara Indian known for anti-imperialist and socialist rhetoric, will greet Francis at the airport and join him for a speech to local officials and diplomats before the pontiff goes to the Bolivian city of Santa Cruz. The stop in La Paz is being kept to four hours to spare the 78-year-old pope from the taxing 13,120-foot elevation.
Francis and Morales have met on several occasions, most recently in October when the president, a former coca farmer, participated in a Vatican summit of grassroots groups of indigenous and advocates for the poor who have been championed by Francis. Their shared views on the need for wealthy countries to drastically change course to address climate change bump up against Morales' anti-clerical initiatives that have roiled relations with the local church.
Taking up the global warming issue in Quito on Tuesday, Francis pressed the arguments made in his headline-grabbing encyclical earlier this month that the planet must not be exploited by the wealthy few for short-term profit at the expense of the poor.
"As stewards of these riches which we have received, we have an obligation toward society as a whole and toward future generations," Francis said. "We cannot bequeath this heritage to them without proper care for the environment, without a sense of gratuitousness born of our contemplation of the created world."
His call was particularly relevant for Ecuador, a Pacific nation that is home to one of the world's most species-diverse ecosystems but is also an OPEC country heavily dependent on oil extraction.
He delivered the challenge in back-to-back speeches at Catholic University and a meeting with business leaders and indigenous groups, the latter of which have championed his encyclical.
"The goods of the Earth are meant for everyone, and however much someone may parade his property, it has a social mortgage," Francis said. "The tapping of natural resources, which are so abundant in Ecuador, must not be concerned with short-term benefits."
Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa has been harshly criticized by environmentalists and indigenous groups for pushing mining and oil drilling in the Amazon, which together with the Galapagos Islands give Ecuador an unrivaled designation as one of the Earth's environmental priorities. That push, coupled with high crude prices, allowed Correa to lift 1.3 million people out of poverty in his eight years in office.
Francis has called for environmentally responsible development, one that is aimed at helping the poor without sacrificing the planet. The oil industry and its supporters, particularly in the U.S., have criticized the pope's anti-fossil fuel campaign as irresponsible and uninformed.
Francis is likely to repeat his message in Bolivia, South America's poorest country. Morales has been hailed as an environmental hero to many for demanding rich nations do more to halt global warming, but he has been assailed by conservationists at home who say he puts oil and gas extraction ahead of clean water and forests.
The pope will spend the rest of his Bolivian stay in Santa Cruz, where he will headline another summit of grassroots groups and visit with inmates at the notoriously violent Palmasola prison. After that he is going to Paraguay.