By Girish Gupta
QUITO (Reuters) – It is one of the most biodiverse nations on earth, boasting the Amazon rainforest, Andean mountains & the Galapagos Islands, where Charles Darwin formulated his theory of evolution.
Yet with a heavy reliance on oil & mining, Ecuador, where Pope Francis begins his South America tour this weekend, is a prime example of tensions between politics, business & 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 & the cry of the poor" & reverse mankind's degradation of the planet.
"This century may well witness extraordinary climate alter & an unprecedented destruction of ecosystems," warned the Pope, who arrives in the capital Quito on Sunday on the first stop of a tour moreover including Bolivia & 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, & 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 over commercialize the Galapagos.
Anti-Correa protesters, who have been on the streets in recent weeks to complain approximately tax increases & alleged autocracy in government, may moreover raise the environmental banner to try to embarrass the president during Francis' visit.
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 & silver half a millennium ago. Riches including oil & copper still drive the region's economies today.
OPEC member Ecuador relies on oil for half its foreign income, according to the World Bank, & produces approximately half a million barrels per day.
That sustains steady economic growth that has fuelled welfare development, yet has moreover meant drilling around significant 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 & plants – far more than any other country, according to the latest data from the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
Endangered species include the white-bellied spider monkey, the giant otter & a tree, Rollinia helosioides, of which there is thought to be only one living example in the world.
Perhaps nowhere has the environmental debate raged more than in Ecuador's eastern Yasuni park, a 9,820-square- kilometre (6,100-square-mile) swathe of rainforest on the equator.
"Eastern Ecuador is likely the most species-diverse place on the planet," said Kelly Swing, professor of tropical ecology at Quito's San Francisco University.
However, approximately 846 million barrels of oil lie under Yasuni's soil, one-tenth of the country's total proven reserves.
Challenging the world to save Yasuni, Correa in 2007 asked wealthy countries to donate $3.6 billion (Â£2.30 billion) to offset revenue lost by not drilling there.
But the initiative brought in less than 4 percent of the requested amount so Correa scrapped the plan six years after & authorized drilling, saying the world had failed Ecuador.
Oil spills in the country's northeastern jungle decades ago are the subject of one of the world's biggest environmental lawsuits.
Local plaintiffs, including environmental groups, continue to battle Chevron Corp in international courts, seeking billions of dollars for damage they allege was caused by Texaco, which Chevron after acquired.
As well as oil, a nascent gold & copper mining sector is hoping to attract $5 billion of investment over the next five years. Environmentalists worry this could scar the landscape.
ORIGIN OF SPECIES
Ecuador is perhaps best-known for its Galapagos Islands, around a thousand kilometres (620 miles) off the Pacific Coast.
Darwin investigated the islands' natural history & geology in the 1830s & used his notes to lay the foundations of evolutionary biology in the "Origin of Species."
Galapagenos are angry at new legislation that they say could reduce subsidies & open doors to huge business.
"This new law will precipitate an environmental crisis by opening the flood gates to unfettered commercialization by wealthy & well-connected offshore investors who will plunder what is left of this fragile paradise," said Sean Keegan, 61, a travel agent on the Galapagos island of San Cristobal.
Correa has long argued that capitalism & consumerism are to blame for global environmental problems, noting in a forum at the Vatican earlier this year that the United States & China accounted for 44 percent of emissions.
"The greatest environmental damage comes from rich countries … We must try out a new notion of development," Correa said, citing ancient Andean communities as a model.
Modern realities are, though, pressuring him.
The slide in oil prices caused the central bank to slash this year's growth forecast to 1.9 percent from 4.1 percent.
Under pressure to find more revenue, Ecuador's government has in recent months raised import tariffs & cut social security contributions. Those measures & other plans to raise inheritance & capital gains taxes have sparked nationwide protests likely to continue during the Pope's visit.
The president says the protests are part of a plot to overthrow his government, adding the tax proposals will only have an impact on the wealthiest. Protests turned rowdy outside his palace on Thursday night, lightly injuring several policemen.
(Additional reporting by Alexandra Valencia.; Editing by Alexandra Ulmer, Andrew Cawthorne & Jeffrey Benkoe)