Pope Francis defended the rights of indigenous tribes at the Indigenous Peoples Forum in Rome Wednesday. As part of a UN International Fund for Agricultural Development meeting, he spoke in Spanish with 40 representatives of the 300 largest indigenous groups in the world.
“The particular characteristics of indigenous peoples and their territories," must be protected, Francis said, according to Reuters. He stated this was especially true "when planning economic activities which may interfere with indigenous cultures and their ancestral relationship to the earth." He also promoted the full participation of indigenous peoples in local and national government.
"The right to prior and informed consent should always prevail, as foreseen in Article 32 of the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples," he added, according to US News. "Only then is it possible to guarantee peaceful cooperation between governing authorities and indigenous peoples, overcoming confrontation and conflict."
The 2007 UN Declaration the Pope referenced was opposed by the U.S., Canada, Australia and New Zealand.
Pope Francis has a record of defending the environment. His 2015 encyclical on the environment and human ecology shared a prayer for the earth: "Bring healing to our lives, that we may protect the world and not prey on it, that we may sow beauty, not pollution and destruction."
While he didn't specifically mention the controversial Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL), many news outlets picked up on his suggestive and timely focus on indigenous land rights and reported the connection. Reuters described his actions as backing "Native Americans seeking to halt part of the Dakota Access Pipeline, saying indigenous cultures have a right to defend 'their ancestral relationship to the earth.'"
"Evidently, he's informed of the numerous problems that affect indigenous peoples, but there's no element in his words that would give us a clue to know if he was talking about any specific cases," Paloma Garcia Ovejero, a Vatican representative, told the Catholic News outlet, Crux.
On Jan. 24, President Trump signed two executive orders calling for the approval of the Dakota Access and Keystone XL pipelines. On Feb. 13, a federal judge denied a temporary injunction against DAPL construction, requested by the Cheyenne River and Standing Rock Sioux tribes. The judge plans to reconsider this case Feb. 27.