The Pope made the appeal while visiting a corner of the Amazon in Peru where pristine rainforest and biodiversity is being threatened by mining and logging.
"The native Amazonian peoples have probably never been so threatened on their own lands as they are at present," the Pope told a crowd of indigenous people from more than 20 groups including the Harakbut, Esse-ejas, Shipibos, Ashaninkas and Juni Kuin.
“We ask you to defend us,” said Yesica Patiachi, a representative of the Harakbut people. “If they take away our land, we can disappear.”
“I’m 67, I remember that our land was beautiful, with abundant plants and fish,” said Luzmila Bermejo of the Awajun people. “The oil, forestry and mining groups came, all of this polluted and weakened us.”
The native tribes and families, many sporting feathers and beads, interrupted Francis repeatedly with applause, wailing horns and beating drums as the first ever Latin-American Pope declared the Amazon and its indigenous peoples the “heart of the church”.
Members of one of the tribes also presented the Pope with a bow and arrow in a symbolic gesture aimed at helping him to defend their land rights.
The Amazon region will be a focal point of the XV Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops when it takes place in October 2018.