ROME — Although Pope Francis defended a right of “informed consent” by indigenous peoples regarding “economic activities which may interfere with indigenous cultures and their ancestral relationship to the earth,” the Vatican has denied it was a specific reference to a controversial oil pipeline in the United States.

Construction of a $3.8 billion pipeline in North Dakota has been opposed by the Cheyenne River and Standing Rock Sioux tribes. They claim the pipeline, already being built by Texas-based Energy Transfer Partners, threatens their drinking water, cultural sites and ability to practice their religion, which depends on pure water.

The last piece of the pipeline is to pass under a reservoir in the Missouri River, which marks the eastern border of both tribes’ reservations.

“The right to prior and informed consent should always prevail, as foreseen in Article 32 of the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples,” Pope Francis said Wednesday in a session with 40 representatives of the world’s 300 most numerous indigenous peoples.

“Only then is it possible to guarantee peaceful cooperation between governing authorities and indigenous peoples, overcoming confrontation and conflict,” he said.

A Vatican spokesperson said after the session, however, that it’s wrong to infer a reference to any specific situation in the pope’s words.

“Pope Francis made no explicit reference to any concrete case,” Paloma Garcia Ovejero, the Vatican’s deputy spokesperson, told Crux.

“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,” Garcia Ovejero said.

In his remarks, Francis said that a central issue is how to reconcile the right to both social and cultural development with protection of the particular characteristics of indigenous groups and their territories.

He did not cite any of the numerous ongoing conflicts between indigenous peoples around the world, local governments and industries.

Beyond the U.S. case, he could have had in mind indigenous peoples in his home country of Argentina, who, according to a recent report from the United Nations, are discriminated against nationwide, with their lands expropriated, their water reserves contaminated and industries exploiting natural resources in their territories.

Then there are tribes in the Amazon region of Peru, who are being affected by their own oil pipeline that contaminates their rivers due to oil spills. There’s also the Articulation of Indigenous Peoples of Brazil, a group studying legal action to try to contain growing racism and incidents of violence linked to agribusiness.

The pope’s meeting with the representatives of indigenous peoples came as they were gathered in Rome for a Feb. 10-13 global meeting at the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD). The encounter, which is the third of its kind, focused on economic empowerment of indigenous peoples, particularly women and youth.

The pope’s call for informed consent, as he noted in his remarks, is enshrined in the 2007 United Nations “Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples,” adopted by the General Assembly. That charter was opposed by four countries: the U.S., Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

He also called for governments to develop guidelines and projects which take into account indigenous identity, “with particular attention to young people and women; not only considering them, but including them!”

This he said, means acknowledging that these communities are part of a given country’s population, and as such they have to be appreciated and consulted. Francis also called for governments to promote their participation at a local and national level.

Quoting from his encyclical on the environment, Laudato Si’, the pope insisted that development “which does not leave in its wake a better world and an integrally higher quality of life cannot be considered progress.

“In this moment, in which humanity is committing a grave sin in not caring for the earth, I urge you to continue to bear witness to this,” the pope told the representatives of indigenous peoples.

He also urged them not to allow new technologies, “which are legitimate and good,” to destroy the environment and ecological balance, which “end up destroying the wisdom of peoples.”

Pope Francis has long defended the rights of indigenous peoples, addressing them on multiple opportunities, and even made them the protagonists of last July’s monthly prayer intentions.