I was invited to attend a gathering in Rome, “In Union With God We Hear a Plea,” to discuss mining practices with representatives of communities affected by mining activities around the world. The meeting was sponsored by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace (PCJP) from July 17-19, 2015.
In 2013 certain mine executives asked to meet with PCJP for a dialogue about mining practices, principally because Catholic groups and international organizations were raising questions about the treatment of workers, dangers to local communities and threats to the earth itself. They offered to discuss with priests the positive contributions of mining, because the world needs metals. Two meetings, one in London and one in Rome, started the dialogue with a third scheduled again in Rome for September, 2015. Vowed religious groups of men and women, especially Franciscans, urged the PCJP to convene a meeting also of grass roots folks to complement the meetings with business executives. That was the meeting I attended, July 17-19.
Indigenous folks came from the Congo, India, the Philippines, Chile, El Salvador, Brazil, Mozambique, Guatemala, Mexico, Peru, Dominican Republic, Ghana, Mexico, Columbia, Kenya, and Honduras with consultant/enablers from bishops’ conferences of Canada, Switzerland and the U.S., the role I played.
The stories from the participants corroborated one another’s experiences of callous indifference and exploitation.
- A mine tailing dam burst in upper British Columbia releasing 25 million cubic meters of sludge into Lake William polluting the crystal clear lake where 80 million salmon spawn.
- In Ghana farmers lost their land because the government gave permits to surface mining corporations. Displaced men got some compensation, women did not.
- One village in the Philippines witnessed the killing of the mayor’s wife and two sons, because he did not favor the mining practices. Many other people received a “blanket” as a threat—the symbol of wrapping for death.
- In India 1.8 million people have been displaced because of mining practices in a certain area.
On and on participants told stories of violence, dishonesty and theft, besides testimonies about pollution, destruction and sicknesses from mining. Conference officials announced that one participant cancelled his attendance because of safety concerns, and several participants feared reprisals when they returned home.
A welcomed surprise came with Pope Francis’s letter to the participants acknowledging the cries coming from lost land, extraction of wealth leaving local populations poor, violence and corruption, violation of human rights, poor working conditions, disregard for community health, slavery and human trafficking, the contamination of water, air and land, and the absence of inclusive processes and support for civil authorities charged with promoting the common good.
The pope wrote: “The entire mining sector is undoubtedly required to effect a radical paradigm change to improve the situation in many countries.” This sentiment reflected his latest encyclical, Laudato Si, in which he encourages “care for our common home.” He urged the participants “to reflect on how they can interact constructively with all the others actors involved in a sincere and respectful dialogue.”
With so many participants from different parts of the world, no one set of recommendations would be acceptable, plus the conference was not a deliberative body. However, certain principles and suggestions can spark further dialogue and discussion in various situations.
- FPIC, “Free, Prior, Informed Consent.” International practice recognizes this formula for intruding into a local community. However, participants through their stories questioned each word. How “free” is a decision made by lawful authority issuing mining permits, especially if graft is involved? Frequently information is partial with no references to unintended consequences at the mining site. Does “consent” include consultation of the whole local community, or just of elders or representatives?
- No-Go Zones. Some ecological areas are so fragile or unique that international treaties should prohibit mining there. Small island communities may be overwhelmed by a gigantic mining project. Sacred spaces that celebrate a people’s history or culture should be off limits. Over-mined areas need some cessation till the environment can adjust and recover. Places of natural beauty need to be preserved for future generations, because they are God’s gift to everyone. People who have been moved once for reasons of mining should not be forced to move again, because this would damage human community. Finally, “no” means “no”—when the community and its legitimate authority say no to mining, their decision should be final.
- Other Practical Considerations. The following are ideas that surfaced and might fit somewhere.
- train bishops, priests and seminarians about Laudato Si, and extend this to all the faithful
- establish a dialogue within the church
- involve Catholic universities
- support dialogue with the mining corporations, if the power dynamic is equalized
- initiate dialogue at the local level and include the poor and oppressed as partners
- declare the church’s option for the poor and powerless, and not assume a false neutrality
- empower a justice team to make regular visits to mine sites
- issue a pastoral letter to the faithful about the issues of mining
- have the church divest from businesses that support bad mining practices
- stop violence against protesters and support them with legal and medical help
- press for redress and reparations in abused mining areas
As a first step, putting in place a study program for all parts of the church about Laudato Si seems essential. Few Catholics understand that care of creation is a moral issue. After some study, perhaps convening a one day conference of local folks, academics and religious could assess the state of mining in central Appalachia. The most vulnerable among us live around mining sites where the health of the people, community and the earth are endangered. Ultimately, we with all parts of the church must examine our lifestyles for the good of the vulnerable and poor, and for the care of the earth, “our common home.”