Bishops and Extractive Industries: A Human Face of Mining

The potential coalition of leaders from different world regions and different religious traditions could do wonders for the extractive industry cause. They offer a special promise.
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In far flung corners of the world, religious leaders are protesting against mining companies and projects. What are their complaints? In Guatemala, they argue that gold mining poisons the water table, in Chad that painfully negotiated revenues that promised to ease the pain of poverty are nowhere in sight, in Ecuador that oil drilling devastates the landscape, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and in Nigeria that mining feeds devastating conflicts, in Ghana that mining in forest reserves threatens animal and plant species, in India that it strips indigenous people of their land rights, and in Peru that it pollutes lakes and rivers. The litany goes on and on but the underlying story told is one of broken promises, of powerful companies for whom profit is their God, and of a wounded planet whose land resources are despoiled with little to show, harming the people who live nearby.

It's not that the church leaders are fighting a futile battle to stop all mining. As a statement of Catholic Bishops from Latin America who met last July in Chaclacayo, Peru began, "the church recognizes the importance of the extractive industries, the service they can provide to mankind and the economies of the world, and the progress they contribute to society as a whole." But, there is a long list of "buts." The bishops' bottom line is that they see an irrational exploitation that leaves a trail of destruction, even death, throughout Latin America.

At the Washington National Cathedral an unlikely gathering of bishops, preachers, and advocates met on April 24 to explore how they might join forces both to draw attention to the harm that bad mining practices wreak on people and land, and to point to practical, positive ways to move forward. The prime movers behind the effort are the Bank Information Center its indomitable leader, Chad Dobson and Father Seamus Finn, whose work with the Interfaith Center for Corporate Responsibility has focused for years on nudging and cajoling companies towards responsibility in their corporate practice. Two large faith inspired organizations, Catholic Relief Services and Tearfund, have long campaigned for responsible mining and support the new coalition.

This group is by no means a solitary voice in the wilderness. The downsides of mining are a constant theme among advocates both for social justice and for protection of the earth. Ten years ago the World Bank responded to critics with a complex review of Extractive Industries that pointed to plenty of ways to do better. Every large mining project these days comes in for thorough review and heated debate. The Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI) enlists governments and companies, voluntarily, to agree to follow established standards and guidelines and to "publish what they pay" so that the huge financial flows involved are more open and transparent.

But the religious voices hold the promise of bringing new urgency and new dimensions to the debate. Their focus starts with the living, day to day impact of mining for people and above all the poorest people, who have the least capacity to fight for their rights. They frame their witness with a constant call to responsibility, to God and to our fellow man, to a true covenant to be honored. It's above all about giving a human face to the impact of our demand for energy and the goods that come from the mines, whether cell phones and computers or cars and refrigerators.

The stories at the Cathedral meeting began in West Virginia, where strip mines have scarred the landscape, moved to Mary Magdalene, then the Garden of Eden, and on to Bangladesh and to Peru. It involved powerful appeals to conscience, angry protests against greed and selfishness, and a vision of hope that humankind can and must do better. The evangelical call to "creation care" echoes the Catholic call to care for the "least among us" and a Muslim call to care for equity and the common good.

The potential coalition of leaders from different world regions and different religious traditions could do wonders for the extractive industry cause. They offer a special promise, because they can draw so powerfully on living stories from so many different places as well as on deeply felt principles and traditions. It will not be easy, however, to link either the stories or the different teachings from different religious traditions, melding them into a common story and campaign. Even so, it may prove easier to find common ground in the common good and in exhortations to honor the golden and silver rules, and even to accept a more austere lifestyle, than to link these noble ideas to the sober if sensible principles that the experts advocate. These include systematic social and environmental assessments, transparency of action and finance, acceptance of stakeholders in decision-making, favoring food production over mining, complying with international standards, ensuring that mining companies pass basic tests of ethics and competence, and fair sharing of royalties and taxes. Bringing these threads together so that they weave a strong cloth, that's the challenge and the promise ahead.

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