At a historic hearing before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights yesterday, bishops representing the Latin American Episcopal Conference, CELAM, testified on the effects of exploitative practices of mining and extractive industries on communities and the environment in Latin America. Joined by Archbishop Timothy Broglio, representing the USCCB, and Bishop Donald Bolen, representing the bishops of Canada, Peruvian Archbishop Pedro Barreto, Guatemalan Bishop Alvaro Ramazzini, and Bishop Roque Paloschi of Brazil detailed in strong and compelling terms the human rights, public health and environmental consequences related to operations in Latin America by U.S. and Canadian mining companies. They urged that U.S. and Canadian mining companies be held accountable to laws and standards that protect local economies, the environment, indigenous communities and vulnerable groups even when operating outside of the country.
The extraction of natural resources, such as oil, gas and minerals, is a central feature of modern economies. Without a doubt, extractive industries can contribute to economic development and opportunity. When exploited improperly, they also bring about social conflict, feed corruption, displace people from homes and lands, pollute air, rivers and seas and destroy people’s health.
The Church is deeply concerned about these practices. Catholic social teaching calls us to uphold the life and dignity of every human person, to be in solidarity with our brothers and sisters worldwide, and to care for God’s creation. As Catholics, we believe that those in poverty have a first claim on our consciences, especially when economies, communities and ecosystems are at risk. And what about economic development and profit? The profits that can accrue from natural resource extraction ought to be but a means to an end, the common good and the benefit of all. Pope Francis has strong words for the type of system that puts profit first and people second:
In this system, which tends to devour everything which stands in the way of increased profits, whatever is fragile, like the environment, is defenseless before the interests of a deified market, which become the only rule. (Evangelii Gaudium n. 56)
The U.S. bishops have long been concerned about the impacts and consequences of irresponsible extractives and mining operations throughout the world, especially in Latin America. In recent solidarity visits, we had the amazing opportunity to accompany bishops from the United States, including Bishop Richard Pates of Des Moines, to South and Central America. We heard powerful testimonials from community members, civil society organizations and religious men and women. We also heard from bishops advocating for their communities’ rights to live in a healthy environment and to have a say in the decisions that affect them. It was a moving experience to see how the lives of community members are impacted by irresponsible mining practices, and inspiring to witness their struggle for their rights to live out their dignity as God’s children, even in the face of persecution.
In Honduras, we visited a community near a mining site in Siria Valley. There we met with young children at an elementary school, beautiful and bright, who had rashes on their faces, arms and bodies from exposure to air and water pollution from the lead, arsenic, cyanide and cadmium used in mining. We met an 8 year old boy suffering from neurological damage and physical leg deformities that did not permit him to walk. In Guatemala, an indigenous woman told us, “You are lucky. In your county the life of a tree is respected, the life of a bird is protected, but in my country the life of a person is not respected.”
In his letter of support to the bishops of Latin America, Bishop Oscar Cantú, chairman of the USCCB Committee on International Justice and Peace, observed that the United States, joined by Canada, “must do more to support the claims and interests of these affected communities. It must require that U.S. enterprises operating in these regions abide by the same standards of care for human life and ecology as apply to their operations in the United States.”
Cecilia Calvo is the coordinator of the USCCB Environmental Justice Program and Richard Coll is a policy advisor on Latin America and global trade at the USCCB Department of Justice, Peace & Human Development.