The Devastating Effect of Irresponsible Mining Practices

miningFor over forty years, I ministered around the Appalachian coalfields. Because of this, I was invited to Rome, July 17-19, 2015, to represent the mountains at “United with God, We Hear a Cry,” a conference dealing with communities affected by mining activities.

Sponsored by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace in collaboration with the Latin American “Churches and Mining” network, the meeting convened grass-roots representatives from 18 countries: Chile, Peru, Brazil, Columbia, Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, Dominican Republic, Mexico, United States, Canada, Switzerland, Italy, Mozambique, Ghana, Democratic Republic of the Congo, India, and the Philippines.

Transnational mining corporations exert disproportionate power over most local communities with negative results, which raises grave concerns for Rome. Too frequently, the mining practices violate the human rights of workers, destroy local environments, introduce negative health impacts, greatly enable substance abuse, allow prostitution and human trafficking, threaten local cultures, and have ties to organized crime.

After citing many of these abuses, Pope Francis in a letter to the participants stated clearly: “The entire mining sector is undoubtedly required to effect a radical paradigm change to improve the situation in many countries.”

The stories from the participants underscored that sentiment.

A representative from the native peoples of Canada said a breached mine tailing dam in upper British Columbia released 25 million cubic meters of debris into Lake William and polluted the crystal clear lake where 80 million salmon spawn.

Worse, a Philippine village witnessed the killing of the mayor’s wife and two sons, because he opposed the mining practices. Others in the village received the “blanket” threat–the symbol of wrapping for death. Continuously participants told stories from mining practices. They told about violence, dishonesty, and theft, besides testimonials about pollution, destruction, and sickness.

Shortly after returning from Rome, I toured with Bishop John Stowe, our new bishop of Lexington, KY, around the nearby coalfields. We heard stories similar to those from the international conference.

One family we met contracted with a company to mine 70 acres for coal, but instead saw the company illegally mine 90 acres, allegedly because the company changed the property map.

Another fellow said the blasting from mining caused a separation in his brick home large enough to put his fist into the gap.

Still another complained the mining company never paid him the agreed amount for the coal that they mined. Instead, he found the payments delayed until the company declared bankruptcy, and then he witnessed operations resumed under a different name without the liability.

Add to these stories the discarded miners with black lung, the numerous kids with asthma and the increased rates of cancer for women attributed to mining practices, and we can see that Appalachia unfortunately shares much of the same dishonesty, theft, and despoiled environment that breeds sickness and human distress discussed at the international conference.

On the local level, Catholic parishes not only respond to victims of mining-induced floods and mudslides always by supplying temporary shelters and home furnishings, but also conducting community prayer services. These services bring spiritual healing and insight by directing prayer against mining injustices.

Nationally, people of faith must awaken to the link between the demand for mine products and their lifestyles.

Conference participants acknowledged the need to train bishops, priests, and seminarians about Laudato Sí, and extend this to all the faithful. Dialogue within the church and with mining interests remains key, while divestiture from businesses supporting bad practices requires action.

Ultimately, we people of faith must reflect the teachings from Laudato Sí and pursue an integral ecology that links the poor, the earth, and human community in the web of life. 

headshot of Fr. John Rausch

 

Fr. John Rausch, a Glenmary priest, teaches, writes and organizes around justice issues in Appalachia.

US and Canadian Church Stand in Solidarity with Latin American Bishops to Lift Up Perils of Irresponsible Mining

Archbishop Timothy Broglio, Bishop Alvaro Ramazzini, Archbishop Pedro Barreto, Bishop Roque Paloschi and Bishop Donald Bolen stand before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

Archbishop Timothy Broglio, Bishop Alvaro Ramazzini, Archbishop Pedro Barreto, Bishop Roque Paloschi and Bishop Donald Bolen stand before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

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.

Bishop Pates meets with community members during a meeting in Guatemala on the effects of mining.

Bishop Pates meets with community members during a meeting in Guatemala on the effects of mining.

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.”

The authors with Bishop Roque Paloschi.

The authors with Bishop Roque Paloschi.

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.