The Politics of Poverty

Ideas and analysis from Oxfam America's policy experts

The mining industry gets religion?

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Vatican hosts dialogue with mining CEOs.

Is the mining industry having a “coming to Jesus” moment? Possibly, if one can judge by a recent Vatican gathering of mining industry leaders and activists.

The “Day of Reflection” convened  in September by the Pontifical Council on Justice and Peace (a sort of in-house Vatican think-tank on social justice issues), according to an official document, meant to provide “an opportunity for constructive review of key mining-related issues and to identify concrete actions that would make a positive difference in the future.” Among industry leaders participating were the CEOs of Newmont, AngloAmerican, Rio Tinto and Indian company, Zamin. Also participating were Oxfam America’s president Ray Offenheiser and representatives from Catholic NGOs and clergy from different parts of the world, including Rev. Seamus Finn of the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility, a theologian who has been a leading shareholder activist on mining issues.

The timing of the Vatican meeting is notable given the continued—and in some cases growing—opposition to mining by some clergy in a number of predominantly Catholic countries, including Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Peru and the Philippines. In a Christian Science Monitor article recently, a prominent Church official in El Salvador put it in rather stark terms: “Catholicism promotes life. Mining threatens life.”

Bishop Daniel Turley Murphy OSA, Bishop of Chulucanas, has been engaged in dialogues with the Peruvian government about the persecution of national, regional, and local leaders of communities affected by mining since 2005. (C) 2009 David Stubbs
Bishop Daniel Turley Murphy OSA, Bishop of Chulucanas, has been engaged in dialogues with the Peruvian government about the persecution of national, regional, and local leaders of communities affected by mining since 2005. (c) 2009 David Stubbs

This opposition is combined with the seemingly more socially-progressive posture of Pope Francis, who has voiced greater sympathy of the plight of the poor, even appearing to reconcile with clergy members of the liberation theology school, who have long played a key role in social activism in the region. Coming from Latin America, site of some of the most intense mining-related conflicts (including in the Pope’s native Argentina), the Pope is surely aware of these issues. As well, Cardinal Peter Turkson, head of the Pontifical Council, who presided over the Day of Reflection, comes from Ghana, where debate over the value (or lack thereof) of mining to the country’s economy is a daily topic of discussion.

For the Vatican, mining conflicts are a social issue it can’t ignore, especially given the high-profile role played by some of its clergy in them. For the industry, the church is a potential obstacle to its continued efforts to expand ever further into developing countries. To be sure, opposition to mining is far from being formal Church doctrine and the Church itself is not monolithic in its views. Conservative elements of the Church in some countries have taken a strongly pro-mining stance. Archbishop of Lima, Juan Luis Cipriani, himself a former mining engineer, is one example.

It’s unclear what the Church – and the industry for that matter – intend to do specifically to address the problems discussed at the Vatican gathering. The Church and other faith institutions clearly have an important role to play in addressing the conflict and injustices to which mining can contribute.  As holders of moral authority within communities, clergy can support efforts by communities to defend their rights and protect their livelihoods. They can help communities engage effectively in dialogue and negotiations with companies to ensure communities receive appropriate benefits. And they can use their influence to hold companies and governments accountable when things go wrong. Churches, and in particular the Catholic Church, should take up this responsibility in partnership with their communities.

It’s too early to know what will ultimately come of this high-level dalliance between the mining industry and the Vatican. The industry recognizes it has an image problem, not only with the Church but with other key social actors as well. It has invested millions in recent years to promote its contributions to society and development via the International Council on Mining and Metals and other venues. For its part, the seemingly more progressive direction of the Church under Pope Francis could potentially be a strong force for good for communities in mining impacted areas. The reconciliation of these two tendencies will be important for industry (and Church) watchers to keep an eye on in coming years.

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  1.  avatarLuis Manuel Claps

    Thanks for this informative and insightful post.

    Mineweb editor Dorothy Kosich raised a provocative question back in April 2005: Will mining survive a Latin American Pope? By the outcome of this meeting, the answer seems to be yes.

    The anti-mining stance by the Catholic Church in Argentina was first prompted in 2005 by Fernando Maletti, then bishop of Bariloche Diocese in Patagonia. The Calcatreu gold-silver development was rejected by the provincial government that year and the use of cyanide for mineral processing was banned by a provincial law. The ban was overturned in 2012, nonetheless not a single project moved forward since then.

    Following Maletti, then bishop of Chubut Virginio Bressanelli stated in 2009: “We are uncomfortable that anyone can think, or believe, that this kind of business will be the salvation of the rural people” (See: “Worries about Open-Pit Mining. Statement of the Comodoro Rivadavia Diocese“). Bressanelli was referring particularly to the massive Navidad silver-lead project in the meseta area, located some 140 Km South from Calcatreu. Open pit mining is banned in Chubut province since 2003, after the town of Esquel rejected Canadian company Meridian Gold project in a local vote.

    Both Navidad and Calcatreu are owned by Canadian multinational company Pan American Silver, one of the world´s largest silver producers. In February this year, the catholic news agency AICA reported that Salesian priest in Gan Gan, Chubut, was intimidated by employees of Minas Argentinas, a subsidiary of Pan American Silver, for his opposition to large scale mining.

    Like Maletti and Bresanelli, the Bishop of Río Gallegos Diocese, Juan Carlos Romanín, has stated his concerns about the expansion of large scale mining in Santa Cruz. So there seems to be a consensus on Bishops in Patagonia around questioning large scale mining for its social and environmental impacts.

    Suggestively, Pan American Silver hurried to supply the silver to make Pope Francis’s new chalice. The metal came from the company’s Manantial Espejo mine in Santa Cruz (the home province of Argentina president Cristina Fernandez) wich, contrary to Río Negro and Chubut, is considered by the industry a mining friendly jurisdiction.

    Perhaps more suggestive was that this “donation” was announced by Argentine news agency Telam on March 23 2013, on the same date of the tenth anniversary of the Esquel referendum (certainly an emblematic day for the anti-mining movement in Argentina).

    But then the first message Pope Francis gave minutes after arriving in Brazil some months ago was: I don’t have silver or gold, but I bring with me the most precious gift: Jesus Christ!

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  2.  avatarHenry Bazira

    The stories of mining are the same the worldover characterized by disenfranchising local communities; causing severe environmental degradation; and perpetuating corruption and conflicts in host countries. Reversing this trend requires penitence from the mining companies, a shift in the way mining is done; a shift in the mining technologies; mine companies avoiding collusion with government officials; and making award of concessions transparent and competitive. The latter part seems to be a mountain task that we have been calling for for now decades. We are not even sure that we shall make headway. This, notwithstanding, is still worth pursuing.

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