Francis: Mining industry in need of 'a radical paradigm change'

This story appears in the Francis: The Environment Encyclical feature series. View the full series.
Coal miners pray July 15 inside the Stara Jama mine in Zenica, Bosnia and Herzegovina. (CNS/Reuters/Dado Ruvic)
Coal miners pray July 15 inside the Stara Jama mine in Zenica, Bosnia and Herzegovina. (CNS/Reuters/Dado Ruvic)

by Brian Roewe

NCR environment correspondent

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The global mining sector is called to “a radical paradigm change” to make improvements in how the industry impacts the planet and the poor, said Pope Francis ahead of a Vatican meeting on the topic.

The pope's message was sent Friday to representatives from Africa, Asia and the Americas gathering at the Vatican this weekend to discuss their experiences living within mining communities.

"You come from difficult situations and in various ways you experience the repercussions of mining activities, whether they be conducted by large industrial companies, small enterprises or informal operators," he said. 

Francis described minerals as "a precious gift from God" that humanity has used for thousands of years and that are fundamental to many aspects of human life and activity. He then repeated an appeal from his environmental encyclical, “Laudato Si’: on Care for Our Common Home," that people collaboratively work toward "countering the dramatic consequences of environmental degradation in the life of the poorest and the excluded." 

"The entire mining sector is undoubtedly required to effect a radical paradigm change to improve the situation in many countries," Francis said. 

The three-day meeting (July 17-19), titled “A Day of Reflection: United to God We Hear a Cry,” was organized by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace. The council, headed by Cardinal Peter Turkson, has been the site of numerous meetings on environmental issues in the lead-up and wake of the encyclical's June 18 publication. In September 2013, the peace and justice council held a similar meeting of representatives of major mining companies, as well as experts in mining from the church, Caritas and Oxfam America.

Turkson told a press conference Friday that the purpose of the latest meeting was to give voice to the people impacted by mining activities and to examine current realities experienced by their communities. A second meeting, focused on “Reimagining the future of mining,” is set for September.

The Ghanaian cardinal said that some of the attendees faced “pressure and intimidation” to prevent their participation at the conference.

“The Pontifical Council has heard testimonies of threats, violence and murder; of retaliation, of compensation never received, and of unkept promises,” he said.

Turkson referenced Francis in the encyclical urging everyone “to hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor.”

“We cannot remain indifferent to this cry,” the cardinal said.

In his message, Francis fleshed out various aspects of the cry coming from those “who suffer directly and indirectly as a result of the consequences, too often negative, of mining activities”:

  • “A cry for lost land;
  • “a cry for the extraction of wealth from land that paradoxically does not produce wealth for the local populations who remain poor;
  • “a cry of pain in reaction to violence, threats and corruption;
  • “a cry of indignation and for help for the violations of human rights, blatantly or discreetly trampled with regard to the health of populations, working conditions, and at times the slavery and human trafficking that feeds the tragic phenomenon of prostitution;
  • “a cry of sadness and impotence for the contamination of the water, the air and the land;
  • “a cry of incomprehension for the absence for inclusive processes or support from the civil, local and national authorities, which have the fundamental duty to promote the common good.”

The pope called on all involved parties -- governments, multinational corporations, investors, local authorities, workers and consumers -- to adopt behaviors reflective of the notion that everything and everyone is interconnected: another common theme of Laudato Si’.

In the encyclical, Francis addressed mining at various points. In discussing water, he wrote that in many places pollution from mining, farming and other industrial activities have threatened underground sources. Later in a section on global inequality, he said there exists “a true ‘ecological debt’” between the global north and south, one in part related to imbalances in the use of natural resources and the resulting impact on the environment and its inhabitants.

“The export of raw materials to satisfy markets in the industrialized north has caused harm locally, as for example in mercury pollution in gold mining or sulphur dioxide pollution in copper mining,” Francis said.

The pope also denounced mining and agricultural projects that force indigenous communities from their lands.

“For them, land is not a commodity but rather a gift from God and from their ancestors who rest there, a sacred space with which they need to interact if they are to maintain their identity and values. When they remain on their land, they themselves care for it best,” he said.

During his recent trip to Ecuador, where its president Rafael Correa has planned to open resource mining in the Yasuni National Park nature reserve, Francis said that the exploitation of natural resources “must not seek immediate benefit.”

“Being administrators of this richness we have received, we have an obligation towards society as a whole and towards future generations, to which we cannot hand down this heritage without a proper care of the environment,” he said.

Related: “Ecuadorians hope pope gives tough talk, encourages church 'shake-up'

A 2010 report from the International Federation of Human Rights found that the Ecuadorian government authorized a Canadian company to mine thousands of hectares in its southern regions without proper consultation with indigenous peoples about the project and the potential environmental risks. In addition, the federation’s investigation found the mining projects displaced farming communities and that those opposing the projects had been repressed and criminalized.

In his comments, Turkson said that countries holding vast natural resource reserves, as well as the home countries of the companies seeking to mine them, are responsible to ensure that the welfare of the social and natural environment is upheld. He added that developing countries require honest governments and educated people to prevent exploitation of their lands.

“It is morally unacceptable, politically dangerous, environmentally unsustainable and economically unjustifiable for developing countries to 'continue to fuel the development of richer countries at the cost of their own present and future,’” he said, quoting the encyclical. 

[Brian Roewe is an NCR staff writer. Follow him on Twitter: @BrianRoewe.]

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