Extractive Industries: The G20 Interfaith Forum Outlines Fundamental Debates and Dilemmas

By: Séamus Finn

June 30, 2019

Responding to: The G20 Interfaith Forum: Why It’s Important

Extractive Industries: The G20 Interfaith Forum Outlines Fundamental Debates and Dilemmas

Extractive industries (EI) are rarely far from complex challenges. The extraction of non-renewable resources including oil, gas, timber, and minerals is necessary to human growth and development. If managed responsibly, EI can create job growth, spur innovation, generate investment and infrastructure, and improve wealth sharing, social services, and even the environment.

Often, however, EI is linked to religious, political, and violent intra-state and inter-state conflicts and corruption surrounding the control and distribution of resources, land, and the revenues that such resources produce. In some cases EI reinforces inequalities, and laborers and local communities face exploitation and danger, especially when they have no avenues to address these issues through their own government leaders. Large-scale environmental degradation threatens to reinforce destructive cycles of violence over land rights and between indigenous people, campesinos, and local communities, some of whom may be benefitting from the presence of the mining industry.

Management of land and natural resources presents critical challenges to many countries at national and regional levels as well as in local communities today. The Brumadinho dam disaster in Brazil in January 2019, for instance, which killed over 200 people, brought renewed attention to the need for stricter monitoring and oversight of tailings dams everywhere.

Religious leaders are parties to conversations with stakeholders on the role of EI, how it is viewed in religious narratives, how it can be more responsibly pursued while demonstrating and promoting respect for human rights, especially indigenous peoples, and care for the environment. Multi-stakeholder dialogue is difficult, but important. Mining communities, faith leaders, investors, and indigenous peoples often do not sit at the same table and engage each other directly. The third Vatican conference on “Mining for the Common Good” is a laudable example of efforts to bring these groups into conversation with one another and during which Pope Francis strongly endorsed a multi-stakeholder dialogue process.

Religious groups and leaders are found in many roles in mining communities. They accompany those who are victims of the mining operations as they organize to defend their rights and are also involved in providing relief and pastoral care to those immediately harmed. Other religious leaders have served on advisory committees alongside representatives from government and business sectors, or employed their positions as shareholders to address social and environmental issues with specific companies.

A fundamental question is to what degree it is necessary to operate within existing systems to effect positive change, and to what degree development should be rejected out of hand or opposed at all costs. Three models of religious engagement on EI emerged during the 2019 G20 Interfaith Forum in Tokyo, reflecting differing answers to that fundamental question. 

Sulak Sivaraksa, founder of the International Network of Engaged Buddhists, expressed a passionate opposition to the industrial revolution and, drawing from Buddhist theologies and teachings, called for a radical nonviolent movement and active pursuit of alternatives to capitalist systems. 

The focus from this perspective is on limiting greed and technological dependence, shifting away from a concern with GDP towards models of measuring national happiness, and an emphasis on slower lifestyles grounded in love and compassion. 

Father Raymond Ambray brought a grassroots level perspective from his work in Caraga, Northeastern Mindanao, the mining capital of the Philippines, and home to the largest iron ore deposit in the world, along with gold, copper, and chromite. Areas of land have been cleared for coal mining without prior and informed consent of indigenous communities, and the people in the region remain impoverished. He spoke to the power of faith communities and leaders working alongside local organizations, workers, and indigenous peoples to support resistance movements and challenge the mining industry to protect the rights and livelihoods of the people most directly impacted. 

Without calling for a complete rejection of EI, the central question posed by Father Ambray and worth deep reflection is “Development for whom?” Who benefits from the wealth generated, and who is left in poverty and at risk of rights abuses? 

“I believe that the situation in my region in Mindanao, Caraga, is a microcosm of what is happening in the Philippines and the whole world,” he says, “Clearly, if this effort will go unopposed, it will affect not only the indigenous peoples or the natural environment but the entire population especially the poor.”

My own presentation looked more broadly at multi-stakeholder interfaith meetings with large companies and other actors to explore how responsible mining and sustainable development might evolve together, and through diligent and comprehensive planning that will benefit local communities and bioregions and contribute to the budgets that are needed by local and sovereign governments. The focus of this work is enacting changes in the system as it exists, utilizing the authority of faith communities, including their ownership of shares in companies, to move towards more sustainable and ethical forms of development. How the concept of a more circular economy might be an appropriate tool to deliver some of these goals was discussed and proposed as a pathway forward. 

A clear thread across the models presented is a sharpened focus on the moral, ethical, and social responsibilities of EI. The powerful call of religious leaders is for companies and the consumers of their products, which include us all, to pay attention to the harm caused to the earth and its most vulnerable communities when profits and greed take the wheel unchecked.

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