CARING FOR OUR COMMON HOME
Jesuit Social Services is a member of the global Justice in Mining Jesuit advocacy network of social centres, universities and other organisations linked to the Society of Jesus. Inspired by Ignatian spirituality and the call of Laudato Si’, the network seeks to discern and promote socio-environmental justice in conflicts related to mining and extractivism.
In September 2022 I joined the Justice in Mining Network at the Loyola Spirituality Centre in Spain – St Ignatius’ place of birth and where he spent his period of convalescence 500 years ago – to agree on a strategic plan to guide the network over the coming years.
The three day meeting was held in the context of rapidly growing demand for the minerals required to transition global energy systems away from fossil fuels and keep global warming well below 2 degrees Celsius, in line with the Paris Agreement.
These minerals, such as cobalt, lithium, nickel and copper, used in renewable energy production and batteries, must all be extracted through artisanal, small scale or industrial scale mining, with demand projected to increase sixfold over the next two decades. Demand for lithium in particular is projected to increase 42 times by 2040 relative to 2020 under the International Energy Agency’s Sustainable Development Scenario, predominantly for use in battery technology.
Over the three days we listened to case studies from around the world, building a picture of widespread and persistent social and environmental harm done by the extractive industry, often marred by corruption and a lack of transparency. We heard about how these impacts often fall disproportionately on those who are already experiencing disadvantage, including women and girls and Indigenous communities, how the economic benefits rarely end up in the hands of the local community, and how human rights and environmental defenders continue to be criminalised for upholding justice. Together we mourned the death of activists, including Father Stan Swamy SJ who died in prison in 2021 after being arrested for advocating for the rights to land and water for the Adivasi people, a minority group in Jharkhand, India.
The Justice in Mining Network agreed on three priorities to guide our work. These include stopping the criminalisation of human rights defenders and environmental activists, promoting strong business regulations, and speaking out against the unethical behaviour of companies and governments involved in mining conflicts. Importantly, it also includes opening a public conversation about the social impacts and the environmental degradation produced by mining.
We also heard brilliant examples of resistance across scales, from a local community in Mexico to shareholders of multinational corporations based in London. It was a life changing experience for me. I shared three meals a day with some of the most passionate, dedicated and selfless people I have ever met, like Elvin Hernandez, an activist and radio host with Radio Progreso in Honduras, one of the most dangerous countries for human rights defenders.
On my journey home I reflected on our own circumstances here in Australia. We have seen a worrying expansion of anti-protest legislation in Australia in recent years. Anj Sharma, who unsuccessfully fought for a Federal Court ruling to place a duty to protect young people from the climate crisis on the Minister for Environment, described this landscape as “a web of systemic strategies that appear designed to dissuade and deter young people and others fighting for a better future from having their voices heard”. Of the 50 largest mines in the world, 24% are owned by Australian companies (by value share). And yet, without a Global Treaty on Business and Human Rights, there is limited opportunity for communities affected by Australian mining operations overseas to seek or obtain remedy and justice in Australian courts.
The Justice in Mining meeting in Loyola revealed the enormous complexity of seeking justice in a sector that is inherently extractive. Divin-Luc Bikubayna, a researcher at the University of Antwerp, shared a story from artisanal gold miners in Democratic Republic of Congo. Well-meaning EU import regulations on gold and ‘conflict minerals’, aimed at preventing child-slavery and abuse, have forced the formalisation of the supply chain, creating a debt trap for some of the poorest miners who were required to invest in infrastructure they could not afford. Supply-chain regulations can also favour a shift towards industrial scale mining, moving profits into the hands of large corporations and away from the local community. Panellists, including Professor Anthony Bebbington, International Director of Natural Resources and Climate Change at the Ford Foundation, and Rigobert Minani, SJ, Head of the Research and Socio-Political Department at Centre d’Etude Pour l’Action Sociale (CEPAS), Democratic Republic of Congo, explored this complexity and highlighted that justice in mining will always be a matter of prioritising “justice for whom?”
With this complexity in mind, I have also been reflecting on the implications of so many of my own daily choices on communities and ecosystems far from my backyard. Some of these choices have more obvious implications, for example, a new phone requires dozens of minerals including Tungsten, Cobalt, Copper and Gold. But other choices are less obvious. Colm Fahy, from Jesuit Mission UK, shared a case study from Madagascar, where a spill by a Rio Tinto-managed ilmenite dam led to the poisoning of waterways, endemic species, and the local community, with implications for their health and livelihoods. When I asked about the uses of ilmenite, he explained it is a key ingredient used in white paint. I was taken aback – even painting my bedroom wall can have serious consequences!
It would be remiss to place blame solely on the choices of individuals. In his address at the 2022 Economy of Francesco gathering in Assisi, Pope Francis highlighted that as we work to action the call of Laudato Si’, to care for our common home, “if we speak of ecological transition but remain in the economic paradigm of the twentieth century, which plundered the earth and its natural resources, then the strategies we adopt will always be insufficient or sick from the roots.”
If you’re interested in learning more about the work of the Justice in Mining Network or becoming involved in future campaigns, please do get in touch. Jesuit Social Services is the Asia-Pacific Conference delegate on the Justice in Mining Network and we hope to connect with schools, social ministries, universities, parishes and the wider community across the region in the coming years.
Jack is an Ecological Justice Officer at Jesuit Social Services Australia’s Centre for Just Places. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org.