Loading...
Loading...
Click here if you don’t see subscription options
Barbara FraserMay 25, 2023
Members of Indigenous communities camp on the property of Chinese-owned Las Bambas copper mine in Peru April 26, 2022. (CNS photo/Angela Ponce, Reuters)Members of Indigenous communities camp on the property of Chinese-owned Las Bambas copper mine in Peru April 26, 2022. (CNS photo/Angela Ponce, Reuters)

In mid-April, dead fish and mud washed down the river that flows past Coata, the community where Félix Suasaca lives on the shore of Lake Titicaca, high in the Andes Mountains of Peru. Mr. Suasaca and other community leaders say acid runoff from a mine upstream fouled the wetlands where their cattle and sheep graze and flowed into the lake, which is also contaminated by mercury and other metals draining from other poorly regulated mines in the watershed.

“We’re drinking water that is contaminated by heavy metals,” Mr. Suasaca said, adding that tests have found high levels of arsenic in the bodies of residents of Coata and surrounding communities. Community leaders would like to analyze the water for other metals but lack the funds for a study, he added.

“What is the spirituality that gives people the strength to fight against a monster that puts them in the position of David against Goliath.”

Coata is just one of hundreds of communities in Latin America where residents are affected by pollution from mining or face conflicts over mining concessions in their territories. Increasingly, faith groups are accompanying these communities in their quest for environmental justice. In Latin America, some representatives of these affected communities came together in 2013 at a meeting that gave rise to the Churches and Mining Network, which has members throughout the region. The network is ecumenical, although most of its members are Catholic.

“The network was born out of the concern for responding to the cry of victims in mining areas,” said Rosa del Valle, who belongs to a lay faith community that has been accompanying communities affected by mining in northern Argentina since the 1990s and joined the Churches and Mining Network in 2014.

The network’s efforts, she says, are rooted in an ecospirituality “that tries to emphasize the cause or the root of resistance—to understand what is the spirituality that gives people the strength to fight against a monster that puts them in the position of David against Goliath.”

That struggle dates at least to the arrival of Spanish colonizers who forced Indigenous Andean peoples to chip away at silver ore deep inside Cerro Rico, the mountain that rises above Potosí, Bolivia. Hundreds of thousands of miners are estimated to have died there and in the infamous Santa Barbara mine in Huancavelica, Peru, which produced the mercury that made silver ore processing possible.

Modern mining can also be deadly. In 2015, a tailings dam failure at the Mariana Mine owned by the Vale mining company in Brazil’s Minas Gerais region sent a toxic landslide down the Doce River, killing 19 people (local figures sometimes indicate that the death toll was 20 because one of the victims was pregnant) and destroying a town. More than 400 miles of river were contaminated before the toxic waste reached the Atlantic Ocean in a muddy plume visible from outer space.

While religious groups have been at the forefront of the movement to divest from fossil fuels, the campaign to divest from mining is moving more slowly.

Warnings that similar accidents could follow at other mines went unheeded, and four years later, another tailings dam collapse, this time at the Brumadinho mine, also in Minas Gerais, owned by Vale and BHP Billiton, an Australia-based mining and metals conglomerate, killed 270 people.

Bishop Vicente Ferreira of Brumadinho received threats because of his support for communities affected by the disaster. Such threats are taken seriously in Latin America, which has become the deadliest region in the world for people who stand up for environmental and territorial rights.

In Mexico, on April 4, the body of Eustacio Alcalá Díaz was found in the state of Michoacán three days after he was abducted while traveling to his community with three Catholic missionaries. Mr. Alcalá had helped lead a successful three-year struggle by residents of San Juan Huitzontla to stop a mining project on the grounds that the community had not been consulted.

And in Honduras, which has the highest per-capita rate of killings of people for defending territory and the environment, two leaders of a campaign against an iron ore mine were shot to death in January.

The stakes are high because mining remains a major source of revenue for Latin American countries. Mexico—also once a colonial center of silver and mercury mining—is the world’s largest silver-producing country, with Peru, Chile, Bolivia and Argentina also in the top 10. Chile leads the world in copper production, followed by Peru, while Peru ranks seventh in the world for gold production, with Mexico in eighth place.

And with global demand for lithium climbing, international companies increasingly eye the “lithium triangle,” a region of salt flats in the Andes Mountains where Chile, Argentina and Bolivia converge. Lithium production there is water-intensive, and in the Argentine province of Catamarca, the diversion of water for a lithium mine dried up a stretch of river.

Honduras has the highest per-capita rate of killings of people for defending territory and the environment; two leaders of a campaign against an iron ore mine were shot to death in January.

People have lived in that arid region for thousands of years, carefully managing the scarce water supply for their crops and livestock, Ms. del Valle said, but the new demands on the water resources created by mining set off a cascade of consequences. Families found it difficult to survive, and many have moved to the provincial capital, where they struggle to find work. In some rural communities, only older adults remain, reluctant to move because they are more closely tied to the land, she said.

Concerns about water—both its scarcity and potential contamination—have been key issues in protests against mining interests on both the Argentine and Chilean sides of the lithium triangle.

Similar worries echo in Central America, in an area known as La Puya, northeast of Guatemala City. For more than a decade, local communities accompanied by Catholic Church workers have resisted a gold mine, despite efforts by government security forces to evict them. The communities argued that they were not consulted about the project, and a court ruling in their favor resulted in suspension of permits for the mine.

César Espinoza, C.M.F., has seen similar scenarios play out in Panama, Honduras and his native Guatemala, where he now lives.

“The story is the same,” he said. “Only the players and the places change. In some cases, the people are campesinos, in others they’re Indigenous. In some cases, the mining companies are international, in others they are domestic.”

It is common for companies to offer money or other benefits that divide communities, and governments often crack down on demonstrations and prosecute protesters. In too many cases, leaders are murdered, he said.

Indigenous communities in Peru threatened by mining are increasingly aware of their rights, but legal cases can drag on for years in Peruvian courts.

Guatemala is one of the countries where top church leaders have been supportive of local efforts to resist mining interests. Cardinal Alvaro Ramazzini, the bishop of Huehuetenango, who has faced death threats for speaking out, once said that mining companies only leave economic “crumbs” behind where they operate even as they stir up social conflict and destroy the environment.

In the case of La Puya, the communities are fighting to be recognized as original peoples, Father Espinoza said. That is an important distinction because International Labor Organization Convention 169, which has been ratified by most of the region’s main mining countries, requires governments to obtain the free, prior and informed consent of Indigenous communities before undertaking any project that could affect their collective rights, including territorial rights.

Peru ratified the convention in 1994, but in cases where the government has sought to fast-track mining projects, like in Puno, in the southern highlands, officials have insisted that local villages are campesino communities—a term that came out of the agrarian reform in the 1960s—and not Indigenous, even though their residents speak Aymara as a first language.

A member of the Churches and Mining Network, Human Rights and Environment, known by its Spanish initials as DHUMA, is a local nonprofit that grew out of the church’s human rights ministry in the Prelature of Juli, in Puno. The group is helping communities demand their right to free, prior and informed consent. That is an ongoing struggle, according to Patricia Ryan, M.M., one of the founders.

The government’s lack of respect for the territorial rights of Indigenous and other communities helped fuel protests that began in December 2022, Sister Ryan said. Indigenous communities in Peru threatened by mining are increasingly aware of their rights, especially under Convention 169, but legal cases can drag on for years in Peruvian courts.

“Where do you turn when the structures of the country do not protect the people’s basic rights?” Sister Ryan asked. “At the core of the protests are their dignity, the Earth and their lives.”

Some priests and religious who are members of the Churches and Mining Network are urging their congregations to divest from investments in mining companies, an effort also supported by the network. But while religious groups have been at the forefront of the movement to divest from fossil fuels, the campaign to divest from mining is moving more slowly, says Carlos Ferrada, S.V.D., who heads his community’s office of justice, peace and integrity of creation and coordinates the divestment campaign in Rome.

“It’s more complex,” he said. “We need mining, but it must be sustainable and responsible.”

Even if the campaign does not lead to full divestment, Brother Ferrada hopes it will prod religious congregations to develop codes of ethics they can apply to their investments case by case, both to increase transparency and to make their own criteria more rigorous.

For Carlos Bresciani, S.J., a Chilean who heads the Jesuit Indigenous Apostolate and Solidarity Network, the important thing is that religious communities—and other people of faith—talk about ethics and mining.

The first step toward ecological conversion, he said, is to raise the question, “even if the answer is ‘we don’t want to talk about it.’”

“It’s important to understand that extractivism is not just an economic model with which one might disagree as a means to development,” Father Bresciani added. “It’s a model that preys on spirituality, which impedes the possibility of connecting us with one another and with the earth. And that’s serious. This is not just an environmental or climate crisis—it’s a spiritual crisis.”

The latest from america

Growth, undeniable tensions and “a deep desire to rebuild and strengthen” the body of Christ have emerged as key themes in the latest synod report for the Catholic Church in the U.S.
In his general audience today, Pope Francis introduced a new theme to his cycle of reflections: “‘The Holy Spirit and the Bride.” These reflections consider the works of the Holy Spirit in the Old Testament, the New Testament and the time of the Church, animating the mission of Christ.
Pope FrancisMay 29, 2024
Denver Nuggets' Dan Issel, left, guards Portland Trail Blazers' Bill Walton as Walton moves towards the basket during their game in Portland, Ore., Feb. 12, 1978.
“I wanted to be a basketball player, be a hippie, on tour with The Grateful Dead, be an adventurer. I didn’t spend my life trying to be the richest guy on Earth,” Walton once said about himself.
Michael O’BrienMay 29, 2024
“The pope is not homophobic and never was,” the vice president of the Italian bishops’ conference said.
Gerard O’ConnellMay 29, 2024