The Super Pit gold mine in Kalgoorie, Australia / photo by Brian Voo Yee Yap

It is fair to say that mining has caused more damage to workers, local communities, and the environment than any other industry. Worldwide, hundreds of thousands of mineworkers have died in mining accidents. Countless others have died from the pollution of air and water, frequently from poisons like arsenic, mercury, and lead. Others have died when protests against mines have turned violent. These facts have led some—including many in the church—to reject mining altogether. “We’d be better off without it,” is the prevailing sentiment.

This attitude has succeeded in stopping such projects as the proposed Pebble Mine in southwest Alaska, which sought to harvest one of the largest known copper deposits on the planet. Situated in the watershed above Bristol Bay, the plan to store mining waste materials, or tailings, behind large earthen dams was roundly condemned by environmental groups for its alleged threat to land and water ecosystems. After spending six years and more than half a billion dollars in preparation, Anglo-American, one of the world’s largest mining companies, walked away from the project in 2013. Rio Tinto, an even larger mining company, did the same six months later. In Peru, meanwhile, adamant local resistance led Newmont, the world’s second largest gold miner, to walk away from its Conga mining project after spending $1.2 billion. Resistance to mining is intense.

The problem is, we all need mining. It’s useful to remind ourselves that everything we touch throughout the day is either grown or extracted from the earth. My car, my telephone, my kitchen table, my watch, my refrigerator—all depend on mining. The same is true for the most basic prerequisites of well-being: housing, water and sewer systems, hospitals, schools, all of it. Consider the humble refrigerator. It is one of the first purchases poor families make when their community gets electricity. Those who simply “oppose all mining” are oblivious to their own dependence on minerals. They still want to have a smart phone and want to keep their milk cold. They rely on mining for copper and aluminum electric lines in nearly every part of their lives, something that won’t change even when the world moves to renewable energy sources for its electricity generation.

We don’t have to mine all the metals we use. Recycling is critical, which is a good thing, since the substances we mine are not renewable resources. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, recycling accounts for approximately 50 percent of total annual U.S. usage of many basic metals, including aluminum, copper, magnesium, and nickel. And there’s room for improvement. The United States now recycles more than two-thirds of all aluminum drink containers, but this means we’re still putting about $1 billion worth of aluminum cans into landfills every year. End-consumer recycling of aluminum represents only 24 percent of the total value of aluminum used nationally. Simpler lifestyles can reduce that demand, but mining will still be needed.

So what we need is responsible mining. Mining will always cause damage to the environment, it will always scar the earth; but in many cases reclamation and re-vegetation can largely restore the affected areas. We need mines that do not threaten the quality of the air and water and that don’t impoverish the people who live nearby. Indeed, mines should improve the lives not only of employees and their families, but of all the people who live around them, and should do so both during and after the operating lifetime of the mine.

Christian faith requires our commitment to these goals. Private ownership of land has received theological endorsement throughout Christian history, with the understanding that everything that is owned carries, as John Paul II put it, a social mortgage. This is particularly true for valuables below the ground. Most people recognize that harvesting these regional or national endowments carries a greater social obligation than the killing of a deer or the picking of wild fruits for daily food. So in addition to the legal requirements of land ownership (a mining project starts with buying the land from current owners), there must be a debt paid to the larger community, typically through taxes and royalties.

Mines should improve the lives not only of employees and their families, but of all the people who live around them

Is it conceivable, in a globalized economy where shareholders press for the best quarterly results possible, that a mining company can do these things and still be economically viable? Why would any one company take on the burdens of responsible mining when competitors could continue apace without spending the money required to accomplish these ethically important goals? The short answer is that it takes both pressure and principle; both on-the-ground forces protesting against the abuses of mining as well as an ethical commitment within mining companies. Such a combination of circumstances has in fact occurred, at least for a few of the more than four thousand mining companies in the world.

Founded in 2001, the International Council on Mining and Metals (ICMM) comprises twenty-three firms that have altered their business plans to include environmental responsibility and local economic and social development. In this group are some of the largest mining companies on the planet: AngloAmerican, Rio Tinto, Glencore, Newmont, MMG, Barrick, and BHP Billiton. These firms are committed to earning a “social license” to mine, not just a legal one.

To investigate claims and counter-claims concerning the efficacy of changes made by ICMM companies, I have twice in the past two years traveled with an international team of church people, the Mining and Faith Reflections Initiative (MFRI), in Peru and Colombia. Other teams have been to Ghana, Zimbabwe, Chile, Australia, South Africa, and elsewhere. Funded by mining companies interested in getting local churches involved in dialogues with protesters about mining practices, we participants in this process have been accused of being “bought off” by corporate interests. But the agenda is developed with dissent in mind; the group meets with local people adamantly opposed to mining, not just with those who see themselves as better off because of it.

The MFRI has its roots in a “day of reflection” on responsible mining in 2013, held at the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace and attended by the CEOs of a number of large multinational mining companies. (A similar event was hosted by the archbishop of Canterbury a year later.) The pontifical council also held a two-day meeting of the victims of mining from around the world in July 2015. Pope Francis sent a message to this gathering, saying “The entire mining sector is undoubtedly required to effect a radical paradigm change to improve the situation in many countries.” He added, “I encourage the communities represented in this meeting to reflect on how they can interact constructively with all the other actors involved, in a sincere and respectful dialogue.”

The statement arising from that meeting, however—a prophetic denunciation of mining and its abuses—did not seem designed to further such a dialogue, and indicated little awareness of the remarkable changes that the CEOs spoke about in their earlier meetings with Vatican leaders. And at a follow-up day at Justice and Peace in September 2015, the mining execs, who had received the statement from the July meeting, listened to representatives of two international NGOs outline charges of pollution and human-rights violations against mining in general. Understandably, the CEOs asked whether any of their own company’s mines were the culprits, but the representatives declined to name specific mines. Surely this was another opportunity for the constructive dialogue that Pope Francis was calling for—and those criticizing mining short-circuited it.

In many cases, important pieces are left out of the picture of mining typically propagated by protesters and purveyed by media. In 2015, a protest near the Las Bambas mining site left three protesters dead after skirmishes with Peruvian police. Peruvian news videos of the event show outside speakers rallying the crowd by condemning mining globally for its abuse of workers, communities, and the environment. Yet the concrete demands made of this mine were far more limited. Reading between the lines of a Reuters and New York Times report on those demands, one can infer that real progress had already been made. The only demands protesters made of the mine’s owner, MMG, were to pipe mineral concentrates out of town (to eliminate the dust and congestion caused by trucks hauling it away) and to hire more local workers. Gone were complaints about water and air pollution and human-rights violations.

On each trip I made with the MFRI, our team heard and saw credible evidence of positive change, from local mayors, citizens’ groups, local pastors, and bishops, who have spoken favorably of the effects on the communities of the mining done by ICCM members in recent years. Yet few people hear anything about mining today other than the protests against it. I have been surprised at the lack of press coverage of so significant a shift within some of the largest corporations in the world. “Responsible mining just doesn’t sell newspapers,” one mining executive complained to me. But other public markers are available. The Dow Jones Sustainability Index has ranked Anglo American as “excellent” for the past fourteen years. And studies done by the Centre for Social Responsibility in Mining at the University of Queensland, Australia, acknowledge the positive changes (as well as the abuses still present) in much of mining.

What are some of these changes? The Antapaccay copper mine in the Altiplano of Peru uses new technology (without mercury, arsenic, or lead), recycles all its water, and spends $20 million a year on local economic development. The Cerrejón low-sulphur coal mine in northeast Colombia uses the overburden from current excavation to fill in past excavation, reclaiming and replanting the older areas. And, like the Prodeco mine in the region, it has dozens of morally committed employees working full-time in local communities on economic and social development. Such steps highlight the ability of profit-making firms to incorporate concerns for human rights, environmental sustainability, and local economic development.

The truth is that the minerals we all depend on can be extracted from the earth with far less negative impact than has occurred over the past five centuries of mining. Of course, justice-oriented critics of capitalism can claim that such improvements are only recognizable against the backdrop of mining’s earlier and often brazen callousness. But those who work for an authentic transformation of market behavior in the direction of sustainable economic development need to encourage the positive steps taken by firms moving along that path. Admittedly, this whole controversy occurs outside the morally necessary, parallel conversation about the scale of resource use in the world and its ecological impact. Yet it is possible to envision the increased costs associated with responsible mining helping to internalize the social costs of the enterprise, with the resulting higher price—like a carbon tax on gasoline—leading to reduced consumption. And especially if all mining companies followed suit.

Protesters play an important role in the transformation of mining, as prophecy has in the Judeo-Christian tradition for twenty-five centuries. There is no doubt that protests have helped to effect change within some of mining’s biggest firms. And protests against mining abuses today should continue. But the way to get abusive mining companies to shift to the new paradigm is to make it less arduous for the responsible firms than for the irresponsible ones. 

The world needs a prophecy that remains open to the possibility of authentic transformation. And where transformation does indeed occur, prophets need to shift their methods toward civil engagement for a more just and sustainable world.

Published in the May 5, 2017 issue: View Contents

Daniel K. Finn teaches economics and Christian ethics at St. John’s University and the College of St. Benedict and is the director of the True Wealth of Nations research project at the Institute for Advanced Catholic Studies. His latest book is Consumer Ethics in a Global Economy: How Buying Here Causes Injustice There.

Also by this author
© 2024 Commonweal Magazine. All rights reserved. Design by Point Five. Site by Deck Fifty.