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Justice in Mining

Why we must change our behaviour to create a truly sustainable world

In Laudato Si’ Pope Francis points to our collective responsibility to hear the cry of the Earth and the cry of the poor.

This article was first published by The Tablet: The International Catholic News Weekly and has been reproduced here with permission of the Publisher. It was written by our Advocacy and Campaigns Officer, Colm Fahy. 

The impact on the local community of the extraction of minerals in Madagascar by the London-based mining giant Rio Tinto graphically illustrates the message of Laudato Si’, which was officially published seven years ago, on 18 June 2015

“Every day I see a line of people around a public fountain because they do not have a water supply at home. It never used to be that bad.” This is the experience of Mialy Randrianirinaaly, who works at Arrupe Social Centre in Antananarivo, the capital of Madagascar.

Testimonies such as Mialy’s are increasingly common. People in the poorest parts of the world are already suffering from the effects of climate change, whether through drought, extreme weather events or soil degradation. Seven years on from the publication of Pope Francis’ landmark encyclical, Laudato Si’, responding to the cry of the Earth and the cry of the poor is taking on an ever-increasing urgency.

Too often the interconnectedness between the economies of the wealthier countries and the precarity of people in poorer communities is not fully appreciated, either in terms of the natural world or its people.

Last month, Br Stephen Power SJ, who manages the British Jesuits’ ethical investment strategy, and I attended the annual general meeting in London of the global mining giant Rio Tinto. The Jesuits are institutional investors. We expressed concern over the company’s practices in Madagascar, which have resulted in a threat to the lives and livelihoods of people in the region of Anosy, where the mine is located. While mining companies are needed to enable the global green transition, there are limiting factors in how they operate that will help the Jesuits in Britain to decide whether or not to disinvest from Rio Tinto.

Rio Tinto, based in London, is one of the world’s largest mining companies. Its subsidiary, Qit Minerals Madagascar (QMM), has been extracting ilmenite in the Anosy region of southern Madagascar since 2009. But the benefits of the mine to the local community and its environmental impact are contentious. Ilmenite is a source of titanium dioxide, which is used to create the white pigment found in the production of consumer products, from cosmetics to paint. But the local population has not always benefited from the work that the QMM mine has created because many of the jobs have attracted applicants from other parts of the country, rather than from Anosy.

Droughts in 2019-2021 created unparalleled conditions, resulting in famine in parts of the region. According to the World Food Programme, in December 2021, 1.47 million people in southern Madagascar were in need of urgent assistance. Subsequent cyclones this year have brought torrential rains and flooding. These have affected the reliability of the mine tailings dam at QMM. This is the barrier separating operational waste from the local ecosystem. In recent months, this tailings dam has twice failed and released a million cubic metres of excess mine water into the local lakes and rivers, used for fishing and drinking. This resulted in hundreds of dead fish being found floating in the lakes.

The local governor immediately placed a ban on fishing, due to potential health risks, while state regulators undertook testing exercises. The results are not publicly available and the fishing ban is still officially in place. QMM has denied responsibility for the fish deaths. But local communities hold QMM responsible for years of negative impacts on their food security and livelihoods. In particular, rural fishing communities say QMM has contaminated local natural water resources, with damaging consequences to subsistence fishing and people’s health.

The fishing ban has triggered months of protest and civil unrest in the region. Clashes between local military and protesters came to a climax last month, and on 20 May negotiations took place with four Malagasy government ministers, community representatives, QMM and local authorities.

An agreement was signed that will require QMM to review and respond to villagers’ claims for compensation. The details are still being worked out. The fishing ban remains an unresolved issue.

Water is a vital resource, and water quality has been a concern in the region for years. Publish What You Pay in Madagascar has conducted two studies on the impact of the mine. These suggest that 90 per cent of villagers living around it say they experience no benefits. Independent studies have determined that QMM’s mine basin and process water contain elevated levels of uranium and lead, 50 and 40 times higher than WHO safe drinking water guidelines, respectively. Heavy metals such as these are harmful if ingested. Uranium can cause kidney damage and lead can impede mental and physical development in children.

This economic and human crisis illustrates the themes of Laudato Si’. Pope Francis speaks about a “true ecological debt” between the global north and south because of “commercial imbalances”. He points out the “disproportionate use of natural resources by certain countries over extended periods of time” and says: “The export of raw materials to satisfy markets in the industrialised north has caused harm locally.”

The Pope’s words have both practical and prophetic implications. The extraction of minerals by Rio Tinto and its impact on both the natural world and on the people of the regions where it operates shows the interconnectedness of the crises we are facing. It is also a stark reminder that the actions of those of us in the developed world can have life-altering consequences for people in places we have never seen. In an answer to one of Stephen Power’s questions at the AGM, Simon Thompson, the English investment banker who is the chairman of Rio Tinto, admitted that, “when you build a mine in an extremely poor country … it does create inequalities”.

In Laudato Si’ Pope Francis points to our collective responsibility to hear the cry of the Earth and the cry of the poor. We must make our decisions in light of the common good. “This is especially the case”, he says, “when a project may lead to a greater use of natural resources, higher levels of emission or discharge, an increase of refuse, or significant changes to the landscape.”

As consumers and as citizens of the Earth, what we buy, wear or consume can have a deadly impact on others. To create a sustainable world, we are called to change our own behaviour and to speak out on behalf of those whose voices are less well heard. Their current fate may foreshadow our own future if we fail to do so.

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