Religious groups keep an eye on global mining giants

Richard Solly, outside the Rio Tinto shareholder meeting in April 2013, expresses his Catholic faith through activism on mining issues.
Kari Lydersen

LONDON — When he was studying to be a priest, Richard Solly mulled founding a group called Clergy Against Gold Exploitation — CAGE.

While presiding over weddings, his idea went, clergy would profess shock during the exchange of rings and ask, “Is that gold? Do you know how many people suffered for that?”

CAGE was just a joke. But religious activists like Solly, part of a coalition including Protestants and Catholics, have become central to the international mining watchdog and opposition movement which has developed over the past three decades. The movement has become increasingly focused on multinational mining companies headquartered in London and traded on the London Stock Exchange, some accused of damaging ecosystems, displacing residents and disrupting local economies around the world.

On April 17, just before the annual general shareholder meetings of mining giants Rio Tinto and Anglo American, Solly and a group of people impacted by the companies’ mines around the world visited the Church of England. They asked church officials to pressure the companies to improve their labor and environmental practices, or risk divestment by the church’s fund. In 2010, the church pulled its investments from the London-based global mining company Vedanta Resources based on its record in India.

Several Christian groups are members of the London Mining Network which Solly directs. The network is an outgrowth of a movement originally born in London more than 30 years ago to keep an eye on Rio Tinto operations worldwide; now it focuses on all London-based mining operations.

Religious groups in the US and England have introduced shareholder resolutions and otherwise demanded mining companies adopt more responsible practices regarding environmental impacts, labor issues and effects on nearby residents. Ecumenical and interfaith organizations have also been central to the larger movement for socially responsible investing.

“We have a duty to put pressure on these companies,” said Solly. He noted that “there are all manner of other companies” on the London Stock Exchange that raise concerns about human rights abuses — including weapons and petroleum industries.

“But mining has been less visible than other sectors,” Solly said, “because there’s no interaction between the company and the consumer like there is with oil." 

Shareholder resolutions introduced by activists including religious leaders very rarely gain enough votes to pass or even to be carried over to the next year’s meeting. And while some religious institutions have significant investments, the financial threat of divestment alone would rarely be enough to sway a multinational company.

But religious institutions and leaders can gain public and media attention when they target the practices of mining companies or specific controversial mines — for example, Anglo American’s massive Cerrejon open pit coal mine in Colombia, which exports nearly all its coal including to England for power plants.

As Colombian local leader Julio Gomez explained outside the Church of England this month, the mine has displaced villages, and locals feel they are getting little economic benefit and worry about air pollution and contaminated water. Additionally, the Colombian miners, who recently went on strike for a month, say they work in dangerous conditions for low pay. Gomez said a number of meetings with Church of England officials in recent years have not yielded notable results. But he still thinks faith-based leaders can play an important role in creating scrutiny of company practices.

“Their corporate image is valuable to them,” Gomez said. “As we’ve brought all this attention, their practices have changed a little — just a little.”

Mining companies do seem to take public attention seriously, as evidenced by the major companies’ emphasis on environmental and social best practices in the past decade; though critics — including many religious leaders — say these efforts are often more window-dressing than substance.

A spokesperson for Anglo American said that “there is no doubt that (faith-based groups) continue to contribute more than ever before in debates with the private sector. In particular, NGOs and church investors have engaged much more with the mining sector over the last decade...This level of engagement has been instructive for both sides, and has certainly had a positive impact on improving our policies and practice.”

Solly said that most religious people in the global mining watchdog movement got involved after working in developing countries directly impacted by mining.

Solly was raised a “liberal Anglican” and converted to Catholicism inspired by the liberation theology movement in the 1980s, particularly the work of slain Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero. Solly became concerned about resource extraction while working with indigenous (First Nations) people affected by the oil industry and logging in Alberta, Canada. Upon returning to London, he focused on mining.

He noted that many Catholics and evangelical Christians who work with impoverished communities in the developing world have seen first-hand the impacts of mining: people displaced from their homes, wells and streams dried up or contaminated, small farms destroyed and strange illnesses.

“It doesn’t proceed from ‘let’s think about what’s awful and do something about it,’” said Solly. “It’s seeing human beings who we love who are suffering because of mining. It’s something concrete that’s taken to a more abstract level; something communal that’s taken to a global level.”

CAFOD, the official Catholic aid agency for England and Wales, has long worked on mining issues, since mining impacts people they serve in the Philippines, Latin America and other places. They help communities around mines stand up for their rights, including in cases where opposition to a mine has meant death threats and attacks. CAFOD also works with large investors — faith-based and otherwise — to press companies to improve their practices.

“Sometimes the policies companies are presenting can be quite different than what’s happening on the ground,” said CAFOD private sector lead analyst Anne Lindsay. “Investors are very interested to hear what’s actually going on in the communities. And usually we find companies are very happy to listen. It’s not just that we’re faith-based, but also that we take an approach of constructive engagement.”

In many cases, mines impact areas held sacred by indigenous groups, be they Native Alaskans near the proposed Anglo American-Rio Tinto Pebble Mine, tribal West Papuans near the Freeport McMoran-Rio Tinto Grasberg mine or Apaches near Rio Tinto’s proposed copper mine in Arizona.

Religious people who take an interfaith approach often say they relate to the spiritual significance of such sites. In 2008, Rev. Jon Magnuson, a Lutheran campus priest at Northern Michigan University in Marquette, Mich. attended the Rio Tinto shareholder meeting in London to raise concerns about the company’s nickel mine under construction in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

Magnuson brought with him a statement signed by 100 faith-based leaders and also a packet of traditional wild rice and letters from the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community, an Ojibwe tribe which considers the mine site sacred.

“In earlier times we put ourselves over nature,” said Magnuson, who is also trained as a psychotherapist. “But now we understand we are part of nature. And these environmental movements and collaborative movements are part of the earth’s immune system, trying to regulate and balance.”

Magnuson said religious leaders can often “cross over and penetrate” the polarizing class divisions that often characterize fights between multinational companies and impoverished locals, in part because “our approach is not to demonize the opposition or fanaticize ideology.”

With a spiritual underpinning, “you do something not because you can win but because it’s the right thing,” he added. “The moral imperative.”

Ben Peachey, spokesman of the International Council on Mining & Metals, said multinational companies have great respect for the concerns of indigenous people and are also eager to engage with respected mainstream religious organizations.

“It takes a long time to build up trust, so a link to organized religion can provide that legitimacy,” he said. For example major Catholic organizations “have millennia of that religion behind them; they’re an institution in society.”

Solly never did become a priest, but for the past 22 years he has dedicated himself full-time to mining activism and solidarity work with communities affected by mines. He considers it an expression of longstanding spiritual beliefs.

“The mining work I do is a form of solidarity with the oppressed and with the suffering earth,” Solly said. “I do it because discipleship of Christ, as I understand it, demands that we exercise such solidarity.” 

This reporting was supported by the Fund for Environmental Journalism