Columban Center for Advocacy and Outreach

Mining in Latin America

November 13, 2013

  Lucy Lu, CCAO Intern

“We have forgotten, and we are still forgetting, that over and above business, logic, and the parameters of the market, [stand] human beings . . . By virtue of their profound dignity, we [ought] to offer them the possibility of living a dignified life and actively participating in the common good.” – Pope Francis

On October 22, 2013, I attended a meeting sponsored by the CCAO and other international NGOs on grassroots resistance to mining industries in countries such as El Salvador, Guatemala, Colombia, Honduras, and Mexico. In Latin America, mining has been a latent attractor for social protest over community rights, economic justice, and environmental standards. The presentation focused on ways in which mining affected communities and the alliances they formed to hold mining companies accountable.

To overcome grassroots resistance to their projects, transnational mining companies buy the support of state and local officials, religious leaders, community leaders and residents. This causes division and conflict among local communities. Since the sheer wealth and power of these transnational companies are much greater than that of the developing countries in Latin America, the local governments are often at a disadvantage in negotiating with mining companies.

For example, the Salvadoran government put a moratorium on metallic mining because these companies failed to demonstrate that their projects would not contaminate the environment nor damage public health. As a result, a mining company (Pacific Rim) sued the Salvadoran government through an international trade tribunal on the basis of a clause in the Free Trade Agreement protecting investors from decisions affecting a company’s investments. This case was ultimately dismissed and Pacific Rim is now suing the government under the nation’s investment law.

Transnational companies seek to maximize their own interests and those of their shareholders, rather than the interests of any country or of the poor. Thus, it is not surprising that mining companies seek to expand their operations in Latin America at the cost of disrupting local communities and degrading their land. It is difficult to ensure a right relationship that respects communities and creation when provisions in free trade agreements actually protect companies over people in countries where Columbans work, such as Peru and Chile, as well as Colombia  and Central America.

Some mining companies, nevertheless, began to reflect on ethical questions related to the mining industries. In September, 2013, numerous leaders from multinational companies participated in a day of reflection at the Vatican. It was the first time that the directors of the mining industry had met to reflect on the importance of their human and environmental responsibilities.

The Church’s social teaching reminds us that economic activities should respect the absolute dignity of every human person, and peace and justice will necessarily flow from such endeavor.