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September-October 2011

Vol. 35, No. 5

Latin America: Non-renewable natural resources

The following article was written by Sarah Brady, an intern with the Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns.

As more transnational corporations receive mining concessions throughout Central and South America, concerns over the effects of this activity on nearby communities and environments have reached the ears of the Catholic Church. During a three day conference held in Peru this July, the Latin America Episcopal Conference (CELAM, its Spanish acronym) reflected on the issues afflicting their communities and solidified their mission within this context, stating their commitment to play an active role in the way extractive industries interact with the people and communities of Latin America. This pledge is detailed in the conference's closing document, recalling the principles of the doctrine of Catholic social teaching that "the Church cannot be indifferent to the fear, anxiety, and misery of mankind, above all those of the poor and afflicted."

"We have analyzed testimonials reflecting grave social and environmental problems," states the document. The CELAM statement calls attention to an "accelerated expansion" of the extractive industries sector in Latin America, with roots in the current economic model of consumerism. This unrestrained pursuit of resources and profit creates a scarcity of natural resources and a great burden for the environment. The paper highlights the difficult reality of communities in Latin America who feel the effects of global warming the most. At the same time extractive industries pump more chemicals and wastes into the air, water and soils. The current exploitative economic model threatens livelihoods, human health and the health of the environment, and stirs much of the socio-economic conflict afflicting the region.

With this context in mind, the CELAM conference reaffirms the Church's mission to be a voice for an alternative development model that is humane, comprehensive, inclusive and sustainable. Recalling the CELAM Aparecida conference, "The mission of evangelization cannot proceed separated from solidarity with the peoples and the promotion of their comprehensive development." Some encouraging signs of emerging alternative models are highlighted, including the mobilization of local community groups to develop strategies in response to conflict, and growing citizen movements in industrialized countries that combat uninformed consumerism (such as "interesting international certification mechanisms" and fair trade goods).

Looking closely at the role of governments regarding extractive industries, the Lima document explores the concerning relationship between states and private corporations in Latin America. Throughout the region, private transnational companies have received large land concessions, tax breaks and loopholes, due to their power and influence over all levels of government. A lack of effective sanctioning of corporations that break national and international agreements pervades. Of particular concern is the violation of the process of prior consultation, where corporations are required to involve local indigenous communities in the decision making process, as mandated by the UN Declaration of Rights of Indigenous Peoples and the International Labor Organization's Convention 169. The Church calls on governments to break this trend by holding corporations responsible for their commitments.

The July CELAM conference details pastoral guidelines as a response to extractive activities. Among these is the commitment to push for stronger ethical dimensions in politics and the economy. The Church challenges governments to create better sanctions and parameters for regulating extractive industries. Latin America's Catholic clergy have also made a long-standing commitment to facilitating dialogue and avoiding violence. As part of this effort to incorporate all voices into the discussion, the Church provides support for capacity-building and training of community members. Equally important is the facilitation of information regarding the benefits and risks of extractive industries through Church media and education, in order to inform the public as well as "promote alternative proposals and defend their [the public's] rights through dialogue."

In honoring the covenant between the Creator and all living things, we are called to care for all of Creation. The CELAM conference reasserts a commitment to care of the earth and the preferential option for the poor, engaging in this struggle through accompaniment and advocacy. In response to the overexploitation of nonrenewable resources, Latin America's Catholic clergy challenge local governments and transnational companies to see the earth as a "common home," rather than an unending source of economic resources.

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