Exploiting Natural Resources: Why Don’t the Poor Benefit?

Rees Warne, CRS Policy Advisor for Extractive Industries, reports from today’s Catholic Social Ministry Gathering

The “Exploiting Natural Resources: Why Don’t the Poor Benefit?” workshop ended about an hour ago, but I’m just getting to a computer – a bunch of us stayed after the official close and kept talking about the impacts of extractive industries (oil, gas, mining, and timber) and the innovative things the Church is doing about them all around the world. My favorite part was the ideas that participants suggested. (More on that in a bit.) It’s so great to see how much energy people have for this work.

Fr. Andrew Small of the USCCB started us out by grounding us in Church teachings. He went straight to the 7th commandment: “Thou shalt not steal.” Here’s a bit from the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “Use of mineral, vegetable, and animal resources of the universe cannot be divorced from respect for moral imperatives. Man’s dominion over inanimate and other living beings granted by the Creator is not absolute; it is limited for the quality of life of his neighbor, including generations to come; it requires a religious respect for the integrity of creation.” (#2401) He gave examples from Bishops’ Statements from a variety of countries – and, of course, from the Pope – that spoke to our responsibility to use natural resources well and to give priority to people over profit.

Then it was CRS’ turn: Paul Miller (CRS Policy Advisor/Team Leader for Africa) and me (CRS Policy Advisor for Extractive Industries). I talked about the “resource curse” how oil, gas and mineral wealth can actually lead to increases in poverty. I also talked about environmental and health impacts on communities nearby and downstream from mines and oil fields.

We then talked about the heroic work of the Church in El Salvador in opposing gold mining that the Church believes would contaminate streams and rivers that flow through much of El Salvador with cyanide. Then there is the Church in Malawi, which is working to help to get balanced information on the risks and impacts of uranium mining to both communities and government officials. Paul talked about his recent work in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo and the horrific violence there (including systematic violence against women) and its close links to illicit mining. For instance, much of the world’s coltan (a metal used in cell phones, Game Boys, computers, and other consumer electronics) comes from eastern Congo mines controlled by militias.

Then we got to talk about what can be done here. This is where I get to put in my plug for getting your representatives in Washington to consider co-sponsoring a new bill to require oil, gas and mining companies that are listed on the New York Stock Exchange to disclose what they pay to the government in the countries where they operate. This “Extractive Industry Transparency Disclosure Act” is a crucial tool for helping people hold their own government to account for the use of the sometimes extraordinary revenues they get from the exploitation of their country’s natural wealth.

Like I said, the participants were the best! The first suggestion in the workshop was – once we can convince at least one cell phone company to produce “conflict-free” phones, then all of our Catholic organizations should commit to purchasing only conflict-free phones. Several people said that they thought this issue was a natural for high school and college students, and we talked about ways to get young people involved.

A participant from West Virginia, brought things close to home, reminding us that the health and environmental impacts of mining are not just international issues. He said that women in some counties have life expectancies 20 years lower than the US national average–all of those counties are major coal producers. A few people talked about the importance of business schools (particularly Catholic ones) teaching about more than the profit bottom line. We could do more to help teach about what people call the “triple bottom line” of economic, social and environmental profitability (which is all the more attractive since, when there are problems, conflict and contamination can be incredibly expensive for a business to deal with). We also talked about how important it is just to get people thinking about how our consumer choices affect people all over the world.

If you’d like a copy of our powerpoint presentations or more information on any of this (including handouts with where to get more information and what you can do), you can get our in touch with me at CRS (rwarne@crs.org) or Fr. Andrew Small at the USCCB (asmall@usccb.org). There’s also a great new page on extractive industries on the USCCB site

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