Bishops confront high cost of "blood minerals"

Clerics and Catholic development agencies urge European Union to act from the common good

“New rules are urgently needed to ensure that the bounty of God’s creation does not serve unquestioning consumption while underwriting the destruction of life.” Joint Statement of Catholic Bishops.

The lack of legal frameworks to protect miners and mineral-rich regions in the developing world have prompted dozens of Catholic bishops to demand an end to exploitative practices. This comes as the European Union struggles to better regulate mining trade between the wealthy and the poor in the public and private spheres.

In a statement first released last fall—which has continued to draw attention—the bishops call for “Earth’s resources [to] be managed wisely by good stewards, with assurances for people at both ends of today’s global supply chains that join us as to the morality of our trading system.”

In other words, meeting the growing demands of consumers—especially for rare metals used in jewelry and electronics—must come by meeting the demands of the Gospel.

The statement and ongoing outreach efforts have been facilitated by the umbrella Catholic development group CIDSE (Coopération Internationale pour le Développement et la Solidarité or International Cooperation for Development and Solidarity.)

“The signatories warn that European citizens expect guarantees that they are not complicit in funding conflicts when buying products of daily use,” according to CIDSE. “People at both ends of today's global supply chains need assurances as to the morality of our trading systems. And the European Parliament, reflecting the conscience of the European people, should rise up to this challenge.”

"It’s clear to us that the recurrent armed conflicts taking place are closely tied to natural resources." Bishop Muteba

The engagement of this issue by Catholic organizations and bishops comes as attention on the upcoming eco-encyclical highlights the inextricable link between issues of human dignity with those of natural ecology, politics, and economics.

And for some clerics, all this signals the growing influence in the life of the Church of the Southern Hemisphere.

In a moving interview published yesterday with National Catholic Reporter’s Joshua J. McElwee, Bishop Fridolin Ambongo Besungu said that under Francis, "the Holy See now is closer to our reality, to the reality that we live." Noting the many dangers brought about by the mining and selling of minerals, Bishop McElwee said that “we cannot speak of evangelization without speaking of justice for the people. These things go together now. For me, this is a big, big change."

Long-standing concerns about mining practices in Africa include the health and safety of workers, environmental impacts, and how the resulting wealth is fueling conflict and weapons trade.In a video posted by CIDSE (embedded below), Mgr Fridolin Ambongo, President of the Episcopal Commission on Natural Resources and Bishop of Bokungu-Ikela in the Democratic Republic of Congo, said that “if Western countries and Germany in particular want to secure their interests in natural resources in the long term … it’s better to do within an internationally recognized legal framework rather than working in troubled waters like we see now in our country with tragic consequences for the people who work there.”

"When we speak about blood minerals, it’s not just a theory. It’s the reality!” Bishop Ambongo

“Through their supply chains, some European companies are complicit in abuses,” the bishops write. “This situation is intolerable. States are surely required to make every effort to ensure the conditions for peace, not only in their own territory but around the world. This is certainly the social teaching of the Catholic Church. Governments, citizens and businesswomen and men in the European Union must therefore take it upon themselves to ensure that their companies source natural resources responsibly.”

For its part, the European Union has been seeking to better manage business practices. But the process has not been simple or, many say, effective. A gathering in February and others planned for March 19th (the Feast of St. Joseph) and in April are the latest attempts by the political body to bring ethical business practices to its member nations. The bishop's statement specifically seeks to urge the EU to make these talks meaningful.

A similar effort in 2012 by the United States Securities and Exchange Commission met with mixed reviews as to its effectiveness.

On the private side, high-profile electronics manufactures continue struggling to balance supply sources to satisfy consumer demands with the ethical responsibilities of taking care of the people who do the dirty work. Things get trickier when smaller suppliers in turn trade with less credible entities.

And then there’s the question of where the money goes.

“When we speak about blood minerals, it’s not just a theory,” said Bishop Ambongo. “It’s the reality!”

Bishop Mgr Fulgence Muteba, of Kilwa-Kasenga adds that “it’s clear to us that the recurrent armed conflicts taking place are closely tied to natural resources.”

In their statement, the bishops refer to Pope Francis's apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium—noting in particular that “the dignity of each human person and the pursuit of the common good are concerns which ought to shape all economic policies. At times, however, they seem to be a mere addendum.”

To ensure the proper place of human dignity in mineral transactions, the bishops’ statement asks the European Union to “Introduce mandatory requirements for companies to guarantee the respect of human rights, rather than pursuing a voluntary approach as currently proposed,” as well as to include a wider range of companies under regulation and seek the protection of more natural resources linked to human rights abuses.

The entire statement can be downloaded here in English, French, Spanish, or German.

Will the European Union respond satisfactorily? Time will tell. What we do know is that as the human-economic-ecology links continue to be stressed by Rome, you can be sure to see more of the front-lines of the Church work to put into practice the teachings of our popes and bishops.

And remember, this implies responsibilities of those (like me) in developed nations who ultimately demand the resources at the core of so much conflict and suffering. So let us pray for wisdom and strength. Let us support the bishops and the organizations such as CIDSE and their members, who work for us on the front lines.

And while we’re at it, let us be more mindful of what we consume, how much of it we consume, and how it gets made in the first place.

Photo: Flicker/CIFOR

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About the Blog

Catholic Ecology posts my regular column in the Rhode Island Catholic, as well as scientific and theological commentary about the latest eco-news, both within and outside of the Catholic Church. What is contained herein is but one person's attempt to teach and defend the Church's teachings - ecological and otherwise. As such, I offer all contents of this blog for approval of the bishops of the Church. It is my hope that nothing herein will lead anyone astray from truth.