Policies toward mining are a keenly debated aspect of development strategies. Extractive industries play significant economic roles in some sixty-three countries and challenges facing many of them, especially the most fragile, loom large. Topics at issue include environmental damage, physical scars to landscapes, inequitable distribution of benefits, propensities to large-scale corruption, and the impact on people directly and indirectly affected, particularly Indigenous communities. Extractive industries present a classic challenge: they can be a powerful engine for good in an economy and society (driving growth and poverty reduction), but they can also be a source of distortions, tension, and conflict, to a point that the term “curse” is often applied to abundant natural resources.
Extractive industries rarely involve religious institutions directly. However, distinctive aspects of both extractive policies and operations engage religious actors in varying advocacy and negotiation efforts. Effects of mining on communities and relationships between communities and mining companies in many regions have spurred religious activism ranging from social and spiritual support to participation in active protests against, notably, large mining operations and government support for them. Individually and collectively, religious actors can be powerful witnesses about the impact of mining, sharing knowledge and experience and highlighting vital ethical aspects. They can be involved in dialogue, analysis, and advocacy related to pertinent policy issues, such as taxation and environmental standards. Their actual and potential roles draw on their presence in mining areas, the trust they enjoy, and their willingness to highlight abuses of human rights and the vulnerability of affected communities.
Religious peacebuilding is particularly significant in fragile and conflict-prone states, where many of the most controversial extractive investments are concentrated. This reflects the association of poor governance and fragility in situations where abuses of power and neglect of sound policies and practice are accentuated. Over the past sixty years an estimated forty percent of civil wars can be associated with natural resources; since 1990, at least eighteen violent conflicts have been fueled by the exploitation of natural resources. Rebel groups can exploit natural resources to fund war and competition can sharpen polarization. War displaces populations and refugee movements can degrade resource bases.
Religious engagement is thus set within a complex and dynamic global context. With an absence of systematic frameworks for religious engagement in policy debates, activism and controversies extend from very local levels to transnational and global ones. Each situation is distinct, with wide variation in religious engagement at local and national levels. As with many development issues, efforts by religious actors to be part of global and national policy discussions can be met with skepticism as to their legitimate voice, so demonstrating relevance as a stakeholder is a common challenge. Systematic and effective religious engagement on national policies is quite rare, and overall suggests rather fragmented approaches. There is ample room for more cooperation and informed engagement in policy debates. Initiatives of the Catholic Church and the Anglican Communion stand out both for their substantive inputs and as indicative of a broader trend and potential. Catholic Church roles, at both local and global levels, have grown because of local church experiences with mining in different countries, the active diplomacy of Vatican leaders, and recognition by transnational mining companies of the moral issues involved.
A question and challenge for the future is how a more systematic and interreligious involvement might emerge and how it might be facilitated and encouraged. Increasing pressure to go beyond rhetoric to operational programs alongside polarized politics and shrinking civil society space suggest that common cause and action among religious communities on social justice issues, including extractive industries, can and should be an integral part of peacebuilding strategies and action. However, practical efforts to translate such aspirations into practice are partial and, in many situations, limited, in part because local situations and approaches differ widely. Most mobilization and advocacy are focused on specific cases in specific localities. Given the profound ethical issues involved and the strategic challenges that extractive industries present, building on examples of constructive religious engagement and cooperation among different parts of religious communities and varied traditions offers significant potential to contribute to more sustainable and equitable development strategies at national and regional levels. A well-conceived, collaborative, multireligious engagement might address some of the complex ethical, human rights, and practical challenges involved.
Katherine Marshall is Senior Fellow at Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs and Executive Director of the World Faiths Development Dialogue.
This piece is an edited and shortened version of a chapter from the new book Catholic Peacebuilding and Mining: Integral Peace, Development, and Ecology, edited by Caesar A. Montevecchio and Gerard F. Powers (Routledge, 2022). The book is available for free via open access.