Faithful activists converged on London to continue lobbying on behalf of those hurt by industrial mines.
LONDON — When he was studying to be a priest, Richard Solly mulled founding a group called Clergy Against Gold Exploitation — CAGE.
While presiding over weddings, his idea went, clergy would profess shock during the exchange of rings and ask, “Is that gold? Do you know how many people suffered for that?”
CAGE was just a joke. But religious activists like Solly, part of a coalition including Protestants and Catholics, have become central to the international mining watchdog and opposition movement which has developed over the past three decades. The movement has become increasingly focused on multinational mining companies headquartered in London and traded on the London Stock Exchange, some accused of damaging ecosystems, displacing residents and disrupting local economies around the world.
On April 17, just before the annual general shareholder meetings of mining giants Rio Tinto and Anglo American, Solly and a group of people impacted by the companies’ mines around the world visited the Church of England.
They asked church officials to pressure the companies to improve their labor and environmental practices, or risk divestment by the church’s fund. In 2010, the church pulled its investments from the London-based global mining company Vedanta Resources based on its record in India.
Several Christian groups are members of the London Mining Network which Solly directs. The network is an outgrowth of a movement originally born in London more than 30 years ago to keep an eye on Rio Tinto operations worldwide; now it focuses on all London-based mining operations.
Religious groups in the US and England have introduced shareholder resolutions and otherwise demanded mining companies adopt more responsible practices regarding environmental impacts, labor issues and effects on nearby residents. Ecumenical and interfaith organizations have also been central to the larger movement for socially responsible investing.
“We have a duty to put pressure on these companies,” said Solly. He noted that “there are all manner of other companies” on the London Stock Exchange that raise concerns about human rights abuses — including weapons and petroleum industries.
“But mining has been less visible than other sectors,” Solly said, “because there’s no interaction between the company and the consumer like there is with oil.”
Shareholder resolutions introduced by activists including religious leaders very rarely gain enough votes to pass or even to be carried over to the next year’s meeting. And while some religious institutions have significant investments, the financial threat of divestment alone would rarely be enough to sway a multinational company.
But religious institutions and leaders can gain public and media attention when they target the practices of mining companies or specific controversial mines — for example, Anglo American’s massive Cerrejon open pit coal mine in Colombia, which exports nearly all its coal including to England for power plants.
As Colombian local leader Julio Gomez explained outside the Church of England this month, the mine has displaced villages, and locals feel they are getting little economic benefit and worry about air pollution and contaminated water. Additionally, the Colombian miners, who recently went on strike for a month, say they work in dangerous conditions for low pay. Gomez said a number of meetings with Church of England officials in recent years have not yielded notable results. But he still thinks faith-based leaders can play an important role in creating scrutiny of company practices.
“Their corporate image is valuable to them,” Gomez said. “As we’ve brought all this attention, their practices have changed a little — just a little.”
Mining companies do seem to take public attention seriously, as evidenced by the major companies’ emphasis on environmental and social best practices in the past decade; though critics — including many religious leaders — say these efforts are often more window-dressing than substance.
A spokesperson for Anglo American said that “there is no doubt that (faith-based groups) continue to contribute more than ever before in debates with the private sector. In particular, NGOs and church investors have engaged much more with the mining sector over the last decade…This level of engagement has been instructive for both sides, and has certainly had a positive impact on improving our policies and practice.”
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