Can mining clean up its act? Insights from the Encyclical Laudato Si’.

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Augustine Doronila PhD. 

north stradbroke indigenous 2
Indigenous children from the mining community of North Stradbroke Island

I have just read and reflected on Pope Francis Encyclical Laudato Si’, mi’ Signore  [Praise be to you, my Lord]: on the care of our common home.

In the second paragraph, the document states:

This sister now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her. We have come to see ourselves as her lords and masters, entitled to plunder her at will. The violence present in our hearts, wounded by sin, is also reflected in the symptoms of sickness evident in the soil, in the water, in the air and in all forms of life. This is why the earth herself, burdened and laid waste, is among the most abandoned and maltreated of our poor; she groans in travail. (Rom 8:22). We have forgotten that we ourselves are dust of the earth (cf. Gen 2:7); our very bodies are made up of her elements, we breathe her air and we receive life and refreshment from her waters.

The encyclical develops the concept of integral ecology, as a model to define the fundamental relationships of each human person to God, with one’s self, with other human beings and with God’s creation the world, our common home. The Pope explains:

I will begin by briefly reviewing several aspects of the present ecological crisis, with the aim of drawing on the results of the best scientif­ic research available today, letting them touch us deeply and provide a concrete foundation for the ethical and spiritual itinerary that follows. [15[1]]

Moreover, he states “Today, however, we have to realise that a true ecological approach always becomes a so­cial approach; it must integrate questions of jus­tice in debates on the environment, so as to hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor”. [49]

It is through this lens that I have tried to read three events that have beset the Australian mining industry over these past weeks and intercalate the relevant paragraphs of the encyclical.

Several points in the papal encyclical provide guidance in creating awareness and encouraging actions to ensure that mining projects such as those mentioned above proceed without, as the Pope emphatically states, “The earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth.” [21]

acid mine drainage 2
Acid mine drainage from the Rum Jungle mine, Northern Territory

By its very nature, extractive industries remove functioning ecosystems, as well as potentially displacing human communities in these areas, in order to exploit a mineral resource. One can readily access peer reviewed scholarly and policy documentation to substantiate the following sections of the encyclical.

Firstly, in the outskirts of Honiara, the capital of the Solomon Islands, the tailings dam of Gold Ridge mine, containing millions of tons of hazardous chemicals like cyanide and arsenic toxic tailings, was on the brink of overflow due to the heavy rain following tropical cyclone Raquel. The tailings dam was apparently not designed to accommodate overstrain. In May this year, a landowner company in Solomon Islands bought the troubled mine for just $100 from an Australian gold miner. Production at the mine has been suspended since April last year, after it was found to have an extremely high level of contaminated water in its tailing dam following flash floods.

Several paragraphs [36][48] in the encyclical clearly analyse the problem, as well as in other mining projects, whereby thought is given to ensure that the end of mine life does not become a burden for the next occupants of the land. The spectre of climate change is severe, and should be factored into mine closure strategies in order to achieve the most desirable outcome after mining: a safe, stable, and non-polluting landform.

Caring for ecosystems demands far-sightedness, since no one looking for quick and easy profit is truly interested in their preservation. But the cost of damage caused by such selfish lack of concern is much greater than the economic benefits. When species are destroyed or seriously harmed, the values involved are incalculable. We can be silent witnesses to terrible injustices if we think we can obtain significant benefits by making the rest of humanity, present and future, pay the extremely high costs of environmental deterioration. [36]

Human and natural environments deteriorate together; we cannot adequately combat environmental degradation unless we attend to causes related to human and social degradation. In fact, the deterioration of the environment and of society affects the most vulnerable people on the planet: “Both everyday experience and scientific research show that the gravest effects of all attacks on the environment are suffered by the poorest”. For example, rises in sea level mainly affect impoverished coastal populations who have nowhere else to go. [48]

Secondly, it was announced in June that Energy Resources Australia (ERA), operator of the Ranger Uranium Mine within Kakadu National Park, have just cancelled their planned controversial and contested underground mine, Ranger 3 Deeps. The traditional owners of the land on which the Ranger uranium mine is built have challenged the federal government to guarantee no future mining will occur on Ranger and Jabiluka mineral leases, and to begin preparation for the sites’ inclusion in Kakadu National Park. Rio Tinto owns 68 per cent of ERA, and declared last month that it wanted no future mining at Ranger and rehabilitation of the site to proceed.

The pope exhorts us to value the indigenous people [146] who still live a traditional lifestyle, as they have a unique role in the stewardship of their ancestral domains.

In this sense, it is essential to show special care for indigenous communities and their cultural traditions. They are not merely one minority among others, but should be the principal dialogue partners, especially when large projects affecting their land are proposed. For them, land is not a commodity but rather a gift from God and from their ancestors who rest there, a sacred space with which they need to interact if they are to maintain their identity and values. When they remain on their land, they themselves care for it best. Nevertheless, in other parts of the world, pressure is put on them to abandon their homelands to make room for agricultural or mining projects which are undertaken without regard for the degradation of nature and culture. [146]

Finally, the recent announcement that the $1.2 billion Shenhua Watermark coal mine has recently received federal government approval has received very strong opposition from farming groups and environmentalists. The peak NSW farm group claims that the open-cut project would blow “a 35-square-kilometre hole in the Liverpool plains which are some of Australia’s most productive farmlands”.

However, a piece of investigative journalism revealed that the Giant Chinese mining firm Shenhua has a chequered environmental record. Greenpeace China exposed over-exploitation of groundwater and the dumping of industrial wastewater at the group’s largest mines in Inner Mongolia two years ago.

Australia claims to have some of the most stringent environmental regulations and safeguards. However, in the case of the newly approved coal mine, a question mark hangs over the ability of the operators to guarantee no harm to the aquifers such that no pollution will occur. It is ironic that miners have been shown to be less than satisfactory in their past operations. Paragraph 51 of the encyclical clearly describes the spiral of environmental degradation which occurs from unethical or irresponsible mining operations. In the case of this new coal project, there is a further problem in the over-reliance on coal to generate profits, particularly when the use of coal in China is significantly declining.

Inequity affects not only individuals but entire countries; it compels us to consider an ethics of international relations. A true “ecological debt” exists, particularly between the global north and south, connected to commercial imbalances with effects on the environment, and the disproportionate use of natural resources by certain countries over long periods of time. There is also the damage caused by the pollution produced by companies which operate in less developed countries in ways they could never do at home, in the countries in which they raise their capital:

We note that often the businesses which operate this way are multinationals. They do here what they would never do in developed countries or in the so-called first world. Generally, after ceasing their activity and withdrawing, they leave behind great human and environmental liabilities, such as unemployment, abandoned towns, the depletion of natural reserves, deforestation, the impoverishment of agriculture and local stock breeding, open pits, riven hills, polluted rivers, and a handful of social works which are no longer sustainable. [51]

Over the past few decades, the science and practice of ecological restoration has rapidly developed in order to renew and restore degraded, damaged, or destroyed ecosystems and habitats in the environment by active human intervention and action. The practice of ecological restoration includes a wide scope of projects, such as erosion control, reforestation and revegetation of disturbed landscapes, improvement of animal habitats, reintroduction of native species, removal of weeds. The noted biologist E O Wilson, who coined the word ‘biodiversity’ said: Here is the means to end the great extinction spasm. The next century will, I believe, be the era of restoration in ecology; restoration offers new hope to life on Earth”.

The Pope acknowledges that there have been genuine efforts to repair the damage to our natural and built environments, but warns us that these are not enough.

In some countries, there are positive examples of environmental improvement: rivers, polluted for decades, have been cleaned up; native woodlands have been restored; landscapes have been beautified thanks to environmental renewal projects; beautiful buildings have been erected; advances have been made in the production of non-polluting energy and in the improvement of public transportation. These achievements do not solve global problems, but they do show that men and women are still capable of intervening positively. For all our limitations, gestures of generosity, solidarity, and care cannot but well up within us, since we were made for love. [58]

Pope Francis appeals to us:

The urgent challenge to protect our common home includes a concern to bring the whole human family together to seek a sustainable and integral development, for we know that things can change. The Creator does not abandon us; he never forsakes his loving plan or repents of having created us. Humanity still has the ability to work together in building our common home. Here I want to recognize, encourage and thank all those striving in countless ways to guarantee the protection of the home which we share. Particular appreciation is owed to those who tirelessly seek to resolve the tragic effects of environmental degradation on the lives of the world’s poorest. Young people demand change. They wonder how anyone can claim to be building a better future without thinking of the environmental crisis and the sufferings of the excluded [13].

This encyclical empowers all of us to do something together to care for our planet – our home, whether we work in the environmental sciences or in other disciplines, the person on the street, and most importantly the poor. I take inspiration from his acknowledgement and thanks. The efforts of people like me are not in vain.

Dr Augustine Doronila is a research fellow at the School of Chemistry of University of Melbourne, Australia. His expertise is phytoremediation, restoration ecology, post-mining reclamation and biogeochemistry. You can learn more about his work through a recent webcast. His email is adoro@unimelb.edu.au.

Numbers in brackets are the paragraph numbers in the encyclical Laudato Si’.

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