Mass for victims of Brumadinho disaster, Buenos Aires cathedral, Argentina, August 2019

In recent weeks, Dom Vicente Ferreira, Catholic Bishop of Brumadinho in Brazil, was in Europe speaking about the continuing impacts of the catastrophic tailings dam collapse there in January 2019, which killed 272 people. The iron ore mine at Brumadinho is owned and operated by a Brazilian mining company, Vale, in which British investors Aviva, HSBC, Legal and General, and others, have investments.

Dom Vicente was accompanied by Rodrigo Peret of Catholic organisation Franciscans International.

Both are members of the Latin American organisation Red Iglesias y Mineria (Churches and Mining Network). This is an inter-church network of grassroots church workers and community members in mining-affected communities throughout the continent. It has developed an extremely strong critique of the mining industry, especially multinational corporations, denouncing the extractivist economy and calling for complete disinvestment from the mining industry.

They held meetings with Church officials and organisations in Rome and with the United Nations in Geneva, with MEPs in Brussels and with MPs and a number of organisations in Germany and Austria.

London Mining Network representatives met with them when they were in Brussels on 6 March. LMN has worked with the Churches and Mining Network since the Samarco tailings dam disaster in November 2015. In August 2019, LMN researcher and trustee Andrew Hickman attended the Churches and Mining Network’s annual assembly in Buenos Aires, Argentina, to strengthen links between our organisations. Afterwards he was hosted by Churches and Mining Network members while visiting communities in Brazil affected by the Samarco and Brumadinho waste dam collapses and by the Minas Rio iron ore mine (owned by Anglo American).

At a gathering of organisations in Rome involved in the Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation movement in the Catholic Church, Dom Vicente made a number of points.

He said that the tailings dam collapse at Brumadinho was a crime. The reconstruction of communities devastated by the tailings dam collapses is not just about money but about human values. Capitalism kills people: “We are colonised by the multinationals.” Multinationals think only about shareholders. But “we need to think and listen to communities and those affected by this crime. We need to listen to the indigenous people too.” There are still 11 families that have not found the bodies of their missing relatives. “We have to solve this situation together, we cannot give in to the culture of saying that all is well.” Brumadinho is not just a local problem, but a global one.

Dom Vicente noted that in the document Laudato Si – on care for our common home, published in May 2015, Pope Francis had made strident criticisms of an economic system that is devastating ecosystems and creating massive injustices.

Dom Vicente said: “We are all responsible together to look after our creation, a responsibility that has been given to us by God. I realise it is not easy to listen to a bishop who is talking about crimes. Bishops are not just there to be in their churches, we need to live and suffer with our people. I cannot remain silent with so much pain and suffering. I find it difficult to talk about this crime and also to talk about hope. It is not easy to get the balance between prayer and action. We need to look at the gospel to guide us to this. We have to change how we relate to one another and how we relate to the environment.

“I bring my testimony, I bring my witness. I live in Brumadinho. I talk with emotion and passion of my people. I know that many families in Brumadinho are still suffering there. Depression is a big problem. There is a wound in their heart there. This wound cannot be healed with money. Our testimony is that we fight together. Please don’t forget to pray for us, for me, for Rodrigo, for my brothers and people in Brumadinho… also those that are working for a better world. Don’t forget to pray for the victims. They are the new martyrs. Please pray, especially in this time in Lent, for a better future.”

Dom Vicente with indigenous community members at Brumadinho, Brazil, August 2019

Rodrigo Peret added: “It is crystal clear in Brazil that the government is connected with multinational corporations. Governments (including Brazil) are depending on mining. The economy is dependent on mining. What is the future in Brumadinho? It is dependent on mining companies. We call this a crime, because people die, because people are exploited.

“The dam when it was ruptured, the canteen and everything was in the shadow of the dam. Mining has grown in our territories and the people are living in the shadow of mining.

“We will find an answer by the people fighting these realities. We will find solutions by working with the people who are stepping out from this model. We are starting a movement for the people and their right to say ‘no’. We need to work alongside these people. We are following what Pope Francis is saying to us regarding changing how we are living….”

“We cannot reduce this issue just to tailings dams. Tailings dams exist because mining exists. We need to remember all of the issues around mining. Extraction (and growth) has tripled, but the population has only doubled. Most of the waste and consumption is in the northern hemisphere. Legislation and standards are useful, but it is not a solution to the bigger picture. It is not enough just to change the standards, we have to look at the whole system.”

Dom Vicente warned against trusting the mining companies: “I have seen that after the crime of Brumadinho, the mining companies have split communities. Communities no longer trust the mining companies. We watch the company’s people every day say that ‘we are repairing and giving compensation’. No, this is not the reality. It is just that they are fixing their own industry and repairing the extractive capitalist model. The communities are still divided. Many of my church brothers in Brazil say ‘the multinationals are repairing the situation’. If you go to Brumadinho, however, you will see that the people are still suffering. I see this exploitation and I too am shocked. This system killed 272 people.”

During discussions with LMN in Brussels, Dom Vicente and Rodrigo spoke about the role of ‘money politics’ in Brazil. They see the Brumadinho disaster as a metaphor for an extractivist system which benefits the rich at the expense of the poor, with suffering left behind. Apart from the deaths of 272 people, including many mine workers, huge numbers of survivors are suffering – rates of depression and suicide in the area have increased massively. Those who are responsible for the deaths at Brumadinho must be brought to justice. As well as this, at least 40 other tailings dams in Brazil are at risk of collapse.

They said that the Churches and Mining Network has good relationships with other activist and social networks, particularly MAM (Movement of People Affected by Mining), MAB (Movement of People Affected by Dams) and MST (Movement of People Without Land). There are many NGOs in the region, but a global presence and awareness is needed to stop this happening again, they said. The work of the church in Brumadinho is aimed at strengthening affected communities. The church has decided ‘not to compromise’ with Vale. Vale is trying to dominate and construct the only narrative. They use the media to do so. They are intervening in local organising to divide people; they are even trying to divide the church. But Dom Vicente and his team will continue to support local people in their struggle for justice, whatever the cost.

LMN intends to continue supporting the Churches and Mining Network in their support for mining-affected communities.

Appendix: the Amazon Synod and the Catholic Church’s approach to large scale mining

Since his election as Pope on 13 March 2013, Pope Francis has emerged as a strident critic of the extractivist economy in all its forms, including large-scale mining. A number of criticisms appeared in his 2015 document ‘Laudato Si – on care for our common home‘.

Alarmed at his possible influence on public opinion, major mining company Chief Executives have organised a number of meetings at the Vatican to try to persuade Pope Francis and others that the industry is reforming itself. Our friends in the Churches and Mining Network have also held meetings in the Vatican to explain the very limited nature of that reform, the bad faith of the industry, and the need for disinvestment.

Pope Francis called a meeting of bishops and other church representatives from the Amazon region to discuss a number of issues affecting the area, including internal church matters but concentrating heavily on ecological and economic matters and how church workers and communities could contribute to the ending of the current destructive system. The meeting – the ‘Amazon Synod’ – was held in Rome in October 2019.

Amazon Synod Final Document

The Synod issued a Final Document which contained a number of references to mining and extractivism. Relevant paragraphs are quoted below.

70. For Christians, interest and concern for the promotion and respect of human rights, both individual and collective, is not optional. Human beings are created in the image and likeness of God the Creator, and their dignity is inviolable. That is why the defence and promotion of human rights is not merely a political duty or a social task, but also and above all a requirement of faith. We may not be able to modify the destructive model of extractivist development immediately, but we do need to know and make clear where we stand, whose side we are on, what perspective we assume, how the political and ethical dimension of our word of faith and life are transmitted. For this reason: a) we denounce the violation of human rights and extractive destruction; b) we embrace and support campaigns of divestment from extractive companies responsible for the socio-ecological damage of the Amazon, starting with our own Church institutions and also in alliance with other churches; c) we call for a radical energy transition and the search for alternatives: “Civilization requires energy, but the use of energy must not destroy civilization!” (Francis, Address to the Participants in the Conference “Energy Transition and Care of the Common Home”, 9.6.2018). We propose to design and develop training programs on the care of our common home, for pastoral agents and other faithful, open to the whole community, in an effort to make the population aware (cf. Laudato Si 214).

72. It is then a question of discussing the real value that any economic or extractive activity offers, that is to say, the value that it contributes and returns to the land and to society, considering the wealth that it extracts from them and the socio-ecological consequences. Many extractive activities, such as large-scale mining, particularly illegal mining, substantially diminish the value of life in the Amazon. Indeed, they uproot the lives of peoples and the common goods of the earth, concentrating economic and political power in the hands of a few. Worse still, many of these destructive projects are carried out in the name of progress, and are supported – or permitted – by local, national and foreign governments.

73. Together with the Amazon’s peoples (cf. LS 183) and their horizon of ‘good living’, we are called to an individual and communal ecological conversion that upholds an integral ecology and a model of development in which commercial criteria are not above environmental and human rights criteria. We want to support a culture of peace and respect – not violence and violation – and a person-centred economy that also cares for nature. Therefore, beginning with the cosmovisions that are built with the communities and restoring the ancestral wisdom, we propose to generate alternatives focused on integral ecological development. We support projects that propose a solidary and sustainable economy, circular and ecological, both locally and internationally, at the level of research and on the ground, in the formal and informal sectors. Along these lines, it would be useful to support and promote cooperative initiatives in bio-production, forest reserves and sustainable consumption. The future of the Amazon is in the hands of us all, but it depends mainly on our immediately abandoning the current model that is destroying the forest rather than bringing well-being and is endangering this immense natural treasure and its guardians.

83. As a way of repaying the ecological debt that countries owe to the Amazon, we propose the creation of a world fund to cover part of the budgets of the communities present in the Amazon to promote their integral and self-sustaining development and so also to protect them from the predatory compulsion to extract their natural resources at the behest of national and multinational companies.

84. We intend to adopt responsible habits that respect and value the peoples of the Amazon, their traditions and wisdom, protecting the earth and changing our culture of excessive consumption with its production of solid waste, and instead encouraging reuse and recycling. We should reduce our dependence on fossil fuels and the use of plastics, changing our eating habits (excess consumption of meat and fish/seafood) and adopting a more modest lifestyle. We must engage actively in planting trees and seek sustainable alternatives in agriculture, energy and transportation that respect the rights of nature and of people. We must promote education in integral ecology at all levels, promote new economic models and initiatives towards a sustainable quality of life.

Papal Response

Pope Francis issued a response to the Synod’s Final Document, affirming its value and offering some reflections on it. The Pope’s Response is called Querida Amazonia (Beloved Amazonia). Some of his reflections deal with colonialism, indigenous rights and the need for respect for ecosystems. Relevant paragraphs are quoted below – numbered notes refer to footnotes in the original text, which are not reproduced here but can be found in the published document.

9. The colonizing interests that have continued to expand – legally and illegally – the timber and mining industries, and have expelled or marginalized the indigenous peoples, the river people and those of African descent, are provoking a cry that rises up to heaven:

“Many are the trees

where torture dwelt,

and vast are the forests

purchased with a thousand deaths”.[3]

“The timber merchants have members of parliament,

while our Amazonia has no one to defend her…

They exiled the parrots and the monkeys…

the chestnut harvests will never be the same”.[4]

14. The businesses, national or international, which harm the Amazon and fail to respect the right of the original peoples to the land and its boundaries, and to self-determination and prior consent, should be called for what they are: injustice and crime. When certain businesses out for quick profit appropriate lands and end up privatizing even potable water, or when local authorities give free access to the timber companies, mining or oil projects, and other businesses that raze the forests and pollute the environment, economic relationships are unduly altered and become an instrument of death. They frequently resort to utterly unethical means such as penalizing protests and even taking the lives of indigenous peoples who oppose projects, intentionally setting forest fires, and suborning politicians and the indigenous people themselves. All this accompanied by grave violations of human rights and new forms of slavery affecting women in particular, the scourge of drug trafficking used as a way of subjecting the indigenous peoples, or human trafficking that exploits those expelled from their cultural context. We cannot allow globalization to become “a new version of colonialism”.[9]

25. Nor can we exclude the possibility that members of the Church have been part of networks of corruption, at times to the point of agreeing to keep silent in exchange for economic assistance for ecclesial works. Precisely for this reason, proposals were made at the Synod to insist that “special attention be paid to the provenance of donations or other kinds of benefits, as well as to investments made by ecclesiastical institutions or individual Christians”.[27]

26. The Amazon region ought to be a place of social dialogue, especially between the various original peoples, for the sake of developing forms of fellowship and joint struggle. The rest of us are called to participate as “guests” and to seek out with great respect paths of encounter that can enrich the Amazon region. If we wish to dialogue, we should do this in the first place with the poor. They are not just another party to be won over, or merely another individual seated at a table of equals. They are our principal dialogue partners, those from whom we have the most to learn, to whom we need to listen out of a duty of justice, and from whom we must ask permission before presenting our proposals. Their words, their hopes and their fears should be the most authoritative voice at any table of dialogue on the Amazon region. And the great question is: “What is their idea of ‘good living’ for themselves and for those who will come after them?”

27. Dialogue must not only favour the preferential option on behalf of the poor, the marginalized and the excluded, but also respect them as having a leading role to play. Others must be acknowledged and esteemed precisely as others, each with his or her own feelings, choices and ways of living and working. Otherwise, the result would be, once again, “a plan drawn up by the few for the few”,[28] if not “a consensus on paper or a transient peace for a contented minority”.[29] Should this be the case, “a prophetic voice must be raised”,[30] and we as Christians are called to make it heard.

42. If the care of people and the care of ecosystems are inseparable, this becomes especially important in places where “the forest is not a resource to be exploited; it is a being, or various beings, with which we have to relate”.[49] The wisdom of the original peoples of the Amazon region “inspires care and respect for creation, with a clear consciousness of its limits, and prohibits its abuse. To abuse nature is to abuse our ancestors, our brothers and sisters, creation and the Creator, and to mortgage the future”.[50] When the indigenous peoples “remain on their land, they themselves care for it best”,[51] provided that they do not let themselves be taken in by the siren songs and the self-serving proposals of power groups. The harm done to nature affects those peoples in a very direct and verifiable way, since, in their words, “we are water, air, earth and life of the environment created by God. For this reason, we demand an end to the mistreatment and destruction of mother Earth. The land has blood, and it is bleeding; the multinationals have cut the veins of our mother Earth”.[52]

46. Popular poets, enamoured of its immense beauty, have tried to express the feelings this river evokes and the life that it bestows as it passes amid a dance of dolphins, anacondas, trees and canoes. Yet they also lament the dangers that menace it. Those poets, contemplatives and prophets, help free us from the technocratic and consumerist paradigm that destroys nature and robs us of a truly dignified existence:

“The world is suffering from its feet being turned into rubber, its legs into leather, its body into cloth and its head into steel… The world is suffering from its trees being turned into rifles, its ploughshares into tanks, as the image of the sower scattering seed yields to the tank with its flamethrower, which sows only deserts. Only poetry, with its humble voice, will be able to save this world”.[57]

49. It is not enough to be concerned about preserving the most visible species in danger of extinction. There is a crucial need to realize that “the good functioning of ecosystems also requires fungi, algae, worms, insects, reptiles and an innumerable variety of microorganisms. Some less numerous species, although generally unseen, nonetheless play a critical role in maintaining the equilibrium of a particular place.”[61] This is easily overlooked when evaluating the environmental impact of economic projects of extraction, energy, timber and other industries that destroy and pollute. So too, the water that abounds in the Amazon region is an essential good for human survival, yet the sources of pollution are increasing.[62]