“The export of raw materials to satisfy markets in the industrialised north has caused harm locally, as for example in mercury pollution in gold mining and sulphur dioxide pollution in copper mining.” (LS, 51)

praised be 26-10

Within the context of the global economy, Latin America and within it, Chile, has been obliged to supply raw materials, especially minerals, to the industrialized North and emerging economies, especially those in Asia.  We refer to this as an extractivist model, which involves the extraction of non-renewable natural resources in high volume or high intensity, as in the case of mining, whose fate is essentially to be exported as unprocessed or minimal processed raw materials (Gudynas). This is achieved under a rationale of unequal ecological trade, “inequity affects not only individuals but entire countries”, the ecological damage will not appear in the balance of payments, but it is evident and creates an ever increasing Ecological Debt (LS, 51).

In our view, this means that when Pope Francis refers to global inequity he cannot help pointing out that “the deterioration of the environment and of society affects the most vulnerable people on the planet”, assuming that the human environment and natural environment deteriorate together and therefore it is imperative that we attend to the causes that relate to human and social degradation, integrating questions of justice in debates on the environment, so as to hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor.  (LS, 48, 49, 51)

Pope Francis’ Encyclical Letter (LS, 51) notes that this model has caused harm locally, especially toxic pollution generated by mining, but also refers to the double standards of multinational corporations that do in our countries what they cannot do in the countries in which they raise their capital and leave behind great human and environmental liabilities.

This, in the case of Chile, is enlightening.  Mining has been aggressively spreading since the early 90’s, presented as a modern form of mining, with new technologies based on chemical substances (cyanide, sulfuric acid, etc.) that allow operations in territories that were previously unthinkable.  What they don’t say is that these technologies are potent pollutants, require exploding larger volumes of rock, use more water, greater amounts of energy, higher chemical inputs and generate greater amounts of toxic waste every day with less labour force.  Since 1990 we have tripled our Copper production (reaching 5.6 million tonnes) with an ever decreasing mineral quality every day.  This means that more that 1.5 million tonnes of tailings and over 2 million tonnes of waste (acid drainage) are produced daily.  The situation is so insane that behind these numbers we find mining areas that have been over exploited by up to 5 times their capacity, ever increasing instances of water and soil pollution, increased desertification and forced migration.  Ultimately local impacts (as well as global ones such as climate disruption), tend to lead to social unrest expressed in socio-environmental conflicts, where those in the affected territories defend their lifestyles and their rights, against the obsequiousness and short-sightedness of local governments.

The materiality of extractivism is always local, but is determined by global factors that challenge us to act at different levels in order to “change the models of global development.”  We believe that this understanding is what motivates Pope Francis to integrate these issues into his encyclical, operating from where he stands.  The challenge then, both for believers and nonbelievers alike, is to define where each one of us stands and what we can do from here to change the current state of affairs that is threatening life itself.

Collaboration: Lucio Cuenca Berger. Director of the Latin American Observatory of Environmental Conflicts – OLCA

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