Mapping the Reach of Canadian Mining

In Emilie Teresa Smith’s cover story "Oh, Canada!" (Sojourners, May 2015), she describes the results of Canadian mining practices around the world, which include murder, kidnapping, and the destruction of sacred lands. The map below shows just how widespread Canadian mining operations are. There have been moments of success—for instance, a Canadian court ruled that the company Hudbay could be held legally responsible for gang rapes and murders of members of the Indigenous Mayan Q'eqchi' population at its former mine in Guatemala. But the battle to end destructive mining is far from over, and there are many more battles ahead. 

Zoom into this interactive map to capture the scope of mining: More than 2,000 mining projects in 31 countries, generating more than 200 local conflicts. 

Where is the closest mine to you?

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Rich Songs of Economic Despair

OUT WHERE Kentucky meets West Virginia, you’ll find one of America’s cultural seedbeds, where Scotch-Irish immigrant traditions took root in the New World. But on her debut album, American Middle Class, singer-songwriter Angaleena Presley, a daughter of the Kentucky mountains (and no kin to The King), paints a heartbreaking picture of what Appalachia has become.

The people of this region were once mostly self-sufficient subsistence farmers. In the early 20th century, they were drafted into the coal mines but brought their pride and independence with them, waging often-bloody battles to establish the United Mine Workers of America. For over a century now, the region’s economic fate has been hostage to the ups and downs of the energy market. As a result, the coal fields have become one of the poorest parts of the country.

The music that flourished in this region became, along with that of low-country African Americans, one of the two great pillars of American popular music. So many country music greats have come from here that Kentucky has a “Country Music Highway Museum” just to honor all the stars (Loretta Lynn, Ricky Skaggs, Billy Ray Cyrus, Keith Whitley, and many others) born along U.S. 23.

In short, this part of Appalachia is sort of the Mississippi Delta for white people: A place of dire economic poverty and vast cultural riches, where the art and spirit of a people has found its most intense expression.

Angaleena Presley seems to know all this. The woman from Beauty, Ky., with the perfect country music name is a pure product of hardcore Appalachia. A miner’s daughter, during high school she would cut class, drive to the old house that Loretta Lynn wrote about in Coal Miner’s Daughter, and try to write songs.

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Canada's Shameful Exports

CANADIAN MINING companies have left a trail of destruction around the world—mostly in places where people are poor and vulnerable.

The earliest conflicts caused by Canadian mining exploded in Guatemala in the early 1960s when the nickel company Inco dug into the northern mountainside of Guatemala’s largest freshwater lake, Lago Izabal. Almost 155 square miles of traditional Kekchi-Maya land was expropriated to create Inco’s Exmibal mine. As the region descended into bitter war, Guatemalan oligarchs and their military, with the support of Canadian-mining and U.S. geopolitical interests, exterminated all popular dissent. Dozens of Kekchi leaders were killed or disappeared; four prominent leaders who had published a report condemning the Inco-Exmibal deals were brutally assaulted and two of them assassinated. The Exmibal mine operated for three years before Inco abandoned it, never paying a nickel in royalties to Guatemala.

Meanwhile, in the Philippines, Vancouver-based Placer Dome arrived on Marinduque Island and sunk in a filthy copper mine. Over the next three decades, Placer Dome operated the Marcopper mine, devastating the local environment and its communities. From 1975 to 1991, Placer Dome dumped 200 metric tons of toxic waste into Calancan Bay, and in March 1996 a massive rupture from the tailings pond flooded 60 villages with toxic waste, permanently destroying community lands, rice fields, and shrimp marshes. The Boac River was declared dead, and the U.N. pronounced it a major environmental disaster. The entire Marcopper mine project was abandoned; no major attempt at clean-up ever took place. In 2006, Placer Dome was taken over by the giant, Toronto-based Barrick Gold, one of the world’s largest mining companies. In 2008, the provincial government of Marinduque began a lawsuit, but Barrick has fussed and delayed, dragging the court case on endlessly.

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Every Time I Look Into the Holy Book

I HAVE SOMETIMES been dismayed by the lack of speed that some churches and denominations have shown when it came to tackling environmental issues. On the question of divestment from fossil fuels, for instance, the Unitarians have been forthrightly in favor, and the United Church of Christ as well (and the Rockefellers!). But the Methodists, Lutherans, Presbyterians, and Anglicans are, by and large, dragging their feet as usual.

Sometimes I confess to imagining that God herself might be getting a bit impatient, too—how else to explain the name of the site for the next great fossil-fuel battle?

It will happen in Australia’s Galilee Valley, a remote basin many hours from the continent’s cities. At the moment it’s basically untouched, but plans call for it to become The Biggest Coal Mine on Earth. There is enough coal beneath its soil to provide 6 percent of the carbon that would take us past the two-degree rise in temperature scientists have given as the ultimate red line. That is to say, one valley in one nation (a nation with one-third of 1 percent of the planet’s population) can do 6 percent of the job of wrecking the planet. One valley!

One valley that happens to carry one of the most sacred names in Christendom. I remember my church high school youth group days, when Loretta Lynn exploded in song: “Put Your Hand in the Hand (of the Man from Galilee).” It was actually a great lyric, one that went straight to the radicalism of the gospel (“Every time I look into the Holy Book I wanna tremble / when I read about the part where the carpenter cleared the temple”). In this case, the “buyers and sellers” are all billionaires—people such as Gautam Adani, on whose corporate jet Narendra Modi flew last year in his successful campaign to run India, or Gina Rinehart, the Aussie mining heiress and fourth richest woman in the world who once lauded Africans for being willing to work for two dollars a day.

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We Can't Afford Dirty Energy: Thoughts on Turkey, Appalachia, and Humility

Przemek Tokar/

Przemek Tokar/

Two weeks ago in Soma, Turkey, a coal mine explosion left 301 people dead. It was the country’s worst mining disaster, but it wasn’t the first — and it wasn’t the last, as multiple fatal accidents have happened in the two weeks since. The last time a mining disaster caught the world’s attention, we watched and waited and prayed during the rescue operation for the miners in Chile.

In Turkey, people protested in the streets of Soma — protested against Soma Mining for letting this happen, against their government for loopholes in safety rules. In response, the police issued a ban on protests and locked the city down. The ruling political party proudly announces that it has inspected that mine 11 times in the past 5 years; Soma Mining denies negligence. And the families of 301 persons mourn their losses.

This isn’t a faraway problem. In the United States, we don’t do as much traditional mining as we used to — instead, we do mountaintop removal. This has a human cost, too, in more insidious ways. The people living in Appalachia have higher rates of respiratory illness, cancer, kidney diseases, skin ailments, and more. And the landscape, which has the fingerprints of God in it, is being blown apart.

Psalm 95:4-5 says:

“In [God’s] hand are the depths of the earth; the heights of the mountains are [God’s] also. The sea is [God’s], for [God] made it, and the dry land, which [God’s] hands have formed.”

Prophetic Preaching: 'One of The Priests is Receiving Death Threats'

Photo: Jacek Orzechowski

a Franciscan young adult group at St. Camillus created a large mural about Easter. Photo: Jacek Orzechowski

Last fall, on a Sunday afternoon, as I walked out of the church, a young man tugged on my Franciscan habit. It was Miguel, a member of our Latino choir.

“Father,” he said, “please, pray for the people of my home parish back in El Salvador, especially for one of the priests who has received death threats.”

Startled, I asked: “What is happening there?"

“These priests are organizing against the multinational companies,” he said. “The companies are looking for gold. What will be left for our people? Only poisoned water, a wasteland, and death.”

A few weeks later, I had another similar conversation with a group from Guatemala. Theirs was a similar tale of how indigenous communities were being threatened by mining projects.

As a Catholic and a member of the Franciscan Order, I believe that we are called to “read the signs of the times” and to listen to the cry of the poor and the “groaning” of God’s Creation.

And the Mountains Will Fall

SOON AFTER Dr. Michael Hendryx assumed a professorship of health policy management at West Virginia University, he started hearing stories of sick people in Appalachian communities near mountaintop removal coal mining operations. Finding no scientific research that examined the correlation between mountaintop removal and community health, Hendryx and his colleagues began overseeing family health surveys and compiling health data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Since 2011, Peter Illyn of Restoring Eden (Christians for Environmental Stewardship) has recruited and led student volunteers from Catholic and evangelical Christian colleges in conducting door-to-door community health surveys for Hendryx’s research. Typical volunteer experiences, according to Illyn, include “aha” epiphanies and deepening conversions to God’s justice. Alex Gerrish, a recent Samford University (Birmingham, Ala.) graduate, recalls a searing experience. Her survey team visited a home located close by two mountaintop removal (MTR) operations, where a mother answered the door. She said, “I’m trying to get my son down for a nap,” explaining that her two-year-old had a heart defect. “Now’s not a good time to talk.” Two days later the team revisited the home to be met by an older, tear-stained woman. “I’m sorry,” she said. “My grandson passed away a couple days ago.” He never woke up from his nap. As Gerrish stood in shock, she recalled the statistics on high birth-defect rates in communities with mountaintop removal operations.

Now, more than two dozen published peer-reviewed studies show a high correlation between populations living amid MTR operations and very high rates of morbidity, asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, heart disease, cancer, and birth defects.

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Forget The Firm--Meet Francia

Francia -- Photo curtsey of Elizabeth Palmberg

Francia -- Photo curtsey of Elizabeth Palmberg

Most real-life law students I've met are at way, way less risk of being murdered than their counterparts in a John Grisham novel--except for Francia Marquez. The Afro-Colombian activist and mother of two has received multiple death threats as she advocates to keep her home community from having their ancestral home stolen by a land-grab big mining project.

There's gold in them thar hills in Francia's home, La Toma, in Colombia's Cauca province. Families in her hometown have lived for generations off of small-scale, by-hand gold mining. (Francia herself still puts in some mine time when she visits home, although these days she's spending the most time in her legal studies in Bogota.)

But lots of larger-scale mining concerns want in on the action. Some have sent in bulldozers illegally. Others are joining the land rush of getting mining concessions from the national government--notwithstanding laws on the books that give local communities various rights, including prior consultation on any mining projects.