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The Amazon Synod and the extractive industry — lessons for the Church in Africa

The Final Document of the Amazon Synod provides, among other things, a powerful contribution to Catholic social teaching and the Church’s pastoral response to the communities directly affected by the extractive industry. Stan Muyebe OP comments that African economies could learn a great deal from the Synod discussions, especially its criticism of unbridled extractivism as a model for economic development.

Much of the commentary around the Amazon synod has rightly focused on its doctrinal pronouncements, especially about married priests and pantheism.  This should however not blind us to the Final Document’s (FD) contribution to Catholic social teaching.  The Synod made some powerful recommendations for a pastoral response to extractivism as a model for development. 

The Amazon Synod introduced the notion that, despite the economic crisis, any model that seeks to attract direct foreign investment and spur economic growth should adhere to ethical values, especially the care of God’s creation and respect for the human dignity of society’s most vulnerable members. This is a deep lesson that Africa and the Church on the continent should also embrace.  

The darker side of extractivism  

Extractivism is one of the most pressing moral issues of our time.  Several countries in South America and Africa have adopted progressive extractivism as a model for development. It is a short-sighted strategy where countries build their direct foreign investment and economic growth on large-scale extraction and export of natural resources with little regard for human rights, care for the environment, and the long-term effects of unbridled extractivism.

Corruption is the dark face of extractivism. Many resource-rich countries in the global south have failed to benefit optimally from extractivism because of illicit financial flows and unfair trade agreements. The wealth created from the extractive industry often remains in the hands of an elite minority  (FD 72). Meanwhile, the communities living in resource-rich areas have borne the brunt of climate change and the environmental crisis.  In some places, it has also produced human rights violations and massive suffering for poor communities.

The wealth created from the extractive industry often remains in the hands of an elite minority.

They Synod sought to respond to the pastoral realities of the communities living with the negative effects of the extractive industry.  It denounced a “predatory extractivism which responds only to the logic of greed” (FD 67). The Final Document catalogues a list of adverse effects of extractive economy, with a particular reference to the destruction of Amazon forest. (FD, 10-13). Some of the other issues cited in the Synod document echo the concerns previously cited by the United Nations and other human rights organizations, such as land dispossession and killing of anti-mining activists (FD 45-50, 69).

The Synod recognized that the effects of extractivism also present new opportunities for the Church “to present Christ with all His power to liberate and humanize.” (FD 15).

A Church that takes sides

The Synod decided that the Church cannot remain neutral in the face of the harmful aspects of the mining industry, which affect the poor in particular and harm the earth.  “We may not be able to modify immediately the destructive model of extractivist development, but we do need to make clear where we stand, and whose side we are on” (FD 70).  The Synod resolved to identify itself with victims of extractivism, namely God’s creation and the poor.

Taking sides requires the Church to distances herself from the new colonizing powers in the world in order to listen to the poor (FD 15).

Taking sides also entails becoming a Church which is as an ally of local communities “who know how to take care of the Amazon, how to live and protect it.”

Taking sides requires the Church to distances herself from the new colonizing powers in the world in order to listen to the poor.

Final Document, synod on the amazon

The Synod has recommended several practical commitments through which the Church would manifest its solidarity with victims of extractivism. This includes:

  • a divestment campaign against extractive industries (FD 70);
  • a campaign for a global fund to settle the ecological debt to Amazonia communities (FD 83);
  • the establishment of a monitoring system against human rights violations in the Amazon;
  • the establishment of an Amazon office in the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development (FD 85).

The primary responsibility for ecological conversion

As a pastoral response to extractivism, the synod also called for ecological conversion from the sin of consumerism.  During one of their press conferences, some bishops pointed out that the response to the human rights and environmental crises in the Amazon requires the ecological conversion of all people, including those in North America, Europe and China who fuel the demand for the products that drive the extractive industry.  

The industrialization of the global north and its consumerist lifestyle are the key drivers of the expansion of extractive frontiers in South America and Africa. The bishops therefore insisted that the primary responsibility for ecological conversion rests with our brothers and sisters in Europe and North America. Their ecological conversion should include learning from the simple lifestyle of the indigenous people of the Amazon (FD,9).

Placing the human person and God’s creation at the centre

Other human rights organizations have called for a total ban on resource extraction in Africa and South America. The Synod was reluctant to a make similar pronouncement. It, however, insisted that extractivism in South America should be substituted by an alternative model of development “in which commercial criteria are not above the human rights criteria and environmental criteria” (FD 73).   

Extractivism in South America should be substituted by an alternative model of development “in which commercial criteria are not above the human rights criteria and environmental criteria.”

Final document, synod on the amazon, 73

This challenge equally applies to African countries.  Strategies employed to woo investors and realize economic recovery should not be considered as sacrosanct and immune from ethical scrutiny.  Even in the midst of the economic crisis, any model for stimulating foreign direct investment and economic recovery should be subjected to ethical values, especially the common good, the care of God’s creation and respect for human dignity.

The economic development of a country is not only about economic growth and economic efficiency.  It is primarily about people, including those of the future generation, and the care of God’s creation.

* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.

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Stan Muyebe OP
Stan Muyebe OP is the Provincial for the Dominican Order in Southern Africa. He directs the Southern African Catholic Bishops Conference Justice and Peace Commission. He also serves as an associate researcher both at the University of Pretoria and Domuni University. As a human rights activist and anti-corruption activist, he was involved as a complainant in the State Capture Inquiry which was conducted by Advocate Thuli Madonsela.

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