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Where encyclical hits the 
nail on the head

HONG KONG (SE): One of the criticisms directed against the recently released encyclical penned by Pope Francis entitled, Laudato Si’: On care for our common home, is that he does not adequately take the ingenuity of the human being into account.

But the type of ingenuity displayed by logging and mining companies on the southern Philippine island of Mindanao that uses every trick in the book to get around national laws designed to protect the environment is well recognised in his landmark work.

Long time missionary to The Philippines, Father Sean Martin, points out that what is known as the Zamboanga Peninsula in Mindanao was once lush, dense tropical forest—that is until Misamis Lumber Company began cutting the huge trees on the slopes of the sacred watershed in the Sugarloaf Range in 1977.

He says that a new road increased the ability of the company to move greater and greater amounts of the timber to the storage pond about eight kilometres away and, by 1982, the payload had increased from around 10 to 30 truckloads a day.

But as the local people watched the top soil being eroded, their rivers silting up and water supply becoming polluted and diminishing they acted to stop the logging.

A five-month day-and-night picket was organised and received support from people all over Pagadian diocese, as they began to understand what the consequences of the logging were.

Thanks to the support of the local police, the picket remained peaceful and in 1988 Misamis Lumber lost its logging licence and Sunville Timber took over, but reaped the fruit of the fragile landscape at a much lower rate.

The people saw the opportunity and the need to replant the mountain and their insight was supported by a meeting of the Multilateral Aid Initiative, made up of representatives of donor countries and aid groups that support The Philippines, held in Manila on 13 and 14 February 1990, which strongly recommended concern for the environment and sustainable livelihood projects.

The Multilateral Aid Initiative called for and received the cooperation of several Philippine government departments in having legislation passed to restore the forest land and to conserve the biological diversity that incorporated both biological and social concerns in its planning.

With a grant from the World Bank of US$1 million (41 million pesos at the time), the local Subaanen indigenous people began the work of replanting the bare hills with fruit and forest trees, and did the back-breaking work of contouring the slopes to stop the erosion. They rehabilitated over 1,000 hectares of stripped land.

The people succeeded in creating a sustainable and profitable network of rice lands, orchards and vegetable producing plots, as well as fish ponds and irrigation channels.

But in 1996 mining companies set their sights on the land. First Rio Tinto applied for 600,000 hectares.

Bishop Gerry Jeminez said, “It will tear the heart out of the land.” 

When pickets and appeals to the authorities failed, Jimmy Tindao and two Columbans, Sister Margaret Murphy and Father Frank Nally, travelled to London to present the case at the annual general meeting of Rio Tinto.

“Maybe you shareholders will get some money, but we the people who live on the land will perish,” they read from a letter penned by the bishop to the meeting.

Rio Tinto heard their plea and backed off, but the Philippine government Department of the Environment and Natural Resources and Mines and Geosciences Bureau did not, and nor did companies like Ferrum Mining and the Chinese Huaming Mining Resources.

They conspired to flaunt the law, using their ingenuity to falsify documents and skirt around the national laws that govern the acquisition of land in a watershed within an indigenous ancestral heritage area.

Father Martin says that today, there is a strong awareness among the people that destroying nature brings calamity, but mining companies are using self-serving politicians to disinherit the people.

He says that the high death toll during Typhoon Uring in 1991 and then Washi and Bopha in 2011 and 2012, as well as Haiyan in 2013, is directly related to the deforestation caused by mining and logging.

He pointed out, “People power can be strong in the midst of such devastation, but people in power can thoughtlessly destroy the invisible capital of nature.”

He went on to say, “The lesson that when nature gets angry, even the rich and powerful die has still not been learned.”

As he looks at the devastation, Father Martin agrees wholeheartedly that Pope Francis’ words in his encyclical hit the nail on the head when he wrote, “The earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth.”

Certainly in the case of the Zamboanga Peninsula, Father Martin agrees with the pope that corporate greed and political paralysis are running the show.

Father Martin says that the Subaanen people know that everything is connected, as the pope notes. They know that you cannot separate ecology from economics, ethics from politics.

“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,” Pope Francis says in his encyclical.

The pope told a gathering in Rome organised by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, held on July 17 on the negative effects of mining on local people, that he believes that the operation of the industry needs to undergo a paradigm shift.

“A cry for lost land; a cry for the extraction of wealth from land that paradoxically does not produce wealth for the local populations who remain poor; a cry of pain in reaction to violence, threats and corruption; a cry of indignation and for help for the violations of human rights, blatantly or discreetly trampled with regard to the health of populations, working conditions, and at times the slavery and human trafficking that feeds the tragic phenomenon of prostitution; a cry of sadness and impotence for the contamination of the water, the air and the land; a cry of incomprehension for the absence for inclusive processes or support from the civil, local and national authorities, which have the fundamental duty to promote the common good,” the pope told the gathering.

Father Martin hopes that the plea from the pope will awaken us all to join with the indigenous people who have given the widow’s mite to protect the life-giving qualities of nature, but he fears it is being tossed out and trampled underfoot.

But the pope, in taking the discussion on the environment away from being a mainly political, scientific and economic one, to one about the nature of a holy and precious gift from God, expresses the hope that change is possible, as human beings can rise above themselves to choose what is good.

And, as Father Andrew Hamilton sj notes in Eureka Street on June 21, science can document and demonstrate what will happen if things continue the way they are going. “Religions are in the business of conversion and their beliefs and symbols can underpin the change of heart necessary for concerted action.”

Even the human genius that so cleverly skirts the law could be transformed into one that supports the common wealth and common good of the planet.