In the last few weeks, the horrors of human trafficking in Malaysia became known to the world with the uncovering of unmarked graves near an abandoned migrant camp. This discovery confirms Malaysia’s designation by the State Department as a ” Tier 3 country,” indicating that it has serious human trafficking problems and is not making significant efforts to fight the scourge of modern-day slavery.
This grim reminder of the possible fate of migrant workers is a strong argument for the inclusion of the “No Fast Track for Human Traffickers” amendment in the Trade Promotion Authority bill passed by the U.S. Senate.
When Laudato Si, Pope Francis’ encyclical letter on the environment, appears on June 18, it will seem obvious to most people who the patron saint of the document is: St. Francis of Assisi, the great 12th- and 13th-century lover of all creation, whose famed “Canticle of the Sun” gives the text its title.
On Thursday, however, Francis provided an indirect clue that there’s another strong candidate as the patron, someone much closer in time though not yet formally declared a saint: Sister Dorothy Stang, an American missionary nun assassinated in Brazil in 2005 for defending the Amazon rainforest and the rights of poor farmers.
Sister Stang is known today as the “Martyr of the Amazon,” and the cause for which she laid down her life seems set to form a central component of Francis’ environmental agenda.
In remarks to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization on Thursday, Francis said that climate change is not the only ecological danger and warned that increasing reliance on biofuels is also dangerous when it supplants food production and exacerbates global hunger.
No doubt the Latin American pontiff was thinking in part of the Amazon, where biofuel production is both driving a new wave of deforestation and reducing the land devoted to food crops. According to Oxfam International, in 2012 the amount of crops consumed as biofuel by G8 countries, most of it produced in Brazil and Indonesia, could have fed more than 441 million people for an entire year.
Francis’ speech to FAO suggested that deforestation and the link between environmentalism and hunger will be a major concern of Laudato Si. In contemporary Catholic history, few figures are more associated with those issues than Sister Stang.
In her day, biofuels were just coming on the horizon. The main threat to the Amazon came from large-scale ranchers, who ruthlessly drove farmers from their lands in order to clear them by burning, often buying off police and judges to look the other way. Sister Stang was one of the few foreign missionaries in the area, and the defense of the forest became her life’s work.
Sister Stang grew up in Dayton, Ohio, joining the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur at age 17 with dreams of serving abroad. In 1966, she left for the city of Coroatá in Brazil, where her first assignment was to educate local farmers with no formal schooling.
When large-scale deforestation began in the 1970s, Sister Stang moved to the town of Anapu, described at the time as the “Wild West” of the Brazilian Amazon.
Sister Stang’s biographer, Sister Roseanne Murphy, set the scene: “The area is lawless. If the ranchers want more land for cattle, they simply send thugs with guns and say, ‘This is our land’.”
Famous for wearing T-shirts, shorts, and a baseball cap as she made her way through what amounted to a free-fire zone, Sister Stang emerged as the champion of farmers, indigenous groups, and the forest itself. One of her favorite T-shirts bore the slogan, A Morte da floresta é o fim da nossa vida, Portuguese for “The death of the forest is the end of our life.”
Sister Stang would camp outside police stations and courthouses, demanding that the rights of her people be upheld. At one point, local ranchers put a $50,000 bounty on her head.
“I don’t want to flee, nor do I want to abandon the battle of these farmers who live without any protection,” Sister Stang said. “They have the sacrosanct right to aspire to a better life on land where they can live and work with dignity while respecting the environment.”
Her time came in February 2005, when a powerful local rancher ordered that the houses belonging to 12 farmers be burned down near the town of Esperanza — which, interestingly, means “hope.” Sister Stang organized a meeting to encourage the farmers to stay put.
She invited gunmen working for the rancher to attend, trying to persuade them to reject violence. According to the later testimony of one of those gunmen, Sister Stang walked with them to the meeting, showing them the land that belonged to the farmers on a map.
They asked if she had a gun, prompting her to pull out a Bible and tell them it was the only weapon she had. Sister Stang read to them from the Beatitudes: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God.”
Obviously unmoved, they shot Sister Stang seven times, leaving her dead body along a muddy forest road. She was 73 at the time, having served in Brazil for 39 years.
David Stang, Dorothy’s brother, perhaps captured her legacy best. “Sometimes we think of nuns as gentle women with habits on, and we say, ‘Aren’t they nice servants?’ She was not that. She wasn’t that at all. She chose to be a servant, but she wasn’t anybody’s slave.”
Her story is a powerful reminder that Laudato Si won’t just drop out of a clear blue sky.
The ground for the pope’s environmental manifesto has been prepared by the witness and courage of scores of Catholic thinkers, pastors, and activists, and few put more on the line to make it possible than Dorothy Stang.
EMALAHLENI, South Africa – Everything in Andries Evans’ house is coated in black dust. It has invaded his sofas, the Jesus picture on the wall, the plastic cups and plates in his kitchen, and the old man himself.
He is a skinny, fragile man who looks much older than his 59 years. His red cap is dirty, his shirt and jogging pants are dirty. Everything is blackened from the coal his crumbling brick house is built upon.
The old man looked up and stuck his finger through the tin roof, as if it were going through soft butter.
“Look, it is all old and eroded.”
He said he feels the dust is not good for him, he is short of breath and feels weak. Even after 35 years, he cannot get used to the life on the Highveld of South Africa, an area that is said to have some of the highest air pollution levels in the world.
MNS is one of many informal settlements around the city of Emalahleni, “the place of coal” in Zulu, in the province of Mpumalanga, where decades of excessive coal mining has taken its toll on the environment.
The area of Emalahleni was declared a “High Priority Area” by the South African government in 2007 due to the hazardous substances in the air. Among the issues scientists have found are elevated carbon dioxide emissions, sulphur dioxide in the air, heavy metals in the soil and acidic groundwater. These were linked to the 22 collieries in Mpumalanga, as well as the 12 coal-fired power stations – of the country’s 16.
A new power station, Kusile, is planned to be completed in 2017 and will make pollution levels even worse, environmental experts warn.
“Now that we are going through a power crisis the government relies even more on coal,” said Tracey Davies, an attorney from the Centre for Environmental Rights in Cape Town.
“It is the easiest and quickest way to generate power, so we are just following this path without considering the consequences.”
Generating more power through coal means more coal must be extracted.
But South Africa, which currently generates 90 percent of its electricity through coal, is already struggling with the devastating impacts of more than a century of excessive mining.
A stroll around Emalahleni is enough to get a feel for the impact coal has had the environment.
The landscape shines in bright colours, layers of white and yellow cover former riverbeds and grasslands that were transformed into mining areas. There are no leaves on the trees, and the waters are clear and lifeless. Thick fog looms in the air.
“Acid mine drainage,” said Matthews Hlabane from the Southern African Green Revolutionary Council who has been monitoring the area for almost 30 years.
“The pH levels around here are below 1. Some residents of the informal settlements say that birds fall dead from the sky when they fly over the area.”
Hlabane laughs sarcastically. “In a few decades we are going to fight wars over water.”
He took Al Jazeera to areas in which coal seems have been burning underground for decades, where sinkholes and polluted groundwater from abandoned mines are a hazard to the surrounding communities.
Children play on the old mine dumps and adults collect the coal waste for domestic fires.
“If nothing happens we are going to lose all our water resources,” said Hlabane.
“The Olifants river is already contaminated and we are on our way to do the same to the Limpopo river.”
South Africa is not the only country to have chosen coal as the way forward in the near future. Demand for coal is growing worldwide. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), it has been “the fastest-growing global energy source of the 21st century”, ensuring 40 percent of the world’s electricity supply in 2014.
The IEA predicts that China will account for three-fifths of global demand growth in the next 5 years, followed by India and other Asian nations.
At the launch of the IEA’s annual Coal Market report last December, executive director Maria van der Hoeven said “coal use in its current form is
Even Europe, whose countries are investing more and more in renewable energies, still derives a third of its power from the most carbon-intensive fossil fuel.
These trends ignore the numerous studies that have proved the negative impacts of coal mining on the environment, for which South Africa serves as a prime example.
Acid mine drainage
“Acid mine drainage from coal mining areas has had a devastating impact on water resources, with acidification of rivers and streams, elevated metal levels and consequent fish die-offs”, said a report released by the WWF South Africa in 2011.
Another study conducted by Greenpeace concluded that “decades of coal [mining] have poisoned the landscape and driven the Olifants River to a crisis point”.
The study suggested that the pollution levels are the cause of more than 2,000 premature deaths per year in South Africa.
Attorney Tracey Davies holds the government responsible for this “nightmare disaster”. She said the lawmakers are failing to monitor and enforce the “wonderful policies” South Africa has regarding the rehabilitation of the environment.
“The Department of Mineral Resources is granting more and more licences without making sure that the shafts are adequately closed.”
The law urges the companies to rehabilitate an area concurrently, while they are mining it.
“But it is simply not happening,” she said.
Phuti Mabelebele from the Department of Petroleum and Minerals, which regulates the duties of mining companies to prevent environmental damage, says that currently 263 mining licences have been granted, and more than 500 prospecting rights.
“Mining companies are expected to comply with the mine environmental policy,” she told Al Jazeera. She explained that “there is a mine rehabilitation programme in place that companies comply with,” although she did not elaborate on the nature of the programme.
The Bench Marks Foundation of South Africa insists that action must be taken. The NGO released a report last year, saying that there are at least 6,000 abandoned mines in Mpumalanga – 160 of these are around Emalahleni – which are spilling acid water and heavy metals into the environment.
“We call for obligatory transparency by mining corporations regarding mine closure plans,” said John Capel, the CEO of the NGO.
“Thousands of communities are living in areas that should have been closed off due to extremely hazardous conditions”.
Sitting on fire
He refers to places like Coronation, an informal settlement on the other side of Emalahleni. It looks like a post-apocalyptic film set – hills over hills of blackness, interrupted by sinkholes that cut through the landscape like giant scars.
The settlement is named after the mining operation it was built on, which was owned by Anglo American Coal and closed in the late 1940s.
“I know this is not safe,” said Salome Elem, a local resident, as she stood on the ridge of the dump, shovelling coal into a large bucket.
She said she doesn’t want her four-year-old son to play in the area because of the sinkholes and the dust that she thinks are dangerous. Two boys were recently burned to death after falling into an abandoned mine shaft, she recalled.
She looked fearfully at Matthews Hlabane as the activist explained that the ground underneath her shack could collapse at any moment.
“I know where we are standing is not safe … but my house?” she asked.
Every day she collects coal for domestic use. She is one of millions of households in South Africa who don’t have access to power, although the wires supplying the mines are visible from where she digs.
“You say there is a power problem in South Africa?” she laughed.
“I cook with coal and use solar power for light.”
Elem pointed towards a red and white shack, less than 50m away. On the roof is a solar panel. It generates just enough power to light a weak bulb and charge their phones at night.
“Most of the people in Coronation have started using solar,” Elem said.
As a Catholic Sister, I oppose current efforts to “fast track” the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement through Congress. “Fast track” is a fundamentally broken and undemocratic process. It allows powerful corporations to define the U.S. trade agenda while excluding the voices of millions of people who may be harmed.
We are living in a time of unparalleled global inequality, and U.S. trade policy must be aimed at promoting the wellbeing of all people.What we know from similar trade agreements of the past two decades and policies proposed in current trade negotiations is that they have negatively affected human rights and development as well as the health and sustainability of the environment. We learned that modern trade agreements go far beyond the scope of trade and into areas that affect the lives of the most vulnerable in the United States and around the world. For example, in the drive to increase profits and cut expenses, workers’ unions are often prohibited while the exploitation and intimidation of workers is ignored. Lax enforcement of human rights in trade agreements create an environment in which human trafficking thrives.
As we in the U.S. have learned from past experience, trade agreements like TPP have had detrimental consequences for U.S. workers as well. New privileges for large commercial interests have fueled the displacement of small farmers and bankrupted small manufacturing and retail facilities. Jobs that initially came to U.S. towns and cities soon left for cheaper venues overseas. Trade negotiators can become fixated on specific commercial interests’ goals, ignoring the broader societal impact.
Trade must be mutually beneficial to all countries and peoples, not just developed countries and the global economic elite. People of faith believe that trade policy needs to put human dignity and the dignity of God’s creation at the heart of any agreement. Trade negotiations, like the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement, should not be conducted in secret which is what is happening now. Our faith traditions, like our Constitution, speak of the common values we share in ensuring community participation in the democratic process.
Congress, as the representative of “We the People,” must identify trade partners and trade priorities at the beginning of the negotiating process. There must also be transparency throughout the process. It is the role of Congress to ensure that health, safety, environmental and labor protections are included in trade agreements in exchange for expedited approval.
Ethel Howley, SSND, is the Social Responsibility Resource Person at the School Sisters of Notre Dame Cooperative Investment Fund in Wilton.