Vedanta: Why did it take the C of E so long, and what now for its mining portfoilio?

By Jonathan Bartley
February 6, 2010

Although welcome, the sale of the Church of England's shares in mining company Vedanta, announced yesterday, was long overdue. There are two clear questions that emerge from this. The first is why it took so long? The second is what it now intends to do about its more substantial holdings in other mining companies?

In its statement, the Church said the issues over Orissa only came to its Ethical Investment Advisory Group’s attention in June 2009. This does make one wonder whether they are really doing their job properly. It might also be noted that the shares have in the last few months hit an all time high, having recovered from a low just over a year ago, where their value was one fifth of what it is today. Money is much needed by the Church given that it is facing a huge black hole in its pension fund, and has just lost £40 million in one US property deal alone.

We have been highlighting what Vedanta has been doing, and how the Church of England has been profitting from it, since 2007. But the concerns actually go back to 2006. See for example this extract from India Update: Mines & Communities Website – of 26th May 2006:

The government of Megalaya has banned public meetings - a move clearly aimed at objectors to uranium mining. In an almost "carbon-copy" repetition of the massacre of Indigenous villagers protesting against establishment of Tata Steel's Kalinganagar plant in January, "security" forces on May 20 fired on local people opposing the establishment of a similar plant in Orissa. Meanwhile, the blockade against Tata's own plant runs into its fifth consecutive month...

Not a word of dissent at this rapid social dissolution is being sounded by the big foreign mining companies (BHPBilliton, Rio Tinto, Posco, Mittal, and Vedanta), poised to exploit the region's massive mineral resources.

Note the reference to BHP Billiton and Rio Tinto, which relates also to the second point. The Church has shares in these companies too as our report examining the ethics of the Church's investments in May 2009 highlighted.

Both the Church of England and the Methodist Church hold shares in Anglo American, BHP Billiton and Rio Tinto, despite the fact that the Catholic aid agency CAFOD, War on Want, Anglican bishops and the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines amongst others have previously condemned the companies for their activities.

The combined Church of England shareholding in these three companies was valued at £62 million in the last annual report of the Church Commissioners. This dwarfs the £3.5 million it had in Vedanta.

Mining is one of the most polluting industries in the world. It has a disproportionately negative impact on marine-dependent and land-based communities, especially indigenous peoples, and is frequently associated with forced evictions, militarisation, conflict and human rights abuses including extra-judicial killings.

BHP Billiton in particular has faced allegations of human rights abuses and widespread environmental destruction. The London Mining Network recently published an ‘alternative report’ into its activities. It outlined the negative impact of many of the company’s operations – in Australia, West Papua, Papua New Guinea, the Philippines, South Africa, Canada, Colombia and Chile.

The report involved the work of organisations from many countries working with directly impacted communities, including church groups. It catalogued abuses of human rights, particularly of affected communities, issues of worker health and safety, livelihood and food security, and environmental problems. It also raises issues around climate change and BHP Billiton’s commitment to increased extraction and promotion of both coal and uranium for power production.

Serious questions must now surely be asked about the Church's investments in other mining companies. At a time when the Church is seeking to 'green' its churches and campaign against climate change, not to mention human rights abuses, there is a clear conflict if it is seeking to make money from companies involved in environmental destruction and the abuse of vulnerable people.

I did put this to someone at a meeting recently, who is involved in where the Church invests its money. Their response was: "Well, no one on Synod really cares." If he is right, this of course raises a lot more questions still.

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