C of E divests from Caterpillar as pressure grows over mining shares

By staff writers
February 10, 2009

The Church of England announced yesterday it had withdrawn its investments in a controversial company as theologians and priests intended to publish a letter denouncing the Church's investment.

But the news also came amidst fresh revelations about the Church’s controversial investments in mining companies, which have lost the Church tens of millions of pounds over the last year.

The Church denied there were any political or ethical consideration in what it called an ‘economically informed decision’ to divest from Caterpillar Inc.

The Church of England said that it withdrew £2.2 million ($3.3 million) from Caterpillar Inc. in late December 2008 because of economic considerations. Israel used bulldozers bought from the US-based manufacturer of construction and mining equipment to demolish Palestinian homes.

However, the launch of a new report at the House of Commons yesterday which was attended by Church leaders and sponsored by former minister for International Development Clare Short MP, highlighted the detrimental impact of two mining companies on the Philippines, in which the church had a combined investment of £80 million – 40 times the size of its investment in Caterpillar.

News of the church’s divestment in Caterpillar came just in time to prevent the planned publication of a letter in the Guardian signed by 23 theologians accusing the Church of England of not acting on its policy to promote morally and ethically responsible investments.

"We believe that given the events in Gaza as well as the continued illegal occupation of whole swathes of Palestinian land and the illegal land grabs by settlers, supported by the Israeli Government, that the Church of England must make good on its policy of disinvestment and withdraw its investments from those who profit form the misery of millions of Palestinians immediately," the unpublished letter stated.

But the church denied it had withdrawn investment for political or ethical reasons and said the timing of the announcement was coincidental.

"The holding status was made public when (the Church was) asked," church spokesperson Steve Jenkins told AlArabiya.net. "The Church of England withdrew shares it held in Caterpillar for purely investment reasons."

He added that the Church sold its shares in Caterpillar “on investment grounds," explaining that the church’s investment body is charged with making investment decisions and takes into account the recommendations of its ethical advisory group.

Activists, however, believed the church's last minute announcement proved it had given into growing pressure.

Reverend Garth Hewitt chair of the Interfaith Group for Morally Responsible Investment (IMRI) expressed concern over the Church of England's claim that it had divested for economic reasons and not at the Synod's instigation.

"I think it is a little bit sad that they quietly removed their holdings presumably to avoid any fuss," he said, adding that members of the General Synod had no news of divestment.

"We only heard about this by accident as it was not publicized. It appears to have been done secretly and leaked, then later announced as divestment but not at [our] instigation," he said.

The US-based manufacturer of construction and mining equipment has been criticized for several years by heavy weight human rights organizations Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch as well as the United Nations for supplying weaponized bulldozers to Israel's military which has used them to raze more than 7,000 homes and fields that form Palestinians' livelihood since 1967.

Rachel Corrie, a 24-year-old American activist, was bulldozed to death in 2003 by an IDF-operated Caterpillar D9R armoured bulldozer in Gaza.

The withdrawal of its investment in Caterpillar for ‘economic reasons’ will however also increase speculation that the Church may sell its holdings in two mining companies - Xstrata group and BHP Billiton, which have lost the church tens of millions of pounds over the last year.

Both were criticised in a report yesterday entitled ‘Philippines – Mining or Food’, which urged a withdrawal of international investment in mining until ‘proper procedures’ are in place to protect human rights and the environment. The report was backed by Church groups involved in ethical investment, and the launch was attended by bishops.

According to the last annual report of the Church Commissioners, the Church of England had a £33.2 million shareholding Xstrata and a £47.5 million shareholding in BHP Billiton.

But the Church’s investment in Xstrata has lost over 80% of its value over the last year. Its investment in BHP has halved in value.

You can read an account of the launch of Philipines: mining or food?here

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