It’s a hard concept to grab hold of: why Presbyterians from the United States should pay attention to how oil and minerals are being mined in central Africa.
But an overture is coming to this year’s General Assembly, approved in October by Chicago Presbytery and up for consideration in other places, to ask the assembly to provide support for the “Publish What You Pay” campaign. That campaign — an international effort — is trying to persuade companies involved in mining and extractive industries in developing countries to make public the amount of money they provide the governments of those countries. Having those amounts publicly known, the campaign hopes, would pressure the governments to spend the money on public services and relief, not on weapons or personal extravagance.
The World Alliance of Reformed Churches also has passed a declaration asking for such information to be made public.
If companies extract resources from the earth “without due regard to how it affects water resources, the health of people, the economy of indigenous people,” that’s of great concern, said Setri Nyomi, a pastor from Ghana who’s general secretary of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches. “It’s part of our overall concern about what globalization is doing in the world today, “Nyomi said in an interview. “In serving the whims of economic powers, lives are being compromised.”
In part, this kind of advocacy reflects a changing model of international mission work.
More and more, Presbyterians concerned about hunger and AIDS and poverty are working in partnership with people from Africa and elsewhere — not necessarily providing money or hands-on assistance, but promising to learn about the issues of concern to people from those countries and to advocate on their behalf.
One place that’s happening is through the Joining Hands program of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), which works through the Presbyterian Hunger Program to form such partnerships. And one of the Joining Hands partners is the RELUFA (Reseau de Lutte Contre la Faim) network in Cameroon, a network of churches, ecumenical and nonprofit groups trying to pressure companies involved in mining there to make public the amount of money they pay to the government of Cameroon. RELUFA also works to provide micro-financing and address gender justice issues.
Valery Nodem, a lawyer from Cameroon who is coordinator of RELUFA, speaks of the “resource curse” — countries “rich” in natural resources often suffer devastating poverty as well. Nodem has worked for five years now trying to get compensation for people whose property and livelihoods were impacted by the construction of an oil pipeline running more than 1,000 kilometers through Chad and Cameroon to the coast, making progress only slowly despite assurances from the World Bank that things would be handled fairly.
“The World Bank said, ‘We’re going to use this project to show it can happen differently,'” Nodem said. “They failed in showing that.”
The pipeline crosses nearly 250 villages in Cameroon, Nodem said, and “a lot of people suffered a lot of destruction of their water supply, their rivers,” saw their fields and forests destroyed.
And not all were compensated, despite payments flowing to the government for construction of the pipeline.
And this scenario — the government reaping profit, the citizens stuck without resources or recompense — is not just a problem in Cameroon.
“It’s astounding how widespread the problem is,” said Sarah Pray, coordinator of the Publish What You Pay campaign in the United States. “This isn’t an Africa issue, it isn’t a central Asia issue. It truly spans the globe.”
About 60 countries around the world are considered natural resource-dependent and “the bulk of the world’s poorest people live in these countries,” which often have a history of corrupt and inefficient governments, Pray said.
She wants Americans to understand that “our consumption does have a global impact. We often don’t think about the people who live in the countries who get our oil. … These resources belong to the people.”
The Publish What You Pay campaign is based on the idea that transparency — making public what the mining companies are paying the governments — will result in more of that money being spent on needed public services. The Publish What You Pay campaign wants to use the regulations of the international stock markets to push companies involved in extractive mining to make public the extent of their payments to foreign governments.
The idea of working on systemic issues and advocating changes in public policy as a way of alleviating hunger is a concept that may be natural for some Presbyterians and a new idea for others.
“Working for economic justice isn’t on everybody’s radar screen,” said Christi Boyd, a PC(USA) mission co-worker in Cameroon. But the resources of Africa itself could address much of the poverty in Africa if the revenues from endeavors such as mining were invested in the country, said Lionel Derenoncourt, coordinator of the Joining Hands program.
R. Michael Winters, pastor of Morton Grove Community Church (Presbytery of Chicago) in Morton Grove, Ill., is involved in a partnership Chicago presbytery has with RELUFA in Cameroon through the Joining Hands network.
Winters said he had expected that the Publish What You Pay overture might be controversial, but Chicago presbytery passed it unanimously Oct. 16.
Chicago presbytery was one of the pilot presbyteries when Joining Hands first started, and “in the very beginning it was as hard for us as it was for RELUFA,” Winters said. “We wanted to help, we wanted to send money, we wanted to work on AIDS.”
But the Chicago Presbyterians slowly learned that their job was to learn from their African partners, Winters said — “to be responsive to their technology and their insight and their wisdom about how to address hunger in Cameroon.”
It is a different approach.
Winters said he’s been involved in hunger ministry for more than 30 years, and “I can’t tell you how many mission projects we’ve set up and water projects,” that worked fine “so long as we were there and providing money for it. But when we walked away and there was no more money, it just didn’t work anymore. This is very satisfying. It’s a new way the church is doing mission. It’s not a hand-on model, it’s about relationships.”
And Nodem says that international attention — the sense the world is watching — is crucial in getting the transparency that his network in Cameroon is working so hard to achieve from companies such as Exxon Mobil and Chevron.
Before, he said, there was no freedom to talk about oil production in countries such as Cameroon. Now, he goes into the field with representatives of Exxon, presenting the cases of people who have not been compensated for the damage to their property or livelihoods, “and the people will tell them the real stories. … We’re still pushing for justice.”
Nyomi, the WARC general secretary, said the responsibility of Christians regarding global economic issues is “one, being aware of it. And with Christians, we always start with prayer — praying both about people who are victims of such activities and people who perpetuate them. As Christians, we pray for redemption.”
And when churches become involved in the push for more transparency, “it makes a statement that our people understand the connection between faith and justice,” Nyomi said. “It also says to the people who are there, ‘You are not alone.'”
Some people may be uncomfortable with churches getting involved in the work of corporations, Nyomi acknowledged.
“But God’s way calls on enhancing life for all, not only those who are like me,” he said. “Even the richest people can understand, when a child is suffering, that’s not good enough. Justice goes deeper.”