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"They harm our very dreams": Why it’s time to end corporate abuse

9 February 2022
Latin America - Colombia - Defending land, territory and the environment

Indigenous women in La Guajira, Colombia, play a vital role in defending their land, livelihoods and water sources from large-scale mining.

“They harm our very dreams. A train runs along the tracks 24 hours a day, leaving noise pollution in its wake, environmental pollution with all of the dust that disperses through the air, into the environment, along those 147 kilometres, that cuts through the entire Wayúu territory.”

These are the words of Misael Socarras Ipuana, a member of the Wayúu community of La Gran Parada, Colombia, who have suffered for years the impacts of the huge open-pit Cerrejón coal mine. It has been reported that more than 20 communities have been forcibly displaced or dispossessed as a result of this mine, and more than 17 streams redirected or polluted.

This mine has been owned by BHP Billiton plc, Anglo American plc and Glencore: international companies all based in the UK or listed on the London Stock Exchange. These companies profit, while people and planet suffer.

UK companies, global impacts 

All over the world, communities CAFOD works with are experiencing human rights and environmental abuse linked to UK companies: the destruction of forests in Brazil for gold, timber and beef sold on UK markets; the violation of workers’ rights in Sri Lankan garment factories making clothes for UK brands and more.

Business can be a “noble vocation” if done right. But at the moment, responsible companies can be undercut by others who prioritise short-term profit over people’s livelihoods and our common home.

As Pope Francis laments, multinational companies “operate in less developed countries in ways they could never do at home.” These are not abstract or isolated tragedies but symptoms of a broken economic system; a “new form of colonialism”.

As Catholics, we must look for the root causes of these symptoms: business models that put profit above people.

Why current laws aren’t enough

As consumers, it’s near impossible for us to avoid human rights and environmental violations linked to the products or services we buy. And it shouldn’t be our responsibility to ensure that the products we buy have been produced responsibly. Where legislation does exist, it lacks punch. The UK’s Modern Slavery Act, for instance, relies on the idea that if a company produces an annual report on what it’s doing to combat modern slavery in its supply chains, that this will translate to action on the ground. Unfortunately, that’s often not the case.

The Government has recently taken steps to tackle deforestation in supply chains. But the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor are entwined and interdependent. This is we need an “integral ecology” approach: to address the impacts of business on people and our common home, together.

This is how we can tackle human rights and environmental abuse

Along with a coalition of NGOs and trade unions, we’re calling for a “Business, Human Rights and Environment Act”.

This would mean businesses would need to prevent abuse happening in the first place through conducting ‘human rights and environmental due diligence’ – no matter where in the world they operate. If businesses failed to take proper steps to prevent harm, they could be held accountable, and those harmed could access justice in the UK.

UK companies must be compelled to root out and answer for abuses in their supply chains and operations.

Share the campaign and ask your MP to pledge support for this new law.

Human rights defenders

We're urging the government to introduce a new law that will hold UK companies to account when their activities lead to human rights and environmental abuses.