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Seeking Alternatives to an Extractive Economy, U.S. Jesuit Delegation Heads to Kohima

The Jesuit Conference Office of Justice and Ecology stands in solidarity with indigenous peoples and affected communities in North America and around the world who are advocating for environmental and human rights in the face of extractive industry projects, such as oil, gas and mining. Through our work with indigenous peoples and Jesuit partners globally, we witness how ill-conceived and poorly managed extractive industry projects bring social conflict, corruption, displacement and environmental degradation.

Jesuits are working together with impacted communities and our partners to raise awareness about these concerns; to advocate for governments and corporations to respect human rights and the environment; and to seek alternative and sustainable solutions.

by John Sealey, Midwest Province Jesuits provincial assistant for social and international ministries

February 4, 2019 — With over 240 indigenous communities, Northeast India is home to a rich tapestry of cultures stretching back millennia. The Garo, who reside in the state of Meghalaya, migrated there as early as 400 B.C.E. In a reoccurring story suffered by indigenous people around the world, colonialization, globalization and subsequent marginalization threaten their cultural identity, often through extractive models of development.

The Midwest delegation and two of our Kohima Jesuit hosts. Back: Michael Schuck (hat). Middle: Steve Thomas, Paul Coelho, SJ, Dan Sullivan, Sunny Augustine, SJ. Front: John Sealey, Leah Sealey, Laura Brentner.

In 2002, at the recommendation of the Society of Jesus’ Superior General, the Jesuits of the Kohima Region, which includes Meghalaya and the six other states in Northeast India, and the U.S. Midwest Province began building a relationship grounded in their common work with indigenous peoples.

In January, a delegation of representatives from the Midwest Province, including Loyola University Chicago’s Institute for Environmental Sustainability and St. Thomas More Parish (St. Paul, Minn.), visited the Kohima Region to explore possible areas of mutually beneficial exchange. As a foreshadowing of what the group was about to see, several weeks before the delegations arrived, 15 miners were trapped and subsequently presumed dead in an illegal mine 370 feet deep, as water from a nearby river flooded their hand-dug mine shaft.

The coal mines operate around the clock with coal barons enlisting desperate Indian and undocumented Bangladeshi day laborers for the equivalent of about of $4.50 U.S. dollars a day. Descending into mines on bamboo ladders, the miners dig 1,000-foot horizontal shafts in various directions.

Miners gathered around the entrance of a “box” mine. Our host, Fr. Sunny Augustine, SJ, president of Loyola College, Williamnagar, coming out of the mine.

The day that we were scheduled to visit coal mines in the Garo Hills, the Northeastern Student Association called a travel ban to protest a new immigration law. As a result, all shops were closed and work was stopped to comply with the ban. Through a Jesuit petition to a local official we were able to receive a travel pass for the day and navigated our way to the off-road mines.

Smiles and handshakes from furloughed workers greeted us as we approached the opening of the mine and took a few tentative steps on the bamboo ladders, peering into the dark abyss of the “box” mine. One might expect irritation from the miners being deprived their daily wages but instead we were greeted with gentle curiosity and silence, waiting for the day to pass for a return to work.  At their work camp some of the men even rested on heaps of the coal that envelop them day and night, the source of both their suffering and their sustenance.

In addition to box mines, the Garo Hills, part of the sub-range of the Himalayas, are dotted with “rathole” mines. These mines, controlled by a mining mafia, are rough hand-dug shafts, supported by lumber, dug directly into a cliff face. Inevitably, the instability of the rathole mines leads to dangerous and destructive cave-ins and landslides.

An entrance to a rathole mine.

The depletion of hillside soil compounds is another significant environmental concern in the region, a practice known as slash and burn or jumpcut agriculture. Jumpcut agriculture, which expends forests and erodes topsoil, has also contributed to the classification of Northeast India as one of the world’s 35 mega-biodiversity hot spots. To qualify, a region must meet two criteria: contain at least 1,500 vascular plants and have lost at least 70 percent of its primary vegetation.

The results of jumpcut agriculture.

Exacerbating this threat and its disproportionate effect on indigenous communities is bio-piracy, the exploitation and privatization of plants and species. According to Fr. Walter Fernandes, SJ, founder of the Kohima Region’s Northeastern Social Research Center, it is estimated that 50-60 percent of all patented medicines in the market are pirated from the indigenous communities.

Despite these formidable challenges, there are signs of hope and resilience. One community developed a fish reserve. In another, medical missionary Sr. Rose Kayathinkara founded the Mendipathar Multipurpose Cooperative Society. The co-op organizes women to cultivate and sell rubber, spices and other organic agricultural products, which bring fair wages to families. Our host, the Jesuit-sponsored Loyola College in Williamnagar, is developing a sustainable farm and fishery on their 25-acre campus, which includes a nearby 246-acre reserve given by the community to be developed as a teaching farm to support organic and sustainable farming and forest conservation.

The future sustainable farm at Loyola College.

Jesuits and their companions in Northeast India’s Kohima Region are not operating under the illusion they can single-handedly eliminate exploitative coal mining, jumpcut agriculture or bio-piracy. Rather, through education, social action, legal advocacy, research and pastoral care, they are creating the conditions to embody the call in Laudato Si’ to provide long-term viable alternatives and responsible development for the common good.

As in most of the world, the roosters in the Garo Hills start crowing around 3 a.m. A few hours later, younger roosters try out their lungs, producing random squawks. The older birds chide the younger ones for their lack of conformity. Perhaps the Jesuits’ work in the Kohima Region could be understood as that of accompaniment to embolden emerging voices on the frontiers, which in turn enriches us all, for God’s work of redemption is present in every culture — and every culture offers a unique glimpse of God’s plan.

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