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An Anarchistic Understanding of the Social Order: Environmental Degradation, Indigenous Resistance, and a Place for the Sciences
An Anarchistic Understanding of the Social Order: Environmental Degradation, Indigenous Resistance, and a Place for the Sciences
By: Andrew Gavin Marshall
FOR ROUGHLY FIVE HUNDRED YEARS, INDIGENOUS peoples have been struggling against the dominant institutions of society, against imperialism, colonialism, exploitation, impoverishment, segregation, racism, and genocide. The struggle continues today under the present world social order and against the dominant institutions of ‘neoliberalism’ and globalization: the state, corporations, financial institutions and international organizations. Indigenous communities continue to struggle to preserve their cultural identities, languages, histories, and the continuing theft and exploitation of their land. Indigenous resistance against environmental degradation and resource extraction represents the most direct source of resistance against a global environmental crisis which threatens to lead the species to extinction. It is here that many in the scientific community have also taken up the cause of resistance against the destruction of the global environment. While Indigenous and scientific activism share similar objectives in relation to environmental issues, there is a serious lack of convergence between the two groups in terms of sharing knowledge, organization, and activism.
Indigenous groups are often on the front lines of the global environmental crisis – at the point of interaction (or extraction) – they resist against the immediate process of resource extraction and the environmental devastation it causes to their communities and society as a whole. The continued repression, exploitation and discrimination against Indigenous peoples have made the struggle – and the potential consequences of failure – significantly more problematic. This struggle has been ongoing for centuries, and as the species heads toward extinction – as it is along our current trajectory – Indigenous peoples will be on the front lines of that process. Many in the scientific community have been struggling for decades to address major environmental issues. Here, the focus is largely on the issue of climate change, and the approach has largely been to work through institutions in order to create enough pressure to reform. Yet, after decades of organizing through academic and environmental organizations, lobbying governments, corporations and international organizations, progress has been slow and often ineffectual, with major international conferences being hyped up but with little concrete results. Indigenous peoples continue to struggle against the dominant institutions while many in the scientific community continue to struggle within the dominant institutions, though their objectives remain similar.
A major problem and disparity becomes clear: Indigenous peoples – among the most repressed and exploited in the world – are left to struggle directly against the most powerful institutions in the world (states and transnational corporations), while many in the sciences – an area of knowledge which has and continues to hold enormous potential to advance the species – attempt to convince those powerful institutions to profit less at exactly the point in history when they have never profited more. Indigenous communities remain largely impoverished, and the scientific community remains largely dependent for funding upon the very institutions which are destroying the environment: states, corporations and international organizations. Major barriers to scientific inquiry and research can thus be established if the institutions feel threatened, if they choose to steer the sciences into areas exclusively designed to produce ‘profitable’ forms of knowledge and technology. As humanity enters a critical stage – perhaps the most critical we have ever faced as a species – it is important to begin to acknowledge, question, and change the institutional contradictions and constraints of our society.
It seems only logical that a convergence between Indigenous and scientific activism, organization, and the sharing of knowledge should be encouraged and facilitated. Indeed, the future of the species may depend upon it. This paper aims to encourage such a convergence by applying an anarchistic analysis of the social order as it relates to environmental degradation, specifically at the point of interaction with the environment (the source of extraction). In classifying this as an anarchistic analysis, I simply mean that it employs a highly critical perspective of hierarchically organized institutions. This paper does not intend to discuss in any detail the issue of climate change, since that issue is largely a symptom of the problem, which at its source is how the human social order interacts directly with the environment: extraction, pollution, degradation, exploitation and destruction at the point of interaction.
This analysis will seek to critically assess the actions and functions of states, corporations, international organizations, financial institutions, trade agreements and markets in how they affect the environment, primarily at the point of interaction. It is also at this point where Indigenous peoples are taking up the struggle against environmental degradation and human extinction. Through an anarchistic analysis of Indigenous repression and resistance at the point of interaction between the modern social order and the environment (focusing primarily on examples from Canada), this paper hopes to provide encouragement to those in the scientific community seeking to address environmental issues to increase their efforts in working with and for the direct benefit of Indigenous peoples. There exists a historical injustice which can and must be rectified: the most oppressed and exploited peoples over the past five hundred years of a Western-dominated world are on the front lines of struggling for the survival of the species as a whole. Modern science – which has done so much to advance Western ‘civilization’ – can and should make Indigenous issues a priority, not only for their sake, but for the species as a whole. Indeed, it is a matter of survival for the sciences themselves, for they will perish with the species. An anarchistic analysis of the social order hopes to encourage a convergence between Indigenous and scientific knowledge and activism as it relates to resolving the global environmental crisis we now face.
GLOBAL CORPORATE POWER
Corporations are among the most powerful institutions in the world. Of the top 150 economies in 2010, 58% were corporations, with companies like Wal-Mart, Royal Dutch Shell, ExxonMobil, and BP topping the charts. According to Fortune’s Global 500 list published in 2012, the top ten corporations in the world were: Royal Dutch Shell, ExxonMobil, Wal-Mart, BP, Sinopec Group, China National Petroleum, State Grid, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, and Toyota Motor. The Global 500 corporations posted record revenues for 2011 at USD 29.5 trillion, up 13.2% from the previous year. Eight of the top ten conglomerates were in the energy sector, with the oil industry alone generating USD 5 trillion in sales, approximately 17% of the total sales of the Global 500. The second largest sector represented in the Global 500 was commercial banks, followed by the auto industry.
A scientific study conducted by the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich analyzed the ‘network of control’ wielded through 43,000 transnational corporations (TNCs), identifying “a relatively small group of companies, mainly banks, with disproportionate power over the global economy.” The researchers identified a ‘core’ of 1,318 companies which owned roughly 80% of the global revenues for the entire network of 43,000 TNCs. Above the core, the researchers identified a ‘super-entity’ of 147 tightly-knit corporations – primarily banks and financial institutions – collectively owning each other’s shares and 40% of the wealth in the total network. One researcher commented, “In effect, less than 1 per cent of the companies were able to control 40 percent of the entire network.”
Writing in the Financial Times, a former US Treasury Department official, Robert Altman, referred to financial markets as “a global supra-government,” explaining:
They oust entrenched regimes where normal political processes could not do so. They force austerity, banking bail-outs and other major policy changes. Their influence dwarfs multilateral institutions such as the International Monetary Fund. Indeed, leaving aside unusable nuclear weapons, they have become the most powerful force on earth.
The “global supra-government” of financial markets push countries around the world into imposing austerity measures and structural reforms, which have the result of benefiting the “super-entity” of global corporate power. The power and wealth of these institutions have rapidly accelerated in the past three decades of neoliberal ‘reforms’ promoting austerity, liberalization, deregulation, privatization and financialization. Neoliberal ideology was politically championed by Ronald Reagan in the United States and Margaret Thatcher in Great Britain, but was largely imposed upon the so-called ‘Third World’ (Latin America, Asia, and Africa) through major international organizations like the World Bank and the IMF. The results of this massive transfer of wealth and power to an increasingly connected and small fraction of the world’s population have been devastating for humanity and the world as a whole. This process guided by neoliberal dogma has been most often referred to as ‘globalization.’
As the 1980s debt crisis gripped the ‘Third World,’ the IMF and World Bank came to the ‘rescue’ with newly designed loan agreements called ‘Structural Adjustment Programs’ (SAPs). In return for a loan from these institutions, countries would have to adhere to a set of rigid conditions and reforms, including austerity measures (cutting public spending), the liberalization of trade, privatization, deregulation, and currency devaluation. The United States controls the majority shares of both the World Bank and IMF, while the US Treasury Department and Federal Reserve work very closely with the IMF and its staff. If countries did not adhere to IMF and World Bank ‘conditions,’ they would be cut off from international markets, since this process was facilitated by “unprecedented co-operation between banks from various countries under the aegis of the IMF.” The conditions essentially opened up the borrowing countries to economic imperialism by the IMF, World Bank, and transnational corporations and financial institutions, which were able to gain access and control over the resources and labour markets of poor countries. Thus, the 1980s has been known as the “lost decade of development,” as many ‘Third World’ countries became poorer between 1980 and 1990. Joseph Stiglitz, a former chief economist at the World Bank, wrote that, “such conditions were seen as the intrusion by the new colonial power on the country’s own sovereignty.”
The structural adjustment programs imposed upon the Third World devastated the poor and middle classes of the borrowing countries, often resulting in mass protests against austerity. In fact, between 1976 and 1992, there were 146 protests against IMF- sponsored austerity measures in 39 different countries, including demonstrations, strikes and riots. The governments, in response, would often violently repress protests. The government elites were often more integrated with and allied to the powerful institutions of the global economy, and would often act as domestic enforcers for the demands of international banks and corporations. For many countries imposing structural adjustment programs around the world, authoritarian governments were common. The IMF and World Bank structural adjustment programs also led to the massive growth of slums around the world, to the point where there are now over a billion people living in urban slums (approximately one out of every seven people on earth).
Further, the nations of the Third World became increasingly indebted to the powerful financial institutions and states of the industrial world with the more loans they took. The wealthy elites within the Third World plunder the domestic wealth of their countries in cooperation with global elites, and send their money into Western banking institutions (as ‘capital flight’) as their domestic populations suffer in poverty. The IMF and World Bank programs helped facilitate capital flight through the deregulation and ‘liberalization’ of markets, as well as through the opening up of the economies to unhindered exploitation. Some researchers recently compared the amount of money in the form of aid and loans going into Africa compared to that coming leaving Africa in the form of capital flight, and found that “sub-Saharan Africa is a net creditor to the rest of the world by a substantial margin.” The external debt owed by 33 sub-Saharan African countries to the rest of the world in 2008 stood at USD 177 billion. Between 1970 and 2008, capital flight from those same 33 African countries amounted to USD 944 billion. Thus, “the rest of the world owes more to these African countries than they owe to the rest of the world.”
The neoliberal ideology of ‘profit before people’ – enforced by the dominant states, corporations, banks and international organizations – has led to a world of extreme inequality, previously established by centuries of empire and colonialism, and rapidly accelerated in the past three decades. As of 2004, one in every three human deaths was due to poverty-related causes. In the twenty years following the end of the Cold War, there were approximately 360 million preventable deaths caused by poverty-related issues. Billions of people go hungry, lack access to safe drinking water, adequate shelter, medicine, and electricity. Nearly half of humanity – approximately 3.1 billion people as of 2010 – live below the USD 2.50/day poverty line. It would take roughly USD 500 billion – approximately 1.13% of world income (or two-thirds of the US military budget) – to lift these 3.1 billion people out of extreme poverty. The top 1% own 40% of the world’s wealth, while the bottom 60% hold less than 2% of the world’s wealth. As Thomas Pogge wrote, “we are now at the point where the world is easily rich enough in aggregate to abolish all poverty,” but we are “choosing to prioritize other ends instead.” Roughly 18 million people die from poverty-related causes every year, half of whom are children under the age of five. Pogge places significant blame for these circumstances upon the “global institutional arrangements that foreseeably and avoidably increase the socioeconomic inequalities that cause poverty to persist […] [policies which] are designed by the more powerful governments for the benefit of their most powerful industries, corporations, and citizens.”
In 2013, Oxfam reported that the fortunes made by the richest 100 people in the world over the course of 2012 (USD 240 billion) would have been enough to lift the world’s poorest people out of poverty four times over. An Oxfam executive, Barbara Stocking, noted that this type of extreme wealth – which saw the world’s richest 1% increase their income by 60% in the previous twenty years – is “economically inefficient, politically corrosive, socially divisive and environmentally destructive […] We can no longer pretend that the creation of wealth for few will inevitably benefit the many – too often the reverse is true.” A study by the Tax Justice Network in 2012 found that the world’s superrich had hidden between USD 21 and 32 trillion in offshore tax havens, meaning that inequality was “much, much worse than official statistic show,” and that “for three decades extraordinary wealth has been cascading into the offshore accounts of a tiny number of superrich,” with the top 92,000 of the world’s superrich holding at least USD 10 trillion in offshore accounts.
THE ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACT OF INEQUALITY
The human social order – dominated by states, corporations, banks and international organizations – has facilitated and maintained enormous inequality and poverty around the world, allowing so few to control so much, while the many are left with little. This global social and economic crisis is exacerbated by the global environmental crisis, in which the same institutions that dominate the global social order are simultaneously devastating the global environment to the point where the future of the species hangs in the balance.
Just as the dominant institutions put ‘profit before people,’ so too do they put profit before the environment, predicating human social interaction with the environment on the ideology of ‘markets’: that what is good for corporations will ultimately be good for the environment. Thus, the pursuit of ‘economic growth’ can continue unhindered – and in fact, should be accelerated – even though it results in massive environmental degradation through the processes of resource extraction, transportation, production and consumption.
Trading arrangements between the powerful rich nations and the ‘periphery’ poor nations allow for the dominant institutions to exploit their economic and political influence over weaker states, taking much more than they give. These trading relationships effectively allow the rich countries to offshore (or export) their environmental degradation to poor countries, treating them as exploitable resource extraction sources. As the resources of poor nations are extracted and exported to the rich nations, the countries are kept in poverty (with the exception of their elites who collude with the powerful countries and corporations), and the environmental costs associated with the high consumption societies of the industrial world are ultimately off-shored to the poor countries, at the point of interaction. Thus, international trade separates the societies of consumption from the effects of extraction and production, while the poor nations are dependent upon exports and exploiting their cheap labour forces. This process has been termed ecological unequal exchange.
Between the mid-1970s and mid-1990s, the majority of the world’s non-renewable resources were transferred from poor to rich nations, accelerating in volume over time (due to technological advancements), while decreasing in costs (to the powerful nations). Thus, between 1980 and 2002, the costs of resource extraction declined by 25% while the volume of resource extraction increased by more than 30%. Environmentally destructive processes of resource extraction in mining and energy sectors have rapidly accelerated over the past few decades, resulting in increased contamination of soils, watersheds and the atmosphere. Negative health effects for local populations accelerate, primarily affecting Indigenous, poor and/or migrant populations, who are subjected to excessive pollutants and industrial waste at nearly every part of the process of extraction, production and transportation of resources and goods.
In an examination of 65 countries between 1960 and 2003, researchers found that the rich countries “externalized” the environmentally destructive consequences of resource over-use to poor, periphery nations and populations, thus “assimilating” the environments of the less-developed nations into the economies of the powerful states, disempowering local populations from having a say in how their resources and environments are treated. Rich societies consume more than can be sustained from their own internal resource wealth, and thus, they must “appropriate” resource wealth from abroad by ‘withdrawing’ the resources in environmentally destructive (and thus, more economically ‘efficient’) ways. Apart from ecologically destructive ‘withdrawals,’ the rich nations also facilitate ecologically destructive ‘additions,’ in the form of pollution and waste which cause environmental and health hazards for the poor societies. This is facilitated through various trading arrangements (such as the development of Export Processing Zones), consisting of minimal to no environmental regulations, cheap labour and minimal restrictions on corporate activities.
While Japan and Western Europe were able to reduce the amount of pollutants and ‘environmental additions’ they made within their own societies between 1976 and 1994, they accelerated their ‘additions’ in waste and pollutants to the poor countries with which they traded, “suggesting a progressive off-shoring over the period onto those peripheral countries” not only of labour exploitation, but of environmental degradation. Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) by transnational corporations has been linked to extensive environmental hazards within the countries in which they are ‘investing,’ including growth in water pollution, infant mortality, pesticide use, and the use of chemicals which are often banned in the rich nations due to high toxicity levels and dangers to health and the environment, and greater levels of carbon dioxide emissions. Indeed, between 1980 and 2000, the total anthropogenic CO2 emissions from the rich countries increased by 21%, while over the same period of time in the poor countries it more than doubled. While forested areas in the rich nations increased by less than 1% between 1990 and 2005, they declined by 6% over the same period of time in poor countries, contributing to soil erosion, desertification, climate change and the destruction of local and regional ecosystems.
According to an analysis of 268 case studies of tropical forest change between 1970 and 2000, researchers found that deforestation had shifted from being directed by states to being directed and implemented by corporations and ‘economic’ interests across much of Latin America, Africa, and Asia. This was largely facilitated by the IMF and World Bank agreements which forced countries to reduce their public spending, and allowed for private economic interests to obtain unprecedented access to resources and markets. The rate of deforestation continued, it simply shifted from being state-led to “enterprise driven.”
Using a sample of some sixty nations, researchers found that IMF and World Bank Structural Adjustment Programs (SAPs) were associated with higher levels of deforestation than in countries which did not sign the SAP agreements, as they allowed rich nations and corporations to “externalize their forest loss” to poor nations. Further, “economic growth” as defined by the World Bank and IMF was related to increased levels of deforestation, leading the researchers to acknowledge that, “economic growth adversely impacts the natural environment.” World Bank development loans to countries (as separate from structural adjustment loans) have also been linked to increased rates of deforestation in poor nations, notably higher rates than those which exist in countries not receiving World Bank loans.
Military institutions and armed warfare also have significant environmental impacts, not simply by engaging in wars, but simply by the energy and resources required for the maintenance of large military structures. As one US military official stated in the early 1990s, “We are in the business of protecting the nation, not the environment.” While the United States is the largest consumer of energy among nations in the world, the Pentagon is “the world’s largest [institutional] consumer of energy.” The combination of US tanks, planes and ships consume roughly 340,000 barrels of oil per day (as of 2007). Most of the oil is consumed by the Air Force, as jet fuel accounted for roughly 71% of the entire military’s oil consumption.
Nations with large militaries also use their violent capabilities “to gain disproportionate access to natural resources.” Thus, while the US military may be the largest single purchaser and consumer of energy in the world, one of its primary functions is to secure access to and control over energy resources. In an interview with two McKinsey & Company consultants, the Pentagon’s first-ever assistant secretary of defense for operational energy and programs, Sharon E. Burke, stated bluntly that, “My role is to promote the energy security of our military operations,” including by increasing the “security of supply.”
In a study of natural resource extraction and armed violence, researchers found that, “armed violence is associated with the extraction of many critical and noncritical natural resources, suggesting quite strongly that the natural resource base upon which industrial societies stand is constructed in large part through the use and threatened use of armed violence.” Further, when such armed violence is used in relation to gaining access to and control over natural resources, “it is often employed in response to popular protest or rebellion against these activities.” Most of this violence is carried out by the governments of poor nations, or by mercenaries or rebels, which allows for distancing between the rich nations and corporations which profit from the plundering of resources from the violent means of gaining access to them. After all, the researcher noted, “other key drivers of natural resource exploitation, such as the IMF, World Bank, WTO, and global marketplace, cannot, on their own, guarantee core nation access to and control over vital natural resources.” Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, the United States – and other powerful nations – and the major arms companies within them are the largest arms dealers in the world.
It is clear that for scientists – and anyone else – interested in addressing major environmental issues, the source of the problem lies in the very structure and function of our dominant modern institutions, at the point of interaction. In short: through states, armed violence, banks and corporations, international organizations, trade agreements and global ‘markets,’ the environment has become a primary target of exploitation and destruction. Resources fuel the wealth and power of the very institutions that dominate the world, and to maintain that power, they engage in incredibly destructive activities with negative consequences for the environment and the human species as a whole. The global environmental crisis is intimately related to the global social and economic crises of wealth inequality and poverty, labour exploitation, and ‘economic growth.’ To address the environmental crisis in a meaningful way, this reality must first be acknowledged. This is how an anarchistic understanding of the environmental crisis facing the world and humanity can contribute to advancing how we deal with these profound issues. For the sciences, the implications are grave: their sources of funding and direction for research are dependent upon the very institutions which are destroying the environment and leading humanity to inevitable extinction (if we do not change course). Advancing an anarchistic approach to understanding issues related to Indigenous repression and resistance to environmental degradation can help provide a framework through which those in the scientific community – and elsewhere – can find new avenues for achieving similar goals: the preservation of the environment and the species.
INDIGENOUS REPRESSION AND RESISTANCE
Indigenous peoples in the Americas have been struggling against colonialism, exploitation, segregation, repression and even genocide for over 500 years. While the age of formal colonial empires has passed, the struggle has not. Today, Indigenous peoples struggle against far more powerful states than ever before existed, transnational corporations and financial institutions, international organizations, so-called “free trade” agreements and the global ‘marketplace.’ In an increasingly interconnected and globalized world, the struggle for Indigenous peoples to maintain their identity and indeed, even their existence itself, has been increasingly globalizing, but has also been driven by localized actions and movements.
Focusing upon Indigenous peoples in Canada, I hope to briefly analyze how Indigenous groups are repressed, segregated and exploited by the dominant institutions of an incredibly wealthy, developed, resource-rich and ‘democratic’ nation with a comparably ‘good’ international reputation. Further, by examining Indigenous resistance within Canada to the destruction of the natural environment, I hope to encourage scientists and other activists and segments of society who are interested in environmental protection to reach out to Indigenous communities, to share knowledge, organizing, activism, and objectives.
A LEGACY OF COLONIALISM
Historically, the Canadian government pursued a policy of ‘assimilation’ of Indigenous peoples for over a century through ‘Indian residential schools,’ in what ultimately amounted to an effective policy of “cultural genocide.” In 1920, Canada’s Deputy Minister of Indian Affairs Duncan Campbell Scott bluntly explained: “I want to get rid of the Indian problem […] Our object is to continue until there is not a single Indian in Canada that has not been absorbed into the body politics and there is no Indian question, and no Indian Department.”
The segregation, repression and exploitation of Indigenous communities within Canada is not a mere historical reality, it continues to present day. Part of the institutional repression of Indigenous peoples is the prevalence of what could be described as ‘Third World’ conditions within a ‘First World’ nation. Indigenous communities within Canada lack access to safe drinking water at a much higher rate than the general population. Indigenous people and communities in Canada also face much higher levels of food insecurity, poverty, unemployment, poor housing and infant mortality than the rest of the population. Accounting for roughly 4% of the population of Canada (approximately 1.2 million people as of 2006), Indigenous peoples also face higher rates of substance abuse, addiction, and suicide.
Indigenous people – and especially women – make up a disproportionate percentage of the prison population. Further, as Amnesty International noted, “Indigenous women [in Canada] are five to seven times more likely than other women to die as a result of violence.” The Native Women’s Association of Canada has documented roughly 600 cases of missing or murdered indigenous women in Canada, more than half of which have occurred since 2000, while Human Rights Watch reported that the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) in northern British Columbia had “failed to properly investigate the disappearance and apparent murders of [indigenous] women and girls in their jurisdiction.”
RESOURCE EXTRACTION, ENVIRONMENTAL DEGRADATION, AND INDIGENOUS PEOPLES
Industries seeking to develop land and extract resources are increasingly turning to Indigenous territories to develop and seek profits on the land and environment upon which such communities are so often dependent for survival. At the point of interaction with the environment, Indigenous peoples are left to struggle with the damaging environmental and health consequences caused by state and corporate interests extracting resources and wealth from the land and environment.
The Alberta tar sands (or oil sands) is a primary example of this process. Many environmental, indigenous and human rights organizations consider the tar sands development as perhaps “the most destructive industrial project on earth.” The United Nations Environmental Programme identified the project as “one of the world’s top 100 hotspots of environmental degradation.” The dense oil in the tar sands (diluted bitumen) has to be extracted through strip mining, and requires enormous amounts of resources and energy simply to extract the reserves. It has been documented that for every one barrel of oil processed, three barrels of water are used, resulting in the creation of small lakes (called ‘tailing ponds’), where “over 480 million gallons of contaminated toxic waste water are dumped daily.” These lakes collectively “cover more than 50 square kilometres (12,000 acres) and are so extensive that they can be seen from space.” The processing of the oil sands creates 37% more greenhouse gas emissions than the extraction and processing of conventional oil.
While the United States consumes more oil than anywhere else on earth, Canada is the main supplier of foreign oil to the United States, exporting roughly 1.5 million barrels per day to the US (in 2005), approximately 7% of the daily consumption of oil in the US. The crude bitumen contained in the tar sands has been estimated at 1.7 trillion barrels, lying underneath an area within Alberta which is larger than the entire state of Florida and contains over 140,000 square km of boreal forest. In 2003, the United States Department of Energy officially acknowledged the reserves of crude bitumen in the Alberta tar sands, and elevated Canada’s standing in world oil markets from the 21st most oil-rich nation on earth to the 2nd, with only Saudi Arabia surpassing.
Alberta’s tar sands have attracted the largest oil companies on earth, including Royal Dutch Shell, ExxonMobil, BP, and Total S.A. Local indigenous communities thus not only have to struggle against the devastating environmental, health and social consequences caused by the tar sands development, but they also have to struggle against the federal and provincial governments, and the largest corporations on earth. The Athabasca River (located near the tar sands development) has been depleted and polluted to significant degrees, transforming the region “from a pristine environment rich in cultural and biological diversity to a landscape resembling a war zone marked with 200-foot-deep pits and thousands of acres of destroyed boreal forests.” Indigenous peoples have been raising concerns over this project for years.
Disproportionate levels of cancers and other deadly diseases have been discovered among a local Indigenous band, the Fort Chipewyan in Athabasca. These high levels of cancers and diseases are largely the result of the enormous amounts of land, air, and water pollution caused by the tar sands mining. One Indigenous leader in Fort Chipewyan has referred to the tar sands development as a “slow industrial genocide.” As pipelines are planned to be expanded across Canada and the United States to carry tar sands oil, this will have devastating impacts for “indigenous communities not only in Canada, but across the continent.”
Between 2002 and 2010, the pipeline network through Alberta experienced a rate of oil spills roughly sixteen times higher than in the United States, likely the result of transporting diluted bitumen (DilBit), which has not been commonly transported through the pipelines until recent years. In spite of the greater risks associated with transporting DilBit, the US agency responsible for overseeing the country’s pipelines decided – in October of 2009 – to relax safety regulations regarding the strength of pipelines. In July of 2010, a ruptured Enbridge pipeline in Michigan spilled 800,000 gallons of DilBit, devastating the local communities in what the government referred to as the “worst oil spill in Midwestern history.” In July of 2011, an Exxon pipeline spilled 42,000 gallons of DilBit into the Yellowstone River in Montana.
IDLE NO MORE: THE RISE OF INDIGENOUS RESISTANCE
In 2009, the Canadian Ministry of Indian Affairs and Northern Development announced the Federal Framework for Aboriginal Economic Development which sought to “improve the participation” of Indigenous people “in the Canadian economy,” primarily by seeking “to unlock the full economic potential of Aboriginal Canadians, their communities, and their businesses.” An updated report on the Framework in 2012 reaffirmed the intent “to modernize the lands and resource management regimes on reserve land in order to increase and unlock the value of Aboriginal assets.” As John Ibbitson wrote in the Globe and Mail, “businesses that want to unlock the potential of reserves, from real estate development to forestry and mining, need the legal certainty that a property regime makes possible.”
In late 2012, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservative Party introduced an omnibus Budget Bill (C-45) which amended several aspects of the Indian Act (without proper consultations with Indigenous groups). Bill C-45 also moved forward to “unlock” barriers to resource extraction, environmental degradation, and corporate profits with an amendment to the Navigable Waters Act, which dramatically reduced the number of protected lakes and rivers in Canada from 40,000 to 97 lakes, and from 2.5 million to 63 rivers.
Following the introduction of Bill C-45 to the Canadian Parliament, a group of four Indigenous women in the province of Saskatchewan held a “teach-in” to help increase awareness about the Bill, quickly followed by a series of rallies, protests and flash mobs where Indigenous activists and supporters engaged in ‘round dances’ in shopping malls, organized through social media networks like Twitter and Facebook. This sparked what became known as the ‘Idle No More’ movement, and on December 10, 2012, a National Day of Action took place, holding multiple rallies across the country. The immediate objectives of the Idle No More movement were to have the government “repeal all legislation that violates treaties [with Indigenous peoples], including those that affect environmental regulations,” such as Bill C-45 and the previous omnibus Bill C-38. The longer-term objectives of the movement were to “educate and revitalize aboriginal peoples, empower them and regain sovereignty and independence.”
Pamela Palmater, a spokesperson for Idle No More and a Ryerson University professor noted that Indigenous people in Canada were opposing Bill C-45 “not just because it impacts their rights, but also because we know that it impacts the future generations of both treaty partners,” referring to both Indigenous and non-Indigenous Canadians. “The question,” she added, “really should be whether Canadians will rise to protect their children’s futures alongside First Nations.”
Theresa Spence, an Indigenous chief from a northern Ontario community (Attawapiskat) went on a hunger strike for 44 days to support Idle No More and raise awareness about a serious housing crisis in her community. Spence only ended her hunger strike upon being hospitalized and placed on an IV drip. Her community of Attawapiskat had been experiencing a major housing crisis for a number of years, and in 2011, a state of emergency was declared in response to the fact that for over two years, many of the community’s 1,800 residents were “living in makeshift tents and shacks without heat, electricity or indoor plumbing.” James Anaya, a United Nations human rights expert expressed his “deep concern about the dire social and economic condition” of the Attawapiskat community to the Canadian government, which reflected a situation “akin to third world conditions.” The Conservative government of Stephen Harper (which came to power in 2006) blamed the crisis on the internal handling of funds within Attawapiskat, claiming that the government provided CAD 90 million in funding for the community since 2006. However, analysis of the funds revealed that only CAD 5.8 million in funding had gone toward housing over the course of five years. Meanwhile, estimates put the necessary funds to resolve the housing crisis alone at CAD 84 million. The former Minister for Aboriginal Affairs acknowledged that the government had known about the housing crisis for years, saying that it “has been a slow-moving train wreck for a long time.”
In 2005, the community of Attawapiskat had signed a contract with the international mining conglomerate De Beers to develop a diamond mine 90 km near their community. The mine officially opened in 2008, projecting a 12-year contribution to the Ontario economy of CAD 6.7 billion. In 2005, De Beers dumped its sewage sludge into the Attawapiskat community’s lift station, causing a sewage backup which flooded many homes and exacerbated an already-developing housing crisis, followed by another sewage backup potentially caused by De Beers in 2008. Afterward, the company donated trailers to the community to serve as “short-term emergency shelters,” yet they remained in place even four years later.
As the Idle No More movement took off in late 2012 and early 2013, members of the Attawapiskat community undertook road blockades leading to the De Beers mine. The company sought a legal injunction against the protesters, and the blockade was ended just as a large number of police were headed to the community to “remove the barricades.” After successfully blocking the mine from properly functioning for nearly twenty days, the company announced that it was considering taking legal action against the protesters.
The Idle No More mission statement called “on all people to join in a revolution which honors and fulfills Indigenous sovereignty which protects the land and water […] Colonization continues through attacks to Indigenous rights and damage to the land and water. We must repair these violations, live the spirit and intent of the treaty relationship, work towards justice in action, and protect Mother Earth.” The movement’s manifesto further declared that, “the state of Canada has become one of the wealthiest countries in the world by using the land and resources. Canadian mining, logging, oil and fishing companies are the most powerful in the world due to land and resources. Some of the poorest First Nations communities (such as Attawapiskat) have mines or other developments on their land but do not get a share of the profit.” As Pamela Palmater noted, Idle No More was unique, “because it is purposefully distances from political and corporate influence. There is no elected leader, no paid Executive Director, and no bureaucracy or hierarchy which determines what any person or First Nation can and can’t do […] This movement is inclusive of all our peoples.”
The Athabasca Chipewyan Indigenous band which had been struggling for years against the tar sands development were further mobilized with the eruption of Idle No More onto the national scene, including by establishing a blockade on Highway 63 leading to the tar sands development. As Chipewyan chief Allan Adam noted, “The way I look at it, the First Nations people are going to cripple this country if things don’t turn out […] Industry is going to be the target.” He also added: “We know for a fact that industry was the one that lobbied government to make this regulatory reform.” Indeed, this was no hyperbole.
THE STATE IN SERVICE TO CORPORATIONS
Greenpeace obtained – through access to information laws – a letter sent to the Canadian government’s Environment minister and Natural Resources minister dated December of 2011, written by a group called the Energy Framework Initiative (EFI), representing the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, the Canadian Energy Pipeline Association, the Canadian Fuels Association, and the Canadian Gas Association. The letter sought “to address regulatory reform for major energy industries in Canada” in order to advance “both economic growth and environmental performance.” It specifically referenced six laws that it wanted amended, including the National Energy Board Act, the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act, the Fisheries Act, the Species at Risk Act, Migratory Birds Convention Act, and the Navigable Waters Protection Act. Referring to many of these laws as “outdated,” the letter criticized environmental legislation as “almost entirely focused on preventing bad things from happening rather than enabling responsible outcomes.”
Less than a month after receiving the letter, the Canadian Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver lashed out at activists opposing the construction of Enbridge’s Northern Gateway pipeline shipping oil from Alberta’s tar sands to the B.C. coast for shipment to Asia, stating, “Unfortunately, there are environmental and other radical groups that would seek to block this opportunity to diversify our trade… Their goal is to stop any major project no matter what the cost to Canadian families in lost jobs and economic growth. No forestry. No mining. No oil. No gas. No more hydro-electric dams.” Oliver went on, saying that such “radical groups” were threatening “to hijack our regulatory system to achieve their radical ideological agenda,” and accused them of using funding from “foreign special interest groups.”
Documents from the energy industry revealed that big corporations advised the Harper government not to amend the many environmentally related acts separately, but to employ “a more strategic omnibus legislative approach,” which resulted in the two omnibus bills over 2012, Bills C-38 and C-45, which included “hundreds of pages of changes to environmental protection laws […] weakening rules that protect water and species at risk, introducing new tools to authorize water pollution, as well as restricting public participation in environmental hearings and eliminating thousands of reviews to examine and mitigate environmental impacts of industrial projects.” The energy industry got virtually everything it asked for in the two omnibus bills, including – as their letter to the Harper government suggested – reforming “issues associated with Aboriginal consultation.”
Documents from Environment Canada showed how the minister informed a group of energy industry representatives that the development of pipelines were “top-of-mind” as the government pursued “the modernization of our regulatory system.” When the new legislation passed, the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency announced that it has cancelled roughly 3,000 environmental assessments, including 250 reviews related to pipeline projects. Other documents showed that at the same time the minister was informing energy corporations that he was serving their interests, he was to inform Indigenous leaders that any “changes to the government’s environmental assessment or project approvals regime” were “speculative at this point” and that they would “respect our duties toward Aboriginal peoples.”
As the Harper government became the primary lobbyist for the Alberta tar sands, documents showed how the government compiled a list of “allies” and “adversaries” in its public relations campaign, referring to energy companies, Environment Canada and the National Energy Board as “allies,” and the media, environmental and Indigenous groups as “adversaries.” The Canadian government even ran an “outreach program” where diplomats would attempt to secure support among American journalists for the Keystone XL pipeline project – taking oil from the Alberta tar sands to the Gulf Coast in the United States.
As the Canadian government revised its anti-terrorism strategy in early 2012, it listed “eco-extremists” alongside white supremacists as a threat to national security. A review of Canadian security documents from the national police force (RCMP) and the Canadian intelligence agency (CSIS) revealed that the government saw environmental activism such as blockades of roads or buildings as “forms of attack” and “national security threats.” Greenpeace was identified as “potentially violent,” as it had become “the new normal now for Canada’s security agencies to watch the activities of environmental organizations,” noted one analyst.
IDLE NO MORE AND OIL PIPELINES
The government of Canada acknowledged in early 2013 that it expected – over the following decade – that there would be “a huge boom in Canadian natural resource projects,” potentially worth CAD 600 billion, which is foreseen to be taking place “on or near” Indigenous lands. One Indigenous chief in Manitoba warned that the Idle No More movement “can stop Prime Minister Harper’s resource development plan and his billion-dollar plan to develop resources on our ancestral territory. We have the warriors that are standing up now, that are willing to go that far.”
In an official meeting between the Harper government and the Assembly of First Nations in January of 2013, Indigenous ‘leaders’ presented a list of demands which included ensuring there was a school in every indigenous community, a public inquiry into the missing and murdered Indigenous women, as well as several other very ‘moderate’ reforms. For the government, the objectives were much more specific, as internal documents revealed, written in preparation for Harper’s meeting with Indigenous leaders. As one briefing memo stated, the government was working towards “removing obstacles to major economic development opportunities.”
For the Idle No More movement, which does not consider itself to be ‘represented’ by the Assembly of First Nations leaders, the objective is largely “to put more obstacles up,” as Martin Lukacs wrote in the Guardian. Indigenous peoples, he noted, “are the best and last defense against this fossil fuel scramble,” specifically in mobilizing opposition to “the three-fold expansion of one of the world’s most carbon-intensive projects, the Alberta tar sands.”
In March of 2013, an alliance of Indigenous leaders from across Canada and the United States announced that they were “preparing to fight proposed new pipelines in the courts and through unspecified direct action,” specifically referring to the Northern Gateway, Keystone XL and Kinder Morgan pipeline projects. One Indigenous leader at the formation of the alliance warned, “We’re going to stop these pipelines one way or another.” Another Indigenous leader commented: “We, as a nation, have to wake up […] We have to wake up to the crazy decision that this government’s making to change the world in a negative way.”
The territories of the ten allied Indigenous groups “are either in the crude-rich tar sands or on the proposed pipeline routes.” One Indigenous leader from northern British Columbia referred to the Canadian government, stating, “They’ve been stealing from us for the last 200 years […] now they’re going to destroy our land? We’re not going to let that happen […] If we have to go to court, if we have to stand in front of any of their machines that are going to take the oil through, we are going to do that. We’re up against a wall here. We have nowhere else to go.”
Roughly one week after the Indigenous alliance was formed, an ExxonMobil pipeline carrying Alberta tar sands oil through the United States ruptured in the town of Mayflower, Arkansas, spilling thousands of barrels of oil into residential neighbourhoods and the surrounding environment. Exxon quickly moved in with roughly 600 workers to manage the cleanup and sign checks “to try to win over the townsfolk and seek to limit the fallout.” The United States Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) put in place a “no fly zone” over Mayflower, Arkansas, within days following the oil spill. The ‘no fly zone’ was being overseen by ExxonMobil itself, thus, as Steven Horn commented, “any media or independent observers who want to witness the tar sands spill disaster have to ask Exxon’s permission.”
Between March 11 and April 9 of 2013 (in a span of roughly thirty days), there were 13 reported oil spills on three separate continents, with more than a million gallons of oil and other toxic chemicals spilled in North and South America alone. The oil spills included an Enbridge pipeline leak in the Northwest Territories in Canada (March 19), a tar sands ‘tailing pond’ belonging to Suncor leaking into the Athabasca River in Alberta (March 25), a Canadian Pacific Railway train derailment spilling tar sands oil in Minnesota (March 27), the Exxon spill in Mayflower (March 29), oil-based hydraulic fluid spilling into the Grand River from a power plant in Michigan (March 31), a CN Rail train derailment in Ontario (April 3), a drilling leak in Newfoundland (April 3), the Shell pipeline leak in Texas (April 3), a condensate spill at an Exxon refinery in Louisiana (April 4), and a pump station ‘error’ in Alaska (April 9). Another spill took place in June on Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain pipeline in British Columbia, one of the pipeline extensions being opposed by Indigenous groups.
Meanwhile, Stephen Harper was in New York in May, speaking to the highly influential US think tank, the Council on Foreign Relations, where he explained that the proposed Keystone XL pipeline “absolutely needs to go ahead,” adding that it was “an enormous benefit to the US in terms of long-term energy security.” TransCanada, the company aiming to build the Keystone XL pipeline, along with the government of Alberta, hired a team of lobbyists with connections to the Obama administration and Secretary of State John Kerry in particular to pressure the US government to approve the pipeline. In late April, the president of the American Petroleum Institute confidently declared, “When it’s all said and done, the president will approve the pipeline.” In late May, the CEO of TransCanada said, “I remain extremely confident that we’ll get the green light to build this pipeline.”
Leaders from 11 different Indigenous bands in the United States “stormed out” of a meeting in May being held with federal government officials in South Dakota in protest against the Keystone XL pipeline. The leaders criticized both the project and the Obama administration, with one leader commenting, “We find ourselves victims of another form of genocide, and it’s environmental genocide, and it’s caused by extractive industries.” Another Indigenous leader who walked out of the meeting warned, “What the State Department, what President Obama needs to hear from us, is that we are going to be taking direct action.” TransCanada has even been supplying US police agencies with information about environmental activists and recommendations to pursue charges of “terrorism” against them, noting that the company feared such “potential security concerns” as protests, blockades, court challenges, and even “public meetings.”
While Indigenous communities in Canada and elsewhere are among the most repressed and exploited within our society, they are also on the front lines of resistance against environmentally destructive practices undertaken by the most powerful institutions in the world. As such, Indigenous groups are not only standing up for environmental issues, but for the future of the species as a whole. With the rapidly accelerating ‘development’ of the tar sands, and the increasing environmental danger of huge new pipelines projects, resistance to how our modern society treats the environment is reaching new heights. Indigenous organizing – much of which is done along anarchistic ideas (such as with the Idle No More movement) – is presenting an unprecedented challenge to institutional power structures. Thus, there is an increased need for environmentalists, scientists, and others who are interested in joining forces with Indigenous groups in the struggle against environmental degradation and the potential extinction of the species. In Canada, there is an even greater impetus for scientists to join forces with Indigenous communities, for there is a state-sponsored assault upon environmental sciences that threaten to devastate the scientific community in the very near term.
THE CANADIAN GOVERNMENT’S ATTACK ON ENVIRONMENTAL SCIENCE
Since Stephen Harper’s Conservative government came to power in 2006, there has been a steady attack upon the sciences, particularly those related to environmental issues, as the government cut funding for major programs and implemented layoffs. One major facet of this attack has been the ‘muzzling’ of Canadian scientists at international conferences, discussions with the media, and the publication of research. At one conference hosted in Canada, scientists working for Environment Canada were forced to direct all media inquiries through the public relations department in an effort “to intimidate government scientists.” Under new government guidelines, scientists working for the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) cannot publish material until it is reviewed by the department “for any concerns/impacts to DFO policy.” The Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) expressed in a letter to Stephen Harper their “deep dismay and anger at your government’s attack on the independence, integrity and academic freedom of scientific researchers.” Hundreds of Canadian scientists marched on Parliament Hill in July of 2012 in what they called a “funeral procession” against the government’s “systematic attack on science.”
One of the world’s leading science journals, Nature, published an editorial in March of 2012 calling on the Canadian government to stop muzzling and “set its scientists free.” Journalists requesting interviews with Canadian government scientists on issues related to the Arctic or climate change have had to go through public relations officials, provide questions in advance, adhere to “boundaries for what subjects the interview could touch upon,” and have a PR staffer “listen in on the interviews.”
Dozens of government agencies and programs related to environmental sciences have had their budgets slashed, scientists fired, or were discontinued altogether. The Environmental Law Centre at the University of Victoria lodged a formal complaint with Canada’s Federal Information Commissioner about the muzzling of scientists, outlining multiple examples “of taxpayer-funded science being suppressed or limited to prepackaged media lines across six different government departments and agencies.” Natural Resources Canada now requires “pre-approval” from the government before any scientists give interviews on topics such as “climate change” or the “oilsands.”
The attack upon the sciences is part of the Harper government’s 2007 strategy, Mobilizing Science and Technology to Canada’s Advantage, which directed “a major shift away from scientific goals to economic and labour-market priorities,” aiming to focus on science and research which would be directly useful to industry and for commercial purposes. The Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) has been steered by the government “toward industry-related research and away from environmental science.” The government’s minister of state for science and technology noted that the focus for research was to be on “getting those ideas out to our factory floors, if you will, making the product or process or somehow putting that into the marketplace and creating jobs.” Further, the National Research Council (NRC) was “to focus more on practical, commercial science and less on fundamental science” which wouldn’t be as beneficial to corporate interests. The minister of state for science and technology, Gary Goodyear, announced it as “an exciting, new journey – a re-direction that will strengthen Canada’s research and innovation ecosystem for many years to come.” The president of the NRC noted that, “We have shifted the primary focus of our work at NRC from the traditional emphasis of basic research and discovery science in favour of a more targeted approach to research and development.”
As Stephen Harper said, “Science powers commerce,” but apparently to Harper, that is all it should do, even though many scientists and academics disagree. The implications should be obvious: just as society’s interaction with the environment is unsustainable, so too is the dependency of the sciences upon those institutions which are destroying the environment.
Regardless of one’s position in society – as a member of an Indigenous group, an activist group, or within the scientific community – all of human society is facing the threat of extinction, accelerated by our destruction of the environment sourced at the point of interaction (the location of extraction) between the dominant institutions of our world and the natural world itself. Roughly half the world’s population lives in extreme poverty, with billions living in hunger, with poor access to safe drinking water, medicine and shelter, monumental disparities in wealth and inequality, the production and maintenance of unprecedented weapons of death and destruction, we are witnessing an exponentially accelerating plundering of resources and destruction of the environment upon which all life on Earth depends. If there has ever been a time in human history to begin asking big questions about the nature of our society and the legitimacy of the institutions and ideologies which dominate it, this is it.
An anarchistic understanding of the institutions and ideologies which control the world order reveals a society blinded by apathy as it nears extinction. The institutions which dictate the political, economic and social direction of our world are the very same ones destroying the environment to such an extent that the fate of the species is put at extreme risk. To not only continue – but to accelerate – down this path is no longer an acceptable course of action for humanity. It is time that socially segregated populations begin reaching out and working together, to share knowledge, organizational capacity, and engage in mutual action for shared objectives. With that in mind, it would appear to be beneficial not only for those involved – but for humanity as a whole – if Indigenous peoples and segments of the scientific community pursued the objective of protecting the environment together. Acknowledging this is easy enough, the hard part is figuring out the means and methods of turning that acknowledgement into action.
This is again where anarchist principles can become useful, emphasizing the creative capacity of many to contribute new ideas and undertake new initiatives working together as free individuals in collective organizations to achieve shared objectives. This is not an easy task, but it is a necessary one. The very future of humanity may depend upon it.
For notes and sources, download the paper here.
Andrew Gavin Marshall is a 26-year old researcher and writer based in Montreal, Canada. He is Project Manager of The People’s Book Project, chair of the Geopolitics Division of The Hampton Institute, research director for Occupy.com‘s Global Power Pro-ject, and hosts a weekly podcast show with BoilingFrogsPost.
Meet the Next Country That Might Explode into Protests Against Corporate Plunder and Slave Labor Working Conditions
Meet the Next Country That Might Explode into Protests Against Corporate Plunder and Slave Labor Working Conditions
Will the wave of global unrest crash on Indonesia next?
By: Andrew Gavin Marshall
Originally published on AlterNet
Indonesia – a Southeast Asian archipelago that is home to the largest Muslim population on Earth – is a key global hot spot for corporate plundering, worker exploitation, land grabs and environmental devastation. Simultaneously, the country is becoming a tinderbox for militant labour unrest, peasant rebellion and indigenous resistance. After 500 years of domination by imperial powers, the population of Indonesia is organizing and resisting the ‘new order’ of global corporate colonization. Much like Brazil and Turkey, Indonesia has been praised by the imperial powers as a “model democracy” and the IMF hails its progress as an “emerging economy.” The illusions of Turkish and Brazilian state-capitalist ‘democracy’ have been revealed by massive urban uprisings. The conditions are present for Indonesia to become home to its own national uprising, the only question may be: what will be the spark?
Indonesia: A “Model Democracy” and “Emerging Economy”
Indonesia has been roundly praised by the major imperial powers as a “model democracy” – assuming they have any legitimacy to judge what that may be, with former World Bank president and Pentagon official in the Bush administration, Paul Wolfowitz, having written that Indonesia was “an example for other aspiring democracies,” having shown a “remarkable” achievement in “building democratic institutions.” Then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton praised the “great transformation” of Indonesia since the dictatorship of Suharto, stating: “If you want to know if Islam, democracy, modernity and women’s rights can coexist, go to Indonesia.”
President Obama even praised Indonesia’s “extraordinary democratic transformation” which demonstrated “that democracy and development reinforce one another.” British Prime Minister David Cameron proclaimed that Indonesia could “inspire” young Muslims around the world “to choose democracy as their future.” German Chancellor Angela Merkel said that Germans “view Indonesia as a model of peaceful and tolerant development,” and even suggested that the way in which Indonesia tackled its debt was “an example of what can be achieved and what Europe has to achieve.” Perhaps, Greece and Spain – in time – could become what Merkel views as “model democracies” along the lines of Indonesia.
Indonesia is the largest economy in Southeast Asia and one of the top 20 economies in the world – listed among the major “emerging economies” – with one of the cheapest labour forces in Asia, which the New York Times explained was “a main reason [corporations] are attracted to Indonesia.” In 2013, Indonesia was listed as the world’s 12th largest exporter of textile products, with the minimum wage averaging $80-160 per month (as determined by local governments), compared with $75 in Cambodia and $37 in Bangladesh.
In a country of 240 million people, roughly 120 million live on less than $2 per day, though the government maintains that only 12% of the population – 30 million – live in poverty (which it defines as less than 86 cents U.S. per day), while 40% of children under the age of five suffer from moderate to severe ‘stunting’ due to malnutrition.
Despite the mass poverty and increasing growth of slums, a small section of Indonesian society has witnessed a remarkable growth in wealth, with the explosion of shopping malls, luxury cars and goods, and high-rise buildings. For Indonesia, “wealth and poverty are both on the rise.” The combined wealth of the country’s 40 richest individuals equaled that of its 60 million poorest citizens. Standard Chartered Bank noted that, “despite the rhetoric about middle classes contributing to growth in Indonesia, 82 percent of the population is living on less than four dollars a day.” Further, most of the economic ‘growth’ was experienced only by the consumer elite within the country.
A Pew Research Poll released in 2013 noted that only 37% of Indonesians felt their economy was “doing well,” with the number one concern needing to be addressed was that of rising prices, ranked above economic disparity, unemployment and sovereign debt. Roughly 75% of Indonesians felt that the economic system “generally favors the wealthy,” with 60% saying inequality had increased in recent years.
A Human Rights Watch researcher noted that with the “routine” trampling of rights for religious and ethnic minorities in Indonesia, along with brutal repression of peaceful protests, the imprisoning of political prisoners, along with torture and denial of medical care for prisoners, “the country is by no means a bastion of tolerance.” A former Indonesian economic minister recently noted that “the outlook for Indonesia becoming a well-functioning democracy is fast deteriorating,” with a tiny elite controlling the country while most people “have few prospects for improving their lives.” A former Indonesian foreign minister suggested that the country was fast in need of “a second wave of democratic reforms,” as when economic conditions worsen, “we will have a reaction on the street” since there existed within the country, a “dissatisfaction at a deeper level with the current state of democracy.” Even the Wall Street Journal noted that with the country’s continuous economic growth, “underneath lies a restlessness for real change that would affect the common person.”
But let’s not let facts get in the way of further praise; the IMF certainly doesn’t.
The Rising “Restlessness” from “Underneath”
The IMF has written in glowing terms of the success of Indonesia’s “structural reforms” which have led to “healthy” balance sheets for corporations and financial institutions. Growth forecasts remained above 6%, though more work could be done, noted the IMF: ending fuel subsidies, investing in infrastructure (meeting the demands of corporations), and to continue with “reforms” to labour laws, allowing for reduced wages, less benefits and protections for workers, and thus, attracting “foreign investment.”
In April of 2013, the IMF warned that “emerging Asia” needed to be careful about asset bubbles – like those that helped plunge the U.S. economy into crisis – and recommended the countries of the region “liberalize rigid labour and product markets,” thus allowing for cheaper labour in what is already a region for some of the cheapest labour on Earth.
Being the 12th largest exporter of textile products in the world, Indonesia is home to a significant sweatshop economy, marred by pervasive exploitation of labour. One Taiwanese-owned sweatshop employs nearly 10,000 people, mostly women, who work for 50 cents per hour making shoes for Nike, where the employees were verbally and physically abused. Indonesia is home to Nike’s third largest manufacturing base, following China and Vietnam, exploiting roughly 140,000 workers.
Indonesia’s ‘labour law’ – which was passed several years earlier – provided for slightly increased wages and severance pay in the event that a company decides to ‘downsize’ its workforce. Corporations have gotten around this law by hiring labour as ‘contract workers’ and firing them without benefits (what Indonesians call “outsourcing”). While corporations have been able to find legal loopholes – or simply ignore the law altogether – they have been facing increased pressure from labour unrest in recent years, and not merely in the textiles sector.
As the economy boomed in recent years, the labour force wanted a greater share of the benefits. Strikes had been increasing with demands for higher wages by mine workers, supermarket clerks, pilots and others who have “disrupted business operations – and could potentially deter foreign dollars.” The country had 53 strikes in the first seven months of 2010 alone, and they were continuing through subsequent years.
A strike took place at a plant owned by the French retail giant Carrefour in 2011 in protests against the company’s avoidance of adhering to Indonesia’s labour laws and in demand of higher wages. The strike was organized by one of the country’s largest trade unions – Kasbi – which represents 130,000 workers and has as its slogan, “Young, brave, militant.” Increasingly, labour organizers and workers have been connecting through social media, gaining access to more information than ever before and facilitating new ways to organize.
During the strike wave of 2011, Indonesia’s investment chief complained about the labour unrest in his country in an interview with the New York Timeswhere he expressed his fears that it would “reduce profit margins and competitiveness,” adding: “My concern is this will trigger a domino effect … it may trigger pressure for a rise in wages that not all companies can afford.” In May of 2013, Basri would go on to be appointed as the country’s finance minister.
In early 2012, Nike paid a $1 million out-of-court settlement for not having paid 4,500 workers at a factory for over 600,000 hours of overtime over the course of two years. The chairman of Indonesia’s trade union Serikat Pekerja National noted, “This has the potential to send shockwaves through the Indonesian labour movement… We have only just begun.”
In October of 2012, roughly 2.8 million factory workers across the country went on a one-day strike supported by several unions in 24 cities. In the capital of Jakarta, more than 700 companies were shut down for the day, while the government deployed 11,000 police officers and 4,000 military personnel to “secure” the rallies throughout the city. The mass protests were in opposition to companies hiring labour as “contract workers” and in demand of higher wages. Rallies were held across Jakarta and the country, where trade union leaders gave what the Financial Times referred to as “fiery speeches,” while the managing director of the American Chamber of Commerce in Indonesia complained that corporations viewed the existing labour laws as “counter-productive.”
The mass protests continued into November, at which point the government announced it was considering a minimum wage increase of up to 50%, though corporations were warning they would move their factories elsewhere. Following continued agitation over the course of the month, which saw demonstrators entering factories, urging workers to join them and shutting down production, the new governor of Jakarta approved a 44% increase in the province’s minimum wage. Tens of thousands of workers continued to protest, while business leaders complained that, “the minimum wage should be lower.” As the protests threatened the President’s major infrastructure development plans, one large corporate group warned: “The frequent protests are obstructive… They are getting to be too much and must be stopped.”
As the Asian Development Bank (ADB) warned earlier in 2012, while many governments in Asia had been experiencing rapid economic growth, rising inequality had become a major problem that could lead to social unrest and create “pressure to take on populist policies that are economically not very wise.” It advised Asian countries “to do something about it.”
In December, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (commonly known as SBY) declared an end to the “era of cheap labour,” noting that wages were set to increase in a few provinces, though added that the government could not tolerate “disturbances in the production process.” A government economic minister stated in a speech that, “We should also take sides with businesses. Companies unable to comply with the minimum wage increases should immediately file a report with the government to demand a wage freeze. We will definitely facilitate them.” The threat of unrest and resistance had prompted several Asian countries – including Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia and China – to begin increasing their minimum wages by the end of the year.
As 2013 arrived and the wage increases were set to take effect, companies were finding their way around the new laws. Several Nike plants hired police and military officials to intimidate workers into signing away their rights to higher wages. Even before the New Year, roughly a thousand companies were seeking exemptions from the government in paying the higher wages. By mid-January, 941 companies had sought exemptions, by which time the government had granted 47. Thousands of workers took to the streets in protest, often met with police brutality or violence from “organized thugs.”
By early February, the government announced that of the total of 941 companies wanting exemptions, “we will grant about 80 percent of them.” Instead, 500 companies were given a “delay” in paying higher wages, with more expected. Labour groups were increasingly threatening action and agitation in response. Tens of thousands of workers continued to take to the streets in protest, demanding companies adhere to the law, that the government enforce it, and requesting a health insurance and pension system. Business groups were threatening to layoff up to a million workers and close 1,300 factories if they were forced to follow the law. One business group complained that companies were “facing tough times.”
On May 1 – the international labour day known as ‘May Day’ – tens of thousands of workers in Jakarta went on a one-day strike and march, bringing the city to a “standstill.” Roughly 50,000 people protested outside the Presidential Palace, not only demanding better wages and conditions, but also opposing the government’s new plan to raise fuel prices (by cutting subsidies). The Indonesia press reported that roughly 135,000 workers joined the May Day marches, as business groups complained such protests were a threat to “economic growth.”
Like any good state-capitalist ‘democracy,’ Indonesia went on to ignore the will of the people and bow to the will of the IMF. Following the advice of the IMF and World Bank, the government of Indonesia passed a law in mid-June to reduce fuel subsidies and increase the cost of fuel by 44% over the coming weeks. Thousands of protesters took to the streets over several days, met with tens of thousands of police and security personnel. Students and other groups joined demonstrations across the country, noting that increased costs of fuel raise the prices of other goods and services, such as food, clothing and public transportation. The cut to subsidies was designed to “ease investor concerns” about Indonesia’s finances. During the protests, the police used excessive force – as well as hiring “local thugs” – to attack protesters, and arrested 229 students in 62 cities, with roughly 118 students injured during protests, often by being fired upon with rubber bullets.
Can it really be said that Indonesia is a “model democracy” when so much of its economic “growth” is built on the backs of the mass exploitation of workers, and for the benefit of undemocratic global corporations? Indonesia is a model, perhaps, but not of democracy: it is a model for the global corporate plutocracy.
Though it has been fifteen years since the end of dictatorship, Indonesia’s transition to democracy has barely begun. The democratic aspirations of Indonesians are not seen in the luxury cars, shopping malls or high-rises that span the cityscapes – as the idolatries of economic ‘growth’ – but rather, it is seen in the workers who emerge from the factory sweatshops and take to the streets en masse, demanding the promises of democracy and economic growth be realized at long last.
Extractive Industries and Exploited Communities
Suharto’s ‘New Order’ witnessed the carving up of much of Indonesia’s wealth for American, British, French, German, Japanese and other corporations from the powerful countries of the world. The neoliberal era – from the 1980s onward – witnessed an exponential increase in corporate colonization, a process that accelerated with Indonesia’s transition from dictatorship to ‘democracy.’
In the early 1970s, the American oil company Mobil Oil discovered one of the world’s largest natural gas fields at Arun, located in Aceh province. For three decades, the Indonesian military waged a battle against the Free Aceh Movement (GAM), which sought autonomy from the country, leaving 10-30,000 people killed. When Mobil merged with Exxon in 1999, it retained control of the Arun project, and the military continued to attack local villages with the direct support of ExxonMobil. A lawsuit against Exxon alleges that the company “supervised, controlled and directed” military personnel who committed major human rights abuses between 1999 and 2001.
The region of West Papua was not part of Indonesia, but was a separate Dutch colony struggling for independence in the early 1960s. The U.S. and U.N. negotiated an agreement in 1962 where West Papua would be under the “interim control” of Indonesia for six years, at which point the country would vote for independence or to be part of Indonesia. When Suharto took full power in 1967, he negotiated an agreement with Freeport to grant a mining concession in the region. When the election in 1969 saw overwhelming support for independence, Suharto declared the area “a military operation zone” and sent in the military to crush the people’s local movement. Repression was rampant for decades, with up to 100,000 West Papuans having been murdered since 1969 in what some have referred to as a “slow-motion genocide.” Despite the region’s immense natural wealth, it remains as Indonesia’s poorest province. The Freeport mine itself has created “irreversible ecological devastation” to the region, with hundreds of thousands of tons of waste dumped into waterways and valleys daily.
The U.S.-based Freeport mine in West Papua – the largest copper and gold reserves in the world – experienced a three-month strike in 2011, where workers were demanding higher wages. Workers were paid as low as $1.50 per hour, while the mine made the company $5 billion in 2010 alone. Eventually, after a great deal of violence and injuries, including one death, the workers agreed to a 37% wage increase (far from their demands for a five-fold increase), but one union official noted, “This is not the end of our struggle.” Freeport had been paying millions of dollars directly to the police which guard its facilities, who had – on occasion – opened fire on the workers as they were protesting against the mine. In the ten years between 2001 and 2011, Freeport had given $79.1 million to Indonesian police and military forces.
As Amnesty International has noted, the police and security forces in Indonesia were often implicated in “torture, excessive use of force and unlawful killings.” Freeport’s chairman in 2005 explained: “There is no alternative to our reliance on the Indonesian military and police… The need for this security… as well as the decisions regarding our relationships with the Indonesian government and its security institutions, are ordinary business activities.”
Tin mining on the Indonesian island of Bangka has been popular among imperialists since the Dutch colonized the country in the early 19th century. Combined with the neighbouring island, Belitung, tin mining on these islands accounts for 90% of Indonesia’s tin, with the country being the second-largest exporter of tin in the world, used largely for consumer electronics. Indonesia supplies companies such as Samsung, Foxconn, Apple, Sony and LG with tin from these islands. The miners get paid low wages and workplace injuries (and deaths) have been on the rise in recent years. Further, the “lucrative but destructive trade… has scarred the island’s landscape, bulldozed its farms and forests, [and] killed off its fish stocks and coral reefs.” This destruction has often resulted in protests, some numbering over tens of thousands of locals.
In November of 2012, the U.S. Undersecretary of Commerce for International Trade Francisco Sanchez, stated that the United States hoped to “double its trade with Indonesia over the next five years,” as U.S. corporations were getting “excited about the opportunities” in the country for ‘growth.’ Sanchez traveled to Indonesia to encourage more trade between the countries, and he was accompanied by a delegation of corporate leaders from Cisco Systems, General Electric, and Honeywell International, among others.
Among the “opportunities” for growth – inspiring the ‘excitement’ of multinational corporate plunderers – is the profit that can be extracted from partaking in major land grabs and the destruction of the environment, with the added bonus of displacing thousands of peasant and indigenous communities in the process.
Land Grabs Lay Waste to Indonesia
Massive land grabs have been accelerating around the world since 2009, driving Indigenous peoples and farming communities off the land as foreign investors lay waste to the environment and create cash crops for export to rich countries. Oxfam noted in 2011 that the global land grabs were “already leading to conflict, hunger and human rights abuses,” since the ‘investment’ deals ignore the rights of those who live on the land, “leaving them homeless and without land to grow enough food to eat and make a living.” Land grabbing has been encouraged by the World Bank and IMF, most aggressively in Africa, but have spread across the world, from Central America to Indonesia.
In April of 2013, a Canadian mining company – East Asia Minerals Corporation – announced that it was working with the Indonesian government to “re-zone” nearly 2 million hectares of protected forest in Aceh for “industrial activities,” including mining, logging, and palm oil plantations. The company announced in a press release that they were working with the government to reclassify zones from “protected forest” to “production forest.”
Environmental groups warned that the reclassification could put biodiversity at risk, including endangered rhinos, elephants, orangutans, and tigers. Scientists from the Asia chapter of the Association for Tropical Biology and Conservation released a declaration stating: “Aceh forests are essential for food security, regulating water flows in both the monsoon and drought seasons to irrigate rice fields and other cash crops… Forest disruption in Aceh’s upland areas will increase the risk of destructive flooding for people living downstream in the coastal lowlands.” Despite opposition from environmental groups, scientists, human rights groups and local communities, the “model democracy” government said it hoped to approve the plan “as soon as possible,” which the mining company said was “positive news.”
This “positive news” has the effect of not only destroying what’s left of the third largest rainforest on Earth – and causing irreversible harm to its biodiversity – but it is also displacing the Indigenous and small farmer communities that live off the land and forests, most of whom are not compensated and forced to either migrate to urban slums or work for minimal wages at the companies that stole their land. Many communities resist, but are met with the “heavy-handed security and paramilitary forces.” In the previous ten years, more than 10 million hectares of land was “given away and converted to plantations,” destroying thousands of communities and laying waste to the environment in the process.
Over 600 conflicts over land in Indonesia were reported in 2011, including 22 deaths and hundreds of injuries. A national human rights commission in Indonesia reported over 5,000 human rights violations in 2012, largely linked to companies involved in deforestation. The founder of the Indonesian Peasant Union – with a membership of 700,000 – noted that the rapid expansion of palm oil plantations “has spawned a new poverty and is triggering a crisis of landlessness and hunger,” marred by forced evictions, violence, torture and even death.
A director of Friends of the Earth in Indonesia noted: “Who controls the land in Indonesia controls the politics. Corruption is massive around natural resources. We are seeing a new corporate colonialism. In the Suharto era you were sent to prison for talking about the government. Now you can be sent there for talking about corporations.” The police presence around plantations has been increasing, as has violent repression as the government “is trying to clamp down on mass protests.”
In the span of thirty years, global agribusiness, pulp and paper companies have turned the islands of Sumatra and Borneo – the third and sixth largest islands in the world – into near wastelands, threatening the incredible biodiversity – including endangered tigers, rhinos and elephants – to develop biofuels, vegetable oil and toilet paper. Scientists and environmentalists recently warned that “one of the 21st century’s greatest ecological disasters is rapidly unfolding.” In a matter of years, more than half of the third largest rainforest on Earth has been destroyed, and 70% of what remains is marked for “transition” into plantations. Nearly one million hectares of rainforest are destroyed every year in Indonesia, with scientists suggesting the endangered wildlife on the region will be extinct within a couple decades.
One Greenpeace official in Indonesia explained: “This is the fastest, most comprehensive transformation of an entire landscape that has ever taken place anywhere in the world including the Amazon. If it continues at this rate all that will be left in 20 years is a few fragmented areas of natural forest surrounded by huge manmade plantations. There will be increased floods, fires and droughts but no animals.” A director of Indonesia’s largest environmental group, Walhi, noted, “The legacy of deforestation has been conflict, increased poverty, migration to the cities and erosion of habitat for animals. As the forests come down, social conflicts are exploding everywhere.” Coal, copper, and gold mining companies are moving into Sumatra and Kalimantan, causing widespread deforestation and violent conflicts with local communities. The rare of deforestation is also increasing rapidly in the poorest province of West Papua.
In May of 2013, the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) reported that Indonesia – with the third largest tropical forest coverage in the world – was “not doing enough to protect its forests.” While Indonesia passed a moratorium on deforestation in May of 2013, a number of loopholes make it almost meaningless.
Due to its rapid rate of deforestation and the draining of peatlands, Indonesia is one of the world’s largest emitters of greenhouse gasses, ahead of Saudi Arabia, Australia, Brazil and France. The large paper company – APRIL (Asia Pacific Resources International Holdings) – has come into conflict with multiple villages in Sumatra as it undertakes a project to destroy 450,000 hectares of rainforest, an area which holds roughly 1.5 billion tons of carbon. A local village leader noted: “We would die for this [forest] if necessary. This is a matter of life and death. The forest is our life. We depend on it when we want to build our houses or boats. We protect it. The permits were handed out illegally, but now we have no option but to work for the companies or hire ourselves out for pitiful wages.”
The devastation to rainforests has not merely been confined to Indonesia, but has spread at an alarming rate across much of Southeast Asia, including Vietnam, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Burma, largely being driven by export-led growth, monoculture plantations, and the construction of dams and other large-scale infrastructure projects. The increasing rates of deforestation are exacerbated by the global explosion in land grabs, with the World Bank and other financial institutions like Deutsche Bank funding land grabs across Southeast Asia in which Indigenous people “are bearing the brunt of the seizures.”
In late June, fires started on or near major palm oil plantations owned by large companies became so large that the pollution spread across Malaysia and Singapore, causing a “hazardous” pollution warning in Singapore in the “worst haze” the country ever faced. Soon after, the Indonesian government announced it was investigating eight companies that might have started the fires on Sumatra, though the companies immediately blamed small landholders. An official from the Rainforest Action Network noted, “This recent smog is just the most visible part of the serious deforestation and human rights crisis sweeping Indonesia… Widespread, illegal burning to clear rainforests and peatlands for palm oil and pulp and paper plantation expansion is unfortunately a well-established yearly ritual in Sumatra.”
Farmers, workers, Indigenous people, women, youth, students and NGOs have been forming groups in which they pledged “resistance” in an “alliance against land grabbing” by the government and international corporations. Police have been using excessive force against protesters and Indigenous communities, and several peaceful activists have been imprisoned for opposing land grabs, deforestation and the construction of plantations.
The Indonesian People’s Alliance (IPA) formed in 2013 as an alliance of dozens of civil society groups, seeking to unite forces across Indonesia and internationally to oppose trade “liberalization” and respect national sovereignty. An IPA coordinator declared: “We have been told to preserve our forests, but large industry continues to wreck our environment and marginalize our own people. We cannot continue washing their dirty laundry.”
In June, a “militant peasant organization” – the Alliance of Agrarian Reform Movement (AGRA) – protested in the thousands against land grabbing in Indonesia, stating that the land “needs to be distributed back to the peasantry through genuine agrarian reform.” An official from the Asian Peasant Coalition (APC) – a regional Asian alliance of peasant organizations – noted that resistance was growing not only within Indonesia, but across much of Asia, where peasants were working to launch an “anti land grabbing campaign.”
Is an Indonesian Revolution in the Making?
The circumstances certainly exist – with 120 million people living on less than $2 per day, mass exploitation of workers, labour unrest, violent state repression, land grabs and corporate plundering, peasant and indigenous resistance, environmental devastation, and political corruption – for Indonesia to potentially witness a mass uprising. Workers are organizing across the cities against labour exploitation, while peasants and indigenous communities are organizing across the countryside against land grabs and environmental degradation, and increasingly, they are organizing and working together.
While the leaders of the imperial powers and institutions of the world praise Indonesia as an “emerging economy” and “model democracy,” the population of Indonesia is rising up against the corrupt, plutocratic elites, violent repression, environmental devastation, widespread exploitation and plundering that comes with those buzzwords. In short, the people of Indonesia are struggling to turn their country into a real model for democracy, and for the economy to emerge in respect of that ideal, not against it.
The demolition of a park in Istanbul sparked the urban uprising in Turkey, and the plan to raise bus fare sparked the urban uprising in Brazil. So perhaps the question is not ifIndonesia will experience similar circumstances, but rather: when, and what will be the spark?
Only time will tell, and no doubt, the Indonesians will let us know when it has happened.
Andrew Gavin Marshall is an independent researcher and writer based in Montreal, Canada. He is Project Manager of The People’s Book Project, head of the Geopolitics Division of the Hampton Institute, the research director of Occupy.com’s Global Power Project, and has a weekly podcast with BoilingFrogsPost.
“Human Beings Have No Right to Water” and other Words of Wisdom from Your Friendly Neighborhood Global Oligarch
“Human Beings Have No Right to Water” and other Words of Wisdom from Your Friendly Neighborhood Global Oligarch
By: Andrew Gavin Marshall
In the 2005 documentary, We Feed the World, then-CEO of Nestlé, the world’s largest foodstuff corporation, Peter Brabeck-Letmathe, shared some of his own views and ‘wisdom’ about the world and humanity. Brabeck believes that nature is not “good,” that there is nothing to worry about with GMO foods, that profits matter above all else, that people should work more, and that human beings do not have a right to water.
Today, he explained, “people believe that everything that comes from Nature is good,” marking a large change in perception, as previously, “we always learnt that Nature could be pitiless.” Humanity, Brabeck stated, “is now in the position of being able to provide some balance to Nature, but in spite of this we have something approaching a shibboleth that everything that comes from Nature is good.” He then referenced the “organic movement” as an example of this thinking, premising that “organic is best.” But rest assured, he corrected, “organic is not best.” In 15 years of GMO food consumption in the United States, “not one single case of illness has occurred.” In spite of this, he noted, “we’re all so uneasy about it in Europe, that something might happen to us.” This view, according to Brabeck, is “hypocrisy more than anything else.”
Water, Brabeck correctly pointed out, “is of course the most important raw material we have today in the world,” but added: “It’s a question of whether we should privatize the normal water supply for the population. And there are two different opinions on the matter. The one opinion, which I think is extreme, is represented by the NGOs, who bang on about declaring water a public right.” Brabeck elaborated on this “extreme” view: “That means that as a human being you should have a right to water. That’s an extreme solution.” The other view, and thus, the “less extreme” view, he explained, “says that water is a foodstuff like any other, and like any other foodstuff it should have a market value. Personally I believe it’s better to give a foodstuff a value so that we’re all aware that it has its price, and then that one should take specific measures for the part of the population that has no access to this water, and there are many different possibilities there.” The biggest social responsibility of any CEO, Brabeck explained:
is to maintain and ensure the successful and profitable future of his enterprise. For only if we can ensure our continued, long term existence will we be in the position to actively participate in the solution of the problems that exist in the world. We’re in the position of being able to create jobs… If you want to create work, you have to work yourself, not as it was in the past where existing work was distributed. If you remember the main argument for the 35-hour week was that there was a certain amount of work and it would be better if we worked less and distributed the work amongst more people. That has proved quite clearly to be wrong. If you want to create more work you have to work more yourself. And with that we’ve got to create a positive image of the world for people, and I see absolutely no reason why we shouldn’t be positive about the future. We’ve never had it so good, we’ve never had so much money, we’ve never been so healthy, we’ve never lived as long as we do today. We have everything we want and we still go around as if we were in mourning for something.
While watching a promotional video of a Nestlé factory in Japan, Brabeck commented, “You can see how modern these factories are; highly robotized, almost no people.” And of course, for someone claiming to be interested in creating jobs, there appears to be no glaring hypocrisy in praising factories with “almost no people.”
It’s important to note that this is not simply the personal view of some random corporate executive, but rather, that it reflects an institutional reality of corporations: the primary objective of a corporation – above all else – is to maximize short-term profits for shareholders. By definition, then, workers should work more and be paid less, the environment is only a concern so much as corporations have unhindered access to control and exploit the resources of the environment, and ultimately, it’s ‘good’ to replace workers with automation and robotics so that you don’t have to pay fewer or any workers, and thus, maximize profits. With this institutional – and ideological – structure (which was legally constructed by the state), concern for the environment, for water, for the world and for humanity can only be promoted if it can be used to advance corporate profits, or if it can be used for public relations purposes. Ultimately, it has to be hypocritical. A corporate executive cannot take an earnest concern in promoting the general welfare of the world, the environment, or humanity, because that it not the institutional function of a corporation, and no CEO that did such would be allowed to remain as CEO.
This is why it matters what Peter Brabeck thinks: he represents the type of individual – and the type of thinking – that is a product of and a requirement for running a successful multinational corporation, of the corporate culture itself. To the average person viewing his interview, it might come across as some sort of absurd tirade you’d expect from a Nightline interview with some infamous serial killer, if that killer had been put in charge of a multinational corporation:
People have a ‘right’ to water? What an absurd notion! Next thing you’ll say is that child labour is bad, polluting the environment is bad, or that people have some sort of ‘right’ to… life! Imagine the audacity! All that matters is ‘profits,’ and what a wonderful thing it would be to have less people and more profits! Water isn’t a right, it’s only a necessity, so naturally, it makes sense to privatize it so that large multinational corporations like Nestlé can own the world’s water and ensure that only those who can pay can drink. Problem solved!
Sadly, though intentionally satirical, this is the essential view of Brabeck and others like him. And disturbingly, Brabeck’s influence is not confined to the board of Nestlé. Brabeck became the CEO of Nestlé in 1997, a position he served until 2008, at which time he resigned as CEO but remained as chairman of the board of directors of Nestlé. Apart from Nestlé, Brabeck serves as vice chairman of the board of directors of L’Oréal, the world’s largest cosmetics and ‘beauty’ company; vice chairman of the board of Credit Suisse Group, one of the world’s largest banks; and is a member of the board of directors of Exxon Mobil, one of the world’s largest oil and energy conglomerates.
He was also a former board member of one of the world’s largest pharmaceutical conglomerates, Roche. Brabeck also serves as a member of the Foundation Board for the World Economic Forum (WEF), “the guardian of [the WEF’s] mission, values and brand… responsible for inspiring business and public confidence through an exemplary standard of governance.” Brabeck is also a member of the European Round Table of Industrialists (ERT), a group of European corporate CEOs which directly advise and help steer policy for the European Union and its member countries. He has also attended meetings of the Bilderberg group, an annual forum of 130 corporate, banking, media, political and military elites from Western Europe and North America.
Thus, through his multiple board memberships on some of the largest corporations on earth, as well as his leadership and participation in some of the leading international think tanks, forums and business associations, Brabeck has unhindered access to political and other elites around the world. When he speaks, powerful people listen.
Brabeck has become an influential voice on issues of food and water, and not surprisingly so, considering he is chairman of the largest food service corporation on earth. Brabeck’s career goes back to when he was working for Nestlé in Chile in the early 1970s, when the left-leaning democratically-elected president Salvador Allende was “threatening to nationalize milk production, and Nestlé’s Chilean operations along with it.” A 1973 Chilean military coup – with the support of the CIA – put an end to that “threat” by bringing in the military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, who murdered thousands of Chileans and established a ‘national security state’, imposing harsh economic measures to promote the interests of elite corporate and financial interests (what later became known as ‘neoliberalism’).
In a 2009 article for Foreign Policy magazine, Brabeck declared: “Water is the new gold, and a few savvy countries and companies are already banking on it.” In a 2010 article for the Guardian, Brabeck wrote that, “[w]hile our collective attention has been focused on depleting supplies of fossil fuels, we have been largely ignoring the simple fact that, unless radical changes are made, we will run out of water first, and soon.” What the world needs, according to Brabeck, is “to set a price that more accurately values our most precious commodity,” and that, [t]he era of water at throwaway prices is coming to an end.” In other words, water should become increasingly expensive, according to Brabeck. Countries, he wrote, should recognize “that not all water use should be regarded as equal.”
In a discussion with the Wall Street Journal in 2011, Brabeck spoke against the use of biofuels – converting food into fuel – and suggested that this was the primary cause of increased food prices (though in reality, food price increases are primarily the result of speculation by major banks like Goldman Sachs and JPMorgan Chase). Brabeck noted the relationship between his business – food – and major geopolitical issues, stating: “What we call today the Arab Spring… really started as a protest against ever-increasing food prices.” One “solution,” he suggested, was to provide a “market” for water as “the best guidance that you can have.” If water was a ‘market’ product, it wouldn’t be wasted on growing food for fuel, but focus on food for consumption – and preferably (in his view), genetically modified foods. After all, he said, “if the market forces are there the investments are going to be made.” Brabeck suggested that the world could “feed nine billion people,” providing them with water and fuel, but only on the condition that “we let the market do its thing.”
Brabeck co-authored a 2011 article for the Wall Street Journal in which he stated that in order to provide “universal access to clean water, there is simply no other choice but to price water at a reasonable rate,” and that roughly 1.8 billion people on earth lack access to clean drinking water “because of poor water management and governance practices, and the lack of political will.” Brabeck’s job then, as chairman of Nestlé, is to help create the “political will” to make water into a modern “market” product.
Now before praising Brabeck for his ‘enlightened’ activism on the issue of water scarcity and providing the world’s poor with access to clean drinking water (which are very real and urgent issues needing attention), Brabeck himself has stressed that his interest in the issue of water has nothing to do with actually addressing these issues in a meaningful way, or for the benefit of the earth and humanity. No, his motivation is much more simple than this.
In a 2010 interview for BigThink, Brabeck noted: “If Nestlé and myself have become very vocal in the area of water, it was not because of any philanthropic idea, it was very simple: by analyzing… what is the single most important factor for the sustainability of Nestlé, water came as [the] number one subject.” This is what led Brabeck and Nestlé into the issue of water “sustainability,” he explained. “I think this is part of a company’s responsibility,” and added: “Now, if I was in a different industry, I would have a different subject, certainly, that I would be focusing on.”
Brabeck was asked if industries should “have a role in finding solutions to environmental issues that affect their business,” to which he replied: “Yes, because it is in the interest of our shareholders… If I want to convince my shareholders that this industry is a long-term sustainable industry, I have to ensure that all aspects that are vital for this company are sustainable… When I see, like in our case, that one of the aspects – which is water, which is needed in order to produce the raw materials for our company – if this is not sustainable, then my enterprise is not sustainable. So therefore I have to do something about it. So shareholder interest and societal interest are common.”
Thus, when Brabeck and Nestlé promote “water sustainability,” what they are really promoting is the sustainability of Nestlé’s access to and control over water resources. How is that best achieved? Well, since Nestlé is a large multinational corporation, the natural solution is to promote ‘market’ control of water, which means privatization and monopolization of the world’s water supply into a few corporate hands.
In a 2011 conversation with the editor of Time Magazine at the Council on Foreign Relations, Brabeck referred to a recent World Economic Forum meeting where the issue of “corporate social responsibility” was the main subject of discussion, when corporate executives “started to talk about [how] we have to give back to society,” Brabeck spoke up and stated: “I don’t feel that we have to give back to society, because we have not been stealing from society.” Brabeck explained to the Council on Foreign Relations that he felt such a concept was the purview of philanthropy, and “this was a problem for the CEO of any public company, because I personally believe that no CEO of a public company should be allowed to make philanthropy… I think anybody who does philanthropy should do it with his own money and not the money of the shareholders.” Engaging in corporate social responsibility, Brabeck explained, “was an additional cost.”
At the 2008 World Economic Forum, a consortium of corporations and international organizations formed the 2030 Water Resources Group, chaired by Peter Brabeck. It was established in order to “shape the agenda” for the discussion of water resources, and to create “new models for collaboration” between public and private enterprises. The governing council of the 2030 WRG is chaired by Brabeck and includes the executive vice president and CEO of the International Finance Corporation (IFC), the investment arm of the World Bank, the administrator of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the chief business officer and managing director of the World Economic Forum, the president of the African Development Bank, the chairman and CEO of The Coca-Cola Company, the president of the Asian Development Bank, the director-general of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), the president of the Inter-American Development Bank, and the chairman and CEO of PepsiCo, among others.
At the World Water Forum in 2012 – an event largely attended by the global proponents of water privatization, Nestlé among their most enthusiastic supporters – Brabeck suggested that the 2030 Water Resources Group represents a “global public-private initiative” which could help in “providing tools and information on best practice” as well as “guidance and new policy ideas on water resource scarcity.”
Brabeck and Nestlé had been in talks with the Canadian provincial government of Alberta in planning for a potential “water exchange,” to – in the words of Maclean’s magazine – “turn water into money.” In 2012, the University of Alberta bestowed an honorary degree upon Peter Brabeck “for his work as a responsible steward for water around the world.” Protests were organized at the university to oppose the ‘honor,’ with a representative from the public interest group, the Council of Canadians, noting: “I’m afraid that the university is positioning themselves on the side of the commodifiers, the people who want to say that water is not a human right that everyone has the right to, but is just a product that can be bought and sold.” A professor at the university stated: “I’m ashamed at this point, about what the university is doing and I’m also very concerned about the way the president of the university has been demonizing people who oppose this.” As another U of A professor stated: “What Nestlé does is take what clean water there is in which poor people are relying on, bottle it and then sell it to wealthier people at an exorbitant profit.”
The Global Water Privatization Agenda
Water privatization is an extremely vicious operation, where the quality of – and access to – water resources diminishes or even vanishes, while the costs explode. When it comes to the privatization of water, there is no such thing as “competition” in how the word is generally interpreted: there are only a handful of global corporations that undertake massive water privatizations. The two most prominent are the French-based Suez Environment and Veolia Environment, but also include Thames Water, Nestlé, PepsiCo and Coca-Cola, among others. For a world in which food has already been turned into a “market commodity” and has been “financialized,” leading to massive food price increases, hunger riots, and immense profits for a few corporations and banks, the prospect of water privatization is even more disturbing.
The agenda of water privatization is organized at the international level, largely promoted through the World Water Forum and the World Water Council. The World Water Council (WWC) was established in 1996 as a French-based non-profit organization with over 400 members from intergovernmental organizations, government agencies, corporations, corporate-dominated NGOs and environmental organizations, water companies, international organizations and academic institutions.
Every three years, the WWC hosts a World Water Forum, the first of which took place in 1997, and the 6th conference in 2012 was attended by thousands of participants from countries and institutions all over the world get together to decide the future of water, and of course, promote the privatization of this essential resource to human life. The 6th World Water Forum, hosted in Marseilles, France, was primarily sponsored by the French government and the World Water Council, but included a number of other contributors, including: the African Development Bank, African Union Commission, Arab Water Council, Asian Development Bank, the Council of Europe, the European Commission, the European Investment Bank, the European Parliament, the European Water Association, the Food and Agricultural Organization, the Global Environment Facility, Inter-American Development Bank, Nature Conservancy, Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), Organization of American States (OAS), Oxfam, the World Bank, the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, the World Health Organization, the World Wildlife Fund; and a number of corporate sponsors, including: RioTinto Alcan, EDF, Suez Environment, Veolia, and HSBC. Clearly, they have human and environmental interests at heart.
The World Bank is a major promoter of water privatization, as much of its aid to ‘developing’ countries was earmarked for water privatization schemes which inevitably benefit major corporations, in co-operation with the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and the U.S. Treasury. One of the first major water privatization schemed funded by the World Bank was in Argentina, for which the Bank “advised” the government of Argentina in 1991 on the bidding and contracting of the water concession, setting a model for what would be promoted around the world. The World Bank’s investment arm, the International Finance Corporation (IFC), loaned roughly $1 billion to the Argentine government for three water and sewage projects in the country, and even bought a 5% stake in the concession, thus becoming a part owner. When the concession for Buenos Aires was opened up, the French sent representatives from Veolia and Suez, which formed the consortium Aguas Argentinas, and of course, the costs for water services went up. Between 1993, when the contract with the French companies was signed, and 1997, the Aguas Argentinas consortium gained more influence with Argentine President Carlos Menem and his Economy Minister Domingo Cavallo, who would hold meetings with the president of Suez as well as the President of France, Jacques Chirac. By 2002, the water rates (cost of water) in Buenos Aires had increased by 177% since the beginning of the concession.
In the 1990s, the amount of World Bank water privatization projects increased ten-fold, with 31% of World Bank water supply and sanitation projects between 1990 and 2001 including conditions of private-sector involvement, despite the fact that the projects consistently failed in terms of providing cheaper and better water to larger areas. But of course, they were highly profitable for large corporations, so naturally, they continued to be promoted and supported (and subsidized).
One of the most notable examples of water privatization schemes was in Bolivia, the poorest country in South America. In 1998, an IMF loan to Bolivia demanded conditions of “structural reform,” the selling off of “all remaining public enterprises,” including water. In 1999, the World Bank told the Bolivian government to end its subsidies for water services, and that same year, the government leased the Cochabamba Water System to a consortium of multinational corporations, Aguas del Tunari, which included the American corporation Bechtel. After granting the consortium a 40-year lease, the government passed a law which would make residents pay the full cost of water services. In January of 2000, protests in Cochabamba shut down the city for four days, striking and establishing roadblocks, mobilizing against the water price increases which doubled or tripled their water bills. Protests continued in February, met with riot police and tear gas, injuring 175 people.
By April, the protests began to spread to other Bolivian cities and rural communities, and during a “state of siege” (essentially martial law) declared by Bolivian president Hugo Banzer, a 17-year old boy, Victor Hugo Daza, was shot and killed by a Bolivian Army captain, who was trained as the U.S. military academy, the School of the Americas. As riot police continued to meet protesters with tear gas and live ammunition, more people were killed, and dozens more injured. On April 10, the government conceded to the people, ending the contract with the corporate consortium and granting the people to control their water system through a grassroots coalition led by the protest organizers.
Two days later, World Bank President James Wolfensohn stated that the people of Bolivia should pay for their water services. On August 6, 2001, the president of Bolivia resigned, and the Vice President Jorge Quiroga, a former IBM executive, was sworn in as the new president to serve the remainder of the term until August of 2002. Meanwhile, the water consortium, deeply offended at the prospect of people taking control of their own resources, attempted to take legal action against the government of Bolivia for violating the contract. Bechtel was seeking $25 million in compensation for its “losses,” while recording a yearly profit of $14 billion, whereas the national budget of Bolivia was a mere $2.7 billion. The situation ultimately led to a type of social revolution which brought to power the first indigenous Bolivian leader in the country’s history, Evo Morales.
This, of course, has not stopped the World Bank and IMF – and the imperial governments which finance them – from promoting water privatization around the world for the exclusive benefit of a handful of multinational corporations. The World Bank promotes water privatization across Africa in order to “ease the continent’s water crisis,” by making water more expensive and less accessible.
As the communications director of the World Bank in 2003, Paul Mitchell, explained, “Water is crucial to life – we have to get water to poor people,” adding: “There are a lot of myths about privatization.” I would agree. Though the myth that it ‘works’ is what I would propose, but Mitchell instead suggested that, “[p]rivate sector participation is simply to manage the asset to make it function for the people in the country.” Except that it doesn’t. But don’t worry, decreasing water standards, dismantling water distribution, and rapidly increasing the costs of water to the poorest regions on earth is good, according to Mitchell and the World Bank. He told the BBC that what the World Bank is most interested in is the “best way to get water to poor people.” Perhaps he misspoke and meant to say, “the best way to take water from poor people,” because that’s what actually happens.
In 2003, the World Bank funded a water privatization scheme in the country of Tanzania, supported by the British government, and granting the concession to a consortium called City Water, owned by the British company Biwater, which worked with a German engineering firm, Gauff, to provide water to the city of Dar es Salaam and the surrounding region. It was one of the most ambitious water privatization schemes in Africa, with $140 million in World Bank funding, and, wrote John Vidal in the Guardian, it “was intended to be a model for how the world’s poorest communities could be lifted out of poverty.”
The agreement included conditions for the consortium to install new pipelines for water distribution. The British government’s Department for International Development gave a 440,000-pound contract to the British neoliberal think tank, Adam Smith International, “to do public-relations work for the project.” Tanzania’s best-known gospel singer was hired to perform a pop song about the benefits of privatization, mentioning electricity, telephones, the ports, railways, and of course, water. Both the IMF and World Bank made the water scheme a condition for “aid” they gave to the country. Less than one year into the ten-year contract, the private consortium, City Water, stopped paying its monthly fee for leasing the government’s pipes and infrastructure provided by the public water company, Dawasa, while simultaneously insisting that its own fees be raised. An unpublished World Bank report even noted: “The primary assumption on the part of almost all involved, particularly on the donor side, was that it would be very hard, if not impossible, for the private operator [City Water] to perform worse than Dawasa. But that is what happened.” The World Bank as a whole, however, endorsed the program as “highly satisfactory,” and rightly so, because it was doing what it was intended to do: provide profits for private corporations at the expense of poor people.
By 2005, the company had not built any new pipes, it had not spent the meager investments it promised, and the water quality declined. As British government “aid” money was poured into privatization propaganda, a video was produced which included the phrase: “Our old industries are dry like crops and privatization brings the rain.” Actually, privatization attaches a price-tag to rain. Thus, in 2005, the government of Tanzania ended the contract with City Water, and arrested the three company executives, deporting them back to Britain. As is typical, the British company, Biwater, then began to file a lawsuit against the Tanzanian government for breach of contract, wanting to collect $20-25 million. A press release from Biwater at the time wrote: “We have been left with no choice… If a signal goes out that governments are free to expropriate foreign investments with impunity,” investors would flee, and this would, of course, “deal a massive blow to the development goals of Tanzania and other countries in Africa.”
The sixth World Water Forum in Marseilles in 2012 brought together some 19,000 participants, where the French Development Minister Henri de Raincourt proposed a “global water and environment management scheme,” adding: “The French government is not alone in its conviction that a global environment agency is needed more than ever.” A parallel conference was held – the Alternative World Water Forum – which featured critics of water privatization. Gustave Massiah, a representative of the anti-globalization group Attac, stated, “Should a global water fund be in control, giving concessions to multinational companies, then that’s not a solution for us. On the contrary, that would only add to the problems of the current system.”
Another member of Attac, Jacques Cambon, used to be the head of SAFEGE’s Africa branch, a subsidiary of the water conglomerate Suez. Cambon was critical of the idea of a global water fund, warning against centralization, and further explained that the World Bank “has almost always financed large-scale projects that were not in tune with local conditions.” Maria Theresa Lauron, a Philippine activist, shared the story of water privatization in the Philippines, saying, “Since 1997, prices went up by 450 to 800 percent… At the same time, the water quality has gone down. Many people get ill because of bad water; a year ago some 600 people died as a result of bacteria in the water because the private company didn’t do proper water checks.” But then, why would the company do such a thing? It’s not like it’s particularly profitable to be concerned with human welfare.
In Europe, the European Commission had been pushing water privatization as a condition for development funds between 2002 and 2010, specifically in several central and eastern European countries which were dependent upon EU grants. Since the European debt crisis, the European Commission had made water privatization a condition for Greece, Portugal, and Italy. Greece is privatizing its water companies, Portugal is being pressured to sell its national water company, Aguas do Portugal, and in Italy, the European Central Bank (ECB) and the Commission were pushing water privatization, even though a national referendum in July of 2011 saw the people of Italy reject such a scheme by 95%.
In this context, among the global institutions and corporations of power and influence, it is perhaps less surprising to imagine the chairman of Nestlé suggesting that human beings having a “right” to water is rather “extreme.” And for a very simple reason: that’s not profitable for Nestlé, even though it might be good for humanity and the earth. It’s about priorities, and in our world, priorities are set by multinational corporations, banks, and global oligarchs. As Nestlé would have us think, corporate and social interests are not opposed, as corporations – through their ‘enlightened’ self-interest and profit-seeking motives – will almost accidentally make the world a better place. Now, while neoliberal orthodoxy functions on the basis of people simply accepting this premise without investigation (like any religious belief), perhaps it would be worth looking at Nestlé as an example for corporate benefaction for the world and humanity.
Nestlé’s Corporate Social Responsibility: Making the World Safe for Nestlé… and Incidentally Destroying the World
As a major multinational corporation, Nestlé has a proven track record of exploiting labour, destroying the environment, engaging in human rights violations, but of course – and most importantly – it makes big profits. In 2012, Nestlé was taking in major profits from ‘emerging markets’ in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. However, some emerging market profits began to slow down in 2013. This was partly the result of a horsemeat scandal which required companies like Nestlé to intensify the screening of their food products.
Less than a year prior, Nestlé was complaining that “over-regulation” of the food industry was “undermining individual responsibility,” which is another way of saying that responsibility for products and their safety should be passed from the producer to the consumer. In other words, if you’re stupid enough to buy Nestlé products, it’s your fault if you get diabetes or eat horsemeat, and therefore, it’s your responsibility, not the responsibility of Nestlé. Fair enough! We’re stupid enough to accept corporations ruling over us, therefore, what right do we have to complain about all the horrendous crimes and destruction they cause? A cynic could perhaps argue such a point.
One of Nestlé’s most famous PR problems was that of marketing artificial baby milk, which sprung to headlines in the 1970s following the publication of “The Baby Killer,” accusing the company of getting Third World mothers hooked on formula. As research was proving that breastfeeding was healthier, Nestlé marketed its baby formula as a way for women to ‘Westernize’ and join the modern world, handing out pamphlets and promotional samples, with companies hiring “sales girls in nurses’ uniforms (sometimes qualified, sometimes not)” in order to drop by homes and sell formula. Women tried to save money on the formula by diluting it, often times with contaminated water. As the London-based organization War on Want noted: “The results can be seen in the clinics and hospitals, the slums and graveyards of the Third World… Children whose bodies have wasted away until all that is left is a big head on top of the shriveled body of an old man.” An official with the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) blamed baby formula for “a million infant deaths every year through malnutrition and diarrheal diseases.”
Mike Muller, the author of “The Baby Killer” back in 1974, wrote an article for the Guardian in 2013 in which he mentioned that he gave Peter Brabeck a “present” at the World Economic Forum, a signed copy of the report. The report had sparked a global boycott of Nestlé and the company responded with lawsuits.
Nestlé has also been implicated for its support of palm-oil plantations, which have led to increased deforestation and the destruction of orangutan habitats in Indonesia. A Greenpeace publication noted that, “at least 1500 orangutans died in 2006 as a result of deliberate attacks by plantation workers and loss of habitat due to the expansion of oil palm plantations.” A social media campaign was launched against Nestlé for its role in supporting palm oil plantations, deforestation, and the destruction of orangutan habitats and lives. The campaign pressured Nestlé to decrease its “deforestation footprint.”
As Nestlé has been expanding its presence in Africa, it has also aroused more controversy in its operations on the continent. Nestlé purchases one-tenth of the world’s cocoa, most of which comes from the Ivory Coast, where the company has been implicated in the use of child labour. In 2001, U.S. legislation required companies to engage in “self-regulation” which called for “slave free” labeling on all cocoa products. This “self regulation,” however, “failed to deliver” – imagine that! – as one study carried out by Tulane University with funding from the U.S. government revealed that roughly 2 million children were working on cocoa-related activities in both Ghana and the Ivory Coast. Even an internal audit carried out by the company found that Nestlé was guilty of “numerous” violations of child labour laws. Nestlé’s head of operations stated, “The use of child labor in our cocoa supply goes against everything we stand for.” So naturally, they will continue to use child labour.
Peter Brabeck stated that it’s “nearly impossible” to end the practice, and he compared the practice to that of farming in Switzerland: “You go to Switzerland… still today, in the month of September, schools have one week holiday so students can help in the wine harvesting… In those developing countries, this also happens,” he told the Council on Foreign Relations. While acknowledging that this “is basically child labor and slave labor in some African markets,” it is “a challenge which is not very easy to tackle,” noting that there is “a very fine edge” of what is acceptable regarding “child labor in [the] agricultural environment.” He added: “It’s almost natural.” Thus, Brabeck explained, “you have to look at it differently,” and that it was not the job of Nestlé to tell parents that their children can’t work on cocoa plantations/farms, “which is ridiculous,” he suggested: “But what we are saying is we will help you that your child has access for schooling.” So clearly there is no problem with using child slavery, just so long as the children get some schooling… presumably, in their ‘off-hours’ from slavery. Problem solved!
While Brabeck and Nestlé have made a big issue of water scarcity, which again, is an incredibly important issue, their solutions revolve around “pricing” water at a market value, and thus encouraging privatization. Indeed, a global water grab has been a defining feature of the past several years (coupled with a great global land grab), in which investors, countries, banks and corporations have been buying up vast tracts of land (primarily in sub-Saharan Africa) for virtually nothing, pushing off the populations which live off the land, taking all the resources, water, and clearing the land of towns and villages, to convert them into industrial agricultural plantations to develop food and other crops for export, while domestic populations are pushed deeper into poverty, hunger, and are deprived of access to water. Peter Brabeck has referred to the land grabs as really being about water: “For with the land comes the right to withdraw the water linked to it, in most countries essentially a freebie that increasingly could be seen as the most valuable part of the deal.” This, noted Brabeck, is “the great water grab.”
And of course, Nestlé would know something about water grabs, as it has become very good at implementing them. In past years, the company has been increasingly buying land where it is taking the fresh water resources, bottling them in plastic bottles and selling them to the public at exorbitant prices. In 2008, as Nestlé was planning to build a bottling water plant in McCloud, California, the Attorney General opposed the plan, noting: “It takes massive quantities of oil to produce plastic water bottles and to ship them in diesel trucks across the United States… Nestlé will face swift legal challenge if it does not fully evaluate the environmental impact of diverting millions of gallons of spring water from the McCloud River into billions of plastic water bottles.” Nestlé already operated roughly 50 springs across the country, and was acquiring more, such as a plan to draw roughly 65 million gallons of water from a spring in Colorado, despite fierce opposition to the deal.
Years of opposition to the plans of Nestlé in McCloud finally resulted in the company giving up on its efforts there. However, the company quickly moved on to finding new locations to take water and make a profit while destroying the environment (just an added bonus, of course). The corporation controls one-third of the U.S. market in bottled water, selling it as 70 different brand names, including Perrier, Arrowhead, Deer Park and Poland Spring. The two other large bottled water companies are Coca-Cola and PepsiCo, though Nestlé had earned a reputation “in targeting rural communities for spring water, a move that has earned it fierce opposition across the U.S. from towns worried about losing their precious water resources.” And water grabs by Nestlé as well as opposition continue to engulf towns and states and cities across the country, with one more recent case in Oregon.
Nestlé has aroused controversy for its relations with labour, exploiting farmers, pollution, and human rights violations, among many other things. Nestlé has been implicated in the kidnapping and murder of a union activist and employee of the company’s subsidiary in Colombia, with a judge demanding the prosecutor to “investigate leading managers of Nestle-Cicolac to clarify their likely involvement and/or planning of the murder of union leader Luciano Enrique Romero Molina.” In 2012, a Colombian trade union and a human rights group filed charges against Nestlé for negligence over the murder of their former employee Romero.
More recently, Nestlé has been found liable over spying on NGOs, with the company hiring a private security company to infiltrate an anti-globalization group, and while a judge ordered the company to pay compensation, a Nestlé spokesperson stated that, “incitement to infiltration is against Nestlé’s corporate business principles.” Just like child slavery, presumably. But not to worry, the spokesman said, “we will take appropriate action.”
Peter Brabeck, who it should be noted, also sits on the boards of Exxon, L’Oréal, and the banking giant Credit Suisse, warned in 2009 that the global economic crisis would be “very deep” and that, “this crisis will go on for a long period.” On top of that, the food crisis would be “getting worse” over time, hitting poor people the hardest. However, propping up the financial sector through massive bailouts was, in his view, “absolutely essential.” But not to worry, as banks are bailed out by governments, who hand the bill to the population, which pays for the crisis through reduced standards of living and exploitation (which we call “austerity” and “structural reform” measures), Nestlé has been able to adapt to a new market of impoverished people, selling cheaper products to more people who now have less money. And better yet, it’s been making massive profits. And remember, according to Brabeck, isn’t that all that really matters?
This is the world according to corporations. Unfortunately, while it creates enormous wealth, it is also leading to the inevitable extinction of our species, and possibly all life on earth. But that’s not a concern of corporations, so it doesn’t concern those who run corporations, who make the important decisions, and pressure and purchase our politicians.
I wonder… what would the world be like if people were able to make decisions?
There’s only one way to know.
Andrew Gavin Marshall is an independent researcher and writer based in Montreal, Canada, with a focus on studying the ideas, institutions, and individuals of power and resistance across a wide spectrum of social, political, economic, and historical spheres. He has been published in AlterNet, CounterPunch, Occupy.com, Truth-Out, RoarMag, and a number of other alternative media groups, and regularly does radio, Internet, and television interviews with both alternative and mainstream news outlets. He is Project Manager of The People’s Book Project, Research Director of Occupy.com’s Global Power Project, and has a weekly podcast show with BoilingFrogsPost.
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