"What you get in your mailbox," Audubon Society COO Dan Beard once admitted, "is a never-ending stream of shrill material, designed to evoke emotions, so you’ll sit down and write a check." Added Sierra Club conservation director Bruce Hamilton: "I’m somewhat offended by it. But it works. It’s what builds the Sierra Club."
No doubt. But others pay a heavy price. And “shrill” hardly begins to describe the fabrications and vitriol of campaigns against companies, especially in extractive industries.
As developed countries upgrade facilities and infrastructures, China and India are leading the way in electrifying and modernizing poorer nations at an unprecedented pace. With 3 billion people struggling on $750 a year, 2 billion still without electricity or running water, and millions dying annually from malnutrition and diseases rarely seen in the West, the efforts are long overdue.
All require raw materials, and companies are scrambling to develop new energy and mineral deposits. While resource extraction is dangerous, dirty and ecologically intrusive, most Western firms emphasize modern technology, health, safety and environmental standards, land reclamation, and cooperation with local and indigenous people. Their operations are usually a major improvement over those conducted by millions of small, poorly regulated and often illegal “artisanal” mines, and even many government-run mines, smelters and oil production facilities in poor countries.
For radical social and environmental activists, however, none of this is relevant; correcting and punishing violations is insufficient. They simply don’t want globalization, foreign investment, mining or fossil fuel development.
Equally important, foreign-owned energy and mineral companies operating in developing countries are perfect focal points for well-orchestrated campaigns that stir up anger and resentment over exaggerated or imaginary environmental and human rights violations – so that people will write a check, and help build the activists’ visibility and power. The agitators clearly have the political and PR savvy, Internet skills and sympathetic media contacts to spin even the most trumped-up charges into gold.
* In 1995, Greenpeace railed that Shell Oil planned to sink a retired platform filled with oil. Its blitzkrieg embarrassed the company and garnered the Rainbow Warriors extensive news coverage. A year later, Greenpeace admitted the claims were fraudulent: there was no oil.
* A 5-year Rainforest Action-Amazon Watch campaign was centered around fabricated claims that Occidental Petroleum planned to drill a well on U’wa Indian lands. The drilling site was not in rainforests and actually belonged to impoverished peasants, who welcomed the prospect of jobs and the clinics, schools, safe water and other amenities Oxy provided. The real threat to the U’wa comes from leftist narco-guerillas – who were never mentioned in the activists’ attack ads.
Oxy ultimately drilled a dry hole – and the radicals were off on new crusades.
* Amnesty International’s 2004 campaign against Oxy operations in Ecuador featured a photo of an oil pit and allegations that the company was “spewing pollution into the environment.” The same photo had previously been used by Amazon Watch, to defame Texaco, a decade after that company had left Ecuador. The actual operator, it turned out, was state-owned PetroEcuador.
The corrupt Ecuador government later expelled Oxy on other charges, which the company insists are equally bogus. Occidental’s departure means millions of dollars in annual corporate contributions disappeared, says the Financial Times, and PetroEcuador officials (who now run the operation) are unlikely to replace them. “They damage the environment and don’t help local communities,” one community leader complained. “Oxy helped us for 20 years,” said another – with roads, scholarships, sports facilities, vehicles, and water and sewage systems – and now the aid is gone.
* In Indonesia, baseless allegations by Friends of the Earth Indonesia, the New York Times and allies landed a Newmont Mining executive in jail. He’s charged with poisoning Buyat Bay and killing a young girl. However, studies by the World Health Organization and other reputable analysts suggest a more likely cause of death: water contaminated by human and animal feces. Meanwhile, mining investment in the country has plummeted by 93% in just a few years, further jeopardizing jobs and living standards.
* After years of attacking Newman Lumber Company for “illegally” cutting timber in Peruvian forests, the Natural Resource Defense Council finally retracted its false claims. Not once during its assault did NRDC even mention that the real culprits were drug lords, who were clear-cutting and polluting thousands of acres annually, to grow coca and process cocaine.
Attacks on Doe Run Peru, Newmont in Ghana, banks and dozens of other companies repeat the pattern. In none of these cases did the “concerned” activists provide financial support to the impoverished towns. Millions for attacks – not one cent for aid, seems to be their motto.
The world’s poor have become little more than involuntary pawns – and collateral damage – in the eco-imperialist war on corporations, resource development and Third World modernization. Indigenous people, activists assert, want to live the way their ancestors did. Some certainly do. But many want to adopt selected modern skills and technologies, to improve and enhance their lives.
“Living like our ancestors is a formula for extinction,” observed Cesar Serasera, leader of a national confederation of Amazon-Peru natives. To survive, indigenous people need jobs, healthcare, education, better nutrition and safe drinking water – while holding onto important elements of their culture. Moreover, most of the people impacted by anti-corporate battles are poor, but not indigenous.
Radical groups – and those who support them – are entitled to promote their ideological agendas. They’re not entitled to invent “facts” or pursue their selfish interests at the expense of the poor and powerless.
They need to start behaving like any other multinational corporation: responsibly, ethically, honestly and with concern for both people and the environment.
Paul Driessen is senior policy advisor for the Center for the Defense of Free Enterprise and Congress of Racial Equality, a former Sierra Club member, and author of Eco-Imperialism: Green power · Black death.