Makes the World Go Round

Money Money Money Money Money Money Money...

The similarities are too many to ignore. Both companies are allied with ruthless regimes who depend heavily on the money generated by their operations. In return, the companies depend on their despotic partners to provide hundreds of soldiers to guard their facilities. Both companies have despoiled the environment. And both companies have refused to denounce or take any responsibility for the human rights abuses that have occurred because of their operations.

Last year, when Shell Oil was asked to intercede on behalf of Ken Saro-Wiwa, the journalist/activist/politician who was later executed by the Nigerian government, the company said, "It is not for a commercial organization like Shell to interfere in the legal processes of a sovereign state such as Nigeria." After the first allegations of human rights abuses in and around the Freeport mine came out last April, a Freeport spokesman said, "We don't comment on allegations about the Indonesian government."

What Shell and Freeport are doing is not a new story. Rich countries have been plundering the natural resources of poor countries for centuries. What is new is the amount of media attention being focused on these issues. The Shell controversy has been front-page news in Europe for months. The story was on the front page of The New York Times twice, including a long article on February 13. The Freeport issue has been front-page news in Australia and Europe. It was on CNN February 17. It has also been covered by National Public Radio.

Two or three decades ago, the problems in Nigeria and Indonesia would probably have been ignored. But capital has become mobile and flows easily across borders. Investors can easily invest in multinational corporations that do business halfway around the world. Shell alone has operations in some 100 countries.

But just as capital has become mobile, so has information. The Internet, 24-hour television news, and the globalization of the economy have made huge quantities of information available.

So multinationals no longer operate in isolation. The execution of Saro-Wiwa in Nigeria and the murders near the Freeport mine in Irian Jaya have pushed Shell and Freeport into the spotlight. But they are not alone. When oil companies in Ecuador clash with the local tribal people, or when rubber tappers in Brazil protest against logging, we hear about it.

These events are getting attention because they link two issues that used to be thought of as separate: environmentalism and human rights. Last year, in a report for the Worldwatch Institute, Aaron Sachs wrote that human rights activists have found that "some of the worst abuses they deal with originate in environmental damage at the communal or regional level. And environmentalists have realized that upholding basic civil and political rights is one of the best ways of protecting the environment."

Shell and Freeport are facing opposition from indigenous people because their operations are fouling the land traditionally owned by those people. The Free Papua Movement (OPM), which is still holding 13 hostages in Irian Jaya, has made their right to the land now mined by Freeport a central issue of their fight. Kelly Kwalik, the leader of the OPM, referred to the Freeport mine last year when he told an Australian journalist, "If someone comes into your garden and steals your pig, does not tell you or offer any compensation, then you have the right to kill them. This is tribal law."

Freeport has made it clear that they don't want to see environmental and human rights linked. In a December 8 letter to a dozen environmental groups, Freeport spokesman Thomas Egan wrote, "We are outraged and offended by attempts to link these human rights violations to the discussion of environmental issues. We will not allow these abuses to be cynically and falsely used for leverage by self-appointed NGOs [non-governmental organizations]."

Freeport and Shell have responded to their Third World problems by announcing environmental audits of their operations. Freeport has threatened journalists (including this reporter), UT professors, and activists with lawsuits. It has bought huge ads in the local daily and The New York Times. Shell has a special page on the World Wide Web devoted to the Nigeria issue, and has a special phone number to call for people interested in Nigeria.

But their ad campaigns ignore the fundamental issues at work: by invading and polluting the homelands of indigenous people, the companies are violating those peoples' human rights. Everyone has a right to a clean, safe environment.

In 1849, Henry Thoreau said "a corporation has no conscience." It's true. The only duty of a corporation is to enrich its shareholders. But at what price? Shell and Freeport have allied themselves with despots, and they are making huge profits through their associations. They turn a blind eye when human rights violations occur, and claim they cannot interfere with the politics of their host country. I wonder what would happen if something started to reduce their profits. Would they keep quiet then? I doubt it.

The situations in Nigeria and Indonesia are a showdown between money and information. The corporations have the money. Concerned citizens have the information. It remains to be seen who will win the battle. While I'd like to think the truth will hold the day, it runs against a fundamental belief of mine: Never bet against the money.

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for almost 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

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