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Total Denial: Burmese peasants fight Unocal

Posted by Pratap Chatterjee on March 20th, 2007

Continuing our film recommendations from last week, we'd like to mention "Total Denial" - a new documentary on corporate-financed human rights abuses in Burma. The film was made by Bulgarian-born Milena Kaneva. The Austin-Chronicle newspaper in Texas called the film: "heart-wrenching and utterly disturbing."

"Total Denial" chronicles a major human rights lawsuit brought by EarthRights International and villagers from Burma against oil giant Unocal, a company based right here in California, as well as a French multinational named Total. A number of screenings are coming up in the next few weeks here in the U.S.  If you live in the Bay area, do check it out on Thursday, in Los Angeles on March 27th or in Washington DC on April 11th.

The lawsuit was brought by 11 Burmese peasants who suffered a variety of human rights violations at the hands of Burmese army units that were securing the pipeline route. These abuses included forced relocation, forced labor, rape, torture, and murder.

The case was spearheaded by Ka Hsaw Wa, the executive director of Earth Rights International, an organization based in Washington DC. Of the Karen indigenous minority in Burma, he was one of the student leaders in the 1988 nation-wide student uprising for democracy and freedom, and has been a human rights activist since he fled Burma in 1988. He was helped by Paul Hoffman of the Center for Constitutional Rights, Hadsell & Stormer, and Judith Brown Chomsky.

Almost a decade after the case was brought, the court decided that:
"Unocal knew that the military had a record of committing human rights abuses; that the Project hired the military to provide security for the Project, a military that forced villagers to work and entire villages to relocate for the benefit of the Project; that the military, while forcing villagers to work and relocate, committed numerous acts of violence; and that Unocal knew or should have known that the military did commit, was committing and would continue to commit these tortious acts."
The legal basis for the case was a laws called the Alien Tort Claims Act (a 1789 law intended to curb piracy on the high seas by extending U.S. jurisdiction to cover breaches of international law outside its borders), which has been used primarily to sue international human rights abuses in U.S. courts.  In recent years a number of plaintiffs have sued multinational corporations for abuses outside the U.S. under this law. While many of these cases are now in court, Unocal decided to settle out of court and compensate the victims in January 2006.

Earth Rights International are using the same law to pursue another major oil company here in California (Chevron) with some success for abuses in Nigeria.

The case is based on two incidents: the shooting of peaceful protestors at Chevron's Parabe offshore platform and the destruction of two villages by soldiers in Chevron helicopters and boats.

Last week U.S. District Judge Susan Illston in San Francisco agreed that the Nigerian plaintiffs: "have presented evidence of a link between the conduct of Chevron in the United States and the attacks in Nigeria at issue" as well as evidence that the corporation had substantial control over its Nigerian unit, that it  "designed and adjusted the general security policies and procedures" of its subsidiary and approved payments from the subsidiary to the Nigerian government security forces.


Incidentally, Earth Rights International is also pursuing a third Alien Tort Claims Act case against Shell in Nigeria for complicity in human rights abuses.

The particular abuses at issue are the November 10, 1995 hangings of Ken Saro-Wiwa and John Kpuinen, two leaders of MOSOP (Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People), the torture and detention of Owens Wiwa, and the shooting of a woman who was peacefully protesting the bulldozing of her crops in preparation for a Shell pipeline by Nigerian troops called in by Shell.

The Curse of Gold

Posted by Sakura Saunders on February 28th, 2007


This week's CorpWatch feature
highlights the plight of indigenous people in Papua New Guinea, where landowners feel that they are cheated out of their resources, livelihoods, and just compensation by the world's largest gold producer, Barrick Gold.

Papua New Guinea represents a case study in how resource extraction just might be the worst possible way to develop a country, especially where 85 percent of the population depends on the environment for their subsistence livelihood. Here, the pollution caused by open-pit mining and cyanide leaching creates an especially vulnerable situation for the indigenous people. In our recent feature, we attached testimonies from the landowners, mine workers, women, and human right activists who are affected by the mine. A principal landowner, Nelson Akiko, describes his disillusionment with the mine:

We depend on our land. You depend on money. Money is not need, it is only a want, but it is need in western society. I live on land, which is my stomach. I grow food from this land and then I survive. But now, where can I get food?

Also, the fact that mineral deposits, including oil, copper, and gold, account for two-thirds of PNG's export earnings leaves them susceptible to the Dutch Disease, or the phenomenon wherein resource exports raise the exchange rate for a country's currency, thereby making their labor less desirable. While this only accounts for a tiny part of the negative consequences of mining, it does illustrate that even within an economic paradigm, mining carries negative consequences for 'development', especially open pit mines because they require less human labor. Large mineral exports also make countries more susceptible to corruption because of the negotiating power held with government gatekeepers.

This is similar to Mali, where gold makes up 65 percent of its exports, dwarfing its former economic bedrock cotton. Some 64 mining companies have active mining and exploration projects in this landlocked African country, but despite a surge in gold prices, Mali's development indicators have stagnated. A recent Oxfam report 'Hidden treasure: in search of Mali's gold mining revenues', concluded that:

"There is not sufficient disclosure in an understandable form for citizens or civic groups to determine whether they are indeed benefiting as they should according to current law in Mali."


The fact that gold is a largely useless metal (that is already hoarded and unused in large quantities) makes the destruction caused by it's extraction all the more tragic. According the No Dirty Gold Campaign, 80% of the gold is used by the jewelry industry. On average, the production of one gold wedding ring produces 20 tons of waste.

Unfortunately, Papua New Guinea is not an isolated example of how gold mines can destroy communities. Mining Watch Canada summed their view of the mining industry in Canada, where 60% of the world's mining companies reside:

Metal prices are booming, and Canadian mining companies are taking advantage of the same prejudicial conditions to expand into all corners of the globe, manipulating, slandering, abusing, and even killing those who dare to oppose them, displacing Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities alike, supporting repressive governments and taking advantage of weak ones, and contaminating and destroying sensitive ecosystems. 
CorpWatch has been tracking Barrick elsewhere in the world, most recently at its Pascua Lama project in Argentina.
Barrick's plans to "relocate" three glaciers - 816,000 cubic meters of ice - by means of bulldozers and controlled blasting, is seen by mine-opponents as symbolic of the company's utter insensitivity to the environment. As headwaters for a water basin in an arid region receiving very little rainfall, many opponents are gravely concerned for the ice. They say the mechanical action involved in moving the glaciers will irreversibly melt much of it, jeopardizing a delicate ecological balance further downstream.

While Barrick originally planned to "relocate" three glaciers to another area, since being denied their original plan, the project now aims to build an open-pit mine next to the glaciers. However, most alarmingly, since construction has started on the mine, the glaciers have been depleted an estimated 50-70 percent, according to Chilean General Office of Waters (DGA). Barrick attempted to blame global warming for the melting, but those claims have been disproven.


Mining in the U.S.

In the U.S., Western Shoshone lands now account for the majority of gold produced within the United States and almost 10 percent of world production. The scale of development is unprecedented and will leave a legacy of environmental impacts for centuries into the future.

An excellent article on the boom in gold mining from the Las Vegas Mercury News explains the predicament that Shoshone face. 

Bush Defends Mining Record

Posted by Brooke Shelby Biggs on January 23rd, 2006

From Reuters:

The Bush administration on Monday defended the government's oversight of the Sago mine and said none of the previous safety problems cited at the West Virginia mine appeared to be the cause of the Jan. 2 explosion that killed 12 miners.

That's sort of like an auto mechanic saying he forgot to tighten the bolts on a customer's car wheels after the tune-up, but the accident that killed him was a seat-belt issue. Just because the Bush administration never cited Sago for the safety issue that resulted in the tragedy doesn't mean it shouldn't have, or that the political coziness of the mining industry to the Bush camp might not have resulted in the oversight.

Not clear how this makes Bush look better: Yep, all of the citations we issued were obviously not as serious as the one we should have!

Time Again to Expose a Mining Company's Safety Record

Posted by Brooke Shelby Biggs on January 20th, 2006

As we write this, two more miners are missing in West Virginia as the result of a fire inside a coal mine. This time, the company that owns the Mine is Massey Energy - a mining giant with one hell of a bad reputation in Appalachia.

In 2000, a coal waste reservoir operated by Massey in Kentucky sprung a leak and dumped 300 million gallons of toxic sludge into local tributaries of the Ohio River. The accident killed more wildlife and destroyed a larger geographical area that the Exxon Valdez oil spill, which amounted to "only" 11 million gallons of oil.

A young investigator named Jack Spadaro was sent by the Mine Safety and Health Agency to investigate the accident. Hew discovered that Massey had been fully aware of the reservoir's likelihood to fail, and yet did nothing. Instead, Massey had poured money into Republican campaign coffers, including Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell's campaign committee and the Bush Cheney campaign. It just so happened that McConnell's wife, Elaine Chao was appointed Secretary of Labor after Bush's election. The MSHA is an agency within the Department of Labor. Furthermore, Bush appointed a former Massey executive to the MHSA's review committee which handles all legal issues related to the Coal Act.

Spadaro recommended that Massey be charged with criminal negligence. His superiors refused. And when Spadaro publicly questioned whether mine safety had been sold to the highest bidder under Bush, he was summarily fired.

Today, another huge Massey sludge pond at a Kentucky mine sits on a hill above an elementary school. Coal dust blankets the school yard. Neighbors want the pond decommissioned; in response Massey applied for and won permits to build coal silos even closer to the school.

The Citizens Coal Council says:

The company also regularly violates coal truck weight limits, sending monster trucks weighing 140,000–160,000 pounds hurtling through central Appalachia’s winding roads. These speeding, overweight trucks damage roads and kill, on average, four to six people a year in auto accidents. Recently Don Blankenship, Massey’s CEO, weighed in with his thoughts on killing innocent motorists:

“The truth of the matter is . . . four to six fatalities a year, with the number of miles coal trucks are traveling on these highways each year, is no worse than average.”

In addition to being openly anti-union (only 5 percent of Massey’s work force is represented by a union), Massey has been called one of the worst coal companies in America for miner safety by the United Mine Workers of America union, who also claim that the company uses contracted management to avoid paying workers’ compensation. Massey has been sued by its employees for overexposure to coal processing chemicals and has been investigated by the Mine Safety & Health Administration for chronic health and safety violations at its mines.


In the past 2 years, the Massey mine where yesterday's fire broke out was cited by the MSHA 204 times for safety violations, but paid less that $50,000 in fines.

So we have Sago, Part Two. Cronyism kills.

Mine Tragedy Spun as Profit Opportunity

Posted by CorpWatch on January 11th, 2006

Spectacular. Bad-boy investment celebrity Jim Cramer, host of CNBC's "Mad Money with Jim Cramer," actually recommended today investing in "mine-safety" stocks. Not because it is important for us as a country to pick up the slack left by a "paper tiger" federal mine safety agency, but because there could be lots of dough in it.

According to the blog Crooks and Liars, Cramer actually said ""we're not partisan here... we're just looking to make money, and the Bush Administration has been negligent." And why on earth not cash in?

There is simply something obscene about the very suggestion.

How Bush Rolled Back Mine Safety

Posted by CorpWatch on January 6th, 2006

With the same logic that dictates that logging is good for trees, the 5 years of the Bush Administration has rolled back regulations on mine safety at the bidding of mining corporations.

The head of the Mining Healthy and Safety Administration is himself a former mining executive. A New York Times article in August 2004 noted:

In all, the mine safety agency has rescinded more than a half-dozen proposals intended to make coal miners' jobs safer, including steps to limit miners' exposure to toxic chemicals. One rule pushed by the agency would make it easier for companies to use diesel generators underground, which miners say could increase the risk of fire.

The policy of the Bush Administration from the first has been to kowtow to energy interests, allowing them to tinker with the nation's energy policy, labor codes, and environmental protections in exchange for huge financial contributions to campaign coffers. Only today, in the wake of the Sago mine tragedy, we see how such policies can actually kill. And to think that West Virginia is a blood red state; perhaps not for long.

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