Forced and child labor compound environmental problems
Palm oil is nearly everywhere. It’s in tortilla chips, a cheap way to add oil and maintain texture. It’s in shaving cream, helping it stay creamy. Palm oil is in soap, microwave meals, doughnuts, and cookies. The great panoply of processed goods that fill the center aisles in most American grocery stores are dominated by palm oil.
Photo courtesy RAN
And yet, to consumers, it’s all but invisible. Part of this invisibility may be due to the fact that there are no fewer than 200 different names for palm oil, from the esoteric sounding “palmolein” to the generic “vegetable oil.”
But palm oil has deeper secrets than misleading nomenclature. By now many people have heard about the environmental impacts of this ubiquitous food and cosmetic additive. “Palm Oil Is Killing the Sumatran Tiger,” TIME magazine trumpeted in a headline last year. “A Grim Portrait of Palm Oil Emissions,” The New York Times warned. Here’s how David Gilbert explained it in a 2012 story in Earth Island Journal: “Borneo’s lowland rainforests and peat swamp forests are nature’s densest stores of carbon, and when the trees are chopped down and burned or left to rot, or peat swamps drained and dried, the CO2 stored in them is released into the atmosphere. Even though Indonesia has relatively few factories, all of the forest clearing has pushed the country to the top of the list of the world’s contributors to climate change.”
Yet even as the environmental impacts of palm oil production gain attention, the social costs of the palm plantations remain largely hidden. The human rights abuses endemic to palm oil production are the industry’s best-kept secret.
Just two countries are responsible for 90 percent of the world’s palm oil production: Malaysia and Indonesia. In those places, children as young as 8 and 9 sometimes work seven days a week in treacherous conditions. Undocumented immigrants are lured to faraway plantations with promises of safe working conditions and fair wages, only to find a kind of indentured servitude. Weak government oversight — together with glaring deficiencies in the main independent body tasked with regulating the industry — contribute to an atmosphere of violence, fear, and exploitation.
Effort seeks to recognize intrinsic value of ecosystems
Most of us who live in modern, industrialized societies have been conditioned to think of other living creatures as beings that exist solely for human uses. Non-human nature is here to serve us, or so we’ve been taught. We give little thought as to what this mindset might mean for the environment, or for the ability of future human generations to thrive.
Photo by Juri Peepre
Yet people are a part of nature, not separate, and we ignore this at our peril.
Last month, 60 activists from around the world gathered in Ecuador for a five-day conference designed to highlight the very fact that humans’ well-being depends on the health of the other beings around us. The gathering, hosted by the Global Alliance for Rights of Nature, was a space for advocates to strategize a holistic approach to protecting both people and the planet.
The rights of nature idea acknowledges that nature, in all its life forms, has the right to exist, persist, maintain and regenerate its vital cycles. The concept recognizes that other beings — plants, animals, fungi, entire ecosystems — have inalienable rights, just like people. These other life forms don’t just have instrumental value to humans as things to be used. They also have intrinsic value; they have worth in-and-of themselves.
In 2008, Ecuador became the first country to recognize rights of nature in its national constitution, which made it an obvious location for the January gathering.“ We are making Earth unlivable for both humans and nature” said Alberto Acosta, an economist and president of Ecuador’s Constituent Assembly that wrote the country’s constitution that included rights of nature. He went on to say that the world “needs to take steps on the decommodification of nature.”
According to Pablo Solon, Bolivia’s former ambassador to the United Nations and now executive director of Focus on the Global South, we need to build a global movement based on a new relationship with Earth, and that includes a new economy that supports life. “If we don’t change the relationships of global forces, nothing will change,” Solon said.
Exit Interview: Phil Radford
Last month Phil Radford announced that, after five years on the job, he was stepping down as executive director of Greenpeace USA. Before serving as ED, Radford was Greenpeace’s organizing director, during which time he more than doubled the group’s membership. In the 10 years since he joined the Greenpeace staff, the landscape of social change activism in general, and environmental campaigning in particular, has changed dramatically. Just think: 10 years ago there was no Facebook, no Twitter. No one outside the oil and gas industry had heard of fracking and few people had seen Al Gore’s climate change power point.
I recently spoke to Radford about what lessons he learned while on the job. Our conversation mostly focused on the art of social change and the craft of environmental activism. Radford told me: “A really good conflict forces people to take a side. … That’s the root of direct action and nonviolent civil disobedience.”
Jason Mark: In your five years heading Greenpeace USA, what was the toughest part of the job?
Phil Radford: That’s a good question. Um … the toughest part of the job … Man, that’s a good question. I think that one of the scariest moments on the job was on my first day, when the major economies were all meeting at the Major Economy Forum [on Climate and Energy] at the State Department to discuss what, if anything, they would do on technology transfer to address climate change. And I got over my fear of heights, or tried to, and with a small team we scaled a crane across the street and hung a banner with a huge picture of Earth saying, “Too Big to Fail.” And so the first day was terrifying, because I’m terrified of heights, but I thought, “I just have to do this.”
And then two weeks later, the draft climate bill, the Waxman-Markey bill, came out, and we had 26 staff working across the country to push Congress members to basically endorse really good principles for what a bill should look like, based on science, based on really promoting clean energy. Then we saw the draft, and the draft had left in the energy status quo. It had “clean coal” in it, ultimately it would have oil drilling in it, and …more
The movement has had some big victories, but environmental racism continues to plague frontline communities
In 1982, protestors lay down in the streets, using their bodies to block the delivery of 6,000 truckloads of toxic PCB-laced soil headed for a landfill in the poor, African-American community of Afton, North Carolina. This act of civil disobedience is widely credited with sparking the environmental justice movement and drawing national attention to the disproportionate impact that frontline communities of color and low-income communities face from toxic pollution.
Photo by Daniel Parks
Twelve years after the Afton protests — and after several studies documenting how the majority of toxic waste sites were located near either poor or non-white communities, as well as multiple failed attempts to pass an environmental justice bill through congress — President Clinton signed Executive Order (EO) 12898. The order required federal agencies to consider and address the ways in which their policies affect the health and environment of low-income communities and communities of color. This week, President Clinton’s environmental justice order turned 20, offering an opportunity to reflect on how far the movement has come during the past two decades.
EO 12898 lent the environmental justice movement both symbolic and practical support by placing it on the federal stage. “It was the first executive order to deal with environmental justice,” says Robert Bullard, who is broadly referred to as the father of environmental justice. “The fact that Clinton elevated environmental justice as something that was worthy of an Executive Order was something that was symbolic and was historic.”
The order, accompanied by the tireless efforts of advocates, also provoked action at the state level. “A lot has been achieved over the last 20 years and there is still a lot of work that is needed,” says Bullard, who is now dean of the Barbara Jordan-Mickey Leland School of Public Affairs at Texas Southern University. “For example, when the executive order was signed in 1994, there were just a couple of states that had environmental justice laws, or Executive Orders, or policies to deal with environmental justice. And today, every state in the country has some kind of environmental justice law, or Executive Order, or policy – [though] …more
Jewelry buyers are in a powerful position to influence mining industry behavior
Valentine’s Day is almost here. Whatever your stance on consumerism or manufactured holidays, it’s one of the biggest gift giving days of the year. Millions of people in the United States and around the world will be expressing their love with gifts.
Photo by Ian Harley
According to National Jeweler, 20 percent of these gift-givers will be giving jewelry, and they’ll spend $4 billion doing so. Unfortunately, much of this Valentine’s Day jewelry is tarnished with dirty gold that's tarnished by human rights abuses and pollution.
What’s dirty gold?
Gold mining around the world too often occurs over the express opposition of locally impacted communities. That’s understandable because mining sometimes requires the wholesale destruction and resettlement of communities. From the Democratic Republic of Congo to Colombia, gold mining has been linked to human rights violations, child labor, and the financing of violent conflict.
Metal mining, and gold mining in particular, is the most environmentally destructive industry on earth, is the most environmentally destructive industry on earth. Producing a single gold ring creates at least 20 tons of mine waste. The Environmental Protection Agency’s data show that metal mining is the largest toxic polluter in the United States. It is, by far, the largest releaser of toxic heavy metals like mercury, arsenic, and lead and many other toxic chemicals. The average gold mine uses 1,900 tons of cyanide per year. Even after a mine is closed, it often will pollute water forever, costing billions of dollars to treat, assuming it’s required to treat the water at all.
Here are just a few examples of gold mining’s destructive impacts around the world:
- Bristol Bay, Alaska: If developed, the proposed Pebble Mine would destroy miles of streams that are home to the world’s largest sockeye salmon population. This gold mine would devastate a great piece of American wilderness.
- Cajamarca, Peru: Newmont’s proposed Conga mine has provoked immense social unrest and protests. Residents oppose the enormous threat the mine poses to their limited water supply.
- Papua New Guinea: The Ok Tedi gold and copper mine, dumps on average, 20 million tons of …more
Russian court awards Evgeny Vitishko suspended sentence in a case fellow environmentalists believe is revenge for his work
An environmental activist who investigated abuses in the build-up to the Sochi Olympics was sent to prison for three years by a Russian court on Wednesday morning, in a case that fellow environmentalists have said is deeply flawed and intended as revenge for his work.
As the sports at the Sochi games continued, a court in Krasnodar, capital of the southern Russian region that includes Sochi, confirmed a December ruling that activist Evgeny Vitishko's three-year suspended sentence should become real.
Photo by Ken Yee
Vitishko, one of a group of environmentalists who have investigated irregularities and the construction of mansions by top officials in the Sochi area, was given the three-year suspended sentence for spray-painting the fence of what he and other activists said was a lavish residence built illegally on national park land by the local governor in 2012. However, in December, a court claimed he was a "persistent offender" of his parole conditions, and made the sentence real.
"I consider myself innocent, and the case against me is completely fabricated," Vitishko told the court by video. His lawyer also presented 7500 signatures from local people asking the court not to jail him, however the judge took the decision in just a few minutes.
Vitishko is already behind bars, after being arrested separately, just a few days before the Olympics, on the bizarre charge of swearing at a bus stop. Although swearing in public is frequent in Russia, it is technically punishable by "administrative arrest" for 15 days, though the punishment is almost never enforced.
His fellow activists say Vitishko had planned to travel to Sochi and speak with journalists about his case, which led to authorities quickly finding a way to keep him behind bars until the three-year jail term came into effect, which it now does.
"I have been following this since the start, and it was clear all along that it had absolutely nothing in common with the law," said Yulia Naberezhnaya, a fellow activist, by telephone from outside the courtroom. "It's a demonstration of force, and if they are happy to do this right in the middle of the …more
More from the Stratfor Files
In 2010 the American Petroleum Institute (API) paid the global intelligence firm Stratfor more than $13,000 a month for weekly intelligence bulletins profiling activist organizations and their campaigns on everything from energy and climate change to tax policy and human rights, according to documents published by WikiLeaks in 2012.
Photo by Greenpeace Finland
API’s tracking of environmental organizations comes as the oil and gas industry faces a kind of existential crisis — or public relations dilemma, depending on your point of view — in how to address climate change and related issues. Even as some of API’s own members are inching toward compromise on relatively modest proposals like cap and trade legislation the lobbying group seems to be fighting a rearguard battle.
“The best climate science coming from the IPCC, IEA, and the World Bank agrees that at least two thirds of the world’s existing proven reserves of fossil fuels need to be left in the ground,” says Stephen Kretzmann, Executive Director of Oil Change International. “You can’t believe that and then think that investing billions each year to find more fossil fuels is a good idea.”
The Stratfor contract stipulates that the Austin-based intelligence company will “conduct open source public policy monitoring services on domestic and activist issues of concern to the petroleum industry.” The weekly “sitreps” — or activist reports — provided details on a wide range of environmental organizations including NRDC, Greenpeace, and the Center for Biological Diversity. Stratfor also furnished API — the country’s largest oil and gas lobbying group — with more detailed profiles of organizations including Oil Change International, 350.org, the Center for American Progress, Clean Energy Works, the Sierra Club, Forest Ethics, the Union of Concerned Scientists, and the investigative news website ProPublica.
“It's telling that the fossil fuel industry has resorted to trying to dig up, or even fabricate dirt on environmental groups and activists,” says Matt Leonard, director of special projects at 350.org. “The more activists shine a light on them, the more we expose their manipulation of the truth, their corruption …more