Davids need support to tackle Goliaths

Globally, the voices and concerns of local communities are being overruled by corporations in the interests of profit.

Big corporations are using the courts – a tool to which we sometimes turn to protect rights – to bankrupt activists opposing their operations. This is an abuse of the legal system and a dangerous suppression of rights.

We must stand up to this bullying; if we don’t rally together, big money will win, even if only because of the huge resources available to it.

Take the case of South Portland, Maine, a small US city of just over 25 000 residents. Three years ago, grass roots activists won an unexpected victory in a David and Goliath-style battle with a subsidiary of the oil giant ExxonMobil. The subsidiary wanted to build a tar sands export terminal at South Portland harbour to facilitate loading crude oil. That would have meant a risk of toxic fumes polluting the air and toxins in the water. Campaigners successfully fought for the Clear Skies Ordinance, which prohibits any loading of crude in the harbour.

But the celebrations didn’t last long. South Portland city is now being sued by Portland Pipe Line Corporation, the Canadian-owned subsidiary of ExxonMobil, and Suncor Energy, for “interfering in oil industry business”. The action is backed by huge corporate lobby groups in what seems like a blatant attempt to bankrupt the city in court and force it to back down from the ordinance.

Already more than $1m (about R14m) has been spent fighting the suit, with a lot more likely to be needed before the legal wrangling is over.

The cynical use of the law to intimidate and silence activists is not just happening in the industrialised countries of the global North. In South Africa, lawyers from the Centre for Environmental Rights (CER) were earlier this year slapped with a summons from Mineral Sand Resources. The lawyers and activist are being sued for defamation. The Australian-based mining firm is claiming R1.25m in damages. This followed a presentation made in January, during which the CER called one of the company’s operations “environmentally destructive”. The CER has referred to the action against it as a strategic lawsuit against public participation (Slapp), a term used to describe lawsuits that seek to silence and intimidate critics.

Taking on big corporates

My own experience at amandla.mobi, a South African community advocacy group, is not as extreme as the two cases cited above, but follows this trend. Last year, we were threatened with an interdict and a lawsuit for defamation and crimen injuria following a campaign we had launched against a group which was planning to run a seminar to teach people how to get away with fronting.

Fronting, in this instance, is a deliberate attempt to circumvent South Africa’s laws and codes that aim to ensure the black majority meaningfully participates in the economy.

Although nothing came of it, it was clear that those involved were convinced the threat would be enough to intimidate us because we’re a small organisation running on a shoestring budget.

They went as far as editing their website to make it seem as if we had got the intentions of the seminar wrong and removing the sponsors of the event in an attempt to make us out to be dishonest. We were, however, vindicated when the Broad-Based Black Economic Empowerment Commission found the seminar to be in contravention of the law and had the event scrapped.

Without a doubt, taking on big corporates can be one of the most difficult things for activists to do. Some of them are worth more than the revenues of whole countries, meaning they have resources that far exceed those of small activist organisations like mine. This has given them the power to use against us the very courts which we sometimes use to try and hold them accountable.

Of course corporates should be allowed to lawfully pursue their business interests and to defend those interests through the courts. But where they are fighting activists, their actions are more likely to be malicious, designed to drain the financial resources of those who dare to challenge them.

What can we do to level the playing field? We can call out the bullying. While it may feel futile, public condemnation online can have an impact. Energy company EDF dropped its lawsuit against campaigners in the UK who occupied one of its gas-fired power plants for a week. Hundreds of their customers posted on social media how they would change energy providers in solidarity with the activists. An online petition attracted well over 60 000 signatures. We can support one another. When summons are delivered to activists fighting for something you care about, show up in person to signal that they are not alone. Another means of showing solidarity is by donating to legal defence funds that might be set up and encouraging others to do the same.

Support the organisations that are fighting for causes that matter to you and don’t allow powerful corporates to quash all opposition by abusing the courts.

Moeti has a background in civic activism and has worked at the intersection of governance, communication and citizen action. She is a 2017 Aspen New Voices Fellow.

Follow her on Twitter at @Kmoeti

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