Deadly commodities

“…THE chairman of Amadiba Crisis Committee, Sikhosiphi Bazooka Rhadebe from Mdatya village in Amadiba, was brutally assassinated tonight [last Thursday] outside his house in Lurholweni township, Amadiba area, Mbizana.

“Our beloved Bazooka made the ultimate sacrifice defending our ancestral land of Amadiba on the Wild Coast.

“He was murdered at about 7.30 in the evening. The hitmen came in a white Polo with a rotating blue lamp on the roof. Two men knocked at the door saying they were the police. Mr Rhadebe was shot with 8 bullets in the head. He died defending his young son, who witnessed the murder. His son and his wife are now in hospital.”

Who were the hitmen? Will they get away with this?

Perhaps.

Deadly Environment, an investigation by Global Witness, notes that “Between 2002 and 2013, at least 908 activists were killed in 35 countries – with only 10 convictions. The death rate has risen in the past four years to an average of two activists a week...” (The Guardian, 15 April 2014)

Chico Mendes, the Brazilian rubber tapper who fought to save the rain forest, was the first such death I ever heard of (he was portrayed by Raul Julia in the film, The Burning Season). “At first I thought I was fighting to save rubber trees, then I thought I was fighting to save the Amazon rain forest. Now I realise I am fighting for humanity,” he said. He was killed in 1988.

In 1995, Ken Saro Wiwa was executed. Saro Wiwa led the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People into a non-violent campaign against the extreme devastation resulting from the operations of the international petroleum industry in the region. (The photo right gives an idea of the damage.)

It’s a dangerous business, opposing power that walks hand in hand with profit. In 2013, I met a young West African journalist who had exposed damage caused by mining in a remote region of his country to water resources and water catchment areas. He said that while illegal small scale mining had damaged these areas already, foreign mining companies had taken that a quantum leap forward. I sat dumbfounded as he scrolled through pictures portraying a barren wasteland, scoured of all life. He had been arrested and jailed briefly, he claimed, to intimidate him into abandoning his whistle-blowing stories.

Global Witness says nearly 180 environmental activists were killed in 2014. The highest number were engaged in ‘land disputes’; next in line was ‘mining and extractive industries’; then ‘water and dams’; and finally, ‘logging’ and ‘agribusiness’.

Land dispute

Nelson Garcia was gunned down on 15 March in broad daylight. The 38-year-old father of five was active in the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH) and was helping a poor community in Rio Lindo resist a land grab.

Water and dams

A colleague in COPINH, Berta Cáceres, was a fierce opponent of the Agua Zarca dam project, as well as of illegal logging and other environmentally damaging activities. Cáceres, who co-founded COPINH as a student, had been threatened with rape and death for her activism (there are indications that police and military have been part of the intimidation campaign). She was 44 when gunmen burst into her home at one in the morning, shooting the mother of four children dead and wounding Mexican activist Gustavo Castro Soto. As the sole witness, Soto is being detained in Honduras – and friends and allies fear for his safety.

Not one of the brutally murdered people I’ve mentioned was an environmentalist sitting in a cushy office composing letters to funders to support a comfortable salary earned by mouthing the sorts of sentiments that the vaguely lefty coffee-and-IT culture of Seattle or the Glastonbury-and-indie-cinema schlebs would vibe with. All of them came out of communities directly threatened and harmed by the industries concerned.

All resisted the idea of destroying vital natural resources, not because they, like, just want to honour Mother Gaia, but because they lived with or feared the long-term damage to their water and soil and air, resources that are crucial to their survival. None wanted to resist progress because ‘we have to get back to a simpler, more mindful life, you know’; I am sure most would have welcomed progress and jobs and access to energy and all that jazz. But as the Wild Coast community notes, extractive industries have relatively short time horizons (I believe in that case the mining is expected to last just 22 years?), and the communities will pay a bitter and centuries-long cost for short-term jobs and infrastructure.

Many commodity resources sought by industry are in the lands of poor and ill-resourced communities, so these battles take place far out of sight, in the Philippines and rain-forest Brazil and the DRC. But they intersect with our lives, as consumers of the end products. Titanium, for example, the metal in play on the Wild Coast, is used (among many other things) in toothpaste and paint and golf-clubs – and as an ‘optical pacifier’ in paper.

We can, both as active citizens and as consumers, help these communities in their fight. We can campaign robustly for their voices to be heard and taken seriously; we can support investigative journalism and legal efforts to disinter the truth behind assassinations and intimidation. (Are police involved? What are the links between commercial interests and state actors?)

And we can start being mindful, as consumers, of the history and provenance of products, products that may have extracted a deadly cost before reaching our shelves.

*Mandi Smallhorne is a versatile journalist and editor. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter.

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