While many of us were celebrating Earth Day on Sunday, environmental activists Rodolfo Montiel and Teodoro Cabrera spent another day in a Mexican jail. Soldiers arrested the pair in May 1999 and, says Amnesty International, tortured them until they confessed to guerrilla ties. Amnesty rejects this, saying the men are political prisoners.
The men’s real crime apparently was organizing communities to oppose the destruction of old-growth forests in Mexico’s Guerrero state. When they started their work, the clear-cutting of Guerrero’s forests was being fueled by the Idaho-based timber company Boise Cascade, which had struck a deal with the Mexican government in 1995 to secure exclusive rights to timber in the area.
But Boise Cascade became so frustrated by Montiel and Cabrera’s activities that it pulled out of Guerrero in 1998, citing “difficult business conditions.” The timber giant’s withdrawal likely gave the Mexican government all the reason it needed to find Montiel and Cabrera guilty of crimes against the free market.
Mexico is not the only place where the multinational corporations have combined with state authorities to cause massive environmental damage and human-rights abuses.
Amnesty International and Sierra Club have teamed up to drive this point home. They’ve launched a “Just Earth” campaign that aims to hold governments and corporations accountable for human-rights abuses associated with environmental disputes. For over a year, Amnesty International USA has been working with a broad coalition of independent groups to promote international “right-to-know” principles in the United States. The goal is to persuade Congress to incorporate the principles into federal law.
International right-to-know legislation would build on existing domestic right-to-know laws that, among other things, require polluters to disclose information about their toxic releases.
To illustrate the need for the legislation, Amnesty and the Sierra Club have highlighted 10 “danger zones,” including Mexico, where environmental crimes go hand in hand with human-rights crimes.
In Myanmar, for example, the military has committed widespread human-rights abuses in connection with a $1.2 billion gas pipeline project that tore through lush forests and indigenous villages in the eastern part of the Southeast Asian country.
Some of those who suffered filed a lawsuit in U.S. federal court against one of the main investors in the project, California-based Unocal. Although a judge ruled last September that Unocal could not be sued for human-rights violations committed on foreign soil, he acknowledged that the plaintiffs had presented evidence demonstrating that “the [pipeline] 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; [and] that the military, while forcing villagers to work and relocate, committed numerous acts of violence.”
This example points to why we should expect the Bush administration to strongly resist any attempts to make multinationals disclose details of their business operations abroad. When Unocal and others needed someone to lay the pipe for the offshore portion of their project, they turned to energy-services giant Halliburton, which had just recently hired a new chief executive officer — a former politician named Dick Cheney, now U.S. vice president.
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