Stories of global environmental justice

| 9th December 2019
Creative Commons
Multinationals may be powerful, but so is a rising multinational movement busy with resisting to environmental injustices.

Ever more people just find themselves on a frontline that was brought to their doorsteps. 

Two Indian people visit St Paul’s Cathedral in London. They admire the stonework and then ask the whereabouts of London's mining authority. That day, an advert in The Times hinted at their intentions: It had a wrecking ball smashing into St Paul’s

The campaigners from their home province of Odisha, India to draw attention to a strikingly similar scenario unfolding there. A London-based mining company, Vedanta, wanted to extract the bauxite from their 'cathedral': the Niyamgiri Hills.

These hills and their primeval forest cover are a sacred site for them: home to a pantheon of local gods. The key difference was that for the Indian campaigners, their holiest place is also essential for their survival. It is the source of vital water resources, food, medicine and fuel for the local population.

Investor

The St Paul’s stunt was part of a 10-year struggle in which thousands of locals had unwillingly found themselves fighting on an increasingly common kind of frontline.

Without a fight, forces foreign to them would have eliminated the foundations of their existence. This is a familiar story for millions around the world.

Since 2011, I have been working with hundreds of academics and activists globally to create an online atlas charting those environmental conflicts. This Environmental Justice Atlas, the largest database of its kind, has some 3,000 reports of such conflicts, but our team knows that even this is just the tip of the iceberg.

Coming back to St Paul’s: the good news is that the stunt actually worked. A $7 billion plan to destroy the  Niyamgiri Hills did not materialise.

Many things contributed to this victory for the Indian campaign, but one is worth mentioning here. One investor in Vedanta in particular was so distressed by the St Paul's stunt that it withdrew its money from Vedanta: the Church of England.

Extraction

It is these kinds of frontlines that are popping up all over the world. After studying them for almost a decade, several patterns emerged.

From Au (gold) to Zn (zinc) and from the soil to the tree canopy, humanity is taking more from the earth than she can renew.

We not only take more than we can afford, we take more than we actually need for living a good life. A key observation is that the volumes we take rise faster than population.

The “we” in all this hides far more complex and worrying class division trends, as well as historic geographical shifts.

The “how” is equally worrying: it seems that always more violence accompanies the unaffordable part of extraction, from underground chemical warfare to squeeze gas out of the earth (fracking) to above ground warfare against earth defenders.

Powerful

The number of killed environmental defenders has gone up from one a week ten years ago to four a week now.

The inequalities and injustices created are growing but Western consumers are mostly shielded from these realities through phony ethical labels.

The impact of Europeans outside Europe is underestimated or ignored. In cartoons in globally sold magazines, the EU is often portrayed as a fragile lady upholding justice but through my journey along the many frontlines that the global economy throws up, I found that outside the EU she’s not that different from the American eagle.

She grabs uranium in Niger to fuel French and Belgian nuclear power plants, destroys Indonesia for our shampoo and chocolates and chops down trees in the Amazon to fire our stoves.

For the least powerful people in the poorest countries on earth, the people who live from tropical rainforests to resource rich deserts, the EU is more often looked at as a perpetrator than as a rescuer.

Nuclear

This uncomfortable reality of modern existence is usually kept from the already troubled minds of Western consumers.

When snippets of this reality make the news, blame is quickly shifted to others – often the victims themselves.

But exporting pollution to “under-polluted” countries (this is the terminology used in the World Bank) and grabbing their resources on scales never seen before is the bedrock of the economic “success” of the post-war period.

Not all is lost. To the contrary. Outside this dark reality there is a parallel and much more bright universe that is also far too little known.

In my book, Frontlines: Stories of Global Environmental Justice, I have followed brave leaders like Bruno, a nuclear engineer who turned into a hero for communities affected by radioactive pollution all over the world.

Multinationals

I got to know Julio, a lawyer who chose to put himself in the firing line of Chevron, a company that has spend a billion dollar on counterattacking those who seeks justice for the victims of a massive oil spill in Ecuador.

I met Alexandru, the Romanian antiquarian who walked all the way to Brussels to lobby for a ban on fracking. Then there's Sumaira who survived several attacks of the Indian sand mafia and managed to win a legal battle all the way to the Supreme Court.

Elena (pseudonym) was just a simple non-activist mother, until a Canadian company arrived in her Greek backyard with plans for a massive gold mine. None of these people grew up wanting to become 'activists' or part of what some scientists now call a rising global movement for environmental justice.

But as the global economy keeps growing, together with the continued growth of extraction, trade, production, consumption and waste, ever more people just find themselves on a frontline that was brought to their doorsteps.

What I have noticed in the years working on this book is that the multinationals have become more powerful but so has the multinational resistance.

Justice

People like Bruno, Julio, Alexandru, Sumaira and Elena and millions of others are very busy resisting the expansion of the economy into the most unwanted places.

They and forging alternatives and they are winning battles. They are busy with building a future where organized citizens win power back at the cost of private companies and states.

This is sometimes referred to as the commons economy, but it is more than that. I see a degree of cooperation emerging between previously isolated small groups of earth defenders.

They are increasingly able to find support from all over the world, thanks to international NGOs, alternative media and citizens oriented scientists. In so many places, these new types of glocal coalitions manage to win battles, from fracking bans to divestment victories.

It's not clear yet who will win the global war against the natural system that we are a part of, but it is clear that the outcome will define the course of history for humanity in the decades ahead of us.

It is therefore encouraging to see the rise of a global movement for environmental justice and a wave of victories that came about when ordinary people decided it was time to get out of their comfort zones and join one of the many frontlines to defend this one earth that we all live and depend on.

This Author

Nick Meynen is the author of Frontlines. Stories of Global Environmental Justice.

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