The trial of Chevron Oil last December and the forthcoming trial of Shell - who are charged with contributing to environmental destruction in Nigeria as well as being complicit in the state murder of Ogoni activist, Ken Saro Wiwa - are two landmark cases that have tried to call multinationals to account for their actions in the developing world. These two cases are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to exploitation and human rights violations: from children in the DRC being used to work the coltan mines (coltan is used in video games and mobile phones) to mining violations in Ghana's gold mines, Angola's diamond mines and Zambia's copper mines.
Angola is a particularly nasty case not just because of the exploitation and human rights violations of workers there but also because of the connection with illegal settlements in the West Bank and rogue landlords in New York. Behind this spider's web is Israeli billionaire Lev Leviev. Leviev owns Alluvial, one of the main diamond mining operations in Angola. Thousands work in mines in Angola, often in dangerous conditions, largely unregulated and digging with their bare hands, while standing in dirty muddy water.
Angolan journalist and human rights activist Rafael Marques has documented human rights violations [Operation Kissonde] and the impact of diamond mining on one million people in Angola. The violations by private security firms for the mines are described as sadistic:
'[They] include beating their victims on the buttocks, undressing them and making them circulate naked or semi-naked in public, as well as other rituals of humiliation. They use, as distinct instruments of torture, shovels, or the handles of shovels, clubs and machetes. In the particular case of (security firm) Alfa-5, various cases have been documented in which the victims are forced to carry out homosexual acts. In one particular case, a son-in-law was forced to violate his father-in-law.'
At the same time, Leviev is alleged to be behind the construction of illegal homes in the West Bank of Palestine. As a measure of the serious violations against the Palestinian people, the British Government took the decision to boycott Leviev in March this year. A press release by one on-line organization claimed:
'Leviev's companies have built Jewish-only homes on occupied Palestinian land in the Israeli settlements of Zufim, Mattityahu East, Har Homa and Maale Adumim, impoverishing villages like Bil'in and Jayyous and violating international law. Leviev also funded the settlement organization the Land Redemption Fund. In December, the Israeli financial journal Globes published an expose of Leviev's serious human rights abuses and failure to fully comply with the Kimberley Process in Angola. And in Namibia, Leviev recently fired around 200 striking diamond polishers, some of whom were already struggling to survive on less than $2 per day.'
Ghana is presently on the edge of a biodiversity disaster as mining companies such as Anglo Gold Ashanti (AGA), Bogoso Gold Limited (BGL) and Newmont Gold Ghana (NGG) continue to operate without consideration for land or people. The use of toxic chemicals from the mining has led to contaminated water supplies. The forests, which have been reduced from 8.3 million hectares in 1957 to a mere 1.2 million today, contain over 700 varieties of trees, plants, birds and animals, all at risk of being destroyed forever.
'Biodiversity is being threatened everywhere, even in our landscape development, but what we are concerned about is the impact that such activity would have on the biodiversity,' confirms biodiversity expert, Professor Alfred Oteng Yeboah. 'Mining as an extractive activity destroys, therefore when mining is taking place in areas containing very important natural Ghanaian biological resources, that activity limits the extension of those particular biological resources.'
For example, Bogoso Gold has one of the worst records of environmental damage and human rights violations in Ghana, according to Mining Watch. They have damaged five rivers, cocoa farms and are responsible for cyanide spillages in their area of operation. The situation in Ghana is hardly different from that of the Niger Delta or Angola. In each country, the multinationals behave like bullies towards the local communities, refuse to meet international standards of mining and pollution as well as human rights. The state governments are equally culpable in that they fail to strengthen the environmental laws or even enforce those that exist, whilst the rights of communities are tossed aside.
To return to Shell and other oil multinationals operating in the Niger Delta region of Nigeria, Nnimmo Bassey of the Environmental Rights Action (ERA) Nigeria recently reported that there were over 1000 oil spills a year in the region:
'Between 1981 and 1994 Nigeria has been said to have lost 3.7 million hectares of forest and farmlands to erosion and other forms of soil degradation. About 285,000 Km2, or just under a third of Nigeria's land area, has been lost to this phenomenon over the past three decades.
'The situation is not only dangerous for agriculture in terms of lost farmland, there is also the threat of significant but adverse changes in weather and the soil system.'
The trial of Chevron Nigeria, Shell Nigeria and the ongoing bribery investigation of US company Halliburton in respect of a contract to build a liquid gas oil refinery in Nigeria are all evidence that at least in Nigeria the commons are fighting back. It's only a matter of time before other communities in Africa's mining and agricultural sector will also pursue justice through the courts.