‘It is truly enough said, that a corporation has no conscience; but a corporation of conscientious men is a corporation with a conscience.’ – Henry David Thoreau, 1866.
Unfortunately, the opposite is also true. But in these wired times we can express our disfavour by voting for the world’s top corporate bad guy. Eight companies have been shortlisted for the annual Public Eye awards, given to the worst violators of human rights and the environment.
The awards, which are sponsored by Greenpeace and the Berne Declaration, will be given out at the World Economic Forum at Davos in January to the (un)lucky winners. There’s also a jury award, selected by distinguished experts in business ethics, the environment and human rights, including Vandana Shiva. Competition is tight. Nominees include such infamous corporations as Gap, Syngenta/Bayer/BASF, FIFA and Glencore Xstrata.
The selection is so good, or rather, so terribly bad, I found it hard to pick just one. In the end, personal experience won out. I live not far from a mine owned by Glencore Xstrata (GX) in the mountains of Peru and have witnessed the long-running conflict.
In the Philippines, the company’s proposed Tampakan mine will displace 5,000 members of the indigenous B’laan tribe
Last May, three people were killed and about 100 wounded when police violently repressed protests at GX’s Tintaya mine. Oddly enough, protesters weren’t trying to close the mine, they simply wanted improved environmental monitoring and funds for community development.
Many of the demonstrators are pro-mining and earn a living providing services for the company. Like Carlos (not his real name) a young mechanic who was attacked by police as he and some friends were leaving the peaceful demonstration.
‘The officers started beating us with their fists and kicking us with their boots, forcing us to the ground,’ he said. ‘One officer held a gun to my friend’s head and then fired into the ground.’
Carlos was taken to the mine’s compound where, along with 22 other men and women, he was held for over 24 hours, enduring beatings and torture.
This incident is just one in a slew of accusations against GX operations around the world. Human rights activists have united and formed the Shadow Network: Glencore Xstrata Watchdogs to monitor the company and push for changes. Earlier this year I met with some of the network’s members from Bolivia, Colombia, Argentina, the Philippines, Peru and Switzerland.
Their stories are frighteningly similar: lack of environmental monitoring and controls, harassment and threats against leaders, police violence against peaceful demonstrations and an unwillingness to negotiate with legitimate community leaders.
In Argentina GX faces three lawsuits, two for contaminating the environment and another for smuggling minerals without paying taxes. Colombian activists say the company faces nine disciplinary proceedings and more than 600 families have been forced off their land because of pollution from GX’s operations.
The company also owns nearly a quarter of Lonmin, a platinum mine where 34 striking miners were shot dead last August in one of South Africa’s bloodiest police operations since apartheid.
But it is Father Joy, a soft-spoken priest from the Philippines, who relates one of the most heart-wrenching tales. He says the company’s proposed Tampakan mine will displace 5,000 members of the indigenous B’laan tribe from their ancestral lands, and that the community has not been adequately consulted about the project.
His usually smiling face grows sombre as he tells me about a B’laan woman and her two children who were killed by the military last year. The murdered woman was the wife of a B’laan leader who opposes the Tampakan project; neighbours said the woman and her children were sleeping peacefully in their beds when they were killed. A few months later, the B’laan leader’s younger brother was also killed by the military. During a Congressional hearing about the murders, members of the Philippine military said that GX’s subsidiary funds paramilitary groups in the zone.
Joy and other network members say the recent merger of Glencore Xstrata has created a new global threat: a monolithic corporation that controls a large portion of the world’s metals market and commodities. The newly married company has 90 offices in over 50 countries with its hand in everything from copper and zinc to offshore oil production assets, farms and agricultural facilities.
When I asked GX to respond to the Public Eye nomination, a polite man from media relations sent me a 5-page document calling the allegations ‘unfounded and, at times, libellous.’
I’ll sum up the document in one word: denial.
Flat out, we didn’t do it.
The document says GX follows the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights and has signed the Voluntary Principles on Security and Human Rights.
‘Voluntary’ is the key word: there’s no enforcement mechanism to ensure compliance with the code and companies ‘self-regulate’ – meaning they decide what to report.
National police are paid to do the bidding of a private company. Dangerous? Ask the 23 people who were detained at the Tintaya mine last year
This allows GX to boast about signing the code while quietly employing Peruvian police to provide security for their Tintaya mine. Human rights groups sent me a copy of the contract between Xstrata and Peru’s national police force, confirming that the company employs officers to guard the mine and has the ‘support’ of the province’s police commander.
Yes, the national police are paid to do the bidding of a private company. Dangerous? Ask the 23 people who were detained and tortured at the Tintaya mine by Peruvian police last year. Or the widows and children of the three men who were killed.
In the face of such damning evidence maybe the fellows in charge at GX need to take a long, deep breath and realize it’s time to make some real, honest changes about the way they do business.
Judging by the company’s response to the Public Eye nomination, they’re not quite there yet. This should make them an even stronger candidate for one of the top awards.
But that’s just my opinion. Now it’s your turn to vote, according to your own conscience.
No matter who you choose, this simple act will send a message to the world’s economic leaders when they gather next year in Davos: we’re watching you, so shake those nasty ghosts out of your closet because sooner or later, the truth will come out. And next time, it might be you up on the podium, receiving the statue of corporate shame.
This video has been produced by Shadow Network for the Public Eye award:
The May 2012 edition of New Internationalist contained a piece on Glencore Xstrata’s corruption.
Read the mining company and the Peruvian government’s violent response to the miners’ strike in June 2012.