Women United for Climate Change at COP20

Women are some of the most important actors for climate change solutions: they are crucial in managing natural resources sustainably, adapting to climate change, and protecting fragile ecosystems. In spite of being the most vulnerable to climate change, women are often excluded from decision making.

It was clear during this months United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in Lima (COP20), that all over the world, women have a lot to say about the effects of climate change. To make sure women’s voices are heard and celebrated, we were honoured to co-sponsor a reception with incredible spokeswomen of climate justice and the protection of our environment, including leaders of indigenous communities, Mary Robinson, former President of Ireland and United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, and Bianca Jagger, Chair of the Bianca Jagger Human Rights Foundation and Member of the Executive Director’s Leadership Council of Amnesty International USA.

Huaorani, Sarayaku and other indigenous women leaders with Bianca JaggerHuaorani, Sarayaku and other indigenous women leaders with Bianca Jagger

While a draft accord was being negotiated at COP20, Indigenous women talked about being at the forefront of protecting their territories and forests. This panel of indigenous women included Cecilia Brito Vasquez, who is an EarthRights International Amazon School for Human Rights and the Environment 2005 graduate. Cecilia, together with a group of Shipibo-Konibo women - mostly grandmothers - set up their own organisation to promote climate change adaptation strategies and indigenous traditional knowledge as a way to defend their forests from encroaching extractive industries.

Lily la Torre Lopez, ERI's Senior Amazon Counsel, Bianca Jagger, and Maryum Jordan, ERI's Amazon Fellow . . .

Corporations Hiding Behind the Constitution to Keep Secrets

Do corporations have the constitutional right to keep secrets, just because the information might be embarrassing or hurt their reputation if it became public?  Our friends at Global Witness and Free Speech for People have just filed an important amicus brief that answers this question with a resounding “no.”

The amicus brief defends Section 1502 of the Dodd-Frank Act, a law that requires companies to report on their use of “conflict minerals” coming from the Democratic Republic of Congo.  It’s worth a read, because it does a great job of undermining companies’ argument that the government violates their First Amendment freedom of speech rights when it requires them to disclose factual information about their operations.

In response to a lawsuit by the National Association of Manufacturers, the powerful D.C. Circuit ruled earlier this year that most of Section 1502 of the Dodd-Frank Act was constitutional.  However, it struck down a part of the law that requires companies to declare whether their products are “DRC conflict-free,” reasoning that this requirement violated the corporations’ constitutional right under the First Amendment to not speak. This was based on prior D.C. Circuit decisions that had set a very high constitutional bar for most rules that require corporations to disclose information to the public. Under this rule, unless requiring the disclosures was the narrowest possible means for the government to pursue a very important public interest, then companies could seek to have them overturned under the “compelled speech” doctrine, which is meant to prevent authorities from forcing people to say things that that they don’t want to say.

Just a couple of months later, however, the D.C. Circuit changed the rule and made it easier for the government to require companies to make commercial disclosures in the public interest.  In doing so, it . . .

Update: Chevron fails to win State Department's Award for Corporate Excellence

After an outcry from 30 civil society organizations who objected to Chevron's nomination for the award - and other denouncements across the internet - the State Department announced that the 2014 Award for Corporate Excellence would be given to Coca-Cola, EcoPlanet Bamboo, and Wagner Asia Equipment - not Chevron.

Some advocates have criticized the inclusion of Coca-Cola, which has faced accusations of serious labor rights violations, including lawsuits alleging complicity in the murder of labor leaders in Colombia. Coca-Cola has, however, made some efforts in the past few years to improve its social performance - including declaring "zero tolerance" for land-grabbing in its supply chain and producing an impressive (though still imperfect) report on its business practices in Myanmar (Burma) - the very same country where the US embassy nominated Chevron for the awards. (Oxfam America ranks Coke at #3 of the top 10 food companies in terms of social and environmental performance - and the top American company in the rankings.)

We hope that the outcry over Chevron's nomination leads the State Department to re-think what "corporate excellence" means, and shift from a mindset that rewards corporate philanthropy projects to one that really considers whether a corporation is respecting local communities in its profit-making operations.

Mining Workshop for Civil Society Leaders in Myanmar

Rapid development in mining in Myanmar is putting communities at risk. Pollution, inhumane business and labor practices, and violence are some of the many issues affecting communities and civil society leaders. With the support of Trocaire, the overseas development agency of the Catholic Church in Ireland, the EarthRights School Myanmar Alumni Program organized a six day workshop on mining in Yangon, Myanmar. The purpose of this workshop is to empower our civil society leaders working on mining issues and to equip them to help vulnerable communities protect their lands and their environment. More than a dozen alumni joined the workshop, including three alumni from our Health and EarthRights Training (HEART), a joint program between EarthRights International and the Mae Tao Clinic. For security reasons, our alumni have chosen to remain anonymous.

During the first day of the workshop, alumni had an opportunity to share information on mining cases they work on, discuss challenges they face, and strategies that are used in different regions to address those issues. During the following three days, retired members of the Myanmar Ministry of Mines who are currently working with the Myanmar Green Network provided legal and technical knowledge on mining, with a focus on Myanmar.

One alumnus working on coal mining in Dawei, in southern Myanmar, said that: “It was very useful for us to get knowledge from an expert on mining. I knew about the mining law, but I didn’t know about the procedure to get the permission to conduct mining. There are many steps that the companies don’t respect. Knowing about the mining procedure will allow us to closely monitor the mining companies and pressure them to follow the procedures by sending complaint letters to the relevant

. . .

Is Chevron a model of "corporate excellence"? We don't think so.

Last month the U.S. State Department announced that Chevron was a finalist for the Secretary of State's "Award for Corporate Excellence." Because Chevron is implicated in too many human rights and environmental disasters to enumerate here - the True Cost of Chevron annual report give a good overview of their misdeeds in Myanmar (Burma), Nigeria, Ecuador, Kazakhstan, and elsewhere - clearly the State Department is using a different notion of "corporate excellence" than most people would.

In fact, they are. Although the State Department says that the award is meant to honor companies who act as "good corporate citizens" and use "exemplary practices," the nominations were not done on the basis of the company's overall operations. Instead, the U.S. Embassy in Myanmar nominated Chevron based on its humanitarian projects there, involving healthcare and local economic development.

I don't know anything about these particular projects, but I feel strongly that this is the wrong way to go about promoting corporate responsibility. As ERI has pointed out in a letter to the State Department yesterday, a company can't simply offset irresponsible practices in its profit-making operations with a couple of humanitarian corporate philanthropy projects. Truly responsible corporations use "exemplary practices" in all their operations - and Chevron clearly doesn't.

Update: Chevron fails to win State Department's Award for Corporate Excellence

On the 30th Anniversary of the Bhopal Disaster

Today marks the 30th anniversary of the world’s worst industrial disaster. On the night of December 2-3, 1984, poisonous gas from the Bhopal, India pesticide plant of Union Carbide Corp.'s (UCC) local subsidiary enveloped nearby communities. Thousands of people died by morning. Thousands more died over the ensuing weeks, months and years.  

Union Carbide has never adequately compensated the victims. And, while Union Carbide has been charged with crimes in India for its role in the disaster, it is a fugitive; it fled India and has never answered the charges in the criminal case, which remain pending.  After the disaster, UCC largely abandoned the site, allowing toxins to leach into the local drinking water supply.  UCC has steadfastly refused to act to prevent further contamination or to compensate those whose drinking water has been poisoned. (ERI serves as co-counsel in a suit in New York against UCC seeking redress for this pollution.)

Survivors and other members of the surrounding community have been fighting for justice all of these years.  On this sad anniversary, five survivors' organizations demanded that UCC appear in the criminal case, provide adequate compensation to Gas Disaster survivors, and clean up the groundwater.  One would hope UCC will finally do the right thing, but given their abysmal track record, I am not optimistic. 

Today, and every day, let us remember the victims and survivors of Bhopal. Let us stand with them until justice is served. 



“A Foreseeable Disaster”: New Report on the Negative Impacts of Forced Displacement Caused by the Thilawa SEZ

Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) in cooperation with Japanese NGO Mekong Watch and local organization, Thilawa Social Development Group (TSDG), recently released a report titled “A Foreseeable Disaster in Burma: Forced Displacement in the Thilawa Economic Zone”. The report accuses the Myanmar authorities of violating international standards relating to relocation and resettlement, highlighting the negative impacts on communities forcibly evicted as a result of the first phase of the Thilawa SEZ project, which is being developed with the Japanese government.

PHR’s research includes testimonials from approximately half of the 68 households relocated as a result of the first phase of the SEZ project. PHR found that households were not consulted about the project, they received inadequate compensation and the resettlement process fell short of international standards.

“Instead of providing affected families with an opportunity to challenge the displacement or offered compensation, as outlined in international standards, the government issued threats to Thilawa residents,” the report said.

PHR researchers found that the relocation site does not meet the minimum standards for a refugee camp, let alone a planned community. Both the water sources and latrines were improperly constructed and water samples tested from the relocation site were found to be unfit for human consumption.

The authorities also failed to provide adequate compensation or means for alternative livelihoods, which have resulted in additional adverse consequences for health conditions and food security. Displaced families report higher levels of hunger, child malnutrition, and sickness.  The report finds, “Without intervention to improve livelihoods, the nutrition and health situation in the relocation site will continue to deteriorate.”

The report calls for transparent procedures for evictions, improved humanitarian conditions at the relocation site, and for international standards to be followed in future relocations connected to the Thilawa project.

If international standards are followed displacement . . .

Pozzolan Mine Wearing out the People of Mt. Popa

“I have to eat my lunch so late so that I will not be hungry again in the evening,” the woman herding cattle told me as she ate a simple meal of cooked rice, beans and chili. On a sunny day in June 2014, I took a trip to the Mt. Popa area to conduct my research on land confiscation caused by a pozzolan mining project. Mt. Popa is an extinct volcano near Bagan in central Myanmar, best known as a pilgrimage site with many important Nat (spirit) temples and relic sites on the top of the mountain.

When I visited one of the villages where I was doing my research, I saw the old woman beside the road. The afternoon sun was beating down and the ground was hot. This skinny little woman was wearing a shabby old cloth on her head to protect her from the sunlight and holding a stick in her hand for herding her cattle. Behind her, I observed a wide expanse of mining area and the majestic Popa Mountain in the distance.

From our conversation, I learned that she is one of the many farmers who lost their land due to the pozzolan mining project. In 2004, the Ministry of Electricity No2 confiscated 246.2 acres of farmland belonging to local farmers in order to mine pozzolan powder. Pozzolan powder is a type of volcanic ash with high value used to enrich cement for the construction of dams in other parts of the country.

As she continued her meager lunch, I noticed her face was weathered and she appeared exhausted and very old.  I was shocked when she told me that she is only fifty-two years old. Her wrinkles illustrate how tired she is and the hardships she has suffered. With sadness in her voice . . .

Canadian government tries to protect the reputation of its mining companies - it's got its work cut out

The Economist is reporting on a Canadian government initiative to promote the interests of its mining companies abroad if they will agree to take part in a dispute resolution process with local communities. It's not clear what this process would look like; we would urge community involvement in creating the process.

But it's clear that, in the reputation-management department, the government has a tough road ahead. In addition to ERI's own release about Barrick, I compiled the following list of Canadian mining companies involved in abusive and/or polluting projects around the world - off the top of my head:

·  NevSun Resources, sued just last week for alleged slave labor in Eritrea

·  Goldcorp, allegedly involved in abuses against local indigenous groups and pollution in Guatemala

·  Glamis Gold, which sued the US government over California and federal environmental regulations (and lost) (now part of Goldcorp)

·  Anvil mining, sued (unsuccessfully) in Canada over alleged involvement in a massacre in the DR Congo

·  Tahoe Resources, sued in Canada over its security forces' shooting of seven protestors, and whose license was suspended in Guatemala after a lawsuit there

·  Pacific Rim mining, which has sued El Salvador over that country's refusal to grant environmental permits

·  HudBay Minerals, sued in Canada over alleged involvement by its security guards in gang rapes and a killing in Guatemala

There's a reason that's there's an entire organization devoted to monitoring the actions of Canadian mining companies - our fantastic partner, MiningWatch Canada - and that the Inter-American Human Rights Commission recently devoted a hearing to the same topic. It's not a pretty record. Let's hope the new government initiative, along with efforts for legal accountability, can start to turn this around. . . .

New ERI guide on how U.S. courts can provide assistance against corporate human rights abuses

While the post-Kiobel world has seen several disappointing decisions for victims seeking justice for corporate complicity in human rights abuses, there are still bright spots in the U.S. courts. EarthRights International (ERI) has developed a strategy to use the U.S. Foreign Legal Assistance (FLA) statute, 28 U.S.C. § 1782, to assist public interest lawyers in other countries in obtaining information which may be useful for their proceedings against a corporation. Under this statute, “interested parties” to an action in a foreign domestic proceeding can ask a federal court to obtain documents and testimony from people or companies located in the U.S. who may have relevant information.

ERI has filed three FLA actions so far. The first was to obtain information from Chevron, for a case in Nigeria involving the negative impacts of gas flaring. There, the parties reached a settlement. Interestingly, the FLA was actually a tactic originally used by Chevron itself. This may be the first case where a public interest group has used a FLA request to assist communities in obtaining information from a U.S. multinational corporation.

The second action was to obtain documents and testimony for an action in Tanzania against a high-end safari company for land grabbing and violence. There, the company came to an agreement with the plaintiffs after the court ordered the discovery. The last action was to get documents and testimony from a U.S. mining company for in an action in Peru involving violence against protestors committed by the mining company’s hired security. This action is still pending in court.

Taking advantage of this statute embraces ERI’s model of collaborative litigation, where we assist strategically while the ownership . . .