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Shell accepts liability for catastrophic oil spills in the Niger Delta

Yesterday news broke that the Shell Petroleum Development Company (SPDC), the UK/Dutch oil giant’s Nigerian subsidiary, admitted responsibility for two catastrophic oil spills in the Bodo region of Ogoniland in the Niger Delta in Nigeria. Today the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) released the most comprehensive study detailing the devastating environmental impacts of oil production on Ogoniland. Taken together, the report and admission of responsibility by Shell are powerful reminders of the crippling effect the oil industry continues to have on the Delta’s economy and environment, particularly on local communities that rely on the land and water for their survival.

Extensive oil spills devastate resources in the Niger Delta

In August and December 2008, two wellheads owned by SPDC sprang leaks spewing 14,000 tons of crude oil into the region’s waterways, devastating water, food, and fuel resources. People in the community say that in each instance, the wellheads were not capped until they had been spewing oil for over three months, even though Shell representatives admit they had been aware of the leaks for several weeks.

The spill is estimated to be larger than the Exxon Valdez disaster, and covers an area of coastline equivalent to that of BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill. However, unlike the BP incident, the Bodo spills occurred within the creeks and rivers of the Bodo communities, and will not dissipate naturally as some scientists’ claim of oil in the Gulf of Mexico (a highly controversial claim). Experts say that while remediation is possible, it will likely require twenty years and $100 million to clean up. Tragically, spills like these are nothing new to the region, which has experienced an average of three spills per day totaling nearly 13 million barrels over the nearly 50 years of oil production . . .

Mae Kham Pong: An Alternative Solution to Large Scale Development Projects

In the past two months, students at the EarthRights School Mekong (ERSM) have been studying the impacts of large development projects, particularly dams, in the greater Mekong Region. Although funders of dams state that dams positively develop countries and reduce poverty, in reality, the result is often quite negative, particularly for rural and indigenous populations.

Large scale dams have been shown to flood villages, force people to resettle, and decreases food security by depleting fish species and flooding farmland. In addition, the energy that is generated from the dams often benefits only residents in larger cities.

The ERSM students have also learned that our dependency on non-renewable resources such as coal and oil is just as harmful. Fossil fuels have polluted our air and water, contributed to climate change, and cause respiratory illnesses.

One of two generators at the Mae Kham Pong plantOne of two generators at the Mae Kham Pong plant So how can we get energy that is sustainable, clean, and renewable? This is where our recent trip to Mae Kham Pong comes in. Mae Kham Pong is a village one hour north of Chiang Mai, which has been operating a micro hydropower dam for the last 30 years. The micro hydropower dam was built after the villagers told the government that they wanted electricity for their homes and schools.  The Ministry of Alternative Power helped to partially fund the micro hydropower dam, to be built on the village stream. The villagers labored and built the dam themselves. It consists of a power/control house and two generators that produce a total of 40 kw. That provides enough energy to light each home and because of the dam’s small size, it . . .

Chokkobe: A Fragile Childhood on the Salween River

The following essay was written by "Karine," a Vietnamese student at the EarthRights School Mekong, following a class trip to Tha Ta Fang, a small village on the Thai side of the Salween River (map), on the Thai-Burma border. The Salween is the longest dam-free river in mainland Southeast Asia, but is threatened by a number of proposed dam projects.


 

There is a little girl in Tha Ta Fang village. Her name is Chokkobe. She is four years old, and her family was my host family during the 4 days I stayed in the village. Chokkobe is the cutest child I’ve ever met. She has a bright face with wide-open eyes. She loves to take photos and always ask to look at them after. She loves to play hide and seek with me. She can say “Hello, good night, and thank you” in English, and she says "good bye" with a kiss. Chokkobe wakes up early every morning and goes to school without crying. I can say that many children in Tha Ta Fang village really enjoy studying like Chokkobe.

ERSM students near the Salween RiverERSM students near the Salween River Fortunately, Chokkobe is luckier than most of her friends in the village because she’s got Thai citizenship. Her father has Thai citizenship, but her mother does not. Some people will ask me why I say “fortunately,” because having citizenship is her right as a human being? But many children in Tha Ta Fang village don’t have Thai citizenship. It means that they cannot go to secondary school or any other schools outside their villages. They cannot have support from the Thai government. Moreover, when it comes to adulthood, those children don’t . . .

Major victory for transnational human rights litigation in the UK: mining company compensates Peruvian victims of torture

From our friends at Leigh Day & Co., a UK law firm that has pioneered transnational human rights litigation in the English courts, comes news that the Monterrico Metals mining company has agreed to compensate 33 Peruvians who alleged that they were tortured by Peruvian police in retaliation for protesting against a mine run by a Monterrico subsidiary.

The plaintiffs argued that their beatings and torture, in August 2005, was part of a strategy of suppression against community protest and opposition to their activities in Peru, and that mine employees and security contractors participated in the abuse.

The settlement is confidential, but in my experience settlements like this--which involve compensation of the victims, and which are publicized by the plaintiffs--are victories.  Corporations know that the settlement will be perceived as an admission of responsibility (even if no formal admission of guilt is included), and so they won't settle unless there's a pretty good chance they are going to lose.

So congratulations to Leigh Day, and to their partners at the US-based Environmental Defender Law Center and the Peruvian organizations Fedepaz and the Coordinadora Nacional de Derechos Humanos, for achieving this result, another milestone that will help cement transnational corporate accountability in UK law.

Guest Post: Learning from students on the Thai-Burma border

This guest post comes from Evan, an intern with ERI’s Burma Alumni Program, who recently spent two weeks living at the Social Development Center (SDC), on the Thai-Burma border, where he taught research and report writing. The SDC was founded by alumni from the EarthRights School Burma and has been training human rights and environmental defenders since 2003.


 

I recently had the privilege of teaching for two weeks in a village in Mae Hong Sorn Province. Initially, I was off-put by the small village (“it’s rustic!” I wrote, facetiously, to my friends in Chiang Mai), and I also had my reservations about the work, worrying about how the students would view me and whether I could communicate with them effectively, in English.

After just a few days, however, these initial concerns vanished and were replaced with a new concern: spending as much time with the students as possible, without crowding their demanding schedules. Getting to know the students was an enormous pleasure – I loved learning about their backgrounds, and the stories that preceded their lives in the camp and school.  More than once I found myself up late, long past the village bedtime, chatting with students and neighbors. I also learned, through my new friendships, that I am terrible at table tennis, incapable of doing backflips off rocks near the waterfall, and my Burmese pronunciation is… lacking.

When the weekend came, and I went into town for laundry and other errands, I found the first opportunity I could to run back to the village in order to hang out a little longer with the students. When it came time to leave, after the second week, saying goodbye was a lot tougher than I ever imagined.  We promised that we would stay in contact through e-mail . . .

Is it really time to weaken the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act?

This guest post comes from Yewande Ajoke Agboola, a law student at University of Maryland School of Law currently interning with our campaigns team in Washington DC.


The Robert Murdoch News of the World police bribery and phone hacking scandal continues to evolve with the arrest and resignation of the company’s former editor this weekend and the resignation of the head of Scotland Yard on Sunday. In addition to resignations, there will be a hearing before British lawmakers investigating the allegations that is set to include Murdoch, his son, and the former editor today. With sordid new details emerging daily (including reports that employees or associates attempted to hack into phone conversations and voice mail of September 11 survivors, victims and their families) British and U.S. law enforcement investigations have begun and an important U.S. law, the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA), is receiving renewed attention.

The FCPA makes it illegal for U.S.-listed companies, their employees or agents to make bribes to foreign officials. In this case, the Act may lead to liability for News of the World’s U.S. parent, News Corporation if News of the World was involved in the bribery scheme. The FCPA has not only punished companies that have bribed foreign officials to the tune of around  $2 billion in fines in the last two years, but the threat of criminal fines and penalties has changed business practices for the better around the globe.

Not surprisingly, arguably the best tool the U.S. has to prevent international bribery is under attack from the very same corporations that have been the subject of FCPA investigations, fines, and compliance requirements. Spear-heading the movement to amend the FCPA is the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which last October released a . . .

Field Notes from Thailand, Part 2: EarthRights in Chiang Mai

Yesterday I shared my experiences from the first day of our recent Donor Inspiration Tour in Thailand. Below, my reflections continue, covering the last three days of the trip.

 


 

While driving back to Chiang Mai from Mae Sot, on the Thai/Burma border, we stopped at Mae Moh Village to learn about villagers’ struggle against a nearby coal-burning power plant. Financed by the Asian Development Bank and completed in 1997 by Electric Generating Authority of Thailand (EGAT), the Mae Moh power plant displaced over 30,000 people, and its sulfur-dioxide emissions led to thousands of severe respiratory infections. We saw first-hand the result of EGAT’S failed involuntary resettlement policy, and talked with local villagers who had lost not only their homes, but also their friends to health-related effects of the plant’s pollution. The villagers remain locked in legal battles and are still awaiting the majority of the $142,000 promised to them by the Thai Provincial Court.

The following morning, after a restful night in Chiang Mai’s Chedi Hotel, we visited the EarthRights School Mekong, where we met the recently arrived class of 2011, played icebreaker games and then gathered in small groups to hear the students’ stories and struggles.  After the previous day’s poignant visit to Mae Moh, our group found solace in the ERSM classrooms, where impassioned and dedicated young leaders build skills to further the fight against such environmental and human rights abuses.

In the afternoon we met with the local staff at ERI’s office, and received presentations on ERI’s Mekong Legal programs, Mekong Alumni Program, and Burma Campaigns.  The presentations helped place ERI’s work in the context of the ever-growing network of earth rights defenders throughout Southeast Asia. 

We concluded the day with another wonderful dinner, this time at the local Whole Earth Restaurant.  The following day was a “day of rest;” . . .

Field Notes from Thailand: A Visit to Mae Sot

I recently returned to Washington DC from northern Thailand, where I coordinated and led our first Donor Inspiration Tour. During the buildup to the trip I was consumed by logistics, including everything from making hotel reservations and food arrangements to finding bug spray and rain ponchos for all our participants.  It took awhile for me to realize that, just like the rest of the participants on our pilot tour, this was my first time ever seeing ERI’s local work in the Mekong Region. I had no idea how much I personally would be impacted by finally meeting my colleagues who work tirelessly to improve the lives of all those in the Mekong Region, and by being exposed to the challenges they face.

The adventure started with a scenic drive through the beautiful rolling mountains of Northern Thailand, to the Thai/Burma border town of Mae Sot. Mae Sot is home to hundreds of thousands of Burmese migrants and refugees, many of them displaced or evicted from their homes to make way for international development projects, or chased away by violent military conflicts inside Burma.

In Mae Sot, our group first met with the incredible Dr. Cynthia Maung, an ethnic Karen who fled Burma in 1989 and established the Mae Tao medical clinic, which treats more than 75,000 undocumented refugees and migrants from Burma every year, many whom would have nowhere else to go for basic medical care.  We met with some of the patients, and had one particularly poignant conversation with a smiling farmer who had lost his leg to a land mine just two days prior. 

Humbled and honored after our morning at Dr. Cynthia’s clinic, the group’s next destination was the Mae La refugee camp, the biggest of its kind in all of Thailand. As we approached the gates, . . .

Kiobel officially an outlier: Yet another US court rules for corporate accountability for human rights abuses

Three days after the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that corporations could be sued for human rights abuses, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals came to the same conclusion, in a decision in Flomo v. Firestone (PDF).  (Unfortunately, the Seventh Circuit also ruled that the plaintiffs did not show that the abuses in that case, involving child labor on rubber plantations in Liberia, actually violated international law.)

This decision is especially significant because it was written by Judge Richard Posner, a prominent legal scholar who is widely respected but generally considered conservative, and who was appointed to the court by President Reagan.  Unlike the D.C. Circuit's opinion in Exxon Mobil, in which a Bush II appointee dissented from an opinion by two Clinton appointees, Posner's opinion was unanimously supported by two other Republican-appointed judges.

The Firestone opinion expressly labels the Kiobel decisions, which found corporate immunity for human rights abuses, an "outlier," which it now certainly is.  Between Exxon Mobil and Firestone, along with Judge Leval's dissent in Kiobel, the reasoning of the Kiobel majority has been thoroughly dismantled.

So far the U.S. Courts of Appeal for the D.C., Seventh, and Eleventh Circuits have expressly found corporate liability for human rights violations; the Ninth Circuit has assumed such liability and may make an express decision on the issue soon, and it is also being considered by the Fourth Circuit. 

Only the Second Circuit, in Kiobel, has found that corporations cannot be sued.  The district court's decision in Firestone was the only opinion that followed Kiobel, and now it has been reversed. . . .

Yellowstone River spill is business as usual for Big Oil

Last week I vacationed in western Montana, where I was born and raised. Skipping stones on Flathead Lake and walking for miles along the Clark Fork river, I was acutely aware of the dangerously high water levels – higher than I’ve ever seen – which have led to flooding throughout the state this spring and summer. I was oblivious, however, to the environmental tragedy that was unfolding in eastern Montana: 42,000 gallons of crude oil spilling from an Exxon pipeline into the Yellowstone River. I only learned of the spill after I’d returned to work in Washington DC.

Putting it in perspective

Like many, I’m sure, the first thing I did was consult a map, and I heaved a sigh of relief after confirming that Yellowstone National Park, where I’d passed many summer days as a child, was unaffected by the spill.  Then I crunched some numbers, and almost convinced myself that it’s not so bad. After all, 42,000 gallons is only 1000 barrels, a drop in the bucket compared to the 53,000 to 62,000 barrels which spilled into the Gulf of Mexico every day for nearly three months during the Deepwater Horizon disaster of 2010.

While the impact on local Montana fisheries and agriculture won’t be known for some time -- just as we won’t know the true impacts on the Gulf ecosystem of the BP spill for years to come -- it’s encouraging that drinking water has been deemed safe in both the immediate area and further downstream in North Dakota.

So why does this small spill still break my heart? Probably because, even with a small spill on a minor pipeline, Big Oil still can’t seem to get it right.

Business as usual

In the year leading up to the Yellowstone River spill, . . .

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