November 1997, Volume 4, number 9
by Sarah Fallon
In Kenya, Wangari Maathai was dragged from her house and beaten for organizing women against the construction of a skyscraper. In Brazil, Chico Mendes was assassinated for leading a movement to promote sustainable use of the Amazon rainforest. Couldn't happen here? In Missouri's Ozark Mountains, a Club activist was brutalized and left duct-tapxed to the steering wheel of her car by thugs who objected to her environmental work.
It may not be immediately apparent why human rights and environmental rights are intertwined, but to any activist who has been threatened or persecuted, the connection is all too clear. If you think Amnesty International should focus on human rights and leave the forests and the wetlands to the Sierra Club, think again. The following stories illustrate the vital -- and sometimes dangerous -- link between environmental protection and human rights, and show the power of raising awareness and of holding governments and corporations accountable for initiating or permitting actions that in one blow violate human rights and work against the environment.
"We either win this war to save our land, or we will be exterminated, because we have nowhere to run to."
These words of Ken Saro-Wiwa reflect the suffering he and other members of the Ogoni tribe endured for speaking out to defend their farmland. Along with eight other Ogoni, Saro-Wiwa, Nigerian playwright, television producer and president of the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP), was hanged on Nov. 10, 1995. Saro-Wiwa organized the Ogoni people to protest the devastation Royal Dutch Shell's oil operations have caused to the once-rich farmland of Ogoniland. A military tribunal found Saro-Wiwa guilty of inciting a riot in which four people were killed, even though he was miles away in another town. Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the Sierra Club declared the trial a sham, asserting that Saro-Wiwa had been convicted on trumped-up charges. Two of the most damaging prosecution witnesses later admitted to taking bribes from the military junta to testify against Saro-Wiwa.
Within hours of the execution, the Nigerian military had deployed some 4,000 troops throughout Ogoniland, beating anyone caught mourning in public. School headmasters were arrested as a warning not to discuss Saro-Wiwa in the classroom. Pastors who prayed for him were arrested.
Environmentalists worldwide responded quickly, and the Club implemented a board-sanctioned boycott of Shell Oil and organized rallies and conferences. The Club also teamed up with The Body Shop to open Ogoni Freedom Centers -- exhibit spaces designed to educate the public about Shell's activities in Ogoniland -- in New York City and Boulder, Colo.
The Ogoni cause continues to gain momentum. Oakland, Calif., New Orleans and other cities have adopted resolutions and sanctions against Shell; Rep. Donald Payne (D-N.J.) has introduced a bill to impose sanctions on Nigeria; and Saro-Wiwa's brother recently accepted the Club's Chico Mendes Award on behalf of MOSOP for extraordinary courage and leadership.
Shell says it has plans to clean up oil spills in the area and offer compensation to the Ogoni. Unfortunately, the company's actions have yet to match its rhetoric.
"For more than 100 years, the Sierra Club's success in preserving and protecting North America has come from empowering individuals at the local and national levels,"says Stephen Mills, the Club's Human Rights and the Environment Campaign director. "While the Club's first priority has always been to urge the United States to get its own house in order, it is also imperative that we keep the United States, other wealthy nations and multinational corporations from preying on indigenous communities in the developing world."
Thousands of miles away, nuclear engineer and retired submarine captain Alexander Nikitin has been charged with treason and is forbidden to leave St. Petersburg for helping to publicize radioactive contamination caused by the Russian Northern Fleet.
A 1997 winner of the Goldman Environmental Prize, Nikitin worked with the Norwegian environmental group Bellona to produce a damning report. Released in November 1995, it describes the fleet's problems with its nuclear-powered vessels and with the storage of spent nuclear fuel and other radioactive waste from these vessels. Exposure to radioactive waste is known to cause leukemia, cancers and heart disease.
Russian law prohibits information on the conditions of the environment or on extraordinary incidents and catastrophes that endanger human life and health from being classified as state secrets. But the Federal Security Service (formerly the KGB) has chosen to ignore this, charging that Nikitin has violated secret laws -- which have yet to be revealed to Nikitin or his lawyer. Russian journalists who have written about the case have been fired, their papers fearing retribution. Russian environmentalists have shied away from working on controversial, albeit critical, issues.
Nikitin is still awaiting trial, and is now working on a new project -- trying to design laws to protect environmental crusaders. "We have to find a way so that people who want to study the ecology can do so without being afraid,"he says. The Club is helping to draw attention to his case by asking people to write letters to President Boris Yeltsin urging him to drop the case against Nikitin.
"Public attention helped get Nikitin released from prison; the Club's grassroots network here in North America can help clear his name for good,"says Mills.
The Club is calling attention to human-rights violations in other countries as well. In Indonesia, government officials announced in 1996 that they would arrest and detain leaders of problematic environmental groups, particularly those who stray into the political arena. Environmentalists and indigenous leaders who are especially imperiled are those protesting the pollution and human-rights abuses at a mine site operated by the New Orleans-based company Freeport-McMoRan.
In Burma, the ruling military regime continues to use slave labor to wreak havoc in the country's teak forests. Profits from timber sales and operating fees from Western oil concessions reportedly go to support the military's assassinations of ethnic and religious minorities opposed to the destruction of their communities.
In China, opponents of the Three Gorges Dam Project, including journalists, scientists and engineers, have been silenced by government threats and imprisonment. This dam on the Yangtze River -- the largest hydroelectric project ever attempted in the world -- would flood six counties, displace 1.2 million people and threaten endangered animal species with extinction.
To take action: Write Russian President Boris Yeltsin at
or fax him at 011-7-095-206-51-73.
Urge him to drop the case against Alexander Nikitin.
For more information: Contact Stephen Mills at (202) 675-6691; email@example.com, or visit our Web site at www.sierraclub.org/human-rights
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