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Sierra Magazine
A Planet Unfree

What do human rights have to do with environmental protection? Everything.

by Aaron Sachs

One November day in 1996, a line of logging trucks rumbled into an old olive-growing region of Turkey, near the ancient Pillars of Pergamum. The government-paid loggers had come to clear land for a new gold-mining project sponsored by the French-based conglomerate Eurogold. But they were able to fell only about 2,500 trees before a small group of incensed olive growers got in their way. The stand-off lasted for months, to the increasing annoyance of Eurogold and the Turkish government. Early this April, out rolled the logging trucks and in rolled a line of tanks.

The confrontation had been years in the making. When Eurogold first proposed the mine in 1993, the farmers had been willing to listen. But after preliminary drilling rendered their water undrinkable for four months, they ended negotiations and started protesting. Backed by environmental and human-rights groups in Turkey, Germany, and the United States, the farmers filed a legal appeal and then began to familiarize themselves with cyanide heap-leaching, Eurogold's planned mining technique.

Eurogold, meanwhile, had launched a public-relations campaign designed to convince the farmers that their concerns were backward and outdated. At a public meeting in Ankara, Turkey's capital, one company representative even went so far as to claim—falsely—that "an influential group in the United States called the Sierra Club" had recently endorsed the use of cyanide in gold mining. But the farmers quickly rebuffed this and other misleading assertions at meetings of their own, to which they invited the 300,000 people who live near the mine site, next to the old Asia Minor city now called Bergama. They pointed out, for instance, that Eurogold's "leakproof" tailings pond would in fact be situated on an active fault line. When the olive growers organized a referendum on the mine last year, nine of ten eligible voters in the immediate vicinity turned out. Not one voted in favor of the project.

The farmers were prepared, then, when the tanks descended on Bergama. They immediately countered with a peaceful demonstration that involved 10,000 people and 1,000 tractors. At this point, if the Turkish government had used force to repress citizens exercising their basic civil rights, it would have compromised its claim to democracy. Within days, Turkey's highest administrative court had declared the mine unconstitutional, shutting it down completely.

Given Eurogold's financial resources and the Turkish government's desperation to attract foreign investment, the farmers will probably have further battles to fight. But the court's watershed decision has international implications. The judges ruled that Eurogold's mine violates the provision of Turkey's recently amended constitution that protects every Turk's fundamental right to a healthy, intact environment. They set a precedent, in other words, for regarding pollution not as a matter to be debated among technicians but as an issue of basic human rights.

The United Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which turns 50 next year, does not mention pollution—environmental contaminants received scant attention in 1948—but it does cover such issues as health, safety, and self-determination. In the wake of World War II and the crimes against humanity perpetrated by the Nazis, the United Nations established certain rights as inviolable regardless of ethnic, religious, or national heritage. As Javier Pérez de Cuéllar asserted in 1987 while serving as U.N. secretary-general, international human-rights law "has equal relevance and validity for every political or social system and also every cultural tradition. It can truly be said to belong to the peoples of the world."

Since 1948, the health and safety promised in the Universal Declaration have increasingly been secured by environmental laws. And a growing number of today's crimes against humanity are in fact environmental in nature. As mining, logging, oil drilling, and waste-disposal projects push into more and more regions and ecosystems, people all over the world are seeing their basic rights compromised: they are losing their livelihoods, their traditional cultures, and even their lives.

Many of the worst cases of ecological damage occur in countries under the control of authoritarian, rights-repressive regimes, where affected communities have no way of holding governments accountable for their actions. In Nigeria, for instance, where oil exports bring in 90 percent of foreign exchange, military ruler General Sani Abacha has sacrificed the health of entire villages to accommodate multinationals like Royal/Dutch Shell, and has responded to protests with violence. Two years ago, the Abacha regime provoked international outrage—though no economic sanctions—by executing the writer/activist Ken Saro-Wiwa, a Nobel Peace Prize nominee, and eight other leaders of the Ogoni people. Saro-Wiwa and his colleagues had committed the crime of documenting the toxic spills and military repression that continue to devastate their oil-rich homeland in the Niger River Delta.

The Turkish olive growers succeeded in blocking Eurogold's mine because they were able to mount the kind of protests that are still impossible in Nigeria. In general, protecting basic civil rights may be the best way we have of ensuring that future generations inherit a planet that is still worth inhabiting.

Upholding human rights can also help victimized communities even after the damage has been done by enabling them to seek financial compensation for the destruction of their resources. While judges in many countries still have few environmental standards on which to base their decisions—what level of which pollutants constitutes contaminated water?—they do have accepted international human-rights standards. And while no court exists to try repressive regimes themselves, it is possible to sue the multinational corporations whose business ventures keep those regimes in power.

Earlier this year, two communities did just that. A group of Burmese citizens, denied due process in their own country, sued the Unocal oil company in California for its involvement in a disastrous natural-gas project in Burma. And a number of Indonesian tribal leaders filed a class-action suit in Louisiana against the mining giant Freeport-McMoRan for its actions in their homeland of Irian Jaya.

The case against Unocal involves not only the destruction of tropical forests, wetlands, and mangrove swamps in territories inhabited by the Karen, Mon, and Tavoy peoples, but also human-rights abuses ranging from forced relocation to rape, torture, and murder. While these abuses were not directly perpetrated by Unocal employees, the lawsuit seeks to hold company executives liable for allowing their hosts, Burma's State Law and Order Restoration Council, to conduct a systematic terror campaign against everyone who stood in the path of the pipeline. The suit claims that given SLORC's horrendous human rights record—documented by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and the U.S. State Department—Unocal's negotiators must have known what to expect when they asked SLORC to set up the company's field headquarters and build access and service roads. According to independent observers, SLORC military personnel have murdered peaceful demonstrators and destroyed entire Karen and Mon villages, forcing the inhabitants to break rocks, haul dirt, and cut trees.

The Burmese plaintiffs, represented by a coalition of environmental and human-rights organizations, including EarthRights International and the Center for Constitutional Rights, overcame their first challenge on March 25, when a federal court judge rejected Unocal's argument that the case was outside the court's jurisdiction. Though there has not yet been a final ruling on the suit, the judge's decision set an important precedent for prosecuting multinationals on U.S. soil for actions in other countries that violate international human-rights agreements.

In the Freeport-McMoRan suit, the Indonesian citizens charge that gold and copper extraction at Freeport's Grasberg mine in Irian Jaya has resulted in the daily dumping of about 100,000 tons of rock waste into local rivers, poisoning the water and food supply of several thousand indigenous people. Tom Beanal, leader of the Amungme Tribal Council, first brought this case before a federal court last May. The judge dismissed it, citing the lack of international environmental standards. In an extensive opinion, however, he suggested that the suit focus on the killing of an estimated 2,000 indigenous protesters by Indonesian soldiers, who receive housing, food, and transportation from Freeport in return for "security" services. A human-rights approach, the judge wrote, would almost certainly guarantee the court's acceptance of the complaint. Beanal and his lawyer, Martin Regan, have revised and refiled the $6 billion suit and expect it to be heard late this year.

Of course, the human-rights approach to environmentalism is most effective when it is integrated directly into development projects, allowing those affected to voice their concerns from the very beginning. Local people who get to participate in relevant decisions and who have access to ecological information are well positioned to act as stewards of the local environment.

This type of community-based development is only a pipe dream in places like Burma, Indonesia, and Nigeria, but it has been extremely successful in other developing countries, where governments were willing to explore alternatives to conventional extraction projects. In the West African nation of Burkina Faso, for instance, an anti-desertification program has dramatically improved the lives of farmers living in 240 marginal villages—mainly because project officers conducted surveys to find out what sort of agricultural assistance the farmers themselves desired. Some farmers ended up using custom-designed irrigation devices; others spread manure composts over previously unfertilized crops. After just a few years, the participants had reclaimed 24,700 acres of formerly unproductive drylands, and the 1,400-pound deficit in the average family's annual food supply had turned into a 300-pound surplus.

Occasionally, though, communities that have already suffered culturally and economically from intrusive development choose to ignore environmentally sound options in favor of what they hope will be a quick fix. The Kayapó Indians of the Brazilian Amazon, fed up with both impractical ecological solutions and the government's inability or unwillingness to keep loggers and miners from invading their lands in search of mahogany and gold, have begun selling off extraction privileges for hard cash. Forced to accept mercury poisoning in local rivers and widespread destruction of the rainforest, some Kayapó chiefs decided that they should at least get paid for the loss of their culture.

In the northwestern United States, the Makah Indians have expressed similar frustrations. The Makah's tribal identity was formerly based on whaling culture, but the group stopped hunting 70 years ago, when commercial whaling nearly wiped out the local species. Now the Makah have submitted a proposal to the International Whaling Commission to be granted a yearly aboriginal quota of five gray whales.

Given the comeback of the eastern Pacific gray, whose population now numbers around 20,000, the Makah's request does not seem unreasonable. But some environmentalists—and some traditional Makah—are concerned that granting the tribe's request could result in the widespread resurgence of whaling under the guise of honoring "cultural" traditions. Norway and Japan, traditional whaling, nations that oppose the Whaling Commission's ban on whale hunting, are giving the tribal leaders their full support because they believe that the Makah request could yield the precedent they need to resume commercial whaling at full capacity. Meanwhile, there have been reports that the Makah elders who oppose the whaling request have been harassed and told to keep silent by younger tribal leaders. "They've ostracized us," says elder Dotti Chamblin, a descendant of whale-hunting chiefs. "They say they're traditional, but they are not listening to or protecting the elders. And shooting a whale with a machine gun is not spiritual."

Environmental organizations can play a crucial role in resolving such situations by providing conflicted communities with relevant information and alternative development strategies that address both economic and ecological concerns. "I know no safe depository of the ultimate powers of society but the people themselves," Thomas Jefferson wrote, "and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion." In the case of the Makah, organizations like Greenpeace and the Cousteau Society, while endorsing the community's right to self-determination and its effort to affirm its cultural ties with whales, have proposed whalewatching as an alternative to the hunt: it would strengthen the Makah's maritime traditions as well as provide employment opportunities.

"The environment," wrote the late Ken Saro-Wiwa in a letter smuggled from his Nigerian jail cell, "is man's first right." Today more and more activists are using this concept not just as a theory but as a practical strategy. Human-rights workers and environmentalists have begun a fruitful partnership, combining the moral authority of human-rights law with the power of ecology to show that each of us is equally dependent on a healthy environment. Recent collaborations between groups like the Sierra Club and Amnesty International mirror the two movements' long-standing cooperation at the local level, where activists have been struggling for years to get vulnerable people more involved in deciding how to use—and protect—the ecosystems upon which they depend. People like the Ogoni in Nigeria, the Amungme in Indonesia, and the olive growers in Turkey are some of the world's most powerful defenders of environmental resources. But they cannot continue their struggles without the basic freedoms of a civil society.

Aaron Sachs is the author of Eco-Justice: Linking Human Rights and the Environment, Worldwatch Paper 127 (Washington, D.C.: Worldwatch Institute, December 1995).

(C) 2000 Sierra Club. Reproduction of this article is not permitted without permission. Contact for more information.

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