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Background: Holding Corporations Accountable

Sierra Magazine
The Cost of Doing Business: Background

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Holding Corporations Accountable

"The Cost of Doing Business" is a revealing look at how one mining company's greed in a far-off land can jeopardize our safety here at home. When natural resource extraction companies make secret "security" payments, that money may also support drug traffickers and terrorists. When companies fail to disclose payments to governments, it is easier for government officials to steal and more difficult for citizens to hold officials accountable. This is why groups like the Sierra Club have been calling for transparency in the contracts multinational companies and international financial institutions have with government officials.

Americans are less than 5% of the world's population, but we consume roughly 25% of the world's oil and other natural resources, and are responsible for 25% of the heat-trapping greenhouse gas emissions. This disparity angers other nations. They argue that the biggest problem is not an overabundance of people, but a stubborn refusal of an affluent society to live within its means. These days America needs more friends and allies around the world, not more enemies. We can be more responsible consumers.

Where do the materials come from for new American office buildings, cars, furniture, clothing? Most of us don't want to know because it's not a happy story. Worldwatch magazine recently reported that a lot of the goods we consume "are the products of the kind of exploitation that we should be ashamed of: wholesale destruction of agrarian communities for oil and timber."

Some examples:

Burma: A natural gas pipeline for Unocal and Total was built with forced labor through the last primary rainforest in mainland Asia. Burmese government soldiers tortured and killed residents to force evacuation, also opening the way to unchecked logging. Unocal is now being sued in California because of this.

Indonesia: the largest goldmine in the world, owned by New Orleans based Freeport McMoRan, on land seized from indigenous people, dumps 120,000 tons of cyanide-laced waste per day into the local river.

Nigeria: A deal between a military dictatorship and Shell Oil allowed the company to drill with impunity on Ogoni homeland in the 1990's. When the Ogoni peacefully protested to demand freedom from pollution, their leaders were arrested and hanged. Oil is Nigeria's number one export, Americans consume most of it.

Liberia: Former President Charles Taylor funded a brutal civil war through the illegal trade in diamonds and timber. Though international rules have been established to stem the flow of "conflict diamonds" no such rules exist to thwart illegal logging. Much of this illicit timber ended up in the U.S.

Logging operations are particularly menacing because they not only destroy biodiversity and traditional economies, but logging roads are plunging deeper and deeper into jungles. Global diseases once trapped in the rainforests are now circling the globe. From AIDS to SARS to Ebola, scientists have now tracked these diseases back to indigenous wildlife previously isolated from mankind. To make matters worse of course, researchers are frantically searching for the cures for these diseases in the very forests that are being destroyed.

Global issues not only require global solutions, they require the US to take the lead. We need to be the leader in promoting environmental protection, corporate accountability and respect for human rights.

International trade agreements should promote a higher quality of life for all, not an international race toward the bottom. We can reform trade rules so countries can maintain strong environmental and health standards. Companies should not be penalized economically for doing the right thing because their competitors didn't.

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