Article adapted from a presentation made by Tim Shenk, member of Justicia Global and Coordinator of the Committee on U.S.-Latin American Relations (CUSLAR), as part of a panel titled, “Community response to resource extraction in the Americas,” at the 10th Annual Jolie Christine Rickman Spanish for Activists Camp, Ithaca, New York, July 30, 2011.
Thank you, everyone, for being here and for taking part in this year’s Spanish for Activists Camp. This year we’ve set up the presentations trying to connect Latin American issues, in which CISPES and CUSLAR have been leaders for a long time, with issues that are affecting people close to home in New York State.
We believe we have a lot to learn from Latin American organizations, as well as from struggles going on around the United States, as we try to figure out how to procede in preserving our land, water and human dignity from gas companies who want to do high-volume horizontal hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, in the Marcellus Shale.
So I want to thank Hilary Lambert of the Dryden Resource Awareness Coalition and the Cayuga Lake Watershed Network for her presentation on Lessons from Appalachia in the fight against mountaintop removal, as well as Ralph Kisberg and Jim Slotterback from the Responsible Drilling Alliance for sharing the realities they’re facing in rural Pennsylvania around fracking. And thanks in advance to Hilary Goodfriend and David Castillo, who will present on struggles going on in El Salvador around mining in the context of the Dominican Republic and Central American Free Trade Agreement (DR-CAFTA). I think this panel is connecting a lot of dots about larger forces at play around the world, about the scale of what we’re up against when we start taking on corporate power. It’s so important to see our local issues as bound up in the global context and in history if we’re to take relevant steps toward getting at the root of the problem, which has to do with relationships of domination among people and with the earth.
I’d like to share some lessons I think are relevant to the issue of gas drilling that my fellow organizers and I have begun to learn in the Dominican Republic as a part of the organization Justicia Global, an international sociopolitical organization and organizing school founded and based in the DR.
In order to build a bridge to the fracking issue, I want to start off by talking about colonialism. I think one thing a lot of people think of when they think of colonialism is that this was a historical thing — it happened a long time ago. And it was something that had to do with entire countries, or territories bounded by a certain set of clear borders. Most of us think of the 13 colonies, from our elementary school history lessons. We think of faraway, long ago places. Not everyone thinks of company mining towns, Indian Reservations or prisons as part of a colonialist system.
So what is exactly a colony? It’s a place where resources and labor are extracted for less than they’re worth, to profit a certain small group of investors. Colonies are tracts of land and the people who live there, that are seen as nothing more than the monetary value of what can be taken out of there. This “taking” adds up to stealing, because profits flow right out of the colony back to the urban commercial centers. Most of the time, the residents of a colony aren’t the ones profiting from the wealth being generated there. Usually they get just enough to survive, to keep their heads down and keep working.
Why does colonialism matter here and now? Here in the Southern Tier of New York State, which is actually the northern tip of the Appalachian region Hilary talked about tonight, we’re seeing a scary parallel to the colonialism that most people think is either long gone or far away. This thing called fracking is a real danger here. It has already come to Pennsylvania and other states. These companies from Texas and Oklahoma come in, set up their drilling operations, bring in their workers and their trucks and their machinery, frack the wells, pipe it out in compressed form. And when they’re done, they leave. They leave a few people with some money, if the people have been savvy in negotiating their mineral rights contracts. But when the gas companies leave, they leave a whole region in shambles.
So colonialism is a complex concept, because we start to see that colonies can exist within a country that was traditionally the colonizer. Little pockets of “Third World” within the “First World.” Native people in the U.S. have fought and resisted colonialism for generations. The people of New Orleans have said they have felt like a “Third World” country the past five years. In Appalachia they’ve been saying that for a long time, with mountaintop removal coal mining. In New York State, prison labor, domestic labor and farm labor all have components of serious extraction of the value of people’s work. Now with the possibility of fracking around here, a little bit more of that “Third World” is creeping toward us.
I start with all of this because I want to make the argument for why it’s important to study Latin America, work in solidarity with people and organizations from there, and learn from the lessons they can share about what it’s like to fight colonial powers. Solidarity with the people of Latin America is not just a touchy-feely issue. It’s not useful to be motivated by Northern guilt about how our government has invaded and impoverished their countries. We need to do more than just stand up to demand that our tax dollars be used justly. Those motivations might be part of what drive us, but it’s also about our destinies as people being bound up with theirs as people who work for a living. Learning about Latin America is incredibly useful in figuring out what’s happening to us here, and that’s part of why we’ve set up this panel in this way.
So I want to spend the rest of the time sharing about strategies and tactics that might be useful when you’re in a struggle like we’re in here in New York. I want to talk primarily about industry strategies — what these guys are willing to do to get what they want.
Let me just add that when we start to recognize patterns in strategies, we’re less likely to be tricked when it seems like these companies are starting to become “responsible” or “ethical,” or even just a little bit more friendly.
One of my mentors in the DR says, Si el enemigo está de tu lado, cámbiate de lado. If the enemy seems to be on your side, change sides! I didn’t understand this for a long time, but at some point I realized he was talking about class interests. If an institution or a corporation that historically has not had my well-being in mind suddenly appears to be taking my side on an issue, it’s time to re-examine my position.
I spent 2006 through 2010 in Dominican Republic. In addition to recently becoming the CUSLAR Coordinator, I’m a part of Justicia Global. Among the many things we do, our organization has been a part of struggles around protecting water and natural resources from national and transnational corporations. I’ll use examples mainly from two struggles: 1) the fight to keep a private construction company from being permitted to build a cement factory in Los Haitises National Park, which has been the home of hundreds of campesino families and is source of almost half of the country’s fresh water, and 2) the struggle against the mining contract and operations of the Canadian company, Barrick Gold, in the Pueblo Viejo mine in northeast Dominican Republic.
So here are some industry strategies, meant to divide us, confuse us and prime our region for exploitation.
One major tried-and-true industry strategy is pitting neighbor against neighbor: deliberately giving one group small incentives to take sides with the industry, against the best interests of the community as a whole. In the DR, this could mean simply paying people off. Dominican ex-president Joaquín Balaguer was famous for giving a small group of people money and other perks to stir up dissent and infighting in a community where he wanted to make way for the mining industry or other projects that would negatively affect the people. He would incite them into fighting each other instead of fighting his projects. This culture has been passed on to subsequent administrations with surprising success.
In New York State this week, we’ve seen something much more subtle but just as insidious. Here, as some people don’t take kindly to knowing their government hands out bribes, they have to disguise it better, in the form of “economic incentives for development.” This week Lieutenant Governor Robert Duffy rolled out a billion-dollar economic development plan where the state is divided up into ten regional areas, and each area needs to come up with a competing plan for economic growth over the next five years. They’re taking public funds that should be our right to have access to, and making us compete amongst ourselves over them.
It’s similar to the way they’ve tried to convince us of an upstate-downstate divide, to pit the people of upstate against the people of New York City for state funding, infrastructure, jobs, etc. They’ve had as much success as they have by saying we don’t share the same values, that up here we should be afraid of those “ghetto hoodlums,” and they should turn up their noses at us “backward hicks.” This new development competition is similar, except now there are 11 regions all pitted against each other. It reminds me of that joke about the ten cookies that get brought in to a table full of people. The rich guy grabs nine cookies, and then he says to the poor guy beside him: “Watch out! Those guys are going to try to steal part of your cookie!”
Another industry tactic we’ve seen attempted in the Dominican Republic has to do with corporations’ charities and foundations. Most corporations need positive branding to operate well and sell themselves as a responsible part of the community. Whether or not this is true, it’s important to project the image that they care, both locally and to the international community. Having a foundation works doubly in their favor: on one hand, it gives them a chance to improve their corporate image, and on the other, it gives them a tax shelter to use the money they would have had to surrender to the public coffers to further their own interests.
Barrick Gold is one of the largest mining companies in the world. The Barrick website claims its operation in the DR will be one of the most comprehensive environmental rehabilitation projects in the world. But in the Pueblo Viejo mine, they’ve made an agreement to use water at no cost from the largest public reservoir in the country, la Presa de Hatillo. It requires 4,000 gallons of water to produce one ounce of gold, and when you calculate for 22.4 million estimated ounces in the mine, that’s a lot of water going to be contaminated by sludge and heavy metals. So Barrick’s so-called “environmentalism” is little more than a good PR department.
This ties in with the next strategy: media control and creation of public opinion. The extractive industries and their allies in the corporate media often try to define the protagonists of the opposition. I’ll explain what I mean with an example. In the Dominican Republic in 2009, there was an effort on the part of the Estrella business group to install a cement factory, or “cementera,” in Los Haitises National Park, which would have dispossessed hundreds of subsistence farmer families, potentially contaminated the water of over 40 percent of the Dominican population and destroyed natural habitats and limestone caves unique to the region.
The principal opposition to la cementera was el Movimiento Campesino Comunidades Unidas (MCCU), or the United Communities Campesino Movement. They were the ones being dragged off their land by the army and having their crops burned to make this project possible. Their demands were simple, yet very radical: that the land and water not be contaminated for the benefit of a few wealthy people, and the government fulfill its promise to respect their right to live and farm with dignity.
Some of the corporate media outlets in the DR, such as the prominent newspapers Listin Diario and El Nacional, went on record as opposing the construction of la cementera. Yet the voices they chose to highlight in their opposition were not the voices of the MCCU: they overwhelmingly chose young people from the capital city of Santo Domingo who had joined the protests much later, and who tended to have slightly different demands. In this way, the media was able to portray the fight against la cementera as a much more benign middle-class environmentalism, a symptom of “youth rebelliousness” that focused on “the power of Facebook” to organize concerts and protests to save Los Haitises. They tried their best to disassociate the struggle from the radical, even revolutionary coalition of organizations led by the MCCU. They didn’t want people to see the connections between this movement and the long histories of protest and structural critique of an economic and political system that would allow people’s basic rights and well-being to be endangered to profit a small group of economic elites.
At the same time, as the Internet has become a more widely accessed source of information in the DR, extractive industries appear to have begun allocating resources to “wired” populations. Specifically, they seem to be targeting every webpage where their name appears, from news stories to activist blogs to environmental reports. On the Justicia Global website, each time we published an article, an educational material or call to action in opposition to the Barrick Gold mining operation, we would get a flurry of seemingly “regular” people’s comments defending the company. Overwhelmingly, the comments were from people who claimed to be from Cotuí, where the mine is located, and they claimed to be grateful to Barrick either for “bringing jobs and development” to the area or “cleaning up the pollution the last mining company left.” Or they would try to deauthorize the protests by saying there were “only a few protesters” and that the majority of the people supported the mine.
The wording and talking points were so consistent among comments to our site and to other sites that it became clear we were witnessing part of the Barrick Gold PR strategy at work, disguised as “public opinion.” Realizing this, we did not find it necessary to publish any industry-planted comments on our website.
Another industry strategy combines maintaining positive public image with dividing people. We’ve seen companies even fund and encourage activist work on issues related to their industry. For example, Chesapeake Energy, one of the largest gas drilling companies in our region, has become a backer of the “clean energy” activist protests in Appalachia against mountaintop removal. In 2010 the company was a principal funder of “Mountain Stage,” an anti-coal mining concert put on by activists and artists in Charleston, West Virginia. At Mountain Stage, Chesapeake Energy was lauded for its commitment to the “clean energy alternative,” natural gas, and made progress toward undermining its coal-producing competitors. Gas companies also tend to support environmentalists who call to “end our dependence on foreign energy sources.”
When the opposition refuses to be cowed or confused with subtle “good cop” strategies, extractive industries are highly capable of turning into the “bad cop.” Threats of legal action, called SLAPPs, or Strategic Lawsuits against Public Participation, are bullying techniques in the arsenal of wealthy corporations. Whether industry claims have substance or are simply ludicrous, SLAPPs must be taken seriously, because the primary strategy in filing suit is not necessarily to win the case, but to bankrupt smaller opponents by spending years dragging the suit through the legal process.
Barrick Gold employed this sort of bullying in 2010. When small Canadian publisher Talonbooks began to promote a new study on Canadian mining operations, called Imperial Canada Inc., Barrick lawyers demanded, under threat of legal action, that Talonbooks “provide the undersigned with a copy of any portion of the manuscript or text of Imperial Canada Inc. that makes direct or indirect reference to Barrick, Sutton Resources Ltd., or to any of their past or present subsidiaries, affiliates, directors or officers.” When Barrick threatened lawsuits for damages the book could cause its reputation, Talonbooks was forced to pull the publication.
Lawsuits aren’t the extent of industry “bad cop” strategies, however. Physical violence toward the opposition via proxy and state repressive force is often utilized to protect industry interests. In the Dominican fishing community of Miches in 2009, as Venezuelan corporation Organización Cisneros was attempting to buy up miles of coastal lands for a $2 billion tourist megaproject called Tropicalia, thugs killed five farmers and wounded eight more in a raid against locals defending their land. These proxies sent a clear message to Miches residents: sell your land or we’ll force you off of it. Not far away, Dominican armed forces were being deployed, as we mentioned above, to remove subsistence farmers from their land in Los Haitises National Park and burn their crops in order to make room for the construction of a privately run cement factory. These shows of force and government complicity in the interests of extractive industries are more evidence of what lengths they will go to in order to make a profit.
A few years ago in New York State, one may have been able to argue that “these things could only happen in places like the Dominican Republic.” Now, however, people are beginning to share similar stories of gas industry bullying, cajoling and lying right here at home. Many people share their experiences with a combination of exasperation and feeling betrayed, often commenting, “I thought this was America!”
As these stories come to light, it becomes more and more clear the economic elites have no true national allegiances where there is money to be made. Poor communities, including both white people and communities of color, have known this for a long time. People can be tricked, stolen from, threatened and discarded, “even in America.” Subtle and institutionalized nationalism and racism have the effects of blinding us to the fact that we may have more in common with the people of Dominican Republic and El Salvador than with the economic elites of the US.
If we can be in closer touch with our neighbors in Latin America — if we can study and learn from their struggles to defend their families and communities — we will be stronger as we confront the forces of colonialism that have come knocking on our doors.