Berta Cáceres, Rubber, Annihilation, Dams

This week, a prominent Honduran environmentalist and indigenous rights campaigner was murdered in her home.

But last week I went to the cinema with a good friend to watch Embrace of the Serpent, a Colombian film which follows a native Amazonian shaman on two journeys through the rainforest in the company of a white man. It is no carefree romp: a key underlying theme of the story is the destruction wrought by white colonisers in search of valuable rubber. These “Rubber Barons” are never themselves encountered; yet their work is ever present – in the lacerations of the forest; in the scars they have left on the bodies and minds of the indigenous people; in the annihilation of culture and the brutal indoctrination of orphaned children.

Though grim, the film is stridently beautiful and the story it tells is evocative, deftly balancing despair with an unshakable affirmation of life. It is shot in black and white; and the events portrayed happened long ago, at the beginning of the twentieth century. And the psyche of a cinemagoer is already dislocated, as they sit in a theatre of tale and spectacle. Gathering this together, it was all too easy for me to separate what I was watching from any reality experienced today. It was all too easy to overcontextualise, to diminish the story’s present relevance. The Rubber Barons were monsters from a byegone age.

But eventually, as we all must, I left the cinema, and I read the news. I read that this week, a prominent Honduran environmentalist and indigenous rights campaigner was murdered in her home.

Berta Cáceres. A staunch defender of marginalised people, of those who continue to be displaced from their lands by logging companies, by industrial plantations, and by hydroelectric projects. Her death was likely an assassination.

While reading through reports of anger, grief, defiance, accusation and speculation, I realised for the hundredth time that the Rubber Barons are still with us, growing palm, sugar, beef and soy, ransacking the forests for timber, flooding them with cement and water. Their mighty greed still runs amok in the homes of the weak, while corrupt governments facilitate the trampling of their citizens for a cut of the profit.

Stifling Protest Through Violence and Surveillance

Those who speak out and transgress against such state-sanctioned injustice pay dearly. From Brazil to the Democratic Republic of Congo to China, environmental activists are harassed, threatened, detained and killed in suspicious circumstances. A report published in 2014 by the London-based NGO Global Witness found the situation to be particularly dire in Honduras, where Berta Cáceres now joins the hundreds of subsistence farmers and indigenous tribespeople who, supported by no-one, tried to defend their lands and livelihoods from seizure and degradation by corporations supported by their own government (as well as the USA and others). The brutal tactics employed to crush these people are painful to even read.

It is wrong to compare such extreme cruelties to their counterparts in richer, freer states. But it should be noted that the suppression of activists is also at large closer to home. The UK and the USA governments, for instance, increasingly classify peaceful protest groups as potential terrorist threats, and subject their members to surveillance, intimidation, disruption and, in a revelation that shocked the British public a few years ago, infiltration.

This behaviour suggests worrying connexions between government police forces and corporate interests. Indeed, there exists direct evidence of collusion: for example, the FBI’s sharing of information about Occupy Wall Street with the financial and banking sector. Or the state of Pennsylvania’s hand in monitoring the Gas Drilling Awareness Coalition (an anti-fracking group).

Collusion is not the only problem: this 2013 study by the University of Bath found that corporations are free to take the erosion of civil liberties into their own hands:

The police spy on activists, but they are not the only ones. Large transnational corporations [such as Nestlé, Shell and McDonald’s] have a long history of countering criticism by spying on activists and infiltrating their groups; using sophisticated “divide and rule” tactics to attempt to break up coalitions of opposition to business strategies and practices; and undermining campaigns via their funders.

The private intelligence industry (so-called “grey intelligence”) is open for business and flourishing, with the top firms drawing their expertise from well connected ex-government operatives (CIA, MI6, etc.). And it seems their services have indeed been used to monitor protest groups. From a The Nation article on the infamous security firm Blackwater:

Blackwater, through [its subsidiary] Total Intelligence, sought to become the “intel arm” of Monsanto, offering to provide operatives to infiltrate activist groups organizing against the multinational biotech firm.

(For context, Monsanto is the bête noire of many environmental groups. And for disclosure, Blackwater denies this infiltration discussion took place.)

Two more examples come from the journal of the Earth Island Institute (a grassroots environmental charity):

In 2006 French energy giant EDF, the world’s largest operator of nuclear reactors, hired a private intelligence gathering agency run by a former member of the French secret service to spy on Greenpeace. In 2011 a French court fined EDF 1.5 million euros and sent two of its employees to jail on charges of illegal spying.

In 2009 it was revealed that the British police and the Department of Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform had provided information about Climate Camp demonstrations to E.ON [an energy company which runs both coal and nuclear power stations]. E.ON also hired private security firms like Vericola and Global Open to spy on protesters.

So we have learned that both governments and corporations monitor political and environmental activists, infiltrate their groups, steal their data, and have been known to subject them to harassment. Why should we care? The aforementioned University of Bath study concludes its key findings with this:

Undermining campaigners is essentially undermining democracy. The examples of corporate spying and strategising raise concerns about the “engineering of consent”, the manipulation of public debates and exclusion of dissenting voices. Deliberative democracy requires the participation of civil society, but if activists and campaigns are sabotaged then the terms on which political and policy decisions are made are called into question.

Of course there’s always a line to draw somewhere; but when outspoken members of the public are viewed as enemies of the state, we are at least flirting with authoritarianism.

Environmental Destabilisation, Mass Migration, and the Armed Lifeboat

I’ve been talking about government surveillance programmes which strive to undermine the green agenda; but paradoxically, no-one is more keenly aware than governmental security forces of the risks of environmental devastation. A quote from an Utne article discussing Tropic of Chaos by Christian Parenti:

Planners at the Pentagon have been quietly preparing to take charge of a planet shaken by climate chaos. Predicting ever more extreme weather, famine, and social collapse around the globe, high-level experts like former CIA director James Woolsey and former U.S. Army Chief of Staff Gordon Sullivan outline a chilling vision of endemic violence and militarized adaptation to disaster. As hunger and disease turn to conflict in the Global South, planners inside and outside the Pentagon are preparing to shut borders, control population movements, and intensify U.S. intervention abroad.

‘Militarised adaption’ is a phrase to ponder; and it is telling. But first, a paragraph of context so we know what it’s telling about.

The effects of climate change will be felt very differently depending on global location. It is broadly accepted that poorer countries will be hit particularly hard by droughts and unpredictable weather, more vigorous spread of disease, and rising sea levels. Island nations such as the Maldives, low-lying countries such as Bangladesh, drought-prone areas in Afghanistan, sub-Saharan states which already suffer from malaria – all can expect their hardships to be exacerbated, leading to heightened likelihood of famine, pestilence and war. Their ability to respond to these environmental challenges (which are largely the fault of industrialised countries) will be hindered by their lack of sovereign wealth (often a result of the colonial and post-colonial economic policies of industrialised countries). So their populations will have to flee for survival, and we should expect increasing levels of migration in the coming decades.

So, in the face of global strife and mass dislocation, what humanitarian action can we expect from wealthy governments who undermined attempts to address environmental degradation and its concomitant global justice ramifications? I asked the author Amitav Ghosh this question, and his response included a most evocative phrase (on par with militarised adaption): “the armed lifeboat”. No prizes for guessing who gets to sit in the lifeboat and who gets to drown.

Whether we call it a militarised adaption or an armed lifeboat, we are already seeing it in action: refugees from war and atrocities in the Middle East continue to be dogmatically repelled from European borders. I fear this is but a bitter rehearsal, and the real performance is yet to come. I hope we can do better next time.


Cato 20 June 2016, 10.03

This short article (published 19th June 2015) reports further on violence towards environmental and land rights activists.

A recent development about the Honduran mlitary's involvement in Berta Cáceres' murder.