For most Americans and other rich nations’ workers, defending their jobs may involve trying to keep a company from moving to a low-wage country or negotiating a better contract, but what if defending your way of life is keeping transnational corporations from destroying your land, water and your life?

Usually, there is little to fear from falling short of your goals at the bargaining table, but for land and water defenders, the difference is between life and death and the killings go on continuously in many countries and the perpetrators have little fear from arrest for their crimes and even less in prosecution of those charges.

Global Witness, a multinational human rights organization, reported recently that 227 environmental and land-rights activists were murdered in 2020, the highest number since GW has seen since it started keeping track in 2012. One-third of the murders, they said, were linked to resource exploitation.

Land and environmental defenders are ordinary people trying to peacefully protect their homes, livelihoods and the health of our planet from the harmful impacts of industries like oil and gas, mining and agribusiness,” the group reported. “For years, they have led the global fight against the causes and impacts of climate breakdown, challenging irresponsible businesses rampaging unhampered through forests, wetlands, oceans and biodiversity hotspots.”

It’s too easy for the average American to say, “That’s in another country. It has nothing to do with me and I can’t do anything about it.” Americans can do something about it and it seems that the younger generation is trying to organize around these very issues. Environmental crimes can be dealt with in the U.S. because, in one way or another, the transnational corporations are either headquartered here or have substantial operations in this country. Exposing their crimes is one way to begin to curb their rampant wrongdoing, both here and in other, usually developing, countries.

Like corporations and governments riding roughshod over indigenous people within U.S. territory, these same corporations go forth in developing countries like Brazil, where 23 environmental defenders were murdered in 2020. The logging industry was implicated in more murders than any other industry. Where does the lumber for all that decking on those $500,000 “modest” homes come from? It comes from places in Central and South America and Asia, where the people are trying to save their livelihoods and their very lives. Forest people and pastoralists are trying to save their homes, but they have little defense against the depredations of giant corporations and the complicit governments of those countries.

Peoples who have lived on the land and in the forests have determined ways to live sustainably in those places and many have done so for many hundreds, or thousands, of years. When a corporation comes to their government and offers jobs and money, little thought is given to those voiceless people whose lives depend on the approval or disapproval of the project by (usually) the president, who might be easily swayed by the dangling of money by the usurpers. When approval is given, for example for an oil lease, the mayhem and destruction begin. It is what happened in Ecuador, where Texaco, then Chevron, left the lands and waters of 30,000 people a toxic wasteland. Courts in that country found Chevron liable for $9.5 billion in damages. Indigenous people there declared that to be just a start in the clean-up of their lands and waters. Chevron does not want to pay a penny and will fight the people and their lawyer, Steve Donziger, “until hell freezes over and then we’ll fight it out on the ice.”

Chevron could pay the $9.5 billion and more. It’s a very rich company and they have already spent millions pursuing the case in court in the U.S. and they have no intention to mitigate their poisoning of the land and water and people numbering 30,000.

This kind of corporate power, which translates into power in the countries where they operate is what Chevron is protecting. It’s not the money, it’s the principle that they will not be made to stand in the dock for their crimes against humanity. The problem? Neither corporations nor governments see what Chevron and Shell in Nigeria did as crimes against humanity. They weren’t crimes at all, just progress.

When the defenders get in the way, however, that is, when they are effective in slowing or stopping some of the worst projects, the powers that be become more forceful. They resort to murder and, in most cases, they do it with impunity. No arrests, no charges, no prosecution. One exception might be the murder of Berta Caceres, a Honduran environmental activist, indigenous leader, and co-founder and coordinator of the Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras. She was assassinated in 2016 at the age of 44. Seven men were convicted of her murder and the top boss of the dam she opposed was implicated.

Murders such as Berta’s usually go unnoticed by most of the world, but she had just won, in 2015, a most prestigious environmental award, The Goldman Prize. That raised the world’s awareness of Berta, but there are others in many countries who do the same work and are killed under similar circumstances as Berta.

When Global Witness tallies up the deaths of environmental defenders each year, they say they are quite sure that it is an undercount, because many attacks on such defenders go unreported. The group said: “In a savage irony, while the killers go free, the activists themselves are being branded as criminals. The powerful are increasingly using laws, arrests, intimidation and smear campaigns to silence those who oppose them. These subtler threats don’t make headlines like murders do – which is why they are so effective for silencing dissent.”

The light of day is the main solution to such crimes that are committed on a daily basis in many places around the world. Knowing the names of corporations committing such crimes and knowing who are the CEOs and other officers of those corporations, by name, will go a long way to bringing to justice those whose crimes border on genocide.

BlackCommentator.com Columnist, John Funiciello, is a former newspaper reporter and labor organizer, who lives in the Mohawk Valley of New York State. In addition to labor work, he is organizing family farmers as they struggle to stay on the land under enormous pressure from factory food producers and land developers. Contact Mr. Funiciello and BC.

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