Corporations that rape the environment must be held to account

Corporations that rape the environment must be held to account

For decades, multinational corporations making billions from harvesting land in the Global South for its natural resources have escaped accountability for their damage to local environments and livelihoods. Recently, however, the scales of justice finally tipped in favor of a group of smallholder Nigerian farmers and fishermen. ImpACT International for Human Rights Politics calls for full enforcement of this decision and its extension to other sectors and other countries.

The initial victory occurred when a court of appeals in The Hague ruled that a subsidiary of Royal Dutch Shell is liable for oil spills in the Niger Delta and must both compensate residents and work to purify the contaminated waters.

“Human rights and corporate social responsibility initiatives must now work to ensure that the action against Shell Petroleum Development Company paves the way for other victories against environment-destroying oil companies,” says Pam Bailey of ImpACT International.

Human rights and corporate social responsibility initiatives must now work to ensure that the action against Shell Petroleum Development Company paves the way for other victories against environment-destroying oil companies

“One disappointment, however, is that although the court ruled the subsidiary must compensate the impacted workers, it did not hold its parent, Royal Dutch Shell, responsible.”

Shell Petroleum Development Company, which obtains 12% of its oil and gas from Nigeria, argued that the oil spills were the result of illegal tampering. That defense was challenged by four Nigerian farmers and fishermen, working with the environmentalist group Friends of the Earth. They charged that the company’s oil spills in 2006 and 2007 ruined their livelihoods by polluting the agricultural land and ponds upon which they rely. And they were backed up by history: Shell Petroleum has long been accused of practices that cause serious environmental problems and human rights abuses.

However, the court ruled that the Shell subsidiary had failed to protect its operations from sabotage; in addition to compensation of the residents, it ordered the company to build better warning systems so that future leaks could be quickly detected.

Shell is not alone. Late last month, it was announced that British authorities are investigating commodity trading giant Glencore’s practices in the Badila oilfield in southern Chad. Complaints were submitted by Raid, a London-based corporate watchdog, that a toxic wastewater spill had poisoned drinking and bathing water causing burns, lesions and diarrhea among local residents.

Meanwhile, newly released documents show that BP supplied the oil involved in a Mauritius oil spill in the Indian Ocean last year. They also suggest that BP attempted to block the investigation into the fuel used by the Japanese bulk carrier that spilled the oil. The oil, called Very Low Sulfur Fuel Oil or VLSFO, is an experimental heavy ship oil that has been described as a “super-pollutant.” Environmental NGOs have called for a ban on its use in the Arctic and other waters, where it could come in contact with biologically sensitive areas or population centers.

“States have, willingly and unwillingly, facilitated the development of corporate power,” says Greenpeace in a report titled, “Justice for People and Planet: Ending the age of corporate capture, collusion and impunity.” The reason, it says, “is not a lack of information but rather state capture by corporate interests. Corporate law, tax rules, and trade and investment frameworks provide extensive rights for businesses, clashing with human rights frameworks and planetary boundaries.”

The antidote for which we must all advocate is corporate social responsibility

The antidote for which we must all advocate is corporate social responsibility (commonly referred to in shorthand as CSR). Professor Archie B. Carroll, a business expert at the University of Georgia in the United States, created a four-level pyramid to illustrate the responsibilities of private companies. From the bottom to the top, there is economic, legal, ethical and philanthropic responsibility. Where does environmental impact fit in? Environmental CSR is crosscutting and should be integrated into every level. However, while it can be mandated, even more effective is for consumers to demand it with their pocketbooks.

Oil companies and others that rape the land must be monitored and reported on, with results shared publicly so that purchasing decisions by both individuals and ethical businesses can reward or penalize them. It is up to consumers, organizations and governments to demand it, through our individual purchases and investments—and perhaps through new laws.

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