Corporate Responsibility in the Third World

By Betty A. Scott | 2000-07-01 12:00:00

Gas flares illuminated the sky day and night; the acrid stench of sulphurous vapor and smog were constant, and summers yielded sparse backyard gardens. At 4:20 on a frosty January morning, without warning and while the town slept, a tremendous explosion that could be heard for miles around gave birth to a massive fireball that burst through the pre-dawn sky - turning night into day, until it dissipated. This was not a war zone in some foreign distant place impacting someone else's life. I could feel the thunder shake me from sleep; I could see the bright orange sky. It was Montreal East, January 8, 1957, in Canada; a morning to remember, even for a child.

I grew up amidst oil refineries owned by Shell, Texaco, Imperial Oil, British Petroleum and Petrofina; companies whose presence we could see, smell and taste. They provided jobs for the local people, mostly those with little education, including my father, who performed the menial tasks that kept the plants running continually and the profits rolling in.

Talisman Energy is one of the newest members in the lucrative gas and oil business. Its exploitation of the Sudan is ecologically and environmentally devastating and its human cost atrocious. In May 1999, writes Madelaine Drohan, in Report on Business, employees and shareholders of Talisman Energy held their first annual meeting in Calgary's Palliser Hotel. Outside, a small group of 20 Sudanese protesters assembled, wearing placards that told the cost for First World fortune hunters of doing business in their country. The discussion inside turned to the protest of alleged atrocities - acts of inhumanity that many acknowledged were taking place in Sudan, without conceding any responsibility.

On October 26, 1999, Foreign Minister Lloyd Axworthy and Minister for International Cooperation Maria Minna appointed John Harker to head a mission team to Sudan. Their assignment was to examine human rights violations and to prepare an analytical report that might connect oil development in Sudan to the alleged abuses and to the intensifying of that country's ongoing civil war. Three months later Harker published his findings, which concluded that Sudan is a place where there is a preponderance of human rights abuses, including slavery, and where the business of oil does, indeed, contribute to the continuation of Sudan's civil war.

Helicopters Like Crop-Dusters Eradicating Pests

Some Sudanese have lived all of their lives in the shadow of death. One haunting story described a two month bombing assault with helicopter gunships swooping down to kill people, like crop-dusters eradicating pests. Mr. Harker expressed concern that survivors might be fearful to continue cultivating; a gross understatement considering that those injured by the attacks would be able neither to flee the next assault nor to cultivate anything that was left.

The chief of one village described the villagers' dread of approaching planes, and wondered if they were even considered to have human rights at all. He told Harker's group that he believed the Government of Sudan (GOS) would kill them simply for having talked to the group about the brutalities they were suffering. One report, by Charlie Gillis of the National Post, tells of a 35-year-old woman who used to help find homes for orphaned children of the civil war. She was gunned down by government soldiers while carrying sorghum meal to her family. Now her own nine children are orphans. Why? Did the soldiers carry off the sorghum meal to feed their own or someone else's family? No. They slashed the bag, spilling the contents on the ground as they left her lifeless body and the meal in a heap, simply because they had the power to do so.

Civil war has become a customary experience for numerous countries. A Time Magazine story from Sierra Leone, another country ravaged by civil war spurred on by First World profiteers in the diamond trade, tells of 13-year-old Issatu Karbo, whose hands were chopped off by a rebel with a machete.

In the oil-rich Upper Nile of Sudan there is also despair. Mary Nyatuak, widowed mother of three told John Harker's group that she had no possessions at all. She simply cleans the ground before she lies down to sleep, with no covering, and when she wakes there is only wild fruit to eat. Why does this deplorable condition exist? Mary's simple answer to the group was that oil is the reason they are being displaced and bombarded. She said she cannot remember how many times she has been on the run.

The National Islamic Front (NIF) of Sudan is one of the worst violators of human rights in the world today, and the genocide they are perpetrating in Sudan is no less than the genocide in Rwanda or that which took place during World War II in Germany, reports Mel Middleton, Director of Freedom Quest International, who lived in Sudan for ten years. Only the method of extermination is different, as this time the weapon of choice is famine. In the Western world we are so used to reports of starving Third World populations that these reports are easily dismissed as "normal" for the area, and as caused by drought. A circumstance that happens all the time "over there," some may conclude. That is precisely the attitude that the NIF wants the West to have - the "been there, done that" mentality - so that it can continue its atrocities unhindered.

In 1990, Chevron, which had been exploring for oil in Sudan since 1975, withdrew its interests from Sudan, handing over the reins to Arakis Energy that same year. Arakis then made a plan with the Sudanese government to exploit oil in return for allowing the military to have access to electricity and water. On October 8, 1998, Talisman Energy procured Arakis Energy shares at a discount and acquired a 25% interest of the Greater Nile Petroleum Operating Company's (GNPOC) oil and development project in the Sudan, the Harker report tells us.

Talisman Energy, PetroChina, and the GNPOC in Sudan are benefiting from the despair of others, as are other multinationals in the developing world. This is an abysmal situation for which the simple remedy seems to be beyond the intelligence of wealthy political leaders and corporate giants who pull their strings.

The Oil Industry and Pollution

Besides all of these political factors and blatant human rights violations, there is an issue glaringly absent from the discussion: the question of the environmental and ecological impact of oil production. It is not exclusive to Talisman Energy, nor to Sudan. The oil industry is a major player in environmental pollution, according to Andrew Rowell, writing in the Ecologist. Oil contaminates through exploration, production and refining, and continues its environmental and ecological desecration right through its transportation and final stage of manufacturing products for consumers. Oil spills, which jeopardize both wildlife and human life, seem to be occurring more often than ever before. In Nigeria, Shell acknowledges 190 such spills every year, Rowell reports, and in twenty years of conducting oil operations in Equador, Texaco has spilled 16.8 million gallons, has produced 600 toxic waste sites, and daily flares 53 million cubic feet of gas, causing local pollution and global temperatures to rise as a result. This warming of the atmosphere, in turn, causes ocean tides to rise, creating havoc for small Pacific Islands, such as Kiribati, whose indigenous people must abandon their homesteads.

Underground Storage Tanks

Another source of pollution comes from underground storage tanks housing gasoline at the stations where we fuel our vehicles. Payat Sampat, author ofGroundwater Shock: The Polluting of the World's Major Freshwater Stores,tells us that in 1998 the Environmental Protection Agency found that in the United States, over 100,000 commercially owned, aged and rotting underground tanks were leaking, of which close to 18,000 were known to have contaminated groundwater. Fifty years ago, there were 53 million vehicles around the world. Today, there are almost 530 million needing fuel contained in these underground storage tanks, which which will be rotting, leaking containers 50 years from now. International big business owns the technology to clean up the mess, says John Stopford, writing in Foreign Policy. However, not wishing to risk substantial profit cuts, wealthy corporations leave the old rotting tanks underground, while the chemicals seep quietly and invisibly through our neighbourhoods.

Included in the business of oil production and its destruction of the environment is the process of refining it. Rowell tells us there are approximately 700 oil refineries in existence today. Everyone involved in this process is at risk. In 1992, 18 employees at a Texaco refinery in Wales were injured in an explosion. A few months later in Los Angeles, 17 workers were hurt in a blast at their refinery there. My own father fell victim to cancer at the age of 65. We shall never know whether there was a causal link between his work at the refinery and his death, but we always suspected it.

According to the World Watch Institute, multinational and transnational oil corporations own more than 90% of the known oil and gas reserves in developing countries. The current growth of these huge corporations is phenomenal. Over 40,000 such companies control one-quarter of the world's economic activity, compared with 7,000 that existed just twenty years ago.

Oil production and processing not only exacerbate civil wars in the Third World, but also pose grave health and safety risks to employees and citizens of the First World. The existence of so much oil, gasoline, oil by-products and spin-offs results in environmental and ecological damage to our planet. We need to find alternatives.

It was Lloyd Axworthy's clear intention that, if Mr. Harker concluded that the business of oil was contributing to human rights violations and fuelling the civil war, he would sanction Talisman Energy for its role in perpetuating the situation. Either he changed his mind or - as rumor has it - was overruled in cabinet, for he has put on hold any penalties that were to be administered. In a letter to the editor of the Toronto Star, Mr. Axworthy defended recanting his decision to sanction Talisman, asserting that Canada can advance the rights of the Sudanese people through dialogue.

The ethical responsibility of foreigners in Sudan, as in other Third World countries, is a complex issue. Does the Canadian government share liability for the catastrophe in Sudan? How much obligation does a foreign company have toward the protection of the human rights of the people in whose country it conducts business? It remains to be seen how the Canadian government's commitment to dialogue will translate to answer these questions. It has been a year since Talisman's first annual meeting in Calgary, but not much has changed. More non-governmental human rights and environmental protection groups protested at this year's meeting, and a few more private citizens joined their voices in disapproval of Talisman's policies, but James Buckee, CEO and President of Talisman Energy, still believes he is benefiting the people of Sudan, while Talisman's profits continue to grow; a whopping 5,000% increase in its first quarter income. In the meantime victims of Sudan's civil war continue to lose their lives by weapons bought with money earned from the business of oil; for Sierra Leone it is the diamond business that perpetuates the conflict.

Privileged people in free societies are more culpable than those who must expect harsh penalties for developing a moral conscience. No one is more privileged than the owners of corporations such as Talisman. They (including perhaps some readers of this article) can influence the policies of their company, just as all citizens of Canada can influence the policies of their country.

Betty Scott works and studies at Brock University, St. Catharine's, Ontario.

Peace Magazine Jul-Sep 2000

Peace Magazine Jul-Sep 2000, page 20. Some rights reserved.

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