Battling on the fence line

Grassroots activists from all over the world organised a Climate Justice Summit at The Hague coinciding with the UN climate change conference to give voice to those bearing the brunt of the polluting activities of the big corporations. As Yin Shao Loong observes in his analysis of this conference below, this grassroots summit engendered a solidarity and camaraderie that was sadly lacking at the UN climate conference.

MARGIE Richards is angry, and she has every right to be. Margie is from the Diamond community of Norco, Louisiana. She lives 17 feet away from the fence line of the Shell Chemical company refinery. The company’s 50-year tenure has been marked by lethal air pollution, insensitive property acquisition and unfulfilled promises. Margie and her community are battling for their lives and for justice.

Margie was speaking alongside grassroots activists from Nigeria, South Africa and Colombia at the Climate Justice Summit in The Hague on 19-20 November 2000. Coinciding with the second week of the Sixth Conference of the Parties on Climate Change (COP6), the summit sought to provide a platform for the voices absent from the COP6 negotiations. It was organised by a coalition of NGOs which included Environmental Rights Action (Nigeria), World Rainforest Movement  (Uruguay), Oilwatch Network (International), People and Planet (UK), Corporate Watch US/TRAC (USA), and Corporate Europe Observatory (Europe).

The world of the UN conference was at least two removes from those bearing the brunt of climate injustice. At one remove from the grassroots were the diplomats, who were themselves arguing in an international forum. In a different orbit altogether were the ranks of multinational business hawking their ‘market solutions’ for climate change.

The Climate Justice Summit brought participants into direct contact with the complex reality of climate change. Science, livelihood, the environment, business and politics form an inseparable knot in the politics of climate change and grassroots activists are tackling all of them with commendable passion and verve.

Carbon dioxide and methane, the most pervasive greenhouse gases, are significant emissions due to the oil, gas and coal activities and products of the fossil fuel industry. Production sites of the oil industry are often marked by forceful seizure of land (frequently with state complicity) and unchecked air and land pollution that destroys the health of communities and environments.

Indeed, Dr Owens Wiwa of Ogoniland, Nigeria spoke passionately about the deteriorating health of children he treated in the Delta region. Bleeding noses, eczema and respiratory disease are the legacy of unchecked flaring of the methane plumes which ensured that nights in the Delta always burned bright. The Shell installations now lie abandoned, but their presence lingers, particle by particle.

Evading responsibility

Not only has the industry obstructed the progress of climate negotiations in the past, through coalitions with auto-industrialists in the Orwellian doublethink-named Global Climate Coalition, but it is now evading responsibility by promoting ‘business-friendly’ solutions that fall pitifully short of the emissions cuts demanded by the scientists of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The struggle to prevent climate disasters which hit the poorest hardest is also a struggle against the impoverishing and polluting activities of the elusive fossil fuel industry. It was, however, a spirit of managerialism, not urgency, that pervaded the COP6 summit.

As Margie herself noted, her struggle is a testimony that oil company injustice doesn’t just take place in the ‘Third World’, it occurs in the ‘developed countries,’ too, wherever people are poor and voiceless. Ironically, it is that very injustice that has helped warriors such as Margie to find a voice. One that is powerful, righteous and formidable.

The Diamond community of Norco has a deeprooted sense of history. Citizens can identify the dwelling places of several generations of their families. Many of them are descendants of the slaves, sharecroppers and farmers who once worked the Diamond Plantation on which the Shell Chemical facility now sits. But here the American Dream has choked.

Residents have suffered toxic pollution, fires, explosions, flaring and chemical spills from the refinery. After a long battle with cancer, Margie lost her sister to the chemical smog. A youth mowing a neighbouring lawn unwittingly ruptured an ill-submerged gas pipe with his lawnmower. The resulting explosion claimed his life and half the house. Apologies? Redress? Justice?  $2,000.

In the curious capitalist logic of our contemporary world, $2,000 buys a life and a home.

Owens Wiwa also lost a sibling to the politics of oil; Ken Saro-Wiwa and nine supporters were executed by the Sani Abacha regime in 1995 for their dissident struggle for justice and their attempts to evict Shell from Ogoniland. Trade a life for business, trade a life for power.

True to their managerialist spirit, Shell’s policy with regard to the Ogoni Delta is to primly state that they will return when the Ogoni invite them back. This is to grossly understate the acts committed and the injustices felt. A Nigerian Human Rights Commission went into the Delta this January in an attempt to reveal the truth of injustices past and bring about some reconciliation. But Nigeria is a divided land; resolving the politics around oil and climate justice will only be a fraction of the challenges ahead for the people of the Ogoni Delta.

These struggles have not occurred in isolation. Far from it. In response to the abstract haggling of international diplomacy, groups such as Oilwatch and Communities for a Better Environment have brought Margie and the Ogoni together. Last year, Margie visited Nigeria to exchange stories and experience how others have struggled against the many-headed hydra of Royal Dutch/Shell. The trip resonates strongly with her. She knows that she is not alone in her fight.

The fight for climate justice brings together an international solidarity and camaraderie that seems sadly lacking in the managerial environment of COP6. It is perhaps a light that burns brighter than the flares of the Delta ever could.                                    

For more information about Norco, visit