‘We Have to Look at the Underpinnings of Environmental Degradation’ – Special archival CounterSpin episode on environmental justice and cross-national solidarity

The February 21, 2020, episode of CounterSpin was a special archival show about environmental justice, cross-national organizing and solidarity, featuring excerpts of interviews with Paul Paz y Miño, Saqib Bhatti and Beverly Bell. This is a lightly edited transcript.

MP3 Link

Janine Jackson: This week on CounterSpin: The protests of the Wet’suwet’en in British Columbia, resisting the construction of a natural gas pipeline on their land, have been met with violent raids by Canadian police, which in turn have sparked solidarity actions around the country.

New York Times (2/10/20)

A New York Times account detailed how many rail and road passengers were inconvenienced by blockades, noted the “strong support” for the gas line from the Canadian government, and the pipeline company’s “promise” of millions of dollars of contracts with indigenous businesses—before granting one line of explanation that “a number of chiefs…fear the project will irrevocably alter their land.” The facts that the Wet’suwet’en never signed a treaty, and the country’s Supreme Court confirmed (just three years) ago that they hold aboriginal title to the land involved, can be found in paragraph 16 of this 17-paragraph piece.

There will only be an increasing number of frontline struggles between extractive, climate-disrupting industry and those willing to stand up to it. Corporate media’s inadequate attention, and unwillingness to truly call out the moneyed interests causing present and future harms, means that they are more often part of the problem than the solution.

CounterSpin has had these issues brought to life by a number of guests in recent years. We’ll hear a few of those conversations again on this special archived show. We’ll hear from Paul Paz y Miño about Chevron in Ecuador, from Saqib Bhatti about Wells Fargo activism, and from Beverly Bell about Honduran activist Berta Cáceres. Environmental justice, and cross-national organizing and solidarity, today on CounterSpin.

CounterSpin is brought to you each week by the media watch group FAIR.

Intercept: How the Environmental Lawyer Who Won a Massive Judgment Against Chevron Lost Everything

Intercept (1/29/20)

Janine Jackson: The Intercept’s Sharon Lerner recently reported on Chevron’s persecution of Steven Donziger, the attorney who won a multibillion-dollar judgment against the company on behalf of indigenous people and farmers in Ecuador, after it dumped some 16 billion gallons of toxic oil waste onto their land and water. Chevron neither paid the money nor cleaned up the spill, but instead embarked on a vehement effort to intimidate and silence anyone who dared pursue it. In May of 2017, CounterSpin interviewed Paul Paz y Miño, associate director at Amazon Watch.

JJ: Let’s start right where we are. Environmental and human rights groups, including Amazon Watch, have just filed two amicus briefs to the Supreme Court. Each has an importantly distinct focus, but they both are aimed at reversing a particular lower court ruling. What did that ruling say?

PPM: So that ruling was a retaliatory countersuit against the very people that, as you mentioned, Chevron deliberately poisoned. What Chevron did was, they began a suit in New York right before the verdict was to be announced in Ecuador–knowing, of course, that they were going to lose, because the evidence against them was so overwhelming.

They went back, ironically, to the very same place that the Ecuadorians first tried to seek justice, and Chevron argued (as Texaco) that it was improper to sue them in New York, but then went back there and preemptively waged an attack, using the RICO Act—it’s a racketeering law created to go after the Mob in the ’70s—saying that the Ecuadorians, Amazon Watch, Rainforest Action Network and many others were involved in a vast conspiracy to extort money from them, and that the case in Ecuador was actually a fraud. And they tried to get a US federal judge to prevent them from collecting on what was to become a $9.5 billion judgment.

Now, the thing about this RICO case in New York was the judge was incredibly biased against Ecuadorians. He recommended the RICO suit himself, he referred it to his own court, and he refused to allow the contamination to even be brought up as evidence in the case. So he gave Chevron everything it wanted, and he ruled for them, and then that was appealed to the Second Circuit Court of Appeals. The Second Circuit inexplicably held up the decision, and part of the reason, we believe, is because Judge Kaplan, the first federal judge, wrote a 500-page verdict, and threw in so much of basically Chevron’s story, that the higher court didn’t feel able to go through the tome that he had written to look at the facts in that case and rule specifically on the law, and allowed it to be upheld.

And the irony is that the law, RICO, being used this way has many problems that the Supreme Court needs to consider, not the least of which is it was used to intimidate organizations and individuals to suppress their free speech rights. Amazon Watch, for example, was hit with subpoenas to get every document for over a decade of campaigning related to Chevron, and it was simply meant to try to bog us down, to scare us, and to make us have to find lawyers and defend ourselves in court.

Now, we defeated their subpoenas soundly in federal court in San Francisco before a different judge, who recognized this as nothing more than an attempt to go after our free speech rights, and threw out every request that Chevron had. But in New York, under Judge Kaplan, those types of requests were affirmed.

And that’s the danger if this case is not overturned. Because RICO could be used by other corporations, as it is against environmental groups like Greenpeace and Rainforest Action Network currently, to prevent people from waging these types of campaigns, simply for fear of legal action, without having actually done anything wrong, other than publicizing information about environmental crimes committed by corporations.

Now that was the first part of it. The second part, which is incredibly important as well, is that the case that Chevron brought was based on the testimony of a corrupt judge, who said that he was given a bribe by the Ecuadorians to ghostwrite a verdict in Ecuador, this $9.5 billion judgment against Chevron. Now, since that court found in favor of Chevron, that judge has gone before another tribunal and admitted that he lied about the bribe, and forensic evidence from the government of Ecuador has actually proved that the judgment was not ghostwritten, and it was actually prepared by the appropriate judge, and no external devices were held to it.

So the Supreme Court in our brief is asked to consider that new evidence, which the Second Circuit Court of Appeals did not, and therefore overturn this decision, one) because the law is used to intimidate groups and two) because the facts of the case prove that Chevron was just fabricating a lie to get out of paying for a cleanup.

JJ: You talked about how the actual facts of the pollution were not allowed into consideration. And we’re talking about, as I’ve heard you say, a Manhattan-sized area of toxic waste in the Amazon. And it wasn’t an accident; it was an entirely predictable result of cost-cutting measures that Texaco and later Chevron took.

PPM: Exactly.

JJ: But to call attention to that, as you’ve said, just to call attention to that, this legal action named journalists, named bloggers, along with environmental groups, as “non-party co-conspirators.” This, of course, goes directly to our First Amendment rights, I should think, and one hopes the Court will see that.

Paul Paz y Mino

Paul Paz y Mino: “They’ve actually gone after reporters who tried to tell that story and tried to smear them. And they’ve hired PR firms to go after them directly. There’s no boundaries to the things that they’ve tried to do, unfortunately.”

PPM: Yeah, that’s exactly right. And it stems even farther into the future of covering this case. For example, Amazon Watch was given leaked videos from a whistleblower within Chevron, and they show Chevron conducting tests at well sites in Ecuador prior to the court doing it, and finding contamination at the very sites that they swore they cleaned up. In fact, you can see them on tape going, “Great, I give you one job, don’t find any petroleum, and you can’t even do that right.” You know, they’re joking about the fact that they’re finding contamination.

Now, those videos were verified as authentic by Chevron’s lawyers. And when we tried to get national news coverage about them, I had reporters telling me, off the record: We cannot cover your story, there is a smear campaign against you; Chevron’s lawyers are using this RICO decision to suppress coverage of this case, saying that a judge has ruled it’s a fraud, you can’t cover this story and you can’t trust Amazon Watch.

And that’s how deep this goes, and they’ve actually gone after reporters who tried to tell that story and tried to smear them. And they’ve hired PR firms to go after them directly. There’s no boundaries to the things that they’ve tried to do, unfortunately. And this Supreme Court brief goes through a lot of those specifics, but it doesn’t even really touch the tip of the iceberg of what Chevron has tried to do.

And it’s such a dangerous precedent, because other corporations have looked at this case already. And the Americans for Tort Reform, a pro-corporate group, famously said Chevron has written a “new playbook to go after corporate gadflies,” was the term that they used. This is the way to shut down corporate accountability groups, environmental groups, human rights groups, and to silence them.


Janine Jackson: The nature of corporate capitalism is such that the companies profiting from extractive industries are also invested in lots of other things as well. Activists understand how things work, and no one was shocked to learn that Wells Fargo, deeply invested in the Dakota Access Pipeline and Keystone XL, was also engaged in racist predatory-lending practices and private prisons.

In April 2017, CounterSpin spoke with Saqib Bhatti, director of the Refund America Project and co-executive director of the Action Center on Race and the Economy. He was working on a campaign called Forgo Wells.

Janine Jackson: Wells Fargo, as listeners will know, is one of some 17 banks financing the Dakota Access Pipeline. They’re also deep in private prisons, which I heard an activist point out are targeted, not because they’re worse than public prisons, though they may be, but because they’re expansionist, and they rely on banks to do that. There’s a theme here. You see a coherence in terms of the communities harmed by Wells Fargo, yeah?

Saqib Bhatti

Saqib Bhatti: “Racism isn’t just a side effect of what Wells Fargo does; it’s part and parcel of what it does.”

Saqib Bhatti: Absolutely. It is no mere accident that time and again we find that when there are issues that are harming communities of color, if you look at where the money’s coming from, it’s almost always coming from Wall Street, and right at the head of the pack, you always have Wells Fargo. Racism isn’t just a side effect of what Wells Fargo does; it’s part and parcel of what it does, whether it’s, as you mentioned, funding the Dakota Access Pipeline, or funding these immigrant detention centers and getting ready to profit off of Trump’s heightened enforcement on immigration issues.

Or just going back to the fact that they were actually one of the leading banks when it came to mortgage discrimination, really targeting communities of color with predatory mortgages. In fact, workers from within the bank have come forth and said that within Wells Fargo, they referred to subprime mortgages as “ghetto loans,” and said that they were intended for “mud people.” This is a type of culture that you had within Wells Fargo.

They also help finance the payday lending industry, which preys on communities of color. And even with the scandal around fraudulent accounts, one of the lesser reported stories, the workers also came forward and said that they were actually targeting Spanish speakers in particular, right? So what we found is, time and again, it’s black and Latino communities that are targeted for the worst of Wells Fargo’s racist practices.

JJ: It seems so important to say it’s not that it’s an indifferent, structural, capitalism problem that just happens to hurt black and brown people—it’s really targeted that way.

SB: Exactly.

JJ: When I look at media, I see a frame that bugs me, first of all, about how Wells Fargo was “engulfed in scandal,” you know, like it was a dust storm, and how executives “took too long to recognize problems,” when the fact is that they created the problems and called them “policy.”

SB: Uh-huh.


Truthout (12/4/16)

JJ: But the upshot is Wells Fargo is going “back on the offensive,” I learned, “after months of apologizing,” and that other banks are claiming that they would never, you know. Nothing that really looks like change. And what I’d like to see more of is stories about, for example, Portland—I read a piece in Truthout by Mike Ludwig where folks, some of whom were coming back from Standing Rock, are using people power. Can you tell us about how communities are using this point of intervention that we do have around local government investments and contracts?

SB: Yes. Around the country, people are saying that we’ve had enough of Wells Fargo really doing everything it can to extract as much value out of our communities as possible, and we’re fighting back. And so the Forgo Wells campaign is really about getting cities, states, counties, school districts across the country to stop doing business with Wells Fargo.

So we’ve had some great victories. In cities like Seattle and Oakland, there’s resolutions that have already passed, saying that the cities will no longer do business with Wells Fargo, and to start exploring alternatives.

Separately from the resolutions, we’ve also had executive action in a number of places, like Chicago, Illinois, Ohio, where in some cases treasurers, in other cases governors and mayors, have themselves decided they’re doing what they can to unilaterally move their money out of Wells Fargo as a result of this fraudulent account scandal.

And so increasingly what we’re seeing is a movement from the bottom up that’s really putting pressure on local elected officials to stand up to Wells Fargo and say that, actually, all banks are not the same. It’s also true that many banks are problematic; Wells Fargo is not alone in financing the Dakota Access Pipeline. But Wells Fargo is the worst, and so there is a grassroots movement to really hold Wells Fargo accountable.

Janine Jackson: Berta Cáceres’ work with the group COPINH, to block the building of a hydroelectric dam on indigenous land in Honduras, earned the young activist and mother the Goldman Environmental Prize in 2015. It led also to her murder in her home in 2016, by people part of, as a recent piece in the Intercept details, a chain reaching “the highest ranks of leadership of the company whose dam she was protesting,” a company whose executives are members of a powerful family with ties to the Honduran government and international financial industry.

Beverly Bell worked and traveled with Berta Cáceres and COPINH, the National Council of Indigenous Organizations of Honduras, for many years. When we spoke with her in May of 2015, Cáceres had just won the Goldman Prize, but, Bell told us, her life was in danger.

SFGate: 6 extraordinary activists to receive Goldman Prize on Monday

Berta Cáceres in SFGate (4/20/15)

Janine Jackson: Looking into it, I found virtually nothing about Berta Cáceres or COPINH in the major US media: a San Francisco Chronicle piece, a Fox News Latino piece [4/23/15], and a mention in a Tribune wire piece about Myint Zaw, another recipient. So I imagine that many listeners really don’t know much about her or her work. Can you tell us what Berta Cáceres and COPINH do that earns them both death threats in Honduras and the Goldman Environmental Prize?

Beverly Bell: First, just to underscore what you said, that the Goldman Prize, which is considered the “green Nobel Prize”—it’s the largest prize in the world for environmental justice activists, five of the six recipients this year were members of movements who were fighting corporate extraction and mega-development projects on their land. So you’re right, it is no surprise that the mainstream press has overlooked this.

But for us, it is a huge victory. All of us who care about what’s happening in Honduras, and all of us who care about fighting the role of the US, which in Honduras is utterly central—Honduras being basically the prime client state of the US government in Central America, a role it has played for many years.

But to tell you about Berta: First to say, Berta is an extraordinary woman. She was raised by a very, very radical mother in a small town in Honduras. Her mother was mayor and then governor of the state. And Berta grew up listening to clandestine revolutionary radio from Cuba and Nicaragua. They had to go into an inner room and close the doors to listen, because they would have been arrested. But she was radicalized at a very early age, and came to understand the roots of the repression, and the US domination that Honduras has, as I said, lived under for a long time.

She started this group COPINH, which is composed of Lenca indigenous and other rural-based peoples, about 20 years ago. The group has been stunning in its victories. For example, they are the first group that ever got the Honduran law changed to grant communal title, instead of individual land titles, which allows for collective indigenous ownership. And then they went on to win many, many cases of land being granted to their peoples, where the land had previously been stolen.

They have virtually cleared Lenca lands of outside logging operations. They’ve actually stopped, through direct action, 36 logging and sawmills, and now the loggers don’t even try to go into their lands anymore. They got one large community declared a protected area, and that’s pretty much unheard of.

They were among those who won the provision in the Honduran constitution to free, prior and informed consent by the government before any extraction or development projects get installed on their land. Well, of course this has not been respected, but it is a huge victory on the books.

They also were very key in getting Manuel Zelaya, the president that the US helped overthrow in 2009—and, incidentally, in Hillary Clinton’s new book, she does confirm the role of the US in the coup, and there’s a lot of other evidence. But one of the reasons for that coup was that COPINH was so influential in pushing Zelaya to support land reform. And that just completely freaked the oligarchy that has pretty much run Honduras. And so they said, “No, wait, wait, wait, we can’t live in a country where grassroots peoples have the power to take our land away,” and that was one of the big factors behind the coup.

Oh, I could go on and on and on about their victories. But there’s one for which she won the award, and I will say that she and COPINH won it. And just a parenthetical: Goldman is very much a product of the US culture, where we choose to look at individual action. But Berta Cáceres herself would never have accomplished any of this; it was all done, yes, with her extraordinary leadership, but through the tens of thousands of people who comprise COPINH.

And what happened in this case that actually won her the award is, in a small Lenca community called Rio Blanco, the indigenous peoples woke up one morning, and basically there were bulldozers and other heavy equipment going over their bean fields, and making their way to the sacred Gualcarque River, where they began installing the infrastructure for a dam. This was totally illegal. The river was owned, as much as water can be owned, by that community, and yet they proceeded. So Berta and COPINH fought for quite a while, and no one heard them, until they said, “To heck with this, we’ll just take direct action,” which is something that COPINH is great at.

So they set up a roadblock and they cut a trench in the land, and every day for a very long time, every member of the community, from the smallest babies to the eldest, went down and stood in front of that roadblock. And all of us collectively, the big movement part of it, were able to get some international attention and international pressure, and the Honduran government, which was behind this dam, and the company that is partly owned by a Honduras man—who, by the way, is a West Point graduate; the US military has a role all the way through here—responded with tremendous violence, killed three members of the community, macheted three people, kidnapped people, threatened people.

Beverly Bell

Beverly Bell: “Environmental degradation is about… these US corporations, backed by US government, that are allowed to run roughshod over peoples’ lands in the name of, again, profit.”

Berta herself had to live underground when there were charges brought against her that basically amounted to sedition. One of the charges was that she was a threat to the national security of Honduras. And there was an arrest warrant out for her. So her life hung by a thread, and continues to, in part because of this work in Rio Blanco.

But they won. Janine, it took a couple of years, but the World Bank pulled out and the largest dam company in the world, which is the Chinese government-owned Sinohydro, pulled out, and the river is free-flowing, and it is undammed, and it is back to belonging to the indigenous peoples.

JJ:  Many Americans do see themselves as environmentalists, perhaps as frustrated environmentalists, and media, I think, could serve them better by showing connections not just between what their US government does in other countries, and the impact of that, but also showing the connections between their environmental concerns and, sure, what light bulb they use, but also, much more so, ways to show support for social movements in, for example, Honduras — to see that as part of what you as an individual can do in terms of your environmental action.

BB: I absolutely agree. One thing that we have to do, if we are going to be global citizens, to really enforce the protection of human life and that of the Earth, is to look at the underpinnings of what environmental degradation is about. Yes, it’s about our driving our cars, etc. But it’s also about these US corporations, backed by US government, that are allowed to run roughshod over peoples’ lands in the name of, again, profit.

Janine Jackson: We spoke with Beverly Bell again in March of 2017, a year after the murder. We asked her what still stood in the way of justice for Berta Cáceres and other endangered environmental activists.

Beverly Bell: The first thing that stands in the way of justice is that the Honduran government continues to be an imposed government, and completely unaccountable. It reigns with full impunity, as have the administrations which preceded it, ever since 2009—when, as you say, the US very strongly backed a coup d’etat against Manuel Zelaya, who was the last elected government of Honduras.

Since then, there have been two other elections, and both have been total shams. They were certified by both the US and Canada, but very few other governments. And so the government pretends to be a democracy, and is certainly touted as such up here, but it is in fact a dictatorship, and acts like one.

Global Witness: Honduras: the deadliest country in the world for environmental activism

Global Witness (1/31/17)

The group Global Witness, a very well-known and well-respected international human rights group, just put out another report saying that Honduras continues to be the most dangerous country in the world to be an environmental activist, and certainly the record of the last year proves that to be true. There have been dozens and dozens of assassination attempts, and at least six high-level indigenous activists—just indigenous activists—have been killed or almost killed, just in the past year since Berta Cáceres was killed.

The most recent was on February 20, when José de los Santos Sevilla, who was a leader of the Tolupan indigenous people, who are fighting their own battles against the theft of their land and resource extraction, was killed. So he is only the last. I don’t even have all the figures; they haven’t even all been tracked.

But what we know is that until there is a change in the actions of the Honduran government, and a respect for lives, human rights and democracy, indigenous and other environmental actors will not be safe. And we know, furthermore, that there will not be this change, vis-a-vis the Honduran government, as long as the US continues to send many, many, many millions of dollars of military aid to Honduras every year.


Janine Jackson: That was Beverly Bell. Before that you heard Saqib Bhatti and Paul Paz y Miño.


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