Multinational Monitor

JUL/AUG 2005
VOL 26 No. 7

FEATURES:

Merger Mania and Its Disontents: The Price of Corporate Consolidation
by James Brock

Indigenous People's Power: Global Mobilization Scores Dramatic Gains - With Many Challenges Ahead
by Marcus Colchester

Crisis of Credibility: the Declining Power of the International Monetary Fund
by Walden Bello and Shalmali Guttal

Programmed to Fail: The World Bank Clings to a Bankrupt Development Model
by Walden Bello and Shalmali Guttal

Heartache and Hope in Africa: The Failures of Market
Fundamentalism and Hope for an Alternative
by Soren Ambrose and Njoki Njoroge Njehu

Victories! Justice! The People's Triumphs Over Corporate Power
by Robert Weissman

INTERVIEWS:

Offshore: Tax Havens, Secrecy, Financial Manipulation, and the Offshore Economy
An Interview with William Brittain-Catlin

DEPARTMENTS:

Letter to the Editor

Behind the Lines

Editorial
The Global Justice Movement

The Front
Bolivia Insurrection -
ICSID Bleeds Argentina

The Lawrence Summers Memorial Award

Names In the News

Resources

Victories! Justice! The People's Triumphs Over Corporate Power

by Robert Weissman


When you are in the business of tracking and reporting on multinational corporate activity, it is inevitable that you you are going to traffic in tales of sorrow, woe and misery.

Deprivation of land and livelihoods; poisoning, homogenizing and genetically altering the food supply; price gouging and union busting; fraud and theft; reckless endangerment of workers and consumers; destruction of communities and private enclosure of public and community assets and space; denial of life-saving medicines and marketing of deadly products; clearcutting forests and altering the earth’s climate; imposing charges for education and healthcare and no-charge dumping of toxics into the air and water: these are the routine byproducts of the multinational corporation’s single-minded drive for profits. And so, they are the stuff of Multinational Monitor reporting.

But for all their power, multinational corporations do not always prevail. Their plans are frequently thwarted, their power restrained, their authority displaced.

Almost always, a common thread ties together these defeats of corporate power: an organized group of people. Sometimes it is a handful of skillful campaigners, sometimes a mass movement of millions. But people power does regularly overcome and triumph over concentrated corporate power.

In this issue marking Multinational Monitor’s twenty-fifth anniversary, we celebrate those citizen victories with the first of a two-part series recounting peoples’ wins over corporations and their supporting structures and institutions.

Here, we present brief profiles of 25 victories; we will profile an additional 25 winning campaigns in the November/ December issue.

We don’t claim these are the most important achievements over corporate power of the last quarter century, though we do think these were all landmark accomplishments. Nor are we making any effort to rank this list in importance — it is presented in a very rough chronological order, taking into account that many of these victories have unfolded over a long period, sometimes as long as or longer than the lifespan of Multinational Monitor.

Want to let us know about a citizen win you think should be added to this list? Send us a note at monitor@essential.org.

Dismantling apartheid

After nearly five decades in force, South Africa’s race-based system of apartheid collapsed in the early 1990s. Apartheid had strong cultural, and even religious, foundations. It was a system of political control and exclusion. It also functioned as a system of economic colonization, enabling the white elite to control the nation’s vast economic and natural resource wealth, and to subjugate black labor. Multinational corporations readily collaborated with, buttressed and benefited from the apartheid regime.

The overthrow of apartheid was the culmination of the long struggle of the South African majority for democracy and justice. The South African liberation movement organized resistance to oppression on a scale rarely seen. It had an armed struggle component, but the dramatic expressions of resistance were overwhelmingly nonviolent — mass civil disobedience, national general strikes and more. Without underestimating the importance of iconic figures such as Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the struggle was one that threw forward hundreds or thousands of vibrant, charismatic and inspirational leaders, and engaged millions.

“The international community … also made an important contribution to this struggle,” Nelson Mandela noted shortly after his release from prison, “not least through the imposition of economic and other sanctions.”

Around the world, the South African solidarity movement was one of the broadest and most effective ever.

In the United States, much of the campaign’s focus was on the multinationals doing business in and with South Africa. The divestment movement called on state and local governments to stop doing business with companies doing business in South Africa; demanded universities and others pull their investments from firms doing business in South Africa; and pressured the companies directly to pull out from apartheid South Africa.

The results were dramatic. More than 150 universities and colleges divested in whole or part from companies doing business in South Africa, according to Richard Knight of the African Activist Archive. By 1991, writes Knight, “28 states, 24 counties, 92 cities and the Virgin Islands had adopted legislation or policies imposing some form of sanctions on South Africa.” In 1986, overriding a veto from President Ronald Reagan, the U.S. Congress passed a law banning new investment in South Africa, and in 1987 the Congress passed a law effectively imposing double taxation on South African-related business income, fueling the flight of multinationals from the country. By the end of 1987, according to Knight, more that 200 U.S. companies — including such major firms as GM and IBM — had withdrawn from South Africa.

No nukes

Even as the nuclear industry continues to posture as a safe alternative to fossil fuels, the nuclear purveyors are on the ropes.

In the United States, the anti-nuclear movement has stopped construction of any nuclear facility during Multinational Monitor’s lifetime.

“There has not been a successful new nuclear reactor order since 1973,” points out the Washington, D.C.-based Nuclear Information and Resource Service, an anti-nuclear resource center that has more than a little bit to do with this fact. “The only major new atomic facility even proposed since the 1980s, a uranium enrichment plant slated for a poor, African-American community in northern Louisiana, was stopped by citizen activism in 1998. Moreover, citizens across the country have begun to actively resist existing nuclear reactors. Ten large commercial reactors have been closed, in large part due to citizen activism, in the past decade. Active and concerned people have proven they can take on the nuclear industry and win.”

Globally, nuclear construction is on the wane. According to the World Nuclear Association, there was a worldwide net gain of only three nuclear reactors from 1998 to 2003.

And in Germany, as part of the governing coalition, the Green Party led the country to announce a 20-year phaseout of nuclear power, which supplies roughly a third of the country’s power.

Indigenous peoples mobilize

Indigenous peoples have organized into powerful national, regional and global networks over the last quarter century. This global mobilization, as the Forest Peoples Program’s Marcus Colchester notes in this issue, “has helped curb local processes of expropriation of indigenous lands,” defeating countless efforts by multinational and domestic corporations to exploit resources at the expense of indigenous peoples’ well-being. It has led to changes in national laws and constitutions throughout Latin America and Asia, and perhaps soon in Africa as well, that recognize indigenous peoples’ customary rights and land claims.

A few notable highlights:

  • In 1993, the Inuit in Northern Canada won control of a vast territory, known as Nunavut, over which they now exercise governmental authority.
  • Activists led by Kayapo indigenous people gathered at Altamira in 1989 and initiated a global campaign against a series of six dams on the Xingu river in the Brazilian Amazon. They convinced the World Bank and Brazilian government to abandon plans for the dams, though they are now being revived.
  • ought the 28-year struggle over the Crandon, Wisconsin mining project to a successful conclusion by buying the mine site and stopping the mine permitting process.
  • The U’wa people in Colombia managed to evict Occidental Petroleum from their ancestral territories. The U’wa threatened to commit collective suicide if Oxy proceeded with drilling on their lands. Supported by an international campaign, they persuaded the oil company to abandon its oil exploration and drilling plans.

Sewing justice in the U.S. South

Before it moved production to the Third World, the U.S. textile industry shifted production to the U.S. South for the same reasons it would later make the global shift — to access cheap labor and escape unions.

The southern states presented an anti-union climate, with right-to-work laws, rampant intimidation of workers, workers divided by race, and a general culture of fear of authority. Successes in organizing the South were hard fought, and infrequent.

One historic victory was the successful campaign to unionize J.P. Stevens, the inspiration for the movie Norma Rae. For almost two decades, the Amalgamated Clothing & Textile Workers Union (now part of UNITE HERE) sought to organize the then-textile giant that employed as many as 40,000 workers. J.P. Stevens resisted with every trick in the book.

In 1976, the union launched a boycott and one of the first union-directed corporate campaigns against a company. Five years later, as Multinational Monitor was getting started, the union finally prevailed. More than 3,000 workers at 10 plants in the Carolinas and Alabama gained collective bargaining agreements.

Directed by Ray Rogers, the corporate campaign — now a mainstay of union organizing efforts — played a key role. It targeted the financial enterprises interlocked with Stevens, and split them off from the textile company. Campaign pressure led to the resignations of top corporate officers from the boards of Manufacturers Hanover Trust Co. (then the nation’s fourth largest bank), New York Life Insurance Co. and J.P. Stevens itself.

Wrote the New York Times, “Pressure on giant banks and insurance companies and other Wall Street pillars, all aimed at isolating Stevens from the financial community, helped generate a momentum … that could not be achieved through the 1976-1980 worldwide boycott of Stevens products or through more conventional uses of union muscle such as strikes and mass picketing.”

Cushioning the blow

The slow introduction of life-saving airbags in motor vehicles had nothing to do with the state of the technology.

Airbag technology was developed in the 1950s and 1960s, and roughly 10,000 airbag-equipped cars were sold in the 1970s.

The U.S. government tried to mandate automakers install airbags, but they resisted with a legendary set of regulatory and legal challenges that are, literally, textbook — the story is used in law school textbooks as exemplifying regulatory opposition and delay. Thousands of people died needlessly for this delay.

Finally, in 1984, a federal rule was promulgated requiring “passive restraints,” but not specifically airbags.

The industry stonewall against airbags was finally breached not by government regulation, but government purchase.

Consumer advocate Ralph Nader persuaded the General Services Administration to issue a procurement specification for airbag-equipped cars. Ford agreed to the specified standards, and provided 5,300 Tempos with airbags. That prompted the company to offer optional air bags in Tempo and Topaz models. Soon after, Chrysler made airbags a standard feature on many of its models, and Chrysler CEO Lee Iacocca, a longtime opponent, began bragging about the airbag safety feature in the company ads in which he starred.

Although the industry had long claimed that consumers did not care about safety, airbags — once introduced and marketed — proved enormously popular. They also proved to work: they reduce driver and front passenger fatalities by more than 30 percent, and have saved thousands of lives.

After the market had already spoken, the federal government finally issued mandatory requirements for airbags in 1991.

Land for the landless

It’s no secret that the best way to help the rural poor is through land reform — taking land from rich, often absentee owners of large plots and distributing it to the landless and peasants with small holdings.

But, for obvious reasons, genuine land reform is easier said than done.

In Brazil, a country with among the greatest wealth and land holding inequalities in the world, one of the most dynamic non-violent peasant movements of the last 50 years is taking matters into its own hands. Founded in 1984, the Landless Workers Movement, known by the acronym MST, has obtained land title for hundreds of thousands of families. It involves more than 1.5 million people.

The MST employs an array of tactics, but its most assertive has been to organize occupations of unproductive large plantations and settle the landless on them.

The movement has evolved into much more than a vehicle to address the land hunger of the poor. It has knit together settled families into dozens of agricultural cooperatives. It has established 1,800 public schools, with more than 150,000 students enrolled in primary education. It has supported organic farming and reforestation.

The MST has been critically engaged with the progressive government of Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, embracing the Brazilian president’s commitment to justice but criticizing the government’s failure to deliver on promises of land reform.

In November 2003, the MST reached an agreement with the government to settle 400,000 families in the first three years of the president’s term in office. But, according to the MST, halfway through that period, fewer than 60,000 families have been settled and the land reform budget has been slashed.

In May 2005, the MST mobilized 12,000 peasants for a 17-day, 150-mile protest march, ending in Brasilia, the nation’s capital.

They do not intend to accept broken promises, nor do they plan on bowing to the power of the rich landowners, even in the face of the violence their activists routinely encounter.

Damming the dams

A global movement of environmental, social and indigenous organizations has blocked countless large dams and other plans to transform rivers. With the Berkeley, California-based International Rivers Network often playing a key role, this movement has revealed large dam technology to be misguided and insisted that it is unacceptable to recklessly displace and dispossess people who live in areas to be flooded.

Among the movement’s achievements:

  • Convincing the Canadian firm Noranda in 2003 to abandon plans for a dam-aluminum smelter complex in Chilean Patagonia. Noranda would have dammed glacial rivers, and polluted one of the most pristine ecosystems on the planet.
  • Forcing Alcoa, Billiton and CVRD to abandon plans to build the Santa Isabel dam on the Araguaia River in the Brazilian Amazon. The Araguaia is site of some of the Amazon’s most important wetlands, and home to indigenous populations.
  • In 1999, halting plans for conversion of the Paraguay and Parana rivers of South America into a 2,100-long industrial waterway to make it cheaper for barges to haul soybeans out of the heart of the continent. The project could have resulted in the drying out of the Pantanal, the world’s largest tropical wetlands.
  • Pressuring U.S.-based AES Corp. to pull out of plans to construct the Bujagali dam on the Nile. The Ugandan campaign pushed the government to instead develop alternative energy projects (especially smaller scale ones that would help the poor majority), and demanded greater transparency on such projects (public release of this project’s contract, following citizen group pressure, revealed its terms to be inordinately favorable toward AES and very risky for Uganda).

Farmworker justice

Farmworkers are probably the most abused segment of the U.S. labor force. Exempted from many of the federal rules regarding the minimum wage, worker safety and other workplace protections, farm employers have felt free to mistreat and underpay their traditionally immigrant-heavy workforce.

Organizing for protection has been an immense challenge for farmworkers for a variety of reasons, including the claims by individual farmers that if they pay more, they won’t remain competitive.

One solution has been to target the corporate, large-scale buyers of farm products, and demand they purchase produce only from farms that recognize unions, or pay a decent wage. Succeeding in such a campaign is difficult, but it can be done, as several farmworker unions and organizations have shown.

In 2005, following a three-year boycott, the Florida-based Coalition of Immokalee Workers won agreement from Taco Bell that it would pay a penny-per-pound surcharge on tomatoes to increase farmworkers’ pay. The company also agreed to work for legislative reforms to strengthen farmworker rights.

“This is an important victory for farmworkers,” says Lucas Benitez, a leader of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, “one that establishes a new standard of social responsibility for the fast-food industry and makes an immediate material change in the lives of workers. This sends a clear challenge to other industry leaders.”

The Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC), an affiliate of the AFL-CIO, has succeeded in several similar campaigns. In 1986, following a seven-year endeavor, FLOC won a deal with Campbell’s Soup to enable tomato pickers at its suppliers to be unionized and paid a higher wage. The Campbell’s Soup victory enabled FLOC to reach deals with Midwest pickle makers — Vlasic, Heinz, Aunt Jane, Green Bay Foods and Dean Foods all quickly agreed to union agreements. In North Carolina, pickle maker Mt. Olive fought FLOC’s effort to obtain union recognition for cucumber pickers. After a more than five-year campaign, FLOC prevailed, and won union recognition and improved working conditions for 8,500 Mexican and other Latin American guest workers on the North Carolina farms supplying Mt. Olive.

Restoring the ozone

Thanks to the resistance of DuPont and other chemical makers, it took more than a decade for science to be translated into action, but the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer stands as a landmark accomplishment of the environmental movement.

“Perhaps the single most successful international agreement to date has been the Montreal Protocol,” says Kofi Annan, secretary general of the United Nations.

Researchers discovered in 1974 that production of CFCs (used as a coolant and an aerosol) and a handful of other chemicals was depleting the atmospheric ozone layer, which absorbs most of the cancer-causing ultraviolet radiation from the sun. Thinning of the ozone layer has led to a sharp rise in skin cancer.

It took more than a decade of further scientific investigation — and aggressive advocacy from environmental groups — for the chemical industry to acknowledge the problem and governments to agree to take action.

In 1987, countries adopted the Montreal Protocol. More than 180 nations have now signed the treaty.

It calls for countries to first freeze and then phase out ozone-depleting substances, with a faster timetable established for industrialized countries and a slower one for developing nations.

As is often the case, substituting for the phased-out chemicals has proven much easier than predicted. More than 90 percent of the global production and consumption of ozone-depleting substances has been eliminated.

The results are now beginning to be seen, though there is a major time lag between reduction in ozone-depleting substances and repair of the ozone layer.

The hole in the Antarctic ozone layer, where the atmospheric concentration is thinnest, reached its largest size in 2003, and it has approached that size in 2005. But scientists think the problem has now peaked, and the ozone layer will slowly repair itself. Full recovery, if it ever comes, is not expected until the middle of the century, according to the United Nations meteorological agency.

The lilliputians and microsoft

In its day, the Standard Oil Trust must have seemed invincible, too.

The modern equivalent must be Microsoft, which supplies the operating system for 90 percent of the world’s computers. One reason the company seems so powerful in the marketplace is its response to competitive threats: copying and then displacing competitors’ innovations, or simply buying competitors and incorporating them into the Microsoft machine.

The most profound threat to Microsoft, it turns out, has come not from any corporate competitor but from a decentralized global network of programmers of free and open software. More than a million programmers in North America alone report working on some free and open software projects.

These programmers have developed an alternative operating system, GNU/Linux, and while their products represent only a small share of the desktop computer operating system market, they possess much more substantial portions of higher-end markets. Most notably, Apache is the dominant web server, with more than two thirds of the market. Microsoft’s competitor is second with about 20 percent. Other free and open software products — including, for example, an alternative to Microsoft’s Office — are rapidly gaining ground.

Now major corporations such as IBM are investing billions in the development of free and open software.

What is most remarkable about the free and open software movement is that it rejects entirely the proprietary model.

It turns out that an open approach has strong developmental advantages — with lots of eyes looking at a problem, and each product developmental step completely open to scrutiny, better and more stable products can be created.

But the first motivation for the free and open software approach was one of principle: that ideas belong in the public domain, and should not be “owned” by private interests. With free products, people are free to use the software, study its source code, copy it and publish modified versions — all without paying rents to someone who claims to “own” it.

One danger free software faces is that someone will take it, make an addition or improvement, and then claim to “own” their modified version. To address this problem, Richard Stallman, a pioneer of the movement, developed a special licensing arrangement — known as the GNU General Public License. “When a program is GPL-covered,” explains Stallman, “you are free to publish a modified version, but your version must also be free, meaning that I can use your improvements just as you can use mine.”

Working for a living

The U.S. minimum wage has stagnated at $5.15 an hour for eight years. It is now at its lowest inflation-adjusted level since 1955 (with the exception of 1989). The stingy minimum wage consigns millions of workers and their families to poverty, and is an important factor in the ever-growing income and wealth inequality in the United States. The Economic Policy Institute estimates that 8.2 million workers — including those making up to a dollar more than the minimum wage — would be affected by a minimum wage hike.

Faced with a Congress and president unwilling to budge the minimum wage, campaigners have turned to other policymakers.

A grassroots effort led by ACORN and other organizations and supported by countless community groups and labor unions has asserted the need to respect workers by paying them a living wage. Adjusted for the local cost of living, different communities define the threshold of a living wage differently — in many places, it is set at more than twice the minimum wage.

The campaign has succeeded in getting 130 cities and counties to adopt living wage laws. These require government contractors, and sometimes companies receiving government benefits, to pay a living wage. Hundreds of thousands of workers are covered by these laws, which have been adopted in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Philadelphia, among many other locales.

Meanwhile, campaigners have succeeded in forcing an increasing number of states to adopt their own minimum wage laws, which apply to all employers. Thirteen states now maintain minimum wage laws higher than the federal standard. In November 2004, voters in Florida and Nevada overwhelmingly approved minimum wage ballot measures, each by a greater than two-to-one margin.

Banning the burn

In a throwaway society, what happens to all the garbage? Until recently, the answer for much of the U.S. waste stream was: it got burned in incinerators.

That started to change in the 1990s, as the grassroots environmental justice movement pointed out that burning trash didn’t make it go away, it just converted garbage into ash and air emissions. And, worse, the process of burning actually created toxins — incineration is now recognized as a leading source of highly toxic dioxin, mercury, lead and other dangerous air pollutants.

The campaign against incinerators consisted of dozens of local fights. Waste disposal firms located or sought to foist incinerators on working class and minority communities, who were presumed more likely to accept them quietly. Aided by organizations such as Greenpeace and what is now known as the Center for Health, Environment and Justice, and assisted by the fact that the economics of incineration turned out to be disastrous for municipal governments, community after community beat back incinerator proposals or forced existing facilities to close.

Healthcare Without Harm, a focused campaign on medical waste — responsible for a surprisingly high portion of the waste stream, and with a high proportion of plastic waste, which when burned creates dioxin — forced hospitals to stop sending their trash to be burned.

The result: From more than 5,000 incinerators in the United States in the mid-1990s, there are less than 100 today.

Now the anti-incinerator campaign has gone global. GAIA (the Global Anti-Incinerator Alliance) has 360 member organizations in 66 countries. Healthcare Without Harm has more than 443 member groups in 52 countries.

This global campaign, focusing heavily on reducing the amount of waste generated as well as opposing incinerators, is chalking up an increasing number of victories. One example: Spearheaded by the Korea Zero Waste Movement Network, South Korea has started limiting the use of disposable items. Since 1999, the country has banned the free distribution of disposable items such as plastic shopping bags and disposable drinking cups from fast food restaurants.

Justice for janitors

In the era of outsourcing, why should the owners of an office building bother to maintain a janitorial staff with decent wages and benefits, when they can save money and bother by contracting out the work to a cleaning firm?

That has been the thinking of more and more real estate moguls, who have fired their janitorial staff and replaced them with subcontracted help.

The switch has redefined the nature of a janitorial job. In Los Angeles, for example, in 1983, the average janitor earned $7.07 per hour and received full health insurance for their family. Three years later, the average wage had dropped by more than a third, to $4.50, and health insurance coverage was a relic of a bygone era.

The Justice for Janitors campaign, a project of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), has worked since its founding in 1985, to undo the changes brought about by real estate firms’ subcontracting, with enormous success.

The key structural challenge facing Justice for Janitors was the fragility of the cleaning firms. The firms said they didn’t earn enough revenue to pay hire wages. If one firm were forced to pay more than competitors, it could easily be displaced. Or, given the low level of capitalization in the business, a unionized firm could simply go out of business, and then reopen with a new name.

The solution was to hold the commercial real estate firms directly accountable, and demand they directly pay a decent wage and provide good benefits, or employ cleaning firms that did so.

That solution, however, was easier said than done.

It took a major campaign of strikes, civil disobedience, demonstrations and broad community coalition building to force the building owners to accept the Justice for Janitors demands.

There are now roughly 200,000 janitors, overwhelmingly immigrants, in SEIU. Thanks to the Justice for Janitors campaign, they enjoy better wages, basic benefits and reasonable job security.

Malaysia defies IMF, imposes capital controls

In 1997, financial crisis spread throughout Asia. From South Korea to Indonesia, countries saw their economies collapse. The poverty rate in Indonesia, to take one example, doubled. While all of these nations had underlying weaknesses that left them vulnerable, the proximate cause of their sudden and severe collapse was financial speculation and the exaggerated response of international financial markets to their problems.

Facing balance of payment problems, most countries turned to the IMF, which prescribed a combination of contractionary policies and the opening of banking sectors to foreign investment. Even the IMF has admitted it erred in its recommendations.

Malaysia took a different course. It combined expansionary policies with protections from overseas speculative attacks on the currency. These measures included fixing the exchange rate of the ringgit (the local currency) to the U.S. dollar, ending the ringgit’s trade abroad, and imposing stringent capital controls (including a one-year prohibition on foreign investors taking money out of the country).

The Malaysian economy recovered quickly, Malaysians suffered much less pain than people in the other affected countries, and the country was able to maintain its restrictions on foreign ownership.

Shunning biotech

Once permitted on market, it is not at all clear that genetically modified crops can ever be withdrawn.

That’s because genetically modified crops do not stay within prescribed boundaries. Seed blows to neighboring farms and contaminates conventional crops. It doesn’t respect property lines, or even political boundaries.

Once the genie is out of the bottle, it can’t be put back in.

That means Monsanto and the rest of the biotech industry are not only conducting a massive experiment on humans and the environment by luring farmers around the planet to plant biotech seed, when the health and environmental effects of biotech crops remain a major uncertainty. It means they are conducting an experiment that will be difficult if not impossible to call off.

Against this backdrop, activists in many countries have succeeded in convincing their governments to ban genetically modified crops.

Europe maintained an effective ban on biotech crops from 1999 to 2004, only to have its rules challenged by the United States, Canada and Argentina at the World Trade Organization. But even with the European ban lifted, Austria, France, Germany, Greece and Luxembourg have decided to maintain their own bans on eight specific genetically modified crops.

Mexico adopted a ban on genetically modified corn in 1998, but in 2002 scientists discovered native corn at its source of origin in Oaxaca, Mexico to be contaminated by genetically modified variants, probably due to farmers unwittingly planting biotech corn.

Most of Africa, with the notable exception of South Africa, imposes major restrictions on use of genetically modified seed. Zambia prohibits biotech imports, and Malawi, Lesotho, Angola, Mozambique and Zimbabwe all prohibit imports of unmilled genetically modified corn — including even food aid — fearing it might contaminate local seed supplies.

Notes Amadou Kanoute, director of Consumers International Regional Office for Africa, “Zambia, which imposed an outright ban on the acceptance of genetically modified food aid, not only managed to cope with its crisis, but is now able to export non-genetically modified food to its neighbors.”

Access to essential medicines

HIV/AIDS is the worst pandemic the world has seen since the Black Death.

One big difference: there are treatments to keep people with HIV/AIDS alive.

As the millennium approached, it was becoming clear to anyone who cared to know how severe the pandemic was. Three million people are now dying a year from the disease.

Yet the brand-name drug companies that controlled the patent rights on lifesaving AIDS medications were charging people in poor countries the same exorbitant prices they were demanding in rich countries ($10,000 a year per person, or more). Where the high price in rich countries meant a drain on public and private insurance systems, in poor countries it meant that people would simply be denied the medicines they needed to survive.

Enter the access to medicines campaign, an informal collaboration of Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders), chapters of the AIDS activist group ACT-UP, Health GAP, and the Consumer Project on Technology, among other groups.

Their pressure on the drug companies, and the U.S. government, which was doing the companies’ bidding in international fora, led the Clinton administration in 2000 to issue an Executive Order by which the U.S. government committed not to pressure countries on patent issues if they were abiding by international trade agreements. That same year, international pressure combined with the mobilization of the Treatment Action Campaign in South Africa led to the drug companies dropping a suit against the South African government over a law intended to lower drug prices.

Then, in 2001, following negotiations with groups in the access to medicines campaign, the Indian company Cipla announced that it could make a three-drug AIDS cocktail for $350 a year.

Generic competition then drove down the price of the brand name firms to a fraction of what they had been.

To obtain generic medicines, Mozambique, Zambia, Indonesia, Malaysia and South Africa all issued compulsory licenses — authorizations for generic production of products even while they remain on patent.

Lowering the price of drug treatment made it possible for foreign aid to be used to keep people with HIV/AIDS alive. Billions have been committed, and a million people with HIV/AIDS in the developing world are now on treatment.

Clean campaigns

Frederick L. Webber, president of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, knows the U.S. campaign finance system is utterly bankrupt. He says he had an epiphany after Hurricane Katrina. “Political fundraising in this town has gotten out of control,” he told the Washington Post.

Join the club, Mr. Webber. The corrupting influence of a system that requires elected officials to raise huge amounts of money from private interests is obvious to most of the public. But that’s not enough to get the system fixed; the impediments to far-reaching reform, especially at the federal level, are overwhelming.

So, many campaign finance activists have taken their battle to the states.

The most aggressive of the many reform proposals calls for “clean money elections” — public financing of public campaigns. Under the clean money approach, if a candidate declines the clean money option, the other candidates get a bump up in their public funding, so they can remain competitive.

This idea is catching on. So far, Arizona, Maine, Massachusetts, New Mexico, North Carolina and Vermont have adopted some variant for state elections (not for federal elections for House of Representatives, Senate or the presidency). States that have adopted the clean money approach have seen more candidates running, candidates spending far less time on fundraising (candidates need to raise a small amount of money from a broad pool of voters to become eligible for public funding), and less money being spent on elections.

User fee rollback

Many International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank loans have called for the imposition of “user fees” — charges for the use of government-provided services like schools, health clinics and clean drinking water. The idea was to raise revenue — and curb “excessive” demand. “When a service costs money, people will think twice about demanding it,” one World Bank report noted.

User fees definitely do work at curbing demand. For very poor people, even modest charges may result in the denial of access to services. When the World Bank mandated that Kenya impose charges of $2.15 for sexually transmitted disease clinic services, for example, attendance fell 35 to 60 percent.

In 2000, the U.S. Congress mandated that U.S. representatives to the IMF, World Bank and other international institutions oppose loans and projects calling for user fees for primary education and healthcare.

Slowly, this is translating into on-the-ground policy changes. Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania, among others, have rolled back school fees. As a result, hundreds of thousands of children, mostly girls, are attending schools that otherwise would have been closed to them.

Argentina stares down the IMF

In late 2001, Argentina defaulted on loans from private foreign creditors. Amidst an economic crisis, the government insisted that devoting funds to national needs took priority over paying back private creditors. The government would eventually declare unilaterally that it would discount payments to private creditors by 75 to 90 percent.

This move also marked a break with the International Monetary Fund (IMF), as the government refused to accept a number of IMF conditions in negotiations with the Fund. Instead, Argentina threatened not to pay back the Fund unless it agreed to back down on its standard policy prescriptions — policies that had helped plunge Argentina into a severe depression from 1998 to 2002.

Shortly after default and staring down the IMF, Argentina began an economic recovery. “By showing that it did not need any assistance from the IMF, and by growing very rapidly after refusing to agree to the IMF’s conditions, Argentina put the final nail in the coffin of the Fund’s once-powerful influence over middle-income countries,” says Mark Weisbrot of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, D.C. “This is a very important positive change for those who believe that countries should, as much as possible, choose their own national economic policies.”

Commercialism run a little bit less amok

Anyone with the remotest connection to the popular culture is aware that the level of commercialism in the United States has soared during Multinational Monitor’s lifetime.

But it could be worse. Parents and citizens’ groups, such as Commercial Alert, have defeated countless commercialism initiatives and expanded the sphere of public, commercial-free space.

Schools have been a major contested area. Responding to the proliferation of Coke, Pepsi and other junk food in school vending machines and cafeterias, many communities are now dismissing the junk food hucksters from school. Arizona, California, Texas and Maine and New Jersey are among the states with bans on junk foods in some or all schools. Cities with bans include Chicago, Philadelphia and Seattle.

In another notable school victory, an outfit named ZapMe proposed to loan computers to schools, bombard them with ads, and spy on how students used the Internet and then provide the data to advertisers and marketers. The plan collapsed and the company is out of business.

There have been dozens of victories outside of the classroom, too. Ads on police cars seem to be an idea that’s gone the way of New Coke. San Franciscans voted down the idea of selling naming rights to the baseball field, Candlestick Park. Citizens defeated a proposal to sell naming rights to the Boston subway “T.” The South Carolina Democratic Party backed off the idea of putting corporate logos on primary ballots.

These ideas may sound crazy, but many commercial incursions sound nuts, only to then become entrenched and part of the cultural landscape.

Persistence against pollutants

There is no escape. Whoever you are, wherever you go, you will be contaminated by Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs).

POPs are a class of chemicals that are toxic, persist in the environment, accumulate in the body fat of humans and animals, concentrate up the food chain, and can be transported across the globe. There is strong evidence that even minor exposures to POPs have dangerous health and environmental effects.

Emerging from the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio came a demand to end human production of these substances. An expanding global environmental and public health network — organized as the International POPS Elimination Network (IPEN) — mobilized support for an international instrument to do away with POPs.

In 2001, that effort finally resulted in the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs Treaty). Three years later, in 2004, the fiftieth signatory ratified the treaty, bringing it into force.

The POPs Treaty calls for the elimination of a dozen POPs — nine pesticides and three industrial byproducts.

“The ratification of this treaty is a true landmark for environmental health,” says Monica Moore of Pesticide Action Network North America (PANNA), a founding member of IPEN. “By targeting an entire class of chemicals for global phaseout, it moves us a giant step forward in protecting people and the planet.”

In addition to the phaseout of the dozen products, the treaty is noteworthy for establishing the Precautionary Principle — simply put, to err on the side of safety in the face of uncertainty — as a guiding precept.

Restraining big tobacco

Thanks in significant part to the deceptive marketing and product manipulation efforts of Big Tobacco, tobacco-related disease takes the lives of 5 million people a year. The World Health Organization projects that the annual death toll — entirely preventable — will rise to 10 million by 2030, with 70 percent of the deaths occurring in developing countries.

In 2003, thanks to campaigning by public health groups, the member countries of the World Health Organization unanimously adopted a tobacco control treaty, the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC). The treaty commits those countries which ratify it to enact comprehensive bans on tobacco advertising, promotion and sponsorship, use large health warnings on tobacco packs, increase tobacco taxes and provide for smokefree workplaces and indoor public places. It has the potential to save, literally, millions of lives.

Blocking media concentration

There are ever fewer corporations controlling what is shown, played and published on television and cable, in movies, on the radio, and in books and magazines. Fewer than 10 conglomerates control what most people in the United States see, hear or read about as news, or experience as popular culture.

Democracy activists, who believe a broader diversity of ideas and viewpoints is healthy — indeed, essential — for a functioning democracy, think the concentration of corporate control of the media is a bad thing.

But not the Republican-controlled Federal Communications Commission (FCC). In 2003, the FCC voted 3-2 to change several of its remaining media ownership rules, to permit still further consolidation. One rule, for example, prohibits the same entity from owning a TV station and newspaper in the same local market.

The FCC’s plans to enact this change unleashed one of the great expressions of grassroots dissent in recent U.S. history. Three quarters of a million people submitted comments against the proposal. Organizations from MoveOn.org to the National Rifle Association rallied members against the proposal.

The broad-based public opposition led Congress to roll back parts of the FCC’s deregulatory agenda, though the Republican leadership maneuvered to undermine the congressional majority’s will to overturn the FCC’s rule changes altogether.

That broader victory would be won in the courts. An appeals court ruled in favor of the Prometheus Radio Project, in a legal challenge to the FCC’s rules brought on the project’s behalf by the Media Access Project. In January 2005, the Bush administration decided not to contest the appellate court ruling. And so, for now at least, the modest FCC restrictions on media concentration remain in effect.

Citi and the forests

Sometimes the mining, forestry or oil companies that exploit natural resources in developing countries are vulnerable to consumer action in rich countries.

But sometimes not. Many of these resource companies do not sell consumer products. Many don’t care about their public image. And many are not be based in countries where activists are strongest.

What to do?

The answer from the San Francisco-based Rainforest Action Network (RAN): take Deep Throat’s advice, and follow the money.

Thus was born RAN’s Global Finance Campaign.

The idea is to target big private banks that fund resource projects around the world, and force them to stop lending to support environmentally destructive projects, including projects contributing to global warming.

RAN started at the top, targeting the giant financial conglomerate Citigroup. Citi at first laughed off the demands from the ragtag forest campaigners. But after a few years of concerted campaigning and disruptive protests, Citi changed its tune.

By 2004, Citigroup announced a landmark, comprehensive environmental policy. Under the policy, Citi became the first multinational bank to prohibit investment in any extractive industry (e.g. oil and gas, mining, logging) in primary tropical forests and place severe restrictions on destructive investment in all endangered ecosystems worldwide. It also contained important measures to ensure the bank is not funding illegal logging operations, and committed the company to audit its climate-changing investments.

Subsequent victories have come in months, rather years. Bank of America agreed to adopt an environmental policy — an improvement over Citi’s agreement — in May 2004. In April 2005, JPMorgan Chase agreed to adopt a policy that was still better. As part of its announcement, JPMorgan Chase agreed to arrange cooperative meetings with other financial institutions to advocate for reductions of greenhouse gas emissions and “focus on specific projects to alter the emissions trajectory of the U.S. economy.”

Unocal, meet human rights rules

The vicious military junta in Burma maintains its power by savagely repressing the people of Burma. It is fueled by monies from international trade — including the narcotics trade — and foreign investors.

Among the most significant foreign investors is Unocal, which operates a natural gas pipeline running from Burma to Thailand. Human rights groups have shown that construction of the pipeline depended on massive violations of the rights of Burmese people along the pipeline’s path. Thousands were dragooned into forced labor for the pipeline. People in the area were ruthlessly displaced. Many were tortured, raped and even murdered.

Attorneys with the Center for Constitutional Rights and EarthRights International filed a civil lawsuit in U.S. courts against Unocal; Total, its French corporate partner; and the Burmese government. The suit, filed on behalf of unnamed Burmese victims of the pipeline project, charged the companies with violating international human rights.

In March 1997, the federal district court hearing the matter ruled that the case would go forward against Unocal. (It ruled Burma was protected by sovereign immunity; and Total was later dropped for lack of jurisdiction.) This was, as the Center for Constitutional Rights notes, the “first U.S. ruling ever to contemplate holding a multinational corporation liable for human rights violations.”

The case continued for years, with each side scoring some notable victories. In 2004, the Bush administration submitted a brief calling for the case to be dropped, on the grounds that it would interfere with the executive branch’s ability to conduct foreign policy.

In April 2005, Unocal agreed to settle the case, and compensate the victims. Terms of the settlement are not public, but the lawyers say it will “provide substantial assistance to people who suffered hardships in the region.”

“Corporations can no longer fool themselves into thinking they can get away with human rights violations,” said a statement by the legal team. “This case will reverberate in corporate boardrooms around the world and will have a deterrent effect on the worst forms of corporate behavior.”

 

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