Multinational Monitor

APR 2001
VOL 22 No. 4


NAFTA's Investor Rights: A Corporate Dream, A Citizen Nightmare
by Mary Bottari

The Chapter 11 Dossier: Corporations Exercise Their Investor "Rights"
by Michelle Swenarchuk

Serving Up the Commons: A Guest Essay
by Tony Clarke

NAFTA for the Americas: Q&A on the FTAA (Free Trade Agreement of the Americas)
by Monitor Staff


Chile's Democratic Challenge
an interview with
Sara Larrain


Behind the Lines

Fast Track to Hell

The Front
Unilever's Dumping Fever - The Torture Trade

The Lawrence Summers Memorial Award

Book Review
Trust Us, We're Experts!

Names In the News


The Front

Unilever's Dumping Fever

KODAIKANAL, INDIA - The smell of eucalyptus and pine hangs fresh in the air. The mist clears as a breeze wafts in from the densely forested valley to the east. The signboard near the gate proudly declares that the place is "Hindustan Lever Limited. Thermometer Factory. 100% Export Oriented Unit. Kodaikanal."

For years, the public image of HLL, a 51 percent-owned subsidiary of Anglo-Dutch multinational Unilever, was restricted to the infrequent road-side signboards exhorting people to "Keep Kodai Clean."

The factory does not look too out-of-place for Kodaikanal, a popular tourist destination in South India known for its beautiful lakes, rich forests and perennially cool weather. But all is not well for either the factory, which employs 180 workers, or for this quiet little hill town developed by U.S. missionaries.

The environmental groups Palni Hills Conservation Council (PHCC) and Greenpeace recently brought to light evidence that implicates the multinational in the indiscriminate dumping of mercury-contaminated toxic wastes in Kodaikanal.

Behind the thermometer factory, the Pambar shola forests spread out in a pleasant swathe of green hues. This is hallowed territory. Shola forests (or tropical montane forests) are peculiar to the hills in south India and among the richest terrestrial biodiversity hotspots in the world. More importantly, every shola is a watershed draining into a perennial stream or river.

PHCC, which has spent the last 15 years in efforts to arrest the degradation of these precious natural heritage sites, received a rude shock when it discovered that the forests were being used as a dumping ground for mercury-contaminated wastes.

The dump is spread out. A barrel is found lying on its side on the forest floor, spilling out the contents of broken thermometers, some containing mercury. Plastic bottles labeled "Bethlehem Instrument Mercury: Poison" litter the nearby area. The bottles and their erstwhile contents of refined mercury were supplied by Pennsylvania-based Bethlehem Apparatus.

"Since the time that we last visited the dump on January 25, they (HLL) have cleared it," says Raja Mohan, a PHCC activist. "They are obviously trying to hide what evidence they can of waste dumping."

Mr. Subramanian, marketing manager (exports) for Hindustan Lever, however, denies these reports, and nervously refuses to look at the pictures of the now-cleared forest dumpsite. "I'm sorry. I'm not authorized to speak. Nobody is authorized to speak today."

Barely three kilometers away, at Munjikal - a densely populated part of town - a scrapyard owner complains that he is stuck with between 10 and 15 tons of mercury-containing broken thermometers sold to him as broken glass scrap by HLL six months ago.

"I'm merely a scrap merchant. I went to pick up scrap from the factory, and they said I would get the other scrap only if I took the broken thermometers," says Piraviyam, the scrapyard owner. "Nobody told me it was illegal or that mercury is dangerous. Last year, my boys collected about half a liter of mercury but I don't know what happened to it."

Mercury is a powerful neurotoxicant that can also damage internal organs. Once it enters the environment, it is converted through natural processes into a form that works its way rapidly through the food chain where it can concentrate to dangerously high levels.

The broken thermometers now lie in Piraviyam's cluttered shop in open and torn sacks, exposed to the environment, a stone's throw away from two schools.

On 7 March, a broad coalition of 400 activists, including women's groups, consumer organizations, indigenous people's groups, environmentalists, ex-workers and even tourists descended on the scrapyard. A colorful procession marched from the scrapyard to the factory holding placards that read "No More Bhopals; No More Minamata" and demanded a public apology from the factory management. Meanwhile, a team of ex-workers assisted by Greenpeace cordoned off the scrapyard.

"We're running a very safe operation, and we are more concerned than anybody about our employees and the environment," says Subramanian. An official response from HLL claims the company only sold the "glass waste from the non-mercury area, which is completely free from any mercury at all."

Another HLL communiqué on March 8 announced that the company has decided to suspend thermometer production at the Kodaikanal factory. The HLL statement, local groups claim, downplays the magnitude of the environmental damage by asserting that there is only a "remote chance" that "some glass with mercury waste" may have left the factory owing to a possible "human error."

"We are not interested in a Bhopal-style cover-up," says Navroz Mody, Greenpeace's campaign director in India and a long-time resident of Kodaikanal. "If Hindustan Lever does not know how much mercury-contaminated waste has left its factory, it is irresponsible and insensitive to convey to the world that what left the factory was only 'some glass with mercury waste.'"

Indeed, one local activist displays two buckets of broken thermometers purchased from a nearby scrapyard. Some of the thermometers contain visible quantities of mercury. A few are marked with the brand names of familiar U.S., UK and German companies that source their mercury thermometers from the Unilever plant in Kodaikanal, including BA Baxter India, Cheseborough Ponds Inc., Trimpeks and AB Franklin.

According to Mahendra Babu, an ex-worker who is attempting to organize several affected workers, the company's waste management practices are no surprise given the casual manner in which mercury is handled within the factory.

"When I worked there, they used to suck up the mercury from the floor using a vacuum cleaner once a day. In another section, where they heat thermometers in an oven, workers are exposed to gusts of mercury vapor every time the oven door is opened."

"Most of those working there [HLL] get affected, mainly in the kidneys," says a local doctor who spoke on condition of anonymity. "I advise all of them that the only cure is to quit their jobs and many do so. Others suffer from stomach pains, burning sensations while passing urine and high pus content in urine."

"They tell us to drink lots of water," says one current worker, who refuses to be identified. "They tell us not to worry - if they find high levels of mercury in our urine, they will change us to a different area." Several ex-workers complain that the company refuses to share any records of the infrequent medical tests conducted on them.

Unilever's worldwide "Policy and Strategy" states that the company's aims are to: "exercise the same concern for the environment wherever we operate."

The Kodaikanal plant began production in 1983 after a second-hand mercury thermometer plant owned by Cheseborough Ponds Inc. in Watertown, New York, closed down and relocated to India under the ownership of Ponds India Ltd. In 1998, Ponds India merged with Hindustan Lever, the Unilever subsidiary.

HLL imports the glass and the mercury primarily from the United States, and exports all of its thermometers to the U.S.-based Faichney Medical Co. of Maryland Heights, Missouri. From there, the thermometers find their way into markets in the UK, Canada, Australia, Germany and Spain.

The chairperson of Tamilnadu's State Pollution Control Board says she is determined to punish the company if it is proven guilty.

"If the evidence indicates that this company has mishandled its waste, we can order their closure and we will expect them, as a multinational, to use the latest technology available in the world to clean up," says Sheela Rani Chungath.

Meanwhile, the local groups are asking the company to apologize publicly for betraying the trust of the host community and polluting the environment.

- Nityanand Jayaraman

The Torture Trade

The international commercial trade in torture equipment is thriving.

So concludes a new Amnesty International report, which shines a spotlight on the makers of law enforcement equipment and how their devices are used by torturers around the world (including in the United States).

Amnesty has compiled a list of more than 80 U.S. manufacturers and suppliers of electro-shock weapons and restraints. Amnesty does not allege that any one or another of these companies is involved in the international trade in equipment used in torture. But Amnesty's report, "Stopping the Torture Trade," does provide numerous examples of U.S. products being used by torturers overseas, as well as in the United States.

The Khiam detention center, closed in May 2000, "had been run by the South Lebanon Army, Israel's proxy militia in the former occupied south Lebanon, with the involvement of the Israeli army, but the handcuffs used to suspend detainees from an electricity pylon where they were doused with water and given electric shocks were clearly marked 'The Peerless Handcuff Co. Springfield, Mass. Made in USA,'" Amnesty reports.

In a letter to Amnesty, Peerless expressed disgust that its products were used in the Khiam prison, stating, "In no way does Peerless Handcuff Company condone or support the use of our products for torture or for any other human rights abuse. ... We have not sold any restraints to the Israeli government or Israeli companies in almost 10 years."

Asked if Peerless take steps to control the sale of equipment to torturers, a company spokesperson says, "We restrict our sales as best we can to what we know are legitimate law enforcement authorities."

Asked if the company has refused sales to "legitimate" law enforcement authorities who are known torturers, the Peerless spokesperson says the company refuses to sell to, among other countries, China, North Korea, Iran and Iraq, and has turned down sales requests from these and other nations.

"We have no interest in promoting" sales to torturers, the Peerless spokesperson says. But, he adds, "I don't think manufacturers can be held responsible" for misuse by law enforcement agencies.

The Peerless case is not unique.

Amnesty says it has "received numerous reports in recent years of the use of shackles and handcuffs in the torture and ill-treatment of detainees in Saudi Arabia. Several former prisoners have described how the security forces used restraints in coercing confessions." Several of the prisoners have reported that the restraints were stamped with the name of the U.S.-based Smith & Wesson or with Hiatts, a UK company.

"Stopping the Torture Trade" focuses as well on electro-shock weapons, which have been used to torture or ill-treat people in at least 76 countries, including the United States, over the last decade.

"Electroshock devices have been deliberately, and often repeatedly, applied to prisoners' mouths, genitals and other sensitive parts the body," the Amnesty report says. "Electro-shock torture is often combined with other forms of torture and ill-treatment, including psychological torture."

A new electro-shock technology is the stun belt, which is worn by a prisoner and remotely activated by the incarcerator, from as far as 100 yards away. A typical stun belt delivers an eight-second shock of 50,000 volts, according to Amnesty.

"The belt relies on the prisoner's constant fear of severe pain being inflicted at any time while held in a situation of powerlessness," Amnesty says.

The leading U.S. manufacturer of stun belts says exactly the same thing.

Stun Tech literature says, "After all, if you were wearing a contraption around your waist that by the mere push of a button in someone else's hand, could make you defecate or urinate yourself, what would you do from the psychological point of view?"

Amnesty quotes Dennis Kaufman, president of Stun Tech as saying, "Electricity speaks every language known to man. No translation necessary. Everybody is afraid of electricity, and rightfully so."

Amnesty International is urging the United States and other governments to ban the use, manufacture, promotion and trade of police and security equipment whose use is inherently cruel, inhuman or degrading. The group includes leg irons, electro-shock stun belts and inherently painful devices such as serrated thumbcuffs in this category.

Amnesty is also calling for a suspension on the use and trade in devices, such as electro-shock equipment, whose medical effects are not fully known.

And the group is calling for a suspension of trade in equipment that has shown a substantial risk of abuse or unwarranted injury, including legcuffs, thumbcuffs, restraint chairs and pepper gas weapons.

"It is crucially important that the United States act immediately in these areas," says Amnesty International USA spokesperson Alistair Hodgett. "The United States has led the way in the development of new technologies used in torture, such as electro-shock devices. After export, they have quickly been replicated and spread around the world."

Such regulatory measures as advocated by Amnesty seem reasonably achievable in the United States. Law enforcement equipment that can be used for torture is made and supplied primarily by small equipment makers and even smaller suppliers and distributors with little political clout.

- Robert Weissman


The April 2001 Lawrence Summers Memorial Award* goes to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (PTO), Smucker's and an affiliated company, Menusaver.

PTO awarded a patent to Menusaver for crustless peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches in December 1999. Smucker's and Menusaver are now seeking to enforce its patent for a "sealed crustless sandwich" against a small Michigan company, Albie's Foods.

"We have a product which is a crustless peanut butter-and-jelly sandwich," a Smucker's spokesperson told Reuters. "We feel they have infringed the patent."

The patent abstract says:

"The sandwich includes a lower bread portion, an upper bread portion, an upper filling and a lower filling between the lower and upper bread portions, a center filling sealed between the upper and lower fillings, and a crimped edge along an outer perimeter of the bread portions for sealing the fillings there between. The upper and lower fillings are preferably comprised of peanut butter and the center filling is comprised of at least jelly. The center filling is prevented from radiating outwardly into and through the bread portions from the surrounding peanut butter."

That's patent speak for a peanut butter-and-jelly sandwich with crimped edges.

Reminding readers that legitimate patents must meet a test of non-obviousness, Greg Aharonian of Internet Patent News Service writes, "Take two pie dough sheets, stuff them with jelly, crimp the edges, and bake a pie. Utterly obvious. Take two pieces of bread, cut off the crusts, fill it with peanut butter and jelly, and crimp the edges. Utterly obvious everywhere, in this universe, all of the parallel universes, a metauniversal volume infinite in size as a domain of obviousness, EXCEPT FOR THOSE UNIVERSES WITH CRYSTAL CITIES HOUSING PATENT OFFICES." The PTO is in Crystal City, Virginia.

Source: "Smucker Protects Peanut Butter-Jelly Sandwich Patent," David Lawsky, Reuters, January 25, 2001.

*In a 1991 internal memorandum, then-World Bank economist Lawrence Summers argued for the transfer of waste and dirty industries from industrialized to developing countries. "Just between you and me, shouldn't the World Bank be encouraging more migration of the dirty industries to the LDCs (lesser developed countries)?" wrote Summers, who went on to serve as Treasury Secretary during the Clinton administration. "I think the economic logic behind dumping a load of toxic waste in the lowest wage country is impeccable and we should face up to that. ... I've always thought that underpopulated countries in Africa are vastly under polluted; their air quality is vastly inefficiently low [sic] compared to Los Angeles or Mexico City." Summers later said the memo was meant to be ironic.


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