Toxic in the water, slave labor and child labor: in future Swiss companies will have to take responsibility for their actions abroad. Affected in Ecuador, Argentina and South Africa they hope that the referendum in the European country will come true.
When Pablo Fajardo's mother gave birth, the Ecuadorian Amazon had already darkened. An oil company in New York built its lighters among the jungle, rivers and indigenous communities and began to pump black blood to the northern hemisphere. The gas burned, the formation water - highly corrosive and toxic - spilled without treatment in the estuaries and fields. The consequences are seen in contaminated land and water, contaminated flora and fauna, in short: life destroyed. The cancer rate around the city of Nueva Loja, 300 kilometers east of Quito, is as high as anywhere else in the country.
Today, 46 years after his birth and 25 after the beginning of the trial of the century against the oil company Texaco (since 2001 it has been called Chevron), the lawyer who defends the 30,000 affected in the Amazon, Pablo Fajardo, is sitting office in the Ecuadorian capital and says: “No Swiss or American company would have thought of dumping toxic waste on its own territory without taking charge *. They know very well that they can have a significant penalty. On the other hand, they do act like this outside their countries, taking advantage of fragile state structures, knowing that environmental and social standards, no matter how much they exist, are not controlled. In short, transnational companies often have more influence than governments themselves. "
For this reason, it seems to Fajardo a good idea that a country like Switzerland begins to take charge of the facts abroad. The referendum that is being discussed demands that more internal controls be generated by the Swiss State, so that companies based in Switzerland have to comply with the same standards operating in other countries.
Appeal to Swiss justice
A few weeks ago the matter was discussed in the Chamber of Deputies in Bern. But there was no talk about the original initiative, supported by more than one hundred environmental organizations and NGOs, but rather alight proposal, prepared by a commission of Deputies. There it is requested that, instead of holding the 1500 large companies and their branches abroad responsible, including SMEs that are active in the gold and diamond trade, only the large conglomerates can be held responsible. In addition, it is proposed that local suppliers do not have to justify their way of working (for example, if they generate child labor) and that companies, in the event of infringing human rights, only take responsibility in specific cases.
That is precisely what the contamination in the Amazon was about for more than two decades: the Ecuadorian State and Texaco / Chevron blamed each other, with several billion dollars at stake. Since July the sentence is ready. And it could generate other lawsuits in different parts of the world. The Ecuadorian Amazon is just one of several regions that are affected by pollution generated by transnational companies.
"In the event that the referendum is accepted in Switzerland," says lawyer Pablo Fajardo, "we would have a tool to hold companies accountable before they infringe human rights or nature." For Fajardo, the issue of the guarantee is key: “If the State, where the companies operate, is not capable of imposing laws, the affected populations would have to have the option of being able to appeal to the court of the country of origin, so that they control that their companies act responsibly. "
We change the scenery and go from humid Ecuador to the Mendoza desert in western Argentina. This is where the wine and garlic sold in Switzerland come from. Ironically, farmers use pesticides from the Swiss producer Syngenta ...
In Mendoza, the most recently found and exploited product is oil. And whether by chance or not, it was also the Texaco / Chevron oil company that supported the processes prior to the exploitation of black gold. In the south of the province, five wells have been built for fracking and five more are to be approved. But in total there is talk of installing more than 200 wells throughout the area. Without having made a prior consultation, they imposed hydraulic fracturing on the settlers in territories from where the water reaches the towns. Something common in Argentina. "I do not feel represented nor do I have the feeling that I can influence what happens in my environment," says Jennifer Ibarra. "Argentina is like the Middle Ages, disguised as Democracy."
Jennifer Ibarra is president of the NGOCullunche, who recently turned 25. For a long time, the main task ofCullunche consisted of controlling the illegal trade in animals. But due to the growing extractivism during the last decades, the NGO had to change its approach. First they achieved that no more toxics were used in metal mining; Mendoza's law is one of the strongest in the entire country. They also fought against aerial spraying. And now oil. "Well water is already scarce in Mendoza," says President Ibarra and emphasizes the dry climate of the Province. “We depend on the water from the glaciers that now want to take us out. For oil exploitation, 300 million liters of water are needed per well and year ”.
“You are too far away to see what is really going on here.
It is easy to remove the wealth of countries like Argentina and leave the land and rivers devastated.
That is a question of ethics and morals ”.
Jennifer Ibarra, Mendoza, Argentina
As in many other countries in the global south, where state institutions have a different importance than in Europe, Argentina also lacks the application of rules and laws. In any case, Jennifer Ibarra sees the main problem elsewhere: in the absence of state controls and in the companies' lack of transparency. "If a company comes from afar to extract our raw material, from which the local inhabitants do not benefit, at least it would have to open its doors to local NGOs and show them its working methods." Ibarra appreciates that Switzerland wants to establish binding rules for its companies, but claims that the problem itself has to be solved locally. "With the same method as is usually done in Switzerland: through popular consultations." This way it is known from the beginning whether citizens are really interested in supporting extractivism or not.
And what responds to the argument of the Swiss economic consortia? (who fear that Switzerland could lose its importance in international trade). “You are too far away to see what is really going on here. It is easy to remove the wealth of countries like Argentina and leave the land and rivers devastated. That is a question of ethics and morals ”.
Glencore: Modern Slavery?
With this argument Jennifer Ibarra is not alone. A good part of Swiss civil society today is aware of the dubious practices of its companies. A poll, done in 2017, showed that three-quarters of the population would accept the referendum as is. The attitude of the Swiss government is different, which highlights: “Regulation, as required by the initiative, would mean that Switzerland would go alone and would be weakened as a place of business. Companies could circumvent the scheme by relocating their headquarters abroad. "
The government fears that large companies like Glencore will change their headquarters and that their taxes will be lost. The transnational, based in Baar (Zug Province), has been under special observation for years: for polluted waters, miserable working conditions and reproaches of corruption in different countries of the world. Something symbolic for Glencore's bad reputation is the fact that a few years ago they published a report with the title:Modern Slavery Statment(Positioning on modern slavery). In reality, modern slavery in extractivist countries is one side of a coin, on the other side are countries like Switzerland, which by importing raw materials is also responsible for the damage caused.
One who knows well the situation in Africa, where Glencore has metal mines, is Glen Mpufane. Glen works for himIndustrieAll, a global union with more than 50 million workers, represented in 140 countries around the world. The South African is responsible for the mining area, the sector with the lowest life expectancy. Miners normally die before reaching their 50s. It is a fact that Mpufane knows very well and therefore requires more diligence on the part of companies, also in the choice of suppliers. "Today, companies define their standards voluntarily", he says, "but to make the value chain transparent we need binding rules that are valid worldwide." For Mpufane, the Swiss initiative is "a long-awaited step" on the part of a member of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). That it is also a country with a lot of trade in raw materials.
In theory, says the trade unionist, the Swiss government could be proud of the contribution of its companies in Zambia or the Congo. “But unfortunately the reality is different from what is shown in the annual reports. Everyone who has visited a Swiss mine on site knows that: it is a disgrace! " Critical voices are not heard, less those of the local inhabitants.
The central question that worries Mpufane is: What is the economic contribution from the companies to the host country? "And I'm not talking about taxes," he highlights. "Taxes are not a contribution but a duty." Better, says Mpufane, let's talk about concrete contributions for the population, because: "Where does all the raw material we need for our modern lives come from?"
If in the future the large Swiss transnationals have to take responsibility abroad, as required by thelight proposal of the deputies, or if the rules also apply to SMEs and their suppliers in the respective countries, is what the Swiss Senators will decide in the coming months.
* To this statement, the following should be mentioned: The countries of the global north, especially Europe and North America, have more detailed environmental laws than in the last century. Pollutions like those that occurred in the Amazon will hardly be legally possible; Furthermore, they will provoke massive resistance in the population. But pollution there today manifests itself in other ways, for example with garbage. Likewise, it should not be forgotten that the raw material for many products (for example cell phones, computers, clothing, fuel etc.) for the Swiss market is extracted from other lands. Therefore, the transportation path is long and the pollution by greenhouse gases, which reach the atmosphere, is immeasurable.
By contrast, US environmental laws are generally handled more loosely, if they exist at all. According to research by the German magazineSpiegel Online During the decade of the 2000 in the state of Wyoming the waters have been contaminated subtmisplaced by Fracking. Apparently with court approval: "US law allows chemicals to be discharged into groundwater reservoirs for oil and gas extraction if necessary."
By Romano Paganini
Cover photo: Contaminated since the sixties of the last century, until today without compensation: one of the pools with toxic residues from the oil industry on the outskirts of Nueva Loja (Lago Agrio), Ecuador.(mutantia.ch)