Lawyers, specialists and activists from Mozambique, Cameroon, Kenya, Nigeria, Brazil and the United States of America make strong criticisms of dominant powers and systems and share strategies to curb the power and impunity of large corporations *
Transnational corporations, international organisations and global trade architecture: guardians of neocolonialism?
In the last few decades, large transnational corporations have become incredibly powerful, even more powerful than many States, especially in the Global South, due to the advent of globalisation and the consequent expansion of neoliberal capitalism. In several southern countries, there has been a phenomenon of liberalisation of national and regional markets and a relaxation of the legal and institutional framework, mainly in the environmental and labour sectors, as well as conditioning social and economic policies in favor of the private sector. Associated with this, the corporate power lobby has led to the privatisation of democracy and the usurpation of public sectors, making transnational corporations profit even from the provision of services that should be the responsibility of States, such as health and education, with high costs for most citizens.
Mozambique: World Bank Neoliberal Policies and the Collapse of the Cashew Industry
Máriam Abbas, a researcher at the Observatório do Meio Rural in Mozambique, spoke of the collapse of the cashew industry in the country, a very vibrant sector between 1960 and the early 1970s, a period in which Mozambique became the largest producer of cashew nuts in the world. With the nationalisation of some factories, many owners left the country, ceasing their investments. Associated with this, the civil war contributed significantly to the destruction of the cajual. However, the most important reason for the sharp decline of the Mozambican cashew industry has to do with the imposition, by the World Bank (WB) and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) – since the country was forced to implement the structural adjustment programme from the 1980s – that Mozambique liberalised and privatised the cashew sector. This was a condition for the country to access financing of US $ 400 million.
Neocolonialism, transnational corporations and the global trade architecture
According to Nnimmo Bassey of the organisation HOMEF, Nigeria, neocolonial extractivism thrives on the irresponsible exploitation of nature and work. The theft of Africa’s natural resources by large companies and domestic elites is an open secret. It is believed that around $ 50 billion has been lost annually over the past 50 years through illicit financial flows. This sum exceeds the economic aid that the continent receives annually.
Bassey stressed that “transnational corporations and international financial institutions are the main guardians of neocolonialism, and that foreign direct investment (FDI) remains one of the fundamental instruments of‘ benign ’neocolonialism”. Nations compete for foreign investment and, in doing so, lower norms and regulatory barriers to ensure ease of doing business. The World Bank, International Monetary Fund, and other institutions of globalisation have systematically imposed economic conditionalities on the former colonies and thus guaranteed the perpetuation of North-South exploitation.
Agrarian capital and global food systems
Timothy A. Wise of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP), United States of America, looked at the agricultural ‘modernisation’ agenda to be imposed by major world powers in the Global South, such as the so-called Green Revolution in Africa – which practically translates into the usurpation of community lands, imposing large-scale plantations and monocultures. However, these initiatives have been failing, such as the case of ProSAVANA in Mozambique, which has largely failed due to the resistance of Mozambican civil society.
The corporate narrative insists that peasant seeds are unproductive, and their agricultural systems and practices are backward. They then argue that farmers need support with fertilizers, genetically modified seeds, pesticides and other inputs which production and markets are controlled and dominated by transnational companies. Transnational companies like Monsanto then press for the adoption of new seed laws (and their patents), making the collection, treatment and exchange of native seeds among peasants illegal. The Alliance for the Green Revolution in Africa, AGRA, for example, has received about $ 1 billion in funding over the past 14 years, and has instituted an input subsidy programme, giving coupons to farmers to buy commercial seeds, chemical fertilizers and other agricultural inputs to companies. This is, in fact, a great scheme to divert important public funds to these corporations
- Review of land policy in Mozambique
The issue of revision of land policy in Mozambique was also the subject of heated debate during the webinar. The lack of transparency that has characterised the beginning of this process seems to confirm that what is behind this review are harmful interests. Speakers and some webinar participants reiterated that greater involvement of peasants and civil society is needed to strengthen resistance, maintain vigilance, and monitor and report attempts to commercialize land and natural resources as a whole.
Megaprojects in Africa: engines for the development or enrichment of elites?
Megaprojects across the African continent represent utopian visions of development, progress and growth anchored in colonial and extractive ideas. As explained by Ruth Nyambura, an ecofeminist activist from Kenya, megaprojects bring a very hierarchical and top-down approach, and are intrinsically masculinist, where the State or companies impose on the local population the projects that were previously decided without any involvement of these populations.
Megaprojects penetrate national development plans, where the State decides to invest millions of dollars in infrastructure that benefits the country’s elites and large corporations. Given that the majority of peasants in Africa are women, it is quite worrying that agricultural megaprojects are highly harmful to women, and invariably exclude them from real participation. The only space that seems to exist for women in this type of projects is the space for women entrepreneurs, bringing a naive conception that African women can emancipate themselves through entrepreneurship, and Nyambura reiterated that this narrative ignores the structures and structurally patriarchal dynamics of our societies.
Natural resources, hydrocarbons and the mining sector in Mozambique
Natural resources, hydrocarbons and the mining sector present themselves as sectors that will bring large investments to countries, with promises of high revenues for the State and leverage of the economy. However, megaprojects in this area have not been bringing satisfactory results to the country, explained Inocência Mapisse, a researcher at the Center for Public Integrity (Centro de Integridade Pública – CIP).
In Mozambique, as in other places, the extractive sector has a low capacity for hiring labor, since – by their nature – these projects are capital intensive but absorb very few human resources. A CIP study in 2017 shows that the extractive sector in Mozambique contributed only 1% to job creation. In terms of tax revenue, 42% of what is exported in Mozambique comes from the extractive sector, however, for example, in 2014, mega projects in the extractive sector contributed only 5% of total tax revenue – and this scenario is common across the region Southern Africa.
Political economy of natural resources: impacts and implications of megaprojects and extractivism
Mozambique is not a rare case – across the continent the scenario repeats itself. To date, the extractive industry has not lifted any African country out of poverty. On the contrary, there is a tendency to exacerbate conflicts and the indebtedness of countries highly dependent on the extractive sector. On this topic, Daniel Ribeiro, from Justiça Ambiental (JA!), warned that Mozambique is betting on natural gas, a resource whose price fluctuates a lot. Projections are made with optimistic market values – there is a lot of pressure to do so – and therefore they entice States with the revenue potential of these projects, but they ignore several factors including the drop in global prices, which is more and more frequent. “This decline has a very strong impact on the economy and destroy what may have been achieved during the period of high prices,” explained Ribeiro. In addition, with more optimistic projections, loan facilities increase, encouraging a propensity to contract debts (as happened in Mozambique); more expectations are created in local and national populations regarding the alleged benefits of the project, and consequently the levels of frustration, social tension and instability increase when these promises or expectations are not fulfilled.
Finally, Ribeiro stressed that the fundamental structure of investments in the extractive industry, combined with the lack of transparency that characterises the sector, make us very susceptible to corruption. This further reduces the already slim chances that these projects will contribute to improving the living conditions of the population.
Justice and human rights in Mozambique and in the world: from the implementation challenges to the perpetuation of impunity. What alternatives and resistance are being built?
Human rights lawyer and defender João Nhampossa argued that Mozambique is in a terrible situation with regard to the violation of human rights of local communities due to the exploitation of natural resources by several companies. He also stated that a culture of impunity prevails in the country. Focusing on some emblematic cases such as mining companies in Tete and gas companies in Cabo Delgado, Nhampossa spoke about the human rights violations associated with land loss, a common feature of all these megaprojects. Local communities end up being marginalised and left in a precarious situation after resettlement processes that do not comply with national legislation – which clearly stipulates that the living conditions of resettled populations must be equivalent or better than before resettlement. These people have been trying to use democratic spaces to demand justice and dignity, but when they appeal to the government, it refers the responsibility of restoring land, livelihoods, or access to water to the company, but when the company is approached, it refrains from any responsibility and sends communities back to the government.
Unfortunately, judicial processes on human rights violations in the courts are not treated as an urgent and priority matter, and when dealing with politically sensitive cases, the courts use artifices to avoid adjudicating in favor of the communities. The injustices inherent to processes of land loss and inadequate resettlement lead to social upheavals and protests, which are invariably answered with police repression and violence.
North-South asymmetries and architecture of impunity
The academic Giverage Amaral defended that, around the world, the definition of an ideal or exemplary human being is very much linked to Western conceptions that do not dialogue much with local narratives in countries like Mozambique. He also argued that globalisation has become an asphyxiating process of domination over local logic, and that it has brought ecological, political and economic risks, instead of the social benefits it had promised. The colonisation logic comes with neocolonial corporate names, between donors and investors. States are threatened, sanctioned or prosecuted for standing against the interests of global capital, such as Zimbabwe, Tanzania, Ecuador, and so many others.
Nowadays, we have witnessed an increase in various forms of violence, with a particular incidence in areas of extractive exploitation. Alongside this, companies find new ways to remain in impunity and to capture our States – which become accomplices and active parties in these crimes.
Limitations to the protection of human rights in Africa
The structure for the protection of human rights in Africa is at three levels, the national, the sub-regional or pan-African, and the universal, which is based on the United Nations system. When we analyse all these steps, the most important level of protection for human rights is the national level. For Apollin Koagne, a Cameroonian international law researcher based in Geneva, the national level is the only level where you can have a truly conciliatory approach, where you can have a system in in which the judge can at the same time apply human rights laws, and investment laws, for example. When reaching to the pan-African level of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, the Commission will only apply the African charter and other human rights instruments, and will not be able to say anything, for example, on investment treaties.
This situation poses a problem, because most of our states have to arbitrate between different types of laws and regulations, sometimes having to choose whether it is preferable to violate a human rights treaty or an investment treaty. “Since the rights holders in investment treaties are corporations and States – which are much more powerful than ordinary citizens, who are rights holders in human rights treaties – what we see is that, in most times, the State will end up considering it more profitable to violate human rights treaties, ”concluded Koagne.
Struggles against mining and dams in the world: the case of Brazil
Tchenna Maso, a peoples’ lawyer in Brazil, pointed out that mining is a historical activity in Brazil and it has left several social and environmental liabilities of violations that are interconnected. We had the most serious and emblematic cases of the collapse of the Fundão dams, in 2015, in Mariana, and in 2019 in Brumadinho. The populations affected to this day are fighting for justice. Vale, for example, enjoys extensive State protection. At the level of the international human rights system, there are still many legal gaps that do not allow a transnational company to be placed on the dock, and it is essential that social movements fight to change this scenario.
“In the regions where we find these mining projects, where these transnational companies enter, we realize that they act in a capillarity to capture all the local public authorities, and what should be public policies provided by States, become public policies provided by companies”, Maso reiterated.
Between speakers and participants, the lively debate revolved around several lessons learned and recommendations, which should guide our social movements for rights and justice. We highlight the following:
- There is an urgent need to break with the belief that megaprojects (especially extractivist megaprojects) can bring about development, and to begin to build and demand radically opposed alternatives. The State needs to support inclusive and endogenous development models and systems that benefit and are managed by local communities;
- It is necessary to establish synergies and join forces between peoples of various regions to stop the power and impunity of transnational companies, so that these companies are held responsible for their crimes and human rights violations;
- It is essential to use existing national, regional and international legal mechanisms to seek access to justice, and to denounce and expose the gaps that still exist in the regulation of transnational companies;
- The right to self-determination must be recognized and guaranteed to local communities, which includes the right to free, prior and informed consent and – necessarily – the possibility to say NO to a certain project planned for their territory that they consider harmful;
- It is necessary to invest in family farming, especially agroecological, to build food sovereignty. This includes not only supporting peasants but also denouncing and resisting agribusiness projects, monoculture tree plantations, or planting genetically modified crops that have negative impacts on the environment and local peasants;
- It is necessary to support and strengthen movements that seek to strengthen the protection and promotion of human rights, such as the process under way at the United Nations to draft a binding treaty on transnational corporations and human rights;
- There is an urgent need to rethink and redefine progress and development indicators. Purely economic indicators such as GDP do not reflect the quality of life of the population nor the levels of inequality, therefore they are misleading indicators of the success of the development policies of each country.
In conclusion, speakers and participants reinforced the need for civil society to organise and articulate in its plurality of actors and struggles, and with the due role of the most affected people, in order to demand systemic changes in our societies, which will have to be fundamentally feminists, anti-capitalists, anti-colonialists and anti-racists.
*During September 2020, Justiça Ambiental JA! held its usual Maputo workshop on corporate impunity and human rights, this time in virtual format through 3 Webinars. This article is a summary of the main points made by the speakers and participants throughout the workshop.
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To watch the recording of the Webinars: