A MEETING IN MAYO
Last week, while a near-bankrupt Irish state provided the spectacle of two visits from members of the transnational ruling class, Elizabeth Windsor and Barack Obama, visitors from the other end of the global class system also came to Ireland. On Sunday night some 50 people assembled in Glenmoy Community Hall in Erris, Co. Mayo, to share their experiences of the rough end of the global capitalist system: local residents and members of the Rossport Solidarity Camp came out on a stormy and wind-battered night to hear Gary Whitedeer of the Choctaw Indian Nation, Juan Carlos Contreras from Guatemala (both guests of Afri who took part in the annual Famine Walk) and Satinath Sarangi of the Bhopal Group for Information and Action and Rachna Dhingra of the International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal (who were on a private visit to Irish friends) and Mary Corduff of Pobal Chill Chomáin speak.
Gary Whitedear spoke of the international solidarity between the Choctaw Nation and the people of Ireland, which began in 1847 when the Choctaw Nation sent $170 in famine relief to Ireland, and was renewed in 2008 when they sent a small monetary donation to the struggle against Shell. Gary gave a short account of the travails of the Choctaw people, including the taking over of some Choctaw land by oil interests, leading to the disenfranchisement of the Choctaw so they became strangers in a strange land. He compared the disenfranchisement of the Choctaw with that of Erris residents, saying the liberty of the people of Erris is what is at issue now.
Juan Carlos Contreras spoke of the struggles in Guatemala since the signing of the 1996 peace agreement, including struggles against a Canadian mining company, hydroelectric companies and a French company extracting oil in a national park in the north of Guatemala. He said the struggle now was one to defend the land which is the life of the people. The struggle involves networks of solidarity between poor and indigenous people and faces strong state repression –last year eight community leaders were killed. While the struggle is difficult, the people are still resisting.
Satinath Sarangi, who said he was happy to be with powerful people fighting a criminal corporation, as the people in Bhopal are, spoke of the devastation wreaked on the Indian city of Bhopal by a toxic gas leak from a pesticides factory owned by the US multinational Union Carbide. A section of the factory, using untested technology to produce the toxic chemical MIC, opened in 1980 and the design defects of the new section quickly manifested themselves in accidents and gas leaks which injured and killed workers, whose union joined hands with local residents affected by gas leaks from the factory. Due to close collusion between the US multinational and the government, which included the provision of personal benefits from the company to politicians, the public protests were ignored. A team from the US headquarters in 1982 found 30 safety hazards in the factory: these were not remedied; instead, the company continued to cut costs at the factory, increasing the risk to local residents and workers, which finally led to a massive gas leak in December 1984, with some 8,000 people of the 500,000 exposed to the gas dying immediately. The majority of the exposed people were poor: some 70% of the nearby residents earned their daily bread by physical labour. While the government made a show of arresting the CEO of Union Carbide, Warren Anderson, when he visited Bhopal after the gas leak, and charging him and Indian managers and officials with manslaughter, its true face was shown by its first act after the gas leak, picking up bodies off the street and dumping them in forest areas to keep the casualty count low. This collusion reached its climax in 1987, when the government agreed a final settlement with Union Carbide of $470 million, with criminal charges being dropped: the settlement led to those injured for life receiving $500 while the families of the dead received $2000. Since then the people of Bhopal, with international support, have continued to campaign for justice under the slogan ‘No More Bhopals’, calling for the reinstatement of the criminal charges, as they believe exemplary punishment for this corporate crime is necessary as a deterrent to prevent similar crimes elsewhere.
Rachna Dhingra spoke of the second aspect of the Bhopal campaign, the demand for clean water. In 1977 the US multinational built three solar evaporation ponds where they dumped toxic waste from the factory. By 1978 Union Carbide knew that the ponds were leaking but did not tell the local pollution authorities, the residents or the government. Studies have found the water to be contaminated with heavy metals such as lead, mercury and nickel, as well as a variety of toxic chemicals. In 2001 Union Carbide was taken over by Dow Chemicals which, while taking over Union Carbide’s asbestos liabilities in the US, refused to accept responsibility for Union Carbide’s toxic waste in Bhopal, Since then there has been a campaign to force Dow to clean up the toxic waste and force the Indian government to provide clean drinking water. Tactics used included a 750 km walk from Bhopal to Delhi, with 60 people walking for 37 days, (seehttp://www.indymedia.ie/article/74983?search_text=Bhopal), hunger strikes, occupation of government offices and 20 children, aged between 10 and 15 years, shackling themselves to the Prime Minister’s office with a banner saying ‘If we were your grand-children, would you let us drink poison water?’
The final speaker was Mary Corduff who said local residents were made criminals in their own land, as they’re in the way of Shell who want their land. To the Bhopal visitors she said we can see what you have suffered ahead of us if Shell get their way. The struggle in Rossport goes on, with the section of the project left to be completed the hardest for Shell, but also the hardest for us. The struggle has had some successes however, as originally Shell had planned to have gas in the pipeline by 2003.
The question and answer and discussion session that followed emphasised the similarities between the struggle in Rossport and those in Guatemala, India and the US, with the defence of the land and state repression being common themes between the struggle in Rossport and those in Guatemala, whiule Gary Whitedeer emphasised the issue of community sovereignty, saying the people of Erris were exercising indigenous solidarity since the government of Ireland is deaf and dumb to this issue. For Rossport and Bhopal, in both India and Ireland a corrupt and collusive post-colonial political elite appear happy to sacrifice their citizens on the altar of national development, while supporting foreign multinationals using untried technology in the pursuit of profit and endangering public health and safety. The Bhopal visitors were invited to visit the Rossport Solidarity Camp, which regrettably they were unable to do.