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Challenge Corporate Power

Photo by Justin Norman

Today, corporate power represents one of the most significant barriers to climate justice and real democracy that we face. Yet by exposing how it functions in ways that people can grasp – and at the same time revealing the injustices it is responsible for – we can challenge that power and work to take it back.

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The Race for Resource Control

We find ourselves in a world in which multinational corporations, operating across all continents, have accumulated levels of power over our lives that is without precedent. Their activities produce devastating economic, ecological and social consequences and we have very few meaningful ways of holding them to account. Their power is such that many transnational corporations now have revenues that far exceed the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of many national governments.

Questioning “development”

The phrase 'economic development' has bad associations in Latin America

This is not an accident. This power has been accumulated by a series of very calculated and intentional political steps. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s the globalization of Neoliberal policies such as the privatization of state companies and services, the cutting back of regulations, and the complete liberalization of developing country economies were imposed as the answer to the debt crises in places like Latin America. These policies not only delivered enormous profits for foreign companies – often with devastating social and environmental costs – they also consolidated the dominant role of multinational corporations in the emerging globalized economy.

These dynamics have been familiar to Latin American and other global South countries for many decades. Since the colonial era, their natural resource wealth has been extracted and exported to fuel lavish consumer lifestyles in rich countries in the context of a global economy in which they have very little power. The multinationals of today have replaced the colonial regimes of the past. And the same logic of greed, exploitation and material accumulation that underpinned colonialism and slavery now guides the race for control over the Earth’s remaining natural resources by transnational corporations.

Corporations vs. Communities (and the climate)

This race not only represents an assault on the communities where it takes place – it is also fuelling one of the greatest threats to lifesystems on Earth: the climate crisis. Beyond the fossil fuel industry itself we are also talking here about massive deforestation to make way for unsustainable agroindustry, or huge hydroelectric dams which falsely present themselves as green renewables while generating major social conflict and environmental destruction. Other large-scale projects, such as thirsty metals mining, make existing climate impacts worse by destroying already scarce water supplies.

Corporations seek to criminalize those who resist their agenda

Damming Dissent: How An Italian Multinational Is Persecuting Environmental Defenders In Colombia

Efforts to introduce meaningful climate and related policies nationally and internationally also come up against this immense power. Multinational corporations are more than ready to unleash their economic and political influence to scupper any policies that could see their profits restricted. They fund campaigns that cast doubt on the science of climate change, and their PR and lobbying machines allow them to infiltrate policy circles and ensure the adoption of pro-corporate “solutions” to the crisis. These so called “solutions” translate into continued displacement, social conflict and quite regularly deaths of the people living in the areas where they take place (predominantly impoverished, black, brown, indigenous – and often women), as well as showing complete contempt for future generations.

So how do they get away with it?

Transnational corporations position themselves across the world as a force for progress and prosperity, wrapping themselves in the language of “development” in the global South and of “economic growth” in the global North. They use their resources and connections to, on the one hand, co-opt the public imagination through sponsorship of academia, the arts and culture and, on the other, lobby for the repealing of regulations and rights that impede profit-making. They claim to always act within the law – while using their power to consistently bend laws and regulations to their will.

Trade and investment rules undermine sustainability

Unfair, Unsustainable, and Under the Radar
When popular protest forces their hand, or governments decide to take a stand against corporate pressure by refusing licenses to operate, corporations can resort to international trade and investment law to force the hands of communities and their governments. Unlike the non-binding international treaties in the areas of human rights and the environment, the trade and investment regime has real teeth. Corporations can bring disputes before arbitration tribunals which can oblige offending governments to pay vast fortunes to multinationals, including for lost future profits, when they introduce policies that affect corporate investments. All this provides for a major “chilling effect” whereby the threat of legal action by corporations stalls governments from enacting policies in the best interests of people and the environment.

Fighting Back

Faced with such an immense power imbalance, frontline communities are often left with no alternative but to organize and defend their territories themselves. However, this resistance is being met with ever greater violence, legal repression or even murder. To act as an environmental defender in Latin America today is one of the most dangerous things in the world a person can do. The killing of international award-winning protector Berta Caceres in 2016 serves as a stark reminder of the impunity with which elites operate in their pursuit of “natural resources”. Defending the defenders who put their bodies on the line day after day to protect their territories, their communities and the environment is an urgent responsibility.

One woman vs. a mining corporation

Maxima Acuña under attack for her resistance against mining in Peru
Beyond their logos, Multinational Corporations are made up of individuals who directly benefit from the oppression of marginalized communities. One of our contributions to taking back power from the corporate class is to take the struggles of affected communities and at-risk defenders to the home countries of these corporations and to make their CEOs and Executive Directors pay a real price in terms of their public image and reputations. It means cutting through the glittering PR spun to audiences in the global North and shining a light on the true impacts of corporate power on democracy, on the climate and on human rights.

While ongoing campaigns are fought in solidarity with frontline communities, we must also work to expose how corporations consolidate and exercise power. By doing these two things simultanesouly, we can expose their strategies and take aim at the legitimacy they rely on to function. Just as corporations operate across borders, our movements must be prepared to do the work to forge links of genuine, accountable international solidarity.

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