01 April 2013

Corporate Power

There is a particularly chilling line CIEE gave me to read this semester:

            Corporations create the visions we live by and exert great influence over the political power structures that rule us.[1]

I expected to read, analyze, and craftily paraphrase lines like these in an academic setting on my Development and Globalization program.  But I never thought I’d actually witness their truth on the ground.
            Last week, we travelled to a village called Na Nong Bong in Loei Province in Northeastern Thailand to study the impacts of a nearby goldmine.  The mine began operations five years ago and uses cyanide to separate the gold metal from the “overburden,” or the tons of earth that are removed from a mountain.  Much of this cyanide is recycled in the manufacturing process, but the “tailings” of the activities – the leftover heavy metals and chemicals – are stored in large open ponds.  Since the beginning of the mine, villagers have noticed increases in illnesses (particularly skin rashes), declining crop yields in fields below the mining site, and creeks that run near the mine turning strange red and yellow foam colors. 
            The mining company, however, denies all of these claims.  We were given a chance to speak with the managing director of the Toong Kam Limited (TKL) mine, and ask him these questions in person.  We asked him about the contaminated rivers – he said that they hire academics to study the contamination at 23 testing sites every month, and all of the studies says the heavy metals are “naturally occurring” (to this claim, one villager responded “Yes, they are naturally occurring, but they never would have gotten into that creek if you hadn’t blown up the mountain!”).[2]  To our questions of villager health, he told us that they also do frequent public health screenings, and not only that, but also provide health and life insurance to their workers.  According to him, none of the workers ever get sick.  He told us of one man who had been caught in a cyanide spill that affected his whole body – he’s fine now.   “If you don’t believe me,” he said, “come out to the tailings pond, I’ll put my hand in it.”  “The academics that study it swim in it all the time.”[3]
            The scariest part of his responses were not necessarily the cookie-cutter (although slightly creative) lies he told us to defend his company’s image, but the coolness and assuredness with which he spoke them.  It seemed like he truly believed everything he told us, although each claim could be solidly refuted by physical and historical evidence.  It wasn’t like he was lying to us to save face.  It was like he was living in an alternate reality where everything he said was actually true. 
            On February 7 of last month, TKL held a “public scoping” process to get local input on the possibility of expanding the mine to another mountain.  Village protesters arrived at the provincial capital at 7:00 am to give their input, and were met by armed military and police officers, hired by the company.  The three villagers who were allowed to pass through the blockade were met by a full room of mine workers and people from faraway villages that had been paid by the company to be there.  The villagers have taken the case to the National Human Rights Commission.[4]
            Hearing these villagers’ stories is on one hand inspiring and on the other completely depressing.  The way they have organized to fight for their right to health is amazing – they successfully protested the public scoping 7 times before the company brought in armed officers.  But the hegemony of corporate power, from executive decisions made in the boardroom to the false words spoken by their employees, seems to overshadow every attempt the villagers make to secure their own rights.   The case of TKL made clear to me the words of the article – “Corporations… exert great influence over the political power structures that rule us.”  In a democracy where corporations are given more power than people, how can we ever properly exercise our right to self-determination?  The answer lies in the indefatigable energy of the people of Na Nong Bang, and how every time they are shut down they plan the next step of their fight.  We will never achieve true democracy if we are complacent.  And these people are just the opposite of that.

Walter Wuthmann
Bowdoin College

[1] Cavenagh, John, Mander, Jerry, et al., “Corporate Structure and Power,” Alternatives to Economic Globalization, San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler, 2002, 123, Print.
[2] Oral Exchange with Na Nong Bong Villagers, Thursday March 14, 2013.
[3] Oral Exchange with Toong Kam Limited, Thursday March 14, 2013.
[4] Oral Exhange with NGO P’Kovit, Monday March 11, 2013.


Peter said...

This has to be one of the most frustrating realities that we face. Seeing it play out right now in the US with things like the Keystone XL pipeline or the entire banking industry, for example, are depressing enough to damper even the most optimistic among us. I can't speak to the situations in Thailand, but it sounds pretty horrible, too. I couldn't agree with you more when you say, "In a democracy where corporations are given more power than people, how can we ever properly exercise our right to self-determination?" Allowing corporations to act as puppeteers of a government is hugely devastating for the people of that country, but, as you suggest, it is not something that is insurmountable. I agree that idleness and complacency have to be avoided if anybody wants to experience a true form of democracy.

Emily Stibbs (CIEE-Santiago SL) said...

After reading this article, I would like to know what kinds of resources these protestors are planning to use in order to distribute their message and what the National Human Rights Commission has done for them. From this article, it seems as though there is only a small group fighting a big problem, so resources, like these international development organizations, need to be mobilized in order to provide support.

Keith Warner said...

The alternate reality and creating a world in which what you do is justified seems like something out of a movie. Unfortunately this is from many movies and those movies are in the forms of documentaries filmed in places all over the world. Corporate greed and stockholder thinking has put the basic human rights of those living in Na Nong Bong sub-district in jeopardy.
It can be easy to sit in an air-conditioned room and convince others that sticking your hand in a tailings pond is perfectly safe. This is probably even true but the issue that is not addressed is the constant consumption of vegetables farmed in the vicinity of the mine. Sticking your hand or even swimming in a contaminated pond is different than showering everyday for the past five years in that same contaminated water. Ignoring the reality of others and believing that your reality holds true for everyone only makes you look like a cartoon character, silly.