If multinationals will do anything to control the public debate, how can indigenous peoples ever assert their rights?
With global demand for natural resources increasing year on year, some of the world’s poorest communities are having to fight hard to protect their environment and way of life. When protests and direct action do not work, many will try and get redress through the courts.
But when multinational companies decide that the costs of settling such cases are far less than the huge profits on offer, is justice being undermined?
High up in the Andes of northern Peru, among cloud forests, high moors and fertile lands, lies the town of Huancabamba and the nearby farming community of Segunda y Cajas. Untouched by modern industry, the local population lives almost exclusively through farming, tapping into the rich soils and fresh water sources to put food on the table and sell produce to the lowland cities.
In 2002, this community’s way of life, more or less unchanged for hundreds of years, was turned upside down by the arrival of British mining company Monterrico Metals. A mining company based in London, Monterrico had obtained concessions from the Peruvian government to start exploration and development work for the huge open cast copper mine called Rio Blanco – a project meant to run for 20 or more years.
In 2005, local communities marched on the mine site in protest against the company’s plans.
According to those who were there, the rally had been envisaged as a peaceful affair but a confrontation with the police took place in which a number of people were injured.
Twenty-eight protesters were detained at the site for three days and, according to activists, were humiliated and tortured by the security forces. Unlikely to get any redress in Peru, the victims sued Monterrico in the UK, with the help of British law firm Leigh Day and Co, alleging that the company had been complicit in the affair.
But though their prospects looked good, the case was settled by Monterrico last year just before it came to trial. It meant the victims did get some compensation – but the wider problems they were fighting to reveal were never aired in open court.
The case is an interesting example of a growing trend. Multinational companies are increasingly likely to respond to legal challenges in this way. The settlement costs can be high but usually they are far less than they would be after a negative verdict. And more importantly it gives the companies – and their lawyers – control of the public debate.
But it begs a disturbing question: If corporations will do anything to avoid going near a court – how can indigenous peoples ever assert their rights?