A reflection on activism and the responsibility we have for the benefit of a better and cleaner planet
By Rebecca Solnit
On December 31, 2005, Black Mesa Coal shut down its mine on indigenous land in Arizona because that mine fed all its coal — as water-depleting slurry pumped 300 miles across the desert — to the Mojave Power Station that cranked out obscene quantities of particulate matter, sulfur dioxide, and all manner of other nasty things during the decades of its operation. The mainstream media played it as a jobs story; the alternative media mostly missed what had a decade earlier been a big environmental cause.The big news is usually the bad news, and this year the biggest stories weren’t even news — climate change and the war in Iraq were trouble that had begun well before 2006.
But dozens of small stories set another tone — the tone of that graffiti in Seattle during the shutdown of the World Trade Organization there in 1999: “We are winning” — not the same as “we have won” and can stop; “we are winning” is a call to action. Activists won dozens of small and not-so-small victories for human rights and the environment in 2006. The fabric of the world is woven out of small gestures; the large ones mostly just rend it and leave more to mend. And the small gestures continue. Here are some of them.
In February indigenous leaders, forest activists and logging companies reached a historic deal that protected five million acres outright and limited logging on another 10 million acres of the Great Bear Wilderness in north-coast British Columbia. That’s an area more than twice the size of Yellowstone National Park wholly preserved with another four or so Yellowstones protected — and not just set aside as national parks are, but put under the joint jurisdiction of the First Nations people from the region and of the provincial government.
Indigenous peoples won victories all over the world in 2006, perhaps beginning with the inauguration of labor leader Evo Morales as president of Bolivia on January 22nd, the first indigenous president of the largely indigenous nation since the Spanish invasion almost five centuries before. He made good on his campaign promises to nationalize energy resources and negotiated contracts giving the impoverished nation far higher percentages of profits from natural-gas extraction. In November, the Achuar people of the Peru-Ecuador rainforest blockaded a major oil producer and forced it and the Peruvian government to implement environmental reforms.
Similarly, on July 20th, the Nigerian courts ordered Shell Corporation to pay $1.5 billion to the Ijaw people of the Niger Delta, who had been fighting the oil company for compensation for environmental devastation since 2000. In December, in Botswana, the San people — sometimes called the Bushmen — won the court case over their eviction from their homeland. The decision restored their right to live, hunt, and travel on their ancestral lands.
While the Navajo still fight an attempt to site a new power plant on their reservation, there were other victories against the environmental destructiveness of energy production when Congress banned all new oil, gas, and mineral drilling leases on the Rocky Mountain Front region of Montana, one portion of the west chewed up by the Bush-era extraction stampede.
There were domestic victories on other fronts. One major U.S. citizen achievement was the October defeat of attempts to privatize and jack up usage fees on the Internet, despite $200 million in corporate spending on the issue. A new grassroots movement defeated the telecom industry’s attempt to take over this major new zone of global communication for its own profit. A minor but sweet victory for independent thinking and bold opposition was Stephen Colbert’s April dressing down of the Bush Administration, to the president’s face, at the White House Press Corps dinner. The mainstream media, also excoriated by the bold Colbert, ignored the spectacular verbal attack until the alternative media made the story impossible to ignore. Such trajectories — major stories investigated, exposed and explained by the alternative media until the mainstream can no longer ignore the news — are one of the reasons why net neutrality matters.
Another grassroots groundswell that mattered was the immigrants’ rights marches of last spring, which were launched with the surprising turnout in Los Angeles — not the easiest city for walking and marching — of more than a million Latinos and others defiant of crackdowns against immigrants. Similarly huge and passionate demonstrations, many organized by text messaging, Spanish-language radio, and other means, swept the nation. They demonstrated that immigrants were not going to be so easy to bully; the force of their numbers and passion left Republican plans to repress and to demonize immigrants, undocumented and otherwise, in disarray.
The marches were jubilant and powerful, one of those no-going-back moments when a group decides never to be a silent victim again. The culminating marches on May Day were the first time in many decades that the U.S. had adequately joined the rest of the world in commemorating this worker’s holiday that commemorates the anniversary of the Chicago labor march and rally in 1886.
Mexicans rose up in 2006, and the country seems to be on the brink of revolution, if citizen discontent is any measure. The city of Oaxaca was seized by its citizens and for many months functioned as an autonomous zone akin to the Paris Commune of 1871, until violent repression in November. After the stolen presidential election in the summer, millions of Mexicans took up residence in the streets of the capital to protest the corruption and model an alternative — the huge occupation of the central zocalo (or plaza) and surrounding area experimented with mass democracy meetings in the open air, while Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, the Mexico-City mayor who probably actually won the election, set up a shadow government. The Zapatistas, a dozen years after their appearance on the world stage, continued to play a role in Mexican politics.
The Bush Administration continued its slide into ignominy as even the craven politicians who had waved flags and followed orders during the long patriotic nightmare after 9/11 found it safe and useful to attack the administration. Many Republican candidates declined to appear with the president, and Cheney made his mark this year largely by shooting a major campaign contributor in the face while attempting to shoot birds just released from cages for the purpose — perhaps an allegory for the voting public. Though some good candidates won election and Congress and the Senate went to the Democrats, the Democrats as a whole will at best endorse victories won elsewhere, which is why the grassroots matter so much.
It was a lousy year to be a Republican president, though not nearly as bad as being a U.S. soldier or an Iraqi citizen. A number of highly visible defections from the war in Iraq made a difference in 2006, notably that of Lieutenant Ehren Watada, a Japanese-American officer from Hawaii who refused to serve in what he called “an illegal and immoral war.” Recruiting kids to serve in the military became harder than ever, and recruiters fought back with ever-lowering standards, ballooning bonuses and, according to many sources, packs of lies.
Five central Asian nations — Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan — signed a treaty foreswearing nuclear weapons anywhere on their considerable territory in September, further upsetting the Bush Administration which hoped to reserve the option of siting a few nukes there. Donald Rumsfeld was obliged to resign after the 2006 elections, and he may join Henry Kissinger as thugs who don’t like to travel abroad — the U.S.-based Center for Constitutional Rights filed a lawsuit against the former Secretary of Defense in Germany, on behalf of torture victims from Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo. This picked up where the lawsuits against Chilean ex-dictator Augusto Pinochet — hounded by justice the last eight years of his life, until his death earlier this month — left off.
It wasn’t such a great year to be a free-trade advocate, either. The United States’s most fervent advocate, Thomas Friedman, was outed by independent journalist Norman Solomon as a person so insanely rich — through marriage into one of the wealthiest families in the country — that his opinions are deeply contaminated by membership in the ultra-elite that prospers by policies that bankrupt the rest of us. The Free Trade Area of the Americas was already sabotaged by left-wing leaders in South America in 2005; in 2006, Ecuador canceled a contract with Occidental Petroleum, so annoying the Bush Administration that it broke off trade talks with the country. The World Trade Organization continued to falter — some activists pronounced the once-fearsome organization dead this summer, when the long-floundering Doha round of negotiations fell apart.
Though binational trade agreements — such as the U.S.-Peru agreement signed earlier this month — continue to threaten local power, labor and the environment, the failure of the WTO to become the world’s economic superpower is evidence of the power of resistance. Hugo Chavez’s Bolivarian revolution continued to evolve, most notably with the early December meeting at which South American leaders looked at forming an economic bloc along the lines of the European Union — an alternative not just to corporate “free trade,” but to the colonialism that has long drained the wealth of the region.
Wal-Mart too met with major setbacks, starting with an ever-increasing bad image around the world, thanks to activist exposes. Domestic sales slumped in the US by November; South Korean sales were so dismal that Wal-Mart sold its 16 stores to a Koran discount chain; the world’s largest corporation also announced last July that it would pull out of Germany. In January, Maryland legislators overrode the corporation’s pressure and their own Republican governor to force Wal-Mart to spend more on healthcare for workers in the state.
Halliburton was so besieged by citizen-opponents in Texas that it held its annual shareholder’s meeting in Duncan, Oklahoma, and was even there surrounded by people chanting “shame!” Bechtel, driven to move its headquarters out of San Francisco by frequent protest, withdrew from Iraq in ignominy this year, its contracts canceled and its reputation sullied. The children’s hospital in Basra that Bechtel was supposed to build and Laura Bush loudly championed as evidence of American virtue was put “on hold” in July far behind schedule and far over budget.
Late this year, even the European Union struck a blow against the reign of the corporations when it adapted the Reach Regulation, a set of laws that essentially implements the precautionary principle: corporations will have to prove that their chemicals are safe, rather than requiring government agencies to prove they are dangerous. Austria banned Monsanto’s genetically engineered canola and genetically modified corn; Romania banned genetically modified soy.
Meanwhile, in the United States, cities, regions, and states continue their withdrawal from the federal scheme of things. The Supreme Court is still out on whether the Environmental Protection Agency can and must, as Massachusetts argues, regulate greenhouse gases, but the September passage of the Global Warming Solutions Act in California is a landmark in states doing what the federales refuse to do: address the obscenely disproportionate American contribution to climate change.
And forest activists didn’t just protect the Great Bear Wilderness in British Columbia. They won a huge Canada-based victory over Victoria’s Secret, which this month caved in after a long campaign and agreed to use recycled and sustainable paper in its 350 million catalogues per year. The catalogues had been produced from paper made from trees logged in Canada’s endangered boreal forests; the activist group ForestEthics led the campaign.
What all these victories add up to is a message that the grim superpowers of militaries and corporations can be resisted, and that the power of small activist groups, of workers, of citizens, of indigenous tribes, of people of conscience matters.
* Rebecca Solnit is the author of many books including “‘Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities’”