In Honduras last week, another environmental campaigner was murdered. This time there was some international coverage: her photo even appeared on the front page of the Guardian. But though she was clearly an outstanding leader, who inspired many who met her, the ecological, feminist and indigenous activist Berta Cáceres was one more of hundreds of people killed across the global South for their active opposition to the destruction of their lands by big dams, mining and other extractive industries, airports and agribusiness. Honduras is a particularly severe case, but this is happening in other places too, particularly Brazil, Colombia, Peru, Mexico, Philippines, Thailand and others: the violence of “development”. Global Witness say that around two killings are reported per week but this is certainly an under-estimate since many are not reported or mis-recorded.
The immediate causes of these killings are the lawlessness that prevails in many of these extractive regions, with alliances between local beneficiaries and criminal gangs, and frequently with police and army. But behind that are other layers of causes.
Firstly, governments in many majority world countries have embarked on, or in some cases resigned themselves to what is known as extractivism – the basing of the economy on the extraction of raw materials for export. This is a feature of right wing governments, but also of left leaning ones, including those with an anti-capitalist rhetoric such as Ecuador (where 30% of the country’s Amazon region has been offered to Chinese oil interests) and Bolivia. In both these cases, the government justifies their about turn on environmental protection and indigenous rights with reference to the funding of social programmes – a revision of trickle-down theory.
But behind these national policies there is another set of linked factors. Most immediately there is the need for minerals and hydrocarbons for the world economy. China is often seen as the cause of this, but that is only part of the picture because China’s industrial production is largely destined for other markets, especially those of the richer countries.
But more fundamental than that is the doctrine and practice of economic growth. Elsewhere we’ve made the case that this growth is incompatible with environmental protection, and with social and economic justice. An expanding economy requires ever more minerals and fuels, and it is the other end of the supply chain where murder and impunity take place. This is why we should be angry when well fed men (usually) in suits place “growth” at the centre of economic strategy, with various degrees of sophistry aiming to restart the stalling motor of investment-production-consumption-profit-reinvestment. We should be angry when we are told that “growth” can be combined with environmental protection and it can be “inclusive”, benefiting the poor in our country and in the majority world. Whether they are lying, plain ignorant, or soothing themselves does not matter because the results are the same.
But while that anger is fair, a coiled spring for action for a just world, it is important to note that while we’ve described an ethically catastrophic situation, that situation is systemic, impersonal, in nature. The system is mostly populated by people who aren’t usually evil, just ordinary people caught up in a destructive system that has no alternative but to press on and on, getting bigger and bigger, extracting more from workers (of all kinds), from the soil, the subsoil and the waters. None of us want this, but our shiny new products, out of season vegetables, or rising investment values, these all have a connection to displacement and death somewhere in the global South.
The system cannot be reformed, it can only be stopped and a new one put in its place. That cannot be done overnight, and it will only be done by the concerted action of movements of people, united around campaigning visions of a better way of organising our societies and their economies, or producing a modest surplus and distributing it fairly, of treading lightly on the earth and making repairs to the damage already done. It may be too late, but we can but try.