leaders at the quebec summit ofthe Americas talked often and loud last week about environmental and social protections being written into any future hemispheric free trade pact. But whatever safeguards politicos are imagining, anti-globalization activists and human rights groups maintain that such measures would do nothing meaningful to improve the lot of people in developing countries.
The track record of transnationals doing business in places like Colombia, where leftist rebels have been fighting a 40-year insurgency against the government, has been particularly brutal.
There, Canadian oil companies, responsible for their share of toxic spills, mass deforestation and the displacement of peasant farmers, are raking in record profits with passing regard for eco standards or human rights.
Take Calgary-based oil and gas giant Enbridge.
The company's OCENSA pipeline runs for 675 kilometres, from the Cusiana and Cupiagua oil fields in the Andes to the port of Coveñas on the Caribbean coast. It's the largest in Colombia, transporting some 500,000 barrels of crude a day. Enbridge, whose earnings from the pipeline topped $30 million last year, recently bought up TransCanada Pipelines' share in OCENSA.
The company's record profits were front and centre when investors gathered for Enbridge's annual shareholders meeting in Calgary on Wednesday (May 2).
In 1997, however, the company was linked by Amnesty International to a Colombian military unit being investigated "for complicity in the massacre of 15 unarmed civilians... and with paramilitary organizations responsible for widespread human rights violations."
OCENSA's security head had arranged for the company to buy attack helicopters, anti-guerrilla weaponry and ammunition for the military unit, which was hired privately to protect its pipeline in the north.
A director of British Petroleum (BP), part of the OCENSA consortium told a committee of British MPs probing the incident that avoiding contact with the Colombian army is not an option when doing business in Colombia.
He testified that the only military equipment purchased by the company for the Colombian 14th brigade was night-vision goggles.
The OCENSA story, though, goes deeper. The British security firm in the company's employ until 97 was covertly gathering intelligence on the activities of locals opposed to the pipeline. More alarming for Amnesty is the fact that the company turned this intelligence over to the Colombian military, "who, together with their paramilitary allies, have frequently targeted those considered subversives for extrajudicial execution and disappearance."
Jim Rennie, Enbridge's manager of public affairs, offers via e-mail in response to questions from NOW that OCENSA terminated its contract with the employee behind the scheme to sell arms to the Colombian military as soon as it found out about it. (According to testimony before British MPs, the individual in question was transferred to another operation in Venezuela.)
Rennie goes on to say that Enbridge's relations with communities along the pipeline "have always been positive," and that "OCENSA is confident in the professionalism of those soldiers assigned to the lawful protection of the pipeline."
"We disagree with those who argue that non-involvement in countries with problems somehow helps resolve those problems. We believe," Rennie says, "that safely operated, efficient and environmentally responsible pipeline operations benefit everyone, and that is something Enbridge brings to OCENSA."
Others would take exception to Rennie's characterization of OCENSA as "environmentally responsible."
A joint report penned by, among others, U.S. Environmental Defense, has called OCENSA "an environmental and social disaster," a project that demonstrates how "the lack of attention to social and environmental concerns results in severe political and economic risk."
Indeed, it didn't take long for tensions to blow up, literally, at OCENSA in May 1998. Back then, oil workers went on strike to protest the murders of 11 people by paramilitaries. The strike was soon followed by a leftist guerrilla attack on the pipeline that also wiped out a nearby hamlet, killing 56 people and injuring 100 more.
Since the OCENSA controversy, both Amnesty and Human Rights Watch have called on oil companies operating in Colombia to adopt policies requiring military units defending their interests to abide by international human rights laws. Human Rights Watch estimates that half of Colombia's estimated 120,000 troops are engaged full-time in protecting oil and mining installations.
Says Pablo Leal, a spokesperson for the Canadian Colombian Association, "If you geographically locate where conflicts are taking place on a map, you'll see an enormous correlation, particularly with oil and mining activity and the movement of paramilitary groups."
According to Amnesty's, Keith Rimstead, "We're not opposed to companies doing business in Colombia, but they have a responsibility to abide by principles set out in international human rights laws. If a company protecting its property hires people who then commit human rights violations, there's a certain level of responsibility they should accept for that."
The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (composed of the world's most industrialized countries) has drafted its own corporate code of conduct for companies operating abroad. Ditto for the Department of Foreign Affairs and International trade. But they're only voluntary. In Ottawa, department spokesperson François Lasalle doesn't foresee that they'll become mandatory any time soon.
"There is a debate about balancing the moral aspects of trade with the rights of companies to handle business the way they see fit," says Lasalle. But "this is still an open society where we're supposed to be able to do the right thing without being forced to by government. It's a difficult call to make."
Colombia-watchers, meanwhile, fear that increasing North American reliance on Colombian crude, particularly in the U.S., will continue to highten the conflict.
As well, some analysts see the $1.3-billion Plan Colombia military aid package, ostensibly aimed at stopping narco-trafficking, as part of the political calculus to protect American oil interests in Colombia.
Says Asad Ismi, author of Profiting From Repression: Canadian Investment And Trade With Colombia, "What we have to ask is, "Who's making the money?' These policies are being pushed by industrialized countries of the North and their extreme greed for resources. They're literally sucking the life out of these countries."