Article publié le Mardi 29 novembre 2005.
Outlook Correspondent in Dublin
Consensus does not come in the agreement between the people and their government anymore. Otherwise known as democracy, it has been subverted to serve the interests of a minority. Consensus is more likely to be found among
corporations and governments. This is why the call from Roukaya Kasenally last week for a stronger civil society is a defining moment. We often leave our fate in the hands of politicians once the elections are over. These modern potentates then quickly assume the arrogance of power. They go to great lengths to remind everyone of their mandate, forgetting that this mandate is revocable after five years. Worse still, they seem incapable of accepting close scrutiny of the tenure of this mandate. But those who profit are the wealthy cabal whose interests are always guarded by those in power.
However, Mauritius is not the worst example of such an alliance between the economically powerful and the wielders of political power. In a case that is still ongoing in Ireland, there has been the clearest example of a corporate and political conspiracy against the people. But it also refreshingly demonstrates the great potential within society to resist forces against its interests. The multinational in question is Royal Dutch – Shell, a company that we are all too familiar with in Africa. After an environmental catastrophe in the Niger Delta, it has now turned its attention to Rossport, a remote region in the north west of Ireland. Its activities in Africa have already occasioned the execution of writer and activist Ken Saro – Wima by the Nigerian government. In Ireland, it led to the imprisonment of five men, who came to be known as the Rossport Five.
It all started four years ago. Shell was to begin its project of pumping gas from the shores of Rossport. A system of pipes would take the gas from its offshore terminal to the refinery on the mainland. At first site it might look perfectly normal. Thus the government granted Shell a Compulsory Purchasing Order (CPO), to force landowners in the path of the proposed pipe to surrender their land against compensation. The company also produced Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) reports to show that it would have no effect on wildlife. They also guaranteed that the pipe would not represent any danger to the residents. Initially, all the locals welcomed the development as it would have brought jobs to this under-funded region.
If all was going to plan for Shell on the surface, it had not counted on small pocket of resistance in the region. Seven families, most of them small farmers, objected to the presence of the pipe on their land for safety reasons. Details about the pipe started to emerge. It was to be the first of its kind in the world, carrying unrefined and high-pressure gas. For some families, the pipe would pass a mere 70 meters away from their houses. They wanted Shell to refine the gas offshore. Defying the CPO, they refused to allow the pipe to be built through their land. The company at first tried to coax them into bowing down to such ‘unreasonable’ demands, and through a smear campaign, tried to depict them as greedy peasants who wanted to get more compensation. This summer, the situation deteriorated as the land owners and Shell became more stringent in their demands.
The landowners decided that it was time to call on civil society. This came via Indymedia.ie, an independent media organisation on the Web and meetings countrywide. Shell went to court. It won an injunction against the protesters, compelling them to allow the company to force the pipe through their lands. The government, meanwhile, stood idly by, giving Shell a free hand to bully the people. And bully it did. The injunction would not be lifted until they handed over the land. However, support among the population was gathering pace. Meeting after meeting saw a growing crowd pledging their allegiance to the landowners. It was discovered that the ‘independent’ safety assessments that Shell had carried out were in fact not quite independent. They were undertaken by a company that had previously worked in close association with the multinational. The government, in the face of by now strong public opposition, ordered Shell to stop work to allow for a reassessment of the pipe’s safety.
All the while, people from across the country started to organise rallies to force the politicians to clamp down on Shell. By the middle of summer, the five protesting landowners were sent to jail for contempt of court. The media jumped on the bandwagon, having scented a great ‘human interest’ story. Shell was suffering another public relations disaster. Pickets were started at the refinery near Rossport and at petrol stations. Its works were brought to a standstill. When it said that it would start dredging the sea bed to lay down the offshore part of the pipe (to lend an air of inevitability to its project), fishermen warned that they would carry out a blockade in the bay in support for the jailed ‘Rossport Five’. Shell had no friends left in town except for the corporate stooges in parliament, who by now were realising that the political cost could be hefty.
Since then, Shell has not been able to build its controversial pipe and the five men are prepared to go to jail again. In Mauritius, it is time for civil society to make governments feel edgy . Otherwise, their pandering to powerful vested interests will wrest ultimate power from the people. In a not too distant past, this marriage of corporations and governments was known as fascism.
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