This is the Era of Economic Imperialism

By Leo Hochberg (Liberal Undergraduate)

This week, I want to take a break from my normal MENA-centric programming to highlight one of the most prevalent forces in modern politics - a force which most of the average Western populace hardly knows about. It is something that is discussed little in media, although it is rapidly becoming just as destructive to smaller nations and vulnerable ethnic populations as the world’s long history of national imperialism. Corporations, particularly international investment groups and oil companies, have become something akin to modern empires. They work along similar lines. They make a grab for resources, disregard the practices and necessities of indigenous people (through economic or military means), and then sell the finished product derived from those resources to an eager market of privileged international consumers. This is so defining to the modern world economy that the actions of businessmen and businesswomen have come to lead some political structures in a very literal sense - you all know who I’m talking about - and, more than ever, the actions of those corporate powers come to change the lives of underprivileged citizens of developing countries more than their own governments.

The example I want to use here is El Salvador. I do this for two reasons, the first being that I just returned from a trip there, where economic and corporate imperialism is more or less ingrained in the daily lives of most citizens. The second reason is that it provides a perfect example of not just how investment groups are abusing the nation, but how national powers such as the United States continue to aid that abuse indirectly. The most dangerous group affecting the country up until this past October was Pacific Rim - a Canadian mining corporation that spent over $77 million to prepare for gold and silver extraction in the El Salvadorian province of Cabañas, and, for that reason, a household name throughout the country. However, President Antonio Saca and other pro-environmental protection lawmakers refused to issue the corporation a mining permit in 2009, due threats of human rights abuses.

We hear those words all the time, ‘Human Rights Abuses’. So what does it mean hear? Well, it means 40% of the population of El Salvador gets its water from the Rio Lempa (Lempa River), and were its water to become compromised, the entire capital city of San Salvador (281 thousand people), as well as other surrounding areas, would have no reliable access to clean water. Prominent environmentalists raised concerns that metallic mining in Cabañas would produce pollutants that could destroy the relative safety of the Rio Lempa’s drinking water. Three of these protesters were murdered in 2008, including the famous Berta Caceres, who has become an international symbol for resource conservation and indigenous women’s rights since her death.

But that did not stopped Pacific Rim. The corporation attempted to continue their lawsuit under the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) for a mining permit. Theoretically, CAFTA does grant international corporations the right to extract metallics, but the fact remains that thousands could die or become ill from water pollutants. Not only did Pacific Rim continue their fight for a permit, they also attempted to sue for all of the profits that they would have made over nearly a decade of mining had they been granted state permission in the first place. This provides a perfect example of an interplay that has become increasingly important in my field of study. Corporations are not simply independent bodies that work within an economic sphere with other corporations. Their actions are both defined and assisted by the agreements between entire countries such as CAFTA - agreements which can provide both great opportunities and destructive influences to vulnerable populations.

Thankfully, El Salvador did win this time. The World Bank dismissed the case in October to rallying cries of “No to Mining, Yes to Life” throughout the nation. The tribunal that organized the ruling evening offered El Salvador an $8 million aid package to cover years of expensive legal fees - a welcome gesture after such an exhausting economic battle. Now the nation looks forward to a somewhat brighter future, but the threats of economic imperialism are still on the rise. Coca Cola, for example, continues to exhaust massive amounts of precious water at no cost. It is hard to say what the future looks like for vulnerable communities around the world that are still victimized by economic imperialism, but for today, we can celebrate this victory for human rights in Latin America.

I’ll end by saying that this ideology of corporate imperialism and resource-grabbing is hardly concentrated to singular areas such as El Salvador. This is a global phenomenon. As I continue to learn more about the Middle East, the ecological effects of companies such as Exxon and Shell become more and more apparent in my understanding of regional politics. Oil, a resource which could be used to economically prop up struggling economies in the world market, is being siphoned off by international corporations to the general abuse of those who are indigenous to regions above oil reservoirs. A similar story is playing out in The Democratic Republic of the Congo, the world’s only major source of tantalum - a key metallic component in your cell phones, DVD players, and computers. This is hardly to say that the era of national colonization has come to a close. Much to the contrary, in fact; it is often nations that take economic advantage of smaller powers through corporate investments in rare resources and capital. It is simply a rebirth of a system as old as Christopher Columbus’ voyage to the Caribbean. The direct players may be different, but the ideology of abuse and disregard for human life continues to shape the contemporary international political stage each and every day.

Here's one way author Leo Garcia suggests you can get involved: SalvaNATURA

If you want to assist El Salvador in its fight for environmental justice, consider supporting SalvaNATURA - an organization dedicated to protecting forests and providing environmental education.

Take Action Now: Corporate Power, Environment, Foreign Affairs, International Justice