ONE day, historians will look back over the half-century since the 1960s and identify major trends that were not so obvious at the time. I wonder whether they will make a great deal more of one of the biggest underlying themes of my own lifetime than they are minded to at the moment: the forcible removal of indigenous people from lands they had occupied for countless generations.
It’s not exactly an untold story. But it’s certainly an under-told one, and when the fluff of day-to-day politics and celebrity-fawning trivia resumes its rightful perspective, proper attention will be given to one of the great scandals of our era.
At its heart lies the old fundamental contradiction between short-term profit and long-term sustainability. It’s what happens when people living in harmony with the natural world come into conflict with large companies desperate for their next billion. We used to call this corporate motive greed: it’s now “shareholder value”.
Greed is good, according to Gordon Gekko, but most of us have yet to be convinced. When multinationals started moving into tropical rainforests and oil-rich river deltas, for example, their original allies were corrupt governments. Military and civilian regimes were willing accomplices in ecological disaster; obscene wealth awaited those willing to accommodate the planet’s new masters.
The problem with plans for the wholesale destruction of forests and other sensitive ecosystems is that people are often in the way. Not the great and the good, but rather the humble, the voiceless, an often saner part of our species, less than impressed with fizzy drinks, plastic throwaways and brand clothing.
Such people can be extremely inconvenient. How are our multinational powerhouses going to create shareholder value from rainforest if locals object? Some can be paid off, some can be expropriated, others can simply be told to get out or else. Hence the joys of friends in high places – presidents, ministers, generals.
In many parts of the world, that will no longer do. Overt corruption is not smiled at any more, or at least not quite as much. Giant companies are more careful of their public image than they used to be. Flawed it may be, but democracy is more widespread now than it ever has been. So what is our creator of shareholder value to do?
Easy. Fund environmental groups. Make sure that getting indigenous folk out of the way is portrayed as saving the planet. Put tigers, orang-utans and elephants on the case, pretend that nobody is capable of living in harmony with these wonderful creatures and just get their villages and farms the hell out of there. In the name of conservation, ancestral rights over forests and potential mines all have to go.
Objectors? Anti-conservationists! Trouble-makers who kick up a fuss about their houses being bulldozed and their forests cut down to make way for palm oil or GM crops or whatever else the next billion requires? Tell the rest of the world that it’s unfortunate, but there aren’t enough pandas. Or that it’s being done for their own good! Anything patronising will do, just get them out of the way… and we’ll worry about the orang-utans some other time.
Serious questions need to be asked of the world’s most prominent environmental organisations. How many of them are bankrolled by multinational corporations? Do they really think that they are immune to “greenwashing”? To bring it all closer to home, how many of the green NGOs lobbying Brussels in my industry – fishing – have taken money from Shell, BP, Coca-Cola, Monsanto and HSBC, as WWF International has? And of those that shake their heads, how many are funded by bodies like the Pew Foundation, awash with corporate dollars?
Let’s get this out into the open. These are doubtlessly model companies as far as their shareholders are concerned. But what’s the deal with the greens? Who is kidding who out there?
These are not idle questions in Shetland, an island community that has depended on fishing for its entire history and has built up a successful, locally-owned fishing fleet all on its own. Like other fishing communities in Scotland, we are in almost constant battle with environmental groups bent on unworkable regulations from Brussels or Edinburgh.
Consider this: are fishing vessels operating out of communities like ours getting in the way of “shareholder value” somewhere along the line? Why might corporate-bankrolled NGOs be so keen to get us out of the sea, just as they were to get villagers out of rainforests? Because they know more about sustainable fishing than we do? Because they won’t get their bills paid otherwise?
To put it bluntly, nobody has more of an interest in fisheries conservation in our waters than we do. No fish means no jobs, no schools, no services and no community. And we don’t need someone funded by an oil company to tell us that.
Consider this, too: might the clever, articulate and committed campaigners working for environmental NGOs now be on the wrong side?
• Simon Collins is executive officer of Shetland Fishermen’s Association www.shetlandfishermen.com