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ENVIRONMENT-FINANCE: Multinationals Undermine Environment

By Danielle Knight
WASHINGTON, Oct. 14 (IPS) - From a Mitsubishi plant that processes rainforest logs in the Amazon and Tokyo to a polluting Chevron oil refinery in California and elsewhere, the world environment is taking a beating from corporate globalisation.

In a new book ''The Corporate Planet'' author Joshua Karliner says corporations are using free trade agreements and World Bank loans to build a world order where they are accountable only to themselves. Moreover, he says, corporations are working to undermine international environmental agreements, such as the global warming treaty, to be debated in Kyoto, Japan in December.

''Transnational corporations continue to speed the planet full throttle down a socially and ecologically unsustainable course while whistling a tune of change,'' says Karliner, the executive director of the Transnational Resource and Action Center in San Francisco.

In his book, published by the Sierra Club, Karliner traces the history of the Chevron Corporation as a classic example of a U.S. multinational corporation- from its oil origins in California to its operations in Asia, Africa and Latin America.

Although Chevron carries out environmental audits of its international operations, it is not clear what these audits have revealed, Karliner says. He maintains Chevron does not present any information about air emissions, hazardous waste or oil spills in its environmental report.

According to Karliner the company claims that because each country has different oil spill reporting requirements, Chevron does not collect oil spill data in non-U.S. waters.

For this reason, a large oil spill from Chevron's Philippines refinery, which harmed more than 6,000 fishing families, did not appear in its 1990 report. Similar Chevron spills in Indonesia and Nigeria are described in Karliner's book.

Karliner uses the Mitsubishi Group as an example of the ''rise, worldwide growth and environmentalimpact of Japanese corporate power.''

The more than 160 transnational corporations that make up the Mitsubishi Group range from chemical industries to oil, paper, wood, food, life insurance, and industrial equipment. Karliner shows how Mitsubishi's logging practices are responsible for deforestion in the Amazon basin and South East Asia.

The book also describes how, under free-trade agreements, environmental regulations are often seen as in the way of the bottom line. ''In their quest to maximize profits, transnationals have played a central role in shaping and promoting free trade agreements,'' says Karliner.

Designed to protect multinationals, environmental regulations and labor laws are seen as ''barriers to free-trade.'' In India, for example, a number of environmental laws are being rolled back as growing foreign investment rolls in under the General Agreement on Tariffs and Treaties (GATT) and the World Trade Organisation (WTO).

Prohibitions against putting industrial plants in ecologically sensitive zones have been eliminated. Similarly, forestry regulation appear to have been loosened for the pulp and paper industry and mining laws watered down by mining corporations.

Karliner also illustrates the role development banks play in giving loans and other financial assistance to corporate projects that are environmentally destructive.

In the case of the Kedung Ombo Dam project in central Java, Indonesia, the World Bank teamed up with the Export-Import Bank of Japan to build a dam for irrigation, flood control and power generation. The dam, which was built by Japanese companies, Nichimen and Hazama Gumi Construction, displaced nearly 30,000 rice farmers and ruined the local ecosystem, say Karliner.

The book also says corporations ''greenwash'' the public. ''Corporations have fabricated an elaborate series of green veils through which they cloud their responsibility for some of the most destructive activity ever unleashed upon the world,'' he adds. In ad campaigns and other public relations strategies, many transnationals distort the truth, says the book.

The greatest doubt of the existence of global warming due to fossil fuel emissions, for example, comes from those corporations that profit from such fuel - oil companies, vehicle manufacturers and other industries. Most scientists agree that these emissions will cause more storms, rising sea levels and increases in floods and droughts.

Last month a coalition of industry groups here launched a multi- million dollar ad campaign against the United Nations climate change treaty which aims to reduce emissions that cause global warming. Industry groups say reducing emissions will harm the U.S. economy.

''Such greenwashing or corporate environmental propaganda distorts how we understand the nature of the environmental crisis,'' says the book.

In another example, Karliner describes Chevron's ''People Do'' campaign as the oil company's attempt to down-play the effects of their pollution.

''A narrator's voice explains Chevron's program to save the endangered El Segundo butterfly while... hidden from view is the fact that the blue butterfly makes its home within a barbed-wire fenced compound atop the United States' largest underground oil spill,'' says Karliner.

Despite these grim tales, Karliner describes the many efforts of grassroots organisations worldwide against corporate destruction. From Oil Watch in Ecuador to the Malaysia-based Third World Network, Karliner tells of groups' efforts to hold transnational corporations accountable on the local, national and international levels.

Meanwhile, corporations say the book's theories are baseless. ''It is the policy of Chevron Corporation to conduct its business in a socially responsible manner that protects health and the environment,'' says K.T. Derr, Chairman of Chevron.

Yet non-governmental organisations here praise The Corporate Planet. ''It is a devastating critique of the corporate pillage of the Earth,'' said John Cavanagh, director of the Institute for Policy Studies.

Representative David E. Bonior, House Democratic Whip calls the book an important source for everyone concerned about the environment and the future. ''This persuasive book is a very useful tool in the struggle against corporate-run globalisation that is accelerating the assault on our environment,'' he adds. (END/IPS/dk/mk/97)