Rainforests and Human Rights

by Paul Donahue and Teresa Wood

January 1995

Rainforests are one of the planet's most vital habitats. They are the world's most complex environments and are home to more than half of all the species of life on the planet. They play an important part in modification of our weather and production of oxygen. They are also the source of a great many of the foods and drugs we use commonly, and are undoubtedly where we will find many more important drugs in the future. Rainforests are also home to many diverse indigenous peoples. Yet, despite their great importance to all of us, rainforests around the world are vanishing at a truly alarming rate. In 1979 they were disappearing at the rate of 75,000 square kilometers a year. By 1989 that rate had climbed to 142,200 square kilometers a year (Myers, 1993). Why is this happening? What do oil, aluminum, plastics, cotton, mahogany  furniture, bananas, orange juice, coffee,  and fast-food hamburgers have to do with rainforest destruction, droughts, floods, revolutions, wars, dictators, torture, the CIA, poverty, and election campaign contributions?

 Here in the United States we have only 5% of the world's population, but we use 30% of the world's resources. We get many of these resources from the Third World, the "developing" countries of Central and South America, Africa, and Asia. Many products and foods of everyday life in the United States, like those listed above, come to us through rainforest destruction in the tropics of the "developing countries". Agro-export crops, like beef, bananas, oranges, cotton, coffee, and others are grown on land once covered with rainforest. Generally speaking, the original rainforest was cleared to grow these crops. Then, as the fertility of the soil drops and/or the demand for these crops in the north increases, more rainforest is cleared to produce the crops. The production of these crops for export to the north enriches local elites and foreign corporations while forcing the majority of the population off the prime agricultural land. These evicted people then cut still more rainforest for their subsistence farming. In these ways rainforest destruction is closely linked to much of the social strife we see around the world today. Rainforest destruction also accounts for environmental disasters like droughts and floods.

 If these countries have so many resources that are so important to our lifestyle here in the United States, how come these countries are still so poor?  Why do these countries let us carry off their wealth? Why do they allow us to use so much of their farmland to grow food for generally overfed people in the United States when they have great land shortages and thousands and thousands of hungry people in their own countries? Who are the players in this system of transferring the wealth and food and natural resources of the Third World to the United States? There are eight major players in this system -   

1.  Multi-national or trans-national corporations - to operate or financially back the mines and plantations and logging operations. These are large and very powerful institutions that not uncommonly can control in excess of $200 billion in assets. In their political and economic power they resemble separate nations without boundaries.

2.  U.S. government - to support the multi-national corporations and negotiate with leaders in the Third World countries to promote export agriculture and natural resource exploitation.

3.  Multi-lateral Development Banks (such as World Bank, Inter-American Development Bank) and other public international financial institutions (such as the International Monetary Fund) - to provide loans for export agriculture and resource exploitation projects.

4.  Government leaders in the Third World countries - to pave the way for the multi- national corporations, often in exchange for bribes.

5.  Military in the Third World countries - to enforce the will of the government leaders, drive people off their land, and arrest and torture people who stand in the way.

6.  U.S. military and C.I.A. - to support fascist governments, providing "stability", or to forcibly change Third World governments that are unwilling to let multi-national corporations do as they please.

7.  U.S. media - television and radio news stations and newspapers that are willing to overlook the destructive things our government and multi-national corporations are doing in Third World countries, or to report events in a way that generally make us look like the good guys. The major media are corporations devoted not to free speech but to "selling" their audiences to other businesses.

8.  U.S. consumers/voters  - to buy the goods and products without asking too many questions about where the stuff comes from, and to accept the way politics are conducted and important decisions are made in this country.

 The formula is basically very simple. Since citizens in the United States want and expect a high standard of living and, very importantly, don't ask a lot of questions about the foods and products they buy, then multi-national corporations, with the help of our government and compliance of our media, do whatever it takes to provide those foods and products to us.

 In one common pattern of natural resource exploitation the multi-lateral development banks play a key role -

1.  A multi-lateral development bank makes a loan to a Third World country for a large-scale hydroelectric project, providing the infrastructure for mining.

2.  Flooding of the reservoir behind the dam destroys a large area of rainforest and forces indigenous peoples off their land.

3.  The roads built in the process of constructing the dam open up large areas to spontaneous colonization, destroying still more rainforest.

4.  Multi-national corporations are able to take advantage of the cheap energy produced by the dam to exploit mineral resources in the area.

5.  The country is left with a huge foreign debt. To service this debt the country is forced to cut social services to its citizens  and to exploit still more of its natural resources. Rainforest is cut to sell off the valuable timber. The magnitude of the Third World debt problem is staggering. In 1992 Brazil had a foreign debt of $120 billion and tropical forest countries as a whole owed $1.3 trillion. When we add up all overseas aid and public loans from developed countries to developing countries, and factor in the debt issue, we find there has long been a net annual flow of funds   from poor nations to rich nations totaling almost $50 billion (Myers, 1993).  This is a transfer of wealth that former German Chancellor Willy Brandt called "a blood transfusion from the sick to the healthy."

Examples of countries where this pattern has occurred are Brazil (bauxite, steel, agro-export crops, timber), Honduras (agro-export crops, timber), Guatemala (agro-export crops, timber), and Costa Rica (agro-export crops, timber).

International trade agreements, such as the recently signed General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), contribute to resource exploitation in the Third World. GATT will promote rainforest destruction in a several ways. Here is the first of three scenarios - 

1.   A country imposes a ban on the export of whole logs with the intent of slowing rainforest destruction in their country (the Philippines and Indonesia have already implemented such a ban).

2.  A multi-national corporation interested in exporting whole logs from the country in question petitions the newly formed World Trade Organization (the mediator in trade disputes), claiming an unfair barrier to trade.

3.  The World Trade Organization, in which the country in question has a single vote, agrees that the ban is an unfair trade restriction, and the country is forced to drop the ban.

The second scenario involves an import ban -

1.  To help save the world's rainforests, a country imposes a ban on the import of tropical hardwoods that are not harvested sustainably (the Netherlands has announced that it   will impose such a ban by 1995).

2.  A multi-national corporation interested in importing non-sustainably harvested tropical hardwoods into the country in question petitions the World Trade Organization claiming a discrimination against "method of production".

3.  According to GATT rules, the method in which things are produced, regardless of the ecological impact, can neither be encouraged nor discouraged because such barriers will act as barriers to free trade. The country in question will be forced to drop its import ban.

The third scenario involves agriculture -

1.  GATT will gradually work toward eliminating agricultural subsidies worldwide. This will intensify global competition for agricultural output.

2.  Countries like Brazil and Malaysia will be forced to use more land to increase export production so that they can compete with falling prices. The use of toxic agro-chemicals will also increase in an effort to improve production.

3.   In the process, millions of landless peasants will be further displaced into primary forest, slashing and burning for subsistence farming, a major cause of tropical deforestation.     

 Another common pattern of natural resource exploitation  found in the Third World involves our arms manufacturing industry -   

1.  U.S. arms manufacturers sell weapons to dictators and military governments in poor Third World countries so that these governments can repress their people and keep them in line, making it easier for multi-national corporations to work in these countries.

2.  To pay for the weapons, these Third World governments are often forced to borrow money from U.S. banks.

3. To repay the loans to the U.S. banks, these Third World governments are then forced to destroy the environment of their countries through things like logging and mining, selling their natural resources off to multinational corporations at bargain basement rates.

4. Then, to do the logging and mining, the governments are forced to repress their people, forcing them off their land, and arresting, beating, torturing, and murdering them.

Some examples of this circle of debt, environmental destruction and repression are Indonesia (agro-export crops, oil, timber), Guatemala (agro-export crops, timber), El Salvador (agro-export crops, timber), Honduras (agro-export crops, timber), and Nigeria (oil).

This ugly pattern of exploitation that is repeated over and over in the Third World is perhaps the worst and most reprehensible of all -

1. A repressive Third World government that is friendly to the United States, perhaps because of bribes, allows U.S.-based multi-national corporations to exploit the natural resources of the country.

2. Because this government is so repressive, leaving many of its people landless and poor, a popular movement arises among the people. This popular movement  either overthrows the repressive government in a coup or, in many cases, wins in a legitimate, democratic election. It then proceeds to show more interest in helping the citizens of its own country than in helping multi-national corporations.

3. Whether or not this new government wins in a legitimate, democratic election, the United States government labels it as communist or socialist (or, sometimes, overly nationalistic), or portrays the new leader as a "savage villain" or "brutal thug" and steps in to "restore democracy" and "control the violence". The U.S. has many  ways to "restore democracy". We can use U.S. military troops, the C.I.A., paid "rebels" and mercenaries or, most often, all of those things.

4. The end result is that "democracy is restored". The popular government concerned for its people is replaced with a bloody dictatorship or military government that is again friendly to U.S. business interests. Resource exploitation and export agriculture continue as before.

 John Stockwell, formerly of the C.I.A., estimates that the C.I.A. has helped overthrow twenty democratically elected governments. Some examples of this pattern are Chile (minerals, timber), Guatemala (agro-export crops, timber), Iran (oil), and Nicaragua (agro-export crops, timber).

 While we have, admittedly, simplified these patterns somewhat, the basic principles are accurate. These manipulative and violent patterns are necessarily repeated over and over again to keep the natural resources of the "developing countries" flowing northward.

 Rainforest areas and rainforest peoples around the world today are seriously imperiled. Our rapidly expanding human population is a major factor in this threat. However, another large part of the threat to these forests and forest peoples is posed by business interests, particularly U.S. and Japanese-based multi-national corporations. Below is just a partial list of some of the corporate-driven atrocities occurring around the world today in rainforest areas.

 Brazil - Mitsubishi Corp. is 49.95% owner of the largest timber operation in the Brazilian Amazon, Eidai do Brasil Madeiras S.A.  Eidai has the largest plywood mill in the Amazon and exports plywood and veneer to the U.S. and Europe. The timber they use is often illegally harvested, and their system of operating draws local wood-cutters into chronic debt. (World Rainforest Report, Jan.-March 1994).

Thompson Mahogany Co., Inc. of Philadelphia, one of the top ten importers of wood to North America, is purchasing its mahogany from at least 4 Brazilian companies involved in illegal logging on indigenous peoples' land. Illegal mahogany loggers murder Indians who dare to stand in their way. Since 1988, dozens of opponents to the illegal logging from 8 Indian tribes have been killed. (World Rainforest Report Oct.-Dec. 1994)

The Trombetas River Basin in the State of Para is threatened by a series of ten hydroelectric dams designed to supply power to a complex of bauxite mines and aluminum smelting facilities. This project is being carried out by ALCOA (U.S.) and Billiton (Netherlands). Huge tracts of forest will be clearcut for extraction of the bauxite, roads, refining facilities, worker housing, and so on. The smelting process produces tons of toxic waste, poisoning the rivers in the area. The dams will flood still larger expanses of rainforest. One dam alone, the Cachoeira Porteira Dam, will flood 911 square kilometers of forest, including a number of communities and parts of the Trombetas Biological Reserve. In all, the ten dams will flood the lands of 23 groups of indigenous peoples. (World Rainforest Report)

Ecuador - Texaco Petroleum Company worked in the Ecuadorean Amazon from 1964 to 1992, exploring and drilling for oil. They worked inside the Cuyabeno Wildlife Reserve as well as inside the territories of Quichua, Cofan, Huaorani, and Siona-Secoya Indians, displacing many communities.When it turned over its operations in 1992 to its partner, Petroecuador, it left behind a toxic legacy of badly polluted rivers, streams and groundwater. The local inhabitants are exposed to high risks of cancer, and are experiencing a higher occurrence of abortion, and elevated rates of fungal infections, dermatitis, headache and nausea.Texaco is being sued by Ecuadorean Indigenous groups in a U.S. federal court, but refuses to accept blame or cleanup responsibility for the mess it left behind.

The Maxus Energy Corp. of the U.S. has been working in a different part of the Ecuadorian Amazon for several years. Their operations are inside of Yasuni National Park and Huaorani Indian territory, despite loud protest from Indigenous groups. The ARCO Corp. of the U.S. is working in still another part of the Ecuadorian Amazon on Quichua Indian lands.

Now the government of Ecuador has just opened yet another area in its Amazon to oil exploration.  The U.S. companies awarded blocks include Amoco, Mobil, Oryx, Santa Fe, Consolidated Ramrod Gold and Triton. This area, the size of the state of New Jersey, includes about 85% of the Indigenous lands in the Ecuadorian Amazon, land belonging to the Huaorani, Quichua, Shuar, Cofan, Shiwar, and Achuar Indians. It also includes land in national parks, and protected wetlands. Indigenous groups throughout the area have again called for a halt to these invasions of their territories, but, as in the past, their cries have been ignored. (World Rainforest Report, Oct.-Dec. 1994, July-Sept. 1994, April-June 1994; The New York Times, March 22, 1994)

Burma - Two U.S. oil companies, UNOCAL and Texaco, are in a joint venture partnership with the military government of this country which is using slave labor to build a railroad and natural gas pipeline. The pipeline will run through the last large intact tropical rainforest in mainland Asia on land belonging to the Mon and Karen people. The government is destroying villages and using up to 35,000 slave laborers, including women, even expecting mothers, and children as young as 11 years old. UNOCAL has responded to these reports by creating a glossy public relations leaflet entitled "Spirit of 76 - Special Edition" which fails to address human rights issues and goes so far as to claim that to withdraw would equal "closing the door on the people of Burma". (World Rainforest Report  Oct.-Dec. 1994, July-Sept. 1994)

Nigeria - Shell Oil is involved in the devastation of Ogoni lands in this country, and is supporting the Nigerian military in its repression of the Ogoni people, including killing, looting, maiming, and torture. (Greenpeace, July-Sept. 1994)   

 Malaysia - Logging continues here in Sarawak on lands belonging to the Penan tribe. One of the companies involved is the Sam Ling Timber Company, which has the support of the military, police and forestry officials, despite the Penan's claim to the land. Penan attempting to blockade the roads are routinely arrested and beaten. Communities in the area have their huts torn down and burned and their rice fields bulldozed. Lauan or meranti plywood is the largest tropical timber import into the U.S., much of which comes from Malaysia. (World Rainforest Report, Jan.-March 1994)

 Indonesia - P.T. Barito Pacific Timber is Indonesia's largest timber company, and one of the world's largest suppliers of plywood, pulp, and paper, much of which arrives in the U.S. in the form of lauan or meranti plywood. Barito is believed to control 12.5 million acres of rainforest. Environmental and social abuses connected with the company are vast, including logging in restricted areas, logging lands of indigenous peoples, refusing to pay fines and maltreatment of workers.

 Solomon Islands - Hyundai Wood Industries and Eagon Resources have logging operations here. Both are involved in controversies with local people including: non-payment of royalty fees, cutting of protected tree species, destruction of sacred sites, bribing local and national politicians, fraud, threats and use of violence, deliberate refusal to obey court orders and trespass. (World Rainforest Report, July-Sept. 1994)

 Tasmania - Four Japanese corporations (Mitsubishi Corp., Sumitomo Corp., Mitsui & Co. Ltd., and Kawatetsu Bussan) are involved in clear-cut logging of ancient forests here in defiance of the Native Title rights of the Tasmania Aboriginal people over Tasmania's forests. Over 4000 people have been arrested for protesting against this industry. (World Rainforest Report, July-Sept. 1994)

 Canada - MacMillan-Bloedel Corporation is involved in clear-cut logging of 74% of the ancient temperate rainforests of Clayoquot Sound in British Columbia. This area is the ancestral home of the Nuu-Chah-Nulth nations and the clear-cuuting continues despite their struggles to regain control of their traditional lands. (World Rainforest Report, July-Sept. 1994, Greenpeace, July-Sept. 1994)

 Guyana - Despite the opposition of local indigenous communities, Asian logging companies are stepping up operations in the rainforests of Guyana. One company, Barama Company Ltd. has a concession to log 1.7 million hectares of forest. Amerindians near the logging camps complain of pollution of their waters, inability to practice traditional agriculture, forced resettlement, and the bulldozing of crops without compensation.

 Papua New Guinea - The Chevron Corporation began pumping oil in the Lake Kutubu area here in 1992. Construction of a 165-mile long oil pipeline, a road network and a mile-long airstrip destroyed rainforest. The disruption to the lives of the local people has caused inter-tribal feuds. (World Rainforest Report)

 As terrible as these occurrences are, perhaps just as important is the fact that these events are almost completely ignored by the U.S. media. Largely because of our ignorance of these happenings, and our ignorance of the sources of the products we use, as a nation we then become willing participants in this destruction and repression for profit.

 Unfortunately, our U.S. foreign policy is designed to support this unjust international economic order that treats the Third World as a gigantic resource reserve. The recently signed General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), drafted with the help of executives from Nestle, Monsanto (one of the five largest multi-national producers of pesticides), DuPont and other multi-national corporations, is intended solely to further the exploitation of the planet, and particularly of the Third World. Pressure for this revised agreement came solely from large corporations and their allies. In the words of Wendell Berry, "The aim is simply and unabashedly to bring every scrap of productive land and every worker on the planet under corporate control......a license issued to a priveleged few for an all-out economic assault on the lands and peoples of the world"

 With elections for seats in the U.S. House of Representatives costing up to one million dollars and seats in the U.S. Senate costing up to five million dollars, our political campaigns and our politicians here in the U.S. - the people formulating our foreign policy are, through Political Action Committees, bought and paid for by the same multi-national corporations that are involved in the destruction of the rainforest. With re-election their primary goal, rather than doing what might be best for the world or even their constituents, our politicians do what is necessary to attract the all-important large campaign contributions.

 Above we asked what  oil, aluminum, plastics, cotton, mahogany  furniture, bananas, orange juice, coffee, and fast-food hamburgers have to do with rainforest destruction, droughts, floods, revolutions, wars, dictators, torture, the CIA, poverty, and election campaign contributions. If the connections between all these things were not clear before, we hope they are at least a bit more clear now. Rainforest destruction is not just an environmental issue - it involves the fight for human rights, for stable, truly democratic governments, and for fair land distribution.

 So who is really to blame? Are consumers in the U.S. the ones to blame for expecting such a high standard of living without regard to how and where we get it? Are the multi-national corporations the ones to blame for their greedy exploitation of natural resources in the Third World? Is the U.S. government the one to blame for helping the multi-national corporations and lying to us? Are the U.S. media, part of established power in our country, the ones to blame for not exposing what is really going on in the world? Or are we all to blame for whatever part we play in this system? All eight of those players listed above are necessary for this system of exploitation to continue. The removal of just one player would probably cause the system to collapse. If we, as U.S. consumers and voters, are interested in changing this system, then it is in changing our own role where we should begin and where we are likely to have the most impact. Then, if we are serious about saving the rainforests and rainforest peoples of the world, we must work to change U.S. foreign policy, reversing its promotion of militarization, brutal repression, agro-exports and resource exploitation, and, instead, addressing the issues of peace, equity, land reform and ecologically sound, sustainable resource use.


Paul Donahue and Teresa Wood

January 1995


Suggested Reading

Berry, Wendell, 1993, Sex, Economy, Freedom, and Community, Pantheon Books, New York and San Francisco

Chomsky, Noam, 1992, What Uncle Sam Really Wants, Odonian Press, Berkeley, CA

Chomsky, Noam, 1993, The Prosperous Few and the Restless Many, Odonian Press,             Berkeley, CA

Chomsky, Noam, 1994, World Orders Old and New, Columbia Univ. Press, New York

Colchester, Marcus and Larry Lohmann (editors), 1993, The Struggle for Land and the Fate of the Forests, World Rainforest Movement, Penang, Malaysia

Hawken, Paul, 1993, The Ecology of Commerce - A Declaration of Sustainability, Harper Collins Publishers, Inc., New York

Head, Suzanne and Robert Heinzman, 1990, Lessons of the Rainforest, Sierra Club Books, San Francisco

Defending the Earth - Abuses of Human Rights and the Environment, 1992, Human Rights Watch and Natural Resources Defense Council

Myers, Norman, 1993, The Primary Source - Tropical Forests and our Future, W. W. Norton and Co., New York