Two Men Who Stood Under the Plunderers' Knives

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9 June 2009Democracy Now

Ken Saro-Wiwa and Alberto Pizango never met, but they are united by a passion for the preservation of their people and their land, and by the fervor with which they were targeted by their respective governments. Saro-Wiwa was executed by the Nigerian government Nov. 10, 1995. Pizango this week was charged by the Peruvian government with sedition and rebellion, and narrowly eluded capture, taking refuge in the Nicaraguan Embassy in Lima. Nicaragua has just granted him political asylum. Two indigenous leaders—one living, one dead—Pizango and Saro-Wiwa demonstrate that effective grass-roots opposition to corporate power can take a personal toll. Saro-Wiwa's family and others just won a landmark settlement in U.S. federal court, ending a 13-year battle with Shell Oil. Pizango's ordeal is just beginning.

  Peru and Nigeria are a world apart on the map, but both host abundant natural resources for which the U.S. and other industrialized nations hunger.

  The Niger Delta is one of the world's most productive oil fields. Shell Oil began extracting oil there in 1958. Before long, the indigenous peoples of the Niger Delta suffered from pollution, destruction of the mangrove forests and depletion of fish stocks that sustained them. Gas flares constantly lit up the sky, fouling the air and denying generations a glimpse of a dark night. The despoliation of traditional Ogoni land in the Niger Delta inspired Saro-Wiwa to lead an international, nonviolent campaign targeting Shell. For his commitment, Saro-Wiwa was arrested by the Nigerian dictatorship, subjected to a sham trial and hanged with eight other Ogoni activists. I visited the Niger Delta and Ogoniland in 1998, and met Ken's family. His father, Jim Wiwa, did not mince words: "Shell has a hand in the killing of my own son."

  Family members sued Shell Oil, charging it with complicity in the executions. They were granted their day in U.S. court under the Alien Tort Claims Act, which allows people outside the U.S. to bring charges against an offender in U.S. courts when the charges amount to war crimes, genocide, torture or, as in the case of the Ogoni Nine, extrajudicial, summary execution. Despite Shell's efforts to have the case (Wiwa v. Shell) thrown out, it was set to be tried in a New York federal court two weeks ago. After several delays, Shell settled, agreeing to pay $15.5 million.

  Saro-Wiwa's son, Ken Wiwa, said: "We now have an opportunity to draw a line on the sad past and ... face the future with some hope that what we've done here will have helped to change the way in which businesses regard their operations abroad. ... We need to focus on the development needs of the people. ... We've created evidence, an example, that with enough commitment to nonviolence and dialogue, you can begin to build some kind of creative justice. And we hope that people will take their signals from that and push for similar examples of creative justice, where communities and all the stakeholders where oil production is are able to mutually benefit from oil production, rather than exploitation and degradation of the environment."

  Peruvian indigenous populations have been protesting nonviolently since April, with road blockades a popular tactic. At issue is the so-called U.S./Peru Trade Promotion Agreement, which would override protections of indigenous land, granting access to foreign corporations for resource extraction.

  This week, eyewitnesses allege that Peruvian special forces police carried out a massacre at one of the blockades. Pizango, the leader of the national indigenous organization the Peruvian Jungle Interethnic Development Association, accused the government of President Alan Garcia of ordering the attack: "Our brothers are cornered. I want to put the responsibility on the government. We are going to put the responsibility on Alan Garcia's government for ordering this genocide. ... They've said that we indigenous peoples are against the system, but, no, we want development, but from our perspective, development that adheres to legal conventions. ... The government has not consulted us. Not only am I being persecuted, but I feel that my life is in danger, because I am defending the rights of the peoples, the legitimate rights that the indigenous people have."

  Saro-Wiwa told me in 1994, just before he returned to Nigeria, "I'm a marked man." Pizango has challenged the powerful Peruvian government and the corporate interests it represents. Pizango is now marked, but still alive. Will the international community allow him and the indigenous people he represents to suffer the same fate as Saro-Wiwa and the Ogoni people?   Denis Moynihan contributed research to this column.