By Vesta Davis
Many people understand the damage done to communities by the fossil fuel industry, especially now when discussions on the current climate crisis are at an all-time high. It is hard to find a current news outlet that doesn’t mention one of the key words: “climate change,” “sustainability,” or “global warming,” at least once a day—even if they’re denying the validity of them.
While this is all well and good, there are thousands of initiatives working for environmental justice that go unacknowledged. And even further, international energy companies often violate basic human rights of local communities, and never suffer the consequences.
This past summer, a Federal court ruled to allow a case filed in 2001 against the Exxon Mobil Corporation to proceed. The lawsuit was filed by 11 Indonesian citizens after numerous human rights violations were committed by the local Exxon employees. According to the plaintiffs, the Exxon security guards beat, sexually assaulted, and murdered local villagers on numerous occasions.
The Mobil Corporation first began gas drilling in the rural Aceh region of Indonesia in the early 1970s. In the late 1990s, the Exxon and Mobil corporations merged and established four natural gas sites in Aceh. However, after the fall of President Suharto 1998, tension and violence between rebel groups and local authorities grew. The increase of foreign companies, workers, and technology seemed only to escalate matters, especially since Exxon hired the local military and police forces as security for each plant. Between the years 1999 – 2001, there were approximately 50 separate incidents of gunmen hijacking company pick-up trucks and vans, and two air planes were shot down when attempting to land. Local buses carrying employees from surrounding villages to the Exxon site were also targeted by land mines.
This violence caused Exxon to shut down three of the four natural gas plants. However, Exxon maintained the employment of the local military even though they knew there was extreme violence occurring between them and the locals. According to the Indonesian Human Rights Commission, there have been hundreds of documented incidents of rape, torture, and murder committed by the soldiers.
While Exxon is not to blame for all of this violence, locals do hold the company partially responsible. The industry pays the soldiers, provides them with weapons, and also instills them with a sense of power and entitlement. They are also permitted to use the companies digging equipment which has supposedly been used to create mass graves.
Situations like this are more common that one may think. Many western energy companies have established themselves amidst turmoil in international communities. For instance, the Canadian mining company Turquoise Hill Resources in Myanmar, the gasoline retailer Unocal—now owned by Chevron—in Burma, and the Chad-Cameroon oil pipeline project funded by Exxon, Chevron, and the World Bank.
In 2013, a case went to the Supreme Court in which a group of Nigerian citizens sued the Shell oil company for “aiding and abetting” violence and murder in Ogoniland, an area of Nigeria popular for oil drilling. Apparently, when Shell set up camp, locals responded by organizing protests against the environmental destruction. Shell then hired the Nigerian Government to stop the demonstrations. Extreme violence, murder, rape, and illegal arrests ensued throughout the 1990s. The plaintiffs in this case allege that Shell representatives perpetuated the violence by supplying food, transportation, and compensation to the military forces.
The case was denied by the Supreme Court, on the grounds that due to the “Alien Tort Statute”, the United States system was not entitled to intervene. Because of this ruling, many were shocked when the Indonesian case passed through the Federal system. Human rights lawyer, Agnieszka Fryszman, claims that it is probably the first international case involving a major United States company and “foreign misconduct” to be approved by a Federal court.
Exxon has continuously denied the allegations that they are involved with the violence in Aceh. They state that they are trying to “maintain some neutrality.” However, even if they are not intentionally involved, they are still complicit. When an international energy corporation is present in an impoverished or indigenous community, a feeling of dependency and reliance is created. Exxon may wish to stay in denial about their role in the situation, but in environments such as this, staying neutral is just as toxic.