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WORLD ECONOMIC FORUM: The Public Eye Is Watching

Gustavo Capdevila

BERN, Jan 17 2008 (IPS) - Civil society is in Davos, Switzerland once again to keep a watchful eye on events at the World Economic Forum (WEF). The social and environmental behaviour of 1,000 of the world’s most powerful companies will be scutinised at this annual meeting of business leaders, presidents and prime ministers, and free-market economics experts.

Pro Natura, the Swiss branch of Friends of the Earth, and The Berne Declaration, a non-governmental organisation (NGO), will be awarding their sarcastic prizes known as the Public Eye awards to transnational corporations judged to have shown the greatest public irresponsibility in a ceremony on Jan. 23.

The "winner", to be announced at a ceremony in the Alpine tourist resort of Davos in southeast Switzerland, will be one of three companies that have emerged as favourites: the French state nuclear company Areva, transnational German chemical company Bayer CropScience, and the Philippine subsidiary of U.S. fruit company Dole Foods.

The candidates for the disgraceful distinction are members of the WEF, which will be holding its traditional annual meetings from Jan. 23 to 27.

Over the course of these meetings – which are sometimes joined by internationally renowned personalities from the arts and entertainment world – the WEF "courts world leaders and lobbies for generalised freedom in trade and finance," Sonja Ribi of Pro Natura told IPS.

Public Eye takes it upon itself to shine a light on "the dark side of globalisation," for the benefit of public opinion. Public Eye demands that transnational corporations "at least show a minimum commitment to society and the environment," said Oliver Classen, of The Berne Declaration.

The campaign demonstrates to the actors in the global economy that destructive social and environmental effects of their business practices "not only harm the direct victims of this damage, but also affect the reputations of their companies," Classen told IPS.

Whether they are patenting vital medicines, unscrupulously exploiting natural resources or trampling on workers’ rights, there is no limit to the insatiable greed of the CEOs gathered in Davos, the Berne Declaration activist said.

Under the pretext of "improving the state of the world," the leaders of major companies use this annual opportunity to establish contacts and exert their influence over other members of the business community and government representatives, Ribi said.

But the Public Eye turns the occasion to advantage in condemning the hugely negative consequences of their obsession with profit margins, she said.

In parallel, the NGOs also demand humane labour conditions, company responsibility for their final products, and environmentally sustainable practices.

The three firms nominated for the prize have been singled out for poor social and environmental behaviour. For example, Areva’s track record was examined in Niger, where its subsidiary companies Somair and Cominak mine uranium.

Mineworkers are given inadequate information about the health risks of open-air storage of radioactive materials, said Pro Natura and The Berne Declaration.

Furthermore, the mining company hospitals issue deliberately false diagnoses for sick workers, and sign death certificates blaming AIDS when workers die of cancer. These practices ensure that the employers evade paying for their miners’ medical treatment, the NGOs said.

Areva has mined uranium in Niger – a former French colony – for 40 years. Radioactivity levels in air, water and soil in the mining areas are above internationally accepted safety levels, the Public Eye NGOs said.

Bayer CropScience – said to be the world market leader in insecticides – has been nominated for the award for its attempts to impose jatropha cultivation in India. Jatropha nut kernels have an oil content of 40 percent, and so the plant is a good candidate for biodiesel production.

However, the two NGOs said that plans to expand jatropha farming in India include using land currently used to grow food. Peasant farmers working small plots of land would become dependent on the use of expensive agrochemicals which are essential for jatropha cultivation if they switch to the new biofuel crop, they said.

Another problem is that jatropha leaves and nuts are toxic. Well-known Indian activist Vandana Shiva published a study on the effects of jatropha cultivation in her country in November, and started a mass campaign to discourage its expansion.

Pro Natura and The Berne Declaration say that in order to expand jatropha cultivation, Bayer is using its contacts to lobby for support at the Secretariat of the U.N. Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), and at the U.N. Environment Programme (UNEP).

A Public Eye document says: "In order to prevent greenwashing, the NGOs [Pro Natura and The Berne Declaration] call on the United Nations to establish criteria defining with whom they cooperate and under what conditions."

The third nominee is Dole Philippines Inc. – a subsidiary of the U.S. Dole Food Company – which has pineapple plantations on 12,000 hectares of the most fertile land in the Philippines, as well as a canning and packaging plant.

Since 1990 the company has downsized from 8,000 to 5,000 permanent employees, while the number of temporary workers, a large proportion of whom are women, has risen from zero to 12,000.

Their wages are four dollars a day – half of what the Philippine government defines as the poverty line. In contrast, at Dole’s Hawaiian plantations, workers are paid five dollars an hour.

Many small farmers have rented their land to Dole, which now employs them as plantation workers. The peasant farmers can only fulfil the work demanded of them with the help of their children, who drop out of school and suffer health problems from overwork and from toxic chemicals – like Endosulfan – used on the plantations.

The two NGOs also reported that Dole has been exerting pressure on the Philippine workers’ unions.

Classen said that multinational companies, like the 1,000 members of the World Economic Forum, must take their corporate social and environmental responsibilities more seriously. Otherwise he warned, they will not only lose credibility, but their investors, employees and customers as well.

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