‘The Age of Global Protest’ by Sveinn Birkir Björnsson
Attilah Springer is a journalist and an activist. She is a part of the Rights Action Group in Trinidad and Tobago, which has fought a long battle against Alcoa over aluminium smelters in Trinidad and Tobago. She recently spoke at a conference for Saving Iceland where she documented the progress of the struggle against the aluminium industry in her country. She is currently staying at the International Summer of Dissent protest camp, organised by Saving Iceland. A Grapevine journalist sat down to speak with Atillah at their beautiful campsite in Mosfellsdalur, joined by Lerato Maria Maregele, an activist from South Africa who has been organising protests against Alcan in her own country.
What brought you to Iceland?
Springer: Well for the past two years, several communities in Trinidad and Tobago have been in confrontation with the state and corporations against the introduction of aluminium smelting in Trinidad and I have been working quite closely with those communities, as an activist and as a journalist, and just documenting their struggle. Just because we weren’t given any information about smelting, we had to find it out ourselves and we saw it on the Internet and discovered, “hey the same thing is happening in Iceland, the same thing is going on in South Africa.” From there we started building links, e-mailing, texting, just constant contact, exchanging information about our struggles, and the similarities of what was happening over here and in Trinidad and other parts of the world. When we were approached by Saving Iceland to be a part of this year’s international summer of dissent, we said: yes, absolutely. We had a couple of victories and a couple of losses in the past year, so we thought it was very important to come here and share those things, and re-energise ourselves. Connect in a personal way, not just over the Internet. Just to see the place in 3-dimensions makes what is happening even more resonant.
Maregele: As Attilah has said, this issue of globalisation, I think that is something that has linked us together, and also this monster that is the aluminium smelters and is tearing up our countries and getting so much benefits and cheap electricity. When I heard about this conference I thought it was a good cause, and maybe I should come here and hear what other people have to say and see what is happening here in Iceland. So far, I have found out that things are just the same. What is happening in South Africa is also happening in Trinidad, and that is why we are here.
Tell me a bit about the struggle in Trinidad and Tobago.
Springer: Basically, what happened was that there were plans for two smelters in Trinidad. One of them was in a place called Union Village, on an industrial site that had been cleared two years ago. That land was cleared with the knowledge or consent of the villagers who surrounded it. Around the same time, there was talk about another smelter in Chatham, which is ten miles south of Union Village. The people of Chatham decided that this was not the way that they wanted to go. The struggle was initiated by elder women of the village, mothers and housewives, with the support of the younger men in the village. They started a petition, a call for help to the rest of the country. From there it grew, there were protests, there were demonstrations, marches, carnival bands, calypsos, anything that was possible. Whether it was Labour Day or the Environmental Day, we were there, involved in everything. And having such presence, really just getting people interested in the debate, because Trinidad is so small, we just kept pressuring and pressuring and pressuring. Until in September, when the Prime Minister said they would not go ahead with the smelter in Chatham anymore. The first smelter recently got environmental clearance, but that is being challenged in court. The EIA (environmental impact assessment) was a joke. It was done in such a way that you never get the whole picture of the real impact of the smelter. They are now going to do EIA for the port through which they will have to export the aluminium. In midst of an industrial state, in a peninsula that is sinking because all of the intense heavy industry in that area, there has been no accumulative assessment of the impact of all of those things on that community and its surroundings. For those reasons we continue to fight it.
What do you see as some of the similarities between what is happening here and in Trinidad and Tobago?
Springer: Certainly the lack of consultation with the communities, the absolute dishonesty of the companies carrying out their plans. They come in with a lot of lies, talking about: ‘Yes, we will give you jobs, and we will give you this, and we will give you that,’ and when you really break it down, the benefits that the country, or the benefits that the communities are supposed to be getting, are minute in comparison to what the companies are getting. And the other thing that is going on with companies like Alcoa is that they can’t build smelters in the US anymore because, for one, it takes too long for them to get environmental clearance, because the have done so much damage in their own land, and two, the amount of liberal guilt in these countries does not match the level of consumption. So they feel guilty about smelting, but they do not feel guilty enough to stop consuming all the goods they want to consume. So basically, what Alcoa is doing is that they are moving those plants out of their own backyard and taking them to countries where the environmental laws are lax, where they have cheap natural gas, like in the case of Trinidad, where natural gas is very cheap, on top of which, they are getting it at such sweet deals that the government of Trinidad and Tobago cannot tell the citizens for how much the are getting it.
So all of those things seem to be similar things to what is happening here. Speaking to the farmers, you hear about the same kind of lies, the same kind of deceit, the same kind of massaging of the truth that happened in Trinidad and Tobago and we continue to fight against. All we are saying is ‘just tell us the truth,’ and I think that is what the people of Iceland want to know as well, what is the real story? Stop trying to convince us that it is anything other than profits you are after. You are not after a greener form of energy, you are after profits, so let’s just say that. And of course, the major concern is that the aluminium that is being used as means to, not just to the excessive consumption of states in the so called first world, but also to fuel the American war machine. It does not sit well with me that we will be contributing to that. I have no interest in being a part of that any further, because already our oil and natural gas goes to fuel the American war machine. I don’t want to have more blood on my hands.
Is it different in South Africa?
Maregele: In South Africa, the power for the smelters will be produced from coals, and they will be getting it very cheaply. Thirty percent of the poor communities of South Africa don’t have electricity, and now that will be going straight to Alcan.
Springer: But the differences are the similarities. People in Iceland don’t need extra electricity, people in South Africa need electricity, but in both places the concern is that the source of electricity is renewable and green, and not damaging to the environment. At the bottom of all this struggle is clean sustainable development, that includes communities, that empowers communities, and that does not destroy what is inherently ours. Those are the important things.
You mentioned communities without power in South Africa and the excessive power here in Iceland. Is it not better then, to build smelters here, as opposed to in South Africa?
Maregele: Firstly, why is it that Iceland has to have more power than the people need? Is it to satisfy companies like Alcan at the end of the day? I don’t see the need. That is why I am saying that in Iceland you don’t need the smelter.
Springer: In Iceland, the environmental impact far outweighs the economic value this could have for the country. Just look around here. I can’t imagine how anyone in their right mind could see this beauty and want to put a smelter here. It just doesn’t make any sense to me. I guess I am trying to understand that whole evil global capitalistic swine to see how they see this, and I really can’t get my head around it. I guess in the same way, they cannot understand how I cannot see the potential of this. They see every waterfall as wasted energy. But I see every waterfall as a waterfall, as beauty, as something that is there to energise me, but in a different way. I guess this is a kind of a conquistador, testosterone… I don’t mean to bash men, but this is a very masculine way of looking at the world. The world is the dominion of man, and there to do with it what we want. I would rather take my ancestors’ view, that we take from it what we need, and give back in ways that we can. In Trinidad we have a saying: don’t shit where you eat. That is essentially what we are doing. We are shitting where we are eating. All over the planet. I guess in the end, they will take some kind of aluminium space ship, and take them to another planet and leave all the poor people behind here, but at this point I only have one planet. This is the only planet I know.
Maregele: Yes, and good planets are hard to find.
Springer: Exactly, have you people never seen Star Trek?
This camp here is a part of that then? International Summer of Dissent, is this a way of globalising the opposition to the multinational corporations or what?
Springer: Absolutely. I think that is the lesson for the activists, especially when you are coming from a point of disadvantage, to take the tools that are being used to oppress you and turn them on their head. What else are you going to do? That is the lesson of my history. I think at this point, I have no other alternative other than to use these tools to fight back. If globalisation is what is destroying the world, globalisation is what has to save it as well.
Maregele: I think what Atillah is saying is that if globalisation has planned to divide us, eventually, globalisation will unite us.