Danny Kennedy is the director of Project Underground, a Berkeley-based human rights and environmental organization which he helped to found in 1996. He is also a husband and a happy new father of a beautiful, bouncing baby girl.
Monday, 17 Jul 2000
Monday is a day I look forward to, not because I want the weekend to end and want to leave my beautiful baby and partner, but because I like the work we do here at Project Underground. I am proud to do what I do. Walking to the office at 6:00 this morning, however, I was grumbling to myself about why the hell I do it.
But then I only had to turn on my computer and download the email messages I’d received since Friday to remember. The most important virtual communication was from Nigeria, where we work with a number of communities resisting the depredations of the oil industry there. The email was one of thanks from our allies, with the good news that a small effort I made last week had been used to generate press coverage on a key issue in Nigeria.
On Thursday we had written to the Nigerian president decrying the execution of three children in the village of Ogale in the Eleme district of the oil-producing Niger Delta. They were shot for no reason other than that they were watching people siphon petrol from a leaking pipeline. This heinous crime was well documented, even decried by local police.
The murders were carried out by a “Task Force on Pipeline Vandalization,” which was commissioned by the president supposedly in order to stop people from stealing oil from the multinationals pumping in the area. In truth, the task force seems to be engaged in some kind of campaign of terror — much like that of the infamous Kill-‘n’-Go Mobile Police Squad that killed thousands of Ogoni between 1994 and 1996 — intended to repress the bubbling dissent in communities throughout the Delta against Big Oil.
This is why Project Underground was set up — to support the human rights of the Ogoni and other Niger Delta minorities, as well as people around the globe resisting mining and oil exploitation. It is good to see that working from the United States, we can throw daylight on such hideous acts as these and hope that it will stop them, like exposing a vampire to sunshine. We are aware that the process of creating change and protecting the human rights of people in such repressive settings does not come easily, but we do what we can to help.
And to that end, newly galvanized by kind words from our amazing friends from Nigeria, I set out to plan how best I can meet the goals of our organization. Monday is normally the day when I sit down with my ridiculous to-do list and try and break it into some manageable, if not bite-sized, chunks. I like to spend at least an hour revisiting my longer-term goals, according to my workplan and job description, and crafting three main goals for a week. Invariably I end up with at least five and a whole string of ancillary tasks.
This week I have some fundraising to do, both short- and long-term, since that is a big part of my job. The first deadline is this afternoon, of course, so I will be cranking to get that out the door in time. Then there are some calls I want to make to major donors to renew their support for us in the lead-up to our birthday party — since Project Underground just turned four. And finally I have to report to one of our past funders on our good work. Such mundane tasks are quickly overtaken by immediate demands and I have to fight the urge to just deal with the more interesting elements of our work.
Already today I have done a 15-minute radio interview about the struggle of the U’wa people of Colombia against Occidental Petroleum (check out our website for the latest); discussed the mineral economy of Japan with an old ally who wants to set up an organization to educate Japanese people about the worldwide impacts of their consumption of metals; and plotted our involvement in a strategy session on Citigroup with our program coordinator for later this week. And it is only 11:30 a.m.
Tuesday, 18 Jul 2000
Tuesday is staff meeting day. Project Underground is a very friendly, almost family-like shop, and so we spend a lot of time together talking through our work and plans. And today is the day when we do much of that talking. At 10:00 we’ll have a two-hour gathering, but before and then after that I’ll meet with various coworkers to check in about how things are going and what they need to do their work. Normally it is fun, creative, and worthwhile brainstorming so I look forward to it.
But talking takes a lot of time too. And time, while not necessarily money in a non-profit such as Project Underground, is needed for other things. Including fundraising, actually, which I determined yesterday is my priority this week. Time spent on internal talking also means less time spent dealing with the media, allies, and others who want information or want to work with us. At base we are information workers answering a lot of questions, trouble-shooting as we face various campaign choices, and trying to second-guess what will appeal to the public.
A question that has come up for us this week is how best to use the soapbox offered at the Democratic National Convention next month to highlight the problems of the oil industry and the fact that even our environmental vice president is in bed with Big Oil. Al Gore is a major shareholder in Occidental Petroleum. We’ve been fighting since 1997 to get Occidental to abandon plans to drill for oil on the sacred land of the U’wa people in Colombia.
The U’wa tribe came to fame when they threatened to commit mass suicide if Oxy extracted the “blood of their mother.” This is what they call oil, which they have known about for eons. This understanding fits perfectly into the U’wa cosmology, which perceives the earth as mother — much like other land-based cultures. And apart from the U’wa opposition to drilling because it would be ravaging their own mother, they have a very realpolitik reason to oppose Oxy’s plans: Where oil development goes in Colombia, the civil war and violence follows. The leftist guerillas come to blow up the installations of foreign oil companies, the military and right-wing paramilitary come to blow up the guerrillas, and the common folk and indigenous people of Colombia get caught in the middle.
So Project Underground, along with lots of other organizations, has been calling on Al Gore to use his influence to tell Oxy to not desecrate the U’wa territory and destroy these people. After all, the veep not only owns stock, but his daddy was on the Occidental board, his family farm leased a mine to the company, and he borrows the corporate jet every now and then for campaign hops. He could at least call the CEO of Occidental, Ray Irani, and discuss the rights of indigenous peoples, the need to phase out fossil fuels, and other problems he once pointed out in Earth in the Balance.
Instead, the Clinton-Gore administration has done everything it can to back Oxy in Colombia, including last month pushing through over $1.3 billion in military aid. In theory this is for the “War on Drugs,” but if the U.S. government were serious about that it wouldn’t give guns and money to the Colombian government and military who are much closer to the narco-traffickers than are the leftist guerrillas. The real reason for the U.S. military buildup in Colombia is to protect U.S. interests, of which Occidental is the largest in the country, from the threat of destabilization and opposition from folk like the U’wa. After all, three weeks worth of oil for the U.S. is more important than the survival of this tribe.
So back to my conundrum. It’s b
een pointed out that while Oxy is based in L.A., where the Democrats will convene, one of the major sponsors of the DNC is Chevron. And Project Underground’s other major oil campaign is with the people of the Niger Delta, trying to force Chevron to stop pumping and polluting there, as well as to cease and desist from collaborating with the ruthless Nigerian military. A significant leader of the Ijaw, a community of 12 million Nigerians, is coming to the United States in August and would be a great person to put on a DNC platform to explain the problems with Chevron. A convergence of activists like the one in Seattle last November for the WTO is expected for L.A., and it would be great to make this a key issue. But the question we need to answer is how to do this and on which issue?
Making strategic choices like this is one of the hardest parts of my job. In coming weeks we’ll have two organizers in L.A., rousing the rabble to protest the influence of petroleum companies on our political parties, both Republican and Democrat. And we’ll try to spotlight one of our cases to make the point. Resources will be allocated, actions orchestrated, maybe people will go to jail to underline their commitment to changing this sad status quo. And today, or at least this week, we have to make it happen. Stay tuned to see what we do … (And if you want background on the issues, check out our website).
Wednesday, 19 Jul 2000
Wow — Wednesday. It is already Wednesday and all those well-made plans from Monday seem to have gone out the window. My to-do list has grown out of control and we are yet to complete the funding proposals I set out to do at the start of the week. No wonder we always seem broke! That means this morning I have to knock them off, write the report to past funders, and plough into my list of things to do. I have five phone calls to make, two letters to write, a mail package to send, and board meeting minutes to type up. Fascinating stuff, I assure you!
This is my daily grind. As romantic as the human rights work that we do may seem, it is probably a lot like other desk jobs. Except the remuneration isn’t as good — at least not compared to people here in the Bay Area who earn $100K for “testing code.” Not that I am bitter — the rewards of this job are many, like the incredible people we get to work with, and far outweigh the downsides. But we’re not all out “in the field” doing battle with evil human-rights and environmental abusers. Sometimes we get to do that, and it feels good, but a lot of the time we are tied to a desk.
So today I will sit here from 8:00 a.m. to 2 p.m. and try to crank through my tasks. And then at 2:00 I’ll get to sit down and spend time crafting the next phase of one of Project Underground’s best programs: a collaboration with the Indigenous Environmental Network. That organization is an amazing array of native environmentalists across Turtle Island working to redress some of the environmental racism against the indigenous peoples of Mexico, the United States, and Canada, both urban Indians and those on reservations. It’s a privilege and pleasure to work with IEN, so I look forward to spending time on this.
Project Underground jointly manages the Indigenous Mining Campaign Project with IEN, which is an effort to develop a native capacity to deal with mining issues on indigenous lands. To date it has involved one staff person, the wonderful Ms. Sayo:kla Kindness of Oneida Nation in Wisconsin, who we have been training for nearly a year about the whys, hows, and wherefores of mining. Today we are going to start the conversation about what the next steps of the project will be, as Sayo:kla is now more than well enough versed in the scientific and social problems of mining on native lands. She wants to get out there and do something about it.
A lot of Americans don’t realize it, but the U.S. is still a major producer of minerals, especially metals and coal. And most of this comes from native lands. That is not a function of the surface area of the country controlled by indigenous peoples (if you look at a map, reservations and native claims do not cover much of the lower 48 at all), but a result of mining companies targeting indigenous people. Why do they do this? Power. They think they have it over native communities and leaders so they can get a better deal or cut corners, while it would be harder to dig a pit in a white community’s backyard.
This is why we call it environmental racism: There is a disproportionate environmental impact on native peoples in the U.S. from the problems engendered by mining — water pollution, destruction of habitat and sacred sites, radiation, etc. And the Indigenous Environmental Network wanted to address this systemic abuse, so they came to us because we’re an organization experienced in supporting communities resisting such exploitation and committed to indigenous and human rights. It has been a wonderful alliance, with our organization learning far more from Sayo:kla and her coworkers at IEN than we have imparted to her
We’ve gone through a period of training, taking exposure trips to places like Nevada where more than 24 mile-wide, mile-deep gold mines scar the lands of the Western Shoshone, and otherwise getting Sayo:kla involved in some campaign work. Our course of action now will likely be to conduct a needs assessment of all the issues (old uranium mines on Navajo land, the cyanide-based gold mines affecting the Western Shoshone, mercury poisoning from the 1849 Gold Rush for the Pomo of California) and craft a workplan to support the affected people to clean the messes up and stop the abuse.
Again, this is a work in progress and no startling change is going to take place today as a result of our meeting, but slowly we will make a difference. It is one of the things I like most about the Indigenous Mining Campaign Project — we recognize that slow and steady wins the race when it comes to social change. We have invested a lot in training an organizer and are now going to send her into the field to begin the laborious process of building power amongst native peoples fighting wrongs done to them in pursuit of mines and money. It’ll take time but it’ll be worth it to roll back some corner of the blanket of oppression that has nearly smothered indigenous communities for the last 500 years or so.
Thursday, 20 Jul 2000
NAPA VALLEY, Calif.
I wake up at the beautiful Mountain Home Ranch in Napa Valley, a couple of hours north of the Bay Area. Yesterday, after working with Sayo:kla on the Indigenous Mining Campaign Project, she and I and our coworker Lwazi Kubukeli got in a car and came here for a strategic retreat on Citigroup. That’s right — America’s largest financial institution is the topic of today’s conversation and work, with an amazing collection of activists from across America who are plotting a pressure campaign on Citi.
Why? Well, Citibank, Salomon Smith Barney, and the 101 other companies under the umbrella of this mega-corp are involved in all kinds of deplorable activities, from undermining inner-city communities in the U.S. by refusing them access to credit, to financing highly destructive development projects and debt-creation industries in countries of the so-called “Global South.” As such Citigroup represents a key target in many public interest campaigns — kind of like that power source on the Death Star at the end of Star Wars that Luke Skywalker, Han, and Chewy had to destroy.
So here we are in the wonderful wine country of northern California educating ourselves about the private finance sector, how mutual funds work, what brokerage really is, and why the banks underwrite and otherwise facilitate destructive projects around the world. The Rainforest Action Network has convened this fantastic workshop because they have worked out that Citi is one of the major forces threateni
ng the world’s old-growth forests, but there are a bunch of other amazing activists here too.
Right now we are listening to an organizer from the Bronx whose group started trying to fix abandoned buildings and fight the slumlords of New York City. But they quickly found that it wasn’t enough to fight the fires of community decline and that they needed to go the source of the conflagration. They discovered a major cause is the banks that won’t give mortgages to people in poor neighborhoods nor loans to people, even well-intentioned landlords, who want to renovate their properties in these areas. So they are trying to force these institutions to invest in the communities that invest their savings in them.
Project Underground is interested in this emergent campaign because more often than not private sector finance is involved in the projects that communities we support are struggling against. A classic example is the financial advising that Citigroup provided on the Chad-Cameroon pipeline — a nightmare project being built by ExxonMobil, Chevron, and a consortium of oil companies in central Africa. Already 100 Chadians, suspected of organizing opposition to the pipeline, have allegedly been murdered by agents of Chad’s government, considered to be one of the world’s most corrupt.
The sickest thing about the Chad-Cameroon pipeline is that the companies building it didn’t even have to get private finance from the likes of Citigroup — they just got their advice on how to get the World Bank to fund it. That’s right: This disastrous pipeline — which will devastate some of the last rainforests in that part of Africa and the home of the Pygmy people of Cameroon — is paid for with loans of your and my money. The World Bank is theoretically a public institution, governed by the democratic donor governments of the world, and yet here they are providing corporate welfare to the likes of Exxon.
Lwazi, program coordinator at Project Underground, is South African and has a reason apart from his job to be interested in Citibank. Back at home he worked with the African National Congress in the struggle against apartheid, a system which was in part bankrolled by — you guessed it — Citicorp. So even back then, solidarity activists here in the U.S. were using Citibank as a focus to educate people about the evils of apartheid, and using divestment as a lever to change it. Now the challenge is to take them on, not for just one issue set, but for all the problems they contribute to.
More often then not, activists like us end up trying to cut off the flow of private or public finance that supports environmentally and socially unjust development. So we have some experience on how to influence these institutions in one-off cases. But the effort to go after Citigroup, from many different angles, is somewhat new territory.
At this gathering we are trying to share information, create alliances, and build trust between activists doing everything from fighting the prison-industrial complex to trying to stop the disastrous Three Gorges Dam in China that Citi is underwriting.
The education alone is intense for all of us here, and the planning this afternoon will be exciting. You’ll have to follow the newspapers in the months and years to come to see how successful we become.
Friday, 21 Jul 2000
I have just put the baby down for a nap and it is 11:30 so I am late with my contribution to Grist. This is my “day off,” when I get to be home with the baby, Aiko Unita. It is by far my hardest work day of the week — it’s a constant challenge trying to keep her happy, fed, hydrated, clean, and silly like little girls should be. I do not know how my wife, Miya, does it the other days of the work week. Not that I don’t like it, but it is tough.
And yet it is what life is about, after all. I am not just referring to our evolutionary or biblical purpose. But my work, which is about creating social change toward a more just and sustainable future, has definitely been driven further, faster, higher, and harder since we had a baby. I still haven’t quite worked out how to balance my passion for a political life with the needs of my new family, but, hey, I figure we’ve still got some time.
Aiko means child of love, which is appropriate enough for a baby born in Berkeley, to two people working in nonprofit human rights and environmental organizations. Her middle name is Unita, not after the CIA-backed rebels of Jonas Savimbi in Angola, but after a dear departed friend, Terry Freitas, who worked with Project Underground on the U’wa campaign. He was murdered in Colombia last March just as Aiko was conceived.
Terry’s middle name was Unity, which his parents had given him just 24 years before in a statement of incredible prescience. Terry was an amazing young man who had great personal skills, charm, and intelligence. (He also was one of those sickeningly fit guys, with a black belt in some martial art and a great sense of grace.) He walked into our office in 1997 concerned about the U’wa who he had visited in Colombia and wanting to know what we were going to do about their plight. It wasn’t long till we had to hire him.
Terry had enormous talent for bridging the traditional leadership of the U’wa with groups like us, campaigning to support them in the U.S. After a year of doing this difficult work and writing up a report on the U’wa and their struggle with Occidental Petroleum, Terry moved on. He was going to live in New York, to be with the newfound love of his life, and planned to do more proactive work in finding solutions for the U’wa people.
He went to Colombia in February 1999 with two native women from the United States, to look into ways to do cultural conservation work in the face of all the changes the U’wa were dealing with. After a week of working with the community, and on the way to a rural airport to leave, they were picked up by a brigade of guerrillas and kidnapped. We thought this would become an extortion ordeal, but they were executed a week later.
There is no rhyme or reason to these tragic murders, and Project Underground and other survivors of these three are yet to find peace with their loss. But it underscored the position of the U’wa that the oil development proposed for their land would attract violence, death, and destruction. With Terry gone and Aiko here, we have all the more reason to support people like these, resisting oil and mining exploitation and fighting for a full phaseout of fossil fuels, for the good of us all.
As the U’wa put it: “We are seeking an explanation for this ‘progress’ that goes against life. We are demanding that this kind of progress stop, that oil exploitation in the heart of the Earth is halted, that the deliberate bleeding of the Earth stop.” (Statement from the U’wa Traditional Authority, August 8, 1998.)
That’s what my work at Project Underground is all about, and I am glad to share it. I hope people reading this can join us and other groups working with people like the U’wa till we win. Thank you.