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Bush Fighting 'Secret War' On Green Laws - Kennedy

Stephen Leahy

Robert F. Kennedy Jr. is the environmental movement's 800-pound gorilla, parachuting into trouble spots throughout the Americas, equally adept at pulling celebrity connections and successfully suing corporate polluters.

A senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), chief prosecuting attorney for the Hudson Riverkeeper and president of the Water Keeper Alliance, Kennedy is the third child of Senator Robert F. Kennedy, who was assassinated on Jun. 5, 1968. He spoke with IPS in an exclusive interview.

TORONTO, Apr 10 (IPS) - Robert F. Kennedy Jr. is the environmental movement's 800-pound gorilla, parachuting into trouble spots throughout the Americas, equally adept at pulling celebrity connections and successfully suing corporate polluters.

A senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), chief prosecuting attorney for the Hudson Riverkeeper and president of the Water Keeper Alliance, Kennedy is the third child of Senator Robert F. Kennedy, who was assassinated on Jun. 5, 1968.

He has been arrested while protesting U.S. Navy bombing exercises on Vieques Island, Puerto Rico; worked with Chilean environmental and human rights groups to try and stop dams on the Bio-Bio River and helped native peoples halt a massive series of dams near James Bay in Canada's north.

Kennedy was in Toronto in late March to ask Canadians to oppose a hydropower dam being built by Canadian energy company Fortis on the Macal River in Belize. Much of the last pristine rain forests in Central America are found in this small Caribbean coastal country of 250,000 people, nestled between Mexico and Guatemala.

Kennedy sat down for an interview with IPS.

Q. What is the issue here?

A. I've been to the Upper Macal River and it's one of the most extraordinary ecosystems I've ever seen. It's the last intact rainforest watershed in all of Central America. It hasn't been disturbed since the ancient Maya. You can see these extraordinary forests growing over the old Mayan Ruins.

It also has the last major rookery for the Scarlet Macaw in all of Belize, and probably in all of Central America. There are 13 species, many of which will probably go extinct in Central America if this dam is constructed. It has the highest concentrations of jaguars and tapir, the national animal of Belize.

The dam that's proposed by Fortis will only supply something like 2.9 megawatts of power - about enough electricity to power three small hotels. It's a very small amount of energy to sacrifice these extraordinary resources, which are global resources.

Q. Why should this dam concern Canadians?

A. The Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) provided the funds for the geological testing that underpins the environmental impact assessment (EIS) requested by the Belizian government `It claims the dam is going to be constructed on granite but the studies actually show the geology in that area is fractured shale and sandstone, which is highly likely to rupture or fail if the dam is constructed there.

Q. But won't a new hydro dam benefit the people of Belize?

A. In terms of economics, the project makes no sense. Belizians suffer under an electricity monopoly owned by Fortis that's one of the most oppressive anywhere in the Americas. Fortis makes a profit margin per kilowatt-hour (kWh) that is three to six times higher in Belize than what they make in Canada.

By way of example, (Canada's province of) Ontario recently capped the electricity rates to its consumers at 4.3 cents per kWh. Belizians pay 17 to 21 cents. That's more than twice as much as their neighbouring countries, such as Honduras and Mexico.

Fortis made 68 million dollars in profit last year, and somewhere around 25 million dollars of that came from Belize. (The company says 2002 profits were 63.3 million dollars and of that, 11.5 million dollars were generated in Belize - editor). Belize has a population of only 250,000 people, and if this dam is constructed it will impoverish these people for 50 years or more.

We are most concerned that the Canadian government and CIDA (the Canadian International Development Agency) have given legitimacy to a deal that most courts would rule as unconscionable.

Q. Belize is a democratic country. Why would they participate in a project that won't benefit them?

A. There is an imbalance of power when a large multinational corporation comes into a very poor country and makes behind-the-doors sweetheart deals with government officials that end up enriching a few people while impoverishing an entire nation. This is the worst face of globalisation.

One of the problems that people see with globalisation is that when vital public trust assets like water supplies and energy are owned by a foreign corporation there's no such responsibility to the people of that country. Companies like Fortis are international outlaws.

Q. What's wrong with corporations making a profit - isn't that what powers our economies?

A. I believe in free market capitalism. But in a true free market economy you can't make yourself rich without making your neighbour rich. You show me a polluter and I'll show you someone who's imposing their costs of production on the public.

Eastern Canadian lakes are contaminated with mercury and your forests are acidified. That's the result of coal-burning power plants in the Ohio valley.. Those impacts pose costs on the people of Canada and should, in a true free market economy, be reflected in the price of electricity generated by those plants. If those plants had to pay the true cost of bringing their product to market, they would shift to natural gas or other less polluting counterparts.

We ought to force polluters to absorb the true costs of doing business. Not doing this ends up distorting all of free enterprise.

Q. Are the problems Belize is having with a multinational corporation unique to developing countries?

A. We're having the same problems in the U.S. Large multinational corporations come in and easily dominate local political landscapes, forcing out competition and destroying small and medium sized business.

Government are easily bought off by fat cats using political clout to escape the free market economy. They don't want free market capitalism, they want monopoly capitalism. The Bush administration is inclined to facilitate corporate profiteering at public expense.

Q. What about the criticism that you are a big American non-governmental organisation (NGO) that's ''interfering'' in local issues?

A. We don't go to countries unless we're invited by local citizens or NGOs for our help and expertise. People in Belize, who were overwhelmed by the power of Fortis, turned to NRDC and to other northern groups to come down to assist them. We know a lot about fighting these multinationals; that's what we do. So a lot of times we can be useful to them.

It's ironic to hear people from Fortis say NRDC doesn't have the right to represent environmental interests in Belize when Fortis is there representing its own self interest.

Q. Have the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan taken attention away from environmental issues at home?

A. It has made it easier for large corporations to operate without public scrutiny and enabled them to make deals that are scandalous. In times like these we're seeing the constraints lifted on large corporations like Lockheed, a huge polluter. The oil and fossil fuel industry and other commodity industries are given a much freer rein to operate.

I'll give you one specific example. Smithfield Foods, the largest pork producer in the world, invented a way of raising pigs in large factory farms which creates huge amounts of pollution, impoverishes farmers, and distorts markets. By educating the public, politicians and press in other countries like Poland, we have been able to stop Smithfield from expanding into those countries.

As a result of President Bush's efforts to bring Poland into the coalition against Iraq, there was a 12.5-billion-dollar loan guarantee. Attached to that guarantee were a number of requirements that forced Poland to accept U.S. corporate presence in their country including Smithfield. Part of the loan has to be repaid to Smithfield.

Q. How would you characterise the current U.S. administration's approach to environment?

A. President Bush has a secret war against the environment. It is a stealth attack. He's now eviscerating America's environmental laws. He has 100 proposed rollbacks of environmental regulations that even if just a portion go through, by this time next year we will have no federal environmental laws..

That's not an exaggeration. These laws are being passed below the radar screen. They're being attached to large budget bills that must be passed so there's no public debate in Congress or elsewhere.

If you talk to the American people - and all the polling shows this - around 75 percent, Democrats and Republicans alike, support stronger environmental laws. Only seven percent say we need the laws weakened.

But it's those seven percent that have influence with this administration. Those are the people from the oil, chemical, and pharmaceutical industries and real estate developers who now wield tremendous influence with this government.

President Bush is the worst environmental president in the past 100 years. (END)