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Community versus corporation

By Gavin Mooney
Posted Tuesday, 28 September 2010

"It seems that whatever Alcoa says the government has to do, they're too scared to disobey…. I think Alcoa's got all the control. They tell the government what to do."  Yarloop resident.

The above is a quote from Under Corporate Skies, A struggle between people, place and profits by Martin Bruekner and Diann Ross, which tells the David and Goliath story of the struggle between the small West Australian community of Yarloop and the multinational corporation, Alcoa World Alumina, which has a refinery at Wagerup, just next to Yarloop to the south of Perth. The win by David in the original version is pretty much story book stuff. In this real world version from Brueckner and Ross, David has lost out big time. And the original story is nowhere as poisoned as this one - with poison occurring at two levels - as perceived by residents through the pollution in the air at Yarloop and through the bastardry of government (and other institutions such as local universities).

Brueckner and Ross tell the story of this "struggle between people, place and profits" in a remarkably dispassionate way. But it is all the more savage in its telling as a result of that.

The authors take us through the problems faced by the local community as a result of the pollution - air, noise and visual - from its corporate neighbour. They tell how so many local residents have had their lives destroyed and not just their health as a result of both the presence and the behaviour of Alcoa. Perhaps inevitably, given how these things work, the local neighbour when it comes to decision making was not truly local at all as the real power in Alcoa is in a far off board room in the US. It seems that at least some of the local Alcoa management were human in responding to the problems being created for the local community. But they had little power to act.

Thus the authors argue (p 245): "As a US-based multinational corporation with executive managers able to influence decisions of governments across borders, Alcoa exercised placeless power while at the same time maintaining a 'powerful place' at Wagerup by occupying the territory and pursuing its commercial interests."

One aspect of all of this that comes over strongly is that there is a degree of cleverness, one might say deviousness, with corporates that can be quite breath taking. In this case Alcoa set up voluntarily a "Land Management Plan" which created a buffer zone around Wagerup which involved some financial compensation/relocation for residents in that zone. Sounds good. But it did not include all Yarloop residents and split the town in terms not only of compensation but also emotionally. Deliberate on the part of Alcoa? Who knows but it certainly resulted in weakening the community position vis-a-vis Alcoa.  Then because Alcoa did this voluntarily "the government refrained from being involved when residents fell foul of the voluntary relocation as proposed by Alcoa" (p173). Deliberate on the part of Alcoa? Welcomed by the government? Who knows but it certainly resulted in weakening the community vis-a-vis not just Alcoa but also the government.

Scary stuff and heartbreaking to read about the desperate and despairing fight of the Yarloop residents.

The book exposes a number of intriguing issues. Just a couple. The question of what constitutes scientific evidence (especially in epidemiology) and how and by whom that is interpreted is discussed and science and epidemiology do not emerge well.

How corporations can act to protect themselves and infiltrate social institutions is fascinating and worrying as again the book exposes. The authors write of how (p227) Alcoa "secured a Professorial  Chair and gave its name to a new research centre  - Alcoa's Centre for Strong Communities (sic - or sick?) - at Curtin University of Technology" in Perth.  When the authors questioned the company about this initiative they were told "there was to be no relationship (with Yarloop) as the new Centre was not going to be addressing the specifics of the Wagerup issue."

This particular point is close to my heart. I was a member of staff at Curtin at that time and was invited on to local radio to talk about the fact that this "centre for strong communities" was being funded by Alcoa who were at the same time perceived by the Yarloop community as weakening them! On the afternoon of the interview I was summoned by a senior manager at the university and had my fingers rapped for daring to speak out as I had in the media.

The influence of the corporations on government and other of our key institutions like our universities needs to be exposed again and again and again. This book does an excellent if frightening job of doing that.

So where does this leave us? There is a risk in the wake of the "success" of the mining corporations in destroying the tax on super profits that we grow to accept that this sort of behaviour by corporations is all fine and that business interests and the national interests as implied at the weekend by Michael Chaney are often synonymous.  Acceptance of that places our democracy at risk.

We need the Brueckners and the Rosses of this country to tell this sort of story and we must be glad that they do. But telling the story ain't enough. We must read their story! Please do that. Their tale is horrendous so be sure to have a stiff drink before you start - especially if, as I do, you live in WA.

Under Corporate Skies, A struggle between people, place and profitsby Martin Brueckner and Dyann Ross is published by Fremantley and can be purchased for $26.95.

Gavin Mooney is a health economist and Honorary Professor at the Universities of Sydney and Cape Town. He is also the Co-convenor of the WA Social Justice Network . See www.gavinmooney.com.

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