In the late 70’s in Eastern Kenya where I served as a Baptist missionary, a German global agricultural conglomerate bribed its way into obtaining hundreds of thousands of acres along the Tana River in order to irrigate food for export—for foreign exchange to buy oil and nice cars— not for human development.
The Swiss government assisted me to hire and then they gave asylum to a Kenyan lawyer to defend the thousands of families eking out a living on the poor soils of the arid old game hunting preserve who would become homeless should the German project succeed. These poor families had once before been moved by the Kenya government from the urban slums of Nairobi to beautify the city for some important international event—maybe the world cup at the time.
In any case, these families had no legal recourse either against their own government or the global corporate engine about to steamroll them. They resisted the best way they knew how, trying to scare the surveyors and government officials when they showed up—using witchcraft with dead cats and hexes and, when possible, loud, unruly crowds around expatriates—a rural demonstration intended only to frighten. In return for this “resistance,” the Kenya government sent out its crack riot troops—the General Service Unit—American trained and equipped, I should add. They terrorized the population along the main access road so that burnt huts and crops sent a message to the rest—don’t mess with progress!
But then, suddenly, the global corporation stopped its project. Not because of any resistance or moral obligation to rural peasants or land ownership, but because the river was so toxic from pollution by upstream foreign companies as to render any food product highly carcinogenic. It might be suitable to sell (but too expensive to buy) to native slum-dwellers in the capitol of Nairobi, but it wouldn’t do to export to Europeans, possibly their own children. So the Germans packed up and the little people went back to scratching the land and hoping for a decent future. Irrigating as they could at their own peril. I left them after working toward self-reliance for a number of years and came back to live responsibly—so they wouldn’t have to be slaves to produce my coffee, tea and fresh flowers! That brings us to this place and time.
Yesterday we got a notice of intent to frack by a major drilling company and their shell corporation called IronWill. Our eleven acres of old cotton and cornfield, laced with arsenic as it is (we all live in Chernobyl), lies above the now coveted Glenrose shale formation. Ironwill and its parent company, ZaZa whatever, have served us notice that they will be “fracking” on the land pooled for their purposes that includes our small property and 300 foot well. We own 5% of the mineral rights, and the rich, absentee landowners around us own the rest. They will not be hurt by fracking. They will get richer in comfort far away. Thousands of trucks hauling toxic chemicals and spilling toxic waste will now cover our land and pastures with dust and ruin our quiet days with noise. The shallow well on which we depend will certainly be polluted beyond use and yet, if it is, we must “prove” they did it, of course.
In return for this great, impending (intended consequence) harm, they have offered us $6,000 for a three year lease and what adds up to about $100 a month if they extract any oil at all. To get that sum, we must sign a non-disclosure contract not to reveal any activity, payment or lawsuit related to their exploitation of our land. They want complete secrecy for their activity. The rich have the leisure to invent such rules, for that is, necessarily, how they stay rich. And only the rich can afford to invest in drilling in the first place since if it fails they get big tax breaks and if it succeeds huge daily sums to play with off-shore.
So. Here we are, two old, poor, retired people about to embark on the final aspect of our Life-Place project--to build a house that can withstand earthquakes from fracking and reduce our dependence on fossil fuels. And, we wonder today if the entire enterprise is now moot— hopelessly lost to a global, inhuman, steamroller corporation. Don’t get in the way of progress, creating jobs, freedom from Saudi dependence and support of their terrorism in response to our
presence. That is the sort of moral equivalent to war by which they justify the ruination of not just their own country but, potentially, the entire planet. Shocking how un-important “other” living, human beings really are! So why would the quality of our land, water, and agriculture be of concern? It clearly isn’t!
I can truly appreciate the poetic justice in this reversal. I am now a Kenya squatter. I finally “know” what the settlers in Eastern Kenya felt. I represented a heavily armed nation that controlled their government, created convenient debt for the people to pay and provided no legal cover for a single citizen against any multi-national. Why then should I expect anything different for me and my wife? I don’t. Ironwill and friends will drill and frack and cut in roads and pipelines and build compressor stations where and when they “will.” No Swiss lawyer will defend our rights or offer asylum! So what to do?
We will proceed to make blocks, build our house and only move (pick up and leave unusable andun-sellable land) when we cannot drink our well water and breathe the air over our property or sleep with the pounding of nearby compressors. The house will be built to withstand earthquakes sure to follow fracking. The $6,000 dollars is like thirty pieces of silver. It is a betrayal. It is, finally, an insult that reflects the true value of human life to this corporation. We will put it in savings to defray some of the costs when we have to abandon our Life-Place.
We don’t know how long we have to work here now, facing a company called “Ironwill” as we do. We will not resist them in court nor on our property. We fully expect the legal system and the government to be on “their” side, not ours. They have already won. Their contract fully “complies” with Texas State law—so they tell us.
Paradise, for these two retirees, is truly lost! It’s not the actual project of brick and mortar that matters so much, it is the anticipation of the loss a quiet life that we can afford that has been destroyed. How can we re-construct hope for the future under these circumstances?
Sheldon Wolin, in his recent book, Democracy Incorporated, explains how this has come to pass for us and our friends in Kenya on this terrible day in June, 2014: “Corporate economic power became the basis of power on which the state relied, as its own ambitions, like those of giant corporations, became more expansive, more global, and at intervals, more bellicose. Together, the state and corporation became the main sponsors and coordinators of the powers represented by science and technology. The result is the unprecedented combination of powers distinguished by their totalizing tendencies, powers that not only challenged established boundaries— political, moral, intellectual, and economic—but those whose very nature it is to challenge those boundaries continually, even to challenge the limits of the earth itself.”