People & Planet National Halloween Action: ‘A Nightmare on Gower Street’

On Friday the 30th of October, as part of People & Planets Halloween Actions across the UK, Fossil Free UCL staged a Halloween themed flash mob across campus to remind the University of its frightening continual investment in the Fossil Fuel Industry.

Activists dressed as ghosts with placards and banners assembled in the main quad and moved across campus in a circuit through Malet Place as part of the ‘Nightmare on Gower Street’. The rolling flash-mob carried a Halloween themed three and a half metre tall gasoline-pumping puppet and chanted “UCL UCL, DON’T PUT US IN CLIMATE HELL” whilst playing cheesy Halloween classics from a mini-amp. This carnival-like affair drew the attention of students, yet the message that we will not tolerate the complicity and inaction of UCL in exacerbating planet destroying climate change, was still clear.

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This action was part of a national day of Student Action with 151 Universities in England, Scotland and Wales facing actions from students and staff, as activists aim to encourage universities to divest the £5.2 billion they currently invest in the fossil fuel industry. With the upcoming COP21 Climate Talks in Paris this December, campaigners are looking to challenge UK Higher Education Institutions to be consistent with their climate research and accept their role and divest before Paris. This is hoped to send a strong message to the UK government to push for a strong deal. Surrey University recently became the eight UK universities to divest, with People & Planet expecting to announce another three divestments before the end of December.

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Despite this growing momentum, UCL continues to directly and indirectly invest £21 million in this morally reprehensible industry, and in doing so fails to accept its role as a leading global institution. In fact, this continued investment violates its own ethical investment policy, as it is not analogous with its world leading research that recognises the catastrophic effects of continuous burning of fossil fuels. The recent hosting by UCL of Colombian activists representing communities accusing mining companies that UCL invests in, Glencore and BHP Bulletin, of human rights violations, is indicative of this contentious ethical investment policy.

UCL Fossil Free aims to lobby the university to divest as soon as possible as this relationship with the fossil fuel industry helps further perpetuate a growing cycle of poverty and exploitation, as it normalizes and finances the reckless exploitation and extraction of mineral resources, often at the expense of both environment and communities.

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UCL hosts activists from communities severely affected by the operations of the companies it invests in

Earlier this week, the Bartlett’s informal ethics research working group into mining and the London Mining Network (LMN) hosted Samuel Arregoces and Danilo Urrea from Colombia, who shared with us the atrocities committed by Cerrejon mining company. Samuel came representing FECONADEMIGUA — the Federation of Communities of African Descent Affected by Mining in La Guajira — and Danilo came as part of CENSAT Agua Viva — Colombia’s branch of Friends of the Earth. It was crucial that we hear what they had to say: the Cerrejon mining company is in equal parts owned by BHP Billiton, Glencore, and Anglo-American, and UCL is an investor in BHP Billiton and Glencore. BHP Billiton also established and funds the Institute of Sustainable Resources. As a shareholder, UCL has a duty to understand the implications of its investments upon the lives of people living close to the mine.

The Cerrejon mine has been operating in the area of La Guajira, close to Colombia’s border with Venezuela, in an area that was formerly dry tropical forest — a rare ecosystem — but has now been destroyed as a consequence of mining and is in the grips of a drought. For the past three decades — years which Samuel referred to as “30 years of destruction, 30 years of sadness, 30 years of pain” — the mining company has been operating in this area and has displaced populations of Afro-Caribbean residents, made their environment unlivable, and has actively prevented them from seeking recourse.

The mining company has been expanding its activities in the context of a general increase in mining in Colombia between 2002 and 2010 and a removal of many barriers to companies seeking mining licenses. Over the course of its expansion, many negotiations with the Colombian government occur without third party observation or negotiation, and are in a language many of the communities in the area are unable to understand or challenge. Rather than spend money on ensuring it meets its responsibilities to the people living in proximity to the mine, the company has spent large amounts of money on marketing and publicity.

By 2014, the widespread violations the company had wrought upon the communities living in the area and upon the environment led the communities to accuse the company of violating several human rights (under the UN Declaration of Human Rights) and their right to a healthy environment (under the Colombian constitution). The company had violated their right to water: in La Guajira, people consume less than one liter of water per day. The area has one of the highest infant mortality areas in the world as a consequence, and the highest infant mortality rate in Colombia. The company had also violated their right to a healthy life, by making respiratory, intestinal, and eye illnesses common, due to pollution and as a consequence of proximity to mining activities. The company had also violated the communities’ right to remain in their own territory by forceful displacement (backed by paramilitary forces) and by the annihilation of their land and water resources which have made agriculture impossible.

“Even as we are dying of thirst, the mining company wants to take away the little water we have,” Samuel told us. The Cerrejon mining company has been attempting to divert the seven tributaries that feed the Rancherria River, the main and only source of water for the region, in order to access the significant reserves of coal underneath the river. If they succeed in diverting these tributaries, the Rancherria will stop running.

A UCL staff member shared UCL’s principle that it is better to work with companies rather than to divest from them, and asked “What is better? Investing in companies in order to control them? Or divesting?” In answer to this question, Samuel highlighted that whatever decision a university makes — in favour or against divestment — it needs to be held accountable to those decisions and the effects of their investments on environment and culture. The only viable option if continuing to invest in BHP Billiton and Glencore is continued contact with the communities affected in order to find viable solutions and a better community. Danilo’s response was that an objective historical analysis of UCL’s role in the Cerrejon mine and La Guajira is necessary, and many members of the audience pointed out to chime in that that while UCL prides itself on evidence-based research, its tradition of promoting reductionist scientific principles often means discounting powerful testimonials such as these as evidence.

Samuel left us with the following words on the topic: “When you weigh the profits these companies are making against the environmental and cultural damage they impose, you can see for yourself whether these profits are worthwhile.”

Danilo left us with questions Fossil Free UCL would like to pose to the UCL Council and management: “How long do we have to wait for a decision? And what will be happening in the communities around the Cerrejon mine in this time?”

Real Leaders Divest

We had an interesting day at the UCL Council Meeting last Monday, handing out copies of our report to staff with the list of UCL’s investments. UCL has around £20m invested directly or indirectly into the fossil fuel industry, yet they claim to be driving ‘solutions to the world’s major problems’… The decision to divest is in the hands of the UCL Council, so we staged a small presence at the entrance of the meeting to remind them of their responsibilities. Even Jeremy got involved!

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Council members had to walk straight past us and couldn’t ignore our message, but we were encouraged that early arrivals came back out of the meeting room to ask for a copy of the report. The meeting’s agenda had already been set, but our aim was to be present at the first meeting of the academic year, to send the message that our campaign isn’t going away.

Please help us push harder by signing our petition – we’re so close to 1,000 signatures!

 

Resisting Coal

Yesterday afternoon we welcomed four inspiring visitors from Columbia, Indonesia and the Philippines, who are touring the UK as part of their Dirty Coal tour with the London Mining Network. They had been to ask questions at the AGM for BHP Billiton, one of the largest mining companies in the world that is desecrating their homes in order to mine for coal. They are responsible for forcing indigenous people to accept tiny sums of compensation in exchange for their land, after which they clear luscious rainforest and drain rivers to make way for coal mines.

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Photo: Jo Syz

After the AGM they visited the UCL campus in order to give our Provost Michael Arthur a letter, asking the university to divest from BHP Billiton. The Provost refused to meet them (shocker), but a security guard ensured the letter would be delivered safely to him. BHP Billiton is one of the unethical British companies that UCL invests in, and therefore one that we are trying to disassociate the university from. Later in the evening, we heard stories from each speaker about how their communities had been destroyed by the company and their livelihoods shattered.

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We made our way to SOAS for the evening event, as UCLU decided to be über bureaucratic and cancel our room booking – thanks to SOAS for helping out at such short notice! Our four speakers, Rogelio, Francisco, Daryll and Pius, then told us about the fear and danger they were faced with at home from those who were exploiting their land.

Rogelio spoke passionately about the damage caused to his land by the Cerrejon mine in Columbia, joint owned by BHP Billiton, Glencore Xstrata and Anglo American. Their mines are sickeningly named after communities who have been displaced to build them, and 66% of the region are now living in poverty. Rogelio spoke of how 3,000 children have died in the last three years from drought, as the company drains the river to reach the coal underneath. They are no longer able to eat the natural produce they would have grown themselves, as they have no land on which to grow it; they have become consumers, forced to buy GM and chemical-ridden crops which is having a marked effect on their health. Anyone who stands in the way is falsely accused of collaborating with guerrilla groups.

Next we heard Pius from Friends of the Earth Indonesia, who are currently trying to stop BHP Billiton’s next Indomet mining project in the forests of Kalimantan. The communities here live off the forest in a healthy, sustainable way, hunting, fishing and drinking water from the rivers. The planned destruction of 350,000 hectares would be a huge problem for the communities’ survival, but the company is determined to exploit them. In the south, the forests are already being destroyed to fuel the palm oil industry; if the northern forests are destroyed too, the indigenous people will have nothing.

Lastly we heard Daryll from the Philippines, where a tribe of 20,000 people are facing extinction through the work of mining company Glencore Xstrata. Activists, environmentalists and their families are being massacred for protesting against the mass displacement of indigenous people; Daryll spoke of how a soldier killed a pregnant woman and her two children to try and deter her husband, the leader of an environmental group. Only 7,000 hectares of canopy rainforest now remain, but the government is allowing Glencore’s work and putting military operations in place to intimidate communities.

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Photo: Jo Syz

It was amazing to hear the stories of these men, who are living in danger every day for standing up for their communities. UCL have to take responsibility for their dirty investments; not only are they investing directly in these companies, but their Institute for Sustainable Resources is actually funded by BHP Billiton. By accepting their money, UCL are legitimising their exploitation and greenwashing their reputation.

Please sign our petition to force UCL to divest from companies like BHP Billiton, and keep the momentum going to put pressure on institutions worldwide to abandon dirty investments. You can find out more about the London Mining Network here.

Glasgow Leads the Way

Fantastic news! After 12 months of campaigning with over 1,300 students, Glasgow University has become the first academic institution in Europe to start divesting from fossil fuels. Earlier this month, the university court voted to halt investments worth £18m, marking a turning point in the student-led global divestment movement.

Writer and activist Naomi Klein told The Guardian: ‘Students around the world are making it clear that the institutions entrusted to prepare them for the future cannot simultaneously bet against their future by profiting from corporations that plan to burn many times more carbon than our atmosphere can safely absorb.”

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More than 800 global investors have pledged to withdraw a total of £31bn from fossil fuel investments over the next five years, including the Rockefeller brothers, religious groups, healthcare organisations and local governments. It’s now only a matter of time before more UK universities start divesting, and we will certainly be increasing our pressure on the powers that be.

We’ve learnt a lot from Glasgow’s experiences, and we were excited to hear about similar rumours from Kings College and SOAS recently. Please sign our petition to get our message across and create a Fossil Free UCL!

#FossilFreeUCL

Welcome to the Fossil Free UCL campaign! We are a collection of UCL students who are fighting for University College London to withdraw all their investments in fossil fuels.

UCL’s guiding principles state that ‘UCL will conduct itself ethically and fairly, and in an environmentally sustainable manner, locally, nationally and globally’. As of September 2013, UCL has investments in BG Group PLC, BHP Billiton, British Petroleum, Cairn Energy PLC, Royal Dutch Shell, Total SA and Seadrill Ltd – all of which are part of the world’s 200 largest fossil fuel companies. There can be no doubt that this industry is driving our global climate crisis, and we therefore believe these investments go against UCL’s guiding principles.

UCL must break ties with the fossil fuel industry. Please sign our petition to help us get the message across – even if you’re not a UCL student!
This effects everyone.

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