By Susanna Rankin Bohme
This guest post is published in advance of the American Society for Environmental History conference in Washington, DC. UC Press authors share their research and stories that reflect on this year’s conference them, Turning Protest into Policy. Come back for new posts every weekday until March 19th.
The notion of transforming protest into policy commonly conjures up scenarios of activism and political change at the local or national level. However, when considering responses to the uneven health and environmental impacts of transnational corporations, the location and object of protests and policy can be geographically and politically complex. This is certainly true in the transnational history of the pesticide chemical DBCP I tell in Toxic Injustice.
Since 1977, tens of thousands of former banana workers in Central America have linked their DBCP exposure to sterility, cancer, and other maladies. Known as afectados for the illnesses they suffer, they also share what they have called their “other painful experience”: dismissal of lawsuit after lawsuit brought in the United States against the corporations that produced and used DBCP (Shell, Dow, Dole, Chiquita, and others).
In response to illness and legal exclusion, since 1997 afectados in Costa Rica and Nicaragua developed protest movements that articulated a strong critique of US-based transnational corporations but took national governments as primary targets. Their policy goals and effects differed. Costa Rican afectados focused on obtaining compensation directly from the government they held partially responsible for their injuries. In Nicaragua, afectados instead passed legislation at the national level that facilitated lawsuits against fruit and chemical corporations, a move that converted the state from target to ally in a transnational struggle, as courts began returning multi-million dollar judgments against defendants.
What were the impacts of policies afectados achieved? In Costa Rica, activists won compensation for over 14,000 people, but amounts were low and corporations escaped unscathed. In Nicaragua, a powerful victory was followed by fierce opposition from transnational corporations, which have refused to heed Nicaraguan verdicts. In both cases, afectados’ partial successes as well as their failures can help point the way forward for other movements working to transform protest into policy to hold corporations accountable.
Susanna Rankin Bohme is Lecturer in History and Literature at Harvard University.