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Making a new world - Part Four: From the US to West Papua

Paul Kingsnorth
17 June 2003

openDemocracy: You travelled to the United States, where you encountered characters like the Reverend Billy and his ‘Church of Stop Shopping’. You conclude that consumerism is the enemy. Why?

Paul Kingsnorth: The activists I talked to in America said that consumerism is killing their country. They’re saying that corporations are so powerful – dominating the political process and the media – that the country has moved from being a place with an ideal of personal freedom to a nation where people get their satisfaction by buying things. They’re saying this is not real liberty; it is destroying local economies and creating a monoculture of corporate coffee shops and bookshops on every main street.

openDemocracy: In your book you quote an executive of the American clothing chain Kids R Us saying ‘if you own a kid at an early age you can own this child for years to come’. That’s chilling, but is there another side to this argument? Consumers can become sophisticated; they are not necessarily brainwashed, are they?

So, for example, you can go into giant organic supermarkets in some regions of America and buy a copy of the Utne Reader instead of the National Inquirer. Recently, even McDonald’s has found out that just churning out more hamburgers is doing them no good. They’re trying to now sell ‘healthier’ food – at least in theory – in order to maintain market share. Perhaps consumers are not as powerless as you fear. Surely, there’s a sense of humour in the proposal to put an advertisement on the International Space Station saying ‘Where there is life there will be Pizza Hut!’

Paul Kingsnorth: Yes, all that is probably true. But the issue isn’t so much individual consumers as the grip of corporations. If you have a system in which a shrinking number of very large corporations control the media, retail, and increasingly the government, then your choice as a consumer becomes reduced.

Let me take an example from this country, Britain. If you decide that you would like to buy your food in a local shop rather than a supermarket, then that choice is increasingly impossible because there are so few local shops left. Consumers don’t have much of a choice beyond Tesco’s or Starbucks. Look what’s happening here in Oxford. We have two Starbucks here at the moment; who knows how many more there will be? There are fewer local cafes and local shops than there used to be. Many corporations – McDonald’s is only one example – have spread their tentacles everywhere on earth, so that every city you visit increasingly looks the same, and every corner of the high street has the same corporations controlling it.

openDemocracy: Your book is published by Simon & Schuster which is part of Viacom, a giant media conglomerate which also owns Blockbuster and other aggressive companies in media markets. You’ve talked about monoculture in the media that shuts out alternative voices. But this corporation publishes your book and promotes it. Doesn’t this show corporations are not as malign as some people say?

Paul Kingsnorth: That’s true. Viacom think my book will sell, and that’s fine. The issue is not whether corporations are evil. It is whether they have too much power and are beginning to squeeze out smaller businesses and smaller alternatives.

I made a choice and a compromise, deliberately, with my book. I could have gone to a smaller publisher, but I just spent two years researching and writing it and I want as many people to buy it as possible because I think the message is important.

West Papua – visions of a new nation

openDemocracy: openDemocracy has featured your interview with John Rumbiak, a West Papuan activist. We’d also like to know your thoughts on that country, which you visited when researching the book. How is globalisation to blame for the long history of oppression there?

Paul Kingsnorth: Globalisation is not to blame for the Indonesian occupation of West Papua and oppression of its people. But there are reasons to be concerned about the activities of large multinational companies as well as large Indonesian companies on the island.

The majority of people in West Papua still live in tribal groups, remote from what many people in the west think of as ‘development’. But they are beginning to feel the effects of globalisation through the activities of companies like Freeport and BP.

The timing is crucial because, for the first time, there is a possibility that West Papua will gain dependence from Indonesia – perhaps in a few years time. And the Papuans are engaging in their own debate: if we had a nation-state, what would it look like? Would it resemble the rest of Indonesia? Would it be like the kind of centralised democracy that the west is so keen to promote, or could it become what many West Papuans want – a form of decentralised tribal democracy based on their own values? The problem that concerns me is that foreign corporations in particular are trying to influence the way that this debate is going.

openDemocracy: There’s a body in West Papua called the Praesidium which – from the description in your book – sounds like a group of serious, sophisticated Papuans who are thinking hard about the future. You find it worrying that they have been in discussion with some of the western corporations about the role of these companies after independence. But aren’t they just being practical, like the African National Congress in South Africa?

Paul Kingsnorth: It’s not just me who finds it worrying – many Papuans do too. The Praesidium has set itself up as a sort of government-in-waiting, and gets money from BP and Freeport. Many Papuans would like to have a debate about whether these corporations should even be there in the first place – and if they should, on what terms.

The Praesidium is saying that these corporations are a reality and we have to make the best of them. What is worrying a lot of Papuans is that the Praesdium is influenced by the western powers and by corporations far more than most Papuans would like them to be.

The big question that needs to be addressed is how can an emerging nation with very different values to many existing nations fit into a globalised world? How can it make the best of that world and still maintain its identity? That’s a really interesting question. It’s not something I’ve seen anywhere else, although it is similar in some ways to what’s happening in South Africa.

openDemocracy: In your book you describe the impact of the biggest mine in West Papua – the Grasberg. It is operated by Freeport McMoran. Like you, I’ve encountered that company. They’re not exactly angels. But the mine has already been built and there are strong pressures for more mines. What if the best case comes to pass and there is a real debate on the future of West Papua, and the Papuans decide they actually want to have large scale mineral and resource extraction as a route to some of the benefits of modern life?

Paul Kingsnorth: That may well happen. But that again is not the actual issue. The issue is if you want to extract resources in West Papua how are you going to do it? Are your own corporations going to do it? If not, are you going to allow multinationals to come in? If so, how? The Freeport mine is one of the major examples of abuse and exploitation of local people and the environment in the world. They’ve thrown hundreds of thousands of people off their land. They are paying the Indonesian army to support them, and the Papuans themselves don’t see any of the profits.

So it’s not a question of do they want to develop, and do they want cars and do they want computers. They might well do. It’s a question of who makes the decision and who benefits, and at the moment it’s not them.

openDemocracy: The question of independence from Indonesia remains. You visited some independence fighters with a group called the OPM. Your account of the meeting is hilarious, but there’s a deadly serious side to it too. One of them asks you and your colleague if you can get them some guns. And you say you found yourself wondering what you would do if you were able to get hold of weapons.

Paul Kingsnorth: The OPM is a bunch of extremely brave and slightly mad people in the forest, who are never going to be able to drive the Indonesians out. I wouldn’t give them any guns even if I knew how to. But the question is important. It’s the same question that you come across in Chiapas: to what extent should outsiders support armed resistance for a cause we believe to be just? The people of West Papua are desperate. They’ve been engaging in armed resistance for the last thirty years, and it’s mostly completely futile. But you do have this question in your mind all the time.

If the Zapatistas hadn’t risen up with guns in 1994 nobody would have paid any attention to their demands. They wouldn’t have got an indigenous rights group up to the Mexican Congress, and they wouldn’t have had such a global influence.

To what extent should people rely on negotiation when they’re under occupation from a vicious foreign power. This is a different debate to the argument about the rights and wrongs of throwing stones at demonstrations. It does focus your mind on the degree of suffering people experience in places like West Papua – a degree we can hardly imagine.

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