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Nonprofit fights environmental degradation

By Daniela Mohor Daily Planet staff
Friday August 17, 2001

In the four years she has been working at Project Underground, a Berkeley-based nonprofit organization that fights against abusive gold mine and oil exploitation, Catherine Baldi has seen the organization grow.  

She has seen the staff increase to nine. She has seen the budget swell. And she has even seen a few communities come out victorious in what she characterizes as their battle against corporate interests. 

Created in 1996 in reaction to the murder of an environmental activist in Nigeria, Project Underground started as one of the few organizations trying to raise awareness around the human rights implications of environmental issues all around the world, according to Baldi. 

“It started out of the need to build a bridge between the human rights and the environmental movements and the indigenous rights movement,” said Baldi, who is Project Underground’s information coordinator. “We’ve evolved into an organization that has a very strong presence in the environmental movement and has the expertise about oil and mining impacts.” 

This expertise, Baldi explained, allows Project Underground to expose these problems and educate communities all over the world on the environmental consequences of oil and mine exploitation. At the beginning, she said, the organization spent much time doing “direct action,” such as demonstrations. But now Project Underground focuses more on supporting the communities by providing them with technical, legal, and scientific assistance.  

“We have built much more accountability through our campaigns,” said Baldi. “We do more of the direct support work and less direct action. We’re kind of a resource transfer organization.”  

Project Underground also works locally, taking advantage of its proximity to the U.S. government and international financial institutions. It uses different kinds of public pressure to get the corporations to stop their operations. 

One of Project Underground’s first campaigns, Baldi recalled, was against a Louisiana-based company called Freeport McRoRan. This corporation operates the world’s largest gold mine in Indonesia and is accused by Project Underground of protecting its profitability at any human and environmental cost. 

Project Underground’s public pressure, Baldi said, led other organizations to join the anti-Freeport McRoRan campaign and consequently, the company admitted human rights observers into the area. 

This is among the accomplishments that have given Project Underground the credibility it needed to grow quickly. In five years, its staff has doubled and its budget is almost four times what it used to be. During fiscal year 1997-1998, the organization counted on no more than $175, 000. This year, it received $800, 000 from private donors and foundations, such as the Richard and Rohda Goldman Fund or the Global Environment Project Institute. This financial support will allow the organization to keep working on its three current campaigns. It will also permit it to pursue other projects, including the creation of a North American network of activists and communities and the development of a database. 

Project Underground will celebrate its fifth anniversary with a fund-raiser Friday from 6 to 9 p.m., at its offices at 1916A Martin Luther King Jr. Way. French-Senegalese singer Henry Pierre will perform, as will a group of Native American drummers called The Young Eagle Singers. There will Guatemalan food, a raffle and childcare. For more information, call 705-8981 or go to: