Friday, April 27, 2012

Los Afectados

{This article was written in 2007, a year before the collapse of global capitalism and its underlying rot. Los Afectados first appeared in the Kansas City Star.}

The oil field is named Ispingo-Tiputino-Tambococha, a Quechua word. Quechua was the language spoken by the people that lived in the region now called Ecuador, long before the Spaniards arrived in search for gold, glory and God.

The Spaniards that trudged up the Andes Mountains in the 16th century were not the effete from the court of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, but hardened peasants in search of the “better” life. The clash of civilizations was inevitable, a clash the Incan rulers lost in a relatively short period of time. Today, a struggle on a global scale is taking place and Ecuador is both a metaphor for this battle as well as a very real, heart-wrenching example of an environmental heart-of-darkness.

The present day story of Ispingo-Tiputino-Tambococha or ITT caught my attention, as I had lived in Ecuador in 1973 working with the Peace Corps and the Pan American Health Organization, a year or two after oil drilling had begun in earnest, but which at the time I knew little about, except for the occasional oil executive I noticed being driven to the presidential palace or the “roughnecks” I’d run into at some bar in Quito, the capital. The Ecuadorian oil story, however, started well before ITT.

In actuality, hardly anyone in Ecuador knew much about the search for oil, including the corrupt archetypal military junta that ran the country, albeit useful to the decaying oligarchs dwelling in their colonial past, as well—in another reality—assorted North American corporations.

Out of sight and out of mind was the reality. The oil was located in the unmapped and remote Amazon region of the country. Of course nothing of importance was there, except for animals, plants and a few jungle “primitives,” who could hardly be called human by the standards of the ruling class in Quito and the oil executives in Houston and New York.

Of course everyone had a view of the “others.” Those that lived in the Sierras referred to the coastal people as los monos, the monkeys. The “Indians” were merely held in contempt, even among some mestizos, those that were only half-Indian.

Above all, this was the early 1970’s. “Green” was just a color, “climate change” yet to be discovered, and Earth Day only recently established. Finally, the United Nations had declared Ecuador one of the poorest countries in South America; the indigenous people lived lives of quiet desperation, at least the ones that resided in and around cities and towns. Could oil be Ecuador’s salvation?

Texaco obtained the concession in 1964 and the oil started flowing by 1972. Over the next 20 years or so the company constructed a 300-mile pipeline that led from the oil wells in the Amazon jungle to the Pacific Ocean. Out of sight and out of mind was the guiding principal. By some accounts, over the time period of the Texaco concession, the pipeline leaked more oil into the soil and water than the entire Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska.

Today, an area of more than 1,500 square miles may be one of the most contaminated industrial sites in the world, with high levels of chemical toxins that are associated with oil drilling and extraction. For the majority of Ecuadorians the country is still poor.

In an article in Vanity Fair, written by William Langewiesche and entitled “Jungle Law,” Langewiesche tells of a lawsuit brought by some 30,000 Amazonian settlers and indigenous people against Chevron, which purchased Texaco in 2001. It is possibly the largest environmental suit ever filed. The suit wants Chevron to “clean up the residual mess that continues.” The clean up is estimated to cost possibly some $6 billion. In 2005 alone Chevron earned $14 billion in profits. It’s expected that this lawsuit may drag on for years. The residents of Ecuador involved in this class action call themselves Los Afectados—the affected ones.

This brings us back to the Ispingo oil fields. ITT is located in the middle of Yasuni National Park, which covers some 1.7 million acres, about the size of the state of Delaware and which may be the most diverse forest on earth according to some biologists. It is also home to numerous indigenous people, who are dependent on a healthy rain forest for their survival.

But finally, according to the University of Maryland’s Sustainable Development and Conservation Biology program, Yasuni National Park could sequester possibly a half-billion tons of CO2—which in 2007 we know could be increasingly important to all of us.

To add more complexity to the ITT story the president of Ecuador, Rafael Correa, has publicly stated that he will seriously consider not developing this oil field, even though his country is poor and most certainly can use the oil income.

Correa will postpone oil development for at least another year if the international community makes a commitment to compensate Ecuador for approximately half of the projected lost revenue, estimated to be more than $300 million per year.

The Ecuadorian president has acknowledged the environmental significance of Yasuni, but is also asking the wealthy countries to now acknowledge—in concrete terms—what Ecuador will have to give up. To put the $300 million in some perspective, the United States over a four year period has spent more that $400 billion for the Iraq war.

At the present time the Brazilian national oil company as well as the Chinese and Venezuelan governments have oil concessions in the region and want to expand their operations in order to extract even more oil.

We Americans buy some 10,000 gallons of gas a second, yet we give little thought where it comes from or what it takes to get to that pump. We become nearly hysterical when the retail price slips above $3 a gallon. Politicians demand investigations and automotive companies—and their unions—claim the technology isn't “ready” to improve fuel efficiency. The oil companies until recently told us that global warming was … well, lacking sound science. The excuses are endless. And what do we want the Chinese to do?

William Langewiesche in his article tells of a discussion he had with one of the original settlers living in the region when Texaco arrived. “This used to be a paradise. The waters were clear and full of fish. We used to see all sorts of wild animals. Birds, parrots, and everything. It was beautiful. A paradise. But then it was all gone. The oil company came.”

We know the value of oil and we know how to compute its price. Do we know the value of clean air, water and biodiversity? Is there a price to pay?

We will all become Los Afectados. We will all become the “affected” ones, perhaps much sooner than we are willing to contemplate.

Update 2012

Water is the source of life. Without clean water we can't survive.

Emergildo Criollo, leader of the Cofan people, Ecuador)

After more than 18 years, an Ecuadorian judge in February 2011 ordered Chevron to pay some $17 billion in fines and punitive damages over the environmental contamination in Ecuador.

Chevron, not surprisingly, said it would appeal the ruling, calling it “illegitimate and unenforceable.” Eighteen years before, when the suit was first filed in a New York court, Chevron fought to have the jurisdiction moved to Ecuador because the oil company claimed they could get a “fair trial there.”

Since the judgment was handed down in 2011 the case has weaved its way through the legal system with all the attending minutia. It also ended up in the International Arbitral Tribunal. For anyone interested in the legal proceedings, see “Arbitration-Ecuador” below.

Ecuadorian indigenous leaders eventually went to England to meet with the major institutional investors in Chevron corporation. At the present time even some of Chevron's supporters are now saying that, as the company's litigation prospects have dimmed considerably, its time for Chevron to reach a specific settlement. The plaintiffs themselves are now in the process of moving to seize Chevron assets in Latin America and throughout the world. It is not over but there may be a faint end in sight.

It's about an oil field named Ispingo-Tiputino-Tambococha and the people, animals and plants that have lived near it for a long time. But it's ultimately about all of us and what we're willing to do to make the necessary changes.

Coming home to America

For us Americans there are lessons as well. It goes way beyond waiting for some “new” technology to save the day, tinkering with the tax code, praying for a different type of politician, texting our colleagues, conjuring up a third party or even attempting to amend the Constitution. Of course all of these things have merit and are worthy of our time and effort.

The status quo, however, is not going to roll over and fade away and will certainly use violence if its core interests are threatened. It's going to come down to mobilization from below and organized action in the streets and within the various institutions. There is no short term, convenient fix at this point. We Americans are now Los Afectados.

Additional Reading:

Panama: Village of thedamned (indigenous people, Panama)

“They're killing us” (indigenous people, Brazil)

The Globalization of HollowPolitics  (French elections)

World Bank helps corporations with land grabs in Africa

The First Global Man (closer to what actually took place in the Americas)

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Be happy don't worry

Life is worth more than gold.

(slogan adopted by indigenous people in Ecuador and Peru in protest over environmental destruction)

If any question why we died tell them, because our fathers lied.

(Rudyard Kipling)

Gulf Seafood Deformities

A short story about Latin America

It's unlikely that many Americans are aware of the unfolding changes that are occurring in Latin America, certainly beyond what Chavez of Venezuela says about the U.S. or the endless stories about the growing economic power of Brazil.

One of the less publicized changes—outside Latin America at least—is the spreading movement of indigenous people throughout the region to protect their communities from corrupt governments, global corporations and large state controlled enterprises such as found in China. These are the people whose ancestors inhabited the region long before the Spanish conquistadors arrived.

Mobilization efforts in particular have been directed at protecting water rights and mining exploitation but are now spreading beyond just the local or a few particular issues. Well organized movements at the present time can be found in Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia and Guatemala.

Voices are being raised that are calling for the protection of the environment, basic civil rights, an end to mono-culture agriculture, forest destruction and the endless mineral concessions given to trans-national enterprises. See Why the International Day of Peasants' Struggle is Important and Peru sets up close scrutiny of Conga mine.

Passing through North America

The Colombian writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez, a Nobel Prize winner in literature, once said, “Human beings are not born once and for all on the day their mothers give birth to them, but … life obliges them over and over again to give birth to themselves.”

What do we Americans think we're obliged to do? Perhaps we really are too frightened at this point to let go of the status quo even as it crumbles around us. Maybe we are so bereft of new ideas at home that we better see what is happening in the rest of the world, even though many of us can't believe the rest of the world has anything to teach us, certainly not some peasants in Latin America.

What can those indigenous people possibly know about the 21st century and the environment, that is centered in a global market economy? For an interesting “thought piece” on us Americans and what we might consider, read the New Yorker article Evening the Odds. Then read the short article National Journalreports: Things are bad in Real America.

Monster in the closet

We ultimately, it seems to me, cannot escape going back to the subject of climate change, even while we're dealing with the dismal here and now. Yes, yes we know now that changing minds entails a lot more than just the facts, but we still need the facts to help change the minds—many of them.

For an excellent article on the subject go to How We Know Global Warmingis Real and Human Caused. When you reach the Skeptic sight scroll down to the article. It was written by Donald R. Prothero, an actual climate scientist. Of interest as well, read the comments at the end of the article.

The fundamental problems have not been resolved … The crisis has entered what may be a less volatile but more lethal phase.

(George Soros, in Financial Times 2012)

Additional Reading:

“Doubt is our product”:PR versus science (the corporate art of confusion)

A Stain That Won't Wash Away (BP and the Gulf)[must log in to read article]

Mandato Por El Agua, La VidaY La Dignidad De Los Pueblos (movement of indigenous people in Latin America)

Why nations fail (point of view)

Cultural Cognition and theChallenge of Science Communication (video presentation, University of Cambridge)

Sunday, April 15, 2012

You're feeling sleepy ... 'job creators, job creators'

Richard Wilkinson on economic inequality

All is well!
(Kevin Bacon, in the movie Animal House)

A story in every pot

The congressman's facial expression was, for me, an Orwellian blankness, as he stated that further tax cuts for the rich would be good for the “job creators.”

While I did wonder at first if Representative Paul Ryan from Wisconsin, a Tea Party favorite, actually believed in his proposed draconian budget--a Gilded Age erotic dream--I concluded that he most certainly believed in what he said, at least a good part of it. Ryan is a true believer.

Over the past ten or twenty years there has been considerable research on how the brain functions and processes information and, while we hardly have a definitive understanding, we are a lot closer to knowing what takes place.

Naturally enough it was only a matter of time before we started speculating on political ideology and the how and why we choose particular sides. See 'The RepublicanBrain': Probing the Limits of Left and Right and Understanding theIdeological Divide Between Liberals and Conservatives.

At the same time, a healthy skepticism is necessary when we even hint at some sort of neurobiological determinism in deciding, for example, whether or not a person can accept the science of climate change, economic fairness or discarding the status quo. Of course, those of us that want to develop a new narrative ought not to dismiss these neurobiological possibilities too quickly.

Writing the bestseller

No one said it would be easy to write the new tale. It never is. The “old” European-American story began in the 17th century with the Puritans, many of whom believed fervently in communitarianism, but by the time our Founding Fathers were putting together the country called the United States in the 18th century, these privileged white men were focusing on and fearful of too much concentration of power.

For our founders, “democracy” back then meant preventing “mob rule and the triumph of passion over reason to serve the ambition of the demagogue.” The spirit of 18th century European Enlightenment guided these quite extraordinary individuals.

It was Alexander Hamilton in June 1787 at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia who said, “Your 'people,' sir, is nothing but a great beast.” In the 21st century we've arrived at the pinnacle of pathological individualism that's fraying rapidly around the edges.

Of course our new story must have as a central component actual fairness and the actual opportunity for all of us to seek the “dream” if we choose to do so. As well, the story is incomplete if there is no expectation of civic responsibility and shared sacrifice on the part of everyone without exception. Thus the story begins. “It was a dark and stormy night.”

I can pay one half of the working class to kill the other half.
(Jay Gould, 19th century speculator and financier)

We are safer here than in that little boat.
(John Jacob Astor, standing on the deck of the Titanic as it sank, April, 15, 1912)

It's war. It's like when Hitler invaded Poland in 1939.
(Steve Schwarzman, Chairman of Blackstone Group, world's largest private equity firm, angry at President Obama for suggesting the 1% should pay more in taxes, 2010)

I hope Obama's teleprompters are bullet-proof.
(Foster Friess, multi-millionaire and initial supporter of Rick Santorum for president)

War is Peace, slavery is Freedom, ignorance is Strength.
(1984, a novel by George Orwell)

Monday, April 09, 2012

Building a story, working together and fundamental disillusionment

Without wiping out the debt, we cannot restart the economy.

(Michel Bauwens, founder of Peer-to-Peer Foundation)

Contemplating various realities

Somewhat surprising, a recent poll conducted by ScienceDebate 2012, indicates that the American public in general believes it's more important for presidential debates to focus on science challenges rather than faith and values debates.

The poll also indicates that such things as alternative energy, climate change, innovation, as well as our ability to maintain our leadership in science is very much on the minds of the voters. It is a reason to be cautiously optimistic . . . and think seriously about creating that new narrative which can not be postponed any longer.

At the same time, the “gangrene” continues to spread throughout many of our institutions at all levels. At what point do we have to conclude that the “baby” really does need to be thrown out with the bath water? The U.S. Senate recently was unable to even get rid of oil subsidies. The reason why requires no advanced degree. See BigOil Gave $23.5 million.

We apparently also have more in common with Tajikistan than we might think. See U.S. Flunks Corruption Index. Now imagine the oil companies deciding North America is one big plantation ripe for the pickings. See Third Worldification.

The art of storytelling

A recent article in Science Daily ( 4/2/12) reported on a team from the University of Toronto and Hebrew University, who now believe there is sufficient evidence that our human ancestors were using fire possibly one million years ago, which would mean that some of the earliest humans understood fire approximately 300,000 years earlier than was originally thought.

Michael Chazan, anthropologist and co-director of the project, thinks that the use and control of fire would have been a “turning point” in human evolution. Chazan said, “Socializing around a camp fire might actually be an essential aspect of what makes us human.”

The beginning of storytelling and making connections is part of what makes us human. To what degree does weakening those essential connections and turning away from community harm us? Does a collection of individuals staring into the mirror and surrounded by barriers of one kind or another make it more difficult to create a functioning narrative that works for everyone?

A storytelling post script

A colleague of mine has a fairly new site called ImaStory. It is where you can write your own story, about yourself or your ancestors. It is also where children can write a story about their parents. It's about making connections and preserving a history of who you are and where you came from, to be preserved as long as you wish. It can be a solitary effort or a collaborative creation. It can be public or private. Create an account and look through the site. It's free.

Everything can be explained to the people, on the single condition that you want them to understand.

(Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth)

Additional Reading:

Monday, April 02, 2012

The clear and present danger of mandatory broccoli

A lot of us who love your country [America] do not see where change can come from. We see all the barriers you have now to structural and fundamental change. It feels like you've lost your amazing ability to adapt politically.

(Jon Johansson, political scientist, Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand)

The creaking system

It was the “official” story shrouded in cobwebs that came to mind as I listened to some of the audio recordings of the recent Supreme Court debate on the health care law. I am neither a lawyer nor a constitutional scholar, but it was hard not to conclude that some of the justices were clueless about the reality of the American health care system, among other things.

One of the justices in particular stood out. Antonin Scalia, nominated by Ronald Reagan in 1986 and one of the better known proponents of Originalism or New Originalism, depending on your tolerance for minutia, came across as smug and arrogant. He wondered sarcastically if Americans would be forced to eat broccoli next and then proceeded to put on his “legislative” hat to muse about the votes in congress.

More Americans may by now have warmed up to the idea that revolution and upheaval cleans out the societal rot. After all, it was Thomas Jefferson who talked about the “tree of liberty” needing to be”refreshed” periodically. But a lesser known aphorism by our third president observed that an “ignorant” nation cannot be free.

It is however not blood in the streets or some Syrian style apocalypse that needs to be flowing at the present time in the U.S. but a new story, one that's true and reflects a 21st century world. We're way overdue.

Who gets to decide

The narrative needs to say that liberty, freedom, fairness and social justice must all be present if we are to have a country worth caring about. You don't get to choose the one or two items that you like and discard the rest.

Yes, millions of immigrants arrived in America in the early 20th century seeking “freedom,” but America was also founded on genocide and slavery and only one form of slavery ended in 1865.

We had a good chance after the Civil War to get closer to the ideal but failed to do so. Ozark Reflections, an American Story.

We're clearly at a crossroads today and accepting the fact that the cavalry isn't coming and George Washington, Abraham Lincoln or FDR won't be arriving to make it better may be the most difficult concept for Americans to come to terms with. As well, a new story is of course threatening to some.

I would not lead you into the promised land if I could, because if I led you in, some one else would lead you out. You must use your heads as well as your hands, and get yourself out of your present condition.

(Eugene V. Debs, American Labor Organizer, in speech in 1910)

Additional Reading:

States with the most laxanti-corruption laws