domingo, 25 de setembro de 2011

Destroying the Pachamama in the name of the Pachamama

Evo Morales vs. the TIPNIS
By David Montoute
September 2011

Early in 2010, Evo Morales went to the movies for what was –reportedly –only the third time in his life. Showing on screen was James Cameron’s box office breaking Avatar – the sci-fi allegory about the struggle of isolated indigenous peoples to defend their traditional way of life against the depredations of industrial capitalism. For Bolivia’s president, the movie was “a profound example of the resistance” to such depredation and a “fight for the defence of nature.” Little more than a year later, Morales would find himself in a real-life drama reflecting Avatar’s ecological parable. But unlike the heroes of the movie, Bolivia’s “first indigenous president” placed himself, not on the side of the indigenous forest-dwellers, but on the side of the bulldozers driving through their territory.

The TIPNIS reserve – over a million hectares of savannah and dense, pristine, Bolivian tropical forest –is an autonomous “Indigenous Territory” in the heart of Bolivia.  It is the ancestral home of the Moxeño, Yuracaré and Chimán – the mostly nomadic native peoples who enjoy a relative cultural isolation and live by hunting, fishing, and food-gathering. Living with them are 11 endangered animal species and thousands of unique plants, all within a recognised hotspot of biological diversity.

Although the status of the TIPNIS is enshrined in Bolivia’s constitution, timber companies over the years have gradually made inroads, gaining forestry concessions and pushing a slow colonization of the territory. But by 2008, a new threat had crystallised –one threatening to definitively end the TIPNIS’ tranquil isolation. The Bolivian government announced the construction of a highway that would cleave the park in two and open a path to the Pacific coast for the export of Brazilian exports. If completed, the Villa Tunari – San Ignacio de Moxos highway will bring more than just soya and sugar cane and tropical hardwoods to the international market –coca leaf farmers and the drug traffickers that shadow them will inevitably follow. Behind the traffickers there will follow the illegal loggers and hydrocarbon companies. Natural gas deposits have been discovered within the boundaries of the park and the state hydrocarbons company has already announced its interest in exploring oil. With the number of agricultural colonists estimated at 15,000, they have now exceeded the native people inhabiting the reserve.

As activist Carlos Crespo says, “on paper, it looks grim: a government implacably implementing its “great industrial leap” strategy; a contract already signed with Brazil for that route and no other; global capitalism’s (and particularly Brazilian capitalism’s) support for these kinds of projects; the reign (read: tyranny) of the car in Bolivian society which looks favourably upon anything that smells of cement, oil and speed. In sum, everything looks bad for the movement on paper.” (2)  But Crespo goes on to remind us that this was exactly the situation of the movement against Cochabamba’s water privatization at the end of 1999. After five months of popular struggle, however, the multinational Bechtel consortium was forced out of Bolivia and Cochabamba’s water supply returned to local control.

The historic “Water War” signaled the beginning of a process of nationwide radicalization that would culminate with Evo Morales’ election victory in December 2005. For many on the international Left, Evo’s rise to power –part of a trend of left-leaning, reformist governments sweeping Latin America –looked like the dawning of a new age. A long time union leader for coca-leaf growers, Morales’ humble origins and apparent indifference to the trappings of power suggested that a new way of governance had emerged. The rhetoric flowed, as the President’s party promised to “govern by obeying” the people. Into the populist mix of resource nationalism and social welfare programs, the governing MAS party also incorporated a strong ecological discourse and a loose set of (mostly abstract) proposals which would culminate in the 2010 “World Peoples Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth” hosted in Cochabamba.

But it was at this conference that the hidden face of the populist governance came sharply into light. In addition to the official 17 working groups at the conference, the extra-official “Table 18” dissident group proposed a serious, uncompromising revision of the government’s developmentalist economic strategy. As 30,000 international delegates and activists descended on Cochabamba, the Table 18 dissidents were urged to keep their criticisms to themselves. “Don’t embarrass me” Evo told them, but when the dissidents insisted on going ahead, the police were sent in to eject them.

Only a year earlier, the General Assembly of the United Nations had named Evo Morales "World Hero of Mother Earth" in recognition of his international proposals to limit climate change and environmental degradation. But anyone listening to Evo’s self-congratulatory identification with Avatar’s “Na’avi” aliens could only experience a strange kind of cognitive dissonance. It had long been clear that Vice President Garcia Linera’s masterplan (a 5-year leap to “industrialisation”) was on a collision course with what remained of Bolivia’s intact ecospheres. The plan to institute what Garcia Linera called “Andean Capitalism” had, at its core, a huge potentiation of Bolivia’s extractive, raw materials industries –itself predicated upon stable commodity prices on the world market –together with  a faithful application of the continent-wide territorial rearrangement known as the IIRSA. (1)  As James Petras pointed out, Evo’s Bolivia had, by this time, more mining and multinational-favourable oil & gas contracts than any other Latin American country. 

Designed to connect the departments of Beni and Cochabamba, the road is hailed by the Bolivian government as both urgent and necessary for the country’s development. It is, in Evo’s words, in the strategic interest of all Bolivians. But the financing of the project itself reveals broader interests that have little to do with Bolivia’s needs. The road is being built by a construction consortium from Brazil, whilst most of the $415 million cost is being met by a low-interest loan from the government of Brazil. 

According to CEDIB’s Pablo Villegas, the true objective of the highway is not to connect Cochabamba with the Beni, but to connect Brazil with the Pacific Ocean:

  “To understand the route of this highway, it is necessary to understand Brazil’s plan to penetrate Bolivia via five distinct points; through the north via Cobija and Guayaramerín, (the “Northern Corridor” plus the Rio Madera dam complex and its viaducts), through the south via Puerto Suárez and San Matías (the Interoceanic Corridor) with the TIPNIS being the fifth penetration point.” (3)

These axes of penetration are a core component of the continent-wide IIRSA project that is carving up the Amazon principally in order to empower Brazil’s export economy. So the TIPNIS road will link the Pacific Ocean with Guajará-Mirim in Rondonia – Brazil’s most exhausted and over-exploited agricultural zone. This agricultural strip that runs parallel to Bolivia’s northern limits is separated from it by a buffer zone of national parks and indigenous reserves, but in Guajará-Mirim the break is found –an unprotected corridor, that has already been settled by farmers. Recent, independent studies (4) have predicted the destruction of 64% of the TIPNIS reserve within the next 18 years should the road go ahead, whilst the director of the national park service Adrián Nogales says it will cause “the greatest ecological destruction in Bolivia’s history,” and wreak damage throughout Bolivian society. Bolivia’s former Vice-Minister for the Environment agreed, and when the government refused to consider alternative routes for the road, he resigned from his post in protest.

But the centre stage of this cause has been taken by the indigenous peoples themselves. On August 15, 1,500 marchers, backed by the indigenous federations CIDOB and CONAMAQ left Santa Cruz for a march of over 300 miles to the Bolivian capital. The marchers have now braved the elements for more than 40 days, and whilst heavily pregnant women have almost given birth on the road and one eight-month old child has died, the authorities’ response has been to send its campesino sympathisers to set up hostile blockades and stop the march in every way possible. In San Ignacio de Moxos, they had the windshields of their support vehicles smashed whilst public stores and facilities were forced to close, depriving the marchers of access to food and water. And upon reaching the small town of Yucumo the marchers were again blockaded, firstly by gangs of government-sympathising campesinos and then by the police (the latter under the pretext of “avoiding a confrontation” between the two groups). 

But the response of the wider Bolivian population has been very different, with aid delivered from the cities and an intensive campaign of awareness mounted by a range of popular support networks. The TIPNIS has now become a focal rallying point for a large swathe of Bolivian society that has turned against Evo’s government. If the society itself has been ignited and largely united over this protest, the President has been increasingly isolated and repudiated – a situation he has responded to with fury and contempt. Whilst the anger is open and self-confessed, the contempt is more implicit –made  manifest in accusations that the protestors are being manipulated by foreign NGOs, by the eastern cattle ranching elites, by timber companies and illegal loggers, and (of course) by the United States and its various agencies. In fact, very few actors have escaped inclusion in the government’s denunciations of a US-inspired conspiracy to divide and weaken them. In his effort to show that the marchers are “instruments of imperialism” receiving funds to “poison our communities with their ideas”, the Bolivian President has openly acknowledged intercepting the telephone calls of opposition figures (and even one of his own congressmen). Spying on citizens is illegal, of course, but the government has overridden this concern through an appeal to the question of “national security”. According to the ex-Minister of the Presidency, the indigenous CIDOB organization has received $100 million from USAID –money, he says, which is used to promote the “internationalization” of the Bolivian Amazon. Deprived of any authentic protagonism, the TIPNIS marchers are described as mere tools of the imperialist strategy, a strategy using the pretext of the environment to convert the Amazon into a series of reserves and “privatize the exploitation of natural resources”. The script is not new, however, and activist Carlos Crespo contends that “[i]n Bolivia the phantom of USAID is invoked every time the government confronts dissidence and internal crises, and now it does so as a device to delegitimize the indigenous march and justify any future repression of the movement, all in the name of its "anti-imperialist" and “anti-capitalist” stance". (5)

After years of uncritical international coverage of Bolivia’s “leftist” government, most of its international sympathisers are incapable of recognizing its illiberal side.  But more important than the intolerant personalities driving the Bolivian conflict is what their actions portend for the broader trends of resource nationalism playing out in the region. In 2009 Ecuador’s Rafael Correa joined Evo Morales in a joint denunciation of indigenous activism that opposed “developmentalism”. This kind of activism was nothing more than “a new kind of think tank conspiracy” by NGOs financed by extreme right-wing multinationals and intelligence agencies, chimed Correa. “They are little gringos that come to create disorder and impose here what they never accomplished in their own countries”. (6)
Other neighbourly advice has been less dismissive and counterproductive. Since the beginning of the march, the Brazilian Development Bank has made its financing of the TIPNIS road conditional upon government dialogue with the TIPNIS communities, and when Brazilian ex-President Lula arrived in Santa Cruz in last month, his advice for Evo was to tone down his bellicosity towards the protesters, the better to facilitate a negotiated outcome. But little on the ground since that time has changed, and as the marchers have progressed, they have articulated a series of specific demands, chief amongst which being the demand for “prior consultation”. The government has given lip service to this consultation (which is provided for in the country’s constitution) but it has always insisted that whatever the outcome of talks, the road will be built regardless, “whether they like it or not.” As Evo Morales has ruled out any alternative viable route for the highway, others have shifted the debate onto the country’s constitution itself, and whether it actually provides a people with the right to veto a project that directly impacts them. Interpretations differ, of course, but what is increasingly clear is that the current administration never had any intention of letting the TIPNIS communities stop its plans. The design for the road was completed in 2008, but only now is the government even talking of consultation, and that without allowing for any possible veto of its plan. 

Tension is growing in the TIPNIS, and many fear that the conflict could take a tragic, violent turn. In 2009, opposition to a U.S. free trade pact (and the oil drilling it would facilitate) led to a confrontation with the army and a subsequent massacre in the Amazonian region of Bagua in neighbouring Perú. Evo was quick to denounce the aggressive and reckless behavior of his Peruvian counterpart Alan García, whilst García angrily dismissed all such criticism as subversive “foreign interference” (does it ring any bells?).  With an air of colonial arrogance on full display, Garcia went on to say: “Four hundred thousand natives cannot tell 28 million Peruvians: ‘you have no right to come in here’…that is a serious mistake and whoever thinks like that will lead us to irrationality and primitive regression.”(7)

How did Bolivia’s President forget this episode so quickly and then allow his ministers to adopt the same language against the peoples of the TIPNIS? A decade ago, during a general election campaign, Evo was invited to give his opinion of his rival candidates. “I am not going to speak ill [of them]” he said, “because the issue is not which individual governs Bolivia, but which kind of mentality governs Bolivia”. It was a brilliant answer, and, like so many others, I often wonder what became of that radical vision that propelled Evo to power, the vision that created a more inclusive society in which the country’s indigenous majorities discovered self-respect for the very first time. If anything remains of Evo Morales’ idealism, he must stop and contemplate where his government’s actions will now lead.  

Former TIPNIS spokesman Adolfo Moye has clearly described the invasion of the TIPNIS as an ongoing cultural extermination: “In many villages only the elderly remain. Some communities…have been extinguished and we don't know where our brothers and sisters who lived there have gone”. Between 2002 and 2010, eight such communities disappeared in the colonised areas of the TIPNIS. (8)  How could it be that merely a year after his excited admiration for James Cameron’s ecological allegory, Evo has thrown its premise out the window and begun work against the real-life “Indians” depicted in the film?  What is clear in the world of fiction has become opaque in Bolivian reality: a slow ethnocide that is either invisible or irrelevant to strategic considerations. Whilst the strategist-in-chief, García Linera, justifies the government’s industrial expansion with the appeal to overcome geographical isolation and “combat poverty” (the Beni contributes only 2.5% of the country’s GDP) he forgets that “the poverty indicator he used corresponds to a neoliberal, capitalist model of development, whose framework and means of measuring the people’s welfare is far removed from the work, way of life, customs and identity of the indigenous people who inhabit that province.” (9)

In other words, ‘poverty’ is not a state of nature, but a social relation (the absence of power). Anybody who has stepped beyond García Linera’s Leninist conception of society will perceive in the TIPNIS a natural abundance can in no way be described as a “state of poverty”. As Norman Lewis pointed out in his own powerful lament for Venezuela’s disappearing hunter tribes: 

“[T]hey had evolved in a relatively benign climate in which the seeds could be grown and harvests gathered all year round; the forests provided an abundance of game and the rivers were full of fish. These were the pre-conditions under which a competitive society never developed.”

And this is the irony –that in the name of creating “communitarian socialism”, the Evo Morales-García Linera government  is now destroying a patchwork quilt of real communitarian socialist cultures – cultures which neither knew nor required academic learning in order to live, work and dream together. Such is the blindness of the homogenising culture of the global capitalism – incapable of seeing and responding to anything that stands in the way of its own requirements. 

For the outstanding French anthropologist Pierre Clastres, all cultures were ethnocentric. They all created a fundamental division between their own exemplary humanity and that of other cultures who could only participate in humanity to a lesser degree.  But if all cultures were ethnocentric, Clastres observed, not all cultures are ethnocidal. (10)  So what was it about the West, he asked, that facilitated its relentless destruction of everything that escapes its orbit?  Finding his answer in the industrial world’s ravenous economic system, he defined capitalism’s inability to stay within boundaries as the real machine of destruction: 

“Races, societies, individuals; space, nature, seas, forests, subsoils: everything is useful, everything must be used, everything must be productive, with productivity pushed to its maximum rate of intensity. This is why no respite could be given to societies that left the world to its original, tranquil unproductivity. This is why in the eyes of the West, the waste represented by the non-exploitation of immense resources was intolerable. The choice left to these societies raised a dilemma: either give in to production or disappear; either ethnocide or genocide.” 

The author can be reached at gnaoua22 [at]

The following petitions call for the annulation of the proposed route for the Villa Tunari – San Ignacio de Moxos highway:


(3) Villegas agrees that Bolivia needs roadways for internal circulation, not for oligarchies and drug traffickers, but for communities and their small-scale produce   
(10) Pierre Clastres, The Archeology of Violence, Semiotext(e) 1994

sexta-feira, 1 de julho de 2011

The Scale of Power: from Tribal Societies to Mass Societies

Book Review by Laura Killian

The Scale of Power, A Global History Approach
John H. Bodley M.E. Sharpe, NYPp. 297 (2003)

The relationship between the size of a society and the degree to which power is concentrated in the hands of a few members of that society is the broad subject of John Bodley’s important and stimulating book The Scale of Power published by M.E. Sharpe. As with Bodley’s earlier works Anthropology and Contemporary Human Problems (1985) and Victims of Progress (4th Edition 1999) the Washington State University’s Edward R. Meyer Distinguished Professor of Anthropology applies careful scholarship, an acute understanding of contemporary affairs and an intimate knowledge of Fourth World peoples to draw a dark picture of social power in society while offering a hopeful prospect for the future of generous and creative societies learning from the experience of Fourth World nations.

Bodley looks through the lens of history, sociology, cultural anthropology, archaeology and bio-cultural evolutionarytheory at the evolution of human societies and their tendency to accumulate power and wealth in the hands a few to help explain why environmental and social problems arise. He points out that most of the “current problems faced by humanity today, war, poverty, human rights abuses and environmental deterioration are all problems of scale and power.” Bodley shows how individuals, not social classes, have been the agents of social change. He uses “simple mathematical powerlaws and log graphs to demonstrate that societal growth disproportionately concentrates social power as scale increases”. The scale of a society directly correlates to the tendency to concentrate power and wealth and this is examined by looking at three major cultural transformations from tribal societies to kingdoms, or imperial societies, and kingdoms to commercial states with a measure he calls the ‘imperia.’ Scale determines how big empires (or as Bodley applies the plural form imperia) can become, or how much absolute power is available to the top ranks. The scale theory offers an evaluation about why extreme poverty exists alongside extreme amounts of concentrated wealth.

In a small scale Fourth World or tribal society, problems of inequalities are balanced out at the household level, using kin-based redistribution practices. Communities are small enough for everyone to know each other, with those who lead directly in touch with all who follow them. If a leader in a tribal society is out of line and starts to show signs of corruption, explains Bodley, people in the tribe simply stop listening to that person. They look for new leaders who support the functioning and survival of each other, the society and of the culture. These societies are generally organized around the “law of generosity” as Nuu-cha nulth Professor, Richard Atleo, affirms in his book, Tsawalk (Vancouver: Universityof British Columbia Press. 2004), and leaders exhibit generosity or they do not lead. Modern tribal societies exhibit the law of generosity, but more populous societies lose this important quality. As populations over the last two thousand years changed, grew and people began to create kingdoms, city-states, states, empires and the modern state system life for theindividual homestead changed dramatically. This resulted according to Bodley when “population growth changes the face-to-face domestic community into an impersonal society, because people cannot effectively remember and relate personallyto more than 500 individuals.”

The cultural transformation Bodley calls the imperial society added new dimensions. Royal families began controlling the majority of the population, and day-to-day life changed dramatically for everyone living in these settlements as Bodley suggests.

From the perspective of scale theory it is significant that even as rulers expanded their imperia, the absolute number in the top leadership remained relatively constant. There was always one emperor at the very top who also headed a personal dynasty, and there were seldom more than 500 noblemen…the 50 million people in the Roman Empire were governed by the emperor and a few hundred senators and top bureaucrats.

A crucial point in achieving this power, explains Bodley, is the ability of the imperia to gain even further scale effects by creating dynasties that transmit and accumulate power transgenerationally. Royal families were able to concentrate social power by “co-opting the humanization process” by developing political institutions,” taxation, militarization and urbanization. Here can be seen the difference between a domestic-scale and a political-scale culture, or as Ferdinand Tonnies put it, the concepts of Gemeinschaft, a community composed of a real, organic, face-to-face community integratedby shared sentiments of personal familiarity and kinship and Gesellschaft, a society that is artificial, imaginary, impersonal, public society and too large to sustain the interpersonal human qualities.

Bodley discusses the development of commercial power as an important cultural transformation in the world. Here he describes a global scale culture of industrialization, commodification, capitalism, externalization, corporatization,elitization, supralocalization, and financialization resulting in polarized societies where corporations, the military and political elites have formed institutions for the creation of public policy. These elites “were able to implement two massive cultural reorganizations in rapid succession that produced a truly global commercial system within a few decades, progressivist and neoliberal.” Popular thought leaders suggested that these systems would benefit all of humanity, however,they were unable to deal with unforeseen consequences of such systems. By concentrating social power, Bodley suggests,the humanization and politicization processes had been set up to produce and maintain for-profit business enterprises; a stark contrast to tribal societies where processes were set up to produce and maintain the culture through sharing and no interpersonal exploitation.

Bodley’s narrative turns to the modern context when he writes that when the scale of human society increases to the point at which the US (300 million) is at currently, at least five things are likely to happen: Per capita economic productivity and consumption increases but the product becomes more inequitably distributed. This is painfully apparent with new economic studies in the United States revealing that less than 1 percent of the US population controls more than 45% of the countries wealth. Democracy declines because decision-making becomes more cumbersome, more concentrated and institutions and technologies become more specialized, more complex, more costly, and more vulnerable. The pace of change and instability increases while all types of social power become more concentrated.
One of Bodley’s most important insights is that this current system did not happen due to a natural, evolving process but rather “it did so because a few individual designers were successfully able to impose their will on billions of other people.The modern world system was created by a relative handful of individuals (who succeeded) because utopian capitalists were able to command overwhelmingly persuasive personal imperia.” As a result of this success, growth occurred, scale increased and social power became even more concentrated in states all over the world.

Looking at a community versus a society, Bodley is able to show how this illusion of progress is being pushed by the few who would benefit. No longer does the society exist to support the people, but to support the expanding, economic and political growth of a small amount of wealthy families and corporations. Bodley shows the risk that “further increasing the scale of global commerce to further maximize economic growth will merely continue the power-concentrating trends of the past and is unlikely to solve the human problems of poverty, social disorder, and environmental deterioration” (Bodley,262). Not all people, however, see global, economic progress as worth the expenses. There has emerged a counter imperia movement where it is understood that bigger is not better, where a more human, smaller scale society is a realistic alternative to infinite growth. Bodley notes that there is an optimal scale for humans to live at and when societies “grow beyond the social optimum, the society begins to experience negative problems of vulnerability, or criticality, when sudden collapse might occur” (Bodley, 238).

The Power of Scale is an important book to students of the Fourth World and for those who want to understand contemporary geopolitical conflicts involving states and Fourth World nations. Bodley’s book shows an historical perspective on why with an increase in the scale of a population, there will be a concentration of wealth and power among a very small portion of the total population and such concentrations do not bode well for human society. Bodley’s book offers a quality analysis for anyone wishing to learn how wealth and power inequalities have become what they are today and offers practical options of where we can go from here through various paradigm shifts that move away from continued, global, economic growth towards sustainable forms at the local, human level.

Originally published in the Fourth World Journal:

sexta-feira, 24 de junho de 2011

The Other Africa



Pablo Martin Carbajal    

  An African myth pictures relations between blacks and whites as a dialogue between two masks. The mask of the white man has tiny ears and a huge mouth, while the black man’s mask has a small mouth and big ears. This is one of the ideas that Serge Latouche tries to convey in his fascinating essay L'Autre Afrique, entre don et marché (The Other Africa, between the gift and the market) in which he proposes a complete reframing of relations between Africa and the West.   

It’s not easy to understand Latouche. To do so, Europeans should carry out a kind of metaphysical exercise that would isolate in some region of our brains a series of existential concepts with which we have organized ourselves from birth. For example, perhaps wealth does not mean material or capital accumulation, but the quality of social relations. This is at least the case in Africa (the word for ‘poverty’ in many African languages simply means ‘orphan’) and it is for this reason that westerners who visit Africa are so surprised. ‘How little they have and yet how happy they are’ we comment upon our return. We do not understand (and do not even think to pose the question) that their happiness does not come from, nor is produced by the possession or accumulation of material goods, but from their fundamental belonging to a group and from the quality of the group’s social relations. 

Serge Latouche attacks the official Africa. He attacks the concept of State-building being imposed upon cultures in which the State, according to the author, does not work—the effort to create the State in Africa has not been successful. The whole book is an attack upon Westernization as a universal economic, political project—the western model of development is reproducible, but not universal. And from this perspective, he critiques all that is official: the African Sates, their ruling classes, the Western institutions that attempt to impose their model upon Africa, the economists that attempt to quantify everything —when in Africa so many things are unquantifiable in economic parameters— he criticizes Western-educated Africans, as well as NGOs and all of the people and institutions who would impose Western criteria upon a continent in which these do not function (thus leading to the dramatic consequences of African reality which Latouche has labeled ‘Afropessimism’ and with which he begins the book). 

And within this expansion of Westernization, the concept of “the castaways of development” appears: those who, excluded from Westernization, nevertheless get on ahead, and not only do not disappear but multiply, forced to organise themselves according to another logic, and another way—the "informal economy". This is an economy which, in Africa, is based on social and familial relations, on friendships, on neighbours, on religion, with the obligation of giving and sharing, receiving and returning, between men and gods, living and dead, between fathers and sons, between young and old. And amongst all of these, the millenarian practices of negotiation, haggling, donation and barter. In order to show us how these informal economies work, Latouche carries out an interesting research project, analyzing three different communities: a blacksmiths’ village in the city of Kaedi (Mauritania ), the influence of witchcraft in Douala (Cameroon ) and the aeconomy of the Grand-Yoff neighbourhood in Dakar (Senegal). 

Here I will attempt the difficult task of summarizing the case of Dakar in a single paragraph. Latouche analyzes the successful results of this informal economy, which he doesn’t define as an economy, but as a society. Each merchant has his groups, which could be hundreds of people, amongst children, relatives, people owing favours etc. The small merchants (hairdressers, drivers, mobile street vendors, bakers, untaxed petrol, clothes smuggled in from abroad, pirated tapes, recycled stolen goods, intercepted cargoes) know their client base and the personal history of each one (this being the true capital that social commerce works with), and in this way things can be sold and paid for when the client is able, things can be borrowed and returned when possible, all in a market with a specific group clientele and not a market subject to the law of supply and demand. In negotiation, social importance is taken into account; the price agreed upon includes the value of the goods and the favours returned. Additionally, prices are incredibly low, which guarantees that people with minimal resources can pay them, because Grand-Yoff’s development castaways in Dakar are not driven by profit calculations, but by what Latouche calls “the affective economy” in which encounters, visits, receptions, and discussions all take up considerable time; lending, owing, giving, receiving, helping, putting in requests and delivering take up an important part of the day, in addition to parties, dancing, weddings, baptisms, Ramadan... It is an economy (or aeconomy) that is not quantifiable from a Western point of view, but which, according to the author, actually works in the suburbs of Dakar . But Latouche reminds us that this aeconomy is not a first step on the road to development, that is, a type of economy that will evolve when the formal economy is installed. The kinds of actions carried out by NGOs and other institutions in their attempt to professionalize the sector and provide greater economic efficiency and rationality usually fail. It is simply an African way of working, which, from a Western perspective of course, is irrational. 

Latouche ends by questioning if Africa should be helped. By this, he means “looked after” this being a typically Western trait with many ambiguities. The author claims that the aid that Africa currently receives simultaneously drowns it and helps it stay afloat, definitively prolonging its agony and corrupting the other, non-official Africa (perhaps it is too late? The rafts keep arriving along with many who probably belong to that aeconomy). Rather than humanitarian interference, continues Latouche, helping Africa would require that our societies of the North limit themselves, and would require a profound change in our models and a questioning of development. Helping Africa would also require asking it for help, help for example in resolving our material, social and cultural problems. If we consider Africa poor, it’s because we are rich, whereas the African continent is rich in what we are poor. That is why helping the other Africa (aside from being a hypercomplex question in itself) means establishing a dialogue in which the participants act with mouths and ears of the same size.  

Original version: http://www.pablomar  

Translation: David Montoute

terça-feira, 21 de junho de 2011

Worshipping the Poison Fire


Why does the 'World Hero of Mother Earth' risk permanently contaminating his nation?


By David Montoute

Bolpress, September 2010

When the indigenous men of Déline entered the mines of northwest Canada in the 1950s, they had little idea of their contribution to the US secret nuclear weapons program. Whilst the miners carried sacks of uranium, the US government disposed of the residual waste in Great Bear Lake. Nobody bothered to inform the workers about the nature of uranium, nor the risks that they were running, nor how to protect themselves. Today, the remote and picturesque town of Déline is known as "the village of the widows". With no indemnity from the authorities, the epidemic of cancer that followed the mining left a generation of youth without fathers and grandfathers. It’s just one of the many tragedies that have taken place in indigenous territories since the dawn of the nuclear age. 50 years on, Arizona’s Navajo Nation hosted the Indigenous World Uranium Summit. The Navajo –relatives of the Déline natives– approved a moratorium on the exploration, enrichment and processing of uranium in their territory, as well as its use in nuclear weapons. “Uranium kills” they insisted, and although the moratorium covers a quarter of US uranium supplies, they saw it as the most logical measure. Equally logical – although from a very different perspective – was the response from world powers: the uninhibited promotion of a nuclear “renaissance” around the world. (1)

Today, China, France, the USA, Russia, Japan and Korea compete for control of the market in the exportation of nuclear technology, and indirectly encourage a new arms race. Remembering that the UN’s permanent Security Council is constituted by the world’s biggest arms exporters, nothing about this development should surprise us: pious declarations and sociopathic acts are no strangers to each other on the international stage. But when it comes to a self-proclaimed "socialist", "indigenist", and even "ecological" government, should we not expect a better example? As incredible as it may seem, the government of Evo Morales is contemplating the reactivation of uranium mining in Bolivia, and with Russian collaboration, the construction of a nuclear power plant. With the audacity that has come to typify it, the government reserved its announcement for the first day of the World Peoples’ Summit on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth in Cochabamba.(2) And in spite of the rejection of this technology on the part of the speakers, the Vice-President’s declaration passed without comment.

When debating nuclear technology, anti-imperialists typically invoke the “sovereign right of the State to the peaceful nuclear energy” – beyond the interference of foreign powers. From an ecological perspective, however, no technology is "neutral": every technical device has a particular inherent logic, since each been developed according to specific interests. To accept a given technology obliges us to accept its logic and the processes that facilitate it.

Uranium mining is the basis of nuclear energy production, and good part of the uranium is extracted in economically fragile countries like Bolivia. Once extracted, uranium mineral deposits are crushed, ground and then bathed in sulphuric acid, later to be packed as “yellow cake ” or uranium concentrate. To obtain one ton of yellow cake, hundreds of tons of radioactive residues must be generated. It is an intrinsically destructive process that contaminates air, water, fauna and human beings and there is no sustainable way of treating the remaining residues. Wherever these residues are deposited there is a high risk of contaminating water tributaries, land and airways. Unlike carbon from fossil fuels, uranium does not form part of any natural cycle in the biosphere. Mere contact with its residues (highly radioactive for tens of thousands of years) or with material exposed to its radiation can generate genetic damage and degenerative, terminal illnesses.

What does this mean in the case of Bolivia and the mines of Potosí where the extraction of uranium is proposed? According to local ecological groups, environmental management in Potosí is lacking in resources and weak in the face of national institutions. Worse, these institutions do little to assure multinationals’ compliance with environmental mining regulations. Without reference to the uranium mine proposal, the activists denounce that:

“The dikes that accumulate the mining residues are important sources of acidic water and they have an effect on the superficial and underground water systems, which in turn cause the deterioration of the soils. In addition to this the transport, primary grinding, the fine grinding, and in general the manipulation of minerals that produces large quantities of contaminated dust that reaches important distances.” (3)

To apply this standard of control to the extraction of uranium would be fatal. As plants absorb oxides of uranium dissolved in water, these residues could easily be incorporated into the food chain.

The myth of "civilian" nuclear power and the catastrophe of depleted uranium

The idea of technology as nothing more than a tool invites us to distinguish between peaceful and aggressive applications of nuclear energy. But in reality "civilian" nuclear power is unthinkable without its military counterpart. From the reprocessing of military residues in civilian plants to the use of power plants’ depleted uranium in the arsenals of western military forces, the two industries, in practice, have always been mutually dependent. So it was only logical that every country to obtain nuclear weapons in the last 30 years should do so under the cover of a “peaceful”, “civilian" nuclear program. And in spite of its denials, it’s hard to believe that today’s Iran will be any different. By obtaining nuclear arms, the Islamic State would achieve a strategic parity with its rival, Israel.(4) And certain anti-Zionists applaud the idea, affirming (correctly) that nuclear weapons have proved the best deterrent to imperialist aggression. But even ignoring the example of Pakistan – in possession of nuclear weapon and suffering constant US aerial bombing – entering the logic of deterrence only delivers us a zero sum game. In addition to the immorality of Mutually Assured Destruction, the daily activity of the nuclear industry is unleashing a slow motion catastrophe for the whole of humanity.

24 years after the worst nuclear accident in history, the 1986 Chernobyl explosion once more makes itself felt as Ukraine and Russia are consumed by forest fires. With 3.900 hectares of contaminated grounds being aerosolized, Europe is experiencing the equivalent fallout of four Hiroshimas, simultaneously.(5) To escape the poisonous cloud of smoke, schoolboys in the surroundings of Moscow have been evacuated en masse, and several foreign embassies have followed suit. But to where do they think to escape? With the aerosolization of radioactive metals, contamination has become generalized. In the immediate aftermath of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, a huge spike in background radiation levels was registered over the United Kingdom, a phenomenon only explicable by the aerosolization of depleted uranium ammunition in far-off Mesopotamia.(6) The promoters of the nuclear industry claim that technological advances prevent new accidents of the Chernobyl kind. But even in technologically advanced Britain, we find concentrations of infantile leukaemia around the Sellafield reactor that are ten times the national average. In the station’s immediate buffer zone, the levels of contamination are even greater than those of the Chernobyl exclusion zone itself. Cases such as this demonstrate that regardless of the technological capacity of the country – no plant can be completely sure in the long run, because it needs such a range of regulations, procedures and constant cross-checks that a minimal oversight, error, or wear can provoke escapes of radioactivity.

So what to make of a nuclear reactor in tectonically unstable Iran?

Activist Reza Fiyouzat calls our attention to Iran’s huge, active fault lines, and presents figures from recent major earthquakes, including: Bam in 2003, with a magnitude of 6.5 on the Richter scale and a toll of 26,000 dead, Qazvin in 2002, with a magnitude of 6 and more than 500 people dead, and northern Iran in 1997, with a magnitude of 7.1 and 1,500 dead. Fiyouzat says that the mortality rate in each of these cases was aggravated by the awful construction standards in prevalent in his country. The culture of bribery that skates around higher safety costs means that even the poor controls that do exist are not followed. “We would therefore be right to wonder about the building codes implemented in the construction of Bushehr's nuclear power plant …Those who, like the Islamic regime in Iran, insist that pursuing nuclear power is an automatic right, must also be prepared to bear the responsibility, and be ready to be fully accountable, for any outcome of the activities involved in handling of nuclear materials.” (7) But Fiyouzat ends by reminding us that the dictatorial regime in Tehran holds itself accountable to nobody.

Let's see the other side of the coin in neighbouring Iraq.

The industrial enrichment of the uranium produces big quantity of residues called depleted uranium (DU). In the 1970s, the discovery of the pyrophoric (inflammable) properties of this metal led to the US army to incorporate it into its arsenal. Like a hand to a glove, the US government provided the material for free to the military industry, thus liberating itself of the cost of safe disposal. Shells coated with DU burn and oxidize upon impact, liberating volatile and highly poisonous nano-particles. These particles then accumulate in lymphatic nodules, the brain, testicles and other organs. With the affinity between uranium and the phosphorus in our cells, DU provokes damage to DNA, mutations, cellular death and cancer. Beginning with the first Gulf War in 1991, the US army used these weapons in a series of wars. The biological effects were not long in coming, and towards the end of the 1990s epidemics of cancer and congenital defects in Iraqi children began to appear. To aggravate an already widespread contamination, in 2004 the city of Fallujah was submitted to massive US bombing in an attempt of eradicate the armed resistance there. In the assault, which destroyed 60 % of the city's buildings, depleted uranium weapons were once again used.

In January of this year, Professor Chris Busby, Scientific Secretary of the European Committee on Radioaction Risks, travelled to Fallujah to investigate the effects on the civilian population. His discoveries, presented first on Al-Jazeera, are shocking:

The rate of child leukaemia in Fallujah is 40 times greater than in 2004 and 38 times higher than in the nearby Jordan.

The rate of lymphatic cancer and breast cancer is 10 times greater than 2004.

The rate of infant mortality in the city is 80 to a thousand, in comparison with Kuwait, where the number is 9 to every thousand and in Egypt 19 of every thousand.

There has been an epidemic of genetic deformities since 2004, with babies born without eyes, babies born with two and three heads or born without orifices, without genitals or without extremities, and others born with malignant tumours in the brain and eyes.

Professor Busby concluded that the situation of Fallujah is “scary and horrendous”, and worse than that of Hiroshima after the atomic bombing of Japan. (8)

Technological dependency and the time bomb of residues

So far, those promoting the 'industrialization' of Bolivia have proposed doing so on the back of the extractive economy. How this approach should facilitate industrialization it still not clear. Uranium - like fossil fuels - is a finite resource and at the current rate of consumption, world reserves will last approximately 5 decades. If hydrocarbon revenues are any example, far from industrializing the country, uranium revenues will maintain a “clientelist benefit system” – the patronage that is so dependent on the unstable prices of the international market.

As for the construction of a nuclear reactor, Bolivia’s national institutions suffer from serious corruption and incompetence (like those of many of the countries now aiming for nuclear power). Will they be able to handle such a dangerous technology? The investigation and technical development of the civilian nuclear industry requires strong investment from the State. And far from the grand old promises of energy “too cheap to meter”, the nuclear industry would not survive in a genuine free market without massive state subsidies. In the developed countries, the knowledge economy impels a continual technological intensification, a process led by the military industry. And the effort of this sector to acquire enormous quantities of energy, wherever it comes from and whatever it costs, is the real backbone of the nuclear industry and what allows it to overcome plant-building and maintenance costs that would otherwise be prohibitive. Considering the huge initial investment that nuclear power stations require, the companies involved usually ask for regulative frameworks that guarantee the recuperation of their investments – an implicit admission of the poor competitiveness of the industry.

In Bolivia, this kind of investment by the State was not feasible previously. That it is today is the result the new energy bloc made up of Russia, Venezuela and Iran - a new axis attempting to marginalise the dollar and constitute itself as a rival to Western powers. The announcement of Iranian collaboration in the extraction of uranium in Venezuela exposed the true backdrop to Venezuela’s diplomatic rupture with the State of Israel. And considering Iran’s newly launched Bushehr plant and its need for uranium ore, this can hardly be seen as an altruistic collaboration. For its part, Russia, the most powerful member of the alliance, has announced its desire to turn Bolivia into the spearhead of its economic policies in Latin America. The siren song of a nuclear power station is intended to sweeten this initiative, for when a weak country resorts to the technology of a stronger power, patterns of dependency are always created in the recipient nation. The big powers then exercise a “soft power” over its clients, a power much more difficult to dislodge than that of typical mining companies. The entry to these alliances is sweet, with pacts for the building of hospitals, dairy plants, or the development of lithium mining in the Salar de Uyuni. But what happens if Bolivia later decides to opt out of nuclear energy? It won’t be easy.

The dismantling of a nuclear power station is hardly akin to destroying an old factory. Rather, it requires an array of technical and administrative procedures for its progressive decontamination and demolition. Once the installation is dismantled – a process which usually takes more than 20 years – it is necessary to regularly monitor for radioactive exposures in the local environment. Bolivia would in this way be dependent on its technological supplier and its technical assistance for decades. In addition to political dependency, this would also impose a strong economic burden upon the country. In France, the current dismantling of the small Brennilis reactor has cost approximately 480 million Euros (20 times the estimated cost) and has still not been completed. (9)

The question of residues is worse again – a problem not even the most technically advanced nations have managed to solve. The failure of deep dumping has only led to even crazier "solutions", such as that of the European Union ‘Eurotom’ that authorises the recycling of radioactive waste into common commercial products. Other 'solutions' include waste recycling in reprocessing plants (the most toxic option of all), or that of the genocidal arms industry with all of the consequences described. Even the traditional method of the dumping method requires extremely long-term management and stable geological conditions for thousands of years. Who can guarantee these conditions?

IIRSA: integrating the “culture of the death”

Science historian Lewis Mumford outlined the historical development of two technological models: one a set of "democratic" technics that functioned in accordance with human nature, and another "authoritarian" technics that concentrated power in the hands of small elites. Constituting a type of "megamachine", the authoritarian technics are characterised as centralised, hierarchical, dependent upon high grades of specialization and complex organizational bureaucracies, and intensive in their consumption of resources and capital.

It is clear that the MAS’ developmentalist strategy engenders the second, hierarchical model. Its policies are framed by the IIRSA (Initiative for the Regional Integration of South American Infrastructure) a massive megaproject of territorial rearrangement shared by 12 countries, its principal axis being the network of highways that will join Brazil with the Pacific Ocean and the Asian market. As a strategy that concentrates power on hands of those who already have it, it is no surprise that the South American colossus is the IIRSA‘s biggest promoter. For the Brazilian elites, it is a means to transform their country into the superpower of the 21st century. (10)

According to the communities affected in Bolivia, the government of La Paz violates its own regulations and its own Constitution in order to facilitate these megaprojects. The construction of the Villa Tunari - San Ignacio of Moxos highway, the exploration of hydrocarbons in the north of La Paz, the dams on the Rio Madeira – are all of benefit to neighbouring powers more than to Bolivia itself. Some may be surprised that a "neo-nationalist" government should do so much to facilitate the growth of neighbouring countries, but the truth is that all major infrastructural power projects are transnational in nature today. It cannot be otherwise given the extreme interdependence of the modern industrial system. It’s clear then, that the “culture of the death” so denounced by President Morales, is precisely the culture that monopolizes the concept of "development", a concept based on the same extractivism and commodification of the earth promoted by the MAS itself and its partners in the IIRSA.

Awakening of the imagination?

Approximately 35 years ago, the Arab oil embargo provoked a so-called “energy crisis” in the industrialized world. The philosopher Ivan Illich pointed out the ambiguity of this concept and how it was used as pretext to limit the privileges of developing nations. The ecological sermons came precisely from the countries with highest per capita energy use – a hypocrisy that did not pass by unnoticed in the so-called “Third World”. But like many others, Illich also understood that technological intensification and energy consumption, beyond a certain limit, have a tendency to enslave us. The energy crisis of the 1970s was a chimera – an ephemeral product of politics. But today, the imperatives of degrowth and contraction are imposed upon us by geology. In 2006 worldwide conventional oil production came to its peak, with a "plateau" following it, just as Peak Oil theorists had predicted. With the rise in oil prices and the turn to “difficult oil” from unconventional sources, we can see the outline of a new and darker age. There are those who minimize this change, qualifying it a capitalist crisis (the decline of profitable oil), without understanding the scope of our dependency. Electricity, transport, plastic, mining, food, cosmetics and any industrial product or modern activity all depend upon this fossil fuel. For every kilojoule of food that we consume, 10 kilojoules of hydrocarbons have been invested in it in the form of pesticides and chemical fertilizers. Together with the peaking of oil, comes a series of approaching 'peaks' in essential resources, from natural gas up to fresh water, to so-called REE or “Rare Earth Elements”(11) - converging declines that will impose an irreversible industrial contraction and radically change the character of our civilization. Along with its allies in Russia and Iran, the Bolivian government has planned its economic strategy in terms of a world that is rapidly disappearing before our eyes.

The explosion of the Deepwater Horizon platform and the subsequent extensive use of chemical dispersants have aggravated the growing black tide in ours oceans. Mercury, plus the tens of thousands of industrial chemicals in common use, together with the atmospheric contamination of uranium oxide are all generating synergistic effects that scientist Leuren Moret identifies as the cause of a new worldwide epidemic of diabetes. Completing the picture is a progressive demineralization of topsoils that aggravates already generalized nutritional deficiencies. Now, to propose an expansion of nuclear power in this context is to propose more of the same. It goes beyond immorality, and demonstrates a profound spiritual poverty. When the Venezuelan government announced the construction of its own nuclear power plant in 2005, a group of Latin American and European scientists signed a manifesto denouncing the zombie-like thought process behind it:

"The argument “if they have it, why can’t we have it” ... is an absurd way to justify imitating the ecocidal energy model developed principally by capitalist societies, where the transnational corporations and right wing governments [decide] without taking the will of the people into account.” (12)

At the current juncture, it is improbable that popular pressure will block the nuclear proposal in Bolivia. The country’s intensifying socio-economic conflicts tend to sideline academic debates on models of development. But by marginalising these debates, we ignore their fundamental relation with societal conflict. A solution to the material and spiritual needs of the people must be local in nature. Development under local control, and integrated regionally would then facilitate technological redundancy and renewal – completely the opposite of nuclear energy whose management requires precautions for periods that escape our notion of time. Instead of promoting this redundant developmentalism of satellites and nuclear power stations, a truly ecological leadership would promote conservation and efficiency, together with clean technologies such as solar energy, wind energy and biogas. Decentralizing and localizing energy production would also diminish the distributive and regional conflicts that inevitably arise with the extractive economy. As Alberto Acosta says, we won’t abolish the current model overnight, but it is possible to initiate the transition to a post-extractive economy. Such an economy does not reject the exploitation of natural resources, but seeks to establish the biophysical limits of development, and to “reach sustainability, and eliminate poverty and its cause, which is opulence”.(13)

After all of Evo Morales’ decrials of “Western culture”, will he now introduce the worst thing that this culture offers us? This would be an appalling betrayal of the hopes and expectations that accompanied his rise to power. By disturbing uranium’s millenary sleep, the Bolivian government joins the enormous and irreversible experiment that it entails: the permanent contamination of the human gene bank. Let's not forget the vast source of energy of love and compassion. If the native Iroquois weighed each important decision by the effects it would have on the seventh generation, where is this love for our great-great-grandchildren or even just for our children? Will we keep on mortgaging their future for our inflated energy "needs"? Or like the Navajo: will we put the imagination and intelligence of our species to work?

It’s time to end the failed nuclear experiment and face the challenges posed by a genuine transformation.

Notes and references:

(1) Some 50 countries have declared an intent to become nuclear powers, including Turkey, Syria, Jordan, Bahrain, Kazakhstan, Georgia, Qatar, Oman, Bulgaria, Albania, Yemen, the Arab Emirates, Tunisia, Venezuela, Ecuador, Chile, Morocco, Libya, Algeria, Nigeria, Ghana, Namibia and Tonga. As for the illegal spread of nuclear weapons, the International Atomic Energy Agency has registered more than 650 cases of trafficking in nuclear and radioactive materials since 1993. The nuclear “renaissance” in part owes itself to a perceived energy shortage, but also to the search for alternatives to fossil fuels. The latter idea is in turn based upon the dubious hypothesis of Anthropogenic Global Warming. See:



(4) When Ahmadinejad arrived in Bolivia in November of 2009, the two countries issued a joint declaration expressing their support of “peaceful nuclear energy in the framework of the Non-Proliferation Treaty”. They also called for the renunciation of nuclear arms by the countries that possess them.





(11) Peak Everything: Waking Up to the Century of Declines, Richard Heinberg, 2007 (New Society Publishers)




Many thanks to Volodymyr Vladimir I. Druzhshchienschkyy and Susana Montes for their input.

David Montoute is a naturopath, visual artist & political researcher. Contact:

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