Road Network Spreads Destruction Across Amazon

Road Network Spreads Destruction Across Amazon

Editor’s note: Roads in the middle of wildlife, both illegal and legal, cause habitat fragmentation. This, in turn, impacts wildlife. They disturb migration routes of many animals. Many die in roadkill. Some are more likely to be killed than others, affecting the population balance between species. The light pollution alters the circadian rhythms. Other forms of pollution affects other aspects of their lives. Learn more about the impacts of roads on wildlife here.

The following article demonstrates how, in addition to that, roads (mainly unofficial roads) are causing a widespread deforestation in the Amazon rainforest, one of the largest remaining rainforests. Amazon is home to not only some rare species of flora and fauna, but also to some of the last remaining uncontacted peoples in the world. Destruction of Amazon is an annihilation of these species and the lifestyles of these people.

By /Mongabay

  • A groundbreaking study using satellite data and an artificial intelligence algorithm shows how the spread of unofficial roads throughout the Amazon is driving widespread deforestation.
  • One such road is on the verge of cutting across the Xingu Socioenvironmental Corridor, posing a serious risk of helping push the Amazon beyond a crucial tipping point.
  • Unprotected public lands account for 25% of the total illegal road network, with experts saying the creation of more protected areas could stem the spread and slow both deforestation and land grabs.
  • Officially sanctioned roads, such as the Trans-Amazonian Highway, also need better planning to minimize their impact and prevent the growth of illegal offshoots, experts say.

The Americas have a long history of occupation based on the destruction of nature and the violent massacre of native peoples, all in the name of a particular idea of “progress.” Brazil’s military dictatorship, which ran from 1964 to 1985, embraced this ideology to the point it had a specific motto — “integrate to not surrender” — for its nationalist project for the Amazon Rainforest. That mindset is still alive in the systemic and uncontrolled spread of unofficial roads in the Amazon, and the extent of this destruction is becoming increasingly clear.

A study by the Brazilian conservation nonprofit Imazon identified 3.46 million kilometers (2.15 million miles) of roads in what’s known as the Legal Amazon, an administrative region that spans the nine Brazilian states located within the Amazon Basin. The researchers estimated that at least 86% of the extent of these roads are unofficial, “built by loggers, goldminers, and unauthorized land settlements from existing official roads.” The sprawling network of roads also means that 41% of the Amazon Rainforest is already cut by roads or lies within 10 km (6 mi) of one.

While two-thirds of the road extent identified in the study is on private properties and settlements, the other third is on public lands. Here, unofficial roads have mushroomed, particularly in public areas without special protection from the government. The roads in these public areas run 854,000 km (531,000 mi), accounting for a quarter of the total in the Amazon.

According to Imazon, roads in these areas point to criminal activities such as illegal logging, mining, and land grabbing. The study also shows that 5% of the road network is inside conservation units, and 3% within Indigenous territories, running a total 280,000 km (174,000 mi) inside these ostensibly protected areas.

“These are arteries of destruction,” study co-author Carlos Souza Jr., an associate researcher at Imazon who coordinates the institute’s Amazon monitoring program, told Mongabay by phone. “The roads are opened to extract wood, and the ramifications spread from the main line, where the trucks and heavy machinery are.” He added the degradation is followed by the occupation of these areas, in what’s become a very familiar pattern in the Amazon.

According to Souza, previous studies estimated the length of official roads at around 80,000 km (nearly 50,000 mi) in the Brazilian Amazon, composed of federal, state and municipal highways and roads in official settlements, all of which are part of the planned infrastructure.

But the official numbers are much lower. The Federal Department for Transport Infrastructure (DNIT) told Mongabay in an email that it acknowledges 23,264 km (14,455 mi) of paved and unpaved roads within the Legal Amazon. That’s a tiny fraction of the more than 3 million km of mostly undocumented roads that Imazon identified in the region.

“Roads created without planning by municipalities, states and the federal government don’t appear on official maps,” Souza said, “but they end up being incorporated into the municipal network, demanding public money for their maintenance.”

The Imazon study, published in July in the journal Remote Sensing, used 2020 images from the Sentinel-2 satellite made available by the European Space Agency. The researchers applied an artificial intelligence algorithm created by Imazon to analyze the images.

Past efforts at making out roads in stacks of satellite images took researchers months of poring over the pictures. This time around, Imazon’s algorithm cut the analysis time to just seven hours, allowing the researchers to focus on the data. Studies using the previous methods had already indicated that the advance of unofficial roads was a driver of deforestation in the Amazon, but the new research will allow scientists to recreate a historical series with data from previous years using the new algorithm for the entire Amazon region.

Souza said mapping and monitoring the spread of roads is crucial to identifying threats to the forest, its people, and traditional communities. Previous studies have already shown that 95% of deforestation happens within 5.5 km (3.4 mi) of a road, and 85% of fires each year occur within 5 km (3.1 mi). Accounting for only the official road network, deforestation would be at least 50 km (31 mi) from the nearest road, and fires 30 km (18.6 mi) away.

“That proves mapping clandestine roads improves deforestation and fire risk prediction models and can be used as a tool to prevent forest destruction,” Souza said. “Monitoring usually looks for deforestation after the forest has already been cut down. If monitoring focuses on roads, the potential to prevent deforestation is huge.”

Souza and the team at Imazon are also building a network to deploy their tool in tropical forests worldwide to map the road footprint in other areas under pressure, such as the Congo Basin and Indonesia. PrevisIA, a deforestation prediction tool, is already using the new database. According to the latest analysis by Imazon, 75% of deforestation occurred within 4 km (2.5 mi) of PrevisIA’s predictions.

Both by length and density (the ratio between the area covered and the length of the road), unofficial roads in the Amazon are concentrated in the states of Mato Grosso, Pará, Tocantins, Maranhão and Rondônia. The data show that the zone known as the “arc of deforestation,” on the southeastern edge of the biome, continues to be the most targeted, but also points to a surge in the south of Amazonas state, western Pará, and the Terra do Meio region in central Pará.

Souza said that while most roads are very well maintained in private areas and with no public access, regulatory bodies such as the DNIT should work with environmental protection agencies to restrict traffic on these roads.

An imminent threat

An example of an illegal road that presents a danger to one of the most extensive contiguous forests in the Amazon was detected by Rede Xingu+, a network of conservation NGOs. The organization spotted an unofficial road running 42.8 km (26.6 mi)  across two important conservation areas: the Terra do Meio Ecological Station and the Iriri State Forest. The road threatens to divide the Xingu Socioenvironmental Corridor, a ​​28-million-hectare (69-million-acre) swath of native forest that’s home to 21 Indigenous territories and nine conservation units.

According to the Instituto Socioambiental (ISA), an NGO that advocates for environmental and Indigenous rights, the illegal road starts in a deforestation hub inside the Triunfo do Xingu Environmental Protection Area. From there, it’s on the verge of completing the connection between the municipalities of Novo Progresso and São Felix do Xingu, a center for the illegal timber and gold trades. With just 10 km (6 mi) of forest to cut through in Iriri, the road could soon reach the Curuá River, inside the state forest, completing the connection and slicing right through the Xingu corridor, increasing the vulnerability of its forests dramatically.

“The threat is imminent,” Thaise Rodrigues, a geoprocessing analyst at the ISA, told Mongabay by phone, “and so far we are not aware of any legal action to stop it.” Rede Xingu+ spotted the road for the first time in January this year. Its progress was interrupted for a few months when it reached a mine inside the Terra do Meio Ecological Station. As of May this year, work on the road resumed, and it reached the Iriri State Forest. In July and August, the monitoring showed 575 hectares (1,420 acres) of deforestation around this road.

“When a large mass of forest is broken, it becomes vulnerable. The roads cause fragmentation, which intensifies deforestation,” Rodrigues said. The ISA has criticized both the Pará state and the federal governments for their inaction, given that both are responsible for the protected areas inside the Xingu corridor. The illegal road increases what’s known as the “edge effect,” where areas of forest exposed to clearings such as roads become more vulnerable to threats. And the deforestation wrought by these threats drives the Amazon closer toward a “tipping point,” beyond which the rainforest loses its ability to self-regenerate and devolves into a dry savanna.

According to the ISA, the Xingu corridor holds an estimated 16 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide, and its mass of lush vegetation is responsible for generating the “flying rivers” of water vapor that bring rain to the rest of the continent. Splitting up swaths of forest with roads also causes a loss of connectivity, which directly impacts the migration of aquatic and terrestrial wildlife, while accelerating the desertification of the soil. The ISA points to another serious risk: opening up the rainforest brings humans closer to the 3,000 known coronavirus species that Amazonian bats carry, making another global pandemic ever more likely.

Near the Iriri State Forest, the Baú Indigenous Territory is already under heavy pressure from mining activities and the deforestation front advancing from the municipality of Novo Progresso.

“The greater the network of roads around and inside protected areas,” Rodrigues said, “the greater the access for the consolidation of such illegal activities.”

She added that unprotected public areas are even more susceptible to land grabs. “The delimitation of protected areas would help, but the public authorities need to show interest in protecting these areas and the communities that live there.”

Imazon’s Souza said the creation of protected areas is the fastest way to contain the spread of these roads, since there’s little chance of land grabbers gaining legal title to the land that’s designated as protected.

“Deforestation is an expensive business,” he said, “and nobody will spend money if there’s no chance of owning that land in the future.” That applies even to areas where roads have already been cut, since that would make them less appealing to speculators.

Official roads are also risks

Experts say Brazil should also rethink the construction of government-built roads. One example is the BR-230, a project conceived under the military dictatorship that’s become a problem child for successive administrations. Construction of the road, known as Trans-Amazonian Highway, began in 1969, and it was inaugurated in 1972 despite not having been completed. Today, it cuts more than 4,000 km (2,500 mi) through the Amazon from Brazil’s northeast coast, with long stretches still unpaved and rendered completely impassable during the rainy season. The combination of cost, logistics, and the inherent difficulty of building colossal infrastructure in the middle of the forest have meant it’s still uncompleted 50 years after its inauguration.

Besides the Trans-Amazonian Highway, there’s the BR-163, which connects Cuiabá, in Mato Grosso, to Santarém, in northern Pará; and the BR-319, from Manaus, in Amazonas, to Porto Velho, in Rondônia. Both are expected to cut across the Brazilian Amazon in different directions. Experts say that despite being officially sanctioned projects, the precarious planning behind them compounds the risks to the region’s environment.

A 2020 study evaluated 75 road projects in the Amazon, including in Brazil, Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru, composed of 12,000 km (nearly 7,500 mi) of planned roads. It showed that, if carried out over the next 20 years, the roads would cause the deforestation of 2.4 million hectares (5.9 million acres) of forest. Besides the environmental damage linked, 45% of the projects would also generate economic losses. Canceling these unfeasible projects would save $7.6 billion and 1.1 million hectares (2.7 million acres) of forests, the study showed.

It also made the case that carefully picking a smaller number of projects could achieve 77% of the economic benefits with only 10% of the socioenvironmental damage.

“Every project will cause environmental damage to some degree,” study co-author Thaís Vilela, a senior economist at the Washington, D.C.-based Conservation Strategy Fund, told Mongabay in an email. “But there is a subset of projects that have a positive financial return with lower environmental and social impacts.”

The research considered variables such as the project’s initial cost, deforestation, ecological relevance of the area, access to schools and health centers, and breaches of environmental regulations.

“Often, decision makers only consider the financial costs and benefits of the project,” Vilela said, “and there are political demands that often do not follow the economic logic.”

The research shows that the economic prospects of a project go from positive to negative when the potential environmental and social impacts are accounted for. To pave 2,234 km (​​1,388 mi) of the Trans-Amazonian Highway, for instance, 561,000 hectares (1.38 million acres) of forest would be destroyed. In terms of the impact on biodiversity, water, carbon storage, and the integrity of protected areas, BR-163, BR-230, and BR-319 would do the most significant damage to the environment, the study found. Paving 496 km (​​308 miles) of BR-163 alone would cause 400 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions by 2030.

As dire as these figures look, the true extent of the damage would be even greater because of the unofficial roads that would sprout off these main highways, the study authors said. Construction and improvement of these primary roads, they wrote, “might potentially lead to the construction of secondary, tertiary, and even illegal roads in the region, promoting additional impacts.”.

“Unofficial roads usually come from official ones,” Imazon’s Souza said. He blamed poor environmental impact assessments for allowing this proliferation of roads, adding that the major official highways also harm protected areas and Indigenous territories.

“There are areas where roads should not be built, as environmental and social damage would be greater than potential benefits,” Vilela said. “Ideally, the definition of these variables should involve all individuals directly affected by the project.”

The DNIT told Mongabay that its responsibility is limited to federal roads listed in the National Road System database, which doesn’t include unofficial roads. Mongabay also contacted IBAMA, the Brazilian environmental protection agency, and ICMBio, the government institute that oversees protected areas, but didn’t receive any response to requests for comment by the time this story was published.


Botelho, J., Costa, S. C., Ribeiro, J. G., & Souza, C. M. (2022). Mapping roads in the Brazilian Amazon with artificial intelligence and Sentinel-2. Remote Sensing, 14(15), 3625. doi:10.3390/rs14153625

Barber, C. P., Cochrane, M. A., Souza Jr, C. M., & Laurance, W. F. (2014). Roads, deforestation, and the mitigating effect of protected areas in the Amazon. Biological Conservation, 177, 203-209. doi:10.1016/j.biocon.2014.07.004

Vilela, T., Malky Harb, A., Bruner, A., Laísa da Silva Arruda, V., Ribeiro, V., Auxiliadora Costa Alencar, A., … Botero, R. (2020). A better Amazon road network for people and the environment. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 117(13), 7095-7102. doi:10.1073/pnas.1910853117

Amazon rainforest” by CIFOR is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Approval of Deep Sea Mining Test Despite Concerns

Approval of Deep Sea Mining Test Despite Concerns

Editor’s Note: Deep sea mining is being pursued on the pretext of a transition towards a “cleaner” source of energy. This transition is being hailed as “the solution” to all environmental problems by the majority of the environmental movement. The irony of “the solution” to environmental problems being destruction of natural communities seems to be lost on a lot of people.

The International Seabed Authority has been criticized for a lack of transparency and corporate capture by the companies it is supposed to regulate. Given that the organization is expected to be funded from mining royalties, it may not come as a surprise that it has prioritized the interests of corporations above the preservation of the deep sea. Despite numerous concerns raised about Nauru Ocean Resources Inc. (NORI)’s environmental impact statement, the ISA gave permission to NORI to begin exploratory mining. NORI’s vessel, The Hidden Gem, is currently extracting polymetallic nodules from the seafloor in the Clarion Clipperton Zone. This exploratory mining will cause tremendous harm itself, but it is also a big step towards opening the gates to large-scale commercial exploitation of the deep sea. To help stop this, get organized, become a Deep Sea Defender.

By Elizabeth Claire Alberts/Mongabay

  • The International Seabed Authority (ISA), the intergovernmental body responsible for overseeing deep sea mining operations and for protecting the ocean, recently granted approval for a mining trial to commence in the Clarion-Clipperton Zone (CCZ) in the Pacific Ocean.
  • The company undertaking this trial is Nauru Ocean Resources Inc (NORI), a subsidiary of Canadian-owned The Metals Company (TMC), which is aiming to start annually extracting 1.3 million metric tons of polymetallic nodules from the CCZ as early as 2024.
  • The approval for this mining test, the first of its kind since the 1970s, was first announced by TMC earlier this week.
  • Mining opponents said the ruling took them by surprise and they feared it would pave the way for exploitation to begin in the near future, despite growing concerns about the safety and necessity of deep sea mining.

On Sept. 14, the Hidden Gem — an industrial drill ship operated by a subsidiary of The Metals Company (TMC), a Canadian deep sea mining corporation — left its port in Manzanillo, Mexico. From there, it headed toward the Clarion-Clipperton Zone (CCZ), a vast abyssal plain in international waters of the Pacific Ocean that stretches over 4.5 million square kilometers (1.7 million square miles) across the deep sea, roughly equivalent in size to half of Canada.

The goal of TMC’s expedition is to test its mining equipment that will vacuum up polymetallic nodules, potato-shaped rocks formed over millions of years. The nodules contain commercially coveted minerals like cobalt, nickel, copper and manganese. TMC, a publicly traded company listed on the Nasdaq exchange, announced that it aims to collect 3,600 metric tons of these nodules during this test period.

This operation came as a surprise to opponents of deep-sea mining, mainly because of the stealth with which they said the International Seabed Authority (ISA) — the UN-affiliated intergovernmental body dually responsible for overseeing mining in international waters and for protecting the deep sea — authorized TMC to commence the trial.

It is the first such trial the ISA has authorized after years of debate over whether it should permit deep-sea mining to commence in international waters, and if so, under what conditions. News of the authorization did not come initially from the ISA, but from TMC itself in a press release dated September 7. The ISA eventually posted its own statement on Sept. 15, more than a week after TMC’s announcement. It is not clear when the ISA granted the authorization.

“We’ve been caught off guard by this,” Arlo Hemphill, a senior oceans campaigner at Greenpeace, an organization campaigning to prevent deep sea mining operations, told Mongabay in an interview. “There’s been little time for us to react.”

A tripod fish observed in the deep-sea. Image by NOAA Okeanos Explorer Program via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

Mounting concerns, sudden actions

Several weeks ago, in July and August, delegates to the ISA met in Kingston, Jamaica, to discuss how, when and if deep sea mining could begin. In July 2021, discussions acquired a sense of urgency when the Pacific island state of Nauru triggered an arcane rule embedded in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) that could obligate the ISA to kick-start exploitation in about two years with whatever rules are in place at the time. Nauru is the sponsor of Nauru Ocean Resources Inc (NORI), a subsidiary of TMC that is undertaking the tests. TMC told Mongabay that it expects to apply for its exploitation license in 2023, and if approved by the ISA, to begin mining towards the end of 2024.

The ISA subsequently scheduled a series of meetings to accelerate the development of mining regulations, but has yet to adopt a final set of rules.

The delay is due, in part, to the increasing number of states and observers from civil society raising concerns about the safety and necessity of deep sea mining. Some member states, including Palau, Fiji and Samoa, have even called for a moratorium on deep sea mining until more is understood about the marine environment that companies want to exploit. Other concerns hinge upon an environmental impact statement (EIS) that NORI had to submit in order for mining to begin.

NORI submitted an initial draft of its EIS in July 2021, as per ISA requirements, and an updated version in March 2022.

Matt Gianni, a political and policy adviser for the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition (DSCC), a group of environmental NGOs calling for NORI’s testing approval to be rescinded, said that the ISA’s Legal and Technical Commission (LTC) — the organ responsible for issuing mining licenses — previously cited “serious concerns” about NORI’s EIS, including the fact that it lacked baseline environmental data. The LTC had also raised concerns about the comprehensiveness of the group’s Environmental Management and Monitoring Plan (EMMP), he said.

But then, “all of a sudden,” the LTC granted approval for the mining test without first consulting ISA council members, said Gianni, who acts as an observer at ISA meetings.

The fact that TMC announced the decision before the ISA did “reinforces the impression that it’s the contractor and the LTC and the [ISA] secretariat that are driving the agenda, and states are following along,” Gianni said.

Harald Brekke, chair of the LTC, sent Mongabay a statement similarly worded to the recent announcement made by the ISA. He said that the LTC had reviewed NORI’s EIS and EMMP for “completeness, accuracy and statistical reliability,” and that an internal working group had worked closely with NORI to address concerns. In response, the mining group adequately dealt with the issues, which allowed the LTC to approve the proposed testing activities, he said.

“This is a normal contract procedure between the [ISA] Secretary-General and the Contractor, on the advice and recommendations by the [Legal and Technical] Commission,” Brekke said in the emailed statement. “It is not a decision to be made by the [ISA] Council. According to the normal procedure of ISA, the details of this process will be [communicated] by the Chair of the Commission to the Council at its session in November.”

“I also would like to point out that this procedure has followed the regulations and guidelines of ISA,” Brekke added, “which are implemented to take care of the possible environmental impacts of this kind of exploration activity.”

Yet Gianni said he did not believe the LTC had satisfactorily reviewed the EIS for its full potential of environmental impact, nor had it considered the “serious harmful effects on vulnerable marine ecosystems” as required under the ISA’s own exploration regulations for polymetallic nodules.

Questions about transparency

Sandor Mulsow, who worked as the director of environment and minerals at the ISA between 2013 and 2019, said that the ISA “is not fit to carry out an analysis of environmental impact assessment” and that the grounds on which the ISA authorized NORI to begin testing were questionable.

“Unfortunately, the [International] Seabed Authority is pro-mining,” Mulsow, who now works as a professor at Universidad Austral de Chile, said in an interview with Mongabay. “They’re not complying with the role of protecting the common heritage of humankind.”

A recent investigation by the New York Times revealed that the ISA gave TMC critical information over a 15-year period that allowed the company to access some of the most valuable seabed areas marked for mining, giving it an unfair advantage over other contractors.

The ISA has also frequently been criticized for its lack of transparency, including the fact that the LTC meets behind closed doors and provides few details about why it approves mining proposals. The ISA has previously granted dozens of exploratory mining licenses to contractors, although none have yet received an exploitation license. While NORI is not technically undertaking exploratory mining in this instance, their testing of mining equipment falls under exploration regulations.

Mongabay reported that transparency issues were even prominent during the ISA meetings that took place in July and August this year, including restrictions on participation and limited access to key information for civil society members.

The ISA did not respond to questions posed by Mongabay, instead deferring to the statement from Brekke, the LTC chair.

A sea cucumber
A sea cucumber seen at 5,100 meters (3.2 miles) depth on abyssal sediments in the western Clarion-Clipperton Zone. Image by DeepCCZ expedition/NOAA via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0).

‘Full-blown mining in test form’

During the mining trial set to take place in the CCZ — which could begin as early as next week — NORI will be testing out its nodule collector vehicles and riser systems that will draw the nodules about 3,000 meters (9,840 feet) from the seabed to the surface. If NORI does begin exploitation in 2024, Gianni said the risers will be pumping about 10,000 metric tons of nodules up to a ship per day.

“That’s a hell of a lot,” Gianni said. “This is heavy duty machinery. This is piping that has to withstand considerable pressure.”

NORI intends to extract 1.3 million metric tons of wet nodules each year in the exploitation stage of its operation, TMC reported.

The Metals Company argues that this mining will provide minerals necessary to power a global shift toward clean energy. Indeed, demand for such minerals is growing as nations urge consumers to take up electric vehicles in an effort to combat climate change.

Mining opponents, however, have argued that renewable technologies like electric cars don’t actually need the minerals procured from mining.

Moreover, a growing cadre of scientists have been warning against the dangers of deep sea mining, arguing that we don’t know enough about deep sea environments to destroy them. What we do know about the deep sea suggests that mining could have far-reaching consequences, such as disturbing phytoplankton blooms at the sea’s surface, introducing toxic metals into marine food webs, and dispersing mining waste over long distances across the ocean — far enough to affect distant fisheries and delicate ecosystems like coral reefs and seamounts.

“Every time somebody goes and collects some sample in that area of the Clarion-Clipperton Zone, there’s a new species coming up,” Mulsow said. “We don’t know how to name them, and we want to destroy them.”

TMC has stated that the testing activities will be monitored by “independent scientists from a dozen leading research institutions around the world.”

However, Hemphill of Greenpeace, who also has ISA observer status, questions whether the monitoring process will be unbiased.

“We’re thinking there’s a high chance that these risers might not work,” he said. “But if there’s not a third party observer out there, then we just have to rely on The Metals Company’s own recording.”

“It’s going to be basically a full-blown mining operation in test form, where they’re not only using the [collector] equipment, but they’re using the risers to bring the nodules to the surface,” Hemphill added.

Nodule collection trials like the one NORI is undertaking haven’t been conducted in the CCZ since the 1970s, TMC noted in its press release.

When Mongabay reached out to TMC for further information about its operation, a spokesperson for the company said that they “believe that polymetallic nodules are a compelling solution to the critical mineral supply challenges facing society in our transition away from fossil fuels.”

“While concern is justified as to the potential impacts of any source of metals — whether from land or sea — significant attention has been paid to mitigate these, including by setting aside more area for protection than is under license in the Clarion-Clipperton Zone of the Pacific Ocean,” the TMC spokesperson said.

‘No way back’

Mulsow said he was sure that this trial would pave the way for exploitation to start next year, not only giving TMC’s NORI access to the deep sea’s resources, but opening the gates for other contractors to begin similar operations.

“[In June] 2023, we will have … the application for the first mining license for the deep sea,” he said, “and then there will be no way back.”

Hemphill said he also feared the move would set a process into motion for mining to start next year — but added that Greenpeace would continue its fight to stop mining.

“We’re not giving up just because the two-year rule comes to pass,” he said. “And then if things get started, we’re in this for the long haul.”

Gianni said he was hopeful that the dynamic could also change at the next ISA meeting scheduled for November, in which delegates will get the chance to discuss whether they’re obligated to approve the start of mining the following year.

“The fact that the LTC has done this … may finally get council members to start saying, ‘Wait a minute, we need to bring this renegade fiefdom [at] the heart of the ISA structure under control,” Gianni said, “because they’re going off and deciding things in spite of all the reservations that are being expressed by the countries that are members of the ISA.”

Featured image and all other images, unless mentioned otherwise, were provided by Julia Barnes.

Damming Mekong: What It Means for Fishing Communities?

Damming Mekong: What It Means for Fishing Communities?

Editor’s Note: Development projects have always destroyed local ways of living and nonhuman communities. Numerous examples attest to that. The government of Cambodia need not look very far. The Lower Sesan 2 dam it built despite resistance has collectively been decried by national and international organizations for numerous human rights and indigenous rights violations. The government of Cambodia itself placed a ten-year ban on damming Mekong in 2020. Despite this, the government has permitted the group responsible for Lower Sesan 2 to conduct geological studies for building the Stung Treng dam along Mekong river. Previous studies have already outlined the devastating effects it can have on the fisher communities.

It is no surprise that states prioritize profits over local communities in their decision making process. Organized political resistance is required for the local communities to stand a chance against such decisions that hughly impact their lives.

By Gerald Flynn and Nehru Pry/Mongabay

  • Cambodian authorities have greenlit studies for a major hydropower dam on the Mekong River in Stung Treng province, despite a ban on dam building on the river that’s been in place since 2020.
  • Plans for the 1,400-megawatt Stung Treng dam have been around since 2007, but the project, under various would-be developers, has repeatedly been shelved over criticism of its impacts.
  • This time around, the project is being championed by Royal Group, a politically connected conglomerate that was also behind the hugely controversial Lower Sesan 2 dam on a tributary of the Mekong, prompting fears among local communities and experts alike.
  • This story was supported by the Pulitzer Center’s Rainforest Investigations Network where Gerald Flynn is a fellow.

STUNG TRENG, Cambodia — A long-dormant plan to build a mega dam on the mainstream of the Mekong River in Cambodia’s northeastern Stung Treng province appears to have been revived this year, leaving locals immediately downstream of the potential sites worried and experts confounded.

First studied in 2007, the 1,400-megawatt hydropower project, known as the Stung Treng dam, has reared its head in many forms, only to be canceled or scrapped. Finally, in 2020, Cambodia’s government announced a 10-year ban on damming the Mekong River’s mainstream, placing the Stung Treng dam and others on indefinite life support.

However, on Dec. 29, 2021, Royal Group — arguably Cambodia’s largest and best-connected conglomerate — wrote to the government, requesting permission to conduct a six-month feasibility study across a number of sites along the Mekong in a bid to revive the long-sought-after hydropower project.

The Ministry of Mines and Energy approved, and Stung Treng Governor Svay Sam Eang ordered district governors to cooperate with SBK Research and Development, a Phnom Penh-based consultancy hired by Royal Group, while they analyzed three sites for the dam between January and June 2022.

All the sites that SBK analyzed sit within or would affect the Stung Treng Ramsar site, a wetland of ecological significance that’s supposed to be protected by the Ramsar Convention, an international treaty to which Cambodia became a signatory in 1999.

Spanning some 14,600 hectares (36,100 acres), the Stung Treng Ramsar site stretches 40 kilometers (25 miles) up from the confluence of the Mekong and Sekong rivers, almost to the Laos-Cambodia border. It’s home to the white-shouldered Ibis (Pseudibis davisoni) and giant Mekong catfish (Pangasianodon gigas), both critically endangered species, and the Irrawaddy dolphin (Orcaella brevirostris), which is globally endangered but whose Mekong population is considered critically endangered.

Royal Group's Stung Treng dam locator map
Sites analyzed by SBK Consultants for Royal Group’s Stung Treng dam. Map by Gerald Flynn/Mongabay.

‘We protested … it made no difference’

The Stung Treng dam has been the subject of many studies that have amounted to very little, first in 2007 by Bureyagesstroy, a subsidiary of Russian state-owned enterprise RusHydro. More than two years later, when it became apparent Russia wasn’t going ahead with the dam, Vietnamese state-owned enterprise Song Da also conducted studies.

The volleys of criticism that each study provoked has seen the Stung Treng dam shelved repeatedly. A 2012 study by the Cambodian Fisheries Administration’s Inland Fisheries Research and Development Institute found the Stung Treng dam would reduce aquatic food yields by 6% and 24% by 2030. This, the government’s own researchers warned, would lead to increased malnutrition and worse public health outcomes, especially among poorer, rural communities.

WWF’s Greater Mekong program then published an extensive brief in 2018 reiterating the threats posed by the Stung Treng dam to fisheries, agriculture, ecosystems and biodiversity.

By then, however, many of these fears had already been realized in the form of the Lower Sesan 2 hydropower dam.

Also located in Stung Treng province, roughly 30 km (19 mi) from the Ramsar site, the Lower Sesan 2 was approved in 2012 before going online in 2018 after a tumultuous series of studies throughout the 1990s. Following funding issues, Royal Group stepped in as a financier to save the project, but this didn’t stop the Lower Sesan 2 from rapidly becoming emblematic of the numerous problems associated with dams on the Mekong and its tributaries.

Even now, nearly four years after the dam’s completion, pro-government Cambodian and Chinese outlets continue attempting to resuscitate the Lower Sesan 2’s image, which was tarnished by the sheer scale of human suffering and environmental degradation it’s been linked to.

The Stung Treng Ramsar site could be compromised by Cambodia's hydropower ambitions
The Stung Treng Ramsar site could be compromised by Cambodia’s hydropower ambitions. Image by Gerald Flynn/Mongabay.

Royal Group maintains the dam is a success and says the project supplied 20% of Cambodia’s energy demands in 2020. But before the project was even finished, it came under fire from the United Nations, numerous NGOs both international and domestic, as well as thousands of affected residents displaced by the dam’s 30,000-hectare (74,000-acre) reservoir.

Since the dam’s completion, Human Rights Watch has branded the Lower Sesan 2 “a disaster” in a 137-page report released last year, calling the dam’s developers responsible for multiple human rights violations, abuses against Indigenous peoples, and a drastic decline in fisheries, along with failing to actually live up to its projected power generation targets.

Haunted by the Lower Sesan 2, the residents of the Stung Treng Ramsar site’s islands were deeply concerned when they saw SBK Research and Development engaged in geological studies and learned the prospect of the Stung Treng dam had returned again.

“The local authorities came round at the start of the year,” says Mao Sareth, chief of the Koh Khan Din fishing community in the south of the Stung Treng Ramsar site. “They told us they want to build a dam that’ll be 7 meters [23 feet] high and will affect 163 families — it’s going to be huge, 1,400 MW, that’s what they told me.”

Mao Sareth, chief of the Koh Khan Din fishing community in the south of the Stung Treng Ramsar site
Mao Sareth, chief of the Koh Khan Din fishing community in the south of the Stung Treng Ramsar site. Image by Nehru Pry/Mongabay.

Sareth is reluctant to discuss the details of the proposed dam, hinting that people have warned him against discussing the project with journalists. But for the 72-year-old, the number of families who would be affected if the Stung Treng dam goes ahead would be much higher than what SBK’s consultants suggested, although the consequences for each island would vary depending on whether the dam was built up or downstream of their community.

“There are 144 families in our village alone, with plenty more spread across the islands and there are hundreds of islands here, full of people who farm and fish,” Sareth says. “Of course we’d be affected if they build the dam, lots of communities would be flooded, everyone relies on agriculture here, the dam would destroy our crops.”

Already at the mercy of water released or withheld by dams upstream in Laos, Sareth says his community exists in a fragile balance, eking out an existence that hinges on access to fish from the water and crops nourished by it. The Stung Treng Ramsar site’s ecosystem, he says, has held the community together, with only seven families leaving last year to find day-laborer work in Thailand.

“Most people try to stay and find a new market for their crops,” Sareth says. “They can take food from the river — they can survive here.”

But Sareth is no stranger to defeat at the hands of hydropower developers, and knows that if the government decides to break its own ban on Mekong dam building, then it will be his community that suffers.

“We protested the Don Sahong dam in Laos because we knew it would hurt our people, our livelihoods, but our protests made no difference — they finished the dam anyway,” he says. “Then we protested the Lower Sesan 2 dam, but again, it made no difference, we had no results, only losses. We lost so much when they opened the water gates, crops, livelihoods, everything.”

Life on the Mekong River is changing and residents struggle to keep up
Life on the Mekong River is changing and residents struggle to keep up. Image by Nehru Pry/Mongabay.

Dammed and damned

Meanwhile, 12 km (7.5 mi) further upstream, the ecotourism and fishing communities on the island of Koh Snaeng say they fear a way of life could be erased by new hydropower projects.

Fifty-two-year-old Lim Sai is one of the estimated 1,000 people living across the four villages that make up Koh Snaeng, which straddles the Mekong within the heart of the Stung Treng Ramsar site, roughly 30 km from the Lower Sesan 2 hydropower dam.

“In general, we know if we protest, we’ll face consequences, we know there’ll be problems — maybe even lawsuits,” Sai says. “You can get sued for speaking out, so if the government doesn’t see the dams as a problem, then ordinary people like us have no tools to affect our future.”

Sai is a lifelong resident of the island and has seen it adapt in the face of an uncertain future. Koh Snaeng residents pivoted from fishing to farming when the first dams further upstream in Laos and China began to change the flow of the river upon which the island is situated. Then, as the climate crisis intensified and Cambodia’s rains became less reliable, residents again shifted their focus, this time to ecotourism.

Throughout these changes, Sai has worked in local government. But despite this role, he says his community has been largely ignored by the national authorities.

“They [the national government] only built a road connecting National Road 7 to the ferry that brings people to Koh Snaeng last year, we’ve been asking for one for around decades,” he says by way of example. “Maybe it was because we had the commune elections coming up this year and they knew we wouldn’t support them.”

Sai says the island is still very much reliant on the river and that he feels the latest hydropower study hasn’t factored his community into the decision.

Residents from Koh Khan Din were invited to a meeting in the Cambodian capital where representatives of Royal Group discussed the matter of relocation and compensation in June, but Sai says he only found out about this through others.

“The dam would have a huge impact, not just here, but all the way down to Phnom Penh, even in Vietnam — it would affect the water flows all the way downriver,” Sai says.

Lim Sai has seen Koh Snaeng pivot to ecotourism as fishing and farming become less reliable on the Mekong
Lim Sai has seen Koh Snaeng pivot to ecotourism as fishing and farming become less reliable on the Mekong. Image by Nehru Pry/Mongabay.

Ma Chantha, 29, serves as the deputy of Koh Snaeng’s tourism community and says that when residents saw SBK’s consultants drilling samples from the riverbed earlier this year, they came to her with their fears.

“People are very worried, they think they’ll lose their houses to floodwaters or be displaced,” she says, noting that the community-based ecotourism project spans both Koh Snaeng and the neighboring island of Koh Han, with roughly 2,750 residents participating in the project since its inception in 2016.

Chantha says NGOs are taking an interest in protesting the planned dam, adding that a festival to celebrate the islands’ ecotourism value was held in June and that the Bophana Audiovisual Resource Center is currently putting together a documentary about the islanders who call the Stung Treng Ramsar site home.

“We hope the video and the campaign are successful, or helpful at least, in stopping hydropower construction here, because people will see that there are ecotourism destinations worth protecting here,” Chantha says. “This kind of advocacy has given the people here a chance to stand up for their communities, I hope that makes people change their mind about building the dam here.”

"People are very worried" says Ma Chantha, who depends on ecotourism on Koh Snaeng
“People are very worried” says Ma Chantha, who depends on ecotourism on Koh Snaeng. Image by Nehru Pry/Mongabay.

Conflicting narratives

But while communities rally to stop the Stung Treng dam, there is little clarity over whether the project will go ahead. In March, government-aligned outlet The Phnom Penh Post reported that the dam had been “okayed in principle,” but offered little beyond the approval for the feasibility study to substantiate this.

Chantha and Sai of Koh Snaeng, as well as Sareth of Koh Khan Din, all agreed that they had been told in recent months that the project wouldn’t be going ahead, although none could provide any documents to verify this either.

“I’m happy if they really canceled it,” Sai says. “Then we can continue to use the river for fishing and tourism, but I only believe in the cancelation about 40% and even if they cancel it now, it could always happen later.”

Chantha says there’s been no official announcement of cancellation and that it may just be rumors spreading among hopeful residents. Sareth says a letter from August 2022 issued by the Ministry of Environment confirms the cancelation, but couldn’t produce the letter to show Mongabay by the time this story was published. Still, he says he’s confident it exists.

When questioned about the dam and the supposed cancellation, environment ministry spokesperson Neth Pheaktra denied having any information. Srey Sunleang, a senior ministry official responsible for freshwater wetlands and Ramsar sites, declined to comment.

Heng Kunleang, director of the Department of Energy at the Ministry of Mines and Energy, did not respond to questions sent by email, while Khnhel Bora, director of SBK Research and Development, says he’s also unaware of any cancellation.

Representatives of Royal Group, the conglomerate developing the dam, also did not comment for this story. The company will reportedly build the Stung Treng dam in partnership with China (Cambodia) Rich International, a company registered in Phnom Penh whose directors are all also key figures within Royal Group: Cambodian tycoon Kith Meng, Royal Group’s chief financial officer Mark Hanna, and chief of Royal Group’s energy division Thomas Pianka.

Hanna and Pianka did not respond to questions sent via email, while Kith Meng, who is also president of the Cambodian Chamber of Commerce and an adviser to Prime Minister Hun Sen, could not be reached for comment.

Royal Group’s track record on developing dams is so far limited to the 400-MW Lower Sesan 2, which was a joint venture with China’s state-owned Hydrolancang International Energy and Vietnam’s state-owned electricity utility, EVN International. In this partnership, Royal Group is believed to have been responsible for financing, rather than building, the dam.

The fate of Koh Snaeng and the Stung Treng Ramsar site remains unclear
The fate of Koh Snaeng and the Stung Treng Ramsar site remains unclear. Image by Gerald Flynn/Mongabay.

‘Beginning of the end’

Ian Baird, a professor of geography at the University of Wisconsin who specializes in studying hydropower development across Cambodia, Laos and Thailand, says he’s heard rumors of the Stung Treng dam project being resurrected. While it remains unclear exactly what would be built or where and how, he says, the project is a significant threat to the Mekong region.

“The Ramsar Convention is quite weak as governments can really do as they please in Ramsar sites, but Cambodia has been more responsive to international conventions than its neighbors and historically more concerned than others about international criticism, compared with Laos or Vietnam,” Baird says, pointing to Cambodia’s 2020 moratorium on Mekong dam building — a move that other Mekong Basin countries have not followed.

“But this is one of the reasons why exposing the problems related to the Lower Sesan 2 is very critical, because it’s the same developers,” Baird says, adding he’d hoped the failings of Royal Group’s first hydropower project would ward the government off from approving another.

If the Stung Treng dam gets the go-ahead, Baird says it would be more damaging than the controversial Don Sahong dam and the Xayaburi dam — both on the mainstream of the Mekong in Laos — and more significant than the soon-to-be-completed Sekong A dam on the Laotian stretch of the Sekong River, a key tributary that flows from Vietnam, through Laos and into the Mekong River in Cambodia.

“There’s a lot of reason for concern here, if it goes ahead, well – it’s the beginning of the end,” Baird says. “The Mekong is dying a death by a thousand cuts, I’ve watched it for years, and honestly, it’s sad, but what can you do?”

Residents point to Royal Group’s history in Stung Treng province as a reason to be fearful, adding that a new, significantly larger hydropower project could have even wider-reaching impacts.

“I don’t know what I’ll do if they go ahead with it,” says Sai from Koh Snaeng.

Featured image: A lone boat heads up the Mekong River through the Stung Treng Ramsar site. Image by Gerald Flynn/Mongabay.

Musings on Organizing

Musings on Organizing

Editor’s note: This piece was written in 2018, and does not reflect DGR strategy. We are not a partisan organization along the U.S. Democrat-Republican divide. Rather, we view both of these political parties as tools of capitalist hegemony–two factions of the ruling class, battling for political and economic control.

However, it is rare to find organizers writing about organizing. This piece is valuable for the same reason that autobiographies of organizers and revolutionary leaders are valuable—not for sweeping statements or ideological platitudes, but precisely because of the unpolished reality they, at times, show. Organizing for change in our society is not simple, and revolutionary change on the scale Deep Green Resistance advocates is titanic by any measure. Any success we find will not play out smoothly like a Hollywood film. Essays like this remind us of the hard grunt work of grassroots organizing that is required for us to leave a better future for those who come after.


I haven’t had much time to write, hence the lack of essays. We’ve been organizing and I can never seem to get in a good writing groove when my schedule is filled with community obligations.

That said, one of the most frustrating things I’ve encountered over the years is a lack of organizing knowledge and information. Groups such as the Highlander Center or Greenpeace provide manuals, but I would guess that over 99% of the articles and essays produced on progressive media outlets focus on what’s wrong, not what people are doing about it.

Part of the problem is that many progressive media outlets aren’t interested in such articles. However, organizers and activists are also to blame as we simply don’t write as often as analysts, professors, or essayists.

Below is a lengthy and unstructured series of reflections on the sort of organizing work I’m currently doing in Northwest Indiana, where I live and work. I hope people will find some of my insights interesting and useful.


Back in January of 2017, hundreds of people throughout the Northwest Indiana region and millions across the United States were regularly attending events, meetings and rallies. At the time, I recognized that such a pace was not sustainable, and for many reasons.

First, it’s hard to replicate large symbolic actions such as protests because those sort of events require a lot of time, resources and manpower. Plus, the utility of large-scale rallies is limited, especially if they don’t take place within the context of broader campaigns and political projects.

Second, it was clear from the start that many groups were quite inexperienced with regard to their basic organizing knowledge. I attended meeting after meeting where basic facilitation skills and meeting structures were completely lacking. People were confusing terminologies and misunderstanding the difference between tactics and strategy, vision and programme.

Of course, all of these things are fixable, but that requires a certain level of humility and trust. If organizations and organizers are insular, it’s difficult to provide advice. Toxic personalities play a discouraging role as well.

Third, many of the groups that popped-up after Trump’s inauguration were tied to groups such as Indivisible and Our Revolution. Both groups, however, have failed to garner serious support or provide a viable path forward. In my opinion, that’s the inevitable result of top-down organizational structures and ideas.

In Northwest Indiana (NWI), where I live, hundreds of people were showing up to town hall events where elected Democrats would essentially give marching orders to those in attendance: “Send more emails to your elected officials!” This strategy, if one could even call it that, has been a great waste of time and energy. Even worse, progressives missed a potentially fruitful political opportunity to immediately orientate thousands of first-time activists.

That said, many progressive groups have formed in NWI and throughout the state of Indiana since Trump’s inauguration. Without question, one of the biggest challenges we face is a lack of coordination between progressive organizations at the local, regional and state levels. Collectively developing vision, strategies and tactics is difficult work, but it’s also essential if we hope to build long-lasting institutions capable of addressing not only our immediate needs, but also our long-term ideals.

Right now, the Michigan City Social Justice Group (MCSJG), which is the organization I’ve been primarily working with since 2017, is going through an internal restructuring process. It’s a needed and welcomed step for an organization that’s existed for a little more than a year. Fortunately, many of the group’s members have embraced and welcomed the process.

As an organization, we’ve had successes and setbacks (as any political organization does), but we’re moving in the right direction and doing all of the necessary and sometimes monotonous tasks that lay a solid foundation for what should become a growing organization.

Should we become a 501(c)3 or a ‘Super Pac?’ If we want to raise money, we have to become more professionalized and that requires legal aid, loads of paperwork ,and serious accountability.

Political organizing work, while fulfilling and empowering, is very trying, stressful and at times, quite tedious. Filing paperwork with the IRS, obtaining state documentation, requesting municipal permits for events, sitting through two hour meetings about risk management and conflict resolution plans, creating websites, managing social media and crafting word documents isn’t exactly the most exhilarating work, but it’s absolutely necessary if people are interested in creating a serious organization that has the potential to grow and significantly change the political, cultural, economic and civic structures of our city, county and state.

The overall scope of such a project is daunting, which is why most people either remain at the level of engaged citizen (but not a member of an organization) or join a preexisting organization (because it’s much easier than starting one from scratch, especially if you’re a precarious worker trying to make ends meet).

For those reasons and many others, including how preexisting organizations treat newcomers, it’s rare to find a group of people who are willing to create something new. I’m grateful to have met such committed and serious folks.


One of the primary challenges progressive organizations faced in the immediate aftermath of Trump’s victory, and still face, is how much time they should spend specifically targeting Trump, and how much time and effort should they spend on local and state-wide efforts. Of course, in an ideal world, all of these efforts would work with each other in a strategic manner, but that’s not always possible.

For example, most of the progressive groups that exist in the state of Indiana are not in contact with one another. Activists, for example, in NWI have very little idea of what’s happening in Fort Wayne or Bloomington. We have friends in those areas, and occasionally discuss ongoing organizing efforts, but not in a systematic fashion.

As I mentioned above, one of our primary challenges at the state level is increasing coordination between existing groups, especially those operating at the grassroots level. The major NGOs communicate with each other, but they’re not actively building independent organizations or coalitions in our state. To be honest, we don’t expect them to. We’re not looking to replicate the structures of existing NGOs — we’re trying to build an independent progressive organization and series of institutions whose primary focus is building power at the grassroots level. 

The question of whether or not groups should respond to each of Trump’s reactionary policy directives or statements cannot be understated. Back in January of 2017, people routinely blew up at meetings when we told them that we weren’t going to put a ton of energy into trying to keep Jeff Sessions from being the Attorney General, or that we weren’t interested in the Russia-Trump scandal.

It’s easy to see how liberal groups and the Democratic Party have been so unsuccessful in recent years: they focus on the issues the corporate media highlights, as opposed to focusing on the needs and interests of working-class, poor people, and the environment. Their focus is also very short-term. Many of these groups have a difficult time imagining politics beyond election cycles.

Without doubt, it makes sense to oppose (when possible) the Trump Administration and the GOP’s most damaging and reactionary excesses. However, it also makes sense to step back, reflect, and determine how we’re going to build the sort of organizations and movements that it will take to win. Trying to take down a president when your group can’t even hold regular and productive meetings is not only a waste of time, it’s laughable, and at worst, it’s a surefire way to burn people out.

On a tactical level, groups can use Trump’s vulgarity and brutish behavior as propaganda, but that’s a short-term outreach strategy. There are simply too many people and organizations who’ve built their ‘resistance’ on an anti-Trump platform, and it’s proven to be wholly inadequate. The tax bill, for instance, provided an opportunity to coalesce around an issue of great importance and one that resonated with ordinary folks (some polls suggest that over 70% of Americans were opposed to the bill). Progressives were unable to capitalize on this moment due to our internal disorganization, lack of vision and capacity.

To be fair, many millions of people are doing their best on a daily basis to stop Trump’s agenda, but they are disconnected, lacking organizational knowledge, and adequate resources.


We’re extremely limited in terms of what we can do at the municipal level in the state of Indiana. For instance, we can’t raise income, corporate or sales taxes (so much for the GOP’s mantra about ‘local control’); we’re also unable to put in place rent control caps or raise the minimum wage above the federal level; sanctuary cities are illegal; and we have limited control over the power company monopolies that exist throughout the state.

These limitations pose great challenges, but they also force us to think about creative alternatives and strategies that can alter existing power relations. Ideally, we would have both a local and state-wide strategy to change legislation in Indianapolis, but that’s rarely the case. More commonly, major NGOs (with limited success) and unions (with even less success) are the groups campaigning at the state level. Outside/independent groups and social movements have limited capacity and as a result, virtually no power to influence state politics.

Electorally, one strategy could be to fill as many local seats with progressives as possible, while simultaneously bolstering local and regional social movement groups and engaging in state-wide efforts when possible. That’s probably the most reasonable short-term strategy I could see for regional groups.

That said, running progressives for elected office is a tricky game. Should they run under a Democratic ticket? Should they run as Independents? Or should they run as Greens? Obviously, there are no easy answers to this question. Context should dictate the answer.

In Indiana, the Democratic Party is an empty vessel. Perhaps with a decent strategy and a committed group of organizers and activists, the local, county and state party apparatuses could be seized and used for progressive reforms (at least in the short-term).

The Democratic Party continues to win in cities like Michigan City because they’ve been around longer than anyone else and our city is 30% Black, working-class, and disproportionately union, hence GOP candidates stand little chance at winning local seats, at least that’s been true historically (Since 2010, the GOP has flourished in our country and state).

At the end of the day, the question organizers ask more than any other is: Do we have the capacity? What is practical with our current numbers? In our small city, we have 20 committed members in the  Michigan City Social Justice Group (MCSJG). How do we build our capacity while engaging in meaningful campaigns that provide real-world results for poor and working-class people? What projects will produce the greatest results over the long-term? These are constant and never-ending questions.

At every level, the primary issue is a matter of capacity and resources. Progressives will accomplish very little at the municipal level in a state like Indiana if we don’t radically change legislation downstate. It’s just that simple. It’s true that we can get creative and potentially develop alternative structures and revenue, but without the ability to raise corporate taxes, income taxes, the minimum wage, or put in place rent controls, we’re severely hampered in the short-term.

The new version of the Poor People’s Campaign is attempting to bring together some of these groups, but their platform is unclear, as they’ve put tactics before strategy (an ongoing and major problem on the Left, especially among antiwar activists and members of the progressive-faith community). There seems to be a persistent and incorrect belief among progressives that simply getting arrested and putting on the largest public spectacle imaginable will bring people into our movements. Sometimes, it’s true: people come along for the ride, but only for a limited amount of time. For the most part, people want concrete results and a clear platform.

Most people also have jobs, families and lives outside of political activism, hence they have limited time and patience for groups and movements, such as Occupy, which was disorganized, unclear in what it hoped to achieve, and isolated from other progressive organizations.

Street theater and protests are nice, symbolic events, and I enjoy them as much as the next person, but they are not an end, nor are they the primary means to our collective ends. Protests and occupations are simply tactics, and over-used ones at that. While occupations such as the ones that took place at Zucatti Park and Standing Rock are more useful than rallies, they’re also completely unsustainable.

At the national level, I’ve been unable to find an organization, movement or campaign that can tie into our existing local or regional organizing efforts. The Poor People’s Campaign would be the closest example, but that’s about it. Again, I’m assuming this varies depending on where one lives. For instance, I’ve heard that some Indivisible groups in Florida are doing great work. I’ve heard the same about DSA groups in Chicago. Again, however, the focus of these organizations is strictly electoral in nature. Here, in Northwest Indiana, the Sanders’ campaign-offshoot, Our Revolution, hasn’t taken off. Bringing Bernie’s supporters back into the mix has been an ongoing and frustrating effort, but also a necessary one. The 2018 midterms should offer an opportunity to reengage this constituency.

With regard to electoral campaigns, it’s important for progressive organizers to obtain contact lists. Thousands of addresses, phone numbers, and email lists are created, then lost or stashed away. It’s a real shame because many of the people who work on electoral campaigns disengage between cycles while grassroots groups remain engaged but have a difficult time gathering contacts.

We’ll be using our community space, PARC (Politics Art Roots Culture), as a primary organizing hub for Democrats during the 2018 midterm election cycle. Elections are one of the few times ordinary Americans are politically active. To me, it makes sense to expose liberals and Dems to leftwing ideas and forms of organizing that take place outside of the electoral sphere, and within the social movement context. As my friend once said, “We meet people where they’re at, but we don’t leave them there.”

PARC will fully support and host phone-banking, canvassing, and fundraising efforts, though it remains to be seen to what degree the MCSJG will engage with the 2018 midterms. Overall, we think it makes strategic sense to get rid of the GOP in the immediate future. They pose an immediate and grave threat to the planet and species and we’re constantly in triage mode when they’re in power. 

In our thinking, progressives can’t afford to ignore the electoral arena of struggle, nor can we afford purity politics. Poor and working-class people across the globe are suffering as a result of Trump and the GOP’s insane agenda, and the Democratic Party’s capitulation, and inability or unwillingness to provide a serious alternative. At the same time, many people on the Left refuse to acknowledge the limitations of the Green Party or the various Socialist parties who stand absolutely no immediate chance at gaining power. 

On the international level, it’s hard to fathom how progressive organizations in Red States such as Indiana can build serious and effective working relationships with organizers overseas if we can barely work together at the local, regional, state or national level. To me, it makes more sense for groups to build their base and create relationships with groups who share similar values and then focus on larger projects. We have to find the issues that can unite progressive groups and go form there (Sanders’ platform provided a model). 

I get calls and emails from folks throughout Indiana who want to start state-wide efforts, yet they have virtually no base of support in their hometowns. How can we project regional or state power if we don’t have power in our cities and towns? It doesn’t make sense, which is why so many groups who engage in meaningful work generate limited results.


From the very start, it was clear to my friend and long-time organizing partner and I that we had to open a community center to serve as a political and cultural organizing space. Having a space to operate in has been essential to MCSJG’s work. It’s also been quite useful for regional and even national groups who want to expand their reach to localities such as Michigan City.

Right now, we have an organizer from the Sierra Club’s ‘Beyond Coal’ campaign who operates and holds meetings in our space. As I mentioned before, the MCSJG uses our space as their primary hub, as does the PFLAG (Parents & Friends of Gays and Lesbians) – LaPorte County group. Mothers Clean Air Force and Veterans for Peace have held events in our space, as have regional organizations.

We hold bi-monthly live music/cultural events which double as fundraisers and use the center as a space where people can simply come, hang out, have a conversation and a cup of coffee. We have an enormous book collection that anyone can utilize and free Wi-Fi.

This year, we’re going through the process of becoming an NGO. We could remain a LLC, but that would greatly limit opportunities for grants and foundational money. Obviously, the most strategic and sustainable way to fund the space is a small donor program, but that takes time to build. The trick is keeping the overhead as low as possible so if/when the foundational money dries up, the space can remain open.

Again, I can’t stress enough the importance of having a space where people can gather, talk, laugh, learn, drink, dance, and create community. It’s also important for organizations and movements to be rooted. In that way, having a space provides a foundation for everything that follows, especially in an era of hyper-alienation.

Over time, we want the space to become a cooperative effort. The idea being that Sergio and I should relinquish control of the space in the coming years and hand over the reigns to a new generation of organizers, artists, and community members who will probably have a different and fresh idea of what the space should become. We welcome the change.

For now, we have all of our regularly scheduled events on the calendar and a few big ones on the horizon. On Saturday, January 20th, 2018, we’re holding a ‘Dump Trump & The GOP’ fundraiser/bash where we’ll have regional musicians performing and local organizers talking about their ongoing work and how people can get involved.

Next month, we have a ‘Medicare For All’ event where we’ll discuss Bernie Sanders’ proposal and how folks can get involved at the local level. I’ve already had a wonderful conversation with a woman form Southeast Indiana who, frustrated with the election results and previously disengaged, took it upon herself to start a free medical clinic in a suburb of Cincinnati where she resides.

I think such projects could be very useful if properly managed. Put differently, it’s clear that certain groups and individuals are simply interested in providing immediate support. Many of the volunteer groups in our city, region, and state focus on providing services, but they rarely, if ever, address the underlying political, economic, and social institutions that perpetuate the very systemic problems they provide immediate relief for. 

In our thinking, progressive groups should be able to do all of the above: provide needed services, oppose and stop immediate threats (development projects, legislation, etc.), and propose reforms while developing long-term alternatives to existing structures (what some would call ‘revolution’). Again, the primary challenges are a lack of capacity, vision, resources, and time. The never-ending question is always: what sort of events will allow us maximum outreach and the ability to gain capacity?


Jane McAlevey makes a clear and important distinction between advocacy, mobilizing and organizing in her latest book, No Shortcuts: Organizing for Power in the New Gilded Age. The reality is that many groups are actually advocating or mobilizing as opposed to organizing. For McAlevey, advocacy is the lowest form of involvement and the least capable of building serious power. Here, one should think of NGOs battling corporations in court, with lawyers and officials making the important decisions.

Mobilizing is a step-up from advocacy, but still fails to meet McAlevey’s threshold for proper ‘organizing.’ In the mobilizing model, organizations (unions, NGOs, neighborhood groups, etc.) regularly preech to the choir and turn out self-identifying progressives to rallies and major events, but this model easily burns people out and doesn’t provide a long-term path to building power at the grassroots level. Occupy and the ‘Right to Work’ protests in Madison, Wisconsin, are good examples of mobilization efforts.

Organizing, on the other hand, is the highest form of engagement and requires the most time, effort, and strategy. The primary goal of true community organizing is empowering the maximum number of people and providing them with the knowledge and tools necessary to win the things they want and need. The aim is to get ordinary people to join existing struggles through identifying “organic leaders” in workplaces and neighborhoods.

To be clear, “organic leaders” are not people who simply show up to every meeting or rally — they are the sort of folks who are highly respected in the community. If an “organic leader” vouches for someone or some cause, people listen. That’s the basic criteria, and people would be wise to immediately identify these individuals as they hold the most valuable social capital.

Right now, we’re capable of small-scale mobilization in Northwest Indiana. We’ve been able to stop GEO from building a private immigrant detention facility in Gary, Indiana. And a new group has formed in Elkhart, Indiana, to stop CoreCivic from constructing a private immigrant detention facility in their county. Currently, we have the power and numbers to mobilize and stop projects or certain pieces of legislation, but not much else.

It would be wise for every organizer in the country to read McAlevey’s book. She highlights and articulates so much of what I’ve encountered and thought about over the past 12 years of organizing with leftwing/progressive groups and movements. It’s truly an amazing piece of work. The only issue that I found in the book is that McAlevey doesn’t necessarily mention what, beyond immediate needs, people should or could be fighting for.

Perhaps this is the limitation of an organizer’s perspective: we have too much to do and not enough time to contemplate what sort of society we’re trying to achieve. But that’s also part of the problem: too many organizers and groups are fighting back, but with little idea of what they hope to create over the long-term. The question remains: what sort of society do we want to live in and how should it be structured?

Those questions shouldn’t only be asked by philosophers or academics — those questions should be answered by anyone and everyone who’s interested in living in a decent world.

I’ll be writing more essays in the weeks and months to come. I hope to keep folks informed of our mistakes and progress, challenges and successes. In the meantime, I hope this finds all of our brothers and sisters in the struggle in good health and spirits. It takes great motivation and discipline to remain engaged in such cynical times.

Vincent Emanuele is a writer and community organizer. He is the co-founder of P.A.R.C. (Politics Art Roots Culture), a political-cultural center in Michigan City, Indiana. He’s a member of the Michigan City Social Justice Group, Veterans For Peace, and the National Writers Union – UAW Local 1981. He can be reached at

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The Ukraine War: What Caused It and How to End It

The Ukraine War: What Caused It and How to End It

Editor’s note: In the chess match that is imperial politics, entire nations and ecosystems are pawns that are bargained with and sacrificed. As war tears across Ukraine, we insist that neither the U.S. nor NATO or Russia is innocent. The dire truth is that empires produce wars, and thus the path towards peace ultimately means dismantling empires.

By Richard Rubenstein

Vladimir Putin’s attack on Ukraine is undoubtedly illegal and immoral.  From the point of view of Russian interests, it is also likely to prove a costly mistake.  The primary question now, however, is what to do about this, and the answers presented thus far by those outraged by the invasion are dangerously counterproductive.

“Putin must be punished,” the Americans and Europeans insist.  But the forms of punishment now being implemented – severe economic sanctions and military aid to Ukraine – are designed to prolong the military struggle and to cripple the Russian economy, apparently on the theory that Russia’s discontented masses and oligarchs will then replace Putin with a leader more to the West’s liking.  Pardon me, but this makes little sense.  Prolonging the conflict will kill more Ukrainians and Russians, inspire their compatriots and loved ones to seek revenge.  It may also bring the world close to nuclear war.  Moreover, making a whole people suffer usually unites them against their adversary rather than turning them against their leader.

The array of punishments administered and proposed also indicate that many Westerners consider Putin analogous to Adolf Hitler and a return to the negotiating table the equivalent of Munich-style appeasement.  But this betrays a profound misunderstanding of what drives the conflict and who the conflicting parties really are.  Vladimir Putin is not an evil mastermind bent on world domination and the genocidal destruction of “inferior” races.  He is the brutal leader of a once great empire playing the imperial game in a world of competitive empires.  More brutal than Harry Truman in Korea, Lyndon Johnson in Vietnam, or George W. Bush in Iraq?  Obviously not.  Then why consider his bad character the primary cause of the struggle?

One reason seems clear.  As conflict analysts recognize, it is common for each side in a violent struggle to consider the opponent’s malice and cruelty to be the conflict’s sole cause.  “They are evil aggressors who choose to fight.  We are virtuous defenders who fight because we have to.” This is exactly how the editors of the New York Times describe the war in Ukraine.  They put it like this:

. . . none of the pretexts for war that Mr. Putin churned out in recent days and weeks contained much truth or any justification whatsoever for waging war on a weaker neighbor. This is a war of choice for all the wrong reasons, and Mr. Putin and his coterie are solely and fully responsible for every drop of Ukrainian – and Russian – blood, for every livelihood destroyed and for all the economic pain engendered by the conflict.[1]

I suppose that half a truth is better than no truth at all, and this is precisely half the truth.  Putin did invade Ukraine without being militarily attacked.  Some of the reasons for war he offered (for example, the alleged non-existence of a Ukrainian nationality) were fabrications.  Other reasons, such as the U.S./European refusal to halt the expansion of NATO, were quite true, but they do not justify bombing and killing innocent people.

Where the Times editorial goes off the tracks, however, is in asserting that the Russian leaders are “solely and fully” responsible for the violence engulfing Ukraine.  In fact, they are one of the responsible parties, but only one.  The causes of this struggle go far beyond Mr. Putin’s bad choices, and solving the problems that produced the conflict go far beyond punishing the Russians.  The causes of this conflict are systemic, which means that others in addition to Putin and his cohorts must share responsibility for the current violence.

“Systemic” means that there is a system – a form of social organization supported by patterns of thought, speech, and behavior – that structures the relations between states and peoples involved in conflict.  The word that best describes our current system is imperial.  Four major empires currently compete for regional hegemony and global superiority.  In order of economic and military power, they are the multinational blocs dominated by the United States, China, Europe, and Russia.  Several up-and-coming regional powers like Turkey and Iran have also asserted their influence in imperial style, but the major players in the Ukraine crisis are the U.S., Europe, and Russia, with China a potential participant.

The eruption of violence in this case should not have come as a surprise.  Imperial systems produce violent conflict as a regular product of their operations.  Often, subject peoples rebel, inciting imperial leaders to repress the dissidents, and enticing competing empires to come to their support.  Often, empires challenge each other’s right to rule, particularly in disputed boundary areas – a form of competition that has produced both proxy wars and world wars.  Ukraine is a prize in the competition between the American empire, assisted by its European junior partner, and Russia, morally supported by its Chinese ally.  There are many historical analogies to this situation, some of them quite frightening.  For example, the competition over independence-seeking Serbia between the Austro-Hungarian empire, supported by imperial Germany, and the Russian empire, supported by Great Britain and France, led directly to World War I.

Of course, empires do not always assert their interests by going to war.  Negotiations can be used to settle their disputes at least temporarily, even if the system as a whole tends to generate mass violence. The current tragedy befalling Ukraine was avoidable, but avoiding it required more than patience or a change of heart by Mr. Putin. The invasion could almost certainly have been averted if the Americans and Europeans had agreed to stop expanding NATO and to treat Ukraine as a neutral buffer state, as they did after World War II in the cases of Austria and Finland.  As in those cases, Ukraine’s rights to autonomy in certain spheres (e.g., economic decision-making) could have been recognized while restricting its right to become a military ally of either empire.  But there is no evidence that the Western powers took the Russian demands seriously enough to entertain any such proposal.

Why not?  On Putin’s watch NATO doubled its size, established army and air bases throughout Eastern Europe, and created two “super-bases” including missile facilities in Poland and Romania.  Meanwhile, the U.S. continued to maintain more than 800 military bases around the globe and to modernize its nuclear facilities with the aim of threatening (or “deterring”) its Russian and Chinese competitors. The rationale for this aggressive posture was the adversary’s alleged tendency to aggress – a classic piece of circular conflict reasoning.  In 2013, Ukraine’s elected leader supported a move to link his nation more closely with Russia than with Europe.  In response, an uprising backed by the West overthrew him and installed a pro-Western regime in Kyiv.  Russia responded to this apparent aggression by seizing Crimea, a former Russian territory inhabited by Russian-speakers, and by supporting separatists in the Donbass region. This alleged aggression then became a reason for Ukrainian and Western leaders to intensify their campaign to bring Ukraine into the Western orbit.

All this was part of a larger pattern of conflict between empires.  What Putin had been demanding for years was an end to the post-Cold War system that treated Russia as a defeated but hostile power forbidden to assert its own security concerns and to increase its influence in the world.  In 2019, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, hardly a pro-Russian organization, summarized this policy accurately:

U.S. policy toward Russia since the end of the Cold War is a story of different administrations pursuing essentially the same set of policies. Two aspects stand out as major irritants in the bilateral relationship: a refusal to accept Russia as it is, as evidenced by repeated initiatives to reform and remake its political system; and the extension of the Euro-Atlantic security architecture into the Eurasian space surrounding Russia. Both of these highly ambitious pursuits have been attempted repeatedly and unsuccessfully, yet both continue to be cornerstones of official U.S. policy toward Russia. In retrospect, it is hard to escape the conclusion that a less ambitious U.S. approach to dealing with Russia and the states of the former Soviet Union could have established a better basis for a less rocky U.S.-Russian relationship.[2]  (Emphasis added)

What the Carnegie analysis did not recognize, however, was that this is how empires customarily operate.  If they do not entirely erase their enemies, as the Romans did to Carthage, or remake their societies from the ground up, as the U.S. did to the Axis powers after World War II, they treat them as political and military adversaries that must be kept weak and dependent.  Unsurprisingly, those subject to such restrictions and humiliations resent their subordination, dream of restoring lost glory, and insist on holding fast to what remains of a diminished empire.  Untrusted and scorned by their victors, they return that distrust and view the weapons pointed at them as intolerable existential threats.

For this reason, Vladimir Putin’s cruelly mistaken decision to invade Ukraine was not only the result of the Russian leader’s hubris and insecurity.  It was also the result of a desperation created by the hubris and insecurity of the Western empires.  To ignore that conflict’s deeply structural nature is to take sides in a game of “blame the evil enemy” that attributes violence to a leader’s bad character rather than holding the imperial system itself responsible.  Moreover, it impoverishes our understanding of the conflict by simplifying the narrative to the point that the only relevant issue seems to be Ukraine’s right to self-determination.  In a world dominated by competing empires, movements for national self-determination frequently trigger violent conflicts – and sometimes world wars.

What can be done in this case to head off an increasingly destructive and dangerous escalation of the conflict?  The immediate answer is to continue the peace negotiations now taking place between Russia and Ukraine.  Despite propagandistic depictions of the Russians as engaged in an all-out war to kill civilians and destroy Ukrainian society, their relatively slow and discriminating advance, at this point without air support, suggests a continuing willingness to negotiate a solution that does not require either “shock and awe” military tactics or occupation of the country.  If these negotiations do achieve a cease-fire, the next step will be to convene a peace conference that could reconsider Russia’s original demands, as well as dealing with the new fears and concerns created by the war itself.

This sort of negotiation is clearly preferable to continued escalation, but one must recognize that, in a world still dominated by competing empires, power-based negotiations are unlikely to resolve conflicts sustainably.  The imperial system itself, linked to an elite-driven, predatory capitalism and militarism, desperately needs to be transformed.  Popular movements to dismantle the empires and to create a more democratic and peaceful world order are the only real alternative to a competition that is likely to end in nuclear war.

To some, this hope may seem like “pie in the sky,” but there is far more support for anti-imperial, pro-human mobilizations than you may think.  To stop demonizing leaders and shine the full light of criticism on the empires could be a first step toward unleashing this potential.


[1] “Mr.Putin Launches a Sequel to the Cold War,” New York Times, February 24, 2022.


Rich Rubenstein was educated at Harvard College (B.A. 1959), Oxford University, where he was a Rhodes Scholar (M.A. 1961), and Harvard Law School (J.D. 1963). Before joining the George Mason faculty in 1987, he practiced law in Washington, D.C., taught political science at Roosevelt University in Chicago, and was professor of law at the Antioch School of Law. He is the author of eight books, including REBELS IN EDEN (1970), ALCHEMISTS OF REVOLUTION: TERRORISM IN THE MODERN WORLD (1985), and three books about religious conflict: WHEN JESUS BECAME GOD (1999), ARISTOTLE’S CHILDREN (2003), and THUS SAITH THE LORD: THE REVOLUTIONARY MORAL VISION OF ISAIAH AND JEREMIAH (2006).

Rich is an expert on American foreign policy, religious conflict, terrorism, and methods of resolving serious international and domestic disputes. He teaches courses at ICAR on Critical Conflict Theory, Religion and Conflict, Popular Narratives of War and Peace, Political Violence, and other subjects. He has lectured throughout the U.S.A. and Europe on topics ranging from the philosophy and practice of conflict resolution to the war on terrorism and current conflicts in the Middle East, and has appeared on numerous radio and television shows and in filmed documentaries discussing these issues. He is a frequent speaker at churches, synagogues, mosques, and religious seminaries, as well as universities and NGOs. He currently lives in Washington, D.C.

Image Courtesy:, Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported | Wikimedia Commons.