Editor’s note: Hydroelectric dams are not green energy, despite many claims that they are. Hydropower kills rivers, displaces millions of human beings, drives anadromous fish and other life dependent on free-flowing rivers extinct, and actually releases substantial greenhouse gasses. This post includes a short excerpt from Bright Green Lies as well as an article detailing a destructive dam proposal in Bolivia.
Dams are Not Green Energy
Excerpted from Chapter 11: The Hydropower Lie of Bright Green Lies: How the Environmental Movement Lost Its Way by Derrick Jensen, Lierre Keith, and Max Wilbert
Once upon a time, dams were recognized for the environmental atrocities they are. Human beings understood that dams kill rivers, from source to sea. They understood that dams kill forests, marsh- lands, grasslands.
In the 12th century, Richard the Lionhearted (King Richard I of England) put in place a law forbidding dams from preventing salmon passage. In the 14th century, Robert the Bruce did some- thing similar for Scotland. His descendant Robert the III went even further, declaring that three convictions for killing salmon out of season would be a capital offense.
Fast-forward to today, when dams are claimed to provide “clean” and “green” energy.
Where’s Robert the III when you need him?
As recently as three decades ago, at least environmentalists still consistently opposed dams. But the coup that turned so much environmentalism away from protecting the real world and into a lobbying arm of favored sectors of the industrial economy has rhetorically turned dams into environmental saviors. And climate change activists are among the most relentless missionaries for the gospel of the green dam.
This issue is urgent. While here in the United States, no new large dams have been built in many years (although many shovel-ready proposals are waiting for public funding), large hydropower dams are being built around the world as quickly as (in)humanly possible.
Once again, environmental engineer Mark Jacobson is an exam- ple, as he always seems to be, of someone working hard to kill the planet in order to save it. His 100 percent “renewable” transition plans—and remember, bright greens and many mainstream environmentalists love this guy—call for building about 270 new large hydroelectric dams globally, each at least the size of the Hoover or Glen Canyon dams.6 He also calls for major expansions to existing dams by adding new turbines. His models rely heavily on hydro because solar and wind facilities are by their nature intermittent and unreliable.
In Bolivia, Indigenous groups fear the worst from dam project on Beni River
More than 5,000 Indigenous people would be impacted by flooding from the construction of two dams in Bolivia, according to Indigenous organizations and environmentalists.
Successive governments have mulled the Chepete-El Bala hydroelectric project for more than half a century, and the current administration of President Luis Acre has now revived it as a national priority.
While Indigenous groups have successfully rejected the plan in the past, this time a group of 10 Indigenous organizations have signed an agreement with the state energy company approving feasibility studies.
If completed, the reservoirs for the project would cover a combined area larger than Bolivia’s capital, La Paz, and inundate an area that’s home to thousands of plant and animal species.
The Bolivian government has revived a long-held plan to build a hydroelectric plant in a corner of the country’s western La Paz department, sparking concerns about the potential displacement of more than 5,000 Indigenous people from the area.
The affected communities live in two protected areas, Madidi National Park and Pilón Lajas Biosphere Reserve and Communal Lands, parts of which would be flooded for the twin dams of the Chepete-El Bala hydroelectric project.
President Luis Arce, who served as minister of the economy in the earlier administration of Evo Morales, is following the same road map as his predecessor, who in July 2007 announced the original plans for the hydroelectric dams as a national priority.
The idea to generate hydropower in the Beni River Basin, specifically in El Bala Gorge, has been around for more than 50 years and given up on numerous times due to its economic unfeasibility and high environmental cost. The last time it was rejected by Indigenous communities was during the Hugo Banzer government in the late 1990s, before being nearly resurrected under Morales, Bolivia’s first Indigenous president.
Since then, the issue had largely faded for the six Indigenous communities that live in the area: the Mosetén, Tsiman, Esse Ejja, Leco, Tacana and Uchupiamona. The groups are now speaking out against the hydropower project, saying it would “cut off” the three rivers vital to their existence: the Beni and two of its tributaries, the Tuichi and Quiquibey.
“This would mean forced displacement and that means taking away our territory. We would be forced to leave our space, our ancestral domain,” said Alex Villca, a member of the National Coordinator for the Defense of Indigenous Peasant Territories and Protected Areas (Contiocap) of Bolivia. “We would be giving up what is most important: without territory there are no Indigenous peoples. This would be accepting a silent death. Wherever they take us, it would never be the same.”
The Indigenous leader said the problem goes even further. He said that in the Chepete mountains, some Indigenous peoples live in voluntary isolation — believed to be Mosetén, although there aren’t many studies to confirm this — and that they would be “totally” affected if the dams were constructed in the area. “We know from our brothers that there exists, in the peaks of the Chepete, a community in voluntary isolation that must be unaware of all these plans. Imagine how that would affect them if this project comes to fruition,” Villca said.
In 2021, Bolivia’s National Electric Energy Company (Ende) resumed the commissioning of the Chepete-El Bala project, announcing tenders for geological and geotechnical studies. The state-owned company said that in the case of the Chepete plant, the planned reservoir area would flood 46 square kilometers (18 square miles) of the total area of 3,859 square kilometers (1,490 square miles) of the Pilón Lajas reserve. The reservoir at El Bala, meanwhile, would cover 94 km2 (36 mi2) of the 18,895-km2 (7,295-mi2) Madidi park.
In August, the Office of Indigenous Peoples of La Paz (Cpilap) signed an agreement with Ende authorizing the final design studies for the Chepete-El Bala project.
The agreement establishes that Cpilap must “allow the entry of Ende Corporation and its contracted companies to the areas of direct and indirect influence in order to carry out research, information gathering, socialization and data collection that allows studies, the creation of projects, to finalize the design to implement electric power generation, transmission and distribution.”
Villca spoke out against the signing of the agreement. “What worries us is that the tenor of the agreement is that it not only allows for complementary studies but also, in the future, allows Ende to start construction of the Chepete and El Bala hydroelectric plants. This is much more serious.”
Cpilap is a regional organization that brings together 10 Indigenous organizations in La Paz department: the Indigenous Council of the Tacana Peoples, the Office of the Indigenous Leco de Apolo, the Leco Indigenous People and Larecaja Native Communities, the Mosetén Indigenous Peoples Organization, the Indigenous Peoples of de San José de Uchupiamonas, the Esse Ejja of Eiyoquibo Indigenous Community, the Regional Council of T-simane Mosetén of Pilón Lajas, the Native Agroecological Community of Palos Blancos, the Tacana II Indigenous Communities of Rio Madre de Dios, and the Captaincy of the Araona Indigenous People. All of these organizations, according to Villca, are connected to Arce and Morales’s ruling party, the Movement for Socialism (MAS).
Gonzalo Oliver Terrazas, president of Cpilap, said five of the six affected Indigenous communities agreed with the hydropower project. The sixth community are the Mosetén, who didn’t sign the agreement. “This agreement doesn’t mean that the dam will be built,” he said. “The goal is to determine the feasibility or infeasibility of the project. Another important aspect that the agreement has is the social component, which we have included so that there can be electricity and housing projects.”
The Association of Indigenous Communities of the Beni, Tuichi and Quiquibey Rivers, an organization started in 2001 to defend the ancestral territories of the six Indigenous communities impacted by the project, has demanded that a prior consultation be carried out with the communities to approve or reject the project. The communities met over one weekend and decided to reject the government initiative, demonstrating that there are leaders for and against conducting feasibility studies for the project.
“We remind [the government] that in 2016 there was a 12-day vigil and the expulsion of the Geodata and Servicons companies that had started work and studies in the territory without fulfilling a free, prior and informed consent [FPIC] consultation in good faith so as to receive the consent of the communities,” said a document published by the association.
Terrazas said the signing of the agreement with Ende doesn’t mean there won’t be consultation with Indigenous communities. He said that if the feasibility of the project is approved, a consultation will be carried out with the communities to approve or reject the construction of the hydropower plants.
In January 2018, Ende returned the prefeasibility study to the Italian company Geodata Engineering for correction. Geodata recommended “to postpone the development of the El Bala 220 hydroelectric plant until the conditions in the Bolivian energy market and abroad indicate that it is convenient to start its implementation.”
The project, which would start after a public tender is launched, would flood at least 662 km2 (256 mi2) of land for the two dams, according to Indigenous groups. Combined, the two reservoirs would cover an area five times bigger than Bolivia’s capital, La Paz. And if the dried-out salt lake of Poopó, in the department of Oruro, doesn’t recover, Chepete-El Bala would be the second-biggest lake in Bolivia after Titicaca.
The project calls for building the first dam in the Beni River’s Chepete Gorge, 70 km (43 mi) upstream from the town of Rurrenabaque, in the department of Beni, and the second near El Bala Gorge, 13.5 km (8.3 mi) upstream of the same town.
The Chepete dam would raise the water level to 158 meters (518 feet), forming a lake that would be 400 m (1,312 ft) above sea level. The dam at El Bala would raise the water level by 20 m (65 ft) and its reservoir would be 220 m (721 ft) above sea level. Unlike the Chepete dam, which would be a concrete wall, the dam at El Bala would consist of gates and generators in the middle of the river.
Extinction and displacement
According to the Solón Foundation, an environmental NGO, a total of 5,164 people would be relocated for the project, the majority of them Indigenous. The area is also home to 424 plant species of plants, 201 land mammals, 652 birds, 483 amphibians and reptiles, and 515 fish species. It’s not clear which species are most likely to go locally extinct as a result of the flooding, or how many would be affected.
The main fear of the Indigenous communities in the area is that the construction of both dams would mean forcibly displacing more than 5,000 residents. The construction of the second reservoir at El Bala, according to the Solón Foundation and Indigenous organizations opposed to the project, would flood the entire community of San Miguel del Bala. There’s no official information on a displacement plan for the communities more than 1,000 residents.
And with the construction of the Chepete reservoir, a little more than 4,000 Indigenous people would be displaced. All the populated areas affected by the reservoir, according to Geodata, have collective titles belonging to the Tacanas, Lecos and Mosetén peoples. Additionally, development on the river could interfere with the livelihoods of many residents, who fish and farm and, in more recent years, oversee communal tourism activities.
Valentín Luna is an Indigenous Tacana leader and head of the San Miguel del Bala community. Currently, there are at least 20 eco-lodges that have been built in the Madidi and Pilón Lajas protected areas. Most of these initiatives are managed by the local communities. Four of these eco-lodges would be flooded by the dams, according to Luna: one in Chalalán overseen by the Uchupiamonas, one run by San Miguel del Bala residents, one in Villa Alcira, and one run by the Chimanes and Mosetén of Asunción del Quiquibey.
For the Indigenous people who don’t want the dams in their area, the main worry isn’t the end of tourism. They fear that the six Indigenous groups will disappear along with it.
Featured image: Cofan Indigenous leader Emergildo Criollo looks over an oil contaminated river hear his home in northern Ecuador. Photo by Caroline Bennett / Rainforest Action Network (flickr). Some rights reserved.
Indigenous battles to defend nature have taken to the streets, leading to powerful mobilizations like the gathering at Standing Rock. They have also taken to the courts, through the development of innovative legal ways of protecting nature. In Ecuador, Bolivia and New Zealand, indigenous activism has helped spur the creation of a novel legal phenomenon—the idea that nature itself can have rights.
Rights are typically given to actors who can claim them—humans—but they have expanded especially in recent years to non-human entities such as corporations, animals and the natural environment.
The notion that nature has rights is a huge conceptual advance in protecting the Earth. Prior to this framework, an environmental lawsuit could only be filed if a personal human injury was proven in connection to the environment. This can be quite difficult. Under Ecuadorian law, people can now sue on the ecosystem’s behalf, without it being connected to a direct human injury.
The Kichwa notion of “Sumak Kawsay” or “buen vivir” in Spanish translates roughly to good living in English. It expresses the idea of harmonious, balanced living among people and nature. The idea centers on living “well” rather than “better” and thus rejects the capitalist logic of increasing accumulation and material improvement. In that sense, this model provides an alternative to the model of development, by instead prioritizing living sustainably with Pachamama, the Andean goddess of mother earth. Nature is conceived as part of the social fabric of life, rather than a resource to be exploited or as a tool of production.
The Preamble of the Ecuadorian Constitution reads:
“We women and men, the sovereign people of Ecuador recognizing our age-old roots, wrought by women and men from various peoples, Celebrating nature, the Pacha Mama (Mother Earth), of which we are a part and which is vital to our existence…. Hereby decide to build a new form of public coexistence, in diversity and in harmony with nature, to achieve the good way of living, the sumac kawsay.”
The traditional Quechua relation to the natural world is firmly rooted in the Constitution. The interchangeable use of nature and Pacha Mama testifies to the indigenous influence on the Constitution.
The concept and the praxis
In the 1970s, Christopher Stone, an American environmental legal scholar, articulated the legal notion of the rights of nature in his widely read essay Should Trees Have Standing? Stone envisioned a new way of conceptualizing nature through law that broke with the existing paradigm of the commodification of nature, often established through law.
Property rights are a primary example of commodifying the natural world. When treated as property, nature incurs damages that often go unrecognized. Stone writes that an argument for “personifying” nature can best be considered from a welfare economics perspective. Under capitalist economic logic, many externalities that negatively impact the environment are not registered when calculating the cost of an action. Transforming nature legally from mere property to a rights-holding entity would force byproduct environmental effects of production to factor into cost calculations. Under this framework, nature would be better protected.
Incorporating rights of nature into a national constitution is a powerful paradigm shift, but may seem hypocritical and idealistic given states’ continuing dependence on extractive industries. In Ecuador, 14.8 percent of the GDP comes from profits from natural resources as of 2014.
Moreover, under Ecuadorian law, the rights of nature are subject to principles of so-called national development. Article 408 of the constitution stipulates that all natural resources are the property of the state, and that the state can decide to exploit them if deemed to be of national importance, as long as it “consults” the affected communities. However, there is no state obligation to abide to the result of the consultation to these communities– a gaping hole in full protection of these environments and the people living within them.
Nonetheless, Ecuador’s Constitution was a significant step in changing the legal paradigm of rights to one that is inclusive of nature.
Bolivia followed in Ecuador’s footsteps. Evo Morales, the first indigenous head of state in Latin America, was elected in 2005 and called for a constitutional reform that ultimately established rights to nature in 2009.
Again, indigenous philosophies were instrumental in the formulation of Bolivia’s new Constitution. The constitution’s preamble states that Bolivia is founded anew “with the strength of our Pachamama,” placing the indigenous understanding of nature as central to the very creation of the revised political state. Like in Ecuador, the Bolivian Constitution allows anyone to legally defend environmental rights.
Bolivia’s government soon instituted the Law of Mother Earth in 2010, later re-coining it as the Framework Law of Mother Earth and Integral Development to Live Well. The law lays out a number of rights for nature, such as the right to life and to exist, to pure water, clean air, to be free from toxic and radioactive pollution, a ban on genetic modification, and freedom from interference by mega-infrastructure and development projects that disturb the balance of ecosystems and local communities.
Part of the rationale behind the law is the hope of helping the environment through reducing causes of climate change, which is directly in Bolivia’s interests. Increasing temperatures in Bolivia pose problems to the nation’s farming sector and water supply.
Again, however, this legal concept does not match economic realities. The rights of nature are directly at odds with extractive industries that are intimately tied to Bolivia’s model of economic development. Despite legal frameworks defending the rights of nature, Bolivia’s profits from natural resources comprise 12.6 percent of the GDP as of 2014.
But there are alternatives to the Andean experience. Across the Pacific, New Zealand has also granted a legal status of personhood to specific rivers and forest, thus enabling the environment itself to have rights.
The New Zealand Take on Rights of Nature
Unlike Ecuador and Bolivia, New Zealand’s rights of nature are not embedded in its constitutional law, but rather protect specific natural entities. Native communities in New Zealand were instrumental in creating new legal frameworks that give legal personhood, and thus rights, to land and rivers.
The Tuhoe tribe’s ancestral homeland is currently the Te Urewara Park. With the imposition of colonial governance, most of their land was taken from them without consultation, resulting in great spiritual and socio-economic losses. The land was designated a national park in 1954.
The Tuhoe tribe never signed the 1840 Treaty of Waitangi with the British Crown, which stripped the tribe of their sovereign right over their land. They have since contested the British assertion of sovereignty that undergirds the formation of the modern New Zealand state.
Their centuries-long struggle finally yielded results. As part of New Zealand’s reparation process towards Indigenous Peoples, the national government negotiated with the Tuhoe tribe regarding their historic land. In 2012 the Tuhoe tribe accepted the Crown’s offer of financial reparations, a historical account and apology and co-governance of Te Urewera lands. The national government renounced ownership of the land, giving the land its own personhood.
Under this framework, the land is now a legal entity in itself, owned neither by the government nor the Tuhoe tribe. The land is no longer property. It is its own untamed natural presence in and of itself, with, as per native understanding, its own life force and identity.
The land is now co-governed by the Tuhoe people and the New Zealand government.
The 2014 Te Urewara Act declares the park “a place of spiritual value.” The Act acknowledges that it is the sacred home of the Tuhoe people, integral to their “culture, language, customs and identity,” while also being of intrinsic value to all New Zealanders.
In a similar process of granting legal personhood, the local Maori tribe, the Iwi, helped the Whanganui River earn legal personhood status in 2014 after winning a long-fought court case.
This was part of a centuries-long struggle that the Whanganui tribes undertook to protect the river. Since the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi, the river has been subject to gravel extraction, water diversion for hydro-electric plans, and river bed works to better navigability, under protest from local tribes.
The Maori fought to protect the river through a series of court cases beginning in 1938, defending their claim to the management of the river as its rightful guardian. Throughout the court cases, negotiations were undergirded by the native saying “Ko au te awa, ko te awa ko au,” which translates to “I am the river and the river is me.” This reflects native philsophies of reciprocal and equal relations between people and nature.
New Zealand’s attorney general Chris Finlayson was quoted in the New York Times as acknowledging the Maori perspective as formative in the granting of rights to these natural entities, saying “In their worldview, ‘I am the river and the river is me,’” he said. “Their geographic region is part and parcel of who they are.”
Expanding Legal Horizons?
The legal concept of rights of nature signal the influence of Indigenous Peoples as political actors in state-making, fundamentally reimagining law and how the natural world is conceived. These ideas present a revolutionary rupture in the conventional anthropocentric understanding of sovereignty, and a realignment of how the natural world is valued. In fact, they could chart the path forward for a new understanding of mankind’s relation to the natural world, even if they operate within the legal structures that are not conducive to indigenous philosophies.
It is true that the rights of nature as they currently stand have deep limitations, particularly given the ongoing extraction of non-renewable natural resources in Ecuador and Bolivia. Problems of corruption, environmental inequality and economic dependence on extractive industries are major challenges to the full realization of the rights of nature.
Yet small acts can lead to lasting change. This shift in the way we relate to and legally protect nature, however small and plagued by obstacles, could be an incremental step toward a more sustainable relation to the planet that could allow us to preserve the earth for future generations.
I want to tell you three stories of winning and losing, of selfishness and sacrifice, of this culture.
Story one. Last spring I gave a talk in a small farming community in northwestern Illinois. I drove there from my previous talk in Wisconsin, passing through prime agricultural territory, which is to say cleared and plowed and empty cornfield after cleared and plowed and empty cornfield. When I got to my destination, a delightful retired teacher took me to see the last remaining unplowed prairie in the county. It was more or less downtown, between a busy street and yet another field devoted to agriculture. As he led me across the slender tract, I couldn’t stop weeping at the sight of flowers who were once common and now barely hanging on, butterflies who were once common and now barely hanging on, a mother goose protecting her nest. My (human) host told me that even though this is the last six acres left—just six acres out of 360,000 in the county—the neighboring landowner refuses to stop applying insecticides and herbicides, which of course drift across the fenceline.
That evening, after he introduced me, I took the stage, sat down, and faced a roomful of members of this farming community. I thanked them for their hospitality, told them of my experiences of the previous twenty-four hours, then said, “I think the plow is the most destructive artifact humans have ever created. It destroys every living being on a piece of ground and converts that land to solely human use.”
The members of this farming community looked back at me. One gave a grim smile, then said, “Those plows paid for our houses.”
I nodded, smiled just as grimly, and responded, “That’s precisely the problem, isn’t it?”
Story two begins with me receiving an issue of my alumni magazine from the Colorado School of Mines, which featured an article titled “Hitting Paydirt.” The article tells stories of several “tremendously rewarding” discoveries. There’s a twenty-six-year-old CSM grad who discovered a “virgin deposit” of 2 million ounces of gold. Another grad discovered what became mines in environmentally ravaged Ireland; environmentally ravaged, war-torn, and rape-plagued Somalia; and environmentally ravaged, war-torn, rape-plagued, and slavery- and child-labor-infested Mauritania (the article, of course, only listed the countries, not their misfortunes, many of which are caused or exacerbated by resource extraction). But the story I want to focus on happened in Bolivia, where CSM grad Larry Buchanan, in the employ of a transnational mining corporation (with an address in the Cayman Islands for tax haven purposes, and having since that time gone through bankruptcy and changed its name, emerging as essentially the same company but without the debt), saw what seemed like a promising geological formation. He looked more closely, and found at the center of the deposit a village, complete with ancient stone church.
Buchanan describes it like this: “The silver deposit lay on the surface, mineralized ledges cropped out everywhere around and below a little indigenous village of rock, adobe and grass thatch, called San Cristobal. The cobblestone streets were paved with silver-bearing rock. The rock walls of the houses literally were laced with silver veins. You couldn’t take a step without touching silver. But somehow [sic] it had been overlooked [sic] by everyone [sic].”
He unintentionally answers his own question as to why these indigenous peoples had never put in an open pit mine: “The Quechua culture of southwestern Bolivia is one of multiple gods and spirits, one with a profound respect for the earth in general and curiously [sic], for rocks in particular. They believe rocks are their direct ancestors, living souls that speak, think, feel emotions, and have distinct personalities.”
Buchanan again: “We discovered nearly a half billion tonnes of those silver-plated ancestors of the Quechua. [Yes, he actually said that.] After a year of work, the engineers calculated it contained nearly a billion ounces of silver, enough ore to last seventeen years of intensive mining. The computer models proved it feasible: the profits would be more than enormous and the mine would become a money-machine. [Yes, he actually said that.] It was a company maker, a world-class discovery, a perfect setup.” The only thing in his way was “that poverty-stricken little village right on top of it. If we wanted to make a mine, San Cristobal had to go.”
But the village didn’t go down without a fight—between white people. Buchanan’s wife was against moving the village and forced Buchanan to sleep on the couch, only relenting when Buchanan agreed that they would move to the village for a while to bear witness to the destruction they were causing (or, to use his words, “the opportunities we were offering the people”). This strikes me as a classic example of the conservative/liberal one-two punch of oppression, with the conservative perceiving the oppression as good in itself, while the liberal bears witness to the oppression without doing much of anything to stop it. So Buchanan and his wife watched as people dug up bones from the village’s four-hundred-year-old cemetery to move to their new compound eleven kilometers away. Buchanan joined village elders as they crawled around the cemetery to beg forgiveness for disturbing the dead. He watched as bulldozers leveled the village in just four hours. It was all very difficult for him: “There were times I was literally brought to tears when I would contemplate what the people lost due to my discovery.”
What was once a living village where people resided with their ancestors in the walls, their gods all around them, is now a huge toxic hole in the ground. But it’s all good. Buchanan believes the people now live better lives in the compound; transnational corporations have made 70 billion dollars; and, best of all, Buchanan and his wife wrote a book about it all. “I came to learn life holds so much more of value than just a few billion dollars worth of silver,” he says. Having learned this valuable lesson, Buchanan moved on to other projects, and believes he has just recently discovered another billion-ounce deposit somewhere else.
Story three involves New Zealand tae kwon do athlete Logan Campbell, who funded his dream of reaching the Olympics through being a pimp. He made a lot of money providing women’s bodies for men to use. He even made a video to recruit women into working for him. The advertisement had lots of pretty pictures of women leaping for joy in fields, standing contemplatively on beaches, and sharing warm hugs with happy children. One female voice-over gushed, “When I was a little girl, I used to dream of a life of liberty.” Another asked, “Did you enjoy that? I sure did.” One said, “I’m living the dream.” And another said, “You deserve it.” The ad never did describe precisely what the “it” is that women deserve, but I think most of us would agree that most little girls don’t dream of economically coerced sexual relations with strangers not of their choosing, of years of post-traumatic stress disorder, of broken psyches and broken genitals and broken lives.
The point, really, is that Logan Campbell did get to live his dream. He went to the Olympics on the bodies of women, just like Buchanan’s “tremendously rewarding find” came at the expense of San Cristobal and its deities, and just as plows pay for houses at the expense of everyone else in the biological community. These are all dreams of fame, accomplishment, money, even what we consider necessities, like the way we feed ourselves and the way we financially accumulate. The problem is, all these dreams are someone else’s nightmare.
These stories are not merely what is wrong with this culture, they are the fundamental ethos of this culture: the fulfillment of personal, social, and cultural dreams at the expense of all others. No sane culture would in any way extol any of these stories. So long as these stories are seen as the fulfillment of dreams, where the subjugation of others is not seen as subjugating them but rather as helping them to “live the dream”; so long as this culture considers actions that lead to the destruction of ancient ways of life as “rewarding finds,” where your own murderous behavior is seen as “offering opportunities” for the victims; so long as we find it not only acceptable but right and just to convert the lives of others and the life-support system of the entire planet itself into fodder for us, there is little hope for life on this planet.
Originally published in the January/February 2013 issue of Orion
On August 19, members of the People’s Guarani Assembly of Takova Mora blocked a main highway in the Chaco region of Bolivia demanding their right to free, prior and informed consent regarding oil extraction on their communal lands. The Government responded by sending in 300 police who broke up the demonstration by force.
Police repression of the blockade in Takovo Mora. (Photo OIEDC)
Using tear gas and batons, police then raided the nearby community of Yateirenda–where many of the demonstrators had fled–damaging property and violently arresting 27 people, including 2 youth aged 14 and 17.
According to eye witnesses,
The behaviour of the police was more like that of mercenaries who raided the community without any arrest warrant, attacked houses and used violence to detain leaders.
All 27 detainees were released the following day; however, 17 of them were given extrajudicial sanctions (medidas sustantivas) to prevent them from participating in road blocks or being involved in any events related to the Takova Mora conflict.
This confrontation takes place amidst rising tensions between the Government of Evo Morales and Indigenous Peoples, environmental advocacy groups and civil society organizations critical of his extractivist policies.
A new gold rush is sweeping through Latin America with devastating consequences, ravaging tropical forests and dumping toxic chemicals as illegal miners fight against big international projects.
With international market prices for metals high, informal “wildcat” mining has been on the rise in recent years in countries like Bolivia, Colombia and Peru, itself one of the largest producers of silver, copper and gold.
Mining investments in those countries are expected to reach some $300 billion in 2020, according to the Inter-American Mining Society.
But over 160 mining conflicts have erupted across the region amid growing opposition from locals against projects they consider a threat to the environment, the Observatory of Mining Conflicts in Latin America says.
During the past decade, the price of gold went from $270 to between $1,600-1,800 per ounce, as people rushed to convert their cash into the precious metal seen as a safe investment during the global economic crisis.
And the price of copper is at an all-time high thanks to China’s insatiable appetite for it.
Unlicensed mining, especially for gold, has already killed hundreds of people and devastated thousands of hectares (acres) in the Amazon forest, where miners have set up camps that destroy everything in their path.
To extract each ounce of gold, it takes two or three ounces of mercury, which fouls waterways after being poured into rivers from the mining sites. In their search for water, the miners raze tropical forestsusing bulldozers.
The phenomenon has also sown disaster among the local population, with thousands of men, women and children exploited and living in squalid camps with no schools or health centers.
In Peru, an estimated 110,000 to 150,000 people work in illegal mines, while a thousand children are sexually exploited in brothels known locally as “prostibars” in the southeastern province of Madre de Dios, according to Save The Children.
The practice is particularly widespread in the improvised mining camps, where fortune-hunter try to make a living from the illegal exploitation of precious metals.
“There are dozens of prostibars, filled with hundreds of girls who were told they would make a lot of money,” said Teresa Carpio, director of Save the Children in Peru.
“It’s total exploitation of a human being. Living conditions are appalling and all human values are perverted.”
Indigenous and black communities have long used child workers for gold mining. And an estimated 200,000 to 400,000 children currently work in small-scale mining in Colombia, according to Alliance for Responsible Mining (ARM) data.
In Madre de Dios, one of the poorest regions of Peru, about 18 tonnes of gold are produced per year, while some 20,000 hectares (49,400 acres) of tropical forest are destroyed.
Thousands of people in Colombia have started exploiting abandoned mines in the northwestern department of Antioquia and Choco. In Bolivia, about 10,000 people make a living off the illegal mining of gold in extreme conditions, ARM says.
The growing thirst for mineral resources makes Latin America one of the most attractive regions for investment, set to dominate world production of precious metals by 2020.
Today, Latin America accounts for 45 percent of global copper production, 50 percent of silver and 20 percent of gold.