Thursday, January 10, 2013

Thoughts on FIPA

On Monday, October 22nd at the B.C. Legislature, I was a witness to the beginning of a social movement that may echo the Clayoquot protests of the nineties. It was a remarkable joining of forces by representatives of diverging groups from First Nations to Labour Unions, to Political Parties and Environmentalists, that all coalesced to express their defense of our beloved West Coast. We were moved, informed, and enraged, we cheered, laughed, cried, sang, jumped and shook our fists. The prospect of oil spills on our coast seems to have everyone disgusted with the politics of our time. Oil spills are the dark reality of a future that is ever more dependent on oil. Citizens are feeling frustrated that their voices are not heard in the undemocratic process that is supporting the drive for more oil. Although the main purpose of the actions on the 22nd in Victoria, and in over 70 communities throughout B.C. the 24th, was to protest the Enbridge and Kinder Morgan pipeline projects and oil expansion in general, another key issue that arose was the FIPA (Foreign Investment Promotion and Protection Agreements). Critics have labeled this agreement as ‘secretive’, since Prime Minister Harper seems determined to ratify this investment deal without debate in Parliament, without a vote, and without a transparent report made to government and the public. Even NAFTA warranted an election, which had far less impacts than the current FIPA would. Apparently, the FIPA would bind Canada to foreign corporations for 31 years, guaranteeing their profits for this period. If the Canadian government, at any level, were to create any obstacles to their investments or profits, the corporations could sue Canada for the damages that they perceive are the consequence of these obstacles. These lawsuits would be held in tribunals outside of Canada’s court system. This agreement is especially aimed at China, a country that does not have the same environmental or human rights standards as Canada, and is renowned for putting profits first. What we as Canadians have to gain from this deal is unclear. There is only one guarantee: we will be handing our tax dollars over to foreign corporations, or we will be faced with many more projects such as Enbridge or Kinder Morgan’s, where our voices of protest will be ignored. Then we can watch our landscape change indefinitely. 31 years is an entire generation of wreaking havoc on our environment and our democracy. Is this the world that we want to leave our children?

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Time to Change

Time to change Time for the past to inform the future For me to close a chapter And realize that I am living in a new one Trying to leave my baggage behind Everywhere I leave a piece I leave a part of me as well A piece of my heart A short story in the novel of my life A promise to return But return is never a rerun Some memories are gold And worth reliving Some friendships last a lifetime Or longer, and some are passing Encounters, To teach, learn, grow When does the teacher become the taught? It is not just the words of another That can give me the tools I need The lessons are found in my own actions It is in this tat I have the opportunity to change with each and every moment of every day The time is now. (2007)

Toxic Tears

In 2005, I was in India making a documentary film about the consequences of the Green Revolution for small farmers in rural Punjab, ultimately leading to a wave of suicides. Over the past couple of years, the documentary called "Toxic Tears" has been screened at international film festivals on four continents. The dvd is for sale here. There is a trailer on YouTube. From Pesticides to Organic Farming Pesticides are used ruthlessly in Malwa, the cotton belt of southern Punjab. Cotton is a pest-prone crop, and farmers control the pests by spraying each acre with pesticides at least seventeen times, at R850 a can. Cotton (as well as pesticide use) was introduced to Punjabi farmers at the height of the American induced ‘Green Revolution’ in the early 1980’s, as a large-scale cash crop. The idea of creating revenue for Indian farmers was not such a bad one. Twenty years later, however, it is undeniably yet painfully evident that this was a false hope. Small and marginal farmers in the Sangrur district are all crying for mercy, as they are deeply indebted. With their false promises of ‘high yields’, western-based and extremely lucrative multi-national companies, such as super giant Monsanto, have lured the poor farmers into buying their products relentlessly, believing that someday, they will hit the jackpot. However, that jackpot never came, and in its place came suicide. Pesticides are one of the leading causes of the farmers’ deficits. For each can they buy represents the amount of debt they accumulate. Namely, the price the farmers receive for their harvests from the government barely cover the costs of the other inputs, such as hybrid seeds and diesel for their tractor and tube-well, technology that also came in the Green Revolution package. Besides being economically unviable, pesticides are disastrous for the environment. If you were in Malwa twenty years ago, you would have been surrounded by hundreds of beautiful peacocks. Nowadays you are extremely fortunate to come across one lonely wailing peacock. Ironically, the peacock is an Indian symbol of prosperity. Pesticides, and a decreasing living space due to the large-scale agriculture taking over all the land, have sent the peacocks of Sangrur to near extinction. This is just one blatant example of the dangers of pesticide use. Pesticides do not only kill the insects, pests, weeds or fungi that they were designed to kill, but they kill many other insects and plants that would otherwise act as natural pest control, such as spiders, flies, worms and beetles. Take a walk around some cotton crops, and you will see that the natural bio-diversity of the ecosystem has been reduced to two elements: dry earth, with a toxic-looking green coating, and the cotton plants. Besides the farmers taking their own lives, many other species are being killed by pesticide use. All life in Sangrur is slowly dying out. Furthermore, the chemicals used in pesticides are highly dangerous. They not only poison plants and animals, but also humans. This seems quite logical at first thought, and somehow the farmers have understood this, as consuming pesticides is the most popular suicide method to date. Yet, ironically, this idea has not penetrated to the daily activities of Sangrur’s citizens. From the fields, pesticides, which the locals were taught to call ‘medicine’, find their way into the ground water, which, due to its salinity and high pesticide content, farmers have to dig deeper for year after year. The high levels of chemicals from pesticides and heavy metals found in the drinking water have incidentally most likely led to a high percentage of cancer cases in the area. Ask any doctor in the area about the contamination of the water by pesticides, and he will tell you that he personally only drinks water that has been filtered, for that reason. The pesticide sprayers, who have not been informed that they need to cover their skin and air passages while spraying, run to the doctor month after month, with complaints ranging from migraine headaches to dizziness, vomiting, heart and lung problems and skin rashes. Meanwhile, their children are playing innocently in the canals next to the fields, on a hot summer’s day, that are most likely teeming with the pesticides sprayed on the crops less than a foot away. Mothers use pesticide containers to keep food in, or to drink water from. If one compares this reckless behaviour to the astronaut-like suits Western scientists and farmers wear for protection when they are dealing with poisonous chemicals, one can be confronted with the sinking sensation that the poor Indian farmers got the raw end of the deal. The awful truth of it is that there is no absolute certainty in the long-term effects of chemical exposure for human health. Therefore, we must also question the safety of the farm products such as rice and wheat that are chemically induced during production, which the majority of Indians consume on a daily basis. Ask any ‘educated’ people in the area, and they will tell you they would prefer to eat organic foods, if available, and even if it costs more. In the village of Chotiyan, there is one organic farmer. Virtually everyone in his surroundings laugh at him. They were taught that this natural form of agriculture is ‘backward’ and old-fashioned. ‘Backwardness’ seems to be practically a mortal sin for the residents of Chotiyan, who were instructed to believe that progress is key, that ‘more is better’, and that ‘high yields’ are the only way to achieve economic prosperity, the ultimate salvation from the past, i.e. ‘the psychological pressure to modernise’ (Norberg-Hodge 1994: 81). Yet Geewa Singh stuck to his guns, his traditions, and his money. Not only does he believe that God created nature perfectly, and therefore we should not interfere by using chemicals or technology, he is also a very smart economist. He does not spend any money on inputs, therefore, any money he receives for his outputs, will be profit. Although he has not jumped on the chemical and technological bandwagon, he was joined the cash crop frenzy. He has been sowing and harvesting natural cotton, wheat, rice as well as vegetables for his family’s consumption, for the past twenty years, without even knowing that this is called ‘organic farming’. It is, you see, the way farmers have always traditionally farmed in southern Punjab. With cow and plough, and pick and shovel. No muss, no fuss. Geewa Singh should be seen as a model farmer of the future. He has no debts, he can take care of his family, he is happy and has no complaints. He is not one of the suicide statistics in the media, but he is also not a glutton-for-punishment consumer of pesticides sold to him by wealthy pesticide dealers, who in turn, are sponsored by large multinational corporations such as Monsanto. Even the local pesticide dealer admits that he gets rich off the backs of poor farmers, while he flies around the world on ‘company trips’, and meanwhile grows his own food organically, because “you don’t know what the health risks are”. There are very few people benefiting from the current large-scale agricultural system. These few (the middlemen and the big men) are earning disproportionate amounts of money, while and because, the small farmers are sinking deeper into debt. One must question a system in which the producer, that is doing all the heavy work, is not receiving the largest share, but instead losing out on everything. Organic farming presents an obvious solution to a complex and increasingly devastating problem. This will relieve the farmers of their debts, as they will start making profits without spending anything. Furthermore, it will allow them to regain their independence as producers of farm products, instead of being dependant consumers of the agribusiness system, and its feudal scavengers: the local moneylenders. Removing the middleman will prove to bring balance into a haywire system: the consumer’s rupees actually making it into the hands of the producers. If all of Sangrur’s farmers were to switch back to organic farming, we may even see the return of the peacock, and more bio-diversity, as well as a drop in the cancer rate within the next fifty years. Even more alarmingly, the problems caused by the so-called ‘Green Revolution’ and agrochemical giants such as Monsanto, are not unique in Punjab, or even in India for that matter. Monsanto has virtually bought up the entire ‘third’ world. The agrochemical industry leaders have dictated the agricultural systems in Europe, North and South America, as well as Asia. Hand in hand with the WTO, they influence governments to introduce cash crops as a way of raising the all-important GDP and consequently, development funds. These monocultures destroy the biodiversity of ecosystems as well as cultural diversity. In turn, ‘high yields’ produce cheap food products affordable for the poor worldwide, and only the rich and educated have access to healthy, natural and safe organic foods. ‘Today, global capitalism is perhaps the most powerful force for homogenization’ (Scott 1998: 8). The WTO ensures that large-scale, highly technological and subsidised farmers in the west receive the same prices for their crops as poor, small-scale farmers in the east, with nothing but their bare hands to work with. If this competition seems unfair, the products from the west are sold in the east, and vice versa, wasting energy unnecessarily, shuttling the same products across the globe, instead of selling local products on the local markets, at local prices. My heroes Arundhati Roy calls it ‘Confronting Empire’; Helena Norberg-Hodge calls it ‘Counter Development’; and Vandana Shiva calls it ‘Food Security’. It all depends on which vantage point you want to approach it to give it a name, but it all comes down to the same movement. A movement that is the only apparent logical way forward into an increasingly uncertain future. This movement will save our souls, our nature. It is the only answer to the powerful elite that is fuelling everything from warfare for energy supply to the vegetables on your dinner plate. They have created our increasingly rational-economics-driven global society, which is dictating the largest scale industrial operations as well as the most intimate human interactions. It is time that we, as individuals, as families and friends, take our own responsibility in our global society, as citizens of the earth, and join the opposing movement. If you think of everything that has been accomplished and created in the past century, then certainly you must realise that nothing is impossible. There is still time, for your own sake, for your loved ones, and your descendants. There is no need to feel helpless against the influence of superpowers. They are few, we are many. The old slogan ‘strength in numbers’ is always relevant. (2005)

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Invisible Soldiers: Global Inequality, Mercenaries and Iraq

What do Peruvians, Chileans, Argentineans, Venezuelans, Mexicans, Colombians, El Salvadorians, Hondurans, Ecuadorians, Bosnians, Filipinos, Indians, Bangladeshis and South Africans have to do with the war in Iraq? Despite the International Convention against the Recruitment, Use, Financing and Training of Mercenaries of 1989, the U.S. has been contracting people from developing countries to do their dirty work on the front lines in the war in Iraq, to replace its soldiers on security duty, since 2003. Thanks to several grave irregularities and legal loopholes, through private outsourcing companies such as Blackwater USA, (a secretive private military company based in North Carolina), the highly trained mercenaries are hired as “security guards”, to protect the U.S. and British military in the most conflictive areas, as well as places of interest such as the oil fields, paying them an average of US$4000 a month. There are some 180 international private security companies operating in Iraq, among them are Triple Canopy, Zapatas, Titan, CACI, Vinnell Corp, Custer Batle, Armor Group, Kroll Security International, Global Risk Strategies, Meteoric Tactical Solutions, Trig Guard Force, and Aegis. As there are no official figures, it is estimated that the private mercenary force is now the largest group operating in Iraq, outnumbering the U.S. military. Promoting more war with fewer troops, this is a force with no accountability mechanisms such as the U.S. Code of Military Justice, the Pentagon Criminal Investigations Unit and the military chain of command.

Ex-soldiers, police forces and commandos from the war with Lightning Path in Peru, Pinochet’s military regime in Chile, apartheid-era armed forces in South Africa, and the Bosnian war are lured into taking the highest risks in the war in Iraq, for a salary that is much higher than the U.S. military boys receive, and seem to have full impunity: they live above the law and rules of war and social engagement. These mercenaries often have a history of war which knows no rules, no limits. They have been implicated in torture sessions, such as the scandalous Abu Ghraib. They are heavily armed and employ shoot-first-ask-questions-later tactics. They are referred to the “mad dogs of war”, that murder innocent civilians in the streets, open fire on civilian vehicles and terrorize the Iraqi population. They are in turn objects of the Iraqi resistance attacks. The mercenaries are the least desired forces in Iraq. The Iraqi people want them to leave. They have no alliances, no loyalties, and no protection. If they die or are injured, no one is held responsible, they are on their own. Their priorities are survival and earning cash. Whichever company presents the best offer will be their employer, whichever side of the war they are on, they are free to switch whenever it benefits them to do so.

The mercenaries run a high risk for their lives, exposed to dangerous situations without adequate equipment such as dismantling bombs and being subject to Iraqi ambushes, work lengthy hours in poor health conditions, without medical assistance, are to be available twenty-four hours a day, and although contracted for “vigilance”, they are fully involved in conflict. They wear no uniform, and many of them do not even speak English and therefore cannot understand directions from the military personnel. They often have run-ons, tensions and fights with the U.S. soldiers, who see themselves as being superior to the mercenaries, while being all too aware that their salaries are much lower.

The mercenaries are recruited through newspaper ads placed by ghost companies that set up shop for about a month in their country, and then they disappear without a trace. These companies have alliances in top levels of government in the home countries. Only those most resistant to high stress levels are contracted, after being tested in evaluation processes up to six months conducted in inaccessible rural areas. They are then trained in the top-secret training camps in the U.S. From there they are sent to Iraq for six months to a year. If they make it out alive, they return to their home countries with a trauma that no one is responsible for. Since none of the mercenaries are officially registered, more and more are being contracted to replace the dead and returned. The companies and the government of the United States are not held responsible for injury or death resulting by their mission in Iraq, according to the mercenary contract, if there is any. In developing countries, most of the recruiting happens verbally, secretively, not giving the mercenaries any guarantees. Sometimes they return to their home countries to find that they have not even been paid. They are the invisible players in the Iraq war, disposable soldiers of mercy in an unequal globalized world. Due to recent criticism in the U.S. of Blackwater’s lack of legal accountability for misconduct of the mercenaries in Iraq, foreign mercenaries are now punished by being jailed in Iraq and/or discharged without pay for any misconduct. Training camps have also been outsourced to Mexico, increasing the invisibility of the developing country mercenaries.

It is their economic need, in developing countries, which motivates such a risky endeavor. Some mercenaries are paid varyingly from $35 up to $1500 daily for performing the tasks that no sane soldier will undertake willingly, or are even permitted to under international military law. These are extremely high salaries for those coming from developing countries. Mercenaries are often recruited unbeknownst to their family members, so that they cannot plead them to stay alive instead of earning money. They just disappear without a trace. Not only is the U.S. taking advantage of the “free market” and global inequality in their quest for dominance, it has also favoured the war image on the home front, as the mercenaries are not included in the official body count, making the war seem much less bloody in the U.S. media for its taxpayers. However, in Iraq, Latin-Americans are the second largest group to have died, after U.S. soldiers.

Not only is the U.S. saving its troops in the privatization of security in Iraq, money that is supposedly meant for the “aid” budget for Iraqi “reconstruction”, is being diverted to pay the salaries of the mercenaries. Since 2003, Blackwater received a $300-million U.S. State Department contract, away from the eyes of the American public, and without consulting U.S. Congress. This modern war privatisation strategy is a military “revolution”: using taxpayer dollars for military outsourcing. Blackwater was also contracted for the aftermath of Hurrican Katrina: it paid security forces $350 a day, and billed the government $950. These companies in turn donate to the U.S. Republican Party. This is a lucrative market for companies such as Blackwater, and the criminal character of this private war opens up a serious discussion about democracy, ethics, military conduct, laws, human rights and international security.

Under which law would mercenaries be held responsible? U.S. law? Iraqi law? Their home country’s law? Officially, they don’t exist; they are contracted illegally and secretly. Although U.S. mercenaries’ families have filed law suits against Blackwater, those from developing countries do not stand a chance. They are merely an object in the global “free” market. Their lives fall into the global black hole of oblivion, such as the casualties of the arms trade, drug trafficking and the trafficking of women. Most likely, the war must end before these mercenaries’ lives become visible, after the fact.


Sunday, October 26, 2008

Chilean Democracy, Anno 2008

On Wednesday, October 22nd, 2008 in Valdivia, capital of the Rivers Region in Southern Chile, 21 citizens, including the mayor of the municipality of Panguipulli, Alejandro Kohler, and environmental lawyer Vladimir Riesco, were arrested by the military police. This took place during a “citizens participation” consultation for the approval of the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) report presented by Chilean energy company Colbún (of the financial conglomerate, Matte), as its plans to build a dam in the San Pedro River are very controversial and criticized by those arrested. The arrestees were not guilty of anything more than voicing opinions in opposition to the proposed projects. The arrests were ordered by the provincial governor, Ivan Flores. The consultations took place behind locked doors at the offices of COREMA (the regional environmental commission) on avenue Yungay in the Seminario building, heavily guarded by the military police performing security checks, registering and accompanying everyone who entered the building, videotaping everything, and only allowing a select few individuals into the overcrowded boardroom. A representative of the Parlamento de Koz Koz (a Mapuche organization in Panguipulli) was physically pushed out of the room, as it was too full, while at the same time, a representative of Colbún, was allowed to enter, as were the press, the mayor and the environmental lawyer. She finally did manage to enter, and read aloud a letter written by the organization, stating their opposition to the project, which caused a discussion between Riesco and a COREMA lawyer, which others joined, after which they were removed by the military police. Others, such as the evaluating environmental technicians from the municipality of Panguipulli, environmentalists and Mapuche representatives, remained locked out outside, and when a few tried to get in, they were immediately detained by police forces and carried off to the police station. There were three busloads of police forces securing the building, far outnumbering the citizens. The intention of such an event is to allow citizens to participate in the evaluation of projects proposed by companies that will affect their communities and surroundings. The EIA mechanism is intended to promote the democratic processes of informed consultation and participation.

According to the CONAMA website (Chile’s National Environmental Commission), citizen participation and access to environmental information are part of the 1994 Environmental Law (no. 19.300). The site further states that the CONAMA has promoted civil society participation in environmental management, as it is also considered a priority of the Concertación government, as formulated in their principles of co-responsibility, as a democratic mechanism. Under the Presidential Instructive on Citizen Participation (of December 2000), the public sector must generated the information required by its citizens, and citizen participation is a contribution to collaboration and mutual respect between the State and the citizenry, in order to strengthen civil society and achieve more legitimacy for public policy. The site further mentions social capital, relationships of trust, solidarity and cooperation, transparency, respect, equal opportunities and incorporating the citizenry in the elaboration and evaluation of environmental plans, projects, policies and norms. The CONAMA considers sustainable development as a national goal. Therefore, they are aiming to “perfect” the mechanisms and amplify the spaces of participation and the right to information, so that the citizenry can contribute to decisions taken concerning the protection of the environment. This was apparently forgotten at the COREMA in Valdivia on October 22nd. Since 1997, one of the principle instruments applied by the CONAMA, as required under the Environmental Law is the EIA system. This system is designed to evaluate the design and execution of projects or activities conducted in the country, according to environmental and sustainability requirements. Any company, such as Colbun in this case, proposing an industrial megaproject, must submit an EIA report to the CONAMA, based on the EIA norms. They normally receive a two-year period to perform the studies necessary to write the report. Colbun had been granted two extentions for the deadline for which they were to submit it. Thereafter, CONAMA publishes the report and the general public has only 60 days to respond to and evaluate the report. The environmental law presents an inequality in that it obviously favours the companies over the public opinion in allowing them more time to complete their reports (in this case, Colbón was allotted two extensions) to submit their reports, and the citizens hardly receive any time at all to respond, nor do they have the same amount of resources to do so. Their feedback is supposed to inform the environmental commission’s decision on whether or not to approve the project. The final decision to approve or reject the plan is made at the end of this period, at the regional office (COREMA), as occurred in Valdivia on October 22nd. The meeting is supposed to be open to the public (which it was not on October 22nd). The approval is won by a majority vote by the board members of the COREMA. In June 2008, Colbún submitted a report that had received 125 observations made by diverse civil society, and public institutions, to which Colbún responded by retracting it, and promised to submit a second report within the very short time frame of three weeks. The “citizen participation” thus proves to be merely a discourse, as in practice the public building was locked shut, and the only elected authority of the municipality of Panguipulli, the mayor Alejandro Kohler, was not allowed to express his opinion on the matter. The decision to approve the project seems to come from above, the centralized and authoritarian State in Santiago. The approval is won by a majority vote by the board members of the COREMA. The board on the 22nd included ten regional ministerial secretaries, four regional counsillors, the governors of Valdivia and Ranco, and the executive secretary of COREMA, as well as the regional governor, Ivan Flores. In June 2008, Colbún submitted a report that had received 125 observations made by diverse civil society, and public institutions, to which Colbún responded by retracting it, and promised to submit a second report within the very short time frame of three weeks.

The plan proposed by Colbún to build a dam in the San Pedro River will affect two municipalities, Los Lagos and Panguipulli. The municipality of Los Lagos had signed their approval of the project on September 5th, 2008, as Colbún has promised to build a lakeside resort and a bus terminal as compensation for any negative impacts generated by the construction of the dam, as written in the third addendum to the EIA. In the recent (October 26, 2008) elections, the mayor was not reelected: the people are not pleased with a mayor who negotiates away the area’s national resources. The municipality of Panguipulli, however, especially the mayor and six of the seven deputy mayors, as well as the director of the National Tourism Service (SERNAM) had made their opposition to the project very publically clear since the beginning. Letters were written and sent to the COREMA evaluating the plan, and rejecting it altogether. In general, the project is rejected due to environmental and sustainability concerns, it will affect nearby Mapuche communities and because it is not deemed favourable to the development of tourism, which is the development strategy of the municipality of Panguipulli since 2000, and it was declared a Zone of Touristic Interest in 2008. Tourism in the area is mainly based on small-scale, locally owned and operated ecotourism outfits. Colbún’s EIA does not include a socio-economic evaluation of the area that considers this industry or the priorities of the Mapuche communities, nor does it include a mitigation or compensation plan. Furthermore, seismological considerations are not included, as the area contains a geological fault to which the Chaitén volcano belongs, a volcano that was previously dormant for thousands of years until its multiple eruptions in May of 2008. Furthermore, the EIA only considers the 12 kilometres of the river that the dam will directly affect, and not the entire surrounding region that will be indirectly affected by the project. The dam will consist of a 56-metre wall that will capture millions of litres of water and in the case of an earthquake or volcanic eruption; the dam could crumble and pose a serious threat to the towns downriver. The San Pedro River becomes the Calle Calle River, on its way to the sea, one of Valdivia’s landmarks. The effects on the Calle Calle were not included in the report, and Valdivia was not included in the citizen participation to evaluate the project.

It was Alejandro Kohler, Vladimir Riesco and two doctors from Panguipulli who had made it into the meeting at the COREMA and voiced their opinions in opposition of the projects. Their objections during the meeting centred on the many irregularities of the EIA and important information that has been kept from the public about the project, such as rare fish species in the San Pedro River that will be affected by the dam, and the union of the reservoir with lake Riñihue. The COREMA kept refusing them the word, so they started to speak anyway. This was the only reason for their arrests: they spoke out of turn, a turn they had never received, because they were in opposition. Before the start of the meeting, half of the board members were in opposition to the plans. Two days before the meeting, the COREMA had threatened the regional ministerial secretaries that if they did not approve the project, they would lose their jobs. After many hours of discussion, and the governor having called the military police to have the opponents removed from the room and arrested, the votes were 16 to 1 in favour, and one abstained. The project was approved.

This incident has sparked the debate about the state of democracy in Chile once again. Furthermore, a wide public discussion has ensued concerning the EIA process and the type of development that this form of industrialization implies, as well as a discussion on the political power of market forces, reinforcing authoritarian practices in order to extinguish the voices of the citizenry. Protests have taken place in Valdivia, and will most likely mark the beginning of a long conflict over the San Pedro dam. This project is one of three hydroelectric megaprojects for the Rivers Region. There are plans to build seven hydroelectric plants, resulting in the generation of 10% of Chile’s electric consumption, which would drastically alter the economic makeup of the region. One of Chile’s major natural assets is water, and the State is aiming to exploit it to its fullest, so that hydropower will form the major source of energy for the nation. At the same time, the opposition to hydroelectric projects has been the fiercest. At least 25 projects currently in progress, completed, or being planned are found from the first region in the north, down to Aysén, in southern Patagonia. There are at least 10 (multi)national energy companies involved in the installation of these mega-projects throughout Chile. The rights to water were separated from land and privatized in 1982 by the Pinochet regime. In 2006, these rights were further liberalized and have been auctioned off to the highest bidders, which in the Rivers Region meant the sale to the corporate energy companies ENDESA of Spain, SN Power of Norway, and Colbún.

There is a majority opposition to the projects by the locals. However, the energy companies are employing strategies and tactics to convince the locals of the benefits of their projects. One of the tactics employed by the companies is having asados (barbeques) with the people, talking about all the great things their projects will bring them. They have withheld crucial information from the public, they occupy the media to spread propaganda and hold secret meetings with certain individuals behind closed doors, they promise to build roads, cellular phone and internet infrastructure, computers for the schools and jobs for the unemployed. These types of promises are well-known strategies of companies such as Colbún, ENDESA and SN Power to obtain a majority support for their projects and convince the people of their good will. They pretend to be socially responsible, but corporate companies are not social organizations that have experience in rural development. They are capitalist enterprises that wish to take advantage of the lack of implementation of Chilean and international law that protects the rights of the local population and environment. Their sole purpose to generate cheap energy and maximize profits. For a company with that much economic power to offer to pay for a road, equipment for the fire department, computers for the school, internet and cellphone connections is very little. It is an insult to the intelligence of the local people. In reality, the company will install all that is necessary for the construction of the plants. After that, the people will be left to their own devices once again. They are employing the manipulation of the media and the rumour network of the small towns, making the people believe that all are in favour of their projects which is not only good for their corporate image in the Chilean media, but convinces the affected populations that they have no other choice but to support the projects, so that they may receive benefits in the process of negotiation. They are also publicizing their false success stories of "participation" in order to pretend to live up to the "corporate social responsibility" mandate. Therefore, the people are left to turn to alternative forms of communication, in order to inform and publicize their disagreement with the proposed plans and the company's presence in their communities. The civil society organizations in opposition to the megaprojects are made up of local citizens, dozens of Mapuche comunidades and local tourism enterprises and organizations. These are local citizens concerned about their environment and communities and prepared to defend their rights to live in a zone free of interventions by megaprojects. They are concerned about the manner in which the energy company executives are intervening in the area, especially in the unauthorized entrance into indigenous territory and private property; the intimidation of Mapuche leaders, the threatening of people that do not want to cooperate; the bribing of local businessmen to support the projects, the bribing of local and non-local Mapuche who are portrayed as leaders by the company in their reports; but do not actually have any legitimacy or representation within the communities, in order to convince the rest of the community to support the projects; the collection of signatures under false pretences to support the projects, such as having participants in a “development” workshop sign a blank document with their social security numbers, supposedly attesting to their participation; or signatures for the receipt of food aid.

Colbún is not only planning a dam for the San Pedro, but also the third dam in the megaproject started on the Bío Bío River by ENDESA in 1994. The controversial Pangue (457 MW) and Ralco (690 MW) dams built there required the displacement of indigenous communities. The Ralco dam was highly publicized and sparked a national debate on dams and development, and the relationship between the State and indigenous peoples. Having the dam approved required several political manipulations and abuses of power by the Frei Ruiz-Tagle government (1994-2000), who had shares in both ENDESA and the construction company, BESALCO. Frei`s attitude suggested that anyone who did not agree with the government on Ralco, had to go. The Ralco dam would be constructed “Si o Si”. Despite all the protests from countless citizens, institutions, civil society organisations, and every level of government, the construction of the dam continued relentlessly. The National Indigenous Development Corporation (CONADI) had declared the Ralco project as “illegal”, as the Indigenous Law not only requires informed consent, but also equivalent compensation for their lands, requiring the approval of CONADI. Neither was deemed sufficient by CONADI’s indigenous council. However, CONADI was incapable of holding its own under the political force of the Frei government, who had forced two consecutive indigenous directors of the CONADI who did not approve of the land exchanges to resign. The politics of the government were very clear: the land exchanges were to be approved. When the CONAMA rejected the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) mainly due to the social implications, ENDESA wrote an “addendum”, which was also rejected. It was finally the second “addendum”, which actually included a relocation plan for the Pewenche, which was approved, despite repeated protests by the CONADI. The final addendum to the original EIA report included a 10-year commitment of financial support, housing, electricity, schools, technical farming assistance, and medical centres. However, a lot of these have not materialized to date. These types of failed interventions are all too common in Chile today, especially concerning its original peoples. There is no doubt that the energy sector means big business. In Chile, Pinochet’s 1982 Electricity Law continues to ensure that investors will prosper. The CNE (National Energy Commission) fixes the base costs of electricity according to the construction and operational costs of the plants, maintaining a determined level of profit. Due to this amazing amount of State support, a company can construct a very inefficient, expensive project, and the costs will only be borne by the consumers. Thus, the inefficiency of Ralco was convenient and profitable for ENDESA, although it caused inflation in electricity on the national level. However, during the Ralco conflict, an aggressive media campaign was launched to sway Chilean public opinion in favour of the dam, focused on the ‘need for Ralco’s power to support industrial development’ in a period of economic recession.

The US$ 500 million, 360 MW “Angostura Project” Colbún is now proposing for the Bío Bío will again necessitate the displacement of 45 families, many of which had already been relocated for the Pangue dam. The EIA states that the dam would flood 640 hectares, creating an 16 kilometer reservoir along the Bio Bio, and 5 kilometers along the Huequecura River. The inundation would not only require relocations, it would also mean the disappearance of sacred Pehuenche sites. Colbún is employing tactics similar to ENDESA for the Pangue and Ralco dams, as Colbún has already bought land destined for the relocation sites, and has brought the people there to have a look, before the EIA has been approved by the CONAMA, making it seem as if the dam’s construction is a matter of fact. Locals criticize the project and are in opposition, however they have received very little media attention, and are actually tired out from the decade-long Ralco conflict. Contradictorily, the Chilean government stated before the Organization of American States (OAS) in 2004 that it would not allow anymore megaprojects in the Alto Bío Bío area in the future. Locals are urging the state to keep this promise, and hope to share their objections with CONAMA, who is about to decide on the approval of the project. In 2006, Colbun partnered up with ENDESA to form HidroAysén, for the megaproject (2750 MW) they are planning for the Baker and Pascua Rivers in Aysen, Chile’s XIth Region. The project would also require the construction of a transmission line almost 1600 kilometers long. The project’s construction is projected to be conducted from 2008 to 2012. There is enormous opposition to this project, uniting big business such as the salmon farmers, local landowners, operators of local fishing lodges and other small-scale tourism enterprises, and U.S. entrepreneur and conservationist Douglas Tompkins. The protest is highly publicized, although the opponents claim that HydroAysén has not been transparent about their plans. The opposition is concerned about the flooding of 93 billion hectares, its ecological repercussions and the conversion of the small town of Cochrane into a booming industrial hub. They also fear that the dams on the Baker and the Pascua will only be the start of the damming of every river in Patagonia. Additionally, there is concern for the loss of international (eco)tourists visiting the region. Government officials claim that if they do not dam the Baker and the Pascua, which would generate 20% of the country’s energy needs, the only alternative will be nuclear power. HydroAysén’s EIA report is expected in 2008. Tompkins has repeatedly opposed the industrialization of Patagonia. Consecutive governments have tried to delegitimize his conservationist efforts, naming him a communist, terrorist, Zionist cult leader and interventionist preventing foreign investment. The irony of Chile’s liberal climate for foreign investment is shown when it welcomes those companies that want to extract the country’s natural resources, but is hostile towards those that want to invest their fortunes in conserving them.

Foreigners are not the only critics of Chilean policies. Many Chileans oppose industrial megaprojects, such as mining, forestry, cellulose, salmon farming, and hydroelectric plants. They feel that this type of development is out of control, that there is no true consideration for future generations. They fear the loss of biodiversity and natural resources, whose Chile’s economy has always depended upon. Due to all of these environmental conflicts in Chile and the State’s tendency to favour large private companies, many Chileans question the meaning of the “sustainable development” discourse. Cynics criticize EIAs as “only a formality”, as industrial projects tend to be approved in Chile, no matter what the social and environmental consequences. Political decisions have far reaching impacts in democratic processes, such as the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA). The Ralco case showed that EIAs can reinforce a political decision and uphold its discourse, instead of ensuring a democratic and informed process in practice, that in principle, they are supposed to uphold. Through financing of reports and subsequent ownership of the information, interest groups retain control over their use. Even researchers come to be removed from their own conclusions in ways that are quite alarming. The corrupt EIA process in Chile is a manifestation of the authoritarian culture where dialogue is not practiced, where decisions are taken by a small group of politically and economically powerful elite, and the local peoples, in this case original peoples, are not heard. Energy, thus, being of “national interest” goes above all. This idea is recognized and conformed to by the political structure that imposes this discourse. The institutionalization of this legitimacy is effectively manifested in the institutions that facilitate the attitude of the State towards local peoples and the private sector, and the clear disposition towards economic development without considering the social and environmental costs. The large majority of the private companies that implement hydroelectric, geothermal, biofuel or mining projects in Chile are of from outside the region, such as Spain, Norway, Germany, Italy, England, Switzerland, Canada, and Australia. It all revolves around making money for their CEOs, and maybe a little GDP for Chile. Meanwhile, energy costs within Chile skyrocket, so that not only the local citizens have to live with the negative effects of these projects, they also get the short end of the stick in the actual resulting product. Thus, there is a general discontent, distrust, and disbelief that the “system” will work for them. Especially concerning environmental laws and institutions have lost the respect of the people, as they adhere to corporate pressure, not only in hydroelectric megaprojects, but also in other forms of industrialisation such as mining, forestry, cellulose and salmon farming. To the locals being affected by such megaprojects, the beautiful discourse of “transparency” and “participation” are nothing but that: just empty words. It is definitely not the reality for most of the citizens of Chile.

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Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Open letter about SN Power / Trayenko projects in Chile


Here is a translation of a letter written in response to an article in one of Chile's major newspapers, La Segunda.


With this letter I would like to open a dialogue about the article on page 18 of La Segunda on July 28, 2008: "Hydropower Plants. Opinion of the Mapuche community will be key in Norwegian SN Power's decision".

The article quotes executives from SN Power and Trayenko, saying that there is little opposition to the projects proposed for the municipalities of Panguipulli and Futrono in Southern Chile. The journalist wrote exclusively in the discourse of the company, and he did not bother to interview anyone in the area concerned to know whether what they are saying is true. This article does not reflect the reality of the area concerned. The gentlemen Huseby and Marchese are wrong when they say that there is "little opposition" to the projects that they want to develop in the area. There is a majority opposition, especially in the Mapuche communities, which has been developing for over a year, and every day more people join the movement. It is the dream of the executives that everyone agrees with their projects, in order to comply with the terms of "social responsibility" of SN Power in Norway, and in order to receive approval for environmental and social impact studies.

Unfortunately, the truth is that intervention in the area by the executives is far from being "responsible" or ethical. If the journalist who wrote this article had gone to the area, and went to speak with the local people, rural Mapuche and non-Mapuche who have always lived there, he would have written another story. The story is that there is a majority opposition, people are organizing more each day, with support from the municipality, entrepreneurs, institutions and local organizations. They realize that the rumours created by the company, such as in the article which states that there is no opposition, are a strategic way of the company of manipulating public opinion so that the plants are built.

The fact is that local people who are against the project have neither the resources nor access, nor political power in order to demonstrate their struggle in the traditional media, or by other conventional methods.

It is certainly not a lack of opposition or resistance. The issue is very strong in the area, as is the intervention by the company in trying to convince people of their projects, which is already causing irreparable damage to the historical social networks in the area for the long-term. But at the same time alliances are also being created between people of all classes, ethnicities, locations, professions, institutions and organizations that exist in the area, to try to defeat this multinational and powerful firm. They are humble rural people, but most are very clear that they do not want the projects SN Power / Trayenko is proposing for their territory and that there is no dialogue or "citizen participation" in a transparent and democratic manner.

It is important for the development of democracy in Chile that this part of the story is not kept out of the means of communications. Take a role of serious journalistic responsibility to send a reporter to the area to ask people whether they agree with the projects or if they are against, and why. If a newspaper like La Segunda does not take this responsibility, it is not abiding by the basic ethics of journalism, nor is it promoting the democratic right of freedom of expression, because it seems that journalists working for La Segunda only can write in support of the powerful companies and the government's energy policy. And that would mean that the press in Chile, and its journalists, become instruments of manipulation by the interests of big business to carry out its mega projects without taking into account public participation.

Each journalist who wished to learn about the other side of the story, has only to do a search on the internet to find enough articles in local news and specialist sites showing that there is a vast majority of people in the area, in Coñaripe, Liquiñe , Carririñe, Maqueo and elsewhere, that are expressing their disagreement with the projects and the intervention by the company, in various democratic and pacific ways.

It would be very unfortunate if the traditional press do not ackowledge that part of the story and continue to contribute to silencing the voices of resistance from the Chilean citizens who are performing their democratic rights.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

On Violence

On Violence, and Cultural Relativism

I´ve always been a pacifist. As an idealist, I´ve always believed in non-violence and in buddhist philosophy. I believe that if everyone in the world were to return to the source, return to a place of love, we will have peace. Peace IS possible. A conflict is only a conflict if both parties maintain that it is. If either or both decide that there is no conflict, there IS is no conflict. Unfortunately, reality looks a little different on the ground. Each place I travel to I see that different people have different realities, culturally, socially and politically defined. Yet we all create those realities. We all have the power to change them. However, in the reality of economic combined with authoritarian power, democracy and human rights seem to be far-off pipe dreams. In such a case, peace is not always the answer. It is, effectively, a fight-fire-with-fire mechanism that will be effective in order to keep the peace, ironically enough. In Chile, I have found the cultural relativist ability to understand violence. Within the context of all-pervasive exploitation and repression, the reaction is expected: if those in power do not fight the fair fight, why should we? Corruption, extortion, threats and violence from the state and the private sector generate the same among the citizens. They resort to illegal means to survive in the jungle of discontent. It is a discontent, distrust and disbelief that the “system” will work for them. The beautiful discourse of “transparency” and “participation” are nothing but that. Just empty words. Definately not the reality for most citizens of this country. Most people say that not much has changed since the dictatorship. True, there is no military rule, but there is no democracy, either. And now I finally get it, violence IS the answer. But doesn`t it just generate more repression? That is the fear that will prevent violence from occurring.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

The True face of Nils Huseby and SN Power

On the 31st of January, 2008, I witnessed an intense and well-organized meeting with members of the mapuche (indigenous) communities of Panguipulli, Chile and executives of Norwegian energy company SN Power, and their Chilean counterpart, Trayenko, S.A. The purpose of the meeting was for the companies to open a dialogue with the communities about SN Power´s proposed project to build hydroelectric plants in the area. This meeting was agreed upon by the director for the Latin American region of SN Power, Nils Huseby, and Pedro Antimilla, representative of the communities, who had gone all the way to Oslo in December. There, on December 11th, 2007, they had signed an agreement according to Nordic and international laws which respect the rights of indigneous communities, such as land and water rights. The agreement stated that SN Power would not continue their project without entering into dialogue with the communities. The proposed dialogue, intended to start on the 31st of january, was meant to offer a platform for the communities to express their concerns about the project and for the company to take these concerns into consideration in their plans. At this meeting, in the fields of Carirriñe, Mapuche territory, about an hour`s drive on unpaved roads from Coñaripe, over 500 local people were present, including 14 lonkos (chiefs) of the mapuche communities, members of local tourist organizations, and the mayor of the municipality of Panguipulli, Alejandro Kohler. These fields are symbolic land where Mapuche and Non-Mapuche historically meet. The lonkos, other representatives of the communities and the mayor spoke eloquently and clearly for over an hour in the plain sun and scorching heat of the afternoon, articulating their concerns about the proposed hydroelectric projects and how these would affect the communities. It was made absolutely clear that the Mapuche communities, the mayor, and several local (eco)tourism operators and small farmers, representing over 3000 local citizens, are unanimously opposed to the plans being performed in any way, shape or form. However, they also emphasized that they do not wish a violent conflict as those taking place between mapuche communities and forestry companies in the northwest of Chile.

Nils Huseby arrived in his suit and tie, he and his collegues refused to sit on the traditional seats offered by the communities, and stood under the hot sun, listening to each of the lonkos and werken (spokespeople) make their appeals. They appealed to international agreements such as the ILO 169 and the UN`s declaration of indigenous peoples. The Mapuche communities wish to recuperate their ancestral rights to water, which were sold to SN Power by the Chilean state. The rights to water and the rights to land were divided by the Pinochet regime in 1981, allowing for the state to sell and alot land and water seperately. As the territory which the communities occupy is recognized as indigenous land, the water is seen as a distinct resource. The land is, however, useless without water. The rivers running through the land are subject to being rerouted by subterranean aquaducts, to feed the hydroelectric plants SN Power has planned. Furthermore, a large part of the land will be inundated, rendering it useless and possibly entailing the relocation of communities. Local farmers and hotsprings enterpreneurs will lose their water sources as well, which will mean they will no longer be able to survive as such. The region of the rivers and lakes is the most well-developped ecotourism destination in Chile. Tourism is the sole industry in the area, and the transformation of this area will not only mean a great loss to the Mapuche communities, but a great loss to all Chileans.

Finally, when it was Nils Huseby`s turn to respond, he simply said “I`ve heard your concerns and appeals, but we are not prepared to discontinue the project, we will proceed as planned”. An all around shocked reaction and booeing surged spontaneously from the crowd. The Werken Maria Eugenia Calfuñanco responded that this was not in accordance with the agreements made in Oslo, where Mr. Huseby agreed to negotiate with the communities, and then revise the plans. Obviously the decision had already been made prior to the meeting that the plans would proceed regardless of the opinion of the communities, for it was made clear at the meeting that all present were not in favour of the plans: no studies, no plants, no dams. A big “NO” all around. And so Nils Huseby gave them a big “NO” in return. Some dialogue. Why did he even bother coming? He seemed only to laugh cynically at the serious appeals of the Lonkos. Was it just a media stunt? To fulfill his “participation” barometer in the Corporate Social Responsibility charts? Some participation. He even tried to make excuses, saying that he could not do anything about the gap in the Chilean laws, that allows for a company such as SN Power to buy all the rights to water in the area, leaving the locals powerless, and if the company proceeds with the plans, leaving them without a source of life, and some even landless. He said that he was not in the position, due to Chilean law, to return their water rights. He said that they have to take up this problem with the Chilean state, not with him. Meanwhile SN Power is taking advantage of this “gap” in the law. Taking advantage in order to turn a profit, not taking any responsibility for the consequences for the local environment and people in Chile, something which the company would not be able to do in Norway itself. This echoes the long tradition of colonialism and imperialism, exploiting the national resources of latin america to increase the wealth of western nations. The new form of “globalization” is possible due to the tremendous neoliberalism installed by the Pinochet regime which is allowing foreign and transnational companies to transform Chile`s natural resources into capitalist profit, creating enormous impacts for the Chilean people for an unforseen amount of time.

The representatives of the mapuche communities had made a typed statement entailing all that was said during the meeting, and asked all the speakers to sign it, as is traditional in these types of meetings. Nils Huseby, however, also refused to sign this. He was then asked “what is his word worth?” and “why should we ever believe it again?” He does not seem to be complying to any of his promises. He was then asked to leave the territory. The representatives said: “Unfortunately this is our first conversation and also our last.You are no longer welcome in this territory”. All those present, shouted “They must leave!” Other comments made by those locals present and at the end of the meeting proved that this would be the beginning of a long battle, and if any of the workers of SN Power or Trayenko were found working in the territory, they would be sent away again, as they had been in october 2007, when they had begun their “studies” with immense machinery to drill holes into the earth of Mapuche territory, without their permission or even their previous knowledge, because the ministry of economics had signed a contract with SN Power allowing them to conduct subterranean studies of the area for the next two years. It is clear that SN Power will continue to do so regardless of the desires of the local communities, and to this effect, Nils Huseby and his collegues are not taking any responsibility in the so-called “dialogue” with the communities, nor do they respect indigenous and human rights, such as the collective rights to land and water, resources which are invaluable to the people, yet receive a very cheap pricetag in the competitive capitalist market.

See also: