Saturday, February 16, 2013

The world is as you dream it

This post is a call to critical thinking in Namibia on how we roll out our development plan - a road towards the well-being of our people.

Sequence of events. 
Oil (potential) found off shore. 
The Father of our Nation found celebrating with corporate oil companies. 
US Marine Troops visit our shores and perform humanitarian work as part of their trip along the African coastline. 
A four star US general visits Namibia. 
[Then he visits Malawi and Mozambique. Two other nations who recently found oil/gas.] 

Now I am not saying that I know that there are linkages. Just saying that we all need to think about what we want for our country and our true development plan. Do we follow the trail of other countries (a trail of desolation left behind, high GDP growth and increased poverty going hand in hand) or do we blaze a trail towards the common good of (all!) our citizens. 

And I use the example of Ecuador. I steal an excerpt from John Perkins' "Confessions of and Economic Hitman". 

"In the years since I first went there, in 1968, this tiny country had evolved into the quintessential victim of the corporatocracy. My con-temporaries and I, and our modern equivalents, had managed to bring it to virtual bankruptcy. We loaned it billions of dollars so it could hire our engineering and construction firms to build projects that would help its richest families. As a result, in those three decades, the official poverty level grew from 50 to 70 percent, under- unemployment increased from 15 to 70 percent, public debit increased from US$240 million to $16 billion, and the share of national resources allocated to the poorest citizens declined from 20 percent to 6 percent. Today, Ecuador must devote nearly 50 percent of its national budget simply to paying off its debts - instead of to helping the millions of citizens who are officially classified as dangerously impoverished. 

The situation in Ecuador clearly demonstrates that this was not the result of a conspiracy; it was a process that had occurred during both Democratic and Republican administrations, a process that had involved all the multinational banks, many corporations, and foreign aid missions from a multitude of countries. The United States played the lead role, but we had not acted alone. 

During the three decades, thousands of men and women participated in bringing Ecuador to the tenuous position it found itself at the beginning of the millennium. Some of them, like me, had been aware of what they were doing, but the vast majority had merely performed the tasks they had been taught in business, engineering, and law schools, or had followed the lead of bosses in my mold, who demonstrated the system by their own greedy example and through rewards and punishments calculated to perpetuate it. Such participants saw the parts they played as benign, at worst; in the most optimistic view, they were helping an impoverished nation. 

Although unconscious, deceived - and in many cases - self-deluded, these players were not members of any clandestine conspiracy; rather, they were the product of a system that promotes the most subtle and effective form of imperialism that world has ever witnessed. No one had to go out and seek men and women who could be bribed or threatened - they had already been recruited by companies, banks and government agencies.The bribes consisted of salaries, bonuses, pension and insurance policies; the threats were based on social mores, peer pressure, and unspoken questions about the future of their children's education. 

The system had succeeded spectacularly. By the time the new millennium had rolled in, Ecuador was thoroughly entrapped. We had her, as a Mafia don has the man whose daughter's wedding and small business he financed and then refinanced. We could afford to be patient, knowing that beneath Ecuador's rain forests lies a sea of oil, knowing that the proper day would come.

That day had already arrived when, in early 2003, I wound my way from Quito to the jungle town of Shell in my Subaru Outback. Chavez had reestablished himself in Venezuela. He had defied George W. Bush and had won. Saddam was standing his ground and was preparing to be invaded. Oil supplies were depleted to their lowest level in nearly three decades, and the prospects of taking more from our prime sources looked bleak - and therefore, so did the health of the corporatocracy's balance sheets. We needed an ace in the hole. It was time to cut away our Ecuadorian pound of flesh.

As I drove past the monster dam on the Pastaza River, I realised that here in Ecuador the battle was not simply the classic struggle between the rich of the world and the impoverished, between those who exploit and those who are exploited. These battle lines would ultimately define who were are as a civilization. We were poised to force this tiny country to open its Amazon rain forests to our oil companies. The devastation that would result was immeasurable. 

If we insisted on collecting debt, the repercussions would far beyond our abilities to quantify them. It was not just about the destruction of indigenous cultures, human lives and hundreds of thousands of species of mammals, reptiles, fish, insects, and plants, some of which might contain the undiscovered cures to any number of diseases. It was not just that rain forests absorb the deadly greenhouse gases produced by our industries, give off oxygen that is essential to our lives, and seed the clouds that ultimately create a large percentage of the world's fresh water. It went beyond all the standard arguments made by ecologists for saving such places, and reached deep into our souls. 

If we pursued this strategy, we would continue an imperialist pattern that had begun long before the Roman Empire. We decry slavery, but our global empire enslaves more people than the Romans and all the other colonial powers before us. I wondered how we could execute such a shortsighted policy in Ecuador and still live with our collective conscience.

Peering through the window of the Subaru at the deforested slopes of the Andes, an area that during my Peace Corps days had been lush with tropical growth, I was suddenly surprised by another realisation. It dawned on me that this view of Ecuador as a significant battle line was purely personal, that in fact every country where I had worked, every country with resources coveted by the empire, was equally significant. I had my own attachment to this one, which stemmed from the days back in the late 1960s when I lost my innocence here. However, it was subjective, my personal bias.

Though the Ecuadorian rain forests are precious, as are the indigenous people and all the other life forms that inhabit them, they are no more precious than the deserts of Iran and the Bedouins of Yamin's heritage. No more precious than the mountains of Java, the areas of the coast of Philippines, the steppes of Asia, the savannas of Africa, the forests of North America, the icecaps of the Arctic, or hundreds of other threatened places. Every one of these represents the battle line, and every one of them forces us to search the depths of our individual and collective souls.

I was reminded of a statistic that sums it all up: The income ratio of the one-fifth of the world's population in the wealthiest countries to the one-fifth of the poorest countries went from 30 to 1 in 1960 to 74 to 1 in 1995. And the World Bank, the USAID, the IMF, and the rest of the banks, corporations, and governments involved in international "aid" continue to tell us that they are doing their jobs, that progress has been made. 
So here I was in Ecuador again, in the country that was just one of many battle lines that holds a special place in my heart. It was 2003, thirty-five years after I had first arrived as a member of a U.S. organisation that bears the word peace in its name. This time, I had come in order to try and prevent a war that for three decades I had helped to provoke.

It would seem that events in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Venezuela might be enough to deter us from yet another conflict; yet, in Ecuador the situation was very different. This war would not require the U.S. Army, for it would be fought by a few indigenous warrior equipped only with spears, machetes, and single-shot, muzzle-loaded rifles. They would face off against a modern Ecuadorian army, a handful of U.S. Special Forces advisers, and jackal-trained mercenaries hired by the oil companies. This would be a war, like 1995 conflict between Ecuador and Peru, that most people in the United States would never hear about, and recent events had escalated the probability of such a war.

In December 2002, oil company representatives accused an indigenous community of taking a team of its workers hostage; they suggested that the warriors involved were members of a terrorist group, with implications of possible ties to al-Qaeda. It was an issue made especially complicated because oil companies had received government permission to begin drilling. However, the company claimed its workers had the right to perform preliminary, non-drilling investigations - a claim vehemently disputed by the indigenous groups a few days later, when they shared their side of the story.

The oil workers, tribal representatives insisted, had trespassed on lands they were not allowed; the warriors had carried no weapons, nor had they threatened the oil workers to their village with violence of any sort. In fact, they had escorted the workers to their village, where they offered them food and local beer. While their visitors feasted, the warriors persuaded the workers' guides to paddle away. However, the tribe claimed, the workers were never held against their will; they were free to go whenever they pleased.

Driving down that road, I remembered what the Shuars had told me in 1990 when, after selling IPS, I returned to offer to help them save their forests. "The world is as you dream it", they had said, and then pointed out that we in the North had dreamed of huge industries, lots of cars, and gigantic skyscrapers. Now we had discovered that our vision had in fact been a nightmare that would ultimately destroy us all. 

"Change the dream", the Shuars had advised me. Yet here it was, more than a decade later, and despite the work of many people and nonprofit organisations, including the ones I had worked with, the nightmare had reached new and horrifying proportions.

When my Outback finally pulled into the jungle town of Shell, I was hustled off to a meeting. The men and women who attended represented many tribes: Kichwa, Shuar, Achuar, Shiwiar, and Zaparo. Some had walked for days through the jungle, others had flown in on small planes, funded by nonprofits. A few wore their traditional kilts, face paint, and feathered headbands, though most attempted to emulate the townspeople, wearing slacks, T-shirts and shoes.

Representatives from the community accused of taking hostages spoke first. They told us that shortly after the workers returned to their oil company, over a hundred Ecuadorian soldiers arrived in their small community. They reminded us that this was at the beginning of a special season in the rain forests, the fruiting of the chonta. A tree sacred to the indigenous cultures, its fruit comes but once a year and signals the start of the mating season for many of the region's birds, including rare and endangered species. AS they flock to it, the birds are extremely vulnerable. The tribes enforce strict policies forbidding the hunting of these birds during the chonta season.

"The timing of the soldiers couldn't have been worse", ad woman explained. I felt her pain and that of her companions as they told their tragic stories about how the soldiers ignored the prohibitions. They shot down the birds or sport and for food. In addition, they raided family gardens, banana groves, and manioc fields, often irreparably destroying the sparse topsoil. They used explosives in the rivers for fishing, and they ate family pets. They confiscated the local hunters' guns and blowguns, dug improper latrines, polluted the rivers with fuel oil and solvents, sexually molested women, and neglected to properly dispose of garbage, which attracted insects and vermin.

"We had two choices", the man said, "We could fight, or we could swallow our pride and do our best to repair the damage. We decided it was not time yet to fight." He described how they attempted to compensate for the military's abuses by encouraging their own people to go without food. He called it a fast, in fact it sounded closer to a voluntary starvation. Old people and children became malnourished and and grew sick.

The spoke about threats and bribes. "My son", a woman said, "speaks English as well as Spanish and several indigenous dialects. He worked as a guide and translator for an ecotourist company. He earned a decent salary. The oil company offered him ten times as much. What could he do? Now he writes letters denouncing the old company and all the others who come to help us, and in his letters calls the oil companies our friends." She shook her body, like a dog shaking off water. "He is no longer one of us. My son..."

An elderly man wearing the traditional toucan-feather headdress of a shaman stood up. "You know about those three we elected to represent us against the oil companies, who died in that plane crash? Well, I am not going to stand here and tell you what so many say, that the oil companies caused the crash. But I can tell you that those three deaths dug a big hole in our organisation. The oil companies lost no time in filling that hole with their people."

Another man produced a contract and read it. In exchange for three hundred thousand dollars, it ceded a vast territory over to a lumber company. It was signed by three tribal officials. 
"These aren't their real signatures", he said. "I ought to know, once is my brother. It's another type of assassination.To discredit our leaders."

It seemed ironic and strangely appropriate that this was taking place in a region of Ecuador where the oil companies had not yet been given permission to drill. They had drilled in many areas around this one, and the indigenous people had seen the results, had witnessed the destruction of their neighbours. As I sat there listening, I asked myself how the citizens of my country would react if gatherings like this featured on CNN or the evening news.

The meetings were fascinating and the revelations deeply disturbing. But something else also happened, outside the formal setting of those sessions. During breaks, at lunch and in the evening, when I talked with people privately, I frequently was asked why the United States was threatening Iraq. The impending war was discussed on the front pages of Ecuadorian newspapers that made their way into this jungle town, and the coverage was very different from coverage in the States. It included references to Bush's family ownership of oil companies, and to Vice President Cheney's role as former CEO of Halliburton.

These newspapers were read to men and women who had never attended school. Everyone seemed to take an interest int his issue. Here I was, in the Amazon rain forest, among illiterate people many in North America consider "backward", even "savages", and yet probing questions were being asked that struck at the heart of the global empire.

Driving out of Shell, back past the hydroelectric dam and high into the Andes, I kept thinking about the difference between what I had seen and heard during this visit to Ecuador and what I had to become accustomed to in the United States. It seemed that Amazonian tribes had a great deal to teach us, that despite all our schooling and our many hours reading magazines and watching television news, we lacked awareness they had somehow found. "The Prophecy of the Condor and Eagle", which I have heard many times throughout Latin America, and of similar prophecies I have encountered around the world.

Nearly every culture I know prophecies that in the late 1990s we entered a period of remarkable transiiton. At monasteries in Himalayas, ceremonial visits in Indonesia, and indigenous reservations in North America, from the depths of the Amazonian to the peaks of the Andes and into the ancient Mayan cities of Central America, I have heard that ours is a special moment in human history, and that each of us was born at this time because we have a mission to accomplish.

The titles and words of the prophecies differ slightly. They tell variously of a New Age, the Third Millenium, the Age of Aquarius, the Beginning of the Fifth Sun, or the end of old calenders and the commencement of new ones. Despite various terminologies, however, they have a great deal in common, and "The Prophecy of the Condor and the Eagle" is typical. It states that back in the mists of history, human society took two different paths: that of the condor (representing the heart, intuitive and mystical) and that of the eagle (representing the brain, rational and material). In the 1490s, the prophecy said, the two paths would converge and the eagle would drive the condor to the verge of extinction. Then, five hundred years later, in the 1990s, a new epoch would begin, one in which the condor and eagle will have the opportunity to reunite and fly together in the same sky, along the same path. If the condor and eagle accept this opportunity, they will create the most remarkable offspring, unlike any ever seen before.

"The Prophecy of the Condor and the Eagle", can be taken at many levels - the standard interpretation is that it foretells the sharing of indigenous with the knowledge of science, the balancing of yin and yang, and the bridging of northern and southern cultures. However, most powerful is the message it offers about consciousness; it says that we have entered a time when we can benefit that we can use these as a springboard to higher levels of awareness. As human beings, we can truly wake up and evolve into a more conscious species.

The condor people of the Amazon make it seem so obvious that if we are able to address questions about the nature of what it is to be a human in this new millennium, and about our commitment to evaluating our intentions for the next several decades, then we need to open our eyes and see the consequences of our actions - the actions of the eagle - in places like Iraq and Ecuador. We must shake ourselves awake. We who live in the most powerful nations history has ever known must stop worrying so much about the outcome of soap operas, football games, quarterly balance sheets, and the daily Dow Jones averages, and must instead reevaluate who we are and where we want our children to end up. The alternative to stopping to ask ourselves the important questions is simply too dangerous.

Shortly after I returned from Ecuador in 2003, The United States invaded Iraq for the second time in little over a decade."

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