As Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega summarized, it seems the USA was “isolated” — a regular persona non grata — at the Summit of the Americas this week in Columbia. Nor were our military and Secret Service ‘dicks’ very good sports themselves at the Pley Club there in Cartagena. It seems they wanted a reduction in the bill for services rendered. But that is not the only country in the Americas where the now globalized and increasingly rapacious tendencies of a dis-integrating Western curriculum are unwelcome.
A single superhighway built from Sao Paulo to Brasilia deprives an entire rain forest of its autonomy; [the beasts] killed or driven off and the natives coerced into compliance. The fact is, there remains little wilderness anywhere that does not have its resources scheduled on somebody’s industrial or real estate agenda… (Roszak, Wasteland, 16)
It was 1972 when Theodore Roszak wrote those words in his scathing critique of modern industrial society, Where the Wasteland Ends. He wrote this for a generation that was charged with overturning the applecart, halting the chaos, stopping the beast in its tracks. It was my generation; but I never fully understood the call back then. It is now forty years later and Roszak’s observations and prophetic words continue to ring true, finding validation after ugly validation. Now, for a larger part of humanity it has become a race against the illusion of time, driven by the self-propagating demands of an industrial civilization gone wild, and its underlying logic – the Curriculum of the West.
I do not know if we should call this is a foot race, a tractor-pull, or a Formula One Grand-Prix event. But what I do know is that this race to the end of the world – the one fixated on profits, progress, and predomination – is coldly, callously, and ravenously taking down every ecological niche, all biodiversity, and every alternative culture in its path. One of the more recent tragedies of this race is a small indigenous tribe occupying a humble but lush piece of rain forest along the banks of the Tabasara River in Panama – the Ngabe tribe. Glenn Elis, a filmmaker for Al Jazeera news, tells the story of this Central American people trying to save a small parcel of pristine nature, their home, in the face of new dam construction and a hydroelectric project that will serve principally to enrich wealthy Panamanian politicians and industrialists.
Here the Ngabe have carved out a little piece of paradise for themselves, and I saw at once why they are fighting so hard to protect it. There is an open air school where children are taught in the Ngabe language, which is vital if their unique culture is to survive. And I enjoyed a continuous stream of hospitality as we talked into the early hours under a night sky unblemished by light pollution.
The following morning Ricardo[my host] gave us a guided tour of the village, explaining the close bond between his people and nature. I was taken a short distance to the riverbank where a little girl showed us a colony of Tabasara Rain Frogs, one of the rarest species in the world, which are found nowhere else on the planet. If the government has its way, all this will be flooded and the frogs will disappear.
Yet a few miles downstream from Kia, the massive construction site of Barro Blanco [dam and hydroelectric facilities] is an ugly blot on the landscape. As the enormous dam takes shape, armed guards patrol the perimeter to keep the villagers away. When the dam is complete the village of Kia will be lost.
From Kia I travelled northwest to visit Ngabe villagers who had already lost their community. They had been made homeless by another hydroelectric project last year, when the mighty Changuinola River was dammed. Here I met Carolina. Her house had been built on higher ground than those of her neighbours in the village of Guiyaboa, but it was still not high enough. The village now lies deep underwater and all that can be seen is the roof of Carolina’s house, jutting out of the water like some incongruous monument. She told me that she and countless others had received no compensation for loss of their land, crops or housing.
I traveled on through Chiriqui province, the scene of the crackdown, and met and interviewed survivors and the relatives of those who had been killed by the police. I found it hard to understand why they had died. All the Ngabe had been asking for was an opportunity to talk to the government – a concession that the authorities had to make in the end anyway. It is not surprising that, away from the glitzy skyscrapers of the capital, a terrible sense of injustice and resentment is simmering below the surface.
Back in Panama City, Jorge Ricardo Fabrega, the country’s powerful minister of government, agreed to meet me and explain the government’s side. He admitted that things could have been handled better at Changuinola, but insisted that during the recent crackdowns the police had behaved very professionally. He was keen to underline the importance of hydroelectric energy for Panama’s booming economy and then stated categorically that nothing would be allowed to stop the Barro Blanco project going ahead.
“There’s one thing that I have to make clear,” he said. “We’re not going to cancel Barro Blanco. The Barro Blanco project is under construction and it will continue.” As I listened I thought of Ricardo and the other villagers whose future was being decided by the minister and his friends.
By now news had got around that a filmmaker from Al Jazeera was in the country and someone discreetly passed me a lengthy document detailing the government’s future hydroelectric plans. It was an eye-opener. The sheer number of the projects is startling; if they all go ahead they will surely produce far more electricity than Panama will ever need, no matter how dynamic or fast growing its economy. Which begs the obvious question: What will they do with all this power?
Alongside each project listed were the names of the company directors involved – a roll call of Panama’s wealthiest families. It was not difficult to put two and two together. Electricity is a commodity like anything else and if there is spare capacity it can be sold to energy-hungry consumers in neighbouring countries. Someone, it seemed, was going to get very rich. Unsurprisingly, that document has never been made public.1
Such stories are not new, but they seem to surface now with far greater frequency, as indigenous tribes or villages that have already been pushed to their limits desperately struggle for survival. Certainly, there have been centuries, even millennia of invasion, exploitation, and destruction of indigenous lands and peoples throughout the world. From Australia and New Guinea to Siberia, Africa, and the Americas, the heedless and blood-filled march of this warped civilization (even in its pre-industrial phase) has picked up its pace as essential natural resources continue to be depleted or poisoned. Yet, it is not only indigenous human communities that have suffered at the hands of colonizers, contractors, capitalists, and captains of industry alike; it is the sensitive ecosystems and biodiversity of the planet that suffers as well, impacting all life on earth. The bioregions which are home to native Americans, Australian aborigines, New Guinea Highlanders, and tribal peoples around the globe have experienced the heavy hand of our civilized and civilizing armies, our rapacious entrepreneurial businessmen, as well as other merchants of death, including our own imperialist settlers. Yet, we dare to call those indigenous populations the barbarians.
Look at the Khanty people of the northern Siberian taiga located in the Khanty-Mansi Autonomous District of the Russian Federation. Originally persecuted under Stalin’s regime during the nineteen-thirties, this nomadic people’s very survival was again threatened in the earlier part of this century by large Russian corporations like LukOil, backed-up by federal legislative mandates. Oil exploitation on Khanty land subsequently polluted their forests and lakes, killed the reindeer herds and scared off other local game. The Khanty were forced to relocate to ‘National Villages,’ away from their sacred ancestral hunting grounds, becoming dependent upon the Federal administration and the very companies that exploited them. Not unlike the forced dislocations of Stalin’s regime. Yet, in fact, we have to look no further than what our settlers, governments, and armies did to the American Indian populations over the course of five hundred years.
Stories like these are repeated from the Ecuadorian rain forests to the Niger Delta, from tribal villages in West Papua, New Guinea, to the Dongria Kondh of Eastern India, and the Yanomami of Brazil.
This is happening in Russia, Canada, the Philippines, Cambodia, Mongolia, Nigeria, the Amazon, all over Latin America, Papua New Guinea and Africa. It is global… A battle is taking place for natural resources everywhere. Much of the world’s natural capital – oil, gas, timber, minerals – lies on or beneath lands occupied by indigenous people,” says Tauli-Corpus. 2
It is an all-out war for resources, and in large measure, nations and oligarchs are taking aim at lands still occupied by indigenous tribes that have already been pushed to the margins. This is exemplified, closer to home, in the Koch (brothers) Industries’ theft of oil on Native American lands in the 1980’s and 90’s, where we may see the uglier complexion of this rapacious beast. And such activities are only accelerating globally. We understand, of course, that such acceleration is a direct response to the rapid depletion of essential resources (e.g., oil, water, land) brought on by this culture’s unrelenting march of destruction, consumption and exploitation – a march only supercharged by industrialization and capitalism, the shining stars of the Western Curriculum.
The saddest part of this forced extinction event is that these very peoples — tribes whose ancestors survived over so many centuries and millennia — would still stand the greatest chance of survival after our civilization collapses, if we only allowed them the breathing space to live now. But, our political and business leaders are seeing to it that nothing living survives the unfolding holocaust as they themselves flail about recklessly in a rapidly vanishing environment — and most especially, not the natives.