Thursday, September 29, 2011

519. The Not So-Green Mountains

Lowell Mountains

By Steve E. Wright, The New York Times, September 29, 2011
BULLDOZERS arrived a couple of weeks ago at the base of the nearby Lowell Mountains and began clawing their way through the forest to the ridgeline, where Green Mountain Power plans to erect 21 wind turbines, each rising to 459 feet from the ground to the tip of the blades.
This desecration, in the name of “green” energy, is taking place in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom on one of the largest tracts of private wild land in the state. Here and in other places — in Maine and off Cape Cod, for instance — the allure of wind power threatens to destroy environmentally sensitive landscapes.
Erecting those turbines along more than three miles of ridgeline requires building roads — with segments of the ridgeline road itself nearly half as wide as one of Vermont’s interstate highways — in places where the travel lanes are now made by bear, moose, bobcat and deer.
It requires changing the profile of the ridgeline to provide access to cranes and service vehicles. This is being accomplished with approximately 700,000 pounds of explosives that will reduce parts of the mountaintops to rubble that will be used to build the access roads.
It also requires the clear-cutting on steep slopes of 134 acres of healthy forest, now ablaze in autumn colors. Studies have shown that clear-cutting can lead to an increase in erosion to high-quality headwater streams, robbing them of life and fouling the water for downstream residents, wild and human.
The electricity generated by this project will not appreciably reduce Vermont’s greenhouse gas emissions. Only 4 percent of those emissions now result from electricity generation. (Nearly half come from cars and trucks, and another third from the burning of heating oil.)
Wind doesn’t blow all the time, or at an optimum speed, so the actual output of the turbines — the “capacity factor” — is closer to about one-third of the rated capacity of 63 megawatts. At best, this project will produce enough electricity to power about 24,000 homes per year, according to the utility.
Still, wind does blow across Vermont’s ridgelines. The Vermont Public Interest Research Group, for instance, has suggested that wind power could provide as much as 25 percent of the state’s electricity needs, which would require turbines on 29 miles of ridgeline. Other wind advocates, notably David Blittersdorf, the chief executive of a wind and solar power company in Williston, Vt., has urged that wind turbines be placed along 200 miles of ridgeline in the state.
But it is those same Green Mountain ridgelines that attracted nearly 14 million visitors to Vermont in 2009, generating $1.4 billion in tourism spending. The mountains are integral to our identity as the Green Mountain State, and provide us with clean air and water and healthy wildlife populations.
Vermont’s proud history of leadership in developing innovative, effective environmental protection is being tossed aside. This project will set an ominous precedent by ripping apart a healthy, intact ecosystem in the guise of doing something about climate change. In return, Green Mountain Power will receive $44 million in federal production tax credits over 10 years.
Ironically, most of the state’s environmental groups have not taken a stand on this ecologically disastrous project. Apparently, they are unwilling to stand in the way of “green” energy development, no matter how much destruction it wreaks upon Vermont’s core asset: the landscape that has made us who we are.
The pursuit of large-scale, ridgeline wind power in Vermont represents a terrible error of vision and planning and a misunderstanding of what a responsible society must do to slow the warming of our planet. It also represents a profound failure to understand the value of our landscape to our souls and our economic future in Vermont.
Steve E. Wright, an aquatic biologist, is a former commissioner of the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

518. As Scorn for Vote Grows, Protests Surge Around Globe

Greek anti-austerity protest

By Nicholas Kulish, The New York Times, September 27, 2011

MADRID — Hundreds of thousands of disillusioned Indians cheer a rural activist on a hunger strike. Israel reels before the largest street demonstrations in its history. Enraged young people in Spain and Greece take over public squares across their countries.

Their complaints range from corruption to lack of affordable housing and joblessness, common grievances the world over. But from South Asia to the heartland of Europe and now even to Wall Street, these protesters share something else: wariness, even contempt, toward traditional politicians and the democratic political process they preside over.
They are taking to the streets, in part, because they have little faith in the ballot box.
“Our parents are grateful because they’re voting,” said Marta Solanas, 27, referring to older Spaniards’ decades spent under the Franco dictatorship. “We’re the first generation to say that voting is worthless.”
Economics have been one driving force, with growing income inequality, high unemployment and recession-driven cuts in social spending breeding widespread malaise. Alienation runs especially deep in Europe, with boycotts and strikes that, in London and Athens, erupted into violence.
But even in India and Israel, where growth remains robust, protesters say they so distrust their country’s political class and its pandering to established interest groups that they feel only an assault on the system itself can bring about real change.
Young Israeli organizers repeatedly turned out gigantic crowds insisting that their political leaders, regardless of party, had been so thoroughly captured by security concerns, ultra-Orthodox groups and other special interests that they could no longer respond to the country’s middle class.
In the world’s largest democracy, Anna Hazare, an activist, starved himself publicly for 12 days until the Indian Parliament capitulated to some of his central demands on a proposed anticorruption measure to hold public officials accountable. “We elect the people’s representatives so they can solve our problems,” said Sarita Singh, 25, among the thousands who gathered each day at Ramlila Maidan, where monsoon rains turned the grounds to mud but protesters waved Indian flags and sang patriotic songs.
“But that is not actually happening. Corruption is ruling our country.”
Increasingly, citizens of all ages, but particularly the young, are rejecting conventional structures like parties and trade unions in favor of a less hierarchical, more participatory system modeled in many ways on the culture of the Web.
In that sense, the protest movements in democracies are not altogether unlike those that have rocked authoritarian governments this year, toppling longtime leaders in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. Protesters have created their own political space online that is chilly, sometimes openly hostile, toward traditional institutions of the elite.
The critical mass of wiki and mapping tools, video and social networking sites, the communal news wire of Twitter and the ease of donations afforded by sites like PayPal makes coalitions of like-minded individuals instantly viable.
“You’re looking at a generation of 20- and 30-year-olds who are used to self-organizing,” said Yochai Benkler, a director of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University. “They believe life can be more participatory, more decentralized, less dependent on the traditional models of organization, either in the state or the big company. Those were the dominant ways of doing things in the industrial economy, and they aren’t anymore.”
Yonatan Levi, 26, called the tent cities that sprang up in Israel “a beautiful anarchy.” There were leaderless discussion circles like Internet chat rooms, governed, he said, by “emoticon” hand gestures like crossed forearms to signal disagreement with the latest speaker, hands held up and wiggling in the air for agreement — the same hand signs used in public assemblies in Spain. There were free lessons and food, based on the Internet conviction that everything should be available without charge.
Someone had to step in, Mr. Levi said, because “the political system has abandoned its citizens.”
The rising disillusionment comes 20 years after what was celebrated as democratic capitalism’s final victory over communism and dictatorship.
In the wake of the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991, a consensus emerged that liberal economics combined with democratic institutions represented the only path forward. That consensus, championed by scholars like Francis Fukuyama in his book “The End of History and the Last Man,” has been shaken if not broken by a seemingly endless succession of crises — the Asian financial collapse of 1997, the Internet bubble that burst in 2000, the subprime crisis of 2007-8 and the continuing European and American debt crisis — and the seeming inability of policy makers to deal with them or cushion their people from the shocks.
Frustrated voters are not agitating for a dictator to take over. But they say they do not know where to turn at a time when political choices of the cold war era seem hollow. “Even when capitalism fell into its worst crisis since the 1920s there was no viable alternative vision,” said the British left-wing author Owen Jones.

Protests in Britain exploded into lawlessness last month. Rampaging youths smashed store windows and set fires in London and beyond, using communication systems like BlackBerry Messenger to evade the police. They had savvy and technology, Mr. Jones said, but lacked a belief that the political system
“The young people who took part in the riots didn’t feel they had a future to risk,” he said.
In Spain, walloped by the developed world’s highest official rate of unemployment, at 21 percent, many have lost the confidence that politicians of any party can find a solution. Their demands are vague, but their cry for help is plaintive and determined. Known as indignados or the outraged, they block traffic, occupy squares and gather for teach-ins.
Ms. Solanas, an unemployed online journalist, was part of the core group of protesters who in May occupied the Puerta del Sol, a public square in Madrid, the capital, touching off a nationwide protest. That night she and some friends started the Twitter account @acampadasol, or “Camp Sol,” which now has nearly 70,000 followers.
While the Spanish and Israeli demonstrations were peaceful, critics have raised concerns over the urge to bypass representative institutions. In India, Mr. Hazare’s crusade to “fast unto death” unless Parliament enacted his anticorruption law struck some supporters as self-sacrifice. Many opponents viewed his tactics as undemocratic blackmail.
Hundreds of thousands of people turned out last month in New Delhi to vent a visceral outrage at the state of Indian politics. One banner read, “If your blood is not boiling now, then your blood is not blood!” The campaign by Mr. Hazare, 74, was intended to force Parliament to consider his anticorruption legislation instead of a weaker alternative put forth by the government.
Parliament unanimously passed a resolution endorsing central pieces of his proposal, and lawmakers are expected to approve an anticorruption measure in the next session. Mr. Hazare’s anticorruption campaign tapped a deep chord with the public precisely because he was not a politician. Many voters feel that Indian democracy, and in particular the major parties, the Congress Party and the Bharatiya Janata Party, have become unresponsive and captive to interest groups. For almost a year, India’s news media and government auditors have exposed tawdry government scandals involving billions of dollars in graft.
Many of the protesters following the man in the white Gandhian cap known as a topi were young and middle class, fashionably dressed and carrying the newest smartphones. Ms. Singh was born in a village and is attending a university in New Delhi. Yet she is anxious about her future and wants to know why her parents go days without power. “We don’t get electricity for 18 hours a day,” she said. “This is corruption. Electricity is our basic need. Where is the money going?”
Responding to shifts in voter needs is supposed to be democracy’s strength. These emerging movements, like many in the past, could end up being absorbed by traditional political parties, just as the Republican Party in the United States is seeking to benefit from the anti-establishment sentiment of Tea Party loyalists. Yet purists involved in many of the movements say they intend to avoid the old political channels.
The political left, which might seem the natural destination for the nascent movements now emerging around the globe, is compromised in the eyes of activists by the neoliberal centrism of Bill Clinton and Tony Blair. The old left remains wedded to trade unions even as they represent a smaller and smaller share of the work force. More recently, center-left participation in bailouts for financial institutions alienated former supporters who say the money should have gone to people instead of banks.
The entrenched political players of the post-cold-war old guard are struggling. In Japan, six prime ministers have stepped down in five years, as political paralysis deepens. The two major parties in Germany, the Christian Democrats and the Social Democrats, have seen tremendous declines in membership as the Greens have made major gains, while Chancellor Angela Merkel has watched her authority erode over unpopular bailouts.
In many European countries the disappointment is twofold: in heavily indebted federal governments pulling back from social spending and in a European Union viewed as distant and undemocratic. Europeans leaders have dictated harsh austerity measures in the name of stability for the euro, the region’s common currency, rubber-stamped by captive and corrupt national politicians, protesters say.
“The biggest crisis is a crisis of legitimacy,” Ms. Solanas said. “We don’t think they are doing anything for us.”
Unlike struggling Europe, Israel’s economy is a story of unusual success. It has grown from a sluggish state-dominated system to a market-driven high-tech powerhouse. But with wealth has come inequality. The protest organizers say the same small class of people who profited from government privatizations also dominates the major political parties. The rest of the country has bowed out of politics.
Mr. Levi, born on Degania, Israel’s first kibbutz, said the protests were not acts of anger but of reclamation, of a society hijacked by a class known in Hebrew as “hon veshilton,” meaning a nexus of money and politics. The rise of market forces produced a sense of public disengagement, he said, a feeling that the job of a citizen was limited to occasional trips to the polling places to vote.
“The political system has abandoned its citizens,” Mr. Levi said. “We have lost a sense of responsibility for one another.”

517. Richard Dawkins: Evolutionary Biologist

Richard Dawkins

By Michael Powell, The New York Times, September 19, 2011

OXFORD, England —You walk out of a soft-falling rain into the living room of an Oxford don, with great walls of books, handsome art and, on the far side of the room, graceful windows onto a luxuriant garden.

Does this man, arguably the world’s most influential evolutionary biologist, spend most of his time here or in the field? Prof. Richard Dawkins smiles faintly. He did not find fame spending dusty days picking at shale in search of ancient trilobites. Nor has he traipsed the African bush charting the sex life of wildebeests.

He gets little charge from such exertions.
“My interest in biology was pretty much always on the philosophical side,” he says, listing the essential questions that drive him. “Why do we exist, why are we here, what is it all about?”
It is in no fashion to diminish Professor Dawkins, a youthful 70, to say that his greatest accomplishment has come as a profoundly original thinker, synthesizer and writer. His epiphanies follow on the heels of long sessions of reading and thought, and a bit of procrastination. He is an elegant stylist with a taste for metaphor. And he has a knack, a predisposition even, for assailing orthodoxy.
In his landmark 1976 book, “The Selfish Gene,” he looked at evolution through a novel lens: that of a gene. With this, he built on the work of fellow scientists and flipped the prevailing view of evolution and natural selection on its head.
He has written a string of best sellers, many detailing his view of evolution as progressing toward greater complexity. (His first children’s book, “The Magic of Reality,” appears this fall.) With an intellectual pugilist’s taste for the right cross, he rarely sidesteps debate, least of all with his fellow evolutionary biologists.
Although he is a political liberal, he has taken on more than a few leftists in his writings — particularly those who read his theory of genes as sanctioning rapacious and selfish behavior.
Of late he has taken up the cudgel for atheism, writing “The God Delusion,” an international best seller. When Martin Rees, Britain’s astronomer royal, recently accepted a prize from the John Templeton Foundation, which promotes a dialogue between science and religion, Professor Dawkins was unforgiving. Dr. Rees, he wrote, is a “compliant quisling,” a traitor to science. Dr. Rees declined to counterpunch.
Professor Dawkins often declines to talk in San Francisco and New York; these cities are too gloriously godless, as far as he is concerned. “As an atheistic lecturer, you are rather wasting your time,” he says. He prefers the Bible Belt, where controversy is raw.
He insists he frets before each lecture. This is difficult to imagine. He is characteristically English in his fluid command of words written and spoken. (Perhaps this is an evolutionary adaptation — all those cold, clammy English days firing an adjectival and syntactical genius?)
He is gracious without being gregarious. Ask him to explore an idea and he’ll rummage happily. But he keeps the door to his private life firmly latched.
(Briefly, he has a daughter, who is a doctor. He is married for the third time, to the actress Lalla Ward. He is on friendly enough terms with his first wife, the zoologist Marian Stamp Dawkins, that she wrote an essay for a 2006 book celebrating her former husband’s lifetime of accomplishment.)
African Roots
Clinton Richard Dawkins was born in Kenya, where his father was an agricultural specialist with the colonial service. He later returned with his parents to England and in due course arrived at Oxford, an intelligent enough boy. “I didn’t have a very starry school career,” he says. “I was medium to above average, nothing special.”
He lighted his own intellectual fire at a university peculiarly suited to his temperament. Oxford relies on the tutorial system, in which students burrow into original texts rather than textbooks.
“I loved it; I become easily temporarily obsessed,” Professor Dawkins says. “I did not end up as broadly educated as my Cambridge colleagues, but I graduated probably better equipped to write a book on my chosen subject.”

(From that experience he drew a dislike of the current establishment insistence — bordering on mania — for standardized tests and curriculums. He views this as antithetical to true learning.)


Dr. Dawkins, standing at right in a family photo from 1958, before he entered Oxford. "I didn't have a very starry school career," he says.\

After graduating in 1962, he studied with Nikolaas Tinbergen, a Nobel-winning scientist, and taught at the University of California, Berkeley. He returned to Oxford in 1971. He was working out his thoughts on sociobiology, which took form a few years later in “The Selfish Gene.”

At the time, the predominant popular view of evolution was that animals and insects worked together, albeit unconsciously, and that natural selection acted on individuals to do what was good for their species. Cooperation, again unconscious, seemed woven into nature.
Professor Dawkins’s voice slides playfully into High David Attenborough style as he mimics the mellifluous tone of BBC documentaries of the time: “The dung beetle is the refuse collector of the natural system, and where would we be without them? And male deer fight but take care not to kill each other.”
He stops. “That sort of thinking was pretty dominant in the culture.” Artful pause. “And it’s plain wrong. I wanted to correct that ubiquitous misunderstanding.”
Genes, he says, try to maximize their chance of survival. The successful ones crawl down through the generations. The losers, and their hosts, die off. A gene for helping the group could not persist if it endangered the survival of the individual.
Such insights were in the intellectual air by the mid-1960s. But Professor Dawkins grasped the power of metaphor — that selfish gene — and so made the idea come alive. Andrew Read, a professor of natural history at Penn State, recalls reading “The Selfish Gene” and feeling his world change.
“Gone in a stroke was the intellectually barren ‘it just is’ hypothesis,” he wrote in an essay. “ ‘The Selfish Gene’ crystallized it and made it impossible to ignore.”
Not everyone bought the argument. The moral implications proved deeply troubling, suggesting that altruism disguised selfish, gene-driven behavior. “Many readers experienced the book as a psychic trauma,” wrote Dr. Randolph Nesse, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Michigan. “It turned their moral worlds upside down.”
Prominent scientists and intellectuals cast Professor Dawkins as the herald angel of a selfish culture, accusing him and his fellow sociobiologists of setting the cultural stage for the “I got mine” age of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. The evolutionary biologist Richard Lewontin, a man of the political left, painted a picture out of a George Orwell novel. “If biological determinism is a weapon in the struggle between classes,” he wrote with two other scientists, “then the universities are weapons factories, and their teaching and research faculties are the engineers, designers.”
To Professor Dawkins, this badly distorted his science and his political leanings, which are resolutely liberal. (He opposed the Vietnam and Iraq wars, admires President Obama and votes most often with Labor. More recently, he voted for the Liberal Party in his district, as he admired the fact that the member of Parliament was insistently secular. The member lost in 2010, to an evangelical Conservative.) He was writing about the behavior of genes, not about psychological and emotional states.
Our glory as a species is that we can overcome our genetic impulses, he says, acknowledging that the book’s title “perhaps lent itself to misunderstanding.”
“It’s not the selfish individual, and certainly not the selfish species,” he says. “My book could have just as easily been called ‘The Altruistic Individual.’ ”
But true to himself, he does not stop at this concession. “What would our critics have had us do, falsify the algebra?” he asks, and says of the criticism, “It was irritatingly stupid, actually.”
Progressive Evolution?
Professor Dawkins’s great intellectual conviction is that evolution is progressive, and tends to lead to more and more complexity. Species, in his view, often arrive at similar solutions to evolutionary puzzles — the need for ears, eyes, arms or an octopus’s tentacle. And, often although not invariably, bigger brains. So the saber-toothed tiger shows up as a cat in Europe and Asia, and as a marsupial in South America. Different species seized on the same carnivorous solution. (He most certainly does not, however, view evolution as progressing toward us, that is humans — were we to disappear, some other species most likely would fill our evolutionary niche.)

“There are endless progressions in evolution,” he says. “When the ancestors of the cheetah first began pursuing the ancestors of the gazelle, neither of them could run as fast as they can today.

 “What you are looking at is the progressive evolutionary product of an arms race.”

So it would be no great surprise if the interior lives of animals turned out to be rather complex. Do dogs, for example, experience consciousness? Are they aware of themselves as autonomous animals in their surroundings?
“Consciousness has to be there, hasn’t it?” Professor Dawkins replies. “It’s an evolved, emergent quality of brains. It’s very likely that most mammals have consciousness, and probably birds, too.”
(He has embraced the Princeton University philosopher Peter Singer’s Great Ape Project, which would accord legal rights to apes, including a prohibition against torture.)
His theory of progressive evolution, it should be said, is controversial. Professor Dawkins had a single great rival in writing about evolutionary biology: Stephen Jay Gould of Harvard.
Professor Gould, who died in 2002, was adamant that evolution was contingent — that while a species might progress in leaps and bounds, it was equally likely that it might reach a dead end, or regress. If a meteorite hit Earth and destroyed all intelligent life, he argued, the chances are vanishingly small that complex, intelligent life would evolve again.
As the writer Scott Rosenberg put it, Professor Gould saw our species as “simply a tiny accident occurring on a minor side-branch of the evolutionary tree.”
The two evolutionary biologists had well-armored egos, their intellectual battles were spectacular, and they did not share laughs over pints afterward. Professor Dawkins acknowledged their prickly relationship in writing an appreciation of his rival, who died of cancer: “Gould and I did not tire the sun with talking and send him down in the sky.”
Professor Dawkins feels more than a tinge of regret that he and Professor Gould did not appreciate each other more.
“Gould wanted to downgrade the conceit that it all progressed towards us, towards humans, and I fully approved of that,” he says now, even as he makes sure to add, “But evolution most certainly is progressive.”
There is a final cosmic joke to be had here.
The two men quarreled about everything save their shared atheism. But Professor Dawkins’s closest intellectual ally on progressive evolution and convergence is Simon Conway Morris, the renowned Cambridge evolutionary paleontologist.
And Professor Morris, as it happens, is an Anglican and a fervent believer in a personal God. He sees convergence as hinting at a teleology, or intelligent architecture, in the universe.
Ask Professor Dawkins about his intellectual bedfellow, and his smile thins. “Yes, well, Simon and I have converged on the science,” he says. “I should think in the world there are not two evolutionary scientists who could rival each other in their enthusiasm for convergence.”
As to Professor Morris’s religious faith? “I just don’t get it.”
Impatience With Religion
Aren’t the theologian’s questions — Why are we here? Is there something larger than us? Why do we die? — central to the human project?
Professor Dawkins shakes his head before the question is out. His impatience with religion is palpable, almost wriggling alive inside him. Belief in the supernatural strikes him as incurious, which is perhaps the worst insult he can imagine.
“Religion teaches you to be satisfied with nonanswers,” he says. “It’s a sort of crime against childhood.”
And please spare him talk of spiritualism, as if that were the only way to meditate on the wonder of the universe. “If you look up at the Milky Way through the eyes of Carl Sagan, you get a feeling in your chest of something greater than yourself,” he says. “And it is. But it’s not supernatural.”
It is a measure of Britain’s more resolutely secular culture that Professor Dawkins can pursue his atheism and probing, provocative views of Islam and Christianity in several prime-time television documentaries. In one, he interviewed young women in a Muslim school that receives state funds.

“One said her ambition was to be a doctor. But she explicitly said if there is a contradiction between science and the Koran, then the Koran was right,” he says. “They were lovely girls, but utterly brainwashed.”

Critics grow impatient with Professor Dawkins’s atheism. They accuse him of avoiding the great theological debates that enrich religion and philosophy, and so simplifying the complex. He concocts “vulgar caricatures of religious faith that would make a first-year theology student wince,” wrote Terry Eagleton, regarded as one of Britain’s foremost literary critics. “What, one wonders, are Dawkins’s views on the epistemological differences between Aquinas and Duns Scotus?”

Put that charge to Professor Dawkins and he more or less pleads guilty. To suggest he study theology seems akin to suggesting he study fairies. Nor is he convinced that the ecumenical Anglican, the moderate imam, the Catholic priest with the well-developed sense of irony, is religion’s truest representative.
“I’ve had perfectly wonderful conversations with Anglican bishops, and I rather suspect if you asked in a candid moment, they’d say they don’t believe in the virgin birth,” he says. “But for every one of them, four others would tell a child she’ll rot in hell for doubting.”
That, he says, explains why he is writing a book for children. He wants to raise questions — Why is there a sun? What is an earthquake? What about rainbows? — and provide clever, rational answers. He has toyed with opening his own state-sponsored school, though under the British system he would have to come up with matching money.
But it would not be a school for atheists. The idea horrifies him. A child should skip down an idiosyncratic intellectual path. “I am almost pathologically afraid of indoctrinating children,” he says. “It would be a ‘Think for Yourself Academy.’ ”
Human Gods
After two hours of conversation, Professor Dawkins walks far afield. He talks of the possibility that we might co-evolve with computers, a silicon destiny. And he’s intrigued by the playful, even soul-stirring writings of Freeman Dyson, the theoretical physicist.
In one essay, Professor Dyson casts millions of speculative years into the future. Our galaxy is dying and humans have evolved into something like bolts of superpowerful intelligent and moral energy.
Doesn’t that description sound an awful lot like God?
“Certainly,” Professor Dawkins replies. “It’s highly plausible that in the universe there are God-like creatures.”
He raises his hand, just in case a reader thinks he’s gone around a religious bend. “It’s very important to understand that these Gods came into being by an explicable scientific progression of incremental evolution.”
Could they be immortal? The professor shrugs.
“Probably not.” He smiles and adds, “But I wouldn’t want to be too dogmatic about that.”

516. Bolivia: Conflict Deepens Over Disputed Highway

By Federico Fuentes, Green Left, September 27, 2011

Current road in TIPNIS. Photo: Stephane Pauquet, SERNAP
September 25 will go down as one of the darkest day in Bolivia since Evo Morales was elected as the country’s first indigenous president almost six years ago.
After more than 40 days of marching, police officers moved in to repress indigenous protesters opposed to the government’s proposed highway that would run through the Isiboro-Secure National Park and Indigenous Territory (TIPNIS).
The controversial highway has been opposed as well as supported by many of the indigenous and social organisations that make up the support base of the Morales government.
Differences over the project have resulted in tensions escalating between both sides during the past month and particularly in the days leading to the violence. Protesters were set to reach a town were locals were organising a blockade in protest against march demands they felt would negatively impact on them.
After the repression, Morales rejected accusations he was behind events he described as “an abuse committed against our indigenous brothers” and called for an international commission to investigate the incident.
During the police action, which lasted around half an hour, tear gas and rubber bullets sent indigenous marchers, including pregnant women and children, fleeing for safety.
Unconfirmed reports by the media committee of the marchers said one child was killed and that initially several protesters were missing.
A number of march leaders were briefly detained by police, while many more marchers were forced onto buses and sent back home.
Shock and anger at these events led to a wave of mourning and questioning as to how an indigenous-led government could carry out such actions against its own people.
The backdrop to this terrible event is the conflict that has been brewing over months regarding the proposed 306-kilometre highway that would link the departments of Beni and Cochabamba. Currently, the only alternative is the more than 800 kilometre trip that requires first traveling eastwards to the department of Santa Cruz.
Legitimate anger at the failure of the Bolivian government to carry out its obligation in consulting local communities within TIPNIS over the tract of the proposed highway that would cut through their territory, led locals to organise a march onto the capital, La Paz.
By August 15, the march had gained the support of the Confederation of the Indigenous Peoples of Bolivia (CIDOB), which unites the 34 indigenous peoples of Bolivia’s eastern lowlands, and important sections of the National Council of Ayllus and Markas of Qollasuyu, which groups together 16 rural indigenous organisations mainly based in the highlands to the west.
That same day, these organisations presented a list including 15 further demands on the government, with issues ranging from improving indigenous health and education to calls for halting gas exploitation in the Aguaragua National Park and the right of indigenous communities to directly receive funds from the Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD) program.
REDD is a grossly anti-environmental United Nations program that aims to privatise forests by converting them into “carbon offsets” that allow rich, developed countries to continue polluting.
REDD is also a policy that has been actively pushed by non-government organisations (NGOs) within Bolivia that receive funding from governments in Europe and the United States and have been supporting the march.
The march also garnered unexpected support from a range of right-wing organisations that have campaigned for years to bring down the Morales government. This includes right-wing parties within parliament and organisations such as the Santa Cruz Civic Committee, which spearheaded the September 2008 coup attempt against Morales.
As protesters began to make their way to La Paz, at least nine attempts at dialogue were made by the government to try and resolve the demands of the marchers.
Among the demands that were agreed to by the government, and noted in a document posted on the CIDOB website on September 19, was implementing “the process of consultation with the indigenous communities of TIPNIS involved with section II of the San Ignacio de Moxos — Villa Tunari Highway, as always in compliance with the [constitution], international norms and the participation of observers.”
The government however rejected the possibility of negotiating over the issue of REDD, a policy rejected by the government and participants at the Peoples Summit on Climate Change it hosted in Cochabamba in April 2010.
It also ruled out the possibility of shutting down gas exploitation in Aguaragua National Park as it represents 90% of Bolivia’s gas exports and is fundamental to its ability to fund social programs and industrialise the country’s underdeveloped economy.
Opposition to some of the protesters’ demands also came from other indigenous and campesino groups, such as Bolivia’s largest campesino organisation, the Sole Union Confederation of Bolivian Campesino Workers (CSUTCB).
All up, about 350 organisations have come out in support of the highway.
In Yucumo, a town near the La Paz-Beni border were the march was set to go through, the local affiliate of the “colonisers” union — a term used to refer to indigenous Aymara and Quechua campesinos who migrated to the lowlands in search of land to work — threatened to stop the march unless protesters withdrew five demands they believed would affect them directly.
These included the issue of gas exploitation, disputes over how land reform should proceed, and the protesters’ call to stop the building of two further highways, neither of which were to run through TIPNIS and which local colonisers had been demanding be built.
The tension in Yucumo was palpable, as recorded in one of the press statements issued by the protesters on September 18. In it, a journalist notes the hostile and violent reaction he received when he was surrounded by locals chanting, “the media is biased” and “your trying to make us look bad”.
They were also angered that an interviewer from the same radio as the journalist had referred to the blockaders as coca-growing supporters of Morales party, the Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) — something they denied and demanded he rectify.
With the march advancing on Yucumo, police stopped anti-highway protesters on September 20 in San Miguel de Chaparina, some eight kilometres away, impeding their advance for days in order to avoid confrontations.
Tensions were also visible elsewhere. Reporting on a pro-TIPNIS rally in La Paz, Dario Kenner wrote a September 24 entry on his blog Bolivia Diary that while support for the marchers was clearly visible “not everyone supports the indigenous march... and tensions are running very high”.
Referring to the break out of a fight between opposing forces, Kenner added: “The hostility between groups I witnessed yesterday gives an idea of the polarisation affecting Bolivia at the moment.”
Kenner observed it was evidence of “increasing divisions in the popular movement that mobilised since the Cochabamba Water War in 2000 as the TIPNIS conflict has provoked divisions between and within groups that marched together in the past such as: indigenous social movements, campesino social movements, trade unions, urban social movements, MAS supporters, Bolivian NGOs etc”.
After several days of protesters being held up in San Miguel de Chaparina, indigenous Foreign Minister David Choquehuanca returned for the second time for dialogue with them and Yucumo locals on September 24.
A key focus of discussion was to resolving the impasse between protesters and blockaders.
A September 24 article in La Razon reported on Choquehuanca’s meeting with community leaders in Yucumo. Among them was Rene Huasco, who restated his communities opposition to a number of the marchers demands, adding “it is necessary to bring both sides together in order to explain the points in their list of demands that affect us and find solutions.”
A September 25 article in Pagina Siete on the meeting with the marchers noted that among the options presented by Choquehuanca to calm tensions were continuing dialogue in Quiquibe, on the other side of Yucumo, between committees made up of marchers and blockaders or for the marchers to send a delegation directly to La Paz to dialogue with the government.
According to the same article, “indigenous leaders rejected dialogue with the colonisers” and reiterated their intention to march on La Paz.
Shortly after, as Choquehuanca was about to leave, he was held hostage along with vice-minister Cesar Navarro and police general Edwin Foronda by a group of marchers who proceeded to used them as human shields to break through the police blockade.
With three kilometres to go until reaching Yucumo, the government representatives were released and the march was stopped once again by police barricades.
Choquehuanca told Pagina Siete: “I have been obliged to walk together with the brothers and I have said, we should have resolved this in a different, more peaceful manner based on dialogue.
“We will see if I can help in talking with the intercultural brothers [in Yucumo] and hopefully the climate will not be so tense, so hostile such as when the polices lines were broken.”
Instead tensions rose, with organisations such as the CSUTCB threatening to march on Yucumo.
This was to be expected, as the day before, state news service ABI had reported comments by CSUTCB leader Rodolfo Machaca stating that his organisation had “declares itself in a state of alert and emergency in the face of the imminent politically-motivated mobilisation and convulsion that is being generated in the country ... we ask our indigenous brothers to sit down and dialogue”.
Another CSUTCB leader, Simeon Jaliri, noted its support for Choquehuana’s attempt to resolve the situation through dialogue. “Hopefully” nothing will happen to “our brother from the province of Omasuyos, of the Red Ponchos” he said, referring to the legendary militant Aymara grouping in the altiplano, one of the many that Choquehuanca continues to maintain close contact with.
Tensions however boiled over on the afternoon of September 25, when police moved in to break up the protest.
Reporting on the repression, an article published on Erbol that day said that at least 500 police officers participated in the action which left numerous protestors injured, with some reports saying that the number was as high as 40.
Reporting directly on the events, an Erbol journalist said “there is a lot of nervousness among the police and desperation within the marchers.”
Rodrigo Rodriguez from the National Service of Environmental News (SENA) was quoted in the same Erbol article as saying “all the marchers are being repressed, among them women and children who continue to cry, the police say that they are being transported to San Borja. They are also taking away cameras and are not allowing journalists to pass in order to capture images [of the events].”
There have also been some reports of clashes between police and blockaders in Yucumo in both state and private media outlets, though little information has been provided. La Prensa reported on September 26 that tear gas was also used there to clear the road.
Confusion and anger seemed to reign the following day, with La Prensa reporting a government minister as stating that the Public Ministry had issued the order for police to move in. However, the prosecutor in the ministry overseeing the investigation into the repression denied the claim in a separate La Prensa article.
Another La Prensa article reported comments by Minister for Communication Ivan Canelas as saying that the government has ordered an investigation as to whether excessive force had been used.
Pagina Siete reported that the general commander of the police Jorge Santiesteban had assured any police officer found to have used excessive force would be punished.
While Erbol reported that a vice-minister for mining had come out against the violence, the Minister of Defence Cecila Chacon issued a public letter of resignation.
She stated that “the measures implemented, far from isolating the right wing, strengthens it ability to act and carry out manipulation within the [march] with the aim of attacking the process of change that has cost the Bolivian people so much.

Finally, on the night of September 26, Morales rejected claims he had ordered the repression and requested that a commission be established involving international organisations, the ombudsman and human rights groups to investigate the violent acts, reported Erbol.
“We lament, we repudiate the excesses carried out against the indigenous march,” Morales said. “I do not agree with (this police action), nor with violence, it was excessive, an abuse committed against our indigenous brothers who were marching.”
He added people to consider “what would have happened if this march passed through and encountered the blockade in Yucumo”.
Morales also announced the suspension of section II of the Villa Tunari — San Ignacio de Moxos highway, and called for a national debate on the issue.
This debate, said Morales, would have to be carried out specifically among the people of Beni and Cochabamba in order for the competing groups to be able to resolve this dispute.
Earlier that day in a visit to some of the communities within TIPNIS that support the highway, Morales also spoke of a referendum on the question involving the population of both departments, though little more detail was given.
Angered by the events of the previous day, at least 5000 people march in La Paz in what Fobomade, a NGO that has been supporting the protest, described in a September 26 article on Bolpress as the biggest mobilisation registered to date in solidarity with the march
Furthermore, on September 26 the vice-president of the mobilisation committee of the march was quoted in La Razon as saying that once they had recuperated their strength and decided their next steps, the march would restart.
Meanwhile, leaders from a group of MAS dissidents who recently left the government called for the struggle for TIPNIS to be convert into a struggle “for our democracy”, as former vice-minister Alejandro Almarez put it.
Another former vice-minister, Raul Prada, wrote that the actions had proven the Morales government to be an “anti-indigenous tyranny” that has “lost all legitimacy”.
Juan del Granado from the Movement of the Fearless, which was previously in an alliance with Morales, was quoted in La Prensa on September 26 as calling the actions “clearly dictatorial.”
At the same time, spokespeople for the Federation of Campesino Workers of La Paz, FSUTCTKLP, insisted on the need for dialogue between indigenous brothers and sisters in order to avoid violence.
Along with calling on CIDOB to once again sit down to negotiate, the government continued on Monday its dialogue with the Assembly of the Guarani People (APG).
The APG had initially participated in the march but requested on September 2 that the government hold direct dialogue talks with them after they decided to abandon the march.
It is too early to tell what will happen next.
The first test will be on Wednesday September 28, the date for which the Bolivian Workers Central (COB) has called a nation-wide general strike. While the COB’s own ability to mobilise is quite debilitated, the protest could become a convergence point for those opposed to the recent actions by the government.