The Photo of the Year

A Palestinian boy from Gaza flinches as other boys scare him with toy guns. Compare the level of media attention given to the assault on Gaza by the Israeli army to that of the repression of the movement in Iran.

See the whole collection here. As with the Boston Globe year in photos, a lot of natural disasters and low-attention conflicts as well as attention to indigenous peoples.

Social Stigmas That Kill

Burned alive in Kenya:

This is horrifying, of course, but it is even more so to see how casually people who have participated in these lynchings behave afterward and how just a touch of rationality could put a stop to this:

I have already mentioned how these cases seem to increase as the economic situation deteriorates and people see their conditions degrade and experience even more uncertainties than before. In such conditions, it is not uncommon for scapegoating mechanisms to emerge and for the population to turn against a specific category of people who have no way of avoiding their being stigmatized and targeted, in this case, the elderly targeted by the youth.

Lest we think these things are limited to Kenya (or Tanzania in the case of stigmatized Albinos), case number two: poisoned in Kosovo.

Violence against Roma is not limited to Kosovo… not even to Eastern Europe:

Stereotypes abound about the Roma and here again, economic deterioration makes them an even easier target for violence and institutional discrimination.

In both cases, there is no way the targeted population can disprove the accusations against them. How does one prove a negative ("I am not a witch")? Or how does one prove that one has the right "soul"?

There are always anecdotes available in public discourse that support the stereotype (along with "personal knowledge" stories taken as sufficient evidence). And confirmation bias is commonly used: any information that reinforces the stereotype is easily believed without questions whereas information or data that does not support it is treated with suspicion and questioned. And if that is not possible (the information is factual), then, the new information only proves that there are a few exceptions ("they’re not all bad") but that these do not invalidate the rule.

One argument often invoked to justify racism attitudes and behaviors is that the target (as representative of a whole category and proxy for it) must have done something to the racist perpetrator(s). There is something about the Roma that predisposes them to be victims of violence. This conveniently turns the table and blames the victims for their own victimization.

Research, however, has shown that prejudice and discrimination against one category of people is usually accompanied by prejudice against other categories (racism, sexism and homophobia often go hand in hand). So, unsurprisingly, once the Roma were gone, more violence followed against other categories:

Book Review – King Leopold’s Ghost

KLG Adam Hochschild’s King Leopold’s Ghost – A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa seemed an appropriate book to bring with me to Africa. I don’t know why I hadn’t read it yet since issues of colonialism, neo-colonialism and slavery are never far from my thoughts.

Anyway, I am glad I did read the book. It is indeed a great read and a page turner. It is also a book of horrors: the horrors inflicted upon the Congo by the rule of Leopold, King of the Belgians in the late 19th Century, early 20th Century, out of greed. It is not a surprise that Joseph Conrad wrote his Heart of Darkness about the colonial Congo and modeled his Mr Kurtz based on real agents from the Leopold regime there.

The Congo never seems to make headlines even though it is a tormented country and it is a prime example of what Virgil Hawkins describes as stealth conflicts: conflicts with high death tolls and long-term nasty consequences, but largely ignored by the media. Here is a short introduction on the concept:

Similarly, the horrors of the Congo were by and large ignored in their time, until pioneers in the human rights movement made it impossible to ignore, but to this day, they are still largely forgotten. It is to Hochschild’s credit to have dug up the details of the untold story of King Leopold’s empire of horrors.

It is a kind of detective work that Hochschild engages in as he pieces together the truth about the Congo through a variety of sources (unfortunately, only a few sources reveal the voices of the victims of the regime, the Congolese, of course), and in spite of Leopold’s attempt to destroy the records of his rule in the Congo (in those days, embarrassing documents were burned, not shredded).

What this all boils down to is this: King Leopold (a relatively toothless constitutional monarch) got himself a colony over which he ruled without parliamentary oversight. His goal was not just to match the reach and influence of other colonial powers (and be part of the scramble for Africa) but also to enrich himself personally through the plundering of Congolese ivory and rubber. And of course, how does one lower one’s labor costs? Through forced labor, of course (all in the name of teaching the savages the value of work!).

It is this forced labor component, accompanied by the institutionalization and rationalization of racism, that opened the door to massive and violent exploitation that ultimately killed half the population of the Congo, either through direct elimination, starvation, overwork, disease (which spread more easily when a population is overwhelmingly malnourished and worked like beasts of burden), and a declining birth rate.

It is not like the natives did not resist. Resist they did indeed. Leopold’s rule was constantly challenged by rebellions that were incredibly violently put down through mass killings. The main tool of "order" in the Congo, was the brutal Force Publique that would burn villages to the ground if men refused to work to harvest wild rubber (a grueling work), take women and children hostage until chiefs gave in. And then, private companies had their own militarized forces that tortured and mutilated the natives in the name of discipline and productivity.

It is the productive nature of these atrocities that will ultimately be the downfall of Leopold’s rule as a young clerk for the main shipping company between Belgium and the Congo starts to notice what comes off the ship arriving at Antwerp (rubber and other goods) and what gets exported to the Congo (weapons, mostly) and realizes what is going on there.

The second half of the book is mostly dedicated to the heroes of what became a strong precursor of the human rights movement: E. D Morel and Roger Casement as well as George Washington Williams and William Sheppard . All these men worked tirelessly to expose the atrocities of the Congo and force change. In that last respect, they were not really successful but they did force Leopold (who had managed to fool the world into thinking him a great humanitarian) to divest himself from the Congo.

Because the book is not just a depersonalized account of the regime, but also a story of characters, it reads almost like a novel. We encounter famous characters: in addition to Leopold himself (and his miserable family life), Henry Morton Stanley, but also Joseph Conrad and a few others. Many of the actors involved in the regime in the Congo such as a variety of managers and districts heads appointed by Leopold. Through their correspondence or diaries, we see the banal dehumanization of the Congolese, the ease with which they tortured, exploited, humiliated and killed so many of them without much second thought.

At the same time, the book also makes clear that it is not free market capitalism and free trade (along with higher moral status) that sealed the West’s economic dominance but rather the plundering of the Global South that fueled industrialization and mass production (I would add that this plundering was made possible itself by the luck of the draw and "guns, germs and steel"). It seems that "free market", "free trade", etc. were as much ideological concepts (as opposed to reality) then as they are now. The type of unfairness may have changed (direct plunder is not as obvious now), but the rules of the WTO still guarantee that the Global South is still being exploited and disadvantaged in one form or another despite big talks of free trade.

In the last chapter of the book, Hochschild reflects on the face of the Congo. since the end of Leopold’s regime and the independence. This is a lesson on the long-term consequences of colonialism as well as the lingering influence of neo-colonial mechanisms. Without stating a clear cause and effect trajectory, Hochschild still asserts that Leopold certainly looks like a great role model for dictator Mobutu, all with the blessings of former colonial powers, once the CIA got rid of Patrice Lumumba.

Mobutu’s rule indeed looks a lot like a continuation of the plundering of the country, (then renamed Zaire) along with mistreatment of the population. Ultimately, misrule led to the Mobutu’s downfall and the persistent state of regional conflict at the center of which the now-named Democratic Republic of the Congo finds itself. Should we really be surprised that the social dislocation wreaked by Leopold’s rule has continued to plague the Congo to this day (with other factors, to be sure)? And that the Congo is still being plundered for its resources (not ivory or rubber anymore, but coltan and copper)? And that the world is still largely silent about it?

Dialectics of Contestation from The Periphery

André C. Drainville, "Resistance to Globalisation: The View From The Periphery of The World Economy", International Social Science Journal, 2009, 192, 235 – 246.

Using a world-system analytical perspective, André C. Drainville examines how the periphery articulated its global presence in contesting globalization. In the process, he reviews the different forms that contestation took at different modern time periods and the current spaces of struggle against neo-liberal globalization. To put it simply, these forms of contestation articulate the social presence of the periphery on the global scene and relation to the world order.

What is the world order that the periphery faces? According to Drainville,

"The core of the world economy is no longer just a country or a group of countries: there is also a transnational elsewhere, beyond the reach of all nationally organised societies. It is there that transnational capital made itself into a self-knowing political subject (Cox 1987; Sklair 2001; van der Pijl 1984), where it set up a nebulas of institutions (such as the International Monetary Fund [IMF] and the World Bank) to read and reproduce general conditions of accumulation, and where it attempts to assemble an apolitical global civil society to legitimate the new world order (Drainville 2004)." (235)

Which means, of course, that current globalization, far from eliminating social inequalities between areas of the world-system or from generating one world under cultural homogenization, has created a vastly differentiated space. Correspondingly, forms of contestation are equally differentiated. Drainville puts it better:

"Notwithstanding the transnationalisation of finance, the delocalisation of production or the cosmopolitan rhetoric of global governance, the world has not become an undifferentiated field of action." (236)

In typical world-system analytical fashion, Drainville then takes the perspective of longue duree to examine the modes of contestation of the periphery against the world order. The central thesis of the article is then:

"At the periphery of the world economy, in what Amory Starr and Jason Adams call the "global South" (Starr and Adams 2003, pp. 28 – 29), social forces have historically constituted themselves in their meeting with world order. What is new to the current phase of globalisation is that terrains of world significance are less authoritatively circumscribed then ever, and that the social forces involved in struggles are more varied and less isolated from one another than before, both on the terrain of the world economy and locally. As a result, what we may term ‘the dialectics of global presence‘ operates to greater effect than ever." (237)

Drainville distinguishes between three different historical periods with their respective mode of peripheral constestation.

From the second half of the 19th century until WWI, this era is structured by colonialism and imperialism. Contestation then took the form of everyday resistance from peasants and indigenous workers.

From the end of the colonial era until the crisis of the Bretton Woods order, this period is marked by the struggles for decolonization but also against the world ordering processes of the Bretton Woods institutions. Ultimately, the debt crisis and structural adjustment programs prevailed as peripheral authoritarian regimes failed.

From the end of the 1980s onward is the era of global governance, marked by a softening of global regulations and programmatic impositions on peripheral countries but for the same purpose, bring the global South more deeply into the world economy.

For Drainville, global governance means something more specific than just issuing global regulations or international air traffic:

"Global governance is the political face of the globalisation project at the periphery of the world economy. It has been accompanied by attacks on state corruption and violence, efforts to bypass state agencies and anchor regulation directly in civil society, and attempts to institute ‘low intensity democracy’". (238)

"Low intensity democracy" means that the economy is off-limit to state’s action through massive privatization, lower government spending, openness to foreign investment, deregulation and liberalization, firing of government employees, and overall reduction of state capacity down to its repressive functions (police and military). And the civil society here refers to the private sector, which include the economic private sector.

We already know that the social consequences of this process of pushing for low intensity democracy have been across the global South, and there lie the roots of contestation across the social structure:

"Nowadays resistance does not take place only in haciendas and plantations, it does not only have the colonial or neo-colonial state as its targets, and it is not a creation of specific groups with particular histories and trajectories. Rather, it involves a broad array of the dispossessed: those ‘without roof, without land, without work, without rights (Zibechi 2005, p.13), the impoverished middle classes, small and medium agricultural producers, indigenous peoples, unemployed professionals, public employees, women in the informal sector, small savers, retired people, "students, lecturers and nurses in Angola; public sector workers in Benin, farmers, electricity workers and teachers in Kenya; municipal workers in Morocco; health workers in Nigeria; community groups and organised labour in South Africa’, displaced farmers in Mexico, maquilla workers in Guatemala, garment workers in Bangladesh and peasant groups in Brazil and India (Bond 2003)." (238)

Based on such a diversity of forms of contestation, Drainville identifies three specific spaces of struggle in the global South where resistance to world-ordering processes are questioned:

  • Global Cities where the transnational capitalist class and the slum-dwellers coexist uneasily (see, IMF riots)
  • Export Processing Zones where workers, especially women are the manufacturing base of the world economy
  • Countryside where peasants and indigenous peoples are located fighting for self-determination and land reform

All three categories are engaged in struggles again neo-liberal globalization according to what Drainville calls the dialectics of global presence. The dialectics works in two stages:

"In the first stage of the dialectic, social forces ensconced in localities are brought out of their situated selves by the exigencies and opportunities of increasingly globalized struggles." (240)

Good examples of this are provided by the EZLN holding its global meeting at Aguas Calientes a few years back, or the women of the Niger Delta occupying a Chevron Texaco refinery. Local dynamics shape the structure of the global struggle. This is at this stage that local connections are linked with other groups globally, creating transnational networks involved in gathering information, or promoting organizational models or straightforward activism and advocacy. Local movements make global connections.

"At the second stage of the dialectic, what was created globally (the alliances made and networks formed, resources gathered, strategies and tactics learned) is brought to bear on localities." (241)

As an example, the EZLN uses its global connections to organize the defenses of localities in the Chiapas fighting for self-determination and autonomy.

But what is new about this dialectic?

"What is new in the current phase of globalisation is how relatively open and diverse peripheral terrains of world significance are, how struggles born there have found focus outside state-centred struggles and how pregnant is the sentiment of global propinquity that unites different movements. Never have such distinct social forces so rooted in local struggles taken place on the terrain of the world economy, never have they been as conscious of a common context of struggle and never has this context so informed and radicalised localised struggles. Never, in a word, has the dialectic of presence been activated to such effect." (243)

Indeed, the article is rich in examples and mentions that reflect the incredible diversity of peripheral global presence articulated according to the dialectic, and localized in the three main spaces of contention. These various movements are unified in their struggling to define their connection to the world order, but they do so in great diversity of modes of resistance.

So Many Good News… Count ‘Em

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Book Review – The Wild Girl

The Wild Girl Having read and deeply enjoyed Jim Fergus‘s One Thousand White Women, I decided to read his other novel, The Wild Girl: The Notebooks of Ned Giles, 1932. The structure of the book is very similar to OTWW: we follow the story through the eyes of the main character as he writes his observations in his notebooks. Here, we follow Ned Giles, a 17-year old Chicago native who, after his parents deaths decides to enlist as photographer in an expedition in Mexico to retrieve the son of a wealthy Mexican rancher abducted by the Bronco Apaches.

The whole story takes place within the context of the Great Depression and, as in OTWW, the expedition allows Fergus to introduce a variety of characters: the female anthropologist, the gay son of a wealthy family whose father thinks that the rugged life of the expedition will make a man out of him, his British butler, the seen-it-all drunkard newspaper photographer who mentors Ned in his job as photographer, Joseph and Albert Valor, the Apaches hired as scouts, as well as Billy Flowers, the religious fanatic, wildlife hunter, and many others.

The story actually starts when Billy Flowers’s dogs tree a wild Apache girl whose family has been slaughtered by Mexican ranchers. Not knowing what to do with her, he takes her to the town where the expedition is gathering and it is soon decided to try to exchange the girl for the abducted Mexican boy. In the process, Ned and the wild girl develop a bond… and then, some members of the expedition get captured by the Apaches… and I won’t spoil the rest.

As I said, the narrative structure is very similar to OTWW and so does the progression of the story. Although it is a page turner and I could not put it down, I have to say that Fergus is not as successful here in writing from the perspective of a 1930s adolescent as he was conveying the voice of May Dodd in OTWW. THat is the only negative point I have with the book. Some times, I had just had to stop reading and think "no way."

The other similarity with OTWW is that the line between civilization and savagery is a very blurry, porous and changing one and at different points in the story, it is hard to tell who are the savages and who are the civilized people: the Apaches who consistently rape Mexican women, slaughter men and torture their prisoners in horrific ways, or the Mexican who kill and scalp Indians for money with the blessings of the Mexican government, or the wealthy Whites who sign up for the expedition for a bit of fun, fishing and hunting, and, they hope, killing a few Indians for sport? Both societies are patriarchal and sexist, each in its own way, and both use violence. The only real difference lies in the power differential, which, ultimately, is the only distinction that matters.

Finally, whereas OTWW tied the loose ends at the beginning and ending of the book, TWG does not do so, which always leaves me frustrated. I have a primitive mind and I like stories to actually end someplace. I wished for an ending / epilogue similar to OTWW. But this is nitpicking. Like I said, it’s a page turner.

Book Review – One Thousand White Women

OTWW I only read Jim Fergus‘s One Thousand White Women because a friend whose opinion I value recommended it. Well, that was an inspired recommendation as I read the book over Thanksgiving weekend and could not put it down.

The premise of the novel is quite interesting. It is inspired with the historical fact that in 1654, a Cheyenne Chief suggested to the Army authorities that the Cheyennes be given one thousand white women to facilitate the assimilation of Cheyennes into white society through marriage with Cheyenne men. Indeed, the Cheyenne’s kinship structure is matrilineal. Therefore, the children born of these unions would be part of the white society. You can imagine the reception to such a request.

Fergus situates his story in 1875, imagining what would have happened if the US government had agreed to the Cheyenne Chief’s request. So, ok, the US government sends a first "batch" of women… but which women? Certainly not women from "decent" families, right?

The narrative structure of the novel is organized around the journals of May Dodd, one of the women who "volunteered" to be part of the program. May Dodd chose to participate so that she could get out of the asylum where her family had locked her up because she had moved in and had had children out of wedlock with a man from a lower social class than hers. May Dodd comes from a wealthy Chicago family. So, she is institutionalized on grounds of "promiscuity" (the use of psychiatry to "correct" deviant women… that is, those who won’t conform or challenge the patriarchal order is also an interesting aspect of Clint Eastwood’s latest film, Changeling ). It is in the asylum that she and other women (also locked up mostly for lack of conformity to the norms of upper class, Victorian, gender roles) receive the visit of government officials giving them the choice between "marrying a savage" or remaining locked up. For May Dodd, it’s not even a choice. She signs up for the program.

During the railroad trip West towards Fort Laramie, Nebraska, we discover the other women who came to the program through other accidents of life: the racist Southern Belle whose father lost his wealth after the civil war and was left at the altar by her disappointed suitor, the evangelist who thinks she’ll bring civilization (i.e., Christianity) to the savages, the traumatized girls who does not speak, the Irish criminal twins, the African American "princess" who will never again be a slave, etc. It is a very fascinating cast of characters, all with their live stories, their typical wounds inflicted by a patriarchal society. Their reactions to the new society they have to integrate make for a great (sometimes quite funny) read.

A large segment of the book is dedicated to the trip West, first to the Fort, then, to the Cheyenne camp. Another is dedicated to the progressive assimilation of these women into Cheyenne society, and their discovery that "savage life " is not what they thought it would be. Quite a bit of culture shock, and a gradual abandonment of ethnocentrism in favor of a more open view of their new culture.

As May Dodd states in her journals,

"Frankly, from the wat I have been treated by the so-called ‘civilized’ people in my life, I rather look forward to residency among the savages."

As for the last part of the book, it is the heartbreaking ending to the "experiment". Remember, this is a story of late 19th century Cheyennes dealing with the white society… it can’t end well. Broken promises and betrayals on both sides lead to a catastrophic conclusion.

Even though the reader knows it’s fiction, the story feels real. It is actually easy to forget that this is a story told by a woman, but written by a man. Fergus makes these journals very believable.

Like I said, the book is a page turner, with fascinating description of Cheyenne life from the point of view of someone completely unsocialized and unprepared to accept it. I also enjoyed the different threads created by the narratives of the other women and their adaptation into their new society. This enriches the story and gives it more density than just focusing on one character.

I have already ordered my copy of Jim Fergus’s other novel, The Wild Girl.

Criteria for Sustainable Tourism

What is sustainable tourism or eco-tourism? It seems a more and more popular option for globally conscious travellers but what criteria determine exactly what such tourism involve? Who decides? Via the Worldwatch Institute , there are now specific criteria determined by a coalition of tourism professional organizations and environmental groups formed into the Partnership for Global Sustainable Tourism Criteria :

"The partnership – a collection of 27 organizations from the tourism industry and environmental community – said the unified standard provides a resource that could become as widely recognized as the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) label for wood products or the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED designation for green buildings.

"There is mass confusion about what is sustainable tourism," said Tensie Whelan, executive director of the Rainforest Alliance , which organized the partnership alongside the United Nations Foundation and various United Nations agencies. "This body will help to make this information available…and ensure that it is indeed reliable." (…)

The criteria require that tourism operations conduct their business without having an adverse impact on a destination’s habitats, local communities, or cultural heritage. If widely adopted, the standard could further expand efforts to green the supply chain of hotels and resorts as well as lessen the impact on wildlife and local communities, organizers said."

So what are the criteria ? (Below the fold)

Continue reading

The Problems with Biofuels – Part Wev

There have been many articles already concerning the food shortage that affect the poorest countries in particular. Early this week, the BBC reports that the World Bank would double its aid package to Africa.

“It will contribute $700m (£348.6m) in the 12 months from June 2008, up from $400m in the the previous year period, and may boost its loans further. The move comes amid climbing wheat, corn and grain costs, which pushed global food prices up by 40% last year. There are concerns that food aid may be rationed if the high prices continue.”

There are two major reasons for the food shortage: droughts and the use of land and crops to produce ethanol rather than food. But according to the Independent, there is a civil society movement rising in Africa to demand a moratorium on the growth of biofuels in favor of food crops.

“Scientists and NGOs across Africa are calling for a moratorium on new biofuels projects as millions of acres of prime agricultural land in sub-Saharan Africa are switched from food to fuel. African governments, encouraged by counterparts in the industrialised world, have bought eagerly into the “green revolution” with promises of exports, energy security and job creation. The reality is the forced removal of small farmers, rising food costs and scant benefits for local populations.”

Food riots have already exploded in certain African countries. Nothing triggers riots more than food crises. Populations can tolerate a lot of mistreatment but food shortages, usually in already deteriorated economic situations, tend to be the last straw. Moreover, the dominance of foreign companies over the biofuel sector also smells too much of neo-colonialism as African countries are perceived as used by Western ones as energy reserves.

“”Africa is a wide open continent and the energy industry wants to take advantage,” said the renowned Nigerian environmentalist Nnimmo Bassey. “This is a flashback to colonial plantations.” Mr Bassey is part of the African Biodiversity Network, an umbrella group who met to discuss the crisis this week in South Africa.”

And of course, this also suggests that there is no need for core countries to embrace energy-saving and environment-friendly policies when the vast resources of Africa can be used to perpetuate the unsustainable lifestyle of the Northern population.

“Rich nations concerned with future energy security and climate change have begun to seek alternatives to fossil fuels that won’t carry the political costs of calling for consumer restraint. In the US this has meant an epic extension of subsidies for big agricultural interests to switch corn production to ethanol. The European Union has committed itself to switching 10 per cent of all transport fuel to biofuels by 2020 with the shortfall in what can be grown inside the 27-nation bloc to be made up with imports from the developing world.

From the savannahs of west Africa to the rainforests of Congo, the plains of Tanzania and the wilderness of Ethiopia, governments are handing over huge tracts of fertile land to private companies aiming to convert biomass grown on large plantations into liquid fuels for export markets. African leaders like Senegal’s Abdoulaye Wade are predicting a “green revolution” and looking eagerly to lucrative exports.”

Now, modernization theorists and market enthusiasts would see in this the wonders of comparative advantage: what a great opportunity for poor African countries to invest in high-demand, high-priced crops. There is a price to pay though: who will grow the food that will feed the populations of high-fertility countries. So, as Africa is poised to be hit the hardest by global climate change, it will also have less land dedicated to food production. There is reason to worry.

Africa Biofuels

And that’s just for Africa, according to Jessica Aldred, writing in the Guardian, NGOs have reported the connection between biofuel cultivation and human rights abuse.

“A new report, published by Friends of the Earth and indigenous rights groups LifeMosaic and Sawit Watch, said that increasing demands for palm oil for food and biofuels was causing millions of hectares of forests to be cleared for plantations and destroying the livelihoods of indigenous peoples. The report, Losing Ground, said many of the 60-90 million people in Indonesia who depend on the forests are losing their land to the palm oil companies.”

In addition to the violence involved in pushing the natives out of the way, there is also environmental degradation as fertilizers pollute the water. And there is also the deforestation issue as land is cleared to grow biofuels, which contribute to global climate change. And as Liberation reports, in Indonesia, deforestation takes place through burning down entire areas. The effects on wildlife are devastating, especially for tigers and elephants. The massive deforestation that has taken place there produces annually the equivalent of 39% of the UK’s production of greenhouse gases. Research have estimated that, at this rate, both species will be driven to extinction, suffocated by the smoke. Already, in Central Sumatra, 65% of the forests and wetlands have been cleared. As the Guardian reports,

“The report shows there has been a huge decline in elephant numbers – from an estimated 1,067-1,617 in 1984 to possibly as few as 210 individuals today. If this trend continues and the two largest remaining elephant forests are not protected, Riau’s wild elephant population will face extinction, the report warns.

Similarly, (…) the tiger population has declined by 70% in 25 years, from 640 to 192 today. Unless the last remaining patches of tiger habitat are connected by wildlife corridors, these too will face extinction.”

It seems that, by now, we are starting to see clear patterns in terms of the social, economic and environmental effects on the massive turn to biofuels to solve energy shortages. This does not seem to be a case of “the jury is still out”. The effects are devastating. The problem, as is always the case, is that the major victims are powerless and invisible. If smoke due to deforestation was taking place in my Chicagoland suburb, you can bet that hell would be raised about it. But most of these negative side effects are taking place in the periphery, out of sight for core audiences. And indeed, reliance on biofuels permits us to think that no sacrifices will be needed: we will have energy in the future even if access to oil becomes problematic. As always, it is politically necessary to isolate us from the nasty underbelly of our needed unsustainable consumption (gosh, that’s preachy).

Compensation for Tasmanian Aborigines

This is as good a time as any to bring back that great Midnight Oil song:

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As the Guardian states:

“Tasmania today approved millions of dollars in compensation for members of the “stolen generation” of Aborigines removed from their families, its premier calling this an attempt to right a shameful wrong in the island’s history. (…) The stolen generation refers to Aboriginal children – mainly those of mixed race – who were removed from their families and sent to institutions run by the church or state, or who were adopted into white families, in practices that began during the 19th century and only ended in 1970.”

This tragedy was was best depicted in Philip Noyce’s film, Rabbit-Proof Fence. It’s about time the Aborigines get compensation and recognition for past racial discrimination and what we today consider a gross violation of human rights. However, Tasmania is so far the only Australian state to have back its apology with money, a step even newly-elected PM Rudd will not take.

A short except from Rabbit-Proof Fence: Skin color check

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It’s a great film, without any reservation and Peter Gabriel’s music is perfect for it.

New Wars: An Update on the Zapatistas

Via Naomi Klein in the Guardian and this article from Le Monde, like most new wars, the conflict in the Chiapas started in 1994 – with the implementation of NAFTA and the end to the allocation of communal land to indigenous peasants, as guaranteed by an article of the Mexican Constitution – and never really ended. If things seemed to have quieted down after the 1996 peace agreement (the San Andres Accords, never recognized by the Mexican government), it looks like conflict is about to erupt again. Ominous signs (remilitarization, intensification of paramilitary activities) are visible.

One of the trademarks and successful strategy that the EZLN (the Zapatista peasant army) was its use of the global media, under the leadership of its charismatic leader, Subcommandante Marcos. It is therefore not surprising that it is through one of Marcos’s rare press conferences in late December 2007 that the EZLN is trying to attract attention to the renewed tensions in the state of Chiapas. After all, media presence has proved, in the past, a relative protection against government violence and a strategic tool.

Such a success also carried risks: the risk for the movement to be perceived and treated as a fad by a Western audience with short attention span, or the risk of being torn between becoming a mainstream political actor and wanting to remain outsiders to a corrupt system. As both articles mention, this is exactly what happened.

First, Le Monde (my translation):

Marcos hinted that this could be his ‘last interview.’

“We’re out of fashion, he complains. Within his own ranks, some blame his contempt for the Mexican Left. Many intellectuals who accompanied the Zapatistas 2001 triumphant march towards Mexico City, have now distanced themselves. “

Naomi Klein:

“Marcos – despite his clandestine identity – has been playing a defiantly open role in Mexican politics, most notably during the fiercely contested 2006 presidential elections. Rather than endorsing the centre-left candidate, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, he spearheaded a parallel “Other Campaign”, holding rallies that called attention to issues ignored by the major candidates. (…) But by choosing not to line up behind López Obrador in the 2006 election, the movement made powerful enemies. And now, says Marcos, their calls for help are being met with a deafening silence.”

Regardless of what happens, there is no question that the Zapatistas movement is representative of the plight of indigenous populations under conditions of trade deregulation (as implemented through free trade agreements, such as NAFTA) and their victories have in part been won through clever use of the media to reach global audiences and make the world a witness to their struggle. It does look like their 15 minutes of fame are over but the roots of their problems are still present and none of the issues have been resolved.