Yasuní: time for environmentalists to hold the line

Ecuador’s Yasuní National Park is one of the most biodiverse areas on earth. In one hectare, you’ll find more tree species in Yasuní than exist in the entirety of North America. The area is also home to several uncontacted tribes—indigenous Huaorani people who have chosen to isolate themselves from the rest of Ecuador and western civilization. They’re among the few holdouts in a world where American culture and businesses have penetrated to the furthest reaches of the globe, where children are almost as likely to recognize Mickey Mouse as they are Jesus or Santa Claus.

Naturally, Yasuní also has huge oil reserves buried under it. Under the lush forest, there are estimated to be 846 million barrels of oil (20% of Ecuador’s total reserve), which would take ten years to extract. It’s not just any oil, either. It’s bituminous oil, better known as tar sands, oil that wasn’t even economically viable to extract until recently, oil that releases 5-15% more carbon dioxide carbon in its extraction and refinement than traditional crude does. If you’ve paid attention to environmental news at all over the past few decades, then you know that the Ecuadorian Amazon basically wrote the book on how indigenous communities are exploited in the name of resource extraction. I can’t think of any other place on earth, except the Niger Delta, where local communities have been so hurt by petroleum. Cancer, birth defects, miscarriages, skin lesions, chronic infections and other medical problems are drastically elevated in people living near oil installations. Spills are extremely common, and attempts to clean them up are nonexistent or laughably inadequate (I’ve seen photos of a piece of wood stuffed inside a pipeline, supposedly to stop it from leaking). The roads in and out of the forest are unpaved, and to keep dust from blowing away, the companies regularly coat the roads in crude oil. Water is contaminated everywhere. Species are going extinct. People can’t farm. They can’t survive.

Rafael Correa, president of Ecuador, has proposed a somewhat novel conservation plan. Instead of extracting the oil in Yasuní, he’s said that he’s willing to leave it underground if the international community will pay him half of the value of the oil instead—about $350 million annually, or $3.5 billion total. (In Ecuador, all mineral resources underground automatically belong to the government, regardless of who owns the land above them.) This plan has stalled a bit since its proposal. Germany committed $50 million annually to the government of Ecuador for 30 years, but backed out because they felt that Correa wasn’t serious about conservation. Correa’s attempts to actually raise the money haven’t gone particularly well, so earlier this year, he announced plan B. Either he gets $100 million by the end of this year, or Yasuní opens for oil extraction. (Incidentally, the new constitution of Ecuador, which was ratified in 2008 under Correa’s administration, specifically prohibits resource extraction in national parks. But there are exceptions which can be made by order of the president.) Correa went to the UN this week to try to raise support for this plan, which Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon has supported. So far, $55 million of the necessary $100 million has been pledged. The Ecuadorians I’ve spoken to about this are deeply skeptical. My host dad, who works as a petroleum engineer in the Amazon, is doesn’t believe that Correa’s plan will work, because he doesn’t think Ecuador will be able to come up with the money. The clock’s ticking, and while Bill Gates could easily come up with the $45 million needed to stop what will probably be the greatest environmental disaster in the history of the world, he’s too busy focusing on “global health” to worry about the health of the living planet. Many Ecuadorians I’ve talked to feel that Correa doesn’t really care about preventing the extraction—he’s been overzealously threatening to go ahead with plan B instead of devoting time and energy to raising money for plan A. In general, his administration has been very pro-extraction (“We can’t afford to be beggars sitting on a pile of gold”, he’s said, conveniently ignoring the fact that Ecuador’s national debt has risen exponentially since oil extraction started in earnest.)

If the history of resource extraction is any indication, Yasuní will likely go through. And that absolutely cannot happen. This is the front line of our climate war. Just as much as the Keystone XL pipeline cannot be allowed to happen, Yasuní needs to stay protected. Extracting the oil will involve massive deforestation to build roads, pipelines, and the like. The spills that will inevitably occur will have devastating impacts on the health of indigenous communities, not to mention the non-human inhabitants of the area. And then, of course, the actual burning of the oil will be an environmental disaster. I know we’re not going to win this war. But I also know that there are some battles that really, really matter. These are the ones that go into the history books, the ones where strategy and tactics are analyzed again and again, where tides turn and names are made, remembered. I want us to win this one.

Normally, my approach to activism involves documentation. Go into the Amazon, talk to the tribes, take dramatic high-contrast photos of oil spills and dignified mostly-naked hunters staring off into the brush. Show the world what’s at stake, make people aware of the situation, and pray that they’ll do the right thing.

The petroleum situation in the Amazon has been documented ad nauseum. Most people who are aware of environmental issues at all have read Savages or watched Crude or read about the suit against Texaco/Chevron, where earlier this year an Ecuadorian judge ordered the company to pay $18.2 billion in damages against communities in the Amazon during the 1970s (naturally, they’re still appealing, and trying to get the US government to intervene on their behalf, as Wikileaks recently uncovered/reported). If the proverbial bulldozers come to Yasuní, we won’t be saved by gorgeous magazine spreads showing exactly what will be lost in the extraction. We might be saved if people have the courage to stand in front of those bulldozers, to fight back whatever the cost.

I’m going to borrow a comparison from Lierre Keith here (used in her essay “It Takes A Village to Raise a Prarie”, which appeared in the last issue of the Earth First! Journal). In 1854, the US government passed the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which stated that residents of each state would be able to decide if slavery was allowed there. Abolitionists felt the emergency of the situation. They knew that if Kansas fell to slavery, the rest of the West would go too. And so they moved to Kansas by the thousands to put a stop to something they knew was wrong. They left their homes behind and risked their lives because they knew that they had to go, that this was simply the right thing to do.

I know that bringing a bunch of white environmentalists into the Amazon to stand up for tribes there is potentially problematic and paternalistic. Communities in the Amazon need to decide for themselves if they want oil companies there, though my understanding is that pretty much every indigenous community that has come into contact with oil companies has been very clear in their opposition to the theft and exploitation of their land. But if communities decide to fight and are willing to accept help, we need to answer that call. We need to do something besides writing nicely-worded petitions to the Ecuadorian government. We need the Kansas ethic again. We need a committed group of activists who are willing to go to the front lines, no matter what the risks, and stay there until the battle is over. Because doing anything else—turning a blind eye, putting our faith in the state, hoping without taking action—leaves us complicit.

I may still be here at the end of December, when Correa makes his decision. Assuming politics functions the way it always does, I’m sure the deadline will be pushed back, renegotiated. I’m sure actual work won’t start until later, even if he gives the go-ahead at the end of the year. But if I’m here when those bulldozers start clearing the way, I have no idea what I’ll do. I want, so badly, to say no, you can’t do this here. I want to stand for something real, and this is about as real as it gets. But I also don’t want to spend my life rotting in an Ecuadorian prison for something that ultimately didn’t make a difference (environmental protest is heavily criminalized here—blocking a road carries a five year minimum sentence, and 95% of people arrested on this charge are activists protesting mining and oil extraction). I’m an idealistic coward, and I don’t know how big the stakes need to be before that will change.

I’m going to Yasuní for a week on Monday. We’re going to be spending our time at an ecological reserve doing ecology and natural history stuff. I feel like an underground agent, pretending to be a scientist while searching for any glimmer of truth related to petroleum. We drive in on oil company roads, past their checkpoints. We show our WHO cards, proof that we’ve been vaccinated against yellow fever so we won’t expose the indigenous groups in the area. We go deep, deep into the forest, two canoe trips and two bus rides past the airport in Coca, and still, if you hike too far north from the station we’re staying at, you can hear company generators roaring in the night. I have no idea what I will see, if I’ll see anything, if it will give me some kind of moral clarity. But whatever it is, I’ll report back.

Family, Western and non

Every time I travel to a non-Western country, I’m always warned (by the guidebook, program orientation, etc.) that notions of family will be very different in the place where I’m going. Typical notes for Latin America include the following: your family will eat meals all together. People will spend a few hours after dinner sitting around at the table, talking, playing games, or just watching TV together (this is called sobremesa). Children live at home until they’re married. Families are much bigger. There may be relatives stopping by constantly. Family members are more connected and aware of what’s going on in each other’s lives.

Of course, these notions vary family-to-family. Some of them have been very accurate for my Quito family, while others haven’t really been applicable. My family often doesn’t eat together, and my brother seems to spend most of his time in his room watching TV or practicing guitar. Not that he’s antisocial or anything—he just seems like a typical global teenager, not quite American, but not “traditionally” Ecuadorian either.
This past weekend, I got a little taste of my family’s size. My host mom has two older daughters who don’t live at home, but stop buy all the time. She’s also from a very large family (one of eleven, if I remember correctly), and almost all of her siblings live in Quito. We went out for ice cream with an uncle and his wife and two kids. Then we stopped at grandma’s house, where another uncle and aunt also live (the uncle is a little off, mentally, and the aunt just never married, so she still lives with her mom). We had coffee and the relatives asked me a bunch of questions so I could practice my Spanish—what I want to do with my life, what the hell my dad is doing trying to start a business in Ghana, etc. Mom, grandma and aunt all talked about my mom’s daughter, the problems she’s having with her husband, how they’re fighting a lot at home.
This is probably one of those situations that cultural briefings are designed to prepare you for. The extended-family gatherings and gossip aren’t typical in a lot of American families. But for me, it felt like I was right back at home. The only real difference was that everyone was speaking Spanish and no one was actually related to me.
My family back in the US is really close. Mom has three sisters who all live in the greater Seattle area, and between the four of them, there are seven cousins, of which I’m the oldest (my brother is 19, I have four female cousins who are 18, 14, 12 and 11, and Lucas, the youngest, is 7). My grandparents are an easy two hour drive away, so they come into town a lot for family gatherings. And I have another grandpa in Eugene, Oregon, which isn’t too far away. Due to a lot of divorce in my grandparents’ generation, I have tons of relatives who aren’t even technically related to me, but all of them are family. Our Christmas and Thanksgiving dinners are often 25 people, and we have smaller gatherings for things like high school graduations and birthdays. All in all, it seems like at least ten of us get together once or twice a month, and I’ve hardly ever gone a week without seeing someone from my extended family while I’m home.
When I describe this arrangement to my friends, it sounds weird to most of them. Not bad weird—a lot of people have told me that it sounds nice to have relatives around all the time, exhausting as it can sometimes be. So it’s refreshing to travel to places where extended family is normal, where you’re weird if you don’t go visit your sisters and aunts and uncles and parents over the weekend. I’ve learned so much more about Ecuador from talking to my extended host family, especially the grandma. And I’m grateful that globalization and modernity haven’t managed to completely eradicate this aspect of non-American culture.

Two-tiered pricing

If you’d asked me at the beginning of this summer whether things would be more expensive in Ghana or Ecuador, I would have said Ghana without much hesitation. It seems natural to assume that in countries which are poorer (smaller GDPs, smaller average income, worse indicators on the human development index, etc.), prices would also be lower. As it turns out, though, it’s not quite that simple.

There are some things in Ghana that are absurdly cheap. You can get more than enough street food to fill you up for next to nothing. A bowl of rice, spaghetti noodles and beef in sauce set me back 60 pesewa—about 40 cents. Fruit in the market is so cheap compared to home that it seems free. One cedi (66 cents) will get you a pile of four or five delicious oranges or two ripe mangoes. My dad’s house is a concrete walled compound which could easily be a B-movie drug lord’s hideout. It has three bathrooms, a kitchen, dining and living rooms and five bedrooms, plus a garage. His rent for this is something like $100 a month (though, to be fair, the city water supply randomly turns off for weeks at a time, and often comes out in interesting shades of grey, white and brown when it is on). Transportation also seems practically free—a 30 minute ride in a shared taxi from a rural village back into town cost me something like 30 cents.

However, some things in Ghana are fairly expensive given the income of average Ghanaians, and occasionally even for visiting Americans. Going to a movie in the Accra Mall cost me 15 cedis ($10)—comparable to a ticket back home. Meals in sit-down restaurants are cheaper than their American counterparts, but still a fortune compared to street food. A decent-sized entrée will set you back $5-10, sometimes a bit more if the restaurant is really nice. Groceries in the supermarket (Shoprite, a South African chain which seems to only exist in the Accra Mall) are often more expensive than they would be in the US. Boxes of cereal can run up to $6 for a normal sized package of cornflakes. Butter is at least $4, and that’s only if you buy the cheap stuff that smells weird. The lentils I insisted on buying cost about $7 for a package that was maybe twice as big as the ones I see back in the States. Services are also on the expensive side—a manicure is $10, and a haircut can be twice that in the city, especially if you’re a white person.

Ecuadorian prices seem more uniform. Grocery store items are fairly cheap across the board—good chocolate bars with fruit added can be purchased for 90 cents, bananas are usually less than 50 cents for a kilogram (2.2 pounds) and basic staples are usually at or below the cost of similar items in the US (though as with Ghana, cereal is a notable exception—I tried to buy Honey Bunches of Oats today, but was dissuaded by the $6.35 price tag). A movie ticket is a little less than $5. Public transportation over long distances is hardly more than in Ghana—usually about $1 per hour of travel, made possible by the state-owned petroleum companies, and government policies which heavily subsidize gasoline (it’s been $1.03 per gallon for diesel and $1.72 for premium gas since I got here a month ago). Quito is covered in restaurants serving a fixed almuerzo (lunch)—usually juice, soup, a plate of rice and meat and occasionally dessert for $1.50-$2. Dinner will set you back a bit more, but it’s easy to find good meals for under $5. I’ve seen salons advertising $2 haircuts and manicures for even less.

I have a theory to explain the pricing differences I’ve encountered. In Ghana, people do not have money. There are definitely rich people living in cities (mostly Accra, the capital), and there’s some kind of emerging middle class, but by and large, people struggle to pay for necessities. I think this has created a two-tier pricing system. The poor masses need to buy basic staples of life. They buy their food in markets and from street vendors. They need to travel sometimes, and they can mostly afford to do so because shared taxis and trotros abound. The things that you need to survive are all widely available, mostly for next to nothing (at least by my American standards). However, because of the overall poverty, things like movies and manicures are well out of reach of most people. The city I was living in, a regional capital city with a population of about 50,000, doesn’t even have a movie theater. There’s no supermarket either—everyone goes to the outdoor public market which is filled with produce and pungent-smelling fish. I had to make weekend trips into Accra (2.5 hours, give or take) to buy things like cheese, yogurt, lentils and cereal. These items are really only available to the elites, and because of that, they’re much more expensive. I’m sure there are a lot of other reasons on the supply side as well, but from a demand perspective, the pricing gap makes sense, because it’s reflective of a wealth gap.

Ecuador seems to be better off. The overall standard of living is much higher than in Ghana (and almost all other sub-Saharan African countries, I would imagine). There are absolutely poor people here, in Quito and especially in more rural areas. But even the poor seem to have a little more money for luxury and non-essential items. My host mom in Plaza Gutierrez had never traveled further than Otavalo (a city 2 hours away)—she hadn’t even been to Quito, much less outside of the Andean region of Ecuador. But while I was staying with her, she took the whole family to a pool that was about half an hour away, with an entry fee of $2 per person. Not a fortune by my standards, but not exactly small change for a family of five. There also seems to be a much more well-defined urban middle class. My host family in Quito, for example, survives on the income of my dad, who’s a petroleum engineer in the Amazon. This is enough to allow them occasional trips to the US and private school for their three children, but not so much that my host mom doesn’t remark about how expensive textbooks for high school are. I’m not sure what the typical income and lifestyle in Quito looks like, but my family doesn’t seem at all like an anomaly. Quito seems to have more middle ground in its income demographics than Accra, which has shacks and slums with no water or electricity, giant walled compounds where the super-rich live, and not much in between.

So in Ecuador, people buy produce at indoor markets, but the average Quito family also shops at the supermarket. Smaller cities have supermarkets too, and they’re common in Quito (contrasting with Ghana, which seems to literally have two supermarkets in the entire country, both of which are located in the Accra Mall). This means that prices need to be affordable for the masses, not just the super-elites and gringos. Government policies and subsidies help keep prices down in stores (a really interesting system that I’ll write more about later). The average urban family can afford at least occasional luxuries like movies, and their prices reflect that fact.

I’m curious about the supply-side factors that have made this all come into being, but from a demand perspective, the pricing differences I’ve seen between here and Ghana make a fair amount of sense. Interestingly, the net result of these differences is that it’s cheaper for me to maintain my lifestyle in Ecuador than in Ghana. If you just need a place to stay and not starve to death, Ghana wins hands down. But if you want supermarket cereals, the occasional movie, books, manicures and recreation on the weekend, Ecuador would probably end up coming out on top. Who would have thought?

Catholic churches and Catholic history

In terms of its practices, Catholicism has always appealed to me as a faith. I love ritual, love moments that are imbued with gravity. When I hear people reciting Hail Mary or the Lord’s Prayer, I feel the togetherness of believers all over the world, stretching back for century upon century. It’s incredible to me that over the course of human history, so many people have been united by a set of seemingly improbable beliefs. The Church is especially fascinating because virtually none of their practices are actually described in the Bible. There’s no provision for a Pope, for a hierarchy of priests. There’s mention of sacraments, but from what I’ve read, they don’t seem anywhere near as institutionalized as the Catholic Church has made them. Watching a mass, I feel like I’m witnessing the longest anthropological case study in history. This is what happens if you take people, with all of their ambition and flaw, and give them a holy text promising them eternal salvation. I always find myself wondering how many of the faithful lines up to receive communion truly believe that they’re literally consuming the body and blood of Christ.
I absolutely love Catholic churches. I’m not sure if it’s in spite of or because of my atheism, but Catholic churches and cathedrals have always fascinated me. They’re beautiful—lavish decorations, stained glass, statues of the Virgin Mary, and always the slightly grotesque Christ suffering on the cross. When I enter a church, I always feel weight inside, the accumulation of millennia of history. I believe that as a rule, institutions have secrets, things they’d rather keep covered up, things they know that the rest of the world doesn’t. The Catholic Church is one of the oldest institutions on earth, if not the oldest, and I get so excited just thinking about the sheer quantity of information they’re privy to, the intrigue and scandal and history that have occurred over centuries. In the cathedrals I’ve visited in Europe, my mind goes back to high school European history, back to the Crusades, the Great Schism, the Reformation and Restoration.
Here in Quito, I visited the Iglesia San Francisco yesterday. It’s in the same spirit as the European cathedrals I’ve seen, though I think it might actually manage to have more decorations per square foot. But the inside feels a bit different. There’s more gold. The Virgin Mary seems more emphasized (what does it say about our culture, I find myself wondering, that the holiest woman on earth is the one who was able to give birth without ever having to suffer through the sin of having sex?) The Lord’s Prayer is in Spanish, which doesn’t make it sound any more serious, but does give it an entirely different set of cultural connotations. My mind starts to go back to Europe, to monasteries made from stone. But then I remember that Catholicism has an entirely different history on this continent, and suddenly I’m remembering conquest, subjugation, smallpox. Latin America seems so Catholic today that it’s easy to forget how they got that way. Catholic beliefs and imagery are so present that I have to remind myself they came with the conquistadors.
When I think back on Europe’s long and bloody religious history, I can accept it as a given. The thought of a bunch of Germans slaughtering each other in the name of God doesn’t anger me. It’s a bit puzzling, a bit regrettable, but it’s history. But thinking back on the conquest of the Americas, knowing the role religion played in justifying that endeavor, I find it harder to be neutral. I can’t bring myself to be outraged for something that occurred five hundred years in the past, and I’ve always believed that religion served more to justify something that would have happened anyway, rather than as an impetus to slaughter. But still, remembering the blood woven throughout Catholic history, I think to more modern problems. The refusal to ordain women or let priests marry. The sex abuse cover-ups. The willful spread of misinformation about condoms. The construction of sex as something sinful and shameful, and the way that’s impacted women in particular.
As an institution, the Catholic Church both intrigues and terrifies me. I am angered by the people who have suffered at the hands of power, five hundred years ago and today. I am angered at the blatant sexism that underlies so much of what the church teaches. But as a faith, I still find Catholicism beautiful. I am heartened by the knowledge that No More Deaths, as well as many other aid groups for undocumented immigrants, have a Catholic background. I am inspired by the wisdom and humility I’ve seen listening to lifelong Catholics speak about their faith. I am drawn to stories about human imperfection, about people trying to be better in spite of themselves. I am drawn to the churches, to the intricate decorations, to their attempts, however flawed, to bring the Divine a little closer to earth.

On nomadism

The other day, I spent an hour and a half talking to my friend Henry, who’s doing a direct-enroll study abroad program in Mendoza, Argentina. Unlike me, he’ll be staying in the same city for five or six months. He’s gotten to know other Argentinian university students, made friends, and feels at home where he is.
As we were discussing our respective programs, we started talking about travel. Henry told me that his desire to travel is mostly gone—he’s happy to stay in place, interacting with the same people, getting to know them well. He’s getting more out of meaningful relationships built over time than he would have being a tourist all over the world.
I’ve often said that I love travel, but I realized this summer in Greece that that’s not really true. I love seeing new places, but I hate feeling like an American, stupid for not knowing the language, guilty because so many economies around the world depend on being able to put up with obnoxious Westerners. Really, I want to know places well, meet people, have interesting conversations. Yet every time I’m given the opportunity to travel, I go for it.
I was thinking about this after we got off the phone. I’ve been all over the world—Ghana, Greece, England, France, Guatemala, Costa Rica, Mexico, and now Ecuador. I’ve driven all over the United States. And yet I still have such a hard time deciding where my heart is. There’s a powerfully nomadic streak inside of me, half restlessness and half the simple fact that I just haven’t found anywhere in the world where I’d want to settle down.
When I was younger, I often thought that Seattle was it. It’s my favorite city, to be sure, but even living there, I don’t feel whole. When I’m surrounded by mountains shrouded in clouds, I long for the desert west, for sagebrush and cactus, for mile after mile of flat, dusty ground. Camping out in the canyonlands of Utah, half of me feels deeply at peace, and the other half cries out for evergreens, for spruce and hemlock. In my city, I miss Walla Walla, miss the knowledge that I can walk or bike anywhere I might need to go, miss knowing that if I need a release, I can sprint across the highway in the dark, run to the wheat fields and stand alone with nothing between me and the stars, staring the universe in the face. In Walla Walla, I long for pan-Asian food, for better grocery stores, for like-minded radicals. Coming home from Ghana, I miss the vibrancy of the street, the smell of dried fish mixed with diesel and warm rain that permeates the air in the morning. While I’m there, I want good yogurt, more than one kind of cheese, water that’s reliable and faster Internet.
Imagining my future, I picture myself simultaneously everywhere and nowhere. I envision myself as an expatriate living in Latin America, finally speaking Spanish with the authority I’ve always wanted, befriending revolutionaries and activists and laughing with them about the arrogance of American politics. I see myself in Utah, disappearing for weeks at a time on sojourns through slickrock and sandstone, writing to my heart’s content. In Seattle, I work for grocery co-ops, have my urban farm and actually finish my book that I’ve been talking about writing for years. And I move to the middle of nowhere, practically wilderness, and have a homestead with a wood-burning oven and a kitchen littered with fermentation projects. Or perhaps I end up drawn permanently to the border, in that space that is at once American, Mexican and nationless, documenting what I see, writing because I feel compelled, fighting for change, talking with communities and learning how to make real posole, pork leg included.
All of these are my future, and I’m so far from being able to choose. Almost every time I move, I envision a new life for myself. I construct a story, a career, a family for my future self. I am happy nowhere and everywhere. I long for the open road if I find myself settled in place for too long, and after so much traveling over the past year and a half, I almost feel as if I’ve forgotten how to settle down. Yet give me a house and a stable life, and after a week, I’m daydreaming of overflowing backpacks and cursing Ted Bundy for ruining hitchhiking for everyone else. Maybe it’s the serial monogamist in me. Maybe I just haven’t found The One, that place where the restlessness inside me can finally settle down. But I suspect it’s really my natural inclination towards polyamory coming out. I want a little bit of everything. I’m completely in love with desert and forest, with canyons and mountains, with cities and towns, with the US and Latin America and Ghana. Maybe one day I’ll settle down. Or maybe I’ll keep changing places, slow enough that I won’t have to call it “traveling”. Five years here, a decade there. There are, I suppose, worse ways to live.

Reflections on a decade

I spent a long time thinking about what, if anything, I wanted to do on the tenth anniversary of the September 11 attacks. Both of the Ecuadorian families I’ve lived with have asked me about the attacks, have told me that they remember that day, that they watched it thinking how terrible and sad it was. I remember that morning with a combination of striking clarity and inexplicable haze. My dad had a business trip scheduled. He got to the airport, was told that all air traffic was grounded, came home and turned on the TV. I remember watching after the first plane hit, when no one was sure what was going on. I remember that I was watching when the second plane hit too, though reflecting on this now, I question the clarity of my memory, now a decade old. The second plane hit before 10am in New York, meaning I would have been up unusually early for school on the West Coast. Still, I remember seeing it, my dad sitting next to me, our whole family silent with disbelief. When the first tower fell, my dad sat shaking his head in his hands, murmuring, “Oh my god, oh my god…” I thought I saw tears in his eyes—to this day, the closest he’s ever come to crying in front of me.
I remember asking my parents if this was a Big Deal, thinking in my head that the events of this morning would come to define my generation, would be a story I would recount to children and grandchildren. I remember thinking I was the perfect age—old enough to understand what was happening, but young enough that someday, I would be part of a select group of really old people, the last generation alive when September 11 happened, and my great-grandchildren would come interview me for middle school history projects. After I had these thoughts, I remembered that people were dying and immediately felt guilty for thinking of posterity before human suffering. In the following years, I would feel validated in my predictions, proud that my ten-year old self understood politics and history well enough to grasp the significance of that moment. I would later sit alone in my room on March 17, 2003, crying silently after watching President Bush’s speech announcing the beginning of combat operations in Iraq. I thought about the bombs falling on Bagdad, and part of me wondered if we weren’t just re-creating the horrors of that September morning for another people in a far-away land.
Soon enough, Iraq faded to the back corners of my mind. I was, after all, in middle school. I was preoccupied with reading, gossip, depression, boys and environmental problems. I let my outrage on that night in March fade into the back of my head, alongside the sadness and gravity I felt on the morning of the attacks.
Since then, I’ve re-opened those emotions a handful of times. Junior year of high school, I did a project for my American history class on pro-war and patriotic songs, and spent a few hours watching and re-watching videos of the attacks set to music. I was transfixed by one in particular, set to the Requiem for a Dream score, which had video of the planet hitting the towers interspersed with photos of people jumping and falling from the burning buildings. What stuck in my head the most was the 911 call made by a man stuck in one of the towers seconds before it collapsed, the call that ends with him screaming, “Oh god!”, followed by the sound of debris falling, and then silence. I watched that video again and again in the name of “research”. I was transfixed. I thought about the people jumping and the man on the phone, imagined what must have gone through their heads. I cried and cried and cried. And then I became numb. After enough consecutive viewings, I couldn’t summon the horror, the sadness, the sense of connection. I compartmentalized, stopped caring. Eventually, I recognized that this wasn’t healthy. I stopped. I didn’t let myself think about it too much.
With all the buildup around the tenth anniversary, I thought about reliving that morning again. I read opinion pieces and commentary about the US’s reaction to the attacks, with several commentators on Al-Jazeera English arguing that the US should have chosen to prosecute the attacks as criminal acts, rather than giving the attackers what they wanted—a war based on ideology with no end in sight. I thought about readings for some of my classes, about discussions I’ve had with friends about the morality of pre-emptive war, about the way our culture fetishizes and immortalizes the victims of 9/11 while forgetting so many other who’ve died because of our foreign policies. I remembered reading Osama bin Laden’s Speech to the American People for my international politics class and feeling disturbed by the clarity of his logic, the legitimate grievances he cited against the American government. I thought about imperialism and Iraq and Afghanistan. I thought about anything but what actually happened on September 11. I didn’t want to go down that rabbit hole again. But then the TV in my house was on, and I ended up watching half an hour of an overly dramatic re-enactment of what happened inside the first tower on that morning, awkwardly dubbed in Spanish, with my host mom. I read a story about the forgotten victims of 9/11—the airport workers, the woman who checked in Mohammad Atta at Logan International Airport, the flight attendant who called in sick for American Flight 11 the night before. I thought once again about the human costs of that morning, the people who are still suffering, who will suffer for the rest of their lives. I wanted to cry, but couldn’t find it in myself. And I wondered why we feel compelled to do this every year, why as a nation we insist on re-opening old wounds every year in the name of remembrance.
So now here I am, once again picturing bodies falling from a flaming tower, silently thanking gods I don’t believe in that I have the option to walk away, largely unaffected, that I don’t know anyone in New York City, that no one in my family is a flight attendant. I want to honor the victims and remember them, but I’m not sure all the TV specials and longform stories are helping anyone heal. As an aspiring journalist, I’ve always believed fervently in the value of holding people’s eyes open, forcing them to look misery in the face and grapple with their inner demons. Now, I find myself wishing we would all close our eyes and say a prayer instead. I can’t help but feel that all this remembering and collective suffering is what begat our ill-fated foreign policy in the wake of the attacks. I can’t help but wish that we would stop picking at scabs, that we would learn to separate emotion from policy. I know that the feelings I had on the morning of those attacks is the most common ground I’ll ever have with so many Americans, and I wish so much that that could be different.
I wasn’t going to write anything about 9/11, because I didn’t think I had anything important to say. I still don’t think I do, it’s just that after thinking about that flight attendant calling in sick and the families of people who chose to jump, I have so much sadness and regret inside me that I had to get it out somehow. I feel guilty knowing how much emotion 9/11 can well up inside me, a feeling that the horrors we’ve inflicted in Iraq and Afghanistan will never hold a candle to. Mostly, I sit silently, still trying to decide if it’s ok to close my eyes when so many would keep them open, knowing that it does no good, knowing that it just keeps your heart aching for longer. I don’t know if I can cry anymore, so I pray instead, hoping that for something as important at this, God won’t mind that I’m an atheist. I pray for forgiveness, for healing, for remembering without reliving. And then, I pray once again to forget.

Intag: development and protest

If you’re a scientist, you might like to know that the Intag Cloud Forest Reserve is home to some of the most spectacular biodiversity on the planet—219 species of birds recorded, more orchid species present than in the entire United States. Even if you’re not science-minded, you’ll appreciate the fact that the Andean tropics contain at least 15% of the entire world’s plant species when you’re walking through the forest or stopping to admire the breathtaking views of rolling hills punctuated by the occasional plot of maize, yucca or banana. Locals in the pueblos surrounding the forest walk for hours to harvest food and visit family members in neighboring towns. The whole area isn’t a postcard for living in harmony with nature—there’s plenty of blaring radio music at all hours of the day and night, not to mention beer and rowdy games of fútbol. Spend the night in Plaza Gutierrez or any other town on the edge of the forest, and you’re likely to be woken at 5am by crowing roosters or the sounds of a pig being slaughtered. But the chaos of daily human life blends almost seamlessly with the natural world, and the area has an undeniable beauty to it, the kind that makes you want to pack up everything you own and buy a one way plane ticket to Ecuador.
Of course, if you’re a mining company, you see Intag in an entirely different way. In addition to its spectacularly biodiversity, Intag has been, depending on who you asked, blessed or cursed with mineral riches—copper, concentrated enough to justify extraction, in a world which has come to rely on the metal for telecommunications cables.
The fight in Intag started in the early 1990s, when Mitsubishi began exploratory work near Junin, one of the communities in the region. Initially, people were excited. The company meant jobs in an area where work was getting harder and harder to come by. But then wages were lowered and people started getting sick, skin irritated from the initial work being done. In 1995, Defensa y Conservacion Ecologica de Intag (DECOIN) was formed to fight against mining in the area. They tried to talk to the company and contacted government representatives asking them for help. When they received no reply, they burned down the mining camp, which convinced Mitsubishi that they would do better leaving the people of Intag alone. They left the area for good in 1997.
In 2002, the Ecuadorian government auctioned the mining claims in Junin off to another company, this time from Canada. Ascendant Copper tried to win people over with promises of schools, hospitals, computers and work, but by then, locals had done some research on mining in nearby areas and decided that the development projects weren’t worth the destruction of their forest. In the words of activist Marcia Ramirez, “Nosotros sabemos que la mineria no es desarollo” (we know that mining is not development).
The people of Junin had Mitsubishi’s original environmental impact statement, which stated that four communities would have to be relocated to make room for an open-pit mine, and that desertification of the mined area would occur. When he spoke to us, activist Carlos Zorilla wanted us to understand exactly what mining entails, because he says most people don’t know. He’s lived in Intag for years and has been fighting against mining since Mitsubishi first came to the area. He told us that the copper they wanted was buried 500 meters underground, and that the only way to get it out was to dig an open pit. The ore in Intag is 0.6% copper, which is high enough to make it worth the effort to extract in today’s market. The 99.4% of the ground that isn’t copper includes mercury, arsenic and uranium. The processing required to extract the copper from the rest of the earth would leave behind heaping piles of toxic waste, laced with heavy metals and radioactive elements. In addition, the mine tailings would almost certainly be leaking sulfuric acid, which is created when iron sulfide in the earth is exposed to air, oxidizes and combines with water. Tailings are generally left in ponds, lined with plastic, capped to prevent leakage. But they invariably leak. A quick glance at the list of Superfund sites in the United States will turn up hundreds of old mines scattered across the desert West. The list reads like a toxic apocalypse—contaminated groundwater, elevated cancer rates, neurological problems in surrounding communities. Carlos asks us what we think will happen if you take the same process and move it from a sparsely populated desert to a lush cloud forest full of flowing rivers and unparalleled biodiversity. No one answers. No one needs to.
When Ascendant Copper realized their development plans weren’t going to win people over, they began a smear campaign, accusing DECOIN activists of attacking them and saying Carlos was embezzling money from the group. When that didn’t slow the opposition, they sabotaged the local radio station and hired paramilitaries to come to Junin. When the people guarding the road into town wouldn’t let them through, the paramilitaries began shooting and spraying the people with tear gas. I watched a video of this attack, and in my mind, it would be dishonest to describe it as anything but a one-sided massacre. Efforts were made to contact police and convince them to defend Junin from further attack, but these requests amounted to nothing. Marcia told us that the government does what it wants, with little respect for human rights. “Lo que nosotros digamos no cuente para él” (what we say doesn’t count for him), she said, referring to president Rafael Correa and his pro-mining vision for Ecuador.
Eventually, DECOIN was able to get Ascendant Copper to leave Intag, largely because an Ecuadorian court ruled that the mining concessions had been granted illegally. But for the people of Junin and the surrounding communities in Intag, the fight is far from over. Rafael Correa, president of Ecuador, is deeply invested in mining as a form of development, and has said, “We can’t afford to be beggars sitting on a pile of gold.” While the new Ecuadorian constitution (written in 2008 under Correa’s administration) was the first in the world to give rights to nature, in practice, the government’s policies have been very pro-extraction. Correa believes that the country’s rich mineral resources, combined with a socialist platform of high taxes and wealth redistribution, can bring Ecuador a more prosperous future. His vision is one of responsible mining, where companies comply with strict environmental regulations and pay high taxes on the wealth they do extract—10 or 15%, according to my academic director. This money is substantially more than a company pays to mine on US federal lands, where regulations written in the 1870s allow companies to acquire gold mining claims for $5 an acre and pay no royalties to the government for any gold extracted. But for Carlos Zorilla, Correa’s vision is incompatible with the rights laid out in the Ecuadorian constitution, which says that people have the right to a good life.
The mining issue has been deeply divisive in communities in the Intag area. During my time there, I spent three days with a family in Plaza Gutierrez, one of the poorest pueblos in the forest. My host mother told me that the mining question has turned families and towns against each other. Plaza Gutierrez is rare, because almost 100% of the people who live there are opposed to the project. But the town where she grew up, Garcia Moreno, is almost 100% in favor. She told me that she’s opposed to mining, as is one of her sisters, but that her mother and another sister are very much in favor. Communities in the interior want the mining companies to come, because they think they will get jobs. She’s not convinced, she told me. The poorest people in Intag are the ones most opposed to the mining, so what does that tell you about their supposed “development?” There might be jobs at first, but then the company will hire outsiders. It’s not worth the loss of the environment. People just need to work harder, tend their crops, find other ways to get by. But mostly, she said she doesn’t want there to be any more fighting. She described the conflict with the paramilitaries as a guerra—a war. She said that if the government wants mining, they’ll probably get their way, because after all, they’re the government. She doesn’t want to see her home divided, fathers refusing to talk to their sons, pueblos full of bitterness and hatred. She wants her home preserved, but more than that, she wants peace.
Now, the Ecuadorian government is once again trying to open Intag to mining. This time, they’re working directly with Codelco, a Chilean mining company which extracts 12% of the world’s copper annually. The government has asked Codelco for technical assistance in developing Ecuador’s mineral resources, which means that if armed men come to Junin again, they will do so with the full force and power of the state supporting them. Carlos said that in recent years, Correa’s administration has been consolidating power in the executive and criminalizing protest—blocking a road now carries a five year minimum sentence, and 95% of people who are arrested on this and similar charges are activists opposing mining and extraction. When Carlos tried to register DECOIN as an NGO in Quito, he wasn’t able to, because legally recognized groups in Ecuador have to comply with the government’s development plan, which includes mining. Another NGO representative told Carlos, “Get this through you head—the state is going to control everything. Find something else to do.”
Carlos and Marcia seemed confident that they can defeat the latest incursion on their home. I wish I could share their optimism, but I’ve read this story so many times in so many places after the epilogue has been written. Sometimes the activists win, but mostly, they don’t. The documentary screen fades to black, and solemn white text appears to list and catalogue the precise tactics the company used to finally get their way. Sometimes, the decision is still being appealed, but the filmmakers know that including this fact is the only way they have to let themselves fall asleep at night; their thin, inadequate shield from the brutal reality that is power. I want a better story for the people of Intag. I want to go back and talk to more people, try to figure out how one-sided Carlos’ account of the struggle is, meet those who live in Intag and aren’t opposed to mining and see what they think needs to happen to allow the people there to live better lives. I want to tell this story to the rest of the world, in the naive hope that in truth, there is at least a glimmer of power. I want people to understand that the technologies in their lives are not without a cost, and that this story has been repeated thousands of times all over the world in the name of cheap oil, necessary resources, development and profit.
Meanwhile, I will honor Carlos and Marcia’s requests for help. If you’re compelled by this story and want to learn more, the DECOIN website has more information. If you’d like to make a donation to support the legal defense fund and the other work DECOIN does, more information is here. And if you have any old computers or cameras that you’d be willing to donate, the people of Intag need them to document their struggle, get the word out, and help improve the quality of education in local schools.

The politics behind language

Every Spanish-speaking country has its own linguistic idiosyncrasies, its own words that have filtered in from indigenous cultures, shared history and a dozen other small things that seem insignificant. As I’ve been learning Ecuador’s own particular breed of Spanish and re-learning vocabulary I’d forgotten, I’ve realized how much culture and politics shape language.

My first week working on the farm at Hacienda Ilitio, I was talking to Marcelo, the dad of the family that lives and works on the farm. I was trying to figure out the word for farmer, so I asked him what the word was for someone who works on a farm. He said it was trabajador (worker). I said no, specific for someone who works on a farm. He said empleado (employee). I tried again, and he said there weren’t any other words. There’s definitely a Spanish word for farmer. Several, in fact. But I realized that his answer was reflective of the history of agriculture in many Latin American countries, including Ecuador. Ecuadorian farm society has historically consisted of large landowners who control enormous plantations and have workers working under them. The American concept of a small-scale, self-sufficient, back-to-the-land sort of farmer doesn’t really exist here. “Farmers” in Ecuador are either giant, rich landowners (the bosses) or poor laborers who don’t own the land they cultivate.

Similarly, Ecuadorians don’t say <i<¿que? (what?) when asking someone to repeat something. Instead, they say ¿Mande?”, which is the third person command form of the verb mandar, to demand. I talked to Sebastian, the owner of Hacienda Ilitio, about this, and he said it goes back to the same agricultural system. Workers on giant plantations would say ¿Mande?” to their bosses when they didn’t hear them because it basically means, What did you want me to do? </i>

This week, I did a short (three day) homestay in Plaza Gutierrez, a tiny town in the middle of Intag, which is a cloud forest region to the north of Quito. I was explaining to my host mom that back in the States, I’m a cashier in a grocery store. I asked her what the word for someone who worker in a grocery store was, and she suggested vendedor (seller, with a connotation of someone having a degree of autonomy) or another word I don’t remember, which meant someone who owns/runs a small store. Again, there is a Spanish word for cashier that’s distinct from the ones she suggested. But in her mind, someone who sold food at a supermercado was one of those things. People who sell stuff in stores are sellers or store owners. They’re not cogs in a corporate wheel whose main job is to do math for the store and make sure things ring up properly.

Ecuadorian Spanish is also laced with words from Kichwa, the main indigenous language spoken by people here. Which means it’s very likely that I’ll travel to another country later and forget that saying “¡Ah chay chay!” to mean “it’s cold” wouldn’t be understood by anyone in another Spanish-speaking country. It’s a little frustrating knowing that you have to re-learn Spanish a bit every time you cross a border. But it’s also so cool to notice how much seemingly little things can shape a language.

What it means to be in love

Environmentalists are always saying they love the earth. I do love the earth—I love hiking and the scenic views of mountains that make my soul breathe a bit easier. But when I get out in forests, I remember that I feel more than just love for the earth. I’m in love with the earth, so completely. My love isn’t the chaste admiration of Emerson or Thoreau. It’s not about writing poetry inspired by majestic sunrises. My love is intimate, physical, wet, wild.

I want to walk naked through mud, cover my body in earth, feel it squish between my toes as I try to become part of the ground below me. I want to nestle myself into the branches of trees, limbs entangled in a messy pile of twigs and leaves and skin. I want to stand under a freezing cold waterfall and let its raw power wash over me as my skin draws in, breath coming louder, faster until I can’t hold it in any longer and I scream, always surprised by how cold glacial runoff can be. I want to stay up late sharing secrets with the moon while the desert breeze plays with my hair, caressing me as I drift in and out of sleep.

Things you love, you’re willing to help. You sign petitions and write letters and try to waste less and eat locally. But you know that sometimes, you lose. You always have an out, the knowledge that we can destroy the planet completely and some form of life will survive. You’re rational with things you love. You make backup plans. You don’t base your whole world around them.

When you’re in love, it’s different. You’re stupid. You fight for things you know you’re going to lose. You put your body on the line if you think you have to. You try anything you can think of to keep your beloved from being harmed. You base your entire life around your relationship, no matter how much the odds are stacked against you. Even if every river on earth has turned toxic and the ocean is full of plastic, you refuse to leave your home behind. You never give up. You never stop fighting.