Do some prisoners matter more than others?

Walla Walla Penitentiary prison boundary

I stumbled across a blog post asking this question earlier this week. The author, S.E. Smith, notes that prison reform advocates tend to talk almost exclusively about nonviolent drug offenders when discussing prison reform and the rights of prisoners:

So when we talk about prison reform, many people shy away from talking about murderers and rapists and their rights, as well as the fact that they deserve justice. Despite the fact that the racial disparities seen in nonviolent drug convictions, robberies, and similar crimes are also seen with rape and murder, there’s an unwillingness to engage with issues like the possibility of profiling, false conviction, harsher sentences because of an offender’s race, and the myriad complicating factors that interfere with true equality for prisoners in the US, all of whom do in fact deserve human rights, no matter what their crimes.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, because I’ve spent a good chunk of time at the Washington State Penitentiary this year. A friend of mine (my first childhood babysitter, actually) is serving a 15 year sentence there for armed robbery (he was initially sentenced to 20 and got 5 knocked off because the length was ruled cruel and unusual punishment). Like me, he’s from Seattle and his family and friends are there or further away, so he doesn’t have regular visitors. Since the prison is right in Walla Walla, where I’m living, I try to visit him once every few weeks.*

By and large, Robbie is not who people talk about when they talk about prison reform or justice for prisoners. By his own admission, he carried a gun into a store and shot a few people in the process of trying to rob it. He didn’t kill anyone, and injuries were fairly minor, but his crime certainly wasn’t a victimless one.

Reconnecting with Robbie after years of not seeing him took a little while. After initially attending a powwow for indigenous inmates at Coyote Ridge, the last prison he was in, our early visits in Walla Walla mostly involved playing Scrabble (he’s really good from a couple months reading the Scrabble dictionary, but I’m terrible) or Sorry (where I fare better). But now, we often just talk for an hour or two.

He tells me about his classes, how he’s due to finish his AA next quarter, the papers he has to write and the readings they discuss in class. I tell him about my job and the roller derby team I’m on, and he complains that the other guys on his team can’t play soccer as well as he can, which cost them the championship last season. We talk about our families, who haven’t seen each other in years—who’s working where, which side of the world our siblings are on.

We’ve also talked a lot about how he’s changed since getting locked up. He’s told me he’s learned to be less impulsive, to avoid fights and other bad situations, to keep his thinking positive. He works in the kitchen most mornings, takes classes and is part of a group of indigenous men who do traditional bead work and other crafts. He’s also involved in the prison’s teddy bear program, which sews bears to donate to homeless children and elderly people.

After a year and a half of letter writing and about six months of regular visits, we’ve gotten to know each other a lot better. Now, our conversations are often about what he’s doing to do once released. Robbie’s been in prison since about 2001, when he was just 19. He’s told me that there’s a saying that “prison preserves you,” meaning you stay acting roughly the age you were when you went in, no matter how long ago that was. Though he’s nearly 30, he jokes around and acts like he’s my age, but he’s also aware that in about two and a half years, he’ll be out on the streets. He hopes to go back to school and become a veterinarian.

Prison reform conversations often talk about the cost of keeping people behind bars. Drug crimes are victimless, treatment is cheaper, and we could really save taxpayers a lot of money if we treated drug addiction as a public health issue instead of a crime issue.

All of those statements are statements I agree with, but the more I hear them, the more I think they still fit within the logic of prisons as they exist now. Prison is just punishment for a crime. It’s what’s deserved, what’s fair. Nonviolent drug offenders allow us to make the case that these people aren’t truly “criminal” and therefore don’t belong in prison. That position doesn’t engage with a lot of questions I’ve thinking about, like: How can a person spend a decade and a half behind bars, miss the rise of laptops, tablets, smartphones and social networking, and be expected to get a good job that pays the bills when they get out?

I haven’t talked to Robbie much about his thoughts on incarceration as a whole, or how “fair” he feels his sentence was, if that’s something that can really be discussed at all. I don’t want to speak for him or try to make sweeping political claims based on our friendship, and I’m not sure I could even say what those claims would be. I know nothing I’m saying here, personal details aside, is especially original. But that blog post spoke to a lot of the thoughts I’ve been having since Robbie and I got back in touch, and I thought it was worth sharing as a reminder that there are many types of prisoners out there, all of whom deserve to be included in conversations about justice and human rights behind bars.

*Rachel’s note: I would hope this goes without saying, but I’ve gotten Robbie’s permission to write about him and our friendship.

Back from hiatus, pondering the ethics of thesis research in Tucson

Hey everyone. The blog has sort of been on temporary hiatus since this summer, both due to general busy-ness and the fact that a lot of my writing energy has been channeled into other (better-paid) places. So I apologize for the long dry spell. But, I’m back in Tucson, Arizona now to finish up the field research portion of my thesis. Since it’s likely I’ll be writing while I’m down here, I thought this would be a good time to write something explaining my thesis in a way which (hopefully) makes sense to non-politics majors.

Basically, and super-broadly, my thesis involves interviewing people who consider themselves “environmentalists” who have also engaged with migrant aid work on the U.S.-Mexico border. Migrant aid means something like putting water out in the desert, often with an established group like No Mas Muertes/No More Deaths, the Samaritans or Fronteras Compasivas/Humane Borders.

I don’t want to explain my research goals in too much detail right now, just because some potential research subjects might see this and I don’t want perceptions of goals to influence what people tell me. But I’m hoping to get an idea of how people who’ve engaged with migrant issues talk about nature and the desert. The thesis itself is going to be a fun theoretical mix of critical race scholarship and American wilderness and environmental history.

Partially, I arrived at this topic as part of my personal journey over the last year or so. I’ve gone from being an ardent, save-the-polar-bears-and-rainforests environmentalist to focusing much more on human issues–social justice, environmental justice, and the U.S.-Mexico border and immigration policy in particular. While these two types of issues aren’t always opposed with each other (and often seem like they should be well-linked), there’s less crossover between humanitarian/social justice issues and environmental issues than it seems like there could or should be. I’ve found over the past year or so that a lot of that has to do with the environmental movement’s long, and often bloody, history of racial exclusion, from the removal, massacre and genocide of indigenous and non-white people which paved the way for “untouched” American wilderness, to the forced relocation and/or criminalization of traditional foresters and hunters in areas designated as critical habitat by American NGOs in the Global South. Looking at this history, it’s been hard for me to retain faith in the mainstream environmental movement, which remains overwhelmingly composed of middle and upper class white people, at least in the U.S., and remains willfully blind to much of its own history. And my doubts are especially strong when the issues in question relate to wilderness or other forms of land preservation.

So this thesis, as much as anything else, is an attempt for me to see how other people who care about the same issues I do view their place in the world, and in the two often contradictory movements they’re part of. It’s also an attempt for me to write about a subject I’m really interested in, and do work on the border, without contributing to the academicization (not a word, I know) of people’s lives and struggles. (I say attempt because it’s completely not up to me to decide if I’m successful in this endeavor.)

There’s a tendency in academia to research marginalized groups of people (undocumented migrants, for instance, or homeless queer youth) and publish things about their lives. The resulting papers get treated as insightful, and people read them and say, “Oh look, we didn’t know anything about these people, and now we do!” Often when this happens, the same group of people have been writing about their own lives and experiences for a while, and fighting for rights, recognition, etc., just not in a way which was visible, intelligible or meant for the consumption of academics. So then academics who aren’t part of said group get credit for studying them, and most likely, essentializing or inaccurately portraying or simplifying their lived experience. And those academics become noted and get to talk over the people they claim to be representing.

I’m not saying there can’t be benefits to this type of research: some researchers focus on advocacy or solidarity/reciprocity work as part of their research, and awareness, as well as tangible benefits, do come through this. (Whitman’s State of the State for Washington Latinos project strikes me as an example of this type of project done well, with ongoing connections to established groups, research needs dictated by community groups and half of the class time dedicated to advocacy/publicity). But tons and tons of white college students and white professors (and some non-white folks as well) have studied the border and immigration and undocumented migrants ad nauseum, and the benefits back to those groups and populations are often small if not zero when a college senior comes and visits for a few weeks to do a project and then leaves again with no further contact. I hope, that by studying individuals, rather than advocacy groups specifically, and by focusing on how a largely white population talks about environmental and immigration issues, I can at least do a thesis where I’m not trying to summarize the lived experiences of marginalized people. And I’m going to keep this issue in mind in my future career as a journalist, where I think those lines get even stickier and easier to cross in ways that can end up hurting people.

While I’m terrified about the prospect of getting all the legwork done in the next week and a half, I’m looking forward to chatting with some cool people while I’m in town. I’ve managed to drag Spencer (my boyfriend) down here with me, and he’s graciously agreed to hang out with me and drive me around town while I do interviews.

Stay tuned for more research updates, and also fun things that sound more exciting than “research updates.”

Immigration reform and invisible costs

Friday’s immigration announcement by President Obama was a great moment in a lot of ways. Seeing the reactions to his announcement that the Department of Homeland Security is stopping the deportation of DREAM Act eligible students was a good reminder of the spectrum of opinions that the U.S. population holds on immigration issues. Many people were celebrating, knowing that they might have an opportunity to work or continue their studies. Others were decrying the fact that this was done via executive action rather than Congressional legislation, claiming that this was nothing more than a political decision to appeal to Latin@ voters.

All of this has put me in a reflective mood about border and immigration policy, especially in the context of the massive wall that I cross at least twice a day now. One of the rallying points behind No More Deaths is that these issues shouldn’t be political—they’re human rights issues. I firmly believe that thousands of bodies piling up in southern Arizona’s deserts are a human rights issue. And in March, when I was here doing work in the desert, it was easy to see immigration in only those terms. The people I interacted with on a daily basis weren’t policymakers or strategists. They were people like me, except that they needed work and had the misfortune to be born on the wrong side of the line.

Perhaps the clearest part of being out in the desert was how visibly wrong and ineffective our border enforcement was. It seemed clear that people weren’t being deterred by the militarization or the wall itself. Crossing numbers are certainly down in recent years, but there’s no real way to tell if this is because of the U.S.’s poor economy, increased border enforcement, or both. What is clear is that plenty are still choosing to cross—it’s just that more of them were dying in the process. A week out there convinced me that our currently policies couldn’t continue for much longer, because they were inherently unsustainable. I figured that they would collapse under the weight of their own inhumanity, that reform could happen if enough people knew what was going on and called for change.

Now, I’m in an urban area, talking to tons of different people on a daily basis and hearing dozens of stories from migrants. A lot of them have left desperately poor town in central and southern Mexico, where a good wage is $30 a week. Some of them are my age, except instead of attending a liberal arts college and blogging about politics, they have a three-year old child at home who they need to support. Most of them aren’t coming to the U.S. to pursue higher education. Many of them don’t want to live there permanently or assimilate into U.S. culture. The majority are simply looking for work, having run out of options at home.

I was speaking to a group of women in the Migrant Resource Center where I’ve spent the past week working. They were discussing the poor wages in their home states that had led them to try to cross the border, while I chimed in occasionally with questions.

One of them turned to me and asked, “If you were in my position, if you couldn’t find any work at home and had four children to support, would you try to cross into the U.S.?”

I looked at her and froze for a moment, unable to answer because the circumstances of my life had never forced me to consider something like this. Eventually, I said, “I don’t know. But maybe. Probably.”

She nodded, looking satisfied. “Until you’ve been in this position, you don’t know what you would do,” she said.

In the desert, I heard stories like this and wished people safe passage. On the Mexican side of the line, though, these stories carry an entirely different meaning. The people who tell me these things have just been deported, and, with very few exceptions, most of them are headed back to the towns they came from in Mexico’s interior. Having seen the reality of the desert or the brutality of the Border Patrol (nobody I’ve spoken to who was in custody overnight was fed more than one meal, and most of them were housed in detention facilities where sitting down was impossible because of crowding), most of them are giving up and heading home.

From a political perspective, this is a win. Comprehensive immigration reform has been discussed for a long time in U.S. politics. All of the strategies I’ve heard rely on essentially three actions—providing a path to citizenship for the undocumented immigrants already here, changing our visa system to grant temporary work visas and possibly increase quotas for nations like Mexico with high demand, and increasing enforcement on the border to prevent unauthorized crossings. No matter how people feel about Mexicans or what to do with the undocumented folks once they get here, everybody seems to agree that preventing migrants from crossing illegally is a good thing. Policy, as much as it could aim to provide better jobs for Mexico or legalize those who’ve already made it here, is going to favor border militarization.

Out in the desert, it seemed like this couldn’t go on forever. The degree of suffering was so great, the injustices so stark, that I knew a better world couldn’t be too far off. From the city, though, abuse becomes mundane. The people I talk to everyday who come in dehydrated, forced into the back of vehicles which look like they’re designed to carry animals, crying because they can’t find work at home and don’t know what to do—all of them fade together, human casualties in a policy system which doesn’t care about their suffering. Which isn’t going to care about their suffering.

In the midst of all this, it’s good to know that the undocumented migrants who have already made it to el norte, who have lived there for years and built lives there, might be able to stay. But immigration reform which only tweaks our visa system isn’t going to solve the issue. Reagan’s 1986 comprehensive immigration reform—the last large-scale legalization we’ve had in the U.S.—was supposed to provide enough border enforcement to make sure people stopped crossing. And we all know how that worked out.

As long as there are people who are desperate to find work, I have to believe our border wall won’t make a difference. If we build a twelve foot wall, they’ll find a thirteen foot ladder, or so the saying goes. But being here makes me afraid that our awful policies are working in some twisted way, that the suffering I’ve seen this week is simply supposed to be another form of collateral damage.

The physical border is a space often forgotten in political discussions. We talk about who ICE chooses to deport in the U.S. and what it’s like to live life undocumented, always afraid that one misstep could get you sent back to a country you don’t remember leaving. We don’t talk about the border militarization in real terms, what it means for the people who live on either side of the line, who conduct their day-to-day lives perpetually in the shadow of that fence. We say we’re adding enforcement and agents, and people see it as a good or accept it as a necessary compromise to push for reforms in the system. We’re sold a specter of drug cartels and devious migrants sneaking across our borders, and we don’t often pause to consider what that added enforcement will mean or how many more bodies will pile up in the Arizona desert because of it.

I want comprehensive immigration reform, and I’m so happy to learn that many of the people I know won’t have to live with the specter of deportation hanging over their heads, at least for the next two years. I hope, though, that we can bring these spaces into our national dialogue too, that in our push for legalization of those already here, we don’t forget about those who would still come. I want us to see the human rights side even as we acknowledge its political dimensions. I don’t want the suffering in the desert, the costs on the Mexican side of the line, to forever remain invisible.

In which I respond to the people commenting on the NYT article about Obama’s executive order on immigration

So this morning, President Obama announced that undocumented students who would be covered under the DREAM Act will no longer be deported. This policy applies to people who are under 30, arrived in the U.S. before they turned 16, have been here for at least five years and have no criminal record. They also must be currently in school, have a high school diploma or served in the military.

Obama is essentially shifting policy through executive action, and while it’s similar to the DREAM Act, it doesn’t provide a path to legal citizenship for undocumented students. Instead, it grants a two-year “deferred action” during which an individual is essentially safe from deportation. People who are granted this deferral may then apply for work permits.

While this isn’t citizenship and doesn’t solve the immigration problem in the long term, it’s an important short-term step towards a more humane immigration policy. I was really excited reading the New York Times’ article about it, and then I decided to look at the comments. Where, naturally, I lost most of my faith in humanity.

Every time immigration comes up, people respond with all kinds of xenophobic, racist and just plain factually inaccurate stuff to justify their opposition to treating people like human beings. And I’m getting pretty sick of it. So, I’m going to pick a few choice comments from the NYT’s article and respond to them here. (Trigger warning: racism)

1) These people are illegals and by definition, criminals. Therefore they should all be deported as soon as possible.

Okay, first of all, “illegal” is an adjective, not a noun. So a person can’t be an “illegal.” But I digress.

U.S. immigration laws are civil, and violating them has historically been a civil offense, not a criminal one. Until very recently, it has been federal policy to apply prosecutorial discretion when criminally prosecuting people for violating immigration laws. This means that, except in rare cases where an undocumented immigrant committed a more serious crime, people are generally deported with only a civil infraction (the equivalent of a parking ticket) rather than a criminal conviction. Most people here illegally have never been convicted of any crime, in violation of immigration laws or otherwise.

This is now changing, as federal initiatives like Operation Streamline seek to criminalize unauthorized immigration to dissuade people from trying to come to the U.S., which brings me to my second point. Pointing out that someone has broken a law has no bearing on whether or not the law itself is just. Nobody is disputing that people who came to the U.S. in violation of its immigration laws have broken those laws. People are arguing that those laws are unfairly applied and have many, many unintended consequences which are bad both for the individuals affected and the nation as a whole. These consequences include familial separation, as well as large numbers of bright, ambitious students who are unable to attend college and contribute to the U.S. because they can’t afford tuition and aren’t eligible for financial aid because of their immigration status.

Which brings me to the they should all be deported line. As for that, I offer only this article. Next?

2) I am naturalized citizen who patiently and painstaking waited on line and went through the whole legal process. This is going to encourage more illegal immigrants crossing the border with children in tow and more anchor babies. This makes me sick to my stomach!

So, you waited in line and got legal residency. Good for you. (Seriously, good for you.)

Here’s the thing, though. U.S. immigration works on a quota system, where each country in the world has the same cap on the number of people who can get immigrant visas each year. In order to apply, you need to have a close relative, generally a sibling, parent or child, who is already a U.S. citizen (this is called an F4 application). If you’re from a country with very few applicants, like Iceland, awesome–you can get a visa pretty quickly. If you’re from a country like Mexico or the Philippines, you’ll be waiting a while. The wait for Mexico is currently somewhere between 15 and 20 years if you already have a close relative in the U.S. Waiting in line simply isn’t an option for many people, least of all those who were brought to the U.S. by their parents and have been living and going to school year for years.

In order to be eligible for Obama’s “deferred action,” someone must have already been living in the U.S. for five years. Trust me, this isn’t going to encourage anyone to cross the border who wasn’t already going to cross. And if you’re really concerned about more people crossing, your best bet would be to advocate for job creation programs in Mexico.

Finally, I’m not sure how some undocumented immigrants gaining legal rights in any way hurts or affects your status as a legal permanent resident.

3) Why don’t we just give them everything ELSE we’ve worked so hard for!
I was adopted from Italy years ago. And my parents had to spend time and money making me something I could be proud of.
And ” American Citizen.” It use to be an Honor to be an American Citizen. You use to have want it so bad you could tastes it.
Nowerdays Just dump the kid on the white houses door step say “I no speaka the english.” And wham! you an American Citizen. No questions asked.. But now They don’t have to work for it.

Nothing in this decision will make anybody an American Citizen. First of all. And many people who come to the U.S. without documents don’t want to be U.S. citizens–they simply want to come and work.

Second of all, there is nobody who came to this country without documents who didn’t work for it. Nobody. I’ve spent the past week in the Migrant Resource Center in Agua Prieta, Sonora. We help people who have just been deported get back home and provide food, water, clothing and basic medical care. I’ve heard dozens of individuals stories, each distinct, but with many common elements. People generally pay thousands of dollars to hire a pollero to bring them to the U.S.–this in a country where making less than $30 a week is common in many central and southern states. People walk for a week or more through the brutal heat of the Arizona desert to come to the U.S., and thousands of them have died in the attempt over the past decade. So don’t tell me people don’t work for this.

I’m going to ignore the racism in the comment about people not speaking English, except to point out that the U.S. doesn’t have an official language. But it is currently the exact opposite of easy to become a U.S. citizen, or to even get legal permanent residency.

Finally, and again, I’m not sure how some people getting more legal rights in any way diminishes or cheapens your citizenship.

4) So Obama is giving 800,000 illegal immigrants work permits. All US citizens who are out of work or have to work part time should figuratively spit in Obama’s face, since he is spitting in yours.

Ah, the jobs argument. First of all, undocumented students who apply for deferred action still have to apply to get a work permit, and I highly doubt all 800,000 of them will qualify.

With regard to the larger jobs issue: this is a pervasive anti-immigration argument, but I think it’s fundamentally flawed. First of all, a work permit isn’t a guarantee of work, so all this would do is give some undocumented students the same chance that U.S. citizens have to apply for the few jobs that are out there. I personally don’t believe that U.S. citizenship should magically confer a person with any more of a right to work than a non-citizen resident would have.

Even if you disagree, though, I would again point to this article. Often, the consequence of undocumented workers being removed is that produce is left to rot in the fields. Many other standard complaints, like that immigrants don’t pay taxes, are patently absurd as well. Immigrants pay sales tax, and those who work under fake social security numbers pay into both Social Security and Medicare, without being able to benefit from either of those programs (effectively subsidizing the rest of us).

There’s been a longstanding argument that immigrants do jobs U.S. citizens aren’t willing to do, and I think that’s often true. But the counterargument to that–that if we enforced immigration laws and cracked down, wages in agricultural labor would rise–seems compelling as well. So what do we do?

I’m not an economist and I don’t have an answer to that. My support of immigration reform and more visas is rooted in human rights, not economic arguments. I believe people have a right to migrate where they want to and to be treated like human beings while doing so. That said, I think it’s worth pointing out what is made visible and what is made invisible when we talk about immigrants “stealing American jobs.” The rise in immigration over the past few decades, specifically to the U.S. from Mexico and other Latin American countries, is largely due to trade liberalization agreements. Agreements like NAFTA and organizations like the WTO have lifted many international barriers to trade in the name of efficiency. One effect of this has been the collapse of the rural Mexican economy for many small farmers, pushing them to migrate north. Another has been the shipping of U.S. jobs overseas, largely to Asia, where labor is cheaper.

Regardless of how you feel about trade liberalization, I think the anti-immigration argument overlooks the structural nature of free trade. It’s telling that those who decry the effect immigrants are supposedly having on the U.S. economy, notably Republican (and many Democratic) policymakers, are much more silent on the free trade agreements which encourage U.S. jobs to be shipped overseas, as well as the factors which push migrants to the U.S. These are all complicated economic questions with room for debate, but a knee-jerk, “They’re taking our jobs!” is not going to lead to sensible policy on this issue.

5) The president does not have the constitutional authority to do this. Congress makes the laws.

There’s a legitimate conversation to be had here about the limits of executive power, and there’s certainly a problematic history of presidents using executive actions and policy shifts to do what they want. However, while Congress does make the laws, it’s the executive branch’s job to enforce them. Part of that means prioritizing certain methods of enforcement over others, which to my mind, is exactly what this is doing. The President has decided that applying U.S. immigration laws to students who have been in the country for years is not the best use of the government’s resources. Given the impossibility of deporting all 12 million undocumented immigrants currently living in the U.S., I’d have to say I agree. (There’s another conversation to be had about the construction of “good” vs. “bad” immigrants as it relates to the DREAM Act, but I’ll save that for later.) In the fact of a Congress which has thus far failed to pass any immigration reform laws, I think this action was both warranted and necessary.

6) What Mr. Obama did is pure politics. What kind of leadership is that?

and

Have we elected President Romney today?

We might have. Everybody is focused on the every growing population of Hispanics and as an article in the Times mentioned this week, they are forgetting that it is 2012 and not 2050.There are still many more non-Hispanic voters than Hispanic voters. A lower percentage of Hispanic people vote than do whites and blacks.

First of all, non-citizens can’t vote in elections. Which means nobody who is directly affected by this policy can vote. As far as the larger Hispanic community goes, of course this is a political act. Because everything the president ever does is a political act. Because he’s a politician. It’s entirely possible that President Obama realized that same-sex couples should be able to get married of his own accord, and that’s awesome. But the decision to announce that at the time he did was a political act. Pulling U.S. troops out of Iraq was a political act, just as George’s Bush’s decision to invade was a political act.

Just because something is a political act doesn’t mean it’s wrong, or corrupt, or immoral, or shallow. Politicians are always going to consider the potential effects on voters when taking stands on issues. I would argue that they probably should consider that, since they’re elected to serve voters. That doesn’t mean that Obama’s action was only about getting votes, and it doesn’t make his action any more or less valid.

Finally, I would like to point out that Hispanic and Latin@ people are not and should not be the only people who care about this issue. There are plenty of people who are concerned about undocumented immigrants who support this action wholeheartedly. As much as I’m critical of Obama, and the entire U.S. political system, I’m happy that we were able to make this small step forward, and I trust that many of my fellow non-Hispanic/Latin@ and white Americans are as well.

There you have it. I think I touched on all the major arguments I saw in the comments, though if I missed any, somebody should let me know. Immigrant rights are human rights, and while stopping the deportation of students isn’t enough to solve the problem, it’s certainly a step in the right direction.

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.