House of Representatives to environment: Screw you, secure the borders.

The House of Representatives just passed HR 2578, an omnibus piece of legislation including HR 1505, the National Security and Federal Lands Protection Act. The final vote was 232-188, with most Democrats opposed and most Republicans in favor. The roll call vote tally is here.

This sneakily named bill gives the Secretary of Homeland Security authority to manage federal lands within 100 miles of both the U.S.-Canada border and the U.S.-Mexico border. This power is an expansion of Section 102 of the Real ID Act, passed in 2005, which gives the DHS Secretary authority to waive any federal laws during the construction of border enforcement structures, including the border wall. Because of that act, all major pieces of environmental legislation, including the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the National Environmental Policy Act (which mandates review of all environmental projects) and the Endangered Species Act have been waived during border wall construction and other border enforcement activities. Perhaps most insidiously, the law explicitly states that DHS waivers cannot be subjected to judicial review.

HR 2578 would extend essentially the same powers to all federal lands within 100 miles of either U.S. land border. It prohibits the Secretary of the Interior (responsible for National Parks and Bureau of Land Management Land) and the Secretary of Agriculture (National Forests) from interfering with Customs and Border Protection activities within this 100-mile area.

Let me say that again, really clearly. This law gives the Secretary of Homeland Security the authority to waive all environmental legislation within 100 miles of U.S. land borders.

Apparently, it’s not good enough that our border enforcement is killing hundreds of people every year. We also have to make sure that things like preserving wilderness areas don’t interfere with catching and deporting people trying to make it to the U.S. And lest you think this is about border security–the Department of Homeland Security and the Border Patrol have stated that this law is unnecessary for border security. The current system of interagency land management is working just fine for them.

The Senate still has to vote on this (it’s S.803, introduced by Arizona Senators Jon Kyl and John McCain). You can read up on the bill here, get the Sky Island Alliance’s talking points here (PDF), and go hereto take action and contact your Representatives and Senators.


The thesis explained

This blog is often bad about talking about my real life, but I’m going to try to be better about that this summer, especially while I’m here in Arizona working on my thesis. Basically, I decided to try to do as much work as possible on my senior thesis this summer, because next year I’m going to be editor-in-chief for the Pioneer, which is a 40-60 hour a week job. So my options for actually devoting time and energy to my thesis narrowed down to do-it-over-the-summer pretty quickly.

I’ve floundered on topics for a while. I started out thinking I’d do something about food politics in Walla Walla, possibly looking at food choice and poverty in supermarkets (original, right?). Once I realized that was some privileged bullshit and not ultimately very useful, I thought I might go back to Ecuador this summer and do more work around the mining conflict in Intag. But the prospect of trying to organize and pay for that trip was daunting, and I realized I needed more than a month to do that story justice (and wanted to spend at least part of the summer in Walla Walla working on some personal projects). Around that time, I went to the border to work with No More Deaths and came home very angry and inspired to learn more. Since then, I’ve been reading everything I can get my hands on about border politics and history and race in the U.S.

I talked to Aaron, my advisor, and he suggested doing a thesis looking at the Sierra Club’s stance on immigration. The Sierra Club has a very fraught history with immigration, going from a staunchly anti-immigration position (as a way of preventing U.S. population growth) to a neutral position, to current opposition to the border wall and other aspects of border enforcement policy.

I liked this as a starting point for a few reasons. My degree will be in politics and environmental studies, so I need to do something related to both. I also think that while personal stories of undocumented immigrants and the horrors of Border Patrol abuse are interesting, they’ve been done well by other groups. And I liked the idea of a thesis project that totally related to the border, but didn’t rely on interviewing marginalized people and asking them, “How much does your life suck right now because of my government being racist and generally terrible at life?”

The gameplan now is to spend a few days in Tucson doing interviews with any and everyone who has thoughts about immigration and the environment, then volunteer with No More Deaths for two weeks in Agua Prieta, Sonora, with migrants who have just been deported. Then I’ll be back in Tucson for about four days to do more interviews with local environmental and human rights/border organizations.

I had my first two interviews today and I’m already so excited to dive into this project. Aaron told me that if I want, I can do my thesis as a piece of longform journalism (with an accompanying literature review). I’m basically approaching my conversations with different activists and environmentalists in Tucson as part of an extended journalism project, and I already have so many great things to think about. Tomorrow, I have at least one more interview, plus a whole list of new people to contact. There are so many angles and issues to explore, from whether environmental groups can form effective coalitions with civil society groups advocating immigration reform, to the discourse over the environmental degradation caused by Border Patrol activities in the desert. I can tell that narrowing this thesis into a real topic is going to be a challenge, and I’m really looking forward to sorting it all out.

NOW AVAILABLE: Mining and democracy in Intag, Ecuador

For those of you who’ve been waiting for it (probably no one), I’ve finally translated my final study abroad paper into English. You can view and download the entire thing as a PDF here.

It’s a thrilling tale of mining companies, small-scale farmers turned activists, betrayal, lies, possible illegal cyanide dumping, long speeches at regional assemblies, journalism and constitutional law, and all for the low, low price of FREE!

Rachel’s Official Guide to Learning More About Shit Going on in the World

Quite frequently, I get people who ask me for recommended reading lists or a list of books they can read to be better informed about stuff going on in the world. After a number of friends from my study abroad program asked me to make a reading list for them so they could be more on top of politics and other news, I started thinking. While I do read a lot of nonfiction, the books I’ve read aren’t the only source of my knowledge about stuff. I spend at least as much time reading articles online, following people on Twitter and doing other things to stay informed. So rather than make a book list, I made this: Rachel’s Official Guide to Learning More About Shit Going on in the World. It’s a booklist with article links, recommendations for people to follow and stuff like that, vaguely grouped by topic, but generally sort of free form. It’s based on my personal experience and is thus completely subjective, noncomprehensive and biased. Hopefully this is helpful to everyone who wants to understand where my brain picks up the information it does. Comments, questions, criticisms and additions are highly appreciated/encouraged. I will also make additions as I encounter and remember more cool stuff. (Disclaimer: I am pretty damn far left of center, a fact which I make no apologies for, but which certainly informs my news sources and the things I choose to read. I think being better-informed is a nonpartisan activity, but my Twitter feed also doesn’t contain a single political commentator who self-identifies as conservative except the National Review Online. Just sayin’.)

a general note about finding cool stuff to read online

I get my online news primarily four ways:
1) Twitter. I follow a group of magazines, newspapers, journalists, bloggers, people who are paid to think, etc. My timeline thus usually somewhat reflects what’s going on in the world of lefty politics, environmental news and the like, without me having to individually check the websites of everyone cool who I try to pay attention to.

Some people I would highly recommend for having a well-rounded feed:

Pro Publica (nonprofit indie investigative journalism)
Grist (environmental news)
Feministing (awesome feminist blog)
Mother Jones (my favorite nonprofit journalists ever)
Colorlines (racial justice analysis and news)
RH Reality Check (reproductive and sexual health and access news)
AlterNet (leftist news)
GOOD (a magazine covering a variety of topics, generally into highlighting cool stuff people are doing)
Naomi Klein (author of The Shock Doctrine, commentator on various issues)
High Country News (news about the American West, strong environmental coverage)
Wikileaks (they open governments, apparently)
Al Jazeera English (great global coverage)
2) Reddit. If you’re unaware, reddit is a social news site grouped by topic. Basically, users can subscribe to different sub-reddits focusing on different subjects, which can be general (politics, environment) or very specific (Occupy Wall Street, guerrilla gardening). Users submit links to different sub-reddits, which are then voted up or down by other users. So the front page of any given reddit displays links that are the most well-liked by the community as a whole. And your personal front page displays the same for all the sub-reddits you subscribe to. It’s a pretty cool way of finding weird articles you otherwise might not about stuff you’re interested in. Plus, you can comment on links and generate discussions with other interested people.
3) and These two sites collect submissions of longform journalism–generally articles that take at least 10 or so minutes to read. They both post a few new articles each day. Longform has articles organized by topic, so if you want to learn a lot about a particular country or issue, it can be a great source. Longreads lets you search all their articles for keywords of interest. Both sites will also post content that’s timely, such as collections of articles about Steve Jobs right after he died. In general, they’re best for going deep into interesting or random things, or for people who just appreciate good writing, and less good for keeping up on current events.
4) The New York Times. While somewhat vanilla, it’s a damn good all-around general news source. If you’re not a subscriber, you can get access to something like 20 articles online per month free. Articles you click on links to (for example, via Twitter, Facebook, or email) don’t count against this limit. Another good daily general news sources is the BBC. Also The Economist.
One other thing: more than being about following the right people on Twitter or reading the best articles out there, being well-informed is mostly a choice. You have to decide that you’re going to dedicate a certain amount of time every day, whether it’s ten minutes or three hours, to figuring out what’s going on in the world. By all means, go for what you’re interested in. I follow reproductive healthcare issues very closely, because it’s something I care deeply about. I didn’t pay as much attention to the Arab Spring as I probably should have, because it just didn’t grab me. There are far too many things going on in the world for you to ever know all of them. Don’t let it stop you from getting started.
Now then, here are some specific topics I care about with books and articles that I think are especially helpful for understanding them.
food and food politics
1) books
The Omnivore’s Dilemma—Michael Pollan
The classic explaining what’s wrong with our industrial food system, especially industrial meat and corn, and how we might go about fixing it. Not a great analysis of some key food justice issues, like food deserts and access to healthy options, but a great introduction to what’s out there.
Fast Food Nation—Eric Schlosser
I actually like this a lot better than Omnivore’s Dilemma. It explores the history of fast food and looks at industrial potato farming, flavor additives, slaughterhouses and a whole bunch of other related issues. My favorite part is the fact that he looks at industrial meat production from a labor standpoint, not just from a this-is-gross-and-unethical perspective.
Animal Factory—David Kirby
For people interested in factory farms, this book is a nice break from the usual literature focused on animal torture and gross health violations. It focuses on the efforts of local activists in rural areas (all self-identified Republicans) to stop factory farms near their homes because of human health and odor concerns. It’s a refreshingly personal and unique perspective.
Stuffed and Starved—Raj Patel
This is an awesome book about global food politics. It’s a bit academic in tone, and has been criticized for being one-sided with regard to the causes of poverty in developing countries. But I think it has a ton of interesting perspectives about government food policy, genetically modified crops and a bunch of other important topics.

Tomatoland: How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit—Barry Estabrook
The title of this book is somewhat misleading, because the majority of it is actually about the slave labor used to grow most Florida tomatoes and the way undocumented immigrants are exploited for cheap fruit (which, in my opinion, is even more interesting). Though it also talks about tomato genes, organic producers and a few other things. But anyway, it’s an awesome book, whether you’re into good food, social justice, immigrant rights, or whatever.

Sweet Charity: Emergency Food and the End of Entitlement—Janet Poppendieck
This is an awesomely thought-provoking book. The author essentially argues that food banks and other food giveaway things have done more harm than good in addressing food insecurity in the US. She discusses how American values, such as not wasting food, inform the kinds of actions being taken to address hunger, and how the concept of “poverty” has been almost completely redefined as an issue of “hunger”.

Empty Pleasures: The Story of Artificial Sweeteners from Saccharin to Splenda—Carolyn de la Pena
A great cultural history of artificial sweeteners, including where they came from, how they were marketed, how gender and a desire for “control” played into their popularity and how efforts to regulate or control them have been resisted.

2) articles
On Racialicious, an awesome essay about growing up in a food desert.
My own blog post from this summer: what I learned about food justice and food “choice” during two years behind a checkstand.
How Goldman Sachs gambled on starvation.
From Foreign Policy magazine, the new geopolitics of food.
The Seattle Times explores what quinoa’s rising popularity in affluent countries has done to Bolivia and other exporters.
3) blogs and sites for news
Tom Philpott, food blogger for Mother Jones
Raj Patel’s blog

financial crisis
In general, there are a few great journalists who have covered the collapse very well from different angles.
Matt Taibbi at Rolling Stone has some great articles explaining how we got here and ranting about the moral bankruptcy of Wall Street. He’s also written a few books about the crash, most recently Giftopia, which would be good for further reading. Among his articles, these are my favorites:
-Is the Securities and Exchange Comission (SEC) covering up Wall Street crimes?

Michael Lewis of Vanity Fair has also written extensively about the collapse, focusing more on the Euro Zone. His article on Greece, “Beware of Greeks Bearing Bonds“, is a great explanation of the state of Greece’s economy. He’s also covered Ireland and what all these failing Euro countries will mean for Germany. He’s written several books as well–The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine, which explores the housing market/derivative crisis through the eyes of people who saw it coming; and Boomerang: Travels in the New Third World, which looks at the economies that have been collapsing around the world.

Bethany McLean, also with Vanity Fair, has covered investment baking for a while (she was one of the journalists who broke the Enron story). She has an excellent article exploring the disconnect between how we see Goldman Sachs and how the company sees itself, post-crash, and another piece on the history of Merril Lynch and how its corporate culture contributed to the mortgage crisis.

A German paper, Spiegel, did an excellent, if somewhat dry, series explaining the collapse of the Euro Zone very clearly. (Parts one, two and three.)

Mother Jones, my favorite magazine ever, has a timelinefrom 2008 tracing the history of the housing/financial crisis.

American society/culture/labor
Reefer Madness—Eric Schlosser
By the Fast Food Nation guy, this book explores the underground economy in the US by looking at three markets: marijuana, porn, and illegal immigrant labor. It’s a fascinating history of drug wars, obscenity laws and a bunch of other random things.

Methland—Nick Reding
One of my favorite books ever. It explores what the meth epidemic has done to small-town America, which means that in addition to being about drugs, it talks about the crippling effects that job loss and industrial agriculture have had in rural areas.

Nickle and Dimed—Barbara Ehrenreich
A classic from the mid-90s. The author goes “undercover” and works a variety of minimum-wage jobs to see how hard it is to survive. Not the most eye-opening today if you pay attention to the real world, but it puts a face on problems that can seem abstract.

The Working Poor—David Shipley
Kind of a more modern updated of Nickle and Dimed, the authors goes around and interviews a bunch of working poor people. It’s a nicely balanced book—the fact that some of the individuals he profiles have made bad choices or have problems like drug addiction isn’t glossed over, but Shipley also looks at structural factors that have kept working people in poverty.

The single best summary I’ve ever read of Ayn Rand’s crazy libertarian/”Objectivist” philosophy, why the right is infatuated with it, and why it’s completely wrong.

environmental stuff
Cadillac Desert—Marc Reisner
A classic looking at the history of dam building in the US, mostly the American West. It examines the politics that led to so many stupid dams getting approved and some of the financial and environmental ramifications.

Dead Pool: Lake Powell, Global Warming and the Future of Water in the West—James Powell
A more updated book about Western water politics, looking at the future of the Colorado River Basin as global warming starts diminishing water supplies.

Chasing Molecules—Elizabeth Grossman
An environmental chemistry exploration of biologically pervasive molecules (like flame retardants and dioxins) and the health effects they’re having on people. Informative and easy to read.

Endgame (Volume 1: The Problem of Civilization and Volume 2: Resistance)—Derrick Jensen
This is by one of my favorite authors, the anti-civilization activist Derrick Jensen. He’s very radical, and I disagree with him on several key things, but his writing does a beautiful job of tying together seemingly disparate problems like pollution, sweatshop labor, the prison-industrial complex and rape. Other good books of his to check out are A Language Older Than Words, The Culture of Make Believe and Thought to Exist in the Wild: Awakening from the Nightmare of Zoos.

If a Tree Falls: The Story of the Earth Liberation Front
An awesome documentary about ELF which raises great questions about what kinds of activism are effective, what should be considered terrorism, etc. Available on Netflix Instant as well.

FLOW: For Love of Water
A documentary looking at corporate privatization of the world’s water supplies. Also on Netflix Instant.

US-Mexico border/immigration
The Devil’s Highway—Luis Alberto Urrea
The story of the Yuma 14, a group of 26 Mexican migrants whose story started with a journey across the Arizona desert and ended with fourteen of them being flown home in bodybags. A great examination of the way US border policies contribute to deaths in the desert, beautifully written.

Amexica: War Along the Borderline—Ed Vulliamy
The most comprehensive border book I’ve ever read, tying together the drug trade, illegal immigration, the rise of maquilas, the effects of free trade agreements, the murders and violence in Ciudad Juarez and elsewhere, poverty and everything else you can think of. He’s also written an article for The Nation, As Juarez Falls.

Murder City: Ciudad Juarez and the Global Economy’s New Killing Fields—Charles Bowden
Bowden has covered the border for at least 20 years, and his latest book looks at the violence in Ciudad Juarez as a phenomenon that has gone beyond a simple explanation, like drug wars. He argues that Juarez has reached a tipping point where violence is part of the social order and that the breakdown of Juarez tells us a lot about the future of global capitalism.

The New York Times Magazine looks at the relationship between the border cities of Ciudad Juarez, the murder capital of the world, and El Paso, Texas, one of the safest cities in the US.

Business Week examines the labor market in the US in the wake of Alabama’s strict immigration laws. Turns out a lot of Americans don’t want to do the jobs left behind.

development, aid, international relations, global issues
The Shock Doctrine—Naomi Klein
If you want to read one book to learn as much as possible about the world, read this one. It’s a history of the way neoliberal economic theory (privatization, deregulation, etc.) has been applied all over the world by the US, the IMF and the World Bank, for the benefit of private corporations and wealthy/powerful individuals, usually with disastrous consequences for the people actually living in these countries. Even if you believe that neoliberal policies have benefited these countries in the long run, it sheds light on the complete lack of democratic process which often accompanies Chicago School economic policy.

Half the Sky—Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn
A look at the ways women are oppressed around the world, from sex slavery to maternal mortality, which highlights NGOs and initiatives that are making a difference. Focuses more on local, grassroots groups than on big NGOs like CARE and Heifer International, which I like (though those guys are in there too).

An awesome interview with Michael Maren, a former Peace Corps volunteer and aid worker, analyzing why aid has been completely useless for developing countries. (Another book, The White Man’s Burden by William Easterly, also argues this thesis. I haven’t read it personally, but it’s supposed to be pretty good.)

GQ has an awesome three-part series on the international sex trade. Part one is about sex clubs in the Philippines, part two is about sex trafficking and part three looks at sex tourism in Costa Rica.

My hometown paper, the Seattle Stranger, has a series investigating why cocaine showing up in Seattle was being cut with levamisole, a cattle deworming drug that can kill you. On the way, the author uncovers a bunch of interesting information about the global cocaine trade. Part one looks at the levamisole-tainted cocaine in Seattle, part two investigates the global trade and part three looks at the death toll from the last 100 years of US drug policy and argues for legalization as the best solution.

Although I often take issue with his conclusions, Malcolm Gladwell’s essay Small Change: Why the Revolution Will Not Be Tweeted is a great look at the limits of social media inspired activism.

Generation Why? One of the best essays I’ve ever read. It’s a review of The Social Network, a critique of Facebook and a plea for our generation to do something better without being condescending.

How Google Dominates Us: a much-needed synthesis of the most recent books about Google exploring privacy, their search algorithms, and the ubiquity of Google in our lives

Wired on Amazon’s increasing domination of the Internet.

A profile of Sheryl Sandberg, the Google VP who left to become the Chief Operating Officer for Facebook. Also one of the few women in Silicon Valley.

The Great Tech War of 2012: Apple vs. Amazon vs. Facebook vs. Google.

I read way too much about the future of journalism on the internet, but this Columbia Journalism Review piece is one of my favorites. It calls into question many of the agreed-upon solutions for the future of news, like that news organizations will become less prominent and we’ll see more “citizen journalism”. It argues that specialized knowledge and expertise is still important for news to serve its watchdog function.

feminism, gender, sex, LGBTQ
Yes Means Yes: Visions of Female Sexual Power and A World Without Rape—edited by Jessica Valenti and Jaclyn Friedman
I cannot recommend this book highly enough. It goes way beyond rape to look at the ways society constructs female sexuality, issues of consent, and how we can go about building a better model of sexuality that will help everyone have more fulfilling sex lives and relationships.

The Madame Curie Complex: The Hidden History of Women in Science—Julie des Jardins
Using Marie Curie as a starting point, the author looks at the role women have played in scientific discoveries, and the ways narratives of women in science are constructed to fit in with society’s standards for “acceptable” roles for women.

Dan Savage, America’s sex columnist, on the virtues of nonmonogamy for saving marriages.

Teaching Good Sex: a novel sex ed class at a high school in Pennsylvania.

A good overview of feminism and its history from Bitch magazine.

Savior vs. Savior: Looking at the murder of Dr. George Tiller, an abortion provider by Scott Roeder, an anti-abortion activist.

Schrodinger’s Rapist: A Guy’s Guide to Approaching Strange Women Without Getting Maced

Queering Ecology: Orion Magazine looks at queer behavior in the animal kingdom

Feministing: general feminist news and commentary
Feministe: general feminist news and commentary
Savage Love, Dan Savage’s sex advice column, which is awesome
Microagressions, a Tumblr which looks at people’s daily experiences with sexism, racism, etc.

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.

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.

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.