Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Another retirement challenge: keeping fear of crime in perspective

This week someone broke into my home and stole my laptop. I was upstairs at the time and had stupidly left the back door open. I’ve been careless about this for many years and have been lucky. We’ve only had one robbery in the past 20 years—-someone broke into our garage and stole a power mower.

Breaking into your garage is real different from having somebody break into your home. The sense of violation is hard to shake and especially so when you’ve come face to face with the robbers. I went downstairs and into our small sunroom which opens into our back yard and found the door wide open. Then I noticed the missing laptop and the disconnected phone. I locked the door to the sunroom, went back to the kitchen to get a functioning phone and then walked back to the sunroom and saw 3 teenagers at my back door. Obviously they had come back for more, no doubt hoping the door would still be open. I screamed and they ran away. But the image of the three of them ready to break in is something I can’t shake. I really wish I hadn’t seen their faces.

I think 20 years ago, maybe even 10 years ago I’d have had an easier time putting it in perspective. I’d tell myself—it was just a lap top. I wasn’t beaten up, they didn’t get my pocket book with all my credit cards, they didn’t go on a rampage and destroy the house. I would have taken more precautions and eventually forgotten about it.

But now that I’m in my 60’s I’m feeling more vulnerable. I spend a lot of time working in my garden and have never worried about personal safety, but then at this stage in my life I can’t run all that fast and I am certainly in no shape to fend off any teenage attackers. My garden is my refuge and now I’m not so sure I want to be out there when my husband is not home. And the days of going out in the garden and leaving the back door open are over.

And then there is the issue of fear of young back men. I don’t like that feeling and I know of course that the vast majority of young black men are not criminals. But as I live in a majority black neighborhood, the young men who break into my house are most likely to be black. If I lived in neighborhood adjacent to a poor white neighborhood my fears of young men wouldn’t be so focused on young black men. Since our neighborhood is just not rich enough to attract sophisticated career burglars, the people likely to break into my house will be teenagers and probably black teenagers. I want to resist looking at any young black man who comes to my front door with suspicion. When I was younger, I had a much easier time resisting those stereotypes. Now that I’m old and more vulnerable, that suspicious response is harder to resist. This feeling is just as unsettling as the sense of violation. I really wish I hadn’t seen their faces.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Global Exchange Environmental Justice Trip: Ecuador, A Microcosm of Environmental Justice and Injustice: Part II

An Eco-success Story

From my friend Fran Gilmore:
So if Junín represents a partial and maybe temporary victory, Yunguilla is a success story, albeit of a different kind. A small community of about 50 campesino families, nestled in the mountains north of Quito, Yunguilla used to support itself by raising cattle, farming and cutting down trees to make charcoal. In 1995, a small group of 15 families (the 15 crazies, as they became known), suggested they try to find a more sustainable way to make a living.

People were doing fine, and so there was initially a lot of resistance to change. But gradually new enterprises were introduced. In 1996, a group of 18 women, mostly wives of the crazies, began producing jam, using organically grown fruit, grown on site. Later a cheese making process was added. We saw both enterprises, which are small scale, each in a room no more than 15 feet square. The community is also running a large nursery aimed at reforesting the areas with native trees and plants. Finally, in 1998 the United Nations sponsored their first ecotourism project. Their facilities were quite attractive, but we didn't stay overnight, so I can't speak to the details.

Germán Collaguazo, the leader who spoke to us, said one of the biggest obstacles they had to overcome was people's feelings of inferiority or incompetence, as mestizo campesinos--an attitude some of us would call internalized racism. But eventually, 38 of the families came around, the remaining 12 being mostly elders. Only three or four families chose not to participate.

Most interesting was how the governance of the community changed. Initially they created the Yunguilla Corporation, but soon decided that this capitalist model wasn't adapted to their highly participatory community. So they created their own development model, which stated that the company is community-owned, and that work teams would be created with different responsibilities. There is no one leader; they feel it is more important to keep creating new leaders. Governance is done by a General Assembly with decision-making power. The teams implement the decisions.

Germán said that self-esteem and solidarity have gradually increased, though it is hard to maintain a high level of participation among all the families, because people are very busy. But many youth are taking leadership roles, which gives hope for the future.

Chernobyl of the Amazon.

I've saved the bad news for last--the rape of the Amazon by Texaco, and later other oil companies. The drilling began in 1972 and continued for nearly 20 years, in primary rainforest along the Napo River, a tributary of the Amazon. The government of Ecuador at the time was corrupt in the extreme, and also inept, insofar as it permitted the oil exploration while gaining only about 5% of the profits. The story has had some news coverage in the US press, and so may be known to readers, so I won't attempt to recap it, but to just point to a couple of important aspects. (For those who want to read the gory details, there is an excellent article in Vanity Fair , May 2007, called Jungle Law, by William Langewiesche.)

First, the scale of the damage is monumental, leading some to refer to the whole debacle as the Chernobyl of the Amazon. According to the Vanity Fair article,

over the 17 years that Texaco operated...the pipeline suffered 27 major breaks and spilled nearly 17 million gallons of oil, much of which was not cleaned up....For comparison, the Exxon Valdez spilled 11 million gallons. More to the point, over the first quarter-century of its life...the 800 mile Alaskan pipline spilled only 1,675,000 gallons--almost all of which was cleaned up.

Even these large numbers are dwarfed by the BP spill, which was of upwards of 100 million gallons. In addition to the spills, what they call "produced water"--a mix coming up from deep in the earth with the oil and usually quite toxic--was simply left in pits. (In the US, the produced water is re-injected deep into the ground). Does this remind you of the fracking process for natural gas, now being foisted on our own state by a government in the pockets of the oil and gas industry?)

Texaco "remediated" some of these pits--by covering them with soil! At least one pit was left completely alone
unremediated pit

The "remediated" pits are a big problem. When it rains, the oil bubbles up to the surface and continues to cause health problems and foul odors. In my small knowledge of environmental remediation, the term usually means carting away all toxic material to some burial site and replacing it with clean soil and/or water. Not sprinkling soil on top, like powdered sugar on a cake.

Oh, did I forget to mention--this whole area was populated while the drilling went on. The polluted waterways were the drinking water, fishing grounds and laundromat for many indigenous communities. As you might expect, health problems have skyrocketed in this population: there are high rates of cancer, abortion, and skin and respiratory problems. All in all, 30,000 people were affected.

We went to one remediated site, with the old closed off well head still on it, as well as the house of Mercedes Jimenez. It is a small, apparently 1-room house, with no glass in the windows. Fortunately, the porch has been fitted with a large 2-tank water purification system, so the family doesn't need to drink polluted water. In the picture, you can see our group in front of the house, and a guide has just dug up a blob of gooey black stuff, from less than two feet under the surface.

So what has been done? A coalition of indigenous groups has been fighting in the courts for 18 years. First they sued Texaco in the US, but a judge ruled that American courts didn't have jurisdiction over the case. So they sued in Ecuador. The case became complicated, as Chevron since bought up Texaco, and drilling has continued to this day under Petroecuador (though with better environmental controls in the latter case). It has been a very long struggle, during which the next generation of Amazonians were aborted, born with birth defects, or subject to their own illnesses as adults. We saw a documentary, which included an interview with a middle aged woman and her daughter, both of whom have cancer. The daughter was diagnosed shortly after getting married, and subsequently had a miscarriage.

Finally this past February, an Ecuadorian court in Quito ruled in favor of the indigenous groups, and required Texaco (now Chevron) to pay approximately 8 billion dollars for reparations. Chevron has sworn it will not cough up a penny (they've already done remediation!) and has appealed. If history is a predictor, they never will. The plaintiffs have also appealed, saying the amount is not enough.

And so it goes on. If you follow environmental injustice around the world, you will know that there are few victories against corporations. Shell Oil, for example, managed to pollute the Niger Delta and force an entire ethnic group, the Ogoni people, from their homeland. Like the Amazonians, they lived from the land and water, making their living primarily form fishing. Post oil pollution, this was no longer possible. To my knowledge, there have been no consequences for the company, though indigenous leaders have been persecuted for fighting back. I read in the paper in late July that the Republo-fascists have reported a bill out of committee aimed at emasculating the EPA. So as corporations gain further ascendancy here, we can expect some of these environmental disasters at home.

It's time to get together people!

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Ecuador: A Microcosm of Environmental Justice and Injustice: Part I

From my friend Fran Gilmore:

Ecuador: A Microcosm of Environmental Justice and Injustice
Report of a Global Exchange Environmental Justice Trip

In was entirely appropriate that we visited the tiny village of Junín on the 4th of July. Junín is located in the Intag River Valley, a lush cloud forest northwest of Quito, which is home to one of the world's most bio-diverse protected areas, the Cotacachi-Cayapas Ecological Reserve. Unfortunately it is also home to a number of minerals, known since the 1990s, including copper, which was discovered by Mitsubishi. Ever since, various mining enterprises have sought and are seeking digging rights.

Some towns in the valley have succumbed to the potential financial boost of mining, but not Junín. They saw the impacts of exploration from 1990 to 1996. Road building led to mud slides near their village; along the roads came trucks with machinery and chemicals which contaminated the Intag River. The river was used to dump sewage and garbage. Children began to show skin problems from contact with the river.

Residents of Junín joined with neighboring communities to oppose mining. With help from national and international organizations they went to work. They obtained the Environmental Impact Study (EIS) done by Bishi Metal, a Mitsubishi subsidiary, which said that the mining would result in removal of at least 100 families and creation of a mining town of 5,000 people, 10 times larger than the largest villages in Intag. In addition, the environment would suffer massive deforestation leading to desertification, contamination of water sources with lead and other heavy metals, and loss of dozens of mammals and bird species, as well as damage to the adjacent Ecological Reserve. Some residents visited a copper mining area in Chile, and indeed what they saw was desert--nothing else.

The corrupt local government not only didn't help them, but collaborated with the company to file legal cases against villagers for sabotage and terrorism. In response, the communities went in 1998 to the Interamerican Commission on Human Rights (of the OAS), saying their struggle was in defense of life and the environment. I have not been able to find out about the results of that case. In any event, calm prevailed until 2003, when the government gave rights to the same land to a Canadian copper mining company.

The company began buying land all over the area, and also buying off local leaders, which successfully divided communities and families. Resistance increased, including building a gate to bar entrance to the area. The company sent paramilitaries from the Ecuadorian Army to harass the villagers. When the paramilitaries couldn't get into the community, they climbed high into the mountains. The opposition, unarmed, climbed after them in the night, and conducted a people's arrest. They detained the paramilitaries for 9 days, and invited in the international and national media.

We saw a dramatic documentary of this incident, and were addressed by one of Junín's leaders, compañero Polivio Pérez.

This did finally get the attention of the Ecuadorian government. It was a partial victory, as the concession is no longer located on their land. But the communities still have not healed from the divisions created, and there is no guarantee that mining will not continue all around the area. Our guides told us that while the current president Rafael Correa is extremely progressive, and trying to help the poor in all ways he can, pave the roads and build up infrastructure, he needs funding. The only way to procure all this funding, he feels, is to develop oil and mining all over the country. He has thus lost the support of the very large and strong indigenous movement.

In the meantime, Junín is developing alternative sustainable projects, including production of shade-grown coffee, sugar, and ecotourism. We stayed at their lodge for a few days while we learned about their struggle and saw their enterprises. The lodge is very rustic and even primitive by tourist hotel standards. But it sufficed and was graced by the cooking, however basic, of compañeras in the struggle.

But Junin is not out of danger. The Ecuadorian government is partnering with the Chilean company, Codelco, the largest copper mining company in the world. While Codelco denied it is planning to explore Junin, one of its executives recently proclaimed, “We are going to start the most systematic exploration in Ecuador.” Several international mining companies are exploring gold and marble mining in other parts of Intag.

Some would say that the 4th of July represents a notable but now precarious victory for liberty in this United States, as we witness the takeover by corporations and their flunkies at all levels of government. That is why I say it was appropriate that we visited Junín on that day.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Dominique Browning's Slow Love: A Good Read Despite the Class Blinders

When BlogHer Announced Dominique Browning's Slow Love as one of options for the BlogHer book club, I wondered if given all the suffering of the millions of unemployed Americans, I could muster any sympathy for a very affluent woman who had lost her dream job. I decided, with some apprehension, to give it a try and my answer is a qualified yes. Despite Brown’s class blinders, her engaging writing style drew me in.

Browning had the advantage of not being singled out; the magazine she edited, House and Garden folded and all its employees were out of a job in one fell swoop. She also had the advantage of owning two houses—one which from the description appears to have been a very expensive house in the NYC suburbs, the other a recently refurbished vacation home on the Rhode Island coast. One of the most moving parts of the book was her description of the pain she felt about leaving a house she loved:

The problem is simple: I am in love with my house. I found it. I'm the one who, as a young wife and mother, recognized its potential under the layers of eccentric neglect. I directed its res- urrection and the renovation. I bought it again when our marriage faltered. I battled my way out of the depression that settled
over me after the divorce by slowly bringing my house back to gracious, hospitable life. I have spent years basking in the beatitude of this home… .

I can relate to this. I too am in love with my house. I’m 66, my husband is 70 and we both intend to stay here as long as we can. But I know that sooner or later, one way or another, I will leave the house I love. After my husband and son, there is nothing I love more than my house. It is certainly not prime real estate like Brown’s and I’m sure her garden was in better shape. (She was the editor of House and Garden after all) But my guess is my passion for my old house is as strong as hers.

Coming to terms with loss is a universal experience and for Browning there was the loss of her job, her house, and a long-term relationship. Her dysfunctional relationship with Stroller was one of the more perplexing parts of the book. What in the world did she see in someone so self- important, so self- absorbed? Eventually she faces reality and ends the relationship. Or so I thought. I was surprised to read in the acknowledgements:

Many thanks to Stroller for reading this manuscript with care and concern, and taking the time to comb thorough the pages, pointing out distortion and delight alike.

I sure hope for her sake this does not mean the relationship continues!

I especially liked Browning’s descriptions of gardening and of the aesthetics of everyday life. It takes so many of us a long time to learn how to savor the beauty and pleasures of everyday life:

All those inner resources that I have spent a lifetime developing have finally started kicking in again-those soul-saving habits of playfulness, most of all: reading, thinking, listening, being a friend, simply feeling my body move through the world, and finally, being open enough to notice the small beauty in every single day. The healing balm was there all along, nestled in a sofa that beckoned me to pick up a book, hovering outside the window inviting me to take a walk. It was just a matter of finding room in my life again for everything I love, and letting the
quiet of solitary moments steal over my heart.

On balance, I enjoyed the book but it was a demonstration of how those with economic privilege live in a class cocoon. They may be thoughtful engaging people, they may be good friends, and good parents etc., but writers like Brown can seem so oblivious to the pain outside their charmed circle.