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The Plunder of South America

by DAVID Ker THOMSON

Andrés Dimitriu is taking mate as I meet him in a dark room that is not in any of the fancy university settings to which we might legitimately have laid claim.

Mate consumption is halfway between smoking a pipe and drinking tea, since the pleasure centers around the ingestion of a burning liquid from a bong-like apparatus.  The liquid is not meant to be sipped like, say, English PG Tips, but to flood the esophageal passageway in a short, hard burst.  The practice makes anyone from the gaucho nation-state look picturesque, but it is not a form of affectation.  It is as instinctual as a cup of coffee would be to a northerner.  Dimitriu seems not to notice that he even has the mate gourd in his hand.

If Dimitriu were just one more environmentalist with a string of self-serving connections on his resume, I’d have saved myself the walk over here.  Our people have been living in the waterways of our region somewhere between thousands of years and forever, but our territory is now occupied by the nation called “Canada.”  If you want to get an idea of the kind of “environmentalists” that disastrous experiment produces you can click on a site that offers to list green proponents of that nation-state.  I couldn’t get past the letter A myself.  A is for Angus, a member of the parliament that has been attacking our water for a century and a half, and Atwater, a mediocre writer much loved in these parts who madame-pimps on behalf of Apartheid Israel and Canada (Israel and Canada?  How’s that for a union somewhere between unholy and dorky?).

By contrast, Dimitriu’s a political ecologist who understands that nation-states are the problem, not the solution.  “People in Germany are eating sausages from pigs in China fed on the soy raised in Argentina.”  It’s not just an Argentine problem and can’t be solved with reference to Argentina alone, he points out.  Seventeen million hectares in Argentina devoted to soy (a colossal amount) are just the beginning.  “People in Europe and China and elsewhere are using the soy from Argentina, Paraguay, Uruguay, and Brazil for biofuels and to feed their cattle, pigs, fish farms, poultry, and millions of pets.  The circuit of ecocide is global and no one nation can be singled out for blame.”

It’s impossible to do justice to Dimitriu’s breadth of knowledge in a short article, but I jot down some tidbits from the passing flow.  “Corporate saqueo, plunder, produces hunger,” he says, not to mention “speculation over food, water, seeds, and arable land, nor the gentrification of national parks.  We have to be careful not to blame the victims.  The recipe of the nineteenth century was to blame the victims.  If there was a problem, you got rid of the people who were redundant: send famished Irish to America even as Ireland continues to export food.  These violent old recipes, well, we can’t do that anymore.  Do you execute massively?  Then go the path of Hitler.  To be radical is to be business as usual, those are the real radicals.”  As Andrés speaks it hits me how strong is the relationship between market fundamentalism and other forms of fundamentalisms.  “Old forms of agricultural enclosure are reasserting themselves.  Market fundamentalists are radicals, the violence is systemic and ongoing.  Things look okay from one perspective, the beach looks larger—market indicators are fine—but that just means the tsunami’s coming.”

Because he is not shackled by the need to defend South American nationalist projects, Dimitriu can clearly assess the predatory environmental instincts of apparently leftist leaders—those in Brazil and Venezuela come to mind, though Dimitriu sums up the dynamic with a mention of Evo Morales of Ecuador.

Admittedly, Dr. Dimitriu is a former Secretary of Communication of the Province of Rio Negro.  But that was in the 1980’s, when even Counterpunch’s Paul Craig Roberts was Assistant Secretary of the Reagan Treasury—and Roberts in this century at least is certainly an articulate and consistent champion of the little guy.  Non-shit happens.

Andrés Dimitriu is co-director of Theomai (an academic journal marked by, among other concerns, resistance to neoliberalism) and Professor in the Department of Communication at the Universidad Nacional de Comahue.  He is also associated with GRR (Grupo de Reflexión Rural).

Dimitriu thinks of himself as an ecologist rather than an environmentalist because this latter term evokes a self surrounded by an environment, something outside, as if the human consciousness were the center that made sense of the environment.  Political ecology, I gather, gets out more often, takes a look around.  Perhaps in this sense environmentalism is an insider’s view?

Political ecology is a sober discipline with its roots in anthropology.  I remember that in my own teaching in the early 90’s, the political ecologist Eric Wolfe was a big influence in thinking of nineteenth-century American chattel slavery not as an instance of inexplicable evil but as an intensification of global trade processes involving non-Europeans.  The research for Wolfe’s work was meticulous, cross-disciplinary, and global.  The mystifications of evil tend to let all but a few Hitler-like scapegoats off the hook, but careful attention to global trade—keep in mind that Wolfe was writing before globalization was a hot topic—embeds participants in their economic milieu and, as Counterpunch likes to say, “names the names.”

DAVID Ker THOMSON:  Andrés, I think you’ve said that 60% of arable land in Argentina is tied up in a single crop, soy.  You’ve described such monoculture as “chemical warfare.”  Dust-bowl conditions obtain throughout much of the country.  There were 42,000 kilometers of railroads in Argentina, now only 7,000 are left.  There’s been a general decline, but are there specific moments that stand out as politically disastrous?

Andrés Dimitriu:  The 90’s were mostly devoted to the transport of commodities, not people.  And this transport was not in the interest of regional economies.  It’s essentially a form of plunder.  The railroads at this time are reproducing the traditional pattern of the British towards ports—move wealth from the periphery to the core.  There’s a huge debt raised up under military rule and later under [president] Menem (a Peronist in all but name) who followed neo-liberal recipes. Of course there’d been a coup in the 30’s, but integration and privation in the 90’s finishes the process of dispossession and devastation today through the IIRSA [see infrastructure] plan.

A parallel issue is that there’s a privatization not just of the economy but of politics.  There’s a multiplication of foundations and NGO’s.  These are rarely compatible with Argentine interests, despite social, green, or human rights talk.  In the 90’s there were small-scale, molecular coup d’etats performed by banks and the financial system.  The telecommunication system has been privatized; huge money flows out of Argentina. Nothing has been left aside: industries, education, science and technology, health, agriculture, services. The telecommunication system, for instance, has helped to make shareholders happy…abroad; huge money flows out of Argentina every day. And coups d´état are not what they used to be. After the 90’s new and more profitable forms of social engineering proliferated, including the small-scale and even molecular. But there are more effective forms of control within strategic parts of the state, via bilateral agreements for instance, which are kept as far as possible away from [local, benign] social control and accountability. A good example of such behavior is (or was, because it was defeated by an international coalition of social and political forces in 1999) the MAI, Multilateral Agreement on Investment.

David:  Greenpeace wanted to come in to your area and concentrate on a single issue—cyanide.  But your instinct is to work more comprehensively, against “plunder.”  An excellent word, gesturing to the radical edge where big extractive industries become unstoppable pirates.  But is there a danger that “plunder” is too abstract, rather like the way “terror” has become an abstraction under which the empire engages in any number of activities?

Andrés:  Greenpeace responds functionalistically, to behavior.  Greenpeace rejects a single corporation such as Barrick [the gold company that pumps money into the University of Toronto], but what happens more broadly?  That’s what we want to know, and what we’re involved in.  The plunder we’re talking about is saqueo.  The old German concept, proposed more than a hundred years ago by critical geographers, puts it nicely: Raubwirtschaft [plunder economy, rapine].  Invading generals had a scale of compensations for the troops/shareholders in what has been ransacked.  Higher shares go to those closer to power.  Shareholders need to be surrounded by a certain tranquility.  Greenpeace creates a delegative democracy—they’re the green warriors in charge of these questions but the rest of the people are playing around with Facebook.  GP fans and members enjoy urban entertainment.  To resist robbery on this scale, you need more than one issue or chemical.  You can’t just reject the pulp mill, because behind that is commercial forestry, and behind that lie the mechanisms of certification and desertification.  The problem is systemic, or holistic if you wish.  It’s fine to deal with the symptoms, but you also have to go to deeper levels as well.  You can’t just move from issue to issue.  Well, you can, and corporations will applaud.

David: Readers of Counterpunch and Lowbagger, environmentally astute journals with which I’ve been associated, will typically understand the problems with supporting the big corporate-style “beltway” environmental groups with their instincts for making concessions to corporations.  But they’re often less familiar with the long history of political ecology, though it could be construed as a fellow traveler with grassroots environmentalism.  You’ve talked about how political ecology is the intersection of praxis and theories.  You study nature and society according to different frameworks—political, philosophical, and so on.  I hope to track the history of the movement in a subsequent article, referencing people you’ve mentioned like Murray Bookchin (social ecology) and Neil Evernden (ecophenomenology). But I want to ask you a bit more about the current academic climate.  The University of Toronto, one of the schools with which I’m associated, announced this week that an English teacher has won “Canada’s top teaching honour,” which turns out to be the 3M National Teaching Fellowship, offered in conjunction with The Globe and Mail newspaper.   It’s hard to pull clean money out of the academy.

Andrés:
Thirty universities and faculties in Argentina have refused mining money, and more will follow that example. Several organizations, unions, students and teachers associations have denounced secret agreements signed by educational authorities, and learned from previous experiences as discussed in the 60´s by one of our leading scientists, Oscar Varsavsky. Universities around the world are losing a certain autonomy they claimed to have.  I think here of David Noble´s America by Design or his Digital Diploma Mills, or [Les] Levidow’s work.  Joel Kovel has written a great book,The Enemy of Nature, and is or was director of the journal CNS (Capitalism, Nature, Socialism).  He’s one of many scholars who dispute the main assumptions of economicism and of growth orthodoxies. But this is not the path of the clubs of power that you can find gathering inside the artificial environments corporations want to fashion. Universities and/or research agendas have been co-opted by corporations, connecting faculties with corporate think tanks and interests…and that is presented as “working with the community.”

David:  Kovel has run afoul of the powers that be at my own Bard College, where I teach in the Language and Thinking Program, I can’t help noticing.  Ugh.  I attended your talk, “Plunder, Pollution, and New Enclosures” at the University of Toronto in April, but not in the place in which it was first advertised.  You refused to give it in the Munk Centre.  Peter Munk is the founder of Barrick, the world’s largest gold company, I believe, and contributes huge amounts of money to worthy enterprises at the University of Toronto, including wonderful environmental work on water issues.  The Munk Centre received $25 million from the Ontario government to work on global security.  You’re not persuaded?

Andrés:  Munk and his ilk represent “accumulation by dispossession”—David Harvey’s term.  Enclosures include a massive alienation of people from nature.  We’re left with entertainment.  Even left-wing or green entertainment—“fifty things you can do to save the planet—while Mansanto wrecks the planet.  Boludities. [absurdities] I have nothing against the small scale—to the contrary—but it has to be connected to the global without falling into the trap of naturalized hierarchies of power, typical of Nazi ideologies.  In the midst of such hierarchies you’ll have sacrificial zones, multiplying small and wealthy front stages isolated from horrendous back stages. D’you think that just mushroomed from nothing?  Nah!

DAVID Ker THOMSON reports from the Garrison Creek, Humber, and Dufferin Grove watersheds.   dave dot thomson at utoronto dot ca

 

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