Tag Archives: culture

Sustainable Development, Derailed

train-derailment-sept-ilesOn Thursday of last week, an avalanche derailed a Quebec North Shore and Labrador Railway freight train owned by Iron Ore of Canada as it made its way north along the banks of the Moisie River.

Divers recovered the body of Enrick Gagnon, the train’s engineer,  just this morning. The train’s lead locomotive is still completely submerged in the Moisie and another is partly submerged. Each locomotive holds about 17,000 litres of diesel fuel, and a 20 kilometer slick — “a silvery layer” — has spread over surface of the Moisie. The train was not hauling ore; its freight compartments were empty for its northbound run.

The Moisie and its watershed are part of a designated aquatic reserve, so the river is technically protected from mining activity; but so far as I can tell, the 16 mile stretch that the Quebec North Shore and Labrador Railway line runs along the Moisie was built in 1954, when mining first began in the region, and more than fifty years before the Quebec government published its conservation plan.

One stated aim of that plan is to protect native species, including and perhaps especially the Atlantic salmon running in the Moisie. As nearly every report on the Moisie catastrophe notes, the pristine waters of the remote northern river are internationally renowned for salmon fishing.

For the Innu of Uashat mak Mani-utenam, whose traditional territory the Moisie crosses, the river is much more: it is, in the words of one newswire report, a thing of “inestimable cultural value.”  So development in Innu territory continues to risk the inestimable for the merely estimable: in this case iron ore, jobs, growth. The Innu, who call themselves “the true owners of the land,” say they never consented to the tradeoff, and that the mining operation in their territory violates “international law, particularly the principle of ‘free, prior and informed consent.’”

Now, with this trainwreck, the Innu have an environmental crisis on their hands; but over the past couple of decades, the Innu say, they have also witnessed a gradual and “cumulative” effect on the environment and their community due to “the intensification of industrial activities” in the Sept-Îles region.

Iron Ore of Canada has a lock on the region’s economy, and development opportunities in the Labrador Trough are, in the words of IOC’s CEO Zoe Yujnovich, “potentially unconstrained.” Rio Tinto, which owns the majority stake in IOC, recently increased annual production capacity for the region from 18 to 23 million tons of ore concentrate, and plans to open a new mine called Wabush 3 to help meet that goal.

A 2013 publication touting Rio Tinto’s “Sustainable Development” plan for the region notes that the additional revenue generated by IOC’s “wholly owned rail company” will keep pace with growth: “use of the railway is set to increase significantly in the next few years as a result of our own expansion projects and junior mining startups in the area.” In other words, more trains than ever will be traveling along the Moisie, from Labrador to Sept-Îles Junction.

Did Werner Herzog Just Produce The “Red Asphalt” of Our Day?

Werner Herzog’s new documentary-style PSA against texting while driving, From One Second to the Next, is beautifully shot and edited. Its four stories, which revisit tragic accidents and ruined lives, are presented simply and compassionately, with an eye and an ear for telling little human details.

Still, I have to wonder how this film — which Herzog’s sponsor, AT&T, will distribute to “more than 40,000 high schools, as well as hundreds of safety organizations and government agencies” — will play with teen drivers. From One Second does not wag admonitory fingers and avoids the good-cop scare tactics of old California Highway Patrol road-safety movies like Red Asphalt or Wheels of Tragedy, but its emotional range is limited enough that after watching 3 of the 4 stories Herzog presents here I felt I had had enough of the same tones and colors.

More importantly, the film’s pacing and duration (it’s 35 minutes long) are not exactly suited to a generation that thinks even texts can be tl;dr. I have trouble imagining an auditorium or classroom full of sixteen year olds getting through it without — well, texting or tweeting or checking social media.

So it remains to be seen whether this beautiful and sometimes very moving document can also create an effective intervention. Herzog himself senses the difficulty, but he talks about the problem as a distant observer: “There’s a completely new culture out there,” he told the Associated Press. “I’m not a participant of texting and driving — or texting at all — but I see there’s something going on in civilization which is coming with great vehemence at us.”

I can’t help but be reminded here of the refain from “Ballad of a Thin Man,” written when Herzog was just 23 years old: “Something is happening here / and you don’t know what it is/ Do you, Mr. Jones?” But this isn’t just one generation griping about another, and Herzog is right to suggest that there’s much more at stake in all this than the hazards of texting while driving. It’s about the “new culture out there”, which is taking its toll on human life — a deadly and threatening “something” that’s “going on in civilization.” It’s coming at us, with great vehemence, bearing down on us.

Where it’s coming from and what it is Herzog doesn’t say, or at least the Associated Press does not report; but it’s precisely that “something” that From One Moment misses, and never asks us to confront or better understand. I am not so sure AT&T would have sponsored a film that did.

Impossible or Indigenous in Peru

QuechuaHighlands

In the post I wrote a couple of weeks ago about the Rio Tinto shareholder meeting, I mentioned a woman who spoke on behalf of the Mongolian herders whose livelihood is threatened by the Oyu Tolgoi mining project. Her name is Sukhgerel Dugersuren, and she is the Executive Director of the Mongolian NGO Oyu Tolgoi Watch. In her remarks, Dugersuren asked the company to recognize the herders as “indigenous” people (as the IFC does). That isn’t just a gesture of recognition or respect, a way of acknowledging that the herders were there first, or that they have a centuries-old claim to the land and the scarce water sources of the Gobi; it means that before moving ahead, the Oyu Tolgoi project would require – to use the language of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (Article 32, paragraph 2) — their free, prior and informed consent.

I was reminded of Dugersuren and the case of the herders when I read yesterday morning that the Humala government in Peru now intends to exclude the Quechua people of the Peruvian highlands from “prior consultation” on mining projects.

President Ollanta Humala campaigned in 2011 on the idea of “social inclusion” and specifically on giving indigenous communities a voice in the consultation period before big mining projects begin. Prior consultation — the first law Humala signed upon taking office — codified into Peruvian law the idea of free, prior and informed consent. But only two years later, with $50 billion in mining projects over the next five years at stake, and with Canadian mining giant Newmont scaling back its investments and announcing a delay in its controversial Minas Conga project, it looks as if Humala wishes he could take it all back.

QuechuaProtestConga

Apparently Mines and Energy Minister Jorge Merino has prevailed; Deputy Minister of Culture Ivan Lanegra, who was in charge of administering the prior consultation law, is now making noises about resigning.

I haven’t yet seen anything like an official statement on the matter, but Humala and other Peruvian officials have already started offering reasons – if they can be called that — for excluding the Quechua from prior consultation. They read like a bizarre exercise in bad anthropology.

Attempting to legitimize its betrayal of the Quechua, the government resorts to revisionist history, crude caricatures and discredited ideas. So, we are told, the Quechua-speaking people of the Andes can’t be indigenous, because over the centuries, they mixed with Spanish colonizers (whose abuses the law of prior consultation was supposed to help remedy). To be indigenous would seem to require a weird exemption from history – to be at once the victim of colonial abuse in need of redress and yet to live in complete isolation or perpetual flight, and never to have had any contact with the Spanish.

The people of the Andes can’t be indigenous: they practice agriculture, we are told, which makes them not indigenous people but campesinos. “In the highlands,” said Humala, parsing the difference, “there are mostly agrarian communities … indigenous communities are mostly in the jungle.” The indigenous are not farmers, but jungle dwellers, presumably hunters and gatherers who have never cultivated the land. If they till the soil or produce, it seems, they must give up all claims to their heritage, or at least their legal status.

A third and final absurdity: the people of the Andes can’t be indigenous, because they “meet in public assembly” or, as Humala has noted elsewhere, they have “mayors” who represent them, and so they are not without a “voice.” To be indigenous is to be without representation, then — silent. It goes even deeper than that: it is to be without politics, or at least without the plaza or the public square. We are, I suppose, to imagine the indigenous living in an archaic and pre-political world, where assembly is unnecessary or the public world unknown.

You can see where all this is heading. It is virtually impossible to be indigenous, unless you live in a small foraging band of jungle dwellers without any political power, or even any idea of politics. Placing these restrictions on the law of prior consultation in Peru makes a travesty of free, prior and informed consent, which requires that states deal “in good faith with the indigenous peoples concerned through their own representative institutions”; the very existence of such institutions would appear to be grounds for exclusion from the law.

Even with a law in place and gestures of good will at the start, the “indigenous” in Peru now risk being defined out of existence, or of having their right to consent sacrificed for the sake of big mining and continued growth. That is why it was especially curious and telling, in ways that are not yet wholly apparent to me, when I read this morning that just yesterday Peruvian ambassador Gonzalo Gutierrez Reinel and the Mongolian Minister of Foreign Affairs L. Bold “met to exchange views on mutual partnerships, particular[ly] in the sectors of culture and mining”: it is not at all clear that “culture” will survive the incursion of big mining in either country.