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WikiLeaks: The U.S. Must “Neutralize, Co-opt or Marginalize” Radical Latin American Bloc in Climate Negotiations
As activists launch protests at the Cancún climate summit in Mexico, could negotiators be engaged in cynical backroom deals? In light of recent WikiLeaks disclosures, such an eventuality seems more than likely. Indeed, U.S. diplomatic cables show that the Americans have been trying to strong arm other countries in order to get their way at international summits. The cables, which go back to last year's Copenhagen summit, show the U.S. as a manipulative and opportunistic power seeking to water down important environmental agreements.
Judging from documents, the WikiLeaks scandal could well turn into the Climate Gate scandal. When reporting to his colleagues, U.S. Chargé d'Affaires in La Paz John Creamer described Bolivian President Evo Morales' climate justice activism in the most unflattering light. An impoverished Andean nation, Bolivia is poorly equipped to deal with the ravages of climate change and has been a leading critic of the United States and the Global North at international summits like Copenhagen.
In a report, Creamer remarked that Morales "seemed to revel" in his opposition to the Copenhagen summit, which was dominated by the United States and other large powers. The Bolivian, the diplomat continued, made "extraordinary demands" like reparations and aid, thus alienating conference organizers and most delegations. The Danes became "fed up" with Morales and the pesky left-leaning ALBA bloc of countries from Latin America, which kept on mounting "propaganda arguments" against the Copenhagen accord [following the environmental debacle in Denmark, Morales invited international activists to Bolivia for a counter climate summit in Cochabamba].
Blackening Morales' Image
One would expect U.S. diplomats to be critical of Morales in their reporting, but in going over the WikiLeaks cables I've been struck by the remarkably supercilious tone and vindictive accusations hurled at the Bolivian leader. At this point, it's difficult to establish the exact veracity of all the many claims, and diplomatic historians will no doubt look into the charges in more depth in future. Perhaps American diplomats genuinely had high placed intelligence on Morales upon which to base their reports, or maybe they simply wanted to satisfy their superiors in Washington with wishful propaganda.
Not surprisingly, Creamer's own political bias doesn't differ much from that of his colleagues. In a report dating to early 2010, he acknowledges that Bolivia "is already suffering real damage from the effects of global warming." Yet, the diplomat continues sarcastically, Morales is immature as he "seems to prefer to score rhetorical points rather than contribute to a solution." Morales, the diplomat implies, is like a four-year old child for opposing the Copenhagen accord. "Our assessment," Creamer states, "is that Bolivia remains beyond reach on Copenhagen, at least until Morales sees the limits of his approach."
Creamer writes that Morales' activism made him a hero in the eyes of anti-globalization activists, while at the same time alienating neighboring South American nations [Creamer doesn't name the countries, but presumably he is referring to Brazil]. Ascribing cynical motives to Morales, Creamer remarks that the Bolivian leader "views climate change as a vehicle for raising his and Bolivia's international political stature." Creamer cites one senator from Morales' political party who believed that the Bolivian president saw
"environmental issues as one area where he can carve out an international identity independent from that of his close ally, President Hugo Chávez. She recounted to us that an animated Morales told her he was surrounded by well-wishers in Copenhagen urging him 'not to abandon them,' while Chávez was alone in the corner."
Creamer then calls out Morales for environmental hypocrisy, remarking that "many Bolivians" are eager to point out that "Morales's climate change campaign is about enhancing his global stature, not about the environment." Creamer goes on to quote a former Morales cabinet official who says "there is a huge gap between Morales' strident, pro-environmental rhetoric in international fora and his domestic emphasis on industrialization as they key to development. The foundation of this effort is large-scale natural gas, iron, and lithium production projects, enterprises that have historically proven extremely damaging to the environment." Creamer then points out that the Inter-American Development Bank had recently presented the Bolivians with a report detailing serious potential environmental hazards associated with extracting lithium.
Brazil's Environmental Duplicity
To be sure, Creamer makes a number of valid environmental points but needless to say it was the United States, and not Bolivia, which exacerbated climate change over the years. Not only does Creamer's report illuminate U.S. hypocrisy, however, but also that of the other big powers. In La Paz, Chinese diplomats prodded Bolivia, urging Morales to support the Copenhagen accord. However, such efforts were rapidly demonstrated to be "pointless" and the Chinese concluded that Brazil would have to convince Bolivia and the other ALBA nations to come round.
I have always suspected that, behind the scenes, Brazil has played a negative environmental role in the region. In midtown Manhattan, Brazil employs a fancy PR firm to extol the country's green credentials and send out e-mails about Brasilia's progressive programs. At one point, I even got the opportunity to interview Izabella Teixeira, Brazil's Environment Minister. I asked her to clarify Brazil's precise negotiating role at international summits, to which she would respond, time and again, that Brazil was an equal opportunity and good faith player, consulting with Third World nations within the G-77 group, for example.
Perhaps what she really meant to say was that Brazil sought to strong arm Bolivia into coming into line and playing a zero sum game. According to Creamer and WikiLeaks, "Bolivia refused to adopt Brazil's position on Copenhagen," but Brasilia's Foreign Affairs Ministry or Itamaraty would "continue to press Bolivia... hoping that Bolivia's isolation on this issue will eventually bring it around."
U.S. and Europe vs. BASIC and ALBA
For anyone interested in learning how strong arming occurs in advance of climate change confabs, U.S. diplomatic cables make for obligatory reading. In February, 2010, Deputy National Security Adviser for International Economic Affairs Michael Froman met with EU officials in Brussels. The aim of the discussions was to "push back against coordinated opposition of BASIC countries (China, India, Brazil, South Africa) to our international positions." Though the BASIC group had widely differing interests, U.S. diplomats observed, the bloc was "surprisingly united" and would "take turns" playing the U.S. and EU off against each other.
"The U.S. and EU need to learn from this coordination," Froman believed, "and work
much more closely and effectively together ourselves, to better handle third country obstructionism and avoid future trainwrecks on climate." In advance of Cancún, the Europeans and Americans hoped to get BASIC and the G-77 on their side and to "be in close touch with Mexico" which would be chairing the meeting. In one damning passage of the report, it is mentioned that "Froman agreed that we will need to neutralize, co-opt or marginalize" the more radical Latin American bloc including Nicaragua, Cuba, Ecuador and others.
What is ironic about these cables is that the U.S. wants to undermine not just ALBA but also BASIC. Yet, BASIC and Brazil are hardly what we might call a progressive bloc of countries. Indeed, it was BASIC itself which helped to draft the inadequate Copenhagen Accord with the U.S. at the eleventh hour. Clearly, however, the U.S. doesn't even want to put up with BASIC, most likely because the bloc wants the Americans and Europeans to assume most of the responsibility for solving our climate crisis.
Cancún Strategy: No Friendly Overture toward Brazil
If these cables are any indication, Cancún could wind up being a zero sum game with the EU and U.S. seeking to oppose BASIC and all three groups hoping to circumvent the more radical proposals advocated by Bolivia, ALBA, and the small island nations. It all makes for a rather pessimistic scenario, yet perhaps the WikiLeaks documents will shame and embarrass the big powers into making some concessions.
In an earlier online column, I suggested that activists might consider making a friendly overture toward Brazil in the hope that the South American juggernaut might cease its counter-productive negotiations within the BASIC group which is fast becoming a chief obstacle to enacting progressive climate change legislation. I reasoned that Brazil, more than other countries in the bloc, would be more likely to take the side of ALBA and small island nations in international climate negotiations. In the first round of Brazil's presidential election, Green Party candidate Marina Silva garnered 19% of the vote, suggesting that environmental consciousness is on the rise in the South American nation.
WikiLeaks documents, however, reveal Brazil's true colors behind closed doors. In light of the disclosures, it doesn't seem to make much sense for activists to conduct any "friendly overtures." At this point, there's got to be a concerted campaign on Brazil designed to humiliate and embarrass the Lula government so that we can see some movement at Cancún. ALBA and the small island nation group do not constitute a formidable geopolitical bloc, and so activists will have to up the ante and exert more pressure on Brazil in the hope of creating a countervailing force to the U.S. and EU.
For the past few months, the mainstream media has focused on the environmental and technical dimensions of the Gulf mess. While that's certainly important, reporters have ignored a crucial aspect of the BP spill: cultural extermination and the plight of indigenous peoples. Recently, the issue was highlighted when Louisiana Gulf residents in the town of Dulac received some unfamiliar visitors: Cofán Indians and others from the Amazon jungle.
What could have prompted these indigenous peoples to travel so far from their native South America? Victims of the criminal oil industry, the Cofán are cultural survivors. Intent on helping others avoid their own unfortunate fate, the Indians shared their experiences and insights with members of the United Houma Nation who have been wondering how they will ever preserve their way of life in the face of BP's oil spill.
A culturally rich state, Louisiana has been home to people of mixed racial descent for hundreds of years. In the 18th and 19th centuries, French settlers intermarried with Indian women. The Houma is a Louisiana state-recognized tribe of about 17,000 people which lives along coastal marshes. Traditionally the Indians have survived off the land, working as trappers or fishermen.
According to the Minnesota-based non-profit Native Languages of the Americas, the Houmas are an offshoot of the Choctaw nation. The tribe originally lived in eastern Mississippi but was driven across the state border and later merged with Cajun communities. The Houma dialect of Choctaw has not been actively spoken since the 19th century and currently most tribe members speak English or Cajun French though some elderly converse in a unique Houma variant of Creole French. Before the spill, some Houma Indians were even working to revive their original language.
The BP spill, however, may throw such plans for cultural revival off kilter. Though the Indians have endured the environmental ravages of the oil and gas industry for almost a century, the current environmental disaster could destroy humble fishing villages. "The Gulf spill is an absolute threat on who we are as Houma people and our way of life," commented Thomas Dardar Jr., Principal Chief of the United Houma Nation. "Our homeland and the health of our people are at risk and we must plan for the long-term effects of this catastrophe," he added.
Bayou Pointe-Aux-Chenes and nearby Isle de Jean Charles are home to Houma as well as native Chitimacha tribe members. According to the tribe's official web site, the Chitimacha settled the bayous of southern Louisiana as far back as 500 A.D. The Indians lived in peace until marauding French began slaving raids into indigenous territory in the 18th century. A twelve year war ensued which the tribe barely manage to survive.
As if that were not challenging enough, the Chitimacha later faced encroachment by French, Spanish and U.S. settlers. According to Native Languages of the Americas, Chitimacha is now an extinct language though some of the younger generation is working to revive it. In the 18th century, most Chitimacha adopted Cajun French and the last native speaker died in 1940. Currently, 350 Chitimacha remain on the tribe's Louisiana reservation.
Along local bays and lakes, the Houma and Chitimacha search for shrimp, fish, crabs, oysters and crawfish. Already, however, BP's oil spill has ruined oyster plots, soiled crab traps and cut off shrimp trawlers from prime fishing grounds around Bayou Pointe-Aux-Chenes. On Isle de Jean Charles the culture of the "French Indians," as they call themselves, has been vanishing for some time. Even before the oil spill, many younger Indians weren't getting into fishing or shrimping as the business had become less lucrative. If the shrimping business goes belly up, much of the local culture along the bayous could vanish as well. That is because French is passed along on the shrimping boats as young boys learn to fish using the native French vocabulary.
From Cajuns to Atakapans
Losing the Bayou to an environmental disaster is bad enough, though the prospect of cultural extermination of Francophone Louisiana is arguably just as serious. In the 1700s, French-speaking people in Acadia — now part of Eastern Canada — refused to swear allegiance to the British. As a result, the French, or Cajuns as they came to be known, were exiled and took up life along remote Louisiana bayous.
Though life was physically challenging in their new home, the Cajuns enjoyed the incredible seafood bounty and striking natural beauty. Today, the Cajun population ranges from some 40,000 to half a million, depending on how strict a cultural definition is used. In some Louisiana towns, one can hear happy go lucky zydeco music on the radio, hosted by D.J.'s speaking the local patois. It's not uncommon to see people eating fried fish for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Head over to the town of Grand Bayou and you won't see any cars, just water and boats. The town is home to Atakapa-Ishak Indians, and their very survival is now jeopardized by the BP spill. The tribe, which is spread out over Texas and Louisiana, was originally a hunting and gathering society. In the late 19th century, the Smithsonian sent a linguist to the Gulf coast to write an Atakapan language dictionary but the expert gave up after he failed to uncover the language's origin.
The project stalled until the 1930s, when an anthropologist finally found a native speaker and finished a dictionary which now lies at the Smithsonian. Today, several hundred people claim to be descendants of the Atakapa, though the federal government has so far failed to extend official recognition to the tribe. Community members are a mixture of Native American, black and Cajun, some of whom still speak French at home.
Grand Bayou is a community which lives off fishing. For years the tribe witnessed the loss of native wetlands, encroachment by the oil and gas industry and even hurricanes. Now, as a result of the oil spill, fishing and shrimping has ground to a halt. Grand Bayou residents are also concerned that chemicals used to disperse leaking oil could hurt fisheries for decades.
Amazonians Head to the Gulf
What could Amazonian leaders hope to add to the environmental discussion afflicting the Gulf? At first it might seem outlandish that South American Indians would tour areas of the Bayou affected by the BP spill and meet with the Houma. Yet Amazonian indigenous peoples have a lot of experience protecting their culture from oil disasters. At a town hall, the Ecuadorans spoke with the Houma and presented a report about severe oil contamination which was carried out in conjunction with the hard hitting environmental advocacy group Amazon Watch.
While the U.S. public is now focused on BP, few are aware of another devastating ecological disaster which hit Ecuador. For years Texaco (now Chevron) dumped millions of gallons of crude into the rainforest and left hundreds of unlined pits in the jungle. The Indians claim that the contamination caused outbreaks of illness, birth defects and cancer. To get a sense of the horrible after effects, be sure to catch the recent documentary film, Crude. Today, thousands of Amazonian Indians are pressing a historic lawsuit against Chevron that, if successful, could provide some environmental remediation.
From a cultural standpoint, oil development in the Ecuadoran Amazon had very disruptive effects. The Tetetes, a tribe which lived near the modern oil boom town of Lago Agrio, was displaced as a result of petroleum development. In the 1970s, missionaries could only find two native speakers of Tetete. Today, the tribe and its language are considered extinct. Other groups including the Siona, Secoya and Huaorani were decimated and lost much of their ancestral lands.
Before Texaco started to drill, the Cofán was a small but thriving tribe numbering some 15,000. Traditionally, the Cofán lived off fishing, hunting and subsistence agriculture. Oil exploration resulted in increased illness, road construction, crimes like murder and rape as well as cultural degradation. Lowland Quichua Indians, displaced by mestizo settlers, moved into Cofán territory. Thus began a process of "Quichuisation" of the Cofán, who in addition faced a growing wave of outsiders including missionaries, settlers and oil companies.
After thirty years of oil drilling, the Indians' numbers were reduced to less than a thousand and the native language placed in great jeopardy. Today the tribe is slowly trying to rebuild its culture by instituting bilingual education programs in Cofán and Spanish. School dress codes meanwhile require traditional clothing, and elder shamans are doing their utmost to transfer their medicinal knowledge to youth.
Perhaps, if there is any silver lining to the BP tragedy, it is that the oil disaster will bring indigenous peoples together. Like the tenacious Cofán, native peoples of the Bayou are determined to hang on in the face of adversity. The Cajuns, having already been expelled once from their homeland, are in no mood to give up or relinquish their independence. James Wilson, assistant director of the Center for Louisiana Studies at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, recently remarked "I would not expect to see any great migration away, regardless of what happens to these communities. It's a life-or-death decision for them: People can't see a life anywhere else. If they can't live the life that they're used to within their culture, then that is death."
Now that the BP story is fading from view, Bayou people hope that the rest of the country continues to pay attention to their plight. For far too long they, as well as other indigenous peoples from the Amazon rainforest, have paid a disproportionate cultural price owing to oil development.