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Share the Wealth, or Share the Poverty


July 5, 2006

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William Powers likes to quote a tribal chief who noted, “Either share your wealth with us, or we’ll share our poverty with you.” It sums up Powers’s understanding of the interdependent world we live in; indeed, the nationalization of the natural gas industry by Evo Morales’s new government in Bolivia, where Powers is based, incensed U.S. and British gas companies and caused a buzz in Washington that President Bush is “losing” Latin America to leftists like Morales and Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez. (See sidebar at right.) In his most recent book, Whispering in the Giant’s Ear: A Frontline Chronicle from Bolivia’s War on Globalization (Bloomsbury, 2006) Powers portrays a marginalized nation’s struggle to preserve its identity and conserve its natural wealth, while it also strives to ‘develop.’

Winner of a 2003 prize for Environmental Innovation from Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government and recipient of the 2004-2005 Open Door Foundation Fellowship for Nonfiction, Powers has worked for over a decade in development aid for governmental agencies and NGOs. His essays and commentaries have been heard on National Public Radio and have appeared inThe New York Times.

Powers, who resigned his post as deputy country director for a large, well-funded NGO in order to work for the locally based Friends of Nature Foundation, spoke to me by phone from La Paz. He gave me his thoughts on ‘indigenous thinking;’ the Kyoto Protocol; President Morales’s decision to nationalize Bolivia’s natural gas reserves; and the effects of economic globalization, coca farming, and eco-tourism.

[Interview by Josh Jones]

Indigenous thinking is more holistic. It involves sustainability, giving back, reciprocity. Industrial thinking is, ‘how much can I get out of something.’

Guernica: You’ve spoken quite a bit about the difference between ‘indigenous thinking’ and ‘industrial thinking.’ Could you elaborate on that?

William Powers: That’s an idea that actually came from some of the indigenous people I work with in the Amazon. Indigenous thinking is more holistic. It involves sustainability, giving back, reciprocity. Industrial thinking is, ‘how much can I get out of something.’

Guernica: Are these two ways of thinking always radically opposed?

William Powers: In some ways, the Kyoto Protocol is an example of indigenous thinking, in that it’s trying to create a kind of global cooperation mechanism among all the different countries in the world so that we can heal the climate and stop global warming in a way that’s satisfactory to everyone. Of course, we see how difficult that is—to actually get everyone together and agree upon something like this, and with the U.S. not participating.

Guernica: Why do you think the U.S. hasn’t participated?

William Powers: I think that’s an example of industrial thinking. The Bush administration has said, [we will do] ‘nothing that might harm our economy,’ so if that’s your perspective then you might not.

Guernica: You’ve written that under the Kyoto Protocol, corporations such as BP are able to buy thousands of acres of rainforest in return for ‘credit.’ How does this work?

Bolivia has one of the worst Transparency International corruption ratings in the world. Hopefully that’ll change, now that they have a government that actually represents the majority.

William Powers: Basically, instead of a command and control mechanism, where the government says ‘you have to do this,’ it’s a cap and trade one. They cap the total amount of such pollutants as carbon dioxide or chlorofluorocarbons; then they say, ‘Okay, now you can trade among companies to figure exactly how it’s going to happen.’ That’s how tradable credit scheme works.

Guernica: How are Bolivians responding to Evo Morales’s decision to naturalize the gas reserves?

William Powers: The vast majority of Bolivians support his decision. Evo Morales ran on that issue last year and he won in a landslide, with record voter turnout; and on that issue he’s fulfilling a [campaign] promise. He’s very popular. He also has strong legal grounds for it because the Congress never approved those privately issued contracts in the mid-nineties. In my op-ed piece in The New York Times (“All Smoke, No Fire in Bolivia,” 7 May 2006) I talk a lot about this issue much more coherently [laughs].

Guernica: How difficult will it be for Bolivia to manage its own resources?

William Powers: One of the big obstacles is corruption. Bolivia has one of the worst Transparency International corruption ratings in the world. Hopefully that’ll change, now that they have a government that actually represents the majority. That’s one obstacle. The other is a lack of human resources—they lack a skilled labor force to actually implement the industrialization of petroleum. They’re used to being an exporter of raw materials instead of actually producing a finished product.

Guernica: So one of the difficulties is just developing the resources that are so abundant?

William Powers: Right. But I think that the way the debate has been framed is incorrect: It’s not either/or. What Bolivia needs is to get the best deal that it can. The contracts that were signed in the nineties are a bad deal. Basically, the more-corrupt politicians at the time signed off on a wholesale bargain price, a clearance sale of their resources. [Bolivians] aren’t going to be able to industrialize tomorrow, but they can certainly get a better deal than they have right now.

Guernica: Do the recent events in Bolivia—the ousting of multinational corporations such as Bechtel and the nationalization of gas reserves—represent a trend?

William Powers: Companies are making incredible profits, super profits, right now, so of course there’s the temptation all around the world to get a better deal. I think you see that in Nigeria and in Ecuador where they’ve renegotiated all the contracts… and in Venezuela. I think the new Peruvian government that comes in is going to do that as well.

Guernica: Are these events part of what your book calls a

‘war on globalization,’ or are they isolated regionally?

William Powers: In Latin America there’s an overall reaction to what’s called neoliberalism, or the Washington consensus—a series of policies which include more flexible labor markets, cutting government spending, and liberalizing currency. There has been a huge reaction to that. That [neoliberalism] is part of globalization, the whole IMF/World Bank agenda in Latin America for twenty years, and it has failed completely. In fact, to find another period that’s been this bad in Latin America, you’d have to go back a hundred years almost. It’s been a very, very bad time in Latin America… there’s a reaction to economic globalization defined as making everything revolve around markets and around a corporate view of things. Of course people want globalized solidarity, that’s the whole idea; It’s not that Bolivia is trying to be isolationist and put a wall around itself. I mean, there’s no sense in putting a wall around an already landlocked nation. They want to engage the world, but they want to do so in a way that’s just and that works for them.

Guernica: Does conservation play a role in the decisions

that are being made now?

William Powers: Vice President, Alvaro [Garcia Linera], made a statement where he said, ‘We are going to protect the national parks; that’s for Bolivians,’ and ‘We believe in a conservation agenda.’ Evo Morales, the President, has on many occasions talked about Pacha Mama, an alternative version of conservation, which has to do with Mother Earth. But on the actual national agenda itself right now, conservation is low. It’s not one of the big priorities in government. So that’s something that we’ve been struggling with.

Companies are making incredible profits, super profits, right now, so of course there’s the temptation all around the world to get a better deal.

Guernica: What are some of the higher priorities?

William Powers: The main priority is economic growth… They’re trying to develop broad-based growth, which diversifies the economy. So you have eco-tourism; you can have small artisan development; and there’s the coca market. They have like thirty-five different small markets to develop, and that’s the big issue. Of course, that can sometimes conflict with an environmental agenda.

Guernica: You mention coca. Apart from the drug trade, does coca growing contribute to violence or corruption within the country itself?

William Powers: Coca is different from cocaine. Coca is an Andean crop that’s been grown for centuries, well predating even the Spanish here. It’s something that’s used all over Bolivia. It’s almost like tea for the British. It’s something that you see on every street corner being sold, and people chewing it and drinking it as a tea. There’s a big internal market for it. When that market switches over to being cocaine, yes, it can create internal conflict, a lot of problems; and I don’t want to see Bolivia become a republic of coke… narcotraficantes and all this. So they need to crack down on cocaine, which the new government has pledged to do; but they’ve also pledged to develop coca markets, including international markets.

Guernica: What can citizens in wealthy nations do to support conservation efforts like those described in your book?

William Powers: They can switch from going to Cancun and staying in fancy hotels to actually supporting some of these wonderful community-based eco-tourism efforts. For instance, there’s Chalalán Lodge in Madidi National Park here, which is probably less expensive and is just a much better experience in terms of communing with nature, being one with nature. Staying in a luxury resort managed by Indians, by indigenous people—that’s actually helping to empower them. That’s a huge step, just changing tourism preferences.

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