“The memory of oppressed people cannot be taken away and for such people revolt is always an inch below the surface.”
I first came across this quote by Howard Zinn while watching the film “Tambien la Lluvia,” which traces the story of a camera crew in Cochabamba filming a movie about the Spanish conquest when they find themselves in the midst of the 2000 water wars. The premise of the film is to juxtapose the historical suppression of indigenous inhabitants by the Spaniards with the current treatment of the Bolivian population by foreign corporations. In other words, it provides a mirror image of two episodes of the subjugation of native inhabitants centuries apart.
If you view the history of Bolivia as a history of repression and revolution, then perhaps the message of the film and statement by Howard Zinn are indeed true. Yet by the same token, as the methods of governance and manipulation of power have evolved over the centuries, the mechanisms of social control have changed as well. Forced submission has become withholding of information, live rounds replaced by perpetual propaganda, and Columbus’s genocide transformed into industrial megaprojects at the expense of indigenous populations. Here in Bolivia it has become political policy: withhold damaging truth to avoid uncontrollable uprising. Or perhaps in some cases: disseminate disinformation to prevent powerful protest. Either way, finding a hidden truth amidst a whirlwind of contradictory sources and bitter oppositions can be difficult for the most well-informed person with infinite access to academic and public resources. For those living without such luxuries, such as the indigenous populations in the Beni province of Bolivia, this task can be nearly impossible.
This past week CEADESC organized an international conference, the objective of which was simple: dissemination of information. Or perhaps more accurately: break down the walls of forced ignorance by creating a forum of experts, journalists, and opinionated activists to discuss the forever-guarded secrets surrounding Bolivia’s hydroelectric projects. Specifically, the seminary consisted of two days of presentations and discussions on the topic of Cachuela Esperanza, a proposed damming project in Bolivia on the Rio Madeira financed nearly entirely by BNDES, el Banco Nacional para el Desarrollo, Economico y Social, of Brazil. For this project to be viable all the hydroelectric energy produced by the dam must be sold in Brazil. Indeed, no one doubts that the construction of such a dam would reflect the interests of Brazil alone because while the amount of energy produced may be minor relative to the country’s energy needs, the structure itself would potentially prolong the life of Brazil’s Jirau and San Antonio dams by containing the sediment in the Beni river before flowing into the Madeira. Cachuela is only one of many hydroelectric projects in the Amazon Brazil has proposed in order to secure clean energy sources to respond to the demand of its industrial hubs, reduce its dependency on fossil fuels, and provide investment opportunities for its private companies and multilateral banks. But the effects of this dam on the local indigenous populations could be catastrophic: Mass flooding of forests and cultivatable land, disrupted migration patterns for fish populations, extinction of certain fish species, mercury contamination, spreading of epidemics, uncontrolled migration, the list goes on and on. While the IIRSA – a driving force behind these megaprojects – may have invented an anti-imperialist discourse, as a participant suggested during one of the panels, perhaps this is just a new “Washington Consensus:” Brazil the new imperialist, its neighbors the conquered, and indigenous Amazonians the population subjugated at the expense of the exploitation of natural resources with hydroelectric energy the new tin and silver. The neoliberal policies of the US replaced by the economic and industrial agenda of Brazil. It is a radical proposition yes, but the harder you look the more accurate the picture.
For me the development issues posed by the Cachuela project represent the synapse between environmental preservation and the protection of human rights. For populations directly dependent upon the nature around them for survival, issues of environmental degradation are of life and death importance. So while issues of environmental justice may not otherwise interest me personally, respecting the rights and preserving the livelihood of the people affected do. When the Spanish arrived they considered the indigenous population to be less than human and as such treated them as slaves. In constructing a dam that will surely harm if not destroy the lives of indigenous populations in the Amazon, the Brazilian and Bolivian governments may not be enslaving an entire populace, but they are surely treating these people as acceptable collateral damage in the quest to achieve economic and political triumph. Dispose of some for the greater good of many, or perhaps what is more accurate in corrupt states, dispose of some for the greater good of even fewer. The concept is not new but the mechanism is certainly subtler. And once the truth comes out, this twenty-first century form of subtle subjugation will undoubtedly linger and slowly gnaw at the memories of those once and forever repressed. That only begs the question: Is a people revolt an inch below the surface?
— Chrissy Goldbaum