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too little, too late

June 13, 2009

The recent unrest in Peru over government decrees that “would open large jungle areas to investment and allow companies to bypass indigenous groups to obtain permits for petroleum exploration, logging and building hydroelectric dams” is a glaring example of how the capitalist system of production — a system in which privately owned and controlled production based on profit — can lead to the exploitation of people and resources (Protesters Gird for Long Fight Over Opening Peru’s Amazon).

The president of Peru, Alan Garcia, has opened vast expanses of forest to foreign investors interested in drilling for oil, logging and building dams despite the fact that the area in question is home to native Amazonians who are opposed to these things. So not only are these people’s interests being marginalized in the decision-making process by the foreign investors and multinational corporations who want nothing more than to exploit these natural resources without care or concern for the indigenous people or their way of life, they’re being marginalized by their own government!

It’s a sad state of affairs. On the one hand, the way society is currently structured, the unfettered exploitation of natural resources by a small minority is unsustainable. On the other hand, there seems to be very little the average person can do to change things. It seems like more and more areas are being drilled and logged and mined etc. by huge multinational corporations while more and more people are being negatively affected economically, environmentally and socially as a result.

Certainly there are places like Norway, where the majority of people have generally benefited from local oil production, but there are many places where the people have benefited very little, e.g., places like Burma, the Niger Delta and, of course, Peru. Even residents in Norway, whose oil reserves in the North Sea are rapidly being depleted, are starting to run into problems with the never ending search for more oil (Opposition grows to Norway’s Arctic oil search). And while things in Norway are being worked out in the political arena, with the views of both sides being taken into consideration, it’s taking more and more extreme measures for others to have their voices heard or to even fight back when necessary.

Case in point. In the Niger Delta, where government corruption is rampant, locals outraged over the environmental devastation caused by the oil giant Shell and the unequal distribution of wealth have resorted to attacking and sabotaging commercial oil refineries and pipelines, as well as taking foreign workers hostage. And in Peru, where the president claims there’s “a conspiracy afoot to keep Peru from using its natural riches,” indigenous protesters (who the president called “ignorant”) have not only been forced to take to the streets for the past three months to defend their ancestral lands, but to face tear gas and automatic weapons in the process (Peru’s Deadly Battle Over Oil in the Amazon).

As a self-identified pacifist who abhors violence in most contexts, I hate to see human beings who, being influenced by disparate material conditions and divided into various classes by opposing interests, are thrown onto a collision course with each other. It makes me sad and angry, but most of all it makes me seriously question a system that leads to such class antagonism by the unequal distribution of wealth and power at its very heart.

To be honest, I don’t think that a socialist system of production — a system in which collectively owned and democratically controlled production is based on need rather than profit — will solve all of the world’s problems, but I do think that it has the potential to help limit the economic and societal conditions that foster things like greed and violence, as well as to give a stronger voice to local populations in areas such as economic planning and its potential environment and social impacts, the utilization of local natural resources and/or the distribution of wealth associated with those resources, etc.

In Peru’s case, the balance of power is decidedly tipped in favour of the Peruvian government and the multinational corporations who are interested in exploiting Peru’s natural resources — and, not surprisingly, the ones who’ll benefit the most from the exploitation of these natural resources — while the people who’ll arguably be impacted the most have almost no say whatsoever. That just seems ass-backwards to me, and I dare say that the indigenous Peruvians agree!

That doesn’t mean that I think the Peruvian government or the foreign investors are bad people, only that the system in which they operate seems blatantly unfair to the people who, for whatever reason, stand in the way of ever greater profit margins or the culture of unfettered consumerism that’s increasingly dominating the industrialized world—a system in which thousands of people have little recourse besides taking to the streets with rocks and spears in order for their voices to be heard.

There’s got to be a better way of dealing with these issues. Otherwise, the conflicts that we’re seeing in places like the Niger Delta and Peru will not only continue to escalate, they’ll likely spread to other, more advanced nation states where such conflicts won’t be limited to just spears or guns. This is especially disconcerting when considering the race by Canada, China, Denmark, Norway, Russia and the U.S to claim exploration and drilling rights to the potential oil and natural gas reserves lying just beneath the rapidly melting Arctic ice (Riches in the Arctic: the new oil race).

Sometimes I can’t decide whether I’m an optimist or a pessimist. While I’m hopeful that proper planning via radical democracy can potentially alleviate the majority of these conflicts and our impact on the environment by extracting and distributing these resources in a way that’s economically, environmentally and socially responsible, I’m less than hopeful that things will change in a meaningful way in time to truly make a difference. I’m afraid if we don’t figure out something soon, it’ll be too little too late.


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