Thursday, June 16, 2016

Advocates Efficacy

Like any good Texan I'm incredibly proud of where I'm from. I was born and raised in Dallas. I grew up in the Friday Night Lights football culture. The oversized-mums-sweet-tea-and-pecan-pie culture. We're home to Mathew McConaughey, Beyoncé, Owen Wilson, Wes Anderson, and 'Stone Cold' Steve Austin. We invented the margarita machine (you're welcome.) George Bush Jr. spoke at my college graduation ceremony. Whataburger is a State specialty and if you've never been to Bucee's then you've never really seen Texas at it's finest.

I'm proud enough of my heritage to claim ownership of it. By claiming ownership, however, I take responsibility for it's flaws as much as it's perks. That often means I have to explain when news stories pop up featuring discrimination, hate, aggression, or even violence. I have to explain to many people that Texas isn't only what you see in the news. Not all of Texas is represented by it's politicians or it’s businessmen. I have to apologize a lot, but I willingly accept this responsibility.

Michael Crichton once wrote “When we acknowledge a problem we accept responsibility for it.”

By denying a problem exists we aren’t required to address it. That’s exactly the same mindset major corporations prey upon. Climate change naysayers repeat over and over again: “The science is inconclusive.”

Nobody can say oil and gas companies ruin our environment because they never witness it. News may leak every now and then about a horrific spill, but the daily horrors never get noticed. Like Thomas, we have to touch the wounds with our own hands to believe.

Unlike Thomas, however, many of us have seen, but continue to disbelieve. What can we do about an issue as big as our planet? How can one person contribute to ‘defeating’ environmental degradation? That’s the American mindset.

Peruvians live amongst the catastrophic consequences of unchecked mining, oil, and gas operations. Entire tribes fall sick because of runoff into their water source. Major corporations buy up their land, evict them, and leave them with nothing and nowhere to go. I know. I’ve seen it firsthand. I witnessed the kind of desolation and destruction caused solely by these businesses. However bad I could imagine it; it was significantly worse.
This film mentions the Hunt Oil Co. based out of Dallas.

Make no mistake: climate change is real. Global warming is real. It affects all of us daily and even if we can’t see the effects let me assure you: Peru is feeling the heat, acutely. Peru is one of the top countries affected by climate change in the world. It’s fertile jungles, valleys, lakes, and general ecosystem is hurting. As if that wasn’t enough, major companies are exploiting everyone in this country to turn a profit.

Whether it’s the lead-polluted town of La Oroya, the Shawi San Jose’s water source, the mercury poisoning in the Madre de Dios mining area there are catastrophes taking place right under our nose. These aren’t just Peruvian state controlled companies, but businesses from Canada, New York, and even Dallas Texas. So very little of this news reaches American ears, but the legacy of exploitation in Peru goes back millennia and continues to this very day.

My work at Paz y Esperanza involves assisting pueblo leaders get communal land rights so that major companies don’t buy their property for mining or oil extraction. I record interviews with leaders and publish small videos showing their struggle. The Ankash Yaku at Achinamiza, the Shawi San Jose in Barranquitas, the Kopal Sacha in El Dorado, the list goes on and on. Damage is being done outside of the States away from prying eyes in the jungle, the mountains, and the coast.

How can someone who lives here work against something so big like an international oil conglomerate? How can they dedicate their lives to this cause without feeling the least bit pessimistic?

In America, I realized, we would measure our success. We value and weigh the work we’ve done by the projects we’ve finished. I reckon that if you were to tell an American they were going to advocate for more fair trade policies and they were not going to accomplish their goal that person would feel defeated. They might do the work, but there will never be a true sense of accomplishment to what they do. It could disenchant them to their mission and ultimately end their efforts because: “why bother?” When we decide that a cause is lost we give in to apathy. Apathy, then, is our greatest impediment.

Peruvians don’t see it that way. One of the great beauties of Peru is they’re lack of focus on a goal. Peruvians focus much more on the current day. They don’t worry about whether or not they’ll accomplish their goal. They work regardless. I call it ‘staying in the moment.’ It’s almost a childlike mentality (because what child can tell you what they’re going to do a month from now?) Is this not what Jesus taught us? Didn’t he invite the children to join him? He told us we must return to a childlike state if we hope to bring the kingdom of God to Earth.

Matthew 18:1-4New International Version (NIV)
The Greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven
18 At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who, then, is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”
He called a little child to him, and placed the child among them. And he said:“Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.

None of that is to say Peruvians are lazy or don’t have a goal they intend to accomplish. All I’m saying is that Peruvians don’t let the impracticalities of change diminish their optimism for the future. The odds may be severely stacked against them (I have many stories of such cases) but they are going to continue to work until the issue is resolved. They don’t fight to get rid of the darkness. Instead they bring light into this world.

So where do I fit into this battle of light and dark? I come home in two months and yet, just because my YAV year has ended doesn’t mean I stop advocating for reform. Actually, I think my job gets much harder when I go home. Texas isn’t exactly known for its willingness to change. Especially when it comes to Oil and Gas.

designed by I.M. Pei
Before I came to Peru I was fairly indifferent about environmental catastrophe. I once spent a summer working as a glorified secretary for an oil and gas consulting firm. I have family, in Houston, who make their living and provide for their families working for Big Oil. In a subtle twist of irony I went to high school where Exxon Mobil’s former Dallas headquarters is. Oil was not my concern unless the news announced yet another horrific spill in the Gulf Coast. As far as I was concerned it was a necessary evil and that was fine by me.

Now, having flipped my paradigm in ways I’m still trying to understand, I have come to realize several things:

1. Just because we don’t see the damage doesn’t mean it isn’t happening
2. Unchallenged companies will find any way possible to make a profit, and
3. Our planet is suffering from both of these.

How can I say otherwise when I’ve seen tainted rivers firsthand, when I’ve witnessed deforestation in front of me? Better yet: how do I explain that to everyone back home?

There’s a tendency back home to write off any young person with a slightly liberal agenda as ‘youthful naiveté.’ Having just spent a year in South America meeting native tribes in the rainforest is about as stereotypical post-college as it gets. I fear coming home and being written off because my experience conformed to such expectations.

I didn’t request this work. It was assigned to me. I didn’t know anything about pollution’s effects on Amazonian tribes before I came here. I was just a post-college kid looking to grow up a little bit. How do I communicate that to somebody who sees me as ‘just another naïve Millennial’? Did I not flash my credentials enough at the beginning of this piece?

It’s hard to communicate something particularly antithetical to people’s way of living. I understand. Like I said, I have family who make their living working for oil companies. I wouldn’t ask them to quit their jobs to support my cause. What I want to communicate, at the very least, is that the issues here are more complicated than a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’, ‘red’ or ‘blue’ equation.
Of all the things I’ve learned in Peru one of the top things is: embrace complexity. I can’t stress that enough. Living in a cognitive dissonance can prove more fruitful than you imagine.

When we simplify an issue we run the risk of creating more problems. Our ‘solution’ is too simple and has a ripple effect felt in ways nobody can predict. It’s part of what turns Americans off to long-term crises. There’s no easy fix and dedicating our lives to something is no easy task. Thus we become apathetic. Apathy breeds lethargy and lethargy breeds ignorance. How can we truly say we ‘solved’ an issue if all we see are dead ends? We’re overwhelmed by the complexity of issues; especially Oil and Gas’ connections to pollution, climate change, and planet care in general. We simplify to survive.

It’s not comforting to live within a complicated issue. The cognitive dissonance involved with both needing a product and disapproving of the suppliers takes it’s toll on anyone. Except for Peruvians. Peruvians are content to live within this complex paradigm. The mission workers at Paz y Esperanza understand nothing is ever simple with the work they do. The United Hands Network is especially good at living in the complexity.

I don’t advocate a complete cessation of activities. That would be both extremely unlikely and completely unreasonable. The solution to this problem has many layers. Where Americans hope for the quicker answer, Peruvians are content to wait. They’re too busy occupying their immediate moment to choose the short-term band-aid over the long-term surgery. For them, the steps necessary are the steps necessary and to avoid any part of this process only hurts their efforts.

What may seem radical to you is normal to Peruvians. It’s a normal they should not have to occupy or endure, and if there is any help I can offer them then I will. I’ve given ten months of my life not so I could effect a change in this world, but so that I could understand it better. That alone, bears some merit. Peruvians see the merit in that more than most Americans I believe. I’m proud to say they’ve given me a similar vision. I can only hope and pray that I can share this vision with others.

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