environment


Gisele Bundchen in the America Express (RED) campaign to help eliminate aids in Africa. Photo courtesy of http://www.joinred.com/Learn/Partners/AmericanExpress.aspx

Gisele Bundchen in the America Express (RED) campaign to help eliminate aids in Africa. Photo courtesy of http://www.joinred.com/Learn/Partners/AmericanExpress.aspx

In an increasingly globalised and interconnected world, the partnership between humanitarian agencies, like Red Cross and Save the Children, and the media is of paramount importance. These NGOs use communication strategies and marketing to raise awareness of their cause and ultimately to raise funds. Cottle and Nolan (2007) argue that this has resulted in many NGO’s seeking to ‘brand’ themselves and use celebrities and personalised media packages to gain media attention and further their cause. Their article titled ‘Global Humanitarianism and the Changing Aid-Media Field’ looks at the pros and cons of this new strand and strategy of global aid media. They conclude that these developments (branding and increased reliance on global media) are threatening the ethics of global humanitarianism.

It is now worth analysing this ethical argument and posing the question: are aid organisations now ‘selling’ suffering to satisfy the news agenda of the media at the expense of the respect and dignity of the affected people? Is this a typical example of the ends justify the means or just ‘the pornography of suffering?

Many NGOs are now spending huge proportions of their budgets on expensive media campaigns and courting celebrities instead of focusing on the real causes and effects of poverty. The media has a ridiculous penchant for the ‘celeb’ and aid agencies are playing up to this:

‘Until you’ve got a celebrity or a photo worthy person up there to sell it…then its going to be a steep hill.’ (Public affairs officer, Save the Children 2007).

The work of Brazilian supermodel Gisele Bundchen – the so called lady of charity – is a perfect example of this new media logic at work. Her image has been used to lend support to a number of humanitarian causes. In a campaign for HIV/AID’s sufferers in Africa, her face appeared on American Express Red card, an initiative by U2 front man Bon and Bobby Shriver, in which some percentage of money earned from the credit card’s transaction went to support African’s victims of HIV/AIDS. She has also appeared naked in a recent ad campaign for a Brazilian eco-charity. She is well known for her support of charities that protect the Amazon rainforest , such as Nascentes do Brasil, ISA, Y Ikatu Xingu, and De Olho nos Mananciais. She posed clad only in leaves on the cover of US magazine American Photo to promote her Forests of the Future project for the reforestation of the Brazilian Atlantic Forest. The initiative, which was set up with SOS Mata Atlantica in 2004, has planted over 1 million new trees in Bundchen’s name to start reforestation of the Brazilian rainforests. Bundchen has also donated $150,000 to Brazil’s Zero Hunger program.

The Red Cross in Latin America has also recently joined up with Sony Erikkson to promote their cause and aid communication. Their moto is now ‘when there is a human need to communicate Erikkson is here.’

Of course I am not criticising the charitable work done by these celebrities and companies and I just highlighting the often hidden problems or by-products that they create. Aid organisations do need the media promote their cause but in my opinion this obsession with the celebrity is taking too many resources away from actually physically helping people, distorting the goals of many agencies and leading to an over-reliance on media practices. A quick analysis of the new rhetoric emphasises the shifting agendas in aid media. The word ‘brand’ highlights the increased use of corporate promotion and marketing principles and the integration of NGOs into the corporate world. Jobs Selasie, head of charity African Aid Action has gone as far as saying that campaigns led by Bono and Bob Geldof have actually made problems worse in Africa by increasing corruption and dependency.

Beck (2005) argues that humanitarian agencies are actually playing a leading role in defining a new global social landscape. They are the leading players in connecting the poorest people in the third world with those in the developed world. How is this done? Through sophisticated television campaigns and the dissemination of images and ideals through new media. In this way the media act as a bridge between the first world and the third world. Cottle and Nolan contend that a new ‘media logic’ has emerged with inherent contradictions within it; NGOs need the media to bring public attention and support to global humanitarian issues but in order to attract this support they use communication strategies which detract from their original purpose. Funding is being focused in the wrong places.

In my opinion this new media logic is counter-productive. Media organisations seek to provide video images of the latest unfolding humanitarian disaster and deliver it to the global media to satisfy their appetite. ‘Everyone was dying for footage’ – those were the mis-chosen words of a communications manager of an aid agency referring to the media’s clamourings for footage and not the vitcims of the last humnaitarian disasters. This powerful highlights the now distorted focus of these agencies.

Images are becoming more sensational and more graphic. They flood our television screens. We’re constantly being told by Bono or Gisele Bunchen or some diamond earring wearing footballer, that we can end this suffering with just two pounds a month. This commercialisation of suffering has in some ways had an ironic side effect; many people simply change the channel. They’ve seen it all before and have become de-sensitised to death and suffering Branding has depoliticised development.

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As well as great human suffering in Potosi, and Bolivia as a whole, the environment has paid a heavy price for centuries of mining. Potosi is now one of the most polluted places on earth! The water, the air, the landscape…things that we in the West take for granted as a fundamental human right…are toxic here.

The water is choked with lead, cadmium and arsenic that have leaked out of the mines. Running water is tinted grey. The pollutants have inevitably entered the watershed causing health problems for the wider community and the presence of heavy metals in crops downstream. This resulted in considerable damage to the region’s agriculture. This is because there is no effective mine-drainage treatment system and environmental-law enforcement has been cavalierly disregarded for decades. All eyes are on the profits.

Silica dust in the air causes blackened lungs and silicosis. Few miners live longer than 20 years after starting work in the mountain. Health care, just like environmental law, is nonexistent here.

The mountain looks devastated like its people. The surrounding landscape is still dominated by the imposing shape of Cerro Rico as well as a strange yellow and orange tint. That is the colour of toxicity. There are heaps of slag and shavings dumped all over the hillsides have created toxic mounds of contaminants hundreds of feet high. The holes of dozens of air shafts and the entrances to the mines pockmark the mountain face whilst the scars of deforestation and the resulting landslides are everywhere.

Money and economics are the only things that seem to matter here.

Until investment is put into the local community and the environment both will inevitably deteriorate further. The government has vowed to implement remedial action to combat these  problems. These are empty promises. Nations throughout Latin America have been left with ravaged landscapes, polluted crops and extensive health problems because of a long history of irresponsible mining practices.

This brings me back to our basic rights as human beings. Surely clean water and clean air for these impoverished miners is the least we can do? Basic rights not commodities!

Following on from my last post it is worth examining what mining conditions are like in Potosi today, the environmental consequences and what role tourism plays in the future of this area. And…what on earth was I doing  down an asbestos filled mine in Bolivia?

My whole experience of Potosi is somewhat spine chilling when I look back. I actually feel guilty that I partook in this ‘tourist’ excursion to Cerro Rico. Was I conned into thinking that I was actually helping these miners by giving them some extra bolivianos to top up their measly wage? It was described as an experience of a lifetime. We were further lured in by the promise of being apply to buy dynamite, as if it was a toy, and set off  explosions on the hillside. In reality I was a naïve backpacker giving my money to western based tour companies for the pleasure of crawling on my hands and knees in the pitch dark for three hours.

Me with my dynamite stick bought from a miner. Shortly after this picture was taken we set off a series of explosion on the hillside - al part of the 'tourist experience'. Potosi is the only place in the world where you can buy dynamite over the counter.(Potosi, Bolivia 2007)

The dynamite stick I bought from a miner. Shortly after this picture was taken we set off a series of explosion on the hillside - all part of the 'tourist experience'. Potosi is the only place in the world where you can buy dynamite over the counter. (Potosi, Bolivia 2007)

First we were given a history lesson by our tour guides…Cerro Rico silver paved Potosi’s streets, fuelled the European Renaissance and helped fund the Spanish Armada that sailed against England in the sixteenth century. It is hard to believe this was once the richest city in the world. As the tour went on we all seemed to develop a conscience. To me this is a powerful example of dark tourism like a tour around a necropolis, or the Cambodian Killing Fields or Auschwitz. Tourists seem to be driven by some kind of sinister voyeurism or a taste for the macabre. I began to question what I was actually doing.  The line was being crossed between what was acceptable tourism and what was not. Is this actually cashing in on tragedy? Is death being commodified? (Well that’s another posting all together!)

Today Potosi is dying a slow death. Although this is the largest silver mine in the world, deposits are running out and the city’s 12,000 people have few other forms of income. The impact of this brutal mine on the local people is visible everywhere. Children as young ten work in the mine with a life expectancy of just 29. Adult miners work 10 hours days fuelled only by their bags of coca leaves. Two-thirds of the population have respiratory ailments. The infant mortality rate is 135 per 1,000 and more than 30% of the population are illiterate. Women and children beg daily on the streets. This is the lasting legacy of the Spanish colonisers who stole this city’s wealth and left it to die.

Miners shovel buckets of rock for upto 10 hours a day. Photo taken during my tour of the mine.

Miners shovel buckets of rock for upto 10 hours a day. Photo taken during my tour of the mine.

So is tourism actually a life line to this city? An alternative source of revenue? A source of hope?

Unesco is backing restoration projects for the city’s colonial buildings and is monitoring the conservation of the Cerro Rico as it is now a World Heritage siteI’m unconvinced.  Firstly because of the way that this form of tourism is operated. Miners are portrayed by tourist literature and western marketers as a primitive other and a throw back from a bygone era that can now be commodified. The story of human tragedy is being manipulated for profit. Secondly because Potosi is one of the most polluted places on the planet and the health ramifications are shocking.

It is worth examining the way that the media and tour providers portray miners in their literature. It soon becomes clear that imperialism is very much still alive here.  Descriptions of a ‘labyrinth of tunnels’ and ‘primitive tools’ and the opportunity to ‘step back hundreds of years’ dominate the tourist brochures. The promise of dynamite as well as ‘unforgettable memories of Potosi’s fortune and tragedy’ make the experience sound like it’s some kind of Hollywood blockbuster. 

 Lets not forget, El Tio, a kind of devilish goblin who lives underground and supposedly watches over the fate of the miners. Well he’s not been particularly vigilant with millions of miners dying over the centuries. Again this plays on the idea of primitive practices, superstitions and ‘mysterious’ folklore which legitimated imperialist ideology for centuries. There have been various films and documentaries made about the plight of these people. The Devil’s Miner  and Grito de piedra  are particularly chilling.

In my opinion the world acknowledges the past and present brutalities of this mine but nothing is done to put a stop to it. Eduardo Galeano’s (1973) ‘The Open Veins of Latin America‘ is a must read and powerfully sums up the wider debate about the imperialist legacy and the ongoing exploitation. It is an example of a very short list of investigative journalism to come out of Latin America. John Pilger’s (2006) ‘Tell me no lies’ places Galeano’s book in the wider theoretical context.

I regret paying my 210 bolivianos to go down the mine and see teenagers with blackened faces and mouths full of coca leaves struggling with their pick axes and shovels. My money went straight into the pockets of the tour operators who are owned by fat cats in the western world; the money is subsequently re-invested in advertising these kind of socially irresponsible tours which attract naïve backpackers like myself. The cycle keeps going round.  Romanticised images of the life of a miner, emotive descriptions of tragedy and courage and a play on the splendour and opulence of a bygone era – are all manufactured to bring in the tourists. Little if any of the money generated goes to help these miners. One last rant…the Lonely Planet is just as bad for recommending these tours and sending more hapless backpacker’s down the mines. 

So is tourism Potosi’s lifeline? I think not. It’s just imperialism and exploitation by the global north in a different guise. My next blog in this collection of posts focusing on Bolivia examines the environmental implications of Cerro Rico…

Since Cochabamba’s water war, the issue of water and access to it has gained attention on the international stage. Bolivia forced water privatisation as well as water scarcity onto the international agenda. Fortune magazine declared that water is the oil of the 21st century whilst Barnett (2001) anaylses the implications of these environmental securty threats. For many authors water scarcity is the proverbial spark that starts the metaphorical Middle East bonfire. In a region which is extremely arid, with existing ideological, religious and geographical disputes, combined with water scarcity, the result is one of the most volatile situations in the world. This begs the question – Is water a basic human right to be provided by governments through the public sector or is it a commodity to be sold by big business?

Whatever your view it is clear that water is set to be a major source of conflict across the globe. The environmental literature is replete with dire predictions of water wars. The water wars thesis is simple; water is distributed unevenly and, as population grows and the climate changes, it is increasingly in demand and will cause violent conflict. The potential for violence is extremely high as like most things, whoever control water wields the power. Bolivia has faced a series of crises over water and it is somewhat depressing to acknowledge that in the aftermath of the 2000 Cochabamba water wars, thousands still do not have access to clean water. The debate rages on…is water a commodity or basic human right? I think morally we all know the answer to that one.

So is conflict inevitable and perhaps exacerbated by the effects of climate change?

Barnett (2001) argues that the environment-conflict thesis is a product of the Northern security agenda premised upon geo-political issues. It is often only concerned with resources of economic value rather than the reality of environmental degradation and the welfare of those in the developing world. In other words the north constructs an eco-centric outlook of two worlds to suit its own agenda. The south plays the psrt of the primeval Other who needs the north to maintain order. Bascially the West just simply aren’t interested in the plight of Bolivia because it has no resources that they need.

However there is no escaping from the fact that in many area resource wars are a reality whether their seriousness is exaggerated by the West or not. Homer-Dixon (1991) contends that the geopolitics of environmental problems, their transboundary nature and the geographical misfit between resources and national boundaries,  means that sometime soon the North need to sit up and take notice. Many countries throughout Latin America are teetering on the edge of environmental conflict.

Protesters against metal mining outside Quito - photo courtesy of google images
Protesters against metal mining outside Quito – photo courtesy of google images

Environmental concerns have become increasingly important within global security discourse in recent decades. (Spoor 2000 sums this up in an accessible way.) The 1970’s saw the emergence of the doomsday syndrome and controversial debates over the global crisis of environmental degradation. Rachel Carsen’s 1962 Silent Spring is a must read covering thje development of early environmentalism. The oil crises of 1970’s and the realisation that resource scarcity poses a serious conflict threat, coupled with the end of the cold war, raised environmental awareness on a global scale and initiated international concern about the political implications of environmental pressures.

There is a lively debate surrounding the environmental-conflict thesis as academic opinion varies across a wide spectrum with some alarmist predications of impending resource wars within and between nations, whilst others refute the idea that there is any significant connection between the environment and conflict.

Conflict over resources is not a novel concept, but focus is now directed towards renewable resources, such as water, cropland, forests and fisheries. Environmental processes do not necessarily respect any type of state borders. Homer-Dixon (2001) argues that water scarcity is seen by many as the great problem of the 21st century as 261 major river systems are shared by two or more countries. Gleick (1993)  suggests that conflict has and will again arise over renewable resources such as water.

In Latin America there is a whole host of conflicts over resources from mining to water. In Quito , Ecuador, there have been recent mass demonstrations against large scale metal mining as farmers and indigenous communities call for natural resources to be nationalised. These local farmers have been supported by the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE) which represents indigenous people in Ecuador. It is one of Latin America’s most powerful social movements and argues that access to nature and water is a fundamental human right. Natural resource exploitation has been an ongoing source of conflict in Ecuador from the oil boom of the 1970s to this proposed mining of copper, gold and silver reserves today. There’s a long legacy of pollution and disease caused by oil exploitation and mining. However, many of these communities remain powerless in the face of an Ecuadorian government desperate for foreign investment. They have attempted to utilise the media to get their message heard but firstly this a country where medis comes under state control and thus rarely challenges the status quo. Secondly, these indigenous groups cannot compete with the western news agenda which overlooks their struggle.

Peru and Guatemala face similar battles against mining as the devastation it has caused to both the environment and health of local communities is increasing evident. See this article for more on the struggle of anti-mining activists in Guatemala. In many developing countries like Ecuador it is the oppressed and impoverished communities who advocate sustainable development and protest for basic territorial rights. As depressing as it is to admit their struggle may be in vain if President Rafael Correa’s recent comments are anything to go by… “It is absurd that some want to force us to remain like beggars sitting atop a bag of gold.” Once again the basic needs of indigenous communities and environmental concerns come second to making money.

In the 1980s there was a definite change in communication theories in Latin America as a direct result of many countries moving from dictatorships to democracies.  These new theories are based on ‘culture’ and using culture to more effectively implement media development strategies (Murphy/Rodriguez 2006). This was the beginning of cultural communication as an integral part in development work. Indeed culture is not an easy word to define and academics have toiled with numerous definitions. See Eskamp/Swart 1991 for an interesting debate about its many meanings from a way of life to a way of co-operating. It has finally been realised that there must be an understanding of culture as rooted in an imperialist past if communication strategies are to be successful in today’s society.

And what about the video? A whole host of new types of small-scale media have come in to play as a facilitators for development – song, dance, music, popular theatre – but at the same time keeping the cultural identity of the local area intact. This type of media is used to explore local themes and inform. Themes include anything from lack of fertilizer and water to the disruption of polygamy. Local issues that affect local people.

The use of video tapes in Peru is a powerful success story and an example of this new paradigm. Unlike the mediums of print, radio and television, which are notoriously top-down, one way and imperialist forms of communication often controlled by governments or professionals (Baraldi 2006), video creates a horizontal communication flow and promotes dialogue within and between communities. Crucially it is participatory and a form of self-media where the interests of the programmes are centred on the receiver as a real person rather than just a ‘receiver’ or a statistic.

In addition, its different from television, (which is notoriously used to carry political propaganda and incite commercial concerns) because production costs are low, equipment is highly portable, it is technically easy, and allows immediate play back and thus immediate results. It is an autonomous form of media and thus is self empowering. (See Agunga 1990).

In Peru this paradigm was used to facilitate rural development and agriculture. ‘Campesinos’ turned development theories upside down and used video to educate development workers about their needs and lives. This was then used by the government to inform agricultural reform. This development project trained native technicians in how to use video to reflect the problems in rural Peru. See Epskamp/Swart 1991 for more on this. A holistic range of programmes were subsequently made and focused on the salient issues of agricultural production techniques and problems affecting the rural communities; from irrigation, potato cultivation, cattle husbandry, environmental protection to how to take better care of llamas and alpacas to improve quality of the wool. There were even courses in farm bookkeeping to help farmers improve their management skills.

So why did this scheme work where many others have failed in Latin America? The answer lies in the way that the video tape was used as a channel of bottom up communication about agricultural issues. The result is that there’s now a more integrated rural development policy and the government was forced to listen to the needs of the rural people. The government’s view of agriculture shifted. Whereas before it’s interest in farming was purely economic with a view of more production for the good of urban populations, it’s now accepted that farming is a way of life, the environment must be protected and sustainability is a serious concern. This shift in discourse was forced by campesinos who drive their own development.

This success in Peru in the 1980s has been been employed in other countries throughout South America. Emphasis is now on working with rural communities and building up a relationship of trust. ‘In order to believe that person he must trust him.’ Since the 1980s, video is regularly used as a feedback and evaluation technique with emphasis upon developing more effective agricultural policy. It’s now a tool for people without a voice to speak out.