quarta-feira, 14 de dezembro de 2011

Yield means what?

In the USA this past week we learnt that the authorities were finally going to begin cracking down on distracted drivers and enforce the law against using cell phones and other hand-held devices while driving. Surely no one can argue the need for tougher measures. Surely no one can argue that they drive just as safely as the rest of us do when they are holding and speaking on a cellphone or, worse, texting someone from a handheld device. But, you know, on Cape Cod, Massachusetts, where I live there is another driving law that needs to be better understood, obeyed and enforced if necessary. And that is the command to yield before entering a highway or rotary.

It’s a strange little word, I admit. And maybe that has something to do with it. After all I am convinced that a great number of people simply do not understand what the word means. So I’ll be direct. Yield means, slow down, proceed with caution, and give way to traffic if necessary. It shocks me to witness time and time again the misunderstanding or misinterpretation of this simple traffic law principally on the cape’s main highway and at the Bourne, Hyannis and Orleans rotaries (just to name three I know).  It is amazing how often drivers coming onto the highway or rotary do not even glance over at the traffic already speeding along their left side and that they, by law, must take into account and safely merge with. Do I need to define merge as well? Slowing down, having a look and then advancing when safe should the rule, not the exception. It is the law after all.  Stopping altogether should also be required if there is no way to safely enter the highway or rotary. Wait your turn, in other words.

Buy many US drivers don’t seem to understand the word yield. I think they think it means caution and nothing more. But what it most certainly does not mean is that you have the right of way over the traffic already on the highway (or in the rotary) and they must make way for you, slow down for you or, worse, switch to the fast lane to let you in.

I’m sure many have seen the You Tube video of the woman on an American highway forced from her lane by an oncoming car and into the side of a larger, faster car in the other lane. The result of this collision was a crash highlighted by at least 12 rolls of her car as she was bounced off the highway. Miraculously no other car was hit, and the woman driving the struck car was only slightly injured. Her car of course was totaled. And as if to add insult to injury the car that had entered the highway illegally and caused the crash never saw a thing and only disappeared down the road ahead of the carnage behind him.

I know we’re all in a rush these days. It’s Christmas and there is lots for us to do. But I’d like to just take this opportunity and suggest we all just have a little more patience on the road and work with everyone else to keep things safe and insure we all get home for Christmas.  And we could all take a great step towards this if understood just what is meant by the simple word yield. Slow down, proceed with caution, give way to traffic and, if necessary, stop altogether. Is it that difficult to take these precautions and avoid a potentially horrific accident?

quarta-feira, 14 de setembro de 2011

Back in the U-S-S-A

(From the Amazon and Brazil) I’ve been back in the US about 3 months now… reading, catching up, talking with folks, and just getting a feel for things “stateside” again. And what impresses me most is how let down folks feel by their government here. No one in Washington seems to be working for the people anymore. People feel abandoned. The Republicans and Democrats apparently work to purposelessly NOT agree on any issue; laws are passed by the collective in-action of our elected officials rather than their pro-action. Unemployment is at an all-time high. The rich are richer because they can’t be taxed. The issues that really matter such as the environment, unemployment and health care are just not being addressed by any of our leaders.
So what happened to President Obama, the president who promised so much and represented so much more to so many people, rich and poor, black and white, old and young? Rather than striking out systematically, one by one, at the negative forces conspiring against us and our world- at home and abroad- he has done little more the last 3 years than walk the fence, cautious not to step on anyone’s toes, and seemingly unwilling (or is he unable?) to take a bold stand on any issue. This pleases no one but his foes and least of all the common people who need his courage more than anything these days. Now, as our politicians enter into the pre-electoral campaign for the elections of 2012, it might do us all some good to re-evaluate our priorities before we vote and re-orient ourselves correctly for the times to come.
            Apart from some very interesting readings about Darwin and Lincoln- described by Adam Goptnik in Angels and Ages as two hugely important creators of modern thought and writing- the most interesting and perhaps most important book I have read this (American) summer has been JFK and the Unspeakable by James Douglass. This book puts into context everything you ever wondered about the coup d’etat and conspiracy to assassinate one of the nation’s most courageous and promising presidents ever (alongside Lincoln and FDR). Is it ironic or coincidental that each of these leaders should have died tragically as he reached his “finest hour” (to paraphrase the words of another great 20th century leader, Winston Churchill) and did not live to see the fruits his life’s work would eventually bear?
            Today we struggle yet to realize the dreams of these great men. Lincoln’s insistence upon union through equality was delayed before finding continuation in the efforts of Martin Luther King (yet another great thinker, writer and martyr) and others. Their work remains incomplete. FDR took our nation from the darkness of the depression and out of the hell of WWII, and gave us the wealth and opportunity that continues more or less to define our nation today. Yet what FDR initiated was sorely tested and almost lost during the foreshortened administration of John F. Kennedy. The mighty industrial-military complex which gave us our power after the war was revealed to be a Medussa and threatens to consume us all. President Kennedy saw what this corrupted power was leading us into- an unwinnable nuclear arms race- and he turned from being a “cold-warrior” towards becoming a “peace-maker”, a man with a mission, a crusader for world peace. Yet forces within his own government, especially the CIA, National Security Council, and the military industrial complex around him, were committed to a war against communism (and a nuclear arms race) in order to perpetuate their right winged agenda. Kennedy opposed “the need for war” with “a desire for peace” and for this he was set up and assassinated by those closest to him. E tu LBJ?
            In our generation the War on Communism has been replaced by the War on Terror. Through a form of pathological hubris and insistent isolationism the division between rich and poor, in both east and west, has grown ever wider since the end of the 20th century. The 2001 World Trade Center attacks in New York City represented an explosion of frustration from those less fortunate than ourselves in far-off lands poorer than ours. And rather than seek a peaceful solution by reaching out to those who would be our enemies and try to understand the rage and hatred directed towards us- on other words, rather than be courageous- President George W. Bush chose to take our country to war in two countries (actually continuing one war his father started earlier in Iraq and initiating another in Afghanistan). The last 10 years have seen our nation's budget deficit grow from literally nothing, ZERO (thanks to President Clinton and Newt Gingrich’s bipartisan efforts), to some trillions of dollars today, mostly due to military spending (which, surprise, translates into huge profits for the military-industrial complex but unemployment, high interest rates and collective debt for the rest of us). The pretext for a War on Terror today replicates a situation much like that of Kennedy’s time. Kennedy perceived the underlying evil of it all however and took steps to reverse the situation, steps that sadly led to his murder in Dallas, Texas on November 22, 1963.
            To turn the current situation around, to put the War on Terror behind us, and win our back country from the forces of big business and the military mind-set that currently holds us in check, we need to rally more than ever behind our beleaguered and isolated president. We need to win President Obama reelection and give him the courage he needs to face down the forces that threaten us all. At the same time we need to demand more transparency than ever from our government and call upon our elected representatives to never again allow for the conditions which led to the assassination in the 1960s of President Kennedy and other fine courageous leaders. JFK and his brother Robert, then Attorney-General of the United States, stood alone against the insatiable power of the military-industrial complex and were gunned down by those who live from war and profit from it. Our president today must know he is not alone. His foes must also know that he is not alone.
            More than unjustified the continuing War on Terror makes no sense. Our nation is wasting billions and perhaps trillions of dollars on armed conflicts that, like past conflicts against Korea, Cuba, the Soviet Union and Vietnam, cannot be “won” in any traditional or practical sense of the word. John Kennedy and other peacemakers were pushed aside by those in favor of war; however the War on Communism was not won by anyone in the end. The Communist system simply collapsed, more bankrupt and discredited than anything else. In the vacuum that followed a new War on Terror was invented and implemented by American right-wingers so that the same forces that held us in check during the Cold War era might continue to thrive in the New Millennium. We simply cannot allow this.
            If we could dismantle once and for all the industrial-military complex which controls us- in great part by supporting and encouraging President Obama to adopt the profile in courage he displayed when he was elected- the immense financial, technological AND human resources that are currently being wasted on the War on Terror could be put towards employing a generation of Americans in a campaign to save our planet and our species from the worst effects of global climate change. This, without a doubt, is the single greatest threat we all face today. More than anything we are sacrificing the supremely courageous and talented young people of our Armed Forces in an unnecessary, unjustifiable and, inevitably, unwinnable War on Terror when the true fight should be a veritable Green War against our own eminent self-destruction.
In the years to come we must find within each of us a little bit of the courage of a President Lincoln, a Roosevelt or a Kennedy and do what we can to stand up collectively to the truly powerful elements of our society which do not recognize or respect the real needs of our people. After all, who has the right to decide for the people what they need or want? Certainly not the CIA, Armed Forces, National Security Administration or the Pentagon. The power these institutions wield continues because we the people have failed to monitor their actions through the representatives we have voted into power. Through our own apathy and self-centeredness we have sanctioned our government’s practices of secret wars, assassination and covert activities on a global scale without accountability of any sort. It is time we recind the carte blanche capabilities of these secret forces and create a truly transparent form of government of, and for, the people once and for all.
If war is the best we can do then truly we do not deserve the planet we govern over. In the final analysis we need ask ourselves, is the specter of catastrophic global climate change the unavoidable result of some self-destructive nature of our own or is ecological disaster the mother planet, Gaia’s, response to our unchecked aggression and apathy? One perhaps is the result of the other; the planet, organically or not, is simply not able to defend itself anymore from our stupidity. It will consequently choose mass extinction as a means of starting over without us. But the question remains, will we destroy the earth first or will it destroy us first in an act of simple self-defense before that? Heaven help us we if we have already started an arms race of sorts with our own planet. We simply will not win this one either.

domingo, 10 de abril de 2011

Brazil's Energy Offerings: Too Many Choices or Calm Before the Storm?

Until very, very recently Brazil was being heralded as the world's first green super power. Not more than week ago ex Governador of California Arnold Schwarzenegger and ex President of the United States reiterated that hope during an environmental economic summit in Manaus, Brazil, capital of the prosperous northern state of Amazonas.   
However the combined effect of global events during the last few weeks have yet to catch up with the idealistic circus of globetrotting environmentalists and eco-wannabes personified internationally by film director James Cameron and domestically by ex Governador of Amazonas Eduardo Braga. Away from the glare of stage lights and camera flashes Brazil may actually be adopting the same capitalist and "business-as-usual" position of other developing global superpowers (strong economically and weak politically).
To begin with the situation in Libya threatens traditional oil supplies from the strife-ridden Middle East. (How often have we been warned about this eventuality?) And the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear accident in Japan- believe it or not- sounds the death knoll for clean, unlimited and, until Fujiwara, “safe” nuclear energy.
In Brazil the emphasis seems to suddenly be more on deep-sea oil deposits and controversial hydroelectric projects than on anything remotely green anymore. The price of ethanol (from sugar cane in Brazil) is the same as gasoline -and that's 4x what it costs in the USA who import their oil from the distant, volatile Middle Eastern cartels- because Brazil is having to import ethanol (from corn in the USA) to produce enough biodiesel for their own domestic market. In the blink of an eye Brazil’s position as a net exporter of biodiesel and potential leader of a global green revolution can only now be  questioned.
Brazil seems to be reverting back to a "business-as-usual" policy in response to immediate demands and present opportunities. The Latin American powerhouse is, after all, already self-sufficient in oil so the so-called “presal” offshore deposits will likely be snapped up by the USA as a stopgap against continuing and future shortages in the Middle East. Hydroelectric projects in Brazil’s vast interior can only gain added support as the country’s nuclear program undergoes premature revision and probable reconsideration.
In a sense it’s almost too bad Brazil has so many choices. They can’t seem to make up their minds. One thing’s for certain though- there's no internal pressure whatsoever on President Dilma Rouseff to listen to the hype of “where have you guys been” unemployed Hollywood titans or Washington exes. Dilma knows what they're saying “is right” but without the sense of urgency most of the rest of the world is currently experiencing regarding energy supplies she might just never get around to doing what “is right”.

quinta-feira, 31 de março de 2011

Academia de Letras ou Clube de Livros: O Que Falta na Literatura Brasileira

Continuo sendo um escritor (esquecido mais não escondido) de Manaus e acho que um dos problemas com o baixo nível de produção e qualidade da literatura brasileira é que os acadêmicos literários do país são (na grande maioria) homens esquisitos que se escondem atrás das suas academias, colégios e diplomas, e não querem realmente popularizar a produção da literatura (poesia, contos, romances etc) do e para o povo. Isso gera um desinteresse em literatura por parte do uma população infelizmente e facilmente seduzida pelas novelas e programas de esportes e jornalismo sensacional na televisão. E olhe para nossas academias com seus supostos “imortais”... a maioria desses caras não são escritores de nada (nem de ficção, nem de crônicas e nem muito menos de poesia)... são advogados ou políticos com nome, poder e contatos. A própria palavra, acadêmico, é muito formal e cria obstáculos para muitas pessoas. Mais popular seja um termo como clube (pense no sucesso fenomenal do clube de livros da apresentadora de televisão Oprah Winfrey).
Para melhorar esta situação podemos ter mais feiras de literatura (sim, feiras de diversão e não, congressos de solenidade) e mais apoio para a produção de literatura pelo povo. Chega de eventos dominados pelas mesmas figuras (muitas vezes escritores que não escrevem mais nada e só vivem relançando velhos textos como se fossem clássicos). Não tem outros escritores com textos novos e inéditos procurando apoio e publicação? Acredito que sim. E chega de concursos somente para livros já publicados ou editados... ter que ser concursos para simples contos e poesias (e nada desse negocio de 4 copias em papel A4 enviado num envelope pelo correio, tudo ter que ser mais fácil, por email e utilizando a internet). Finalmente há uma falta muito grande de revistas e jornais no Brasil onde novos (e consagrados) escritores podem ser apresentados, ser lidos e ser descobertos. Pergunta: quando foi a ultima vez você leio um conto de ficção em algum jornal ou revista conhecida?
Outra coisa fundamental que não agrada o publico a vida literária continua de ser o alto preço e horrível qualidade dos livros produzidos e vendidos no Brasil. Parece que as editoras brasileiras só pensando em seus lucros e não pensam na no produto ou mercado! Sabe que você não paga impostos para a entrega de livros comprados no exterior (pelo site, por exemplo, do amazon.com)! Ha muito tempo eu parei de comprar livros no Brasil. Compro no internet livros diretos dos Estados Unidos ou Europa de alta qualidade e baixo preço. Para um Brasil de mais escritores, esta profissão na escola, a pratica dessa arte na vida real, e o consumo do produto em geral, ter que ser mais acessível em todos os sentidos e menos conservador em toda sua apresentação. Pergunta final: quantos de nos conhecem um escritor de verdade?

Lovelock's Lost Luck; Thoughts on Libya and Japan

Our road towards sustainability is a rocky one at best and on the road we are often distracted. The recent wave of unrest in the Middle East has resulted in the abdication of more than one dictatorial potentate. On the ground that means freedom and democracy for local populations. People power. That’s the good news. The message being aired back home is something else however. Again the talk is about western oil supplies. And it’s one thing to talk about whether or not we need oil; it’s another thing to talk about where it’s coming from. 
If our leaders won’t guide us towards alternative energy sources because it’s best for the planet, they might do so because there’s nowhere safe to buy oil anymore. But then along comes an ally like Brazil offering to pick up the expected slack with their new offshore oil discoveries called “presal”. If Iran and Libya are out Brazil could be very, very in.  That may be good news in the short term but not in the long term.
On the other side of the world the earthquake and tsunami in Japan couldn’t make the use of nuclear energy look any worse. That’s certainly a mix of good news AND bad. You might have been on the fence about nuclear uptil now. After all it’s relatively cheap to produce. And it produces unprecedented quantities of clean and powerful energy. Finally it’s a lot easier for us to insert nuclear into our energy portfolio than solar which just hasn’t been made cheap enough yet for mass distribution. The tragedy in Japan has changed all that though. Already around the globe the world’s richest nations are re-examining their nuclear facilities and cutting back funding for future installations. Germany has even indicated they might even start closing existing nuclear plants. The shockwaves from Japan signal the death-knoll for nuclear energy whether you’re for it or not. What would James Lovelock have to say about that?

So now what do we do? Fossil fuels are out or fossil fuels are in? Depends on who you know in the short run, I guess you’d say, and how much you really care about the earth in the long run. Before “presal” Brazil was expected to become the world’s first green superpower based upon its enormous potential for producing ethanol, or biodiesel. Never mind the land and even rainforest required for that. Now Brazil’s found presal and the US will come charging after it. Brazil is already oil self-sufficient- the USA is not- and the end result (sadly) is no more incentive now for the production of biodiesel there. Not even for their own domestic consumption (does anyone remember the “what’s best for the earth” argument?).  Libya might cease to be an oil exporter but the US doesn’t need them anymore anyway because of what Brazil will have to offer. The tragedy in Japan and the end of nuclear only makes oil more precious than ever for the US and her democratic allies.
Talk about a rotten turn of events.
Many of us now understand that we need to stop exploring for oil (and coal) immediately because any further burning of fossil fuels is just going to tip us over the CO2 edge and we’ll never have a chance at getting back to a cleaner, cooler planet. What we still require is a combination of people power and political will though. As an educated population we have to put the pressure on our leaders and let them know we don’t want the luxury of oil anymore and we are able and willing to adopt new energy practices in a supreme effort to turn things around before it’s too late. However as long as Big Oil (and Big Coal) continue to provide us with relatively cheap energy most people (and our leaders too) are going to go along with that, no matter where it comes from.
It’s the age-old argument of supply and demand. Demand might have begun to wane in the developed west during the last decade or so but it seems if we create more supply the demand will increase again proportionately. Trouble in the Middle East should mean less supply; higher oil and gas prices should result in less demand. And that should cause us to look elsewhere for our energy supplies or, better still, at alternative technologies. If there was no further supply then more affordable, and greener, energy sources- be they nuclear, solar, eolic or bio- would receive more attention and would surely in time, and naturally, replace fossil fuels.
If the people seem incapable of making the necessary changes can we expect our leaders to make those decisions for us? The writing is on the wall after all. The majority of people however, even in developed countries, will just continue to take what is laid before them, good or bad. But if it was made clear to us, or to our leaders- or, better, to both at the same time- that the production of fossil fuels is (undeniably) destroying our planet AND supplies are (definitely) running out then one would think we might then start taking steps towards making the necessary changes. We would react to the crisis if it was crisis that we perceived. What other hope do we have?
Crisis in the Middle East means crisis in the developed world. Nuclear crisis in Japan and the political tsunami it is causing in Europe and North America means crisis too. And crisis is good in the sense that we now urgently re-examine of our energy supplies and demands. Cheap energy from the Brazilian pre-sal deposits and Chinese coal mines should not be seen as a good thing. That’s the first thing to realize. At best they serve us only in the short term. At worse they give us a false sense of energy security that we can ill afford to have at this time in our earth’s evolution. If not for the new oil coming out of Brazil that very same country might have been encouraged to provide us with something truly beneficial in the short and long term…bio-energy. And that might have served as a model for emerging countries with questionable energy portfolios such as China.
So where do we go from here? The emerging energy superpowers China and Brazil might turn out to have nothing new to offer us. Our high hopes only mean business as usual. We’re back to square one. The powers that be that only care for the short term have done well so far this year. Though one card remains to be played. People power. If the abused and neglected masses in the middle east can cause incite change why can’t we do the same in peaceful and supposedly democratic first world countries? If our leaders lead the leaders of the world, why  don’t our peoples people the people of the world? Food, or fuel, for thought.

quinta-feira, 10 de março de 2011

Árvores Derretem Também: De Olho no Aquecimento Global Norte e Sul da Fronteira

Meu amor pelo selvagem nasceu em colônias de ferias nos lagos do Algonquin e Temagami ao norte de Toronto, Canadá, e durante passeios escolares aos campos e florestas de uma propriedade particular próximo a vila do Norval, Ontário. Minha introdução à literatura de conservação começou por Farley Mowat’s, Never Cry Wolf. Entre meus favoritos de ficção foram obras de Jack London e Ernest Hemingway. Então o que me afastou do frio, do gelo e da aventura no Ártico e me levou para o calor e exuberância dos rios e das florestas tropicais da Amazônia? Seria a casa de verão que tínhamos em Cape Cod, Massachusetts, enquanto todos os meus colegas de escola tinham cabanas em Georgian Bay? Foram as histórias sobre exploradores africanos as quais o meu pai contava quando eu era um garoto após tempos gastos na Nigéria, Leste da África? Ou foi as baleias, o grande migratório das baleias?

Quando foi a primeira vez que fiquei fascinado pelos grandes seres do fundo dos mares, eu não sei.  Mas tudo sobre eles cativou minha imaginação e fixou meus olhos e mente em direção ao sul como se estivesse seguindo um navio baleeiro do século dezenove até a costa ocidental. Primeiramente foi no colégio nos estados unidos onde estudei sobre a literatura da América Latina, em seguida, times de esportes me levaram ao caribe e finalmente surfando, e outras aventuras que me levaram adentro da América Central e América do Sul. Foi somente uma questão de tempo até eu me encontrar na floresta Amazônica do Brasil e me apaixonar... Pelo rio e floresta também, mas primeiramente pela minha mulher.

Agora, 30 anos depois estou olhando para trás, olhando para o norte e pensando sobre a neve e o gelo de novo. Não porque eu preciso de uma nova aventura, embora eu faça. Parte de mim está com saudades de casa após tantos anos longe dela. Mas também eu quero fazer sempre mais para salvar nosso planeta ameaçado – após a Amazônia Brasileira, o Ártico Canadense é o lugar para se estar!

A floresta tropical da Amazônia Brasileira e as calotas congeladas do Ártico Canadense são consideradas os mais importantes e ameaçados ecossistemas em nosso planeta. Sem as arvores e sem o gelo nosso planeta não será capaz de manter seu delicado equilíbrio e “regular” ele próprio. Secas extremas, inundações e outros desastres naturais causados pelo aquecimento global destruirão nosso planeta inteiramente. A raça humana, em sua busca insaciável por bens matérias é a causa dos eminentes e irreversíveis desastres ecológicos. E para melhor ou pior, é o Homem por si só que pode dar a voltar por cima e salvar o planeta.

O bom... importantes e bonitos ecossistemas que devem ser salvos

Florestas antigas, Montanhas, geleiras, lagos e fontes de recursos hídricos, indígenas (conservação e técnicas de sobrevivência, plantas medicinais e sabedoria antiga), biodiversidade (Flora e fauna, , línguas e costumes etc.)

O mal...  causas de destruição e ameaças contra as ultimas fronteiras do mundo

Aquecimento global causado pelo aumento na emissão de CO2, desflorestamento, alagações, secas extremas, fazendas de gado, a especulação imobiliária, soja e outras monoculturas, aumento da população, o desenvolvimento urbano descontrolado, mineração e exploração de petróleo, gestão ineficiente da terra, poluição da água, a desigualdade entre ricos e pobres.

E o âmago da questão ... Soluções que você pode fazer parte

Educação, controle populacional, fortalecimento da mulher, direitos humanos, planejamento urbano, reforma agrária, conservação, reciclagem, fontes de energia alternativa (solar, eólica, hidroelétrica, orgânica), transportes alternativos (bicicleta, ônibus, trem), ecoturismo, hábitos alimentares alternativos (comer menos carne), suporte a ONG’s como Greenpeace, WWF, A conservação da natureza e Conservação internacional, melhores e mais eficientes técnicas de pastagem.

E se os desastres potenciais dos quais o aquecimento global já estiver causando não forem suficiente, não parece ter havido falta de oportunidade para que estivéssemos fora de tais coisas ruins. Dentre outras coisas, no aquecimento global ártico estão se abrindo novas rotas de navegação o ano inteiro, e revelando anteriormente inacessíveis depósitos de mineral e óleo. Escolher enfrentar a necessidade por ações urgentes agora contra o aquecimento global antes que isto realmente entre fora de controle, existem muitos que vêem isto como uma potencial coisa boa. Perversamente, o aquecimento global aparece mais como um vírus no passar do tempo, que se alimenta de si mesmo. Ao invés de combater o problema muitos estão planejando benefício para si próprios a curdo  prazo e geram assim mais aquecimento global como resultado.

quarta-feira, 9 de março de 2011

Trees Melt Too: Keeping an Eye on Global Warming North AND South of the Border

My love of the wild was born of Canadian summer camps in Algonquin and Temagami north of Toronto and regular field trips to a rustic school property near Norval, Ontario. My introduction to the literature of conservation was Faley Mowat’s, Never Cry Wolf. And early fiction favorites included the works of Jack London. What was it that turned me away from the cold, ice and adventure of the Arctic and towards the tropical rainforests of the Amazon? Was it a summer house we had on Cape Cod, Massachusetts, when all my schoolmates had cottages on Georgian Bay? Was it stories of African Explorers my father told me as a boy after time spent in Nigeria, West Africa? Or was it the whales, the great migratory whales?
When it was I first became fascinated with the mighty behemoths of the deep I don’t know. But everything about them captured my imagination and led my eyes and mind southwards as if following 19th century whaling ships down the eastern seaboard. First it was college in the US where I studied Latin American literature, then sports teams that took me through the Caribbean, and finally surfing and other adventures that took me into Central and South America. It was only a question of time before I found myself in the Amazon rainforest of Brazil and fell in love…with the river and forests too, though first with my wife-to-be.
Now 30 years later I am looking back, looking north and thinking about the snow and the ice again. And not because I need a new adventure, though I do. Part of me is homesick after so many years away. But also I want to do even more to save our threatened planet- after the Brazilian Amazon the Canadian Arctic is the place to be!
The tropical rainforest of the (Brazilian) Amazon and polar icecap of the (Canadian) Arctic are considered to be the most important and endangered ecosystems on our planet. Without the trees and without the ice our planet will be unable to maintain its delicate equilibrium and “regulate” itself. Drought, flooding and other “natural” disasters caused by global warming will destroy our planet entirely. Mankind, in lustful and wasteful pursuit of material wealth, is the cause of this eminent and seemingly irreversible ecological disaster. And, for better or worse, it is Mankind alone who can turn things around and save the planet. 

The good…important & beautiful ecosystems that must be saved
Ancient forests, mountain ranges, glaciers, lakes and fresh water sources, Indigenous peoples (conservation & survival techniques, medicinal plants & ancient wisdom), biodiversity (unique flora & fauna, pharmaceuticals, languages & customs etc)
The bad…causes of destruction and threats against the world’s last frontiers
Global warming caused by increased CO2 emissions, deforestation, flooding, drought, cattle ranches, land speculation, soya and other monoculture farming, over-population, uncontrolled urban development, mining and oil exploration, inefficient land management, water pollution, inequality between rich & poor
And the nitty-gritty…solutions that you can be part of
Education, population control, empowerment of women, human rights, urban planning, land reform, conservation, recycling, alternative energy sources (solar, wind, water, organic), alternative transportation (bike, bus, train), ecotourism, alternate eating habits (eat less meat, support NGOs like Greenpeace, WWF, The Nature Conservancy and Conservation International, better & more efficient farming techniques

And if the potential disaster global warming is already causing wasn’t enough there seems to be no lack of opportunity to be had out of a bad thing. Amongst other things in the arctic global warming is opening up year-round shipping lanes, and revealing previously inaccessible mineral and oil deposits. Rather than face up to the need for urgent action now against global warming before it really gets out of control there are many who see it as a potentially good thing. Perversely global warming appears more like a virus as time passes and it feeds upon itself or spontaneously inbreeds itself exponentially. Rather than fight the problem many are planning to benefit from it in the short run begetting more global warming in the long run as a result. 

sexta-feira, 28 de janeiro de 2011

Community-Based Tourism in the Brazilian Amazon: Missing Leg in a Tripod of Tour Products

For most people the Amazon cannot be done in a day. For as long as I can remember tourism depended on an exterior market, mostly affluent foreigners with time, money and an interest in the region’s biodiversity and geo-political importance. And they weren’t going to come all this way and spend all that money just for one canoe trip, or one rainforest walk. As in other tropical countries a collection of jungle lodges was developed in the 1980s to receive a growing tourist clientele. In the 1990’s a new means of exploring the region was developed- something more authentic and unique to a region full of rivers, flooded forests and fluvial island chains- riverboat tourism.
During the last decade however growth in the Amazon tourism sector of Brazil has inexplicably stagnated despite its obvious appeal and recognized importance. Neighboring countries such as Peru and Ecuador have, despite their obvious limitations, done remarkably well in comparison. Numbers have seldom topped 400,000 tourists a year in the Brazilian state of Amazonas, largest and most affluent of the region, and best known for the fabulous 19th century Opera House which still dominates the skyline of its booming 2 million person capital, Manaus. The state invests millions every year in promotion and marketing and has little to show for it all. One mistake has certainly been the lack of integration with the local tourism trade, the majority of whom are small operators and family-run businesses who truly represent the potential of tourism in the country.
There are signs of resuscitation and spurts of new energy, due mostly to the stabilizing factor of recent two-term president, Lula Ignacio de Souza. The Brazilian economy is stronger than ever and should continue to grow under the command of Lula’s hand-picker successor, Dilma Rouseff, the country’s first woman president. Brazil is poised to become the 5th largest producer of oil in the world, and the “green” superpower of the future. A more robust economy and stronger currency has resulted in more Brazilians travelling than ever before. Many are visiting the Amazon for the first time though most are taking advantage of the weak dollar and euro to travel outside the country.  Local Amazon tour operators are adapting their products in response to this growing national market. They are also developing tourism products for a new local market, adventure activities and daytrips at prices accessible by all.
The fact that Manaus will host a number of football (soccer) games during the 2014 World Cup has prompted a construction explosion unparalleled since the “Paris of the Tropics” was conceived by Governor Eduardo Ribeiro in the late 1900s. The capital is enjoying an unprecedented boom, good and bad. As the city, and state, prepare for the near future the number of tourists, foreign and national, will naturally increase. Yet will the numbers grow expressively and put Manaus on the international list of top destinations like Paris, London and New York or will it never surpass the numbers of a Niagara Falls, Timbuktu or Havana? Time will certainly tell, but one thing seems obvious to this observer…that unless a tourism that reflects the philosophy of the moment, that of sustainability and local participation, is quickly developed then all will be for nothing.
A broader offering of community-based tourism services and products is desperately needed if Brazilian culture is to truly express itself as tourism, a natural enough vocation for this Latin country of 200 million blessed with sun, surf and all combination of cultural festivities and natural wonders. Business-as-usual is not good enough anymore, no matter what older operators want. Local populations, government agencies and the market itself demand something new, something more inclusive, something more authentic and rewarding for all.
For too long tourism in the Brazilian Amazon has been dominated and run by a small group of 25+ year old tour operators known as the “G-7”. Despite the growth of Manaus, the capital, and a steady increase in the number of travel agencies and small operators these companies have been able to maintain control of the increasing numbers of tourists that visit the region. Like old stock rubber plants in the Far East the tourism product in Manaus has not changed much over the years and certainly has not accompanied global trends. While the rest of the world worries itself about the fate of the Amazon rainforest the very people who have the ability to show off its beauty best, and insure its value as something other than chopped wood and cow patties, haven’t responded to the call.
One reason is a certain gringo-phobia, sadly discernable in much of modern Brazilian society. Brazilians welcome tourists of all types, and are happy to trade smiles and other favors for hard cash. But foreigners are treated differently once they decide to stay. Simply because they are foreigners their input is often shunned or, worse, ignored. Even when it is obvious that a foreigner’s contribution would benefit all it is often belittled and neglected.
In Manaus there are a good numbers of foreigners working in tourism. And unnoticed by the local Brazilians these foreigners have for the most part attempted to integrate themselves into the local culture rather than establish the sort of polarizing expat communities found in so many other foreign capitals. New blood brings with it new ideas. New alliances being with them new powers. But rather then welcome the new blood and ideas of these “wash-ashores” they have been ignored and marginalized by the very people they mean to help. Brazilians seem to still see foreigners as colonial exploiters of the 19th century.
With the local tourism trade in disarray the established operators of Amazonas state have been able to take advantage of this lack of union and maintain the status quo. And there is no trickle-down effect. Without a unified voice the greater part of the local tourism trade has also been ignored by local, state and federal authorities. Instead of working in harmony the private and public sectors have carved out independent niches and followed contradictory paths. Development of a broad-base of diverse tourism products has been impossible under these conditions. To complicate things even further the conservation sector represented by a whole gammet of NGOs and coordinated by public sector institutions such as IBAMA (federal) and SDS (state) has pursued a policy of establishing conservation units that all but exclude tourism as a viable means towards sustainable development. Vast tracts of the Amazon are thankfully being preserved at long last through access to these resources by Brazilians and foreigners alike is being restricted. As time passes the gulf between private and public interests will only widen and animosities only deepen. At a time when opportunity knocks the Brazilian tourism sector appeals unable to respond because it has not found it’s voice yet.
Only as a result of pressure from below, from smaller tourism operators who make up the majority in most places, and from above, from a more enlightened political generation emergent in the wake of Brazil’s flirtation with militarism, have things finally begun to change; though not as fast as most would like. Examples are springing up here and there of local tourism projects designed to meet new market demands and reflect the new political thinking. But the march is slow.
From below the ABETA organization represents a grassroots effort by the tourism trade itself to organize and express itself as a contributor to the vigorous, new Brazilian economy as well as a promoter of a growing socio-environmental philosophy. Business for business sake is no longer acceptable but must be grounded in fiscal responsibility, solid ethics and an active promotion of social and environmental needs of the nation. 
And from above the Brazilian government struggles to realize itself as either the United States of South America in all it’s consumerist and oil-guzzling glory or as the world’s first truly green nation complete with a humanitarian and environmental agenda second to none. 
On the lower Negro River where this writer operates the signs of community-based tourism are, sadly, far and few between. While a series of municipal, state and national parks have been created across the state- today 97% of the state is protected by law as conservation land- what have local operators done to turn these biologically and culturally diverse building blocks into sustainable reserves for the indigenous populations who live there? The answer is, very little. I have already observed that a lack of cooperation and consultation has excluded the tourism trade from the bargaining table. Individual families benefit from the tour companies they have formed alliances with over the years. Many communities have however been exploited by the owners of larger jungle lodges. Resentment, suspicion and, above all, abandonment are evident wherever you go.
Only recently has the tourism trade begun to make itself heard and demand its right to participate in the economic development of the Amazon interior. And the public sector has responded well, if not enthusiastically, to the trade’s offer of logistical coordination. What the government has been unable to do, namely, turn physical relationships with the locals into business relationships, local operators are able to do as many of them come from these distant riberine communities or have been working with these people for years. What local operators are able to do is put into place locally the web of education and self-empowerment the distant government wishes for but is unable to do.
It is precisely this role of intermediary that has been missing from the entanglement that is Amazonian tourism today. Unless well-intentioned persons at all levels of society are invited as equals to the bargaining table no amount of good will by anyone will amount to much good. Only as a melting pot of peoples and ideas will Brazil resolve its economic differences and be able to understand and develop its social and environmental agenda which is only now being hinted at. If the people can honestly find their voice within the halls of power Brazil might escape the consumerist fate that threatens so much of the developed world at present. The time has come to bring the actors together and raise the curtain over a new Brazil.  

quinta-feira, 13 de janeiro de 2011

Brazil: Future Green Superpower or just the United States of South America?

Two things have captured, and held, my attention the past few months: the Deep Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and this year’s drought in Amazonia. The oil spill is a direct result of human recklessness, greed and loss of control over our own actions. The Amazon drought is quite conceivably an indirect result of the same behavior even if it does appear the more natural of the two disasters. It is truly sad that a hundred years of greed and growth have put our planet on a crash course with environmental self-annihilation. But allowing our greatest technologies to falter and result in huge environmental accidents of our own making is simply unacceptable. Ï can’t seem to shake the cry of, what were they thinking, from my mind!
Not surprisingly oil is also an issue in the scorched Amazon, and scorched now not by forest fires but by global warming caused by excessive burning of fossil fuels, resultant climate change and a simple lack of rain. The drought of 2010 was the worst ever recorded in the Brazilian Amazon.
Only 25% of the electricity produced in Brazil’s Amazonas state for its 4 million person population comes from hydroelectricity in the form of the Balbina Hydroelectric dam 100 kilometers or so north of the capital city of Manaus. The rest comes from a collection of different sized generators fueled by petroleum transported from the Brazilian south. Despite a its own refinery, gasoline in Manaus still costs about 15% more than anywhere else in the country. Electricity in the north costs 30% more than any other region in Brazil.
In 2010 the 700km Urucu-Manaus gas pipeline was finally completed and it is claimed this will provide the region with another 25% of its energy. Natural gas may be the cleanest of the traditional fossil fuels available on our planet, but that’s as far as the good news goes. Natural gas is still a non-renewable source of energy and its commercial use results in unacceptable amounts of carbon released into our atmosphere.  As such we still remain as dependent as ever on dwindling supplies of fossil fuels and the accompanying ever-rising prices.
The Amazon is blessed with excessive amounts of strong, direct sunlight and clean, running water. This has resulted in the greatest abundance of green plant life on the planet. In the recent past Brazil has developed simple technologies that result in a clean and potentially abundant form of energy. Ethanol is a biodiesel produced from sugar cane. Yet Brazil, like the United States, cannot shake its lust for oil and other fossil fuels, and seems as obsessed as ever with the prospect of becoming the “united states” of South America. When we have just witnessed the largest oil spill in history, in the Gulf of Mexico, Brazil is patting itself on the back after discovering deep, deep undersea oil deposits that may make it the fifth largest oil producer in the world.
There are numerous indications that the future of the planet is being decided in emergent countries such as China, India and Brazil. And in Brazil it should come as no surprise that the epicenter of activity is once again Amazonia. Yet if the Amazon- with its enormous organic and mineral wealth- cannot provide for its own energy needs what hope is there for any other part of the world? If Brazil should fail in its efforts towards sustainability in the Amazon this would only provide fodder for the conservative forces of big oil and big government that threaten us all.
A huge opportunity exists in Brazil for the country to become the world’s first truly green superpower. And thankfully this ascension need not take the form of us versus them, north versus south, developed versus developing, the US versus Brazil. No, in fact an opportunity exists to show others how things might be done correctly for once. What might soon become a struggle within Brazil between the forces of Green (biodiesel, say) and Black (petroleum) could very well determine the path other countries might take towards sustainability and energy self-sufficiency.  Rather than exploiting its finite black resources and following the tried old path already tread by so many other countries, Brazil has the option of tapping its infinite green resources, saving the Amazon directly, the polar ice caps indirectly, and providing blueprints for a worldwide economic and energy revolution?
Brazil could become the green energy superpower of the future. The current superpowers already depend on distant, expensive and non-renewable sources for their energy. The consumerist-driven obsession with oil in the USA has blinded its leaders to the fact that the country is being held hostage by the Saudi Arabian oil sheiks. At the slightest provocation, real or otherwise, America is willing to “unleash hell” to secure its national interests regardless of detrimental, long-term consequences. And when the Saudi oil runs out- and it will sooner rather than later- where will the United States turn to for their energy? What future wars will be fought over the last barrels of crude in distant and, in most cases, violence-prone or ecologically-important regions?
In Brazil the Petrobras company has, in only 30 years, made the country just about self-sufficient in oil and natural gas, and its recently tapped deep-sea (“pre-sal”) oil deposits off the southern coasts will turn the country into at least the world’s 5th largest oil producer and a net exporter. Economically, if not necessarily environmentally, things in Brazil, as opposed to the USA, are looking very, very good in the short run these days.
But just as supplies of oil, coal, and natural gas will run out elsewhere these same fossil fuels will also run out in Brazil. What form will the necessary transition from non-renewable energy sources to renewable ones take? In the medium run Brazil will also do well, it seems.  The reason for this is, literally, “blowing in the wind”, and “flowing in the water”. Brazil’s vast interior contains more free-flowing freshwater than anywhere else on earth. The largest river in the world by volume, the Amazon, runs through the center of the country and spills unchecked (how much water is that each day?) into the Atlantic Ocean at the city of Belem. Twelve massive tributaries longer than 1000 kilometers each are found entirely, from mountain headwaters to gaping river mouths, within Brazil’s borders. Hydroelectric potential is obviously enormous. As well Brazil’s coastline stretches 12,000 kilometers from French Guiana to Argentina. Powerful trade winds swath endless, paradisiacal beaches, all potential sites for 21st century wind-farms like those found today in California (USA) and Holland (EUR).   
But the real gem in Brazil’s energy treasure chest is that which will assure Brazil of superpower status in the long run. That gem is green. That gem is the Amazon rainforest. If Brazil can make the transition sooner rather than later from non-renewable to renewable energy sources (and preserve its massive rainforest from what is has already destroyed Indonesian and African rainforests) then the groundwork will be laid for a truly green revolution of a kind never before seen, let alone imagined, on our planet. Heaven help anyone not on friendly terms with the perpetually friendly Brazilians.  
In concluding we would do well, yet again, to consider if not heed the lessons of history.
As a young man the German engineer Rudolph Diesel was appalled at the inefficiency of the steam-powered engines of his time. His revolutionary “diesel” engine won the grand prize at the 1900 World’s Fair in Paris. But incredible as it may seem his “compression-ignition” engine was not powered by oil or gas. Today’s diesel fuel has nothing to do with Rudolf Diesel; his engine was powered by peanut oil.
And who does this all bring to mind but the popular (and still unfairly derided) ex-President of the United States, Jimmy Carter, a former peanut farmer who in the 1970’s was the last US president to systematically reduce the nation’s dependence on foreign oil significantly (25%) by facing up to the Middle Eastern monopoly and encourage conservation, mandate lower speed limits and develop more fuel efficient vehicles instead.
In the end you have to wonder why, with all our technological know-how and regrettable sense of godliness, we are unable to implement the changes necessary to save our planet from…ourselves?
*Who killed Rudolph Diesel?  Patent fees from his bio-fuel engines (seed-oil and, especially, hemp) made him a millionaire but a pariah to the emerging American lumber and petroleum empires. Diesel died under mysterious circumstances in 1913, vanishing during an overnight crossing of the English Channel on the mail steamer Dresden from Antwerp to Harwich. His death might have been suicide, an accident or even assassination. His commercial opponents included, amongst others, the Dupont family and William Randolph Hearst…powerful men with a lot to lose from alternative energy sources. Sound familiar?