Pacha Mama Mia

The presidents of Peru and Bolivia face resistance from indigenous communities over environmental plans

When Evo Morales, an Aymara Indian, became the leader of Bolivia in 2005 he also became the first indigenous president. He came to power on a mandate to govern with a sort of ‘indigenous socialism’. Morales has been a strident defender of the rights of Bolivia’s native inhabitants and their stunning natural environment. He always liked to equate their struggle against colonial invaders with his fight against foreign traders, the US and Western capitalism; politics with which Hugo Chavez, the Venezuelan leader currently battling cancer, has identified very strongly.

But it has been six years since his arrival and the outlook is now different for Evo. In the past he has called any interference in the way-of-life or homeland of the indigenous communities ‘ecolocide’. Now he is the one being accused of destroying pacha mama. On 16 August indigenous activists took the first steps on a 233 mile-long protest march from the Amazon plains to the capital, La Paz. Normally, this would be a demonstration that Morales would be more than happy to join. But the march is in opposition to one of his policies, namely a government plan to build a 190 mile-long highway through a national park in aboriginal territory.

The road would potentially link the Beni plains to the Chapare, where Evo was a coca farmer before going on to lead a coca farmers’ union. Brazil has stumped up $420m for the project and certainly knows a thing or two about controversial environmental politics and upsetting local tribes, having given the Belo Monte dam the green light on 1 June. Foreign investors are on the horizon and the forest stands between them. Morales’ ‘indigenous socialism’ seems to be morphing into something more like ‘investment socialism’.

Ollanta Humala, who replaced Alan Garcia in the Peruvian presidency in July, has also found that he is having to alter the populist, pro-indigenous policies he has previously championed. In opposition he had been a creature in the mould of Chavez and Morales, denouncing free trade and capitalism but he has since ensured his new government is not seen as isolationist and instead said:

“We are building a government of national unity. This isn’t a Cabinet of the left or the right, but a Cabinet for all of Peru.”

He has angered native Peruvians with his plans for expanded oil and gas investment and exploration. And, just like in Bolivia, new roads through the Amazon rainforest have been proposed. The indigenous communities have criticised Humala and seem ready to rise, just as Bolivia’s Indians are now doing against one of their own.

Both countries could do with more infrastructural integration with neighbours and natural resources can be shared and developed but there is now a strengthening indigenous challenge. The once-quiet, Quechua and Aymara-speaking communities seem to have found a collective and growing voice.


You can’t have your pierogi and eat them

Poland is treading water at home and abroad

Sitting in the sun in the Rynek Glowny (Main Square) in Krakow a couple of weeks ago, large cheese pretzel in one hand and newspaper in the other, I revelled in the Polish summer. The young workers I spoke to, however, presented me with a slightly gloomier view. Their excitement for politics (if it ever existed) is waning. Donald Tusk, the current Polish prime minister, is also the present leader of the EU, after taking over the rotating six-month chair last month. It should be a chance for Warsaw to press home significant continental plans, especially in the security and regional development sectors. But the country is at a crossroads and unsure which road to take.

It is hard to manage being both national leader and head of the EU successfully and Mr Tusk has at least one eye on the general elections due in October. The EU is meant to be a discursive meeting-point for cross-border agreements and joint directives. Overly competitive states are often sidelined. The UK is a prime example with one foot in (membership) and one foot out (eurozone). Poland is doing the same dance at the moment: happily striding forth in the presidency but with the zloty still the only tender in its tills.

Raising the issue of the single currency brings shakes of the head and frowns among the twenty-somethings, though these negative opinions may be a snap reaction to the current financial crisis. The zloty itself is putting young Polish workers at a fork in the road of their own. Many have headed over to the UK to earn more for their work than the rates at home will offer. However, the global downturn, the following recession and subsequent US debt arguments, slow growth and eurozone crisis have led to many Poles returning home. One Polak I spoke to in London told me that public works projects and general urban construction plans in Poland are suffering – all the architects, surveyors and builders have gone to the UK. According to the UK’s Office for National Statistics, “immigration was highest in 2007 at 96,000 Polish citizens, but this declined to 39,000 in 2009”.

Mr Tusk has reassured Brussels his country will join the single currency despite that move probably being several years away. He has high European ambitions but must not neglect the opportunity to use domestic development to make Poland a regional leader. Young Poles seem bored by their politics: opposition leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski was scoffed at; Tusk himself dismissed as a lightweight; the sudden death of Andrzej Lepper came as a shock but he was seen as an outcast. Mr Tusk has the chance to be a progressive reformer driving business and education reforms at home and his energy, security and development policies in Europe but it seems that, with concern in Brussels and apathy at home, he needs to decide which side of the fence to come down on first.

Waiting game

On the regional diplomatic front-line against the Syrian violence, more might be expected from Lebanon

It is a fractious neighbourhood. The repressive Assad regime in Syria is surrounded by Iraq (still rocking with violence of its own), Iran (currently quietly watching events from the corner), Israel (dealing with its own Spanish indignado-style protests at the moment), Jordan (where King Abdullah has spoken recently to reassure the people of reforms), Turkey (starting to get restless with Syria and now using its megaphone to condemn Bashar al Assad) and Lebanon (a successful democracy, sitting between West and the Middle East).

However, Beirut is failing to use its geopolitical location and the fact that it has a seat on the UN Security Council at the moment to be able to lead the pack on Syrian policy. When the condemnatory statement was on the table in New York, Lebanon lifted its pen and passed it on. Discussing his country’s refusal to sign, Foreign Minister Adnan Mansour was quoted as saying that:

“The decision reflected Lebanon’s clear convictions. This position sought the higher interests of Lebanon and the entire region, including Syria.”

It is true that a resolution would have been a more defiant outcome and the European-led statement was weak. But that is not a reason not to express support for a small step on the road to reform, sanctions or intervention. This last option is the most worrying and the one that scares Russia and China the most at the moment. But Lebanon does not have to call for a Libyan-style military move.

The violence has escalated in recent days to the shelling of the port of Latakia from the sea by the Syrian navy. A simple denunciation would carry weight, as Lebanon is the only Middle Eastern and major Muslim nation on the present Council (although Gabon and Nigeria have sizeable Islamic populations as well).

But Lebanon has some tricky politics. Hezbollah, the militant Shia Muslim group, supports the Assad regime. Saad Hariri, the former prime minister, looks more to the West. With politics opening up across the region, Hezbollah ought to pause and consider the fallout if it were to continue to support a regime that was to be thrown out and whose members, like Hosni Mubarak, the former Egyptian president, ended up in caged docks in front of a condemnatory public. Hezbollah has links to Iran and it is hard for them to think purely within national borders, such are the complexities of the regional patronages and ties.

If it were to do so, it may see the reformist agenda led by Hariri and also the tide of condemnation growing in regional big beasts like Turkey. Lebanon is swimming against the flow at the moment and it would be better at least to turn to face the shore, rather than the swelling, international, condemnatory white rollers brewing out at sea.

Indian summer of uncertainty

How will India make use of its month in the presidency of the UN Security Council?

India has a lot of domestic and regional defence and security issues on its plate at the moment. Bearing in mind the added responsibility of chairing the UN Security Council, Delhi has a lot to shoulder. Looking at the international situation first there is one major issue: what to do with Syria. Since the Arab League gave its first official condemnation of the ongoing repression across Syria, the Gulf Nations have been queuing up to denounce the regime and their ambassadors have been jumping on aeroplanes home.

However, India’s caution on the issue has stood out. The excitable Europeans have been at the forefront of the clamour for a condemnatory resolution, with their grouping led by the UK, France and Italy (and also this time Germany, notably ambivalent about the NATO mission in Libya). Then there are Russia and China, two heavyweight permanent members flapping their vetoes in the air as a warning. India has so far aligned itself with the Russians and Chinese, who also count current non-permanent Council member South Africa, (part of the emboldening BRICS global power bloc), amongst their ranks. The Council has so far failed to agree on a resolution and only issued a weak statement. With Arab countries of regional importance both to Syria and to India starting to turn away from Damascus, India should have something a little bit more negative to say about the terrible repression in Syria.

On the home front, a relationship that unnerves Delhi is the Sino-Pakistani one. However, it has soured somewhat with Beijing’s published fears that Muslim Uighurs from Xinjiang province have been popping over the border to Pakistan to terrorist training camps. India, the host country of the Dalai Lama and the exiled Tibetan government, is eyeing China with suspicion. Indo-Pakistani relations recently came under the spotlight after many attributed responsibility for the Mumbai bombings in July to a Pakistani group. However, Islamabad strongly condemned the attacks and many instead looked to India’s homegrown Mujahideen as the possible bombers.

A new ‘Great Game’ seems to be building slowly in India, Pakistan and China. All three have nuclear weapons and very strong armed forces. India has two eyes but must not train them in the same direction. Syria is clearly important but Delhi must deliver calm diplomacy and strong leadership in the sub-continent as well. It has the chance to be a mediator in Indo-Chinese disputes at home and international disputes via the Security Council and must use these opportunities calmly and wisely.

Time to retake the Latin exam

The British government shows some determination to address its lack of commitment to Latin America

They say Latin is a dead language. Sometimes it seems that many in different British governments have believed Latin America is dead too. The visit of the British Minister for Latin America to Bolivia from 26-27 July went almost unnoticed in the UK press. The BBC had one online page of coverage of the trip; a YouTube video Jeremy Browne, the Liberal Democrat MP with responsibility for Latin America, put online had only been viewed 42 times by the time this blog was published.

In November, the Foreign Secretary made this speech about the relationship between the UK and Latin America. He was right that Britons have played a role in forging Brazilian and Uruguayan independence and being the first European nation to recognise Mexico. Welshmen took football to Argentina. Cornishmen helped develop the Mexican silver mines.

But it seems that there has been an invisible colonial barrier barring the UK from closer relations with the region; a whispered admission that this was Spain and Portugal’s domain. Africa and the sub-continent have received far greater attention from the UK, mainly owing to the colonial links. Millions across India, Pakistan and sub-Saharan Africa speak English. Charities and aid workers regularly channel their efforts (rightfully) on the many social, political and medical needs of these nations but Latin America also needs support. And the UK can help the region in a different way.

It need not abandon Uganda or Bangladesh but the old colonial frontiers that stood are long gone. New-age imperialism is booming. China has already muscled in on the old UK ground: Beijing is a massive investor in many African countries now, often exchanging construction workers and architects for coal. India is turning into a global power capable of looking after itself. South Africa has now joined Brazil, Russia, India and China in their strong, emerging-powers BRICS bloc.

Latin America is full of successful, healthy and democratic countries. Mexico, Argentina and Brazil are in the G20. The region does not need stabilising support but it would welcome closer trade and investment links. As Mr Hague noted in his speech “We export over three times more to Ireland than we do to the whole of Latin America”. That needs addressing fast. China is becoming the dominant power in Africa. As Brazil outgrows Latin America and sets its sights on global ambitions, the UK would do worse then re-focusing a little of its ring-fenced international development budget and a lot of its trade desires on Latin America.