Field & Street | Field & Street | Chicago Reader

Field & Street 

Sign up for our newsletters Subscribe

Why should Indians have a right to land when they don't produce anything on it? --a Brazilian quoted in Before the Bulldozer by David Price

[By building the Glen Canyon Dam], man has flung down a giant barrier in the path of the turbulent Colorado....It has tamed the wild river--made it a servant to man's will. --Commissioner Floyd Dominy of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, quoted in A Story That Stands Like a Dam by Russell Martin

Human beings intend to control their environment. They want things a certain way. They boss the animals. They tolerate the ones that don't bother them, and they get rid of the others. Like it or not, that's our way. --John Husar in the Chicago Tribune, October 23, 1991

If this column had a title, I suppose it would be something like "Aspects of Imperialism," or maybe "Stages of Imperialism." The three writings quoted above illustrate the three phases of environmental imperialism, in the order they usually follow. We start with Before the Bulldozer, which is mainly about dispossessing the original human inhabitants of a valley in the Brazilian Amazon. We move on to A Story That Stands Like a Dam, which is about a grandiose attempt to remake the landscape of a whole region to fit a way of life imported from radically different sorts of places. Finally, we mop up, knocking off any surviving remnants of the old days. Husar's column was addressed to some fourth-graders who had written to complain about a piece he had written on the joys of killing prairie dogs out on the western plains.

Stage one: The Guapore River flows northwest from the southern edge of the Amazon Basin. It forms the border between Brazil and Bolivia for part of its length. At its mouth it joins the Madeira, which flows northeast into the Amazon. Price, who did his graduate work in anthropology at the University of Chicago, went to the Guapore Valley in 1967 to begin fieldwork with an Indian tribe called the Nambicuara. Later he returned as an employee of FUNAI, the Brazilian government agency charged with both handling relations between the Indians and the government and looking out for Indian interests, to set up schools that taught the Nambicuara to read and write their own language.

Nineteen-eighty found him back in the U.S. and unemployed; 1980 also found the Brazilian government applying to the World Bank for loans to fund a huge development project called Polonoroeste--the Northwest Pole--the first stage of which was a road through the Guapore Valley.

The World Bank is not an agency that commands much respect among environmentalists. Set up by the U.S. with the cooperation of the other capitalist-industrial nations, it favors big projects that generate work for engineering and construction firms from the granting countries and create a demand for imports from those same countries. It has shown no regard for the well-being of indigenous peoples displaced by the projects it backs and even less concern about environmental damage. Robert McNamara, who as Johnson's secretary of defense directed the destruction of Vietnam with bombs, has been president of the bank since he left the government. The bank's bulldozers have hit the Third World just about as hard as the bombs hit Vietnam.

But in 1980 the World Bank seemed to be having a fit of conscience; it wanted an anthropologist familiar with the Nambicuara to evaluate the Brazilian government's proposals for dealing with the problems the Indians would face as the road intruded on their lands. The World Bank hired Price.

Before the Bulldozers is a day-by-day account of Price's work for the bank. It records his growing disillusionment as he realizes his role is purely cosmetic. He is there to validate decisions made before he was hired, decisions that would leave the Indians landless and destitute, at the mercy of the invading Brazilians. FUNAI had always been split between people who were really serious about helping the Indians deal with the consequences of development and those who saw their job as getting rid of the Indians with as little fuss as possible. Just before Price was hired by the World Bank, the generals who ran Brazil had put several colonels--some of them known torturers--in charge of FUNAI, and they had purged the agency of its Indianists.

Price recommended that lands for a reservation be set aside for the Nambicuara before the road was built, and he also made specific recommendations--none very expensive--for medical care and schooling. The medical care was needed because the road would expose the Indians to a host of diseases from the outside world that they would have no defense against.

Of course, both the Brazilian government and the World Bank ignored his recommendations. The bank's main interest seemed to be in getting him to sign an agreement guaranteeing perpetual silence about what he'd advised them to do.

The bank's environmental barbarism is well-known, but Price's book also provides a detailed look at the half-assed way it goes about making decisions. The decision to fund the project was made long before anybody took a good look at the situation, and the details were worked out by people who had never seen a Nambicuara Indian. That road through the Guapore touched off a decade of catastrophe that has destroyed both the Indians and the forest that was their home.

The Glen Canyon Dam, the subject of A Story That Stands Like a Dam, is an example of stage two. The dam was an epic undertaking by the Bureau of Reclamation, the agency in the Interior Department that remade the landscape of the American West between the early 30s (the construction of Hoover Dam) and the early 60s (the completion of Glen Canyon). In a time when government employees are almost universally regarded as bureaucratic drones, it's refreshing to recall a time when government work was looked at differently. If you were a civil engineer at that time, BuRec was the place to be. Bureau projects were both very big and very innovative, and bureau people had a fierce elan and great pride in their ability to finish mammoth undertakings on time and within budget.

At Glen Canyon they built a town for 6,000 workers and their families, diverted the Colorado River through tunnels blasted out of the rock, and then poured 600 tons of concrete every hour 24 hours a day for years on end.

And they did all this in the face of increasing criticism from environmentalists about the effects of the dam on the river and on the sublimely beautiful canyon. Glen Canyon turned the Sierra Club from a cozy little group of rich, white Californians into a national organization with an overtly political agenda. Opposition to the dam--and to two other proposed dams in the Grand Canyon area--produced the first grass-roots lobbying effort by conservationists. All the principal tactics of the environmental movement--the letter-writing campaigns, the trips to Washington to lobby members of Congress, the propaganda efforts to sway public opinion--had their first tryout over the issue of dams on the Colorado.

Martin tells the story vividly, but the one detail that really sticks in my mind concerns the town of Page, the community carved out of the sand and rock of Manson Mesa to house the workers on the Glen Canyon Dam. One of the first things they built at Page was a golf course. Imagine that! In a place that gets maybe ten inches of rain a year they set up fairways and greens, re-creating a piece of damp and misty Scotland in the desert, a project as strange in its way as moving London Bridge from the Thames to Lake Havasu, Arizona.

The golf course seems emblematic of what is wrong with projects like the Glen Canyon Dam. Humans have spread all over the globe, becoming the most successful species ever by being quick and adaptable. Deserts, rain forests, tropics, tundra, you name it, we can figure out a way to live in it. But these days we move like tortoises, carrying the whole detritus of our civilization everywhere we go. We want to live cool in Phoenix, but instead of building thick-walled houses out of the local adobe, we build thin-walled wood frame houses that look just like the places we build in Cleveland or Nashville. We cool them with air conditioners powered by the Glen Canyon Dam. And of course we build lots of golf courses. We imagine we can remake the environment to suit the way we've decided to live.

Which brings us to stage three: mopping up. John Husar's column is mainly a conventional defense of sport hunting occasioned by some letters from fourth-grade students. One kid hit him with the sort of unanswerable challenge my daughter used to throw at me: "You would not like it if I turned you into a hamburger." True enough.

But in the middle of the column is the statement I quoted at the beginning of this ramble about how we shoot prairie dogs because we find their existence inconvenient. That's the way we tortoises are. We ranchers who hang the corpses of golden eagles on fences as a warning to other raptors. We ranchers who scatter poison around for the coyotes and end up killing badgers, buzzards, and anything else that might be tempted by a bit of carrion. We ranchers who organize prairie-dog shoots that amount to target practice.

But that's not the way we humans are. The people who lived on the plains before the ranchers would have been amazed at such an attitude. Imagine asserting the right to kill anything you think is in your way. The Nambicuara wouldn't get it either. And that may be why the destruction of nature always starts with the destruction of the people who have learned to live with nature, instead of in a constant war with it.

Comments

Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment

More by Jerry Sullivan

  • Vote Kestrel!

    Neither waxwing, nor kingbird, the best candidate for official bird of Chicago is right under our noses.
    • Oct 7, 1999
  • Field & Street

    • Feb 4, 1999
  • Field & Street

    • Jan 7, 1999
  • More »

Agenda Teaser

Music
Other Years Hideout
July 20
Music
Hurt Everybody Concord Music Hall
July 20

Tabbed Event Search

Popular Stories