Monday, September 26, 2011

Astroturf and Green Imperialism

An ancient master warns us to keep our minds alive and attentive, without letting it rest on any object. Years ago, a Christian friend suggested just the opposite when he said, "You know, an open mind is meant to close on something." To whatever extent that means reacting from preconceived assumptions, the Burning House would disagree. Especially when it comes to public affairs, where our ideological preferences may lead us to react without looking at a real-world situation with fresh eyes.

A lesson in this comes our way from Bolivia. But before we make that trip, let us consider the phenomenon known as "astroturfing" in politics.

The term astroturf plays on the idiom of "grass-roots politics," or activist movements coming from the very bottom of society -- the grass roots -- among the poor and working classes. To the extent our republic pretends to believe in democracy, grass-roots movements are looked upon as legitimate and authentic expressions of popular will.

"Astroturfing" is when financially-powerful interests, represented by private corporations and non-profit political organizations funded by corporations and investors, agitate and organize working class citizens, sometimes sending company employees to inflate crowds, to defeat legislative initiatives that are against corporate interests. In other words, "astroturf" equals fake grass roots.

It is perverse in that it manipulates and frightens people into demonstrating against policies that would actually benefit them. For instance, much of the opposition to reforming health insurance in the United States in 2009 was actually organized by corporate lobbyists and investors through non-profit associations like FreedomWorks and the Coalition to Protect Patients' Rights, among others. This was alongside the opposition and fear-mongering by private insurance companies themselves.

This phenomenon is by no means limited to the United States, which brings us to Bolivia this morning. Federico Fuentes offers some wise analysis of protests against a proposed highway through indigenous territory in the Amazon, including some 'astroturfing' on an international level.

While acknowledging that the Morales government has made errors in proposing this project, and the legitimate interest in protecting the sovereignty of indigenous communities in the Amazon as well as the ecological integrity of the land itself, Fuentes points to astroturfing of the issue by certain non-governmental organizations (NGOs). Among the players are USAID, the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, and other NGOs funded by U.S. and European interests working to privatize forests and energy production. Among other evidence, Fuentes points to diplomatic cables leaked by WikiLeaks showing USAID's efforts to confuse and divide social movements in Bolivia in an effort to destabilize President Evo Morales (a socialist, which we know is a very very bad thing to be).

Okay, so Bolivia is being astroturfed. To what end?

Behind these very real interests lies a campaign by rich nations and conservative environmental groups to promote policies that represent a new form of "green imperialism." After centuries of plundering the resources of other countries, wiping out indigenous populations, and creating a dire global environmental crisis, the governments of rich nations now use environmental concerns to promote policies that deny underdeveloped nations the right to control and manage their own resources. If they have their ways, these groups will reduce indigenous people to mere "park rangers," paid by rich countries to protect limited areas, while multinational corporations destroy the environment elsewhere.
Sounds very familiar, in a country where a population that needs socialized health care have been taught to resist any reform of the private health insurance system for fear we would turn into Soviet Russia.

Highways are a good analogy for economics or systems of production and distribution. A highway is an expensive and dirty project. A well-built and maintained road, however, makes it possible to move things around quickly, to get medical care and other services into rural areas. It allows local farmers and ranchers to get their foods to market.

A highway is neither all good nor all bad. It has a function. Protecting the proper function of a road is a matter of design and regulation. Done right, the highway would offset the costs of increased traffic by promoting greater food sovereignty and access to important services for rural areas.

So the question, again, is cui bono? What purpose, and whose interests, should it serve?

[Photo: Rurrenabaque, on the Beni River, in Bolivia]

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