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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Bolivia's War On Globalization

Air Date: Week of

uthor William Powers in La Paz, Bolivia (Photo courtesy of William Powers)

In the face of global industry, Bolivians maintain a deep connection to the natural beauty of their country and are fighting to protect it. Bill Powers tells the tale of this fight in his new book: Whispering in the Giant’s Ear: A Frontline Chronicle of Bolivia’s War on Globalization.


CURWOOD: Bolivia is one of only two landlocked nations on the continent of South America. Still, it contains some of the most diverse ecosystems on the planet.
From the Andes Mountains in the West, to the Amazonian rainforests in the east, Bolivia is rich in nature and in natural resources. But Bolivia is not a wealthy country. Conservation there is under pressure from global economic interests. William Powers worked for environmental and humanitarian organizations in Bolivia and he’s written a book about his experiences. It’s called: Whispering in the Giant’s Ear: A Frontline Chronicle from Bolivia’s War on Globalization. Hello Sir.


Author William Powers in La Paz, Bolivia (Photo courtesy of William Powers)

CURWOOD: Bolivia has been in the news recently with the new president, the new socialist president, Evo Morales taking over the natural gas business there. Tell me about Mr. Morales and what his presidency means for Bolivia in your view.

POWERS: Well Morales is a man from the countryside. He was a farmer. Aymara Indian who rose up through union ranks and became president of Bolivia in a free and fair election in a landslide victory. And there is a large feeling in the country that he could bring hope. That business as usual, all the corruption and everything else could change. And I want to just stress one thing, that we need to get over our obsession with Morales as a threat, and Bolivia as a threat to our way of life, which you see so much of in the main stream media. If anything it’s an opportunity. It’s an opportunity to engage a new kind of a vision that can benefit Bolivians and reduce the inequality and create more stability. So, it’s just a question of being open-minded and viewing Morales in a new way.

CURWOOD: In your view, Bill, what is Bolivia doing right in terms of managing globalization, especially the environmental piece of it?

POWERS: That’s a great question. Bolivia actually, in my view, challenges the myths that third world countries are too poor to be green. Here’s a country that’s full of superlatives. They’ve got the world’s first debt for nature swap, the world’s largest protected dry tropical forest, the world’s largest forest-based Kyoto experiments. This is a country that has leaders, environmental entrepreneurs, Bolivians, who fight for their areas. And it’s kind of a beautiful thing to be a part of that. And I think now with this Morales government there’s a lot of hope that Bolivia could pursue an agenda that continues to be even more green, and especially around ecological tourism. The country has vast and beautiful areas. So, there’s more and more tourists coming, especially now that they know there is a democratic government. And there’s hopefully going to be more stability. And I think there is a lot more interest in Bolivia now, which will continue to grow.

CURWOOD: Now, William Powers, you came to Bolivia with a pretty cushy job. You were working for what, the Catholic Relief Services.

POWERS: That’s right.

CURWOOD: Then you leave this job to go work for a grassroots environmental group in the rainforest protecting an area that would, what, be some three million acres at the end of the day. What made you give up, you know, the expatriate life in a place like La Paz is pretty cushy?

POWERS: It is. When I landed in La Paz I was given the keys to a brand new SUV that I had unlimited use to. An apartment that was parallel to the pent house in one of La Paz’s most exclusive buildings. And I had a big corner office and a secretary. And I gave that up because I realized what was going on in the country. There were such dramatic changes, hunger strikes, people protesting right under my building. And a special girlfriend that I had, a Bolivian girlfriend there, who inspired me to think outside of the ex-pat bubble, if you will, in La Paz, and really try to get more in touch with the local people. So, I decided to leave and take a big salary cut and work for a local NGO, a local non-profit in Bolivia, an environmental group in the Amazon.

The author in Rio Yacuma Reserve, in the Bolivian Amazon Basin. (Photo courtesy of William Powers)

CURWOOD: So, you head out to the rainforest to start working for the friends of nature. And you meet Salvador, and this man is, I guess you would call him, your cultural liaison with the small Amazonian tribes in this region. And he tells you the story of the tree of the world, which holds up the seven skies. I’m wondering if you could tell us that story right now.

POWERS: Well, that’s a beautiful story that Salvador told to me in a jeep, on a 24-hour jeep ride. And there’s a tree, according to the mythology of the people in that area, that holds up the world. And it holds up the Amazon’s seven skies. And each of the seven skies has a world similar to ours with pampas and waterfalls, and burochi wolves and all kinds of creatures. And you don’t want to cut down just any tree in the forest because it may be the tree that holds up everything and the seven skies could come crashing down on our heads. So, the Indians in that area ask permission of the spirit owner, or Amo, of the particular tree before cutting it down. So, it’s a rich, a rich and fertile cosmology.

CURWOOD: But now, the people you were working with in the rainforest, they didn’t have a word for nature, you say. Why not?

POWERS: Well, to them nature is not something that can be abstracted or taken out of us and sliced and diced. It’s a concept that’s completely integral to them. So there was no word for that, no sort of term. The closest term may have been ‘the shimmering forest.’ And I think that says a lot about the way they view the world.

CURWOOD: Talk to me a little bit about the landscape that you’re in. This is a special place. A place where, among other things I gather, you can become a bee.

POWERS: [LAUGHS] Ok, yes that’s right. This is one of the world’s largest Kyoto protocol rainforest experiments that I worked in, and ah, it’s a gorgeous place. It’s really amazing. You have the Juanchaco Mesa, which was the inspiration for Sir. Arthur Conan Doyle’s, The Lost World. And it is 20 waterfalls crashing off the Juanchaco Mesa into lush primary rainforest with macaws and tapirs and all kinds of wildlife. So that’s where these folks live. And do you want me to tell the story about the bees?

CURWOOD: Well, yes please.

POWERS: [LAUGHS] Well I was back with three of the chiefs of the Chiquitano tribes in that area and we where driving through the rainforest and I had to drive because of course they had never driven, and being unaccustomed to such incredible roads I planted our truck into a huge mud hole. Well, bees came from all over. First hundreds, then thousands, then literally tens of thousands of bees had surrounded the car. They were crawling up my nose, in my hair, up my shirt and everything and I screamed.

CURWOOD: Yeah, I would too.

POWERS: Because I think they were stinging me all over my body. But the chiefs said to me, you’re the only one that can drive. You have to get back into the truck. Which for me was a hive at this point, full of bees. You have to get back in the truck and you have to figure out a way of getting the truck our of this mud hole. They had already put a bunch of sticks and branches under the wheels so we could get out. I didn’t want to get back in until they told me something. They said, you are a bee. And I said ‘what?’ They said, ‘you are a bee’. The point was that you have to go with the bee energy, become like the species and you will not get stung. And sure enough with that little mantra in my head- ‘be a bee, be a bee,’ I got back in the car and successfully got out of the hole.

CURWOOD: So, how did they view you as someone there just optionally, not really having to make the hard choices that someone like a Salvador might have to make for their own survival?

POWERS: Well, a lot of us in international development, we go into it in some ways to see what it’s like to be poor, and end up learning what it’s like to be rich. And I think that there is a certain amount of jealousy about that. And about the fact that whatever happens, even if total chaos broke out or there was any kind of a problem, you’d be evacuated. And there is a certain amount of tension in that. But I guess what I was trying to do was to get closer, to get out of the bubble, the real bubble in La Paz and bridge the worlds a little bit more by being one of them, by joining the reality of the long 24-hour road trips even though I had the option to take a plane out there. And to camp, to use my tent, to live in thatched huts as much as possible, to really try to participate a little more in their reality. And I think they appreciate that. I think there is a certain sense that when we Americans learn the language well and participate in cross boundaries like that I think it has a positive effect in terms of solidarity.

CURWOOD: William Power’s new book is called Whispering in the Giant’s Ear, a Frontline Chronicle from Bolivia’s war on Globalization. Thanks, Bill.

POWERS: Thanks so much for having me.



William Powers’ website

Bloomsbury USA webpage on William Powers


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