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

Eduardo Galeano: Latin American Scholar

Air Date: Week of

On a recent trip to the South American country of Uruguay, producer Bob Carty had a conversation with writer and scholar Eduardo Galeano about Latin America's past and future handling of environmental issues. Galeano recently authored a three volume narrative titled Memory of Fire.


CURWOOD: When economists and world leaders talk about global economics, they usually split the world into 2 groups: the developed countries and the developing countries. The assumption is that it's only a matter of time before the rest of the world catches up to the developed world, and gets what we've got. But of course not everyone agrees that our development path is the way to go. Bob Carty recently traveled to South America on a reporting trip for Living on Earth. Along the way he stopped in for a visit with one of Latin America's most influential writers, Eduardo Galeano.

CARTY: Eduardo Galeano lives in a quiet suburb of Montevideo, the capitol of Uruguay. The taxi driver stops in front of the only house on the street with a tropical jungle for a front garden. "Oh you've come to see the writer," he says. "Tell him my wife is in love with him." Galeano calls himself a collector of stories. Stories of love, of legends, of soccer, of history, and of ecology. For Eduardo Galeano, ecology is a matter of what humans do to nature, and to each other.

(Guitar music)

CARTY: In the Brazilian city of Goiania in 1987, a hospital discarded an old X-ray machine in a local dump.

GALEANO: Two paper pickers come across a metal tube in an empty lot. They hammer it open and find the glowing blue stone inside. A magic stone shines, turns the air blue, and makes everything it touches sparkle. The paper pickers give pieces to their neighbors. Whoever wraps it on his skin shines in the night. The entire barrio glows like a lamp. The poor, suddenly endowed with light, celebrate. The next day the paper pickers start to vomit. The entire neighborhood is swelling and burning up inside. The light devours and mutilates and kills.

(Guitar music continues)

CARTY: After Chernobyl, it was the world's worst nuclear disaster. Dozens of people died from exposure to cesium-137. Like many of Eduardo Galeano's stories, this one evokes a variety of reflections. For some the shiny blue stone is a metaphor for our uncritical embrace of technology. How we welcome the magic of technology into our homes, unaware of the unseen harm it causes. For Galeano himself, the moral of the story of the blue stones is more direct. Those responsible for the Goiania deaths were never punished. It was yet another case of how people and the environment suffer because of the Latin American tradition of impunity.

GALEANO: Our air is poisoned. Our water is poisoned. Our earth is poisoned. And also, our souls are poisoned. And the impunity comes from this sort of absolution given by the sentence you are hearing coming from the media. We are all responsible. If we are all responsible then nobody is. Twenty percent of the population is responsible for 80% of the contamination of the world. And you can do anything you want to do if it's profitable. And so you have our Latin American countries becoming more and more open to foreign capital, just looking for dwarf salaries and freedom to contaminate.

CARTY: Eduardo Galeano, you've written a lot in a way that champions the cause of the poor, but you've also written that the poor can't become like we in the north.

GALEANO: First because it's not desirable. I don't think this is a model of happiness. And second because it's impossible. If the level of waste should be projected all over the world, then the planet will simply blow up. This model of development is in main responsible for the fact that our cities in Latin America are becoming gas chambers, and insane asylums.

(Construction vehicles)

CARTY: Eduardo Galeano calls Latin America's mega-cities the dictatorship of the automobile. Mr. Galeano knows his dictators. When the military took power in Uruguay in the early 70s, he fled to Buenos Aires. Then the military coup in Argentina forced him to Spain and 10 years of exile. Eduardo Galeano became a world traveler and an observer of the smog of the world's biggest cities. That made him question why some cities, like Singapore, subsidize public transport while Latin Americans insist on owning their own private cars and then warn residents to go outside as little as possible. He wonders why Singapore restricts private automobiles downtown while Mexico City and Santiago and Sao Paulo are a gray curtain of smog that poisons citizens with heavy metals.

(Music and syncopated footfalls)

CARTY: Eduardo Galeano says the problem is that Latin America doesn't copy Singapore but another model.

GALEANO: We Latin Americans have swallowed the pill that the hell of Los Angeles is the only possible model of modernization. A mad superhighway that scorns public transport. Practices velocity as a form of violence and drives people around. And we have been taught to drink this poison. And we'll pay any price as long as it comes in a shiny bottle.

(Music continues up and under)

GALEANO: Spaces for human encounter; these were the original cities. How can you have the human encounters if cities are more and more owned by cars? Not only the public spaces, which are becoming more and more garages, but also the air, the air we are supposed to breathe, which is absolutely poisoned mainly by cars. Cars don't vote. They don't vote. But politicians are terrified of causing them the slightest displeasure. No Latin-American government, no one has dared to challenge the power of cars, the motorized power. The autocracy.

(Mechanized sounds continue)

CARTY: Eduardo Galeano is not optimistic about reversing the autocracy of the automobile. That would require abandoning Latin America's headlong rush into the consumer society. Still, the way forward, he believes, is in looking back. To a time when the first peoples of the Americas had a different relationship with nature. A time before the arrival of the Europeans.

(Guitar music up and under)

GALEANO: People and nature were the same thing. Afterwards, during the process of conquest and the so-called progress, the big motto was we must dominate nature. Now the motto is let's protect nature. In both cases, domination or protection, nature and people are two different things, and I think we should recover this certitude of communion that the Indians had and still have between we and nature. We are part of nature, and so we are brothers and sisters of everything that have legs or roots or wings.

(Guitar music up and under)

CARTY: For Living on Earth, I'm Bob Carty in Montevideo, Uruguay.

(Guitar music up and under)

CURWOOD: Eduardo Galeano is author of Memory of Fire, and most recently, Walking Words.



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