Letters

April 2009

On security in Kabul, Bolivian cocaine, and the mountain that ate men.

by
• 1,515 words

Hard Rock Miners

I have travelled and worked in Bolivia and think Andrew Westoll got the surreal nature of Potos’ and its mine almost exactly right (“The Mountain That Eats Men,” January/February). He missed one detail, however, which is coincidentally related to the subject of Daniel Aldana Cohen’s ” ‘Coca Si, Cocaína No,’ ” published in the same issue. Westoll links the rash of mine closures in October 1985 to the declining price of tin. While that is true to some extent, the fate of these places has much more to do with another event.

Earlier that same year, a then unknown American economist named Jeffrey Sachs rode into town and decided that Bolivia’s economic woes were the result of too many people living off the public purse. He recommended various “free-market” solutions, including sacking most of the mine workers. In October, the government obliged, and 80 percent of the miners found themselves out of work. Many of them migrated to the Bolivian lowlands, where they tried to start new lives as farmers. At first, they were about as successful as you’d expect laid-off autoworkers from Oshawa to be if they took up farming in Manitoba. But soon they discovered an indigenous crop that needed little irrigation and even less fertilization, and had a seemingly ready market demand: coca, the raw material for cocaine.

The Bolivian government, with substantial financial support from the US, offered subsidies to those who would grow alternative crops, but the farmers now shared Sachs’s world view: the free market was making them rich! All during the ’90s and early 2000s, there was significant tension between the US government and the coca growers. Then, in the election of 2005, the US ambassador to Bolivia urged the people to vote for anyone but Evo Morales, the former leader of the coca growers’ union. Bolivians did exactly what free-thinking people in any independent country would do, faced with such interference: they voted him in.

The US has declared Morales the Hugo Chávez of southern Latin America, but it is still unclear whether his regime will see a change in the appalling poverty of the remaining miners.

Declan Hill
Oxford, England

I very much appreciate the attention Andrew Westoll brought to ongoing child labour practices in Bolivia’s mines. However, having lived in that country for more than twenty years, I want to emphasize that not all members of the eastern departments can be described as “right-wing mestizo elite.” While the current main opposition party, Podemos, is indeed conservative, other opposition parties that are left of centre, the Movimiento Nacionalista Revolucionario, for instance, have historically enjoyed strong support in these regions. The MNR and other progressive parties represented in the east oppose Evo Morales because they disagree with his vision for provincial autonomy, and because he has engaged in some anti-democratic actions, such as not abiding by rules set out in the constitution when attempting to create and pass amendments.

Howie Bender
Toronto, ON

Daniel Aldana Cohen’s ” ‘Coca Si, Cocaína No’ ” offers a cute, folksy spin on a murky aspect of Bolivian society. Talk of developing a legal coca market has in fact been a smokescreen. The government’s 2006 plan to create three legal coca processing centres hasn’t been fulfilled, yet coca production has increased significantly. Some coca is exported, but more and more is processed right in Bolivia, especially in the Chapare region, where cocaleros rule. Cocaine production is hugely profitable, not only for the cocaleros, but for unscrupulous entrepreneurs and corrupt politicians and bureaucrats. In my experience, most Bolivians turn a blind eye to it because they mistakenly assume it’s consumed by rich gringos. So, Mr. Cohen, the actual situation is now “Cocaína Si,” and forget the coca cookies.

Michael O’Neill
Cochabamba, Bolivia

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Teaching a pig to sing

Nora Underwood highlights some important issues regarding our food systems, but her article lacks the quantitative analysis needed to decide what is likely, what is possible, and what is simply impossible. Growing a significant amount of our food in urban vertical farms falls into the last category. Since plants stacked in tall buildings would lack access to sufficient sunlight, these farms would have to rely on artificial lighting. But artificial lights require electricity, generated by conventional or solar power plants. By the time sunlight was converted to electric power, transmitted to the vertical farm, and then converted back into light, over 90 percent of its energy would have dissipated. In other words, for every acre of indoor farm we would need at least ten acres of solar power station, defeating the very purpose of the vertical farm. So why not use urban waste products (human feces) to power the vertical farm, as Underwood suggests? Because this waste contains only a tiny fraction of the energy originally used to grow the plants, and only a tiny fraction of that can be converted back into light to grow more plants. Even with good technology, over 99 percent of the farm’s energy would need to be imported. Plants require energy, water, and nutrients, which our traditional farms get naturally. There are no good substitutes on the horizon.

Drs. Steven Rogak and Sheldon Green
Department of Mechanical Engineering
University of British Columbia
Vancouver, BC

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Jolt

Chris Turner’s “Feed-In Frenzy” (January/February) suggests that Germany’s feed-in tarriff (FIT), which requires electricity system operators to buy green power at above market prices, is “the single most effective climate policy measure yet devised”—one that Canada must follow. I would largely disagree.

Germany is indeed a leader in the use of new renewable energy (primarily wind and solar), but traditional renewables (hydro and biomass) actually make up the majority of its total use of renewables, an unremarkable 14 percent. Moreover, the inefficient operation of gas shadowing backup, made necessary by the wind’s unreliable nature, offsets some of the contribution wind makes to the overall reduction of CO2 emissions. On that point, while Germany has lowered its overall CO2 emissions since 1990, renewables aren’t the reason. Turner correctly points out that the reductions were largely accomplished by the closure of major polluters in East Germany in the early 1990s. Since then, some further gains have been made by the shift from coal to gas, but Germany is in the process of constructing twenty-five new coal plants while gradually eliminating all of its cleaner nuclear plants.

In Canada, we obtain almost 60 percent of our electricity from renewable sources, primarily hydro; 23 percent comes from fossil fuel (that’s 35 percent less than in Germany), and the balance from nuclear energy. Efficiency gains made in the next few decades have the potential to reduce fossil fuel consumption and CO2 emissions by at least four times more than is possible using new renewables, at a substantially lower cost, and with considerable benefits to the economy. Having said all that, there is a future for some new renewables, especially solar, where Germany may have something worth emulating.

Kent Hawkins
Picton, ON

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The Key to Kabul

Charles Montgomery’s analysis of Kabul’s built security environment is useful, though not extraordinary (“The Archipelago of Fear,” December). Geographers considering the spatial production of power relations have for some time been analyzing the territorialization of war, conflict, and occupation. Particularly relevant to Montgomery’s essay is architect Eyal Weizman, who has assessed a similar archipelago of military and state power specific to Israel’s organization of space in the West Bank. Weizman identifies a “politics of verticality” — that is, the colonization and control of different geographic planes, such as overpasses, underpasses, airspace, ridges, bridges, the “security wall,” and a garrison-like form of civilian architecture in the settlements.

While Montgomery’s essay is relevant in that it subjects to scrutiny the promissory rhetoric issued by state, NATO, and humanitarian NGO operators, his argument tacitly endorses the premise of and mandate for the occupation of Afghanistan. I agree with him that occupied environments and martial spaces induce anxiety in both locals and foreigners. And yes, the built environments and ecologies in places like Kabul exacerbate resentment, dissent, and opposition. Yet in his diagnosis we see the fears and prejudices of hybrid military-civilian agents operating in Kabul and elsewhere.

Montgomery advocates for better ways to manage a military-based foreign occupation— perhaps less repressive but nonetheless oriented to pacify, integrate, and even domesticate a recalcitrant population. Missing entirely from his piece is an assessment of the fables and myths used to legitimize the war in Afghanistan, especially those that qualify “better security” and military violence as separate from the political goals of occupation. Montgomery is no apologist; nor do I think he intends to refine what he takes to be a regulated environment. However, his normalization of the violent transformation of Afghanistan reflects the ideology of “the good war.”

Neil Balan
Saskatoon, SK

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