From Disillusionment to Direct Action: A Tale on Two Continents

From the White House lawn to the jungles of Bolivia—what happens when a president fails to live up to his environmental rhetoric?
march to La Paz by Lou Gold

Protesters in Bolivia begin the long march to La Paz to protest the building of the Interoceanic Highway South through the Amazon.

Photo by Lou Gold

In many ways the two protests could not be more different. In Washington, D.C., the well dressed and well educated risk arrest in front of the White House each day for two weeks. The participants sit together cross-legged for photos as they display their carefully printed banners. A hemisphere away, in Bolivia, more than 1,500 indigenous peasants—men, women, and children—march along a dusty dirt road in the countryside, wearing cheap rubber sandals, faded skirts, and tattered pants. They are headed on a weeks-long march to their nation's capital, La Paz. 

And yet, on separate sides of the equator the protests share a profound commonality. Both take aim at presidents labeled as progressive and historic, leaders who have used soaring rhetoric about the urgency of protecting the planet. Both protests involve an important part of the presidents' respective political bases taking to the streets to hold them to that rhetoric. Together these two actions highlight important, universal lessons about what it takes to press for protection of the planet, in countries both wealthy and impoverished.

A Pipeline for Climate Poison and a Road through the Rainforest

The protests in Washington target a proposed 1,700-mile pipeline, the Keystone XL, which would carry petroleum mined from Canada's tar sands through the central U.S. to Texas for refinement.  U.S. and Canadian environmentalists have called the tar sands project "the most destructive project on Earth" because of the radical extraction measures required. And by mining and throwing into the atmosphere one of the largest remaining carbon deposits in North America, the project will have even more devastating impacts on global climate change. NASA climate expert James Hansen has concluded, "if the tar sands are thrown into the mix it is essentially game over."

The legal authority to permit the pipeline's construction or stop it lies with President Obama. Pipeline opponents note that the President doesn't need any additional approval from Congress on the matter. He can stop the project on his own, which is what they began demanding in August at his front door.   

Thus far the President has sent mixed messages about the tar sands project. He has said that, "importing oil from countries that are stable and friendly [i.e. Canada] is a good thing," but then added the qualifier, "there are some environmental questions about how destructive they are, potentially, what are the dangers there, and we've got to examine all those questions." Last week, U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu said of the pipeline: “It’s not perfect, but it’s a trade off."

"His environmental policies have been terrible," said one of the Washington protesters, Nancy Romer, a member of the Brooklyn Food Coalition, explaining why environmental groups have decided to hold Mr. Obama's feet to the fire on the tar sands pipeline. "He gives away the store—on offshore oil drilling, on nuclear power." On the Keystone pipeline, a coalition of environmental groups have decided to draw a political green line in the sand.

On the other side of the world, the protest march in Bolivia is aimed at another infrastructure project meant to help turn natural resources into wealth: a road. On August 15 representatives from three dozen Bolivian indigenous groups, protesting in solidarity with those living in the TIPNIS forest (Territorio Indígena y Parque Nacional Isiboro Sécure), set off on a 250 mile march to the capital.  Their aim is to stop construction of a 185-mile paved highway through virgin Amazon forest. The project is being pushed by President Evo Morales and financed largely by the government of Brazil, one of many eager suitors for the forest's natural resources, including petroleum.

Morales and other backers of the highway argue that it will be the "vein" necessary to connect and develop the country. The marchers warn that the road will inevitably lead to destruction of their lands. One Bolivian study estimated that within two decades of the road being complete, 65 percent of the Delaware-sized forest will be gone, the result of logging and agriculture. Many of the existing incursions on the forest are the result of coca leaf growers, key Morales allies, moving into TIPNIS to cultivate.

"Why in Bolivia does our government want to destroy our territory, our habitat?" asked one of the marchers, Ernesto Noe. "It wants to destroy our environment and our communities. That is why we are going to La Paz." Noe, one of the oldest of the marchers, was a key leader of the 1990 indigenous "March for Territory and Dignity," which covered the same route and was a milestone in the nation's indigenous rights movement.     

In Washington the protest against the pipeline received two replies. One came in the cool language of bureaucracy, the release of a State Department Environmental Impact Statement (the department is one of several federal agencies that has to review the pipeline project) declaring that Keystone does not pose sufficient environmental hazards to be stopped. The second reply, far more blunt, came from the National Park Police, who arrested more than 1,250 pipeline protesters over the two weeks of daily actions, including Ms. Romer and well-known climate campaigner Bill McKibben, both of whom spent two days and nights in a Washington jail.

In Bolivia, President Morales responded to the protests in the rugged language of local politics. In a public declaration he warned, “Whether you like it or not, we are going to build this road.” He later denounced the march as being secretly engineered by the U.S. Embassy to destabilize his government, a claim heatedly denied by the peasant marchers. Morales also revealed that Bolivian officials are monitoring the telephone records of march leaders for suspicious calls.

What the Protests Tell us About the Challenges Facing Climate Activism

One lesson is this: Electing seemingly sympathetic politicians isn't enough.

The resonance between these two so-different protests offers some important, universal lessons about the challenges facing climate activism. 

One is this: Electing seemingly sympathetic politicians isn't enough.

Both Obama and Morales have been eloquent in their rhetoric on climate change. Speaking about the climate crisis in the glow of his election victory in November 2008 Mr. Obama declared, "Now is the time to confront this challenge once and for all. Delay is no longer an option. Denial is no longer an acceptable response.”

Morales has been even more forceful, proclaiming at last year's Cancun climate summit, "The planet is mortally wounded. We feel its convulsions. If we don't do something, we'll be responsible for genocide.”

But even if their intentions are authentic, both Presidents have backtracked profoundly under the harsh political pressures of governing. Environmentalists in the U.S. and indigenous groups in Bolivia both rested a good deal following the election of new leaders publicly sympathetic to their causes. Now both are newly mobilized and not afraid to call it as they see it.

A Second Lesson: Think Globally, Fight Locally

For a decade many environmental activists have focused their climate efforts on the doomed goal of getting the world's governments to bind themselves to some form of enforceable planetary speed limit on the growth of carbon emissions and atmospheric temperature. It was a surrender of national sovereignty that was never to be.

The fights in Washington and Bolivia are taking on the climate crisis where we will most need to wage the fight, at the national and local level, policy-by-policy, project-by-project. Shifting our best efforts from global summitry to decisions closer to home also links the climate debate to more immediate concerns like oil spills and forest destruction that might draw broader support.

They have used brave direct action to do what sometimes only direct action can do, force an issue onto the public agenda.

Those taking to the streets in these two battles have already accomplished a good deal. They have used brave direct action to do what sometimes only direct action can do, force an issue onto the public agenda. The indigenous march is now front-page news across Bolivia every day, gathering moral weight and larger numbers as it winds its way to the capital, building increasing political pressure on President Morales. The White House protests, particularly the arrests, have now put a bright green spotlight on Mr. Obama's choice. The New York Times report on the State Department finding was accompanied by a photo of the environmentalists at the President's gate.

The Need for Economic Transformation

If President Obama approves the Tar Sands pipeline his explanation will likely find solid political support across a much of the country: With the world as it is, the U.S. can't afford to say "no" to a reliable source of energy or a project that might generate real jobs. Politically, in the face of a second recession or something close to it, economics trumps environment.

In Photos:
The People vs. the Pipeline


If Morales continues to press his highway through the rainforest, he will find strong support from many in Bolivia for parallel reasons. In the face of deep, historic poverty (Bolivia is still the most impoverished nation in South America) most people are willing to gamble on anything that might offer "movimiento económico."

These two brave defenses of the planet, underway in two very different places, are each inspiring examples of how we begin.

Altering the entrenched political chemistry that drives both projects and others like them will require something more, a clear and real alternative on the economics. In Bolivia, how can millions be lifted out of poverty without destroying the environment as a down payment? In the U.S., how can the conversion to clean energy and a greener future become a viable way out of the current economic crisis? And just as important as crafting the plan will be winning a broad public belief in it. Absent that, the political headwinds in the opposite direction will not cease.

These two brave defenses of the planet, underway in two very different places, are each inspiring examples of how we begin. How we convert that into strategies for winning is still unwritten.


  • Can opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline bring conservatives back to conservation?

  • Václav Havel called it “the power of the powerless.” How regular people, from Denmark to Liberia, have stood up to power—and won.

  • A new law expected to pass in Bolivia mandates a fundamental ecological reorientation of the nation's economy and society. What effect will it have?