Americans devised and have sustained a pretty good system of government. There is little doubt but that the freedoms of speech, religion, association and others enumerated in the Bill of Rights and the U.S. Constitution, and heretofore pretty much respected by the powers that be throughout American history, have provided strong and shining beacons to humankind in its quest for its highest potential. We can agree on that and stand behind the impetus by American Indian and other American patriots to defend those freedoms, in every way possible. For we know that on this land we call Indian country these were first and foremost American Indian freedoms. We would even submit that in important ways, American freedoms emerged from the colonists' co-mingling with the Native peoples of this hemisphere, and that in part the American Indian ideals infused America with its freshness and boldness.
But if any American of whatever background today thinks this makes Americans God's gift to the world, he or she is sadly mistaken. The world is a big place, comprised of many cultures, and as this American generation is learning, local passions run deeply and are as unpredictable as they are intense. This can be confusing and should be cause for much reflection and study as America now faces the complex reactions produced by a complex world.
In the advance to war of last year, however, these complex and deep reactions to America's many roles in the world were easily dismissed and ignored by those who zealously pushed it. Now that the jingoism and name-calling of the past year - when anyone even wanting to discuss the deeper or underlying reasons that give motivation to terrorism was attacked as naive or even a traitor - perhaps it is time to start articulating some of the ways America is, in fact, badly misrepresented in many corners of the world. We submit: the hostility directed at America is not all jealousy about our "way of life." There is a lot of history, a lot of memory and many cases where entities representing the American people, significantly corporations but also at various times, the American government itself, has made serious mistakes that it has never corrected. These mistakes have led to the misery of many specific countries and peoples. Many examples are found in America's dealings with its first nations and the impacts its policies have had on the lives of Native peoples throughout the Western Hemisphere.
In terms of corporate behavior, consider the case or scandal of Chevron Texaco and its methods of oil exploration and exploitation in Ecuador during the period of 1972-1992. When any American company leaves behind the mess that Chevron Texaco left in the Ecuadorean rainforest, after just 20 years of operation, the local people who suffer the ill health of a contaminated environment blame their problem on America. These are the instances that pile on and that cause so much of the underlying resentment that builds over time and that is making the United States, once so greatly admired, today the target of so much hatred and violence.
As reported by the Los Angeles Times last week, Texaco's operations between 1972 and 1992 allegedly "destroyed land, sickened residents and contributed to the demise of indigenous tribes." The company left behind serious contamination that although apparently mostly "legal," are classic examples of how not to conduct business in other countries. People are angry, and in this case, not terrorism but a multi-billion dollar lawsuit has resulted. The trial on behalf of 30,000 affected indigenous local folks has just begun in Ecuador, where U.S. Courts remanded it. Already damaging testimony is portraying an American oil company's lack of ethical responsibility toward the life and health of people in the area of their operations. To be fair, Texaco was not alone in its disregard for Ecuadorean people and environs; the Ecuadorean government went out of its way to encourage and allow the behavior.
The information revealed by the thousands of pages of studies, confidential memos and internal documents is damaging:
*There is one case of genocide - one small tribe, the Tetetes, who lived near the main drilling site at Lago Agrio, disappeared. Ostensibly they intermarried with settlers and abandoned their language and culture, but disease and severe social pressures likely took their toll as well.
*There is serious contamination. While Texaco extracted 1.5 billion useful barrels of oil, "it dumped more than 19 billion gallons of waste and spilled 16.8 million gallons of crude oil, 1 1/2 times the amount spilled by the oil tanker Exxon Valdez." (Also affected are the Cofan, Huaorani and other tribes, on whose lands Texaco drilled hundreds of wells.)
*2.4 million acres of jungle were destroyed.
However this trial ends up, it already has important implications as it calls into question the measure of ethical behavior for American companies to exhibit in other countries. As ever-larger corporations carve out the world in their resource extraction, the Amazon is severely targeted. The Heavy Crude Oil duct, a huge oil pipeline that will run from the Amazon (Oriente) over the Andes Mountains, is just under way. Cutting through indigenous lands as well as through the Mindo-Nambillo Cloud Forest Reserve, a major high-diversity micro-region, it carries oil to be shipped from Pacific coast ports. For indigenous peoples, such as the Shuar-Achuar Indigenous Federation, whose member tribes have legally demarcated lands and which opposes the project's impact on their territories, the new pipeline raises very serious concerns. It could in fact completely destroy their habitats and way of life. (Even the return to Ecuador is minimal: actual income to its severely impoverished people from $2.4 billion worth of oil revenues in the year 2000 was less than $100 million.)
What remains behind after the next decade of intense resource exploitation - whether misery or prosperity is left for the local and national societies - will no doubt determine many peoples' attitudes toward the United States - attitudes that harden for at least a generation.
It behooves all Americans to consider seriously the way they are represented in the world at large by corporations and other entities (including their government). While some of these do so well and behave ethically, too many others apply little human ethical value in their operations. America needs to focus its eye on those, and regulate their rapacious ways. Arrogant and avaricious behavior on the part of American institutions creates conditions and attitudes that linger and can hurt us all.