Michael Riordon

the view from where I live


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Stolen Children: a tribute to Cristián Orrego

Cristián Orrego is in the final stages of a struggle with ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease).

Based at the Human Rights Center, University of California in Berkeley, and more recently in El Salvador, as a forensic geneticist Cristián inspired and enabled me to write Stolen children.  It documents the deeply stirring birth and life of Pro-Búsqueda (For the search), a Salvadoran citizens’ organization that seeks to find and reunite children and relatives forcibly separated during the 1980s military assault on the people of that battered country.  Their story became a key chapter in my book Bold Scientists, about working scientists who question and defy a range of status quos

When I asked Cristián what motivates him in his often frustrating work, he replied: “I only have to think of the strength and determination of the families, who carry on this struggle for decades in the face of so much official indifference, greed, and laziness—the indifference of a state toward what happened in the past, ignoring that the future will be better by understanding the past, laziness in the sense of a society so indifferent to the loss of its children, and greed in the sense of not wishing to disrupt business as usual.”

I’m posting the Stolen children chapter here, as a tribute to Cristián Orrego, to forensic geneticist Patricia Vásquez Marías, his partner in life and work, and to the people of Pro-Búsqueda.

Stolen Children

In the autumn of 1982, a California couple, Jerry and Greta Fillingim, began the process of adopting a child from El Salvador. Their family story would be intertwined with the history of a people. Only a few months earlier, the Salvadoran army had launched a brutal incursion in the department (administrative region) of Chalatenango, in which forty-six to fifty-three children disappeared, including two young sisters, Erlinda (age three) and Ernestina Serrano Cruz (age seven). No one knows what happened to the sisters after that, or rather, the few who do know hide behind a wall of silence and immunity. One or both of the sisters could still be alive, now in their thirties, in El Salvador or elsewhere. Relatives continue to search.

This story begins a century and a half earlier.

1840: El Salvador, a small country in Central America, achieves independence from Spain.

1932, January: By now, fourteen wealthy families control 90 per cent of El Salvador’s land, mostly growing coffee for export. When prices drop, the lives of campesinos go from grim to desperate. Finally the campesinos rebel, led by Agustín Farabundo Martí. In reprisal, the army kills thirty- to forty-thousand Salvadorans.

1975, July: In the capital, San Salvador, soldiers open fire on unarmed antigovernment protesters.

1977, February: Another rigged Salvadoran election installs another general as president. More than two hundred unarmed protesters are killed.

1977, March: Jesuit priest Rutilio Grande García is assassinated, to silence his outspoken advocacy of liberation theology—interpreting the Christian gospels as a call to struggle for justice and equity. His murder is widely believed to have moved his friend Oscar Romero, the previously conservative archbishop of El Salvador, to embrace liberation theology.

1978–1979: Across El Salvador, popular protests intensify against rising military repression.

1979, November: U.S. president Jimmy Carter authorizes military aid to El Salvador, and American military “advisers” are sent to train Salvadoran security forces.

1980, March 23: In Archbishop Romero’s Sunday sermon, broadcast live on radio, he directly addresses soldiers: “Brothers, you are all killing your fellow countrymen. No soldier has to obey an order to kill. It is time to regain your conscience. In the name of God and in the name of the suffering people I implore you, I beg you, I order you, stop the repression.” The next day, a military death squad assassinates Romero while he conducts mass in a small chapel.

1980, March 30: For  Archbishop Romero’s funeral, more than two hundred thousand Salvadorans fill la Plaza Libertad in San Salvador. Soldiers fire on the crowd from the National Palace. At least fifty people are killed.

1980, May 14: The military, national guard, and death squads massacre at least three hundred men, women, and children trying to flee across the Sumpul River from Chalatenango into Honduras. Honduran troops prevent the fleeing Salvadorans from coming ashore.

1980, October: Five revolutionary organizations join forces in the FMLN, the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front, named for the leader of the 1932 uprising. In 1980, according to the Roman Catholic Church in El Salvador, army and security forces kill 11,895 people, most of them peasants, trade union members, students, journalists, priests, and human rights advocates.

1981, January: The FMLN launches its first major initiative, advancing swiftly in Chalatenango and Morazán.

1981, December: At the village of El Mozote in Morazán, more than a thousand civilians are massacred by the Atlacatl Battalion, armed and trained by “counterinsurgency” specialists from the U.S. army. That same month, the Reagan administration refuses the FMLN’s offer of peace negotiations, and increases aid to the military. In 1981, according to the Christian Legal Aid Office, army and security forces killed more than sixteen thousand Salvadorans, the vast majority of them civilians.

1982, May–June: Salvadoran army battalions attack northern Chalatenango. The army calls it Operación Limpieza (operation clean-up); the people of Chalatenango call it Guinda (running away) de Mayo. More than six hundred civilians are killed, and approximately fifty children, including the Serrano Cruz sisters, disappear.

1982, July: President Reagan “certifies” to the U.S. Congress that human rights standards have improved in El Salvador, so that new military aid can be authorized.

 

The horror in El Salvador continued for another ten years, until 1992 when the Chapultepec peace accords were signed in Mexico. By year-end, the UN Truth Commission concluded that seventy- to seventy-five-thousand Salvadorans were killed during the war, 95 per cent of them by government forces, 5 per cent by the FMLN. The commission called for perpetrators of human rights atrocities to be brought to justice. But within days, the right-wing Arena government decreed a blanket amnesty for all those implicated in such crimes. That immunity from prosecution still stands today.

International Adoption

The Fillingims Get the Call

I meet Jerry and Greta Fillingim with their daughter Angela in the Human Rights Center at the University of California, Berkeley. Continue reading


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Life endures. But it needs a little help.

line-9-map

Governments come and go.  But life endures, as long as earth, water and air can sustain it.

All of these face escalating assaults by powerful corporations whose twin obsessions, power and profit, are fundamentally, irredeemably anti-life.

People who defend the essentials of life from theft and degradation need and deserve any support the rest of us can offer.  On Turtle Island/North America, often it’s indigenous peoples who live on the front lines, and thus are called to lead some of the most intense struggles.

Standing Rock has the highest profile right now, but there are others just as crucial, though less widely known.  Some context:

In Canada last week the federal Natural Resources Minister announced that his government does not require First Nations consent to proceed on natural resource projects.

This arrogant statement directly contradicts the Liberal government´s promises to follow Supreme Court rulings and the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which require “free, prior, and informed consent” of Indigenous Nations to any natural resource projects affecting their traditional and treaty territories.

At the behest of its partners in the oil/gas industry, this government is poised to approve, among other dangerous pipelines (see below), the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain Pipeline to carry toxic crude oil from the Alberta tar sands to the Pacific coast for shipping abroad.  It would pass through – invade, really – the territory of the Tsleil-Waututh Nation.

The Minister’s casual dismissal of the government’s legal obligations provoked strong reactions from First Nations, including this one from Kanesatake Grand Chief Serge Simon: “Consent, it’s what we are demanding, and he will never get our consent, not for something like this.  What if we gave Canada 20 Standing Rocks?  I wonder if his position will change then.”

In late November this issue will be tested at the Supreme Court of Canada, in the case of yet another pipeline, Enbridge’s Line 9.  It is due to carry tar sands bitumen and fracked oil to Montreal, crossing more than 120 vital waterways and 830 kilometers of land along the way, including territory of the Chippewas of the Thames First Nation, without their consent.  (Neither does the project have consent from millions of Canadians who live along the route, the most densely populated in Canada, but the government blithely ignores this too.)

Since the Supreme Court agrees to hear only a small fraction of the cases submitted to it, clearly it considers this one vital to the people it is meant to serve.  So should we all.  Given the catastrophic impacts of mining and transporting tar sands and fracked oil, the fate of this case has profound implications for First Nations, for Canadians, and ultimately for all life on this earth.

Details on the case and how to support it are here.

For an eloquent view of why these struggles keep happening, meet Seneca First Nation biologist Henry Lickers, chapter 1 in Bold Scientists.  An excerpt is here.

 

 


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Fracking, a bridge to nowhere

Fracking:  aka hydraulic fracturing of the earth’s crust to extract gas and oil.  Aka “unconventional gas drilling,” the industry’s preferred PR term.  Unconventional — sounds intriguing, even a little adventurous, no?

Fracking, cartoonImage: John Cole

But:

“Not infrequently I wake up in middle of the night in despair.  What do I despair about?  That we’re going to drill, baby, drill, and we’re going to poke a million more holes in the surface of the earth over the next 10 years, and we’re going to produce as much fossil fuel as we possibly can, and we’re going to accelerate climate change, and my kids will not, cannot be prepared for what that means.”

– Professor Anthony Ingraffea, Cornell University.  Follow his life, research, and transition from industry consultant to outspoken critic, here in Bold Scientists.  Scroll down to chapter 10, The unsolved problem.

Under siege by mounting evidence of the immense harm they do, the industry and its government enablers now sell fracking as a “benign bridge fuel” to future renewables.

That isn’t PR, its BS.  Check this out: ‘Benign’ Fossil Fuels? No Such Thing.

And this:  Drilling-Induced ‘Frackquakes’ Threaten Millions Across Central US.

In the US, the scourge of fracking has already invaded far and wide, so people have to fight an uphill battle against huge forces to stop it.

In Ontario, Canada, this is not the case.  Not yet.  People here still have a chance to block the nightmare before it takes hold.  To that end:

Ban fracking in Ontario, a petition now circulating on Change.org.  True, legions of petitions come and go on the internet, and many of them have limited impact.  On the other hand, silence implies consent.  So what are you going to do?  The petition is here.

A few resources:

 

 


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The Forces of Know

In darkening times, bright sparks of inspired resistance.  In this case, to dangerous pipelines that threaten earth, water, air, and life.

In northwestern Canada, people of the Lax Kw’alaams First Nation are resisting not only a proposed liquid natural gas (LNG) pipeline and coastal shipping terminal, plus a voracious transnational corporation and two enabling governments, but also the toxic ideology that drives these entities.  At its stone cold heart it has only one premise: there is no person or thing on earth, in the sea or sky that can’t be bought and sold.

Despite escalating attempts to buy them off, apparently the majority of Lax Kw’alaams people hold to deeper values and a longer view.

Lax Kw'alaams resistLax Kw’alaams: Just say no.  Photo: The Guardian.

Henry Lickers also takes a longer view.  He’s a Seneca First Nation biologist at Kawehno:ke, Akwesasne Mohawk Territory, not far from another pipeline that people are fighting in eastern Canada.  In writing Bold Scientists, I explored with him the deep gap that separates his point-of-view, in line with the Lax Kw’alaams’, from the powerfully seductive one that drives the surrounding society.  He replied, in part:

“Our society is responsibility-based, so that means I’m responsible for taking care of the environment.  The outside society is rights-based – this is my land, so I have a right to do what I want with it…  So we’re always in this fight with Canada or the US – over here we’re talking about our responsibility to protect the environment, and over there you’re saying it’s your right to do what you want.  That’s not a good way to function, especially in relation to the environment.  You should be aiming really high to protect your environment.  Oh no, you say, that would cost too much, it can’t be done at present, et cetera.  Is it any wonder the world is going the way it is?”

For more on Henry Lickers’ life and work, see Bold Scientists, chapter 1, When the river roared.  Excerpt here.

Two more responsibility-based initiatives oppose yet another dangerous pipeline, Line 9.  It’s a 40-year-old pipeline that’s due to transport high volumes of corrosive tar sands bitumen and volatile fracked shale oil from Sarnia, Ontario to refineries in Québec.  Along the way, the pipeline crosses many First Nation territories, municipalities, and waterways that provide drinking water to millions of people in the most densely populated region of Canada.

The Chippewas of the Thames First Nation have launched a landmark challenge to Line 9 at the Supreme Court of Canada.  It’s an initiative that could have enormous impact.  It’s also a costly proposition to take on wealthy corporations and governments.  Support is needed, and welcome here.

And Tar Free Toronto, a citizens’ group, has launched a petition to the Prime Minister of Canada, demanding a halt to Line 9.  https://petitions.parl.gc.ca/en/Petition/Details?Petition=e-248

Further information on the campaign: Write to tarfreetoronto@riseup.net

Pass this message along.  Keep the sparks flying.

 

 

 

 


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“The Robin Hood of science”

In the ever-deepening shadow of the national surveillance state, a bright gem of a story.

Alexandra Elbakyan’s ingenious online resource Sci-Hub has broken the corporate stranglehold on worldwide access to science research.

Sci-Hub

Science writer Simon Oxenham reveals why and how this brilliant young neurotechnology researcher in Kazakhstan did it. Details here, on Big Think.

It’s an inspiring account of knowledge gathered, privatized – imprisoned, really, to exploit for profit – and now, thanks to Alexandra Elbakyan, set free.

A fragment: “Only days after the [New York District] court injunction blocked Sci-Hub’s old domain, Sci-Hub was back online at a new domain accessible worldwide. Since then, the website has been upgraded from a barebones site that existed entirely in Russian to a polished English version proudly boasting a library of 48 million [research] papers, complete with a manifesto in opposition to copyright law. The bird is out of its cage.”

In part 2, here, Simon Oxenham pays tribute to pioneering internet creator and activist Aaron Swartz, who was ultimately hounded to death in 2013 by the US government.

Fortunately, at least for now, Alexandra Elbakyan and Sci-Hub remain beyond its imperial reach.

To encounter other scientists who defy the status quo, check out Bold Scientists: dispatches from the battle for honest science. Read excerpts here.


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Gardening on the edge: an illustrated talk

Join me for an illustrated talk on gardening, getting blood on my hands, and our tangled relationship with nature.

2. Green frog

Tuesday, October 27, 6:30 – 8:30 pm

Toronto Reference Library

789 Yonge Street, one block north of Bloor

Beeton Auditorium, main floor.

More detail here.

Address & transit info here.  Scroll down for a Map link.


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Not in my backyard

DSCF4867Marla, in our extended backyard.

On a cool, bright autumn walk with Marla, I got to thinking about NIMBY.  Not In My Backyard.  It implies a perceived threat to the space that represents ‘my backyard.’  But what defines a backyard?  Fences?  Where I live we have none, except for ancient, collapsing cedar rails that now seem archeological.

We range freely through miles of forest, open meadow and wetland, far beyond the legal extent of the title deed that defines the 60 rural acres my partner and I ‘own.’ The land beyond is semi-wild, with no roads, no power lines, the occasional ATV incursion, and an abundance of animal tracks. I assume that someone ‘owns’ this other land; that’s how things have worked since the Europeans arrived. But for now, this is our extended backyard.

So then, what constitutes a backyard? If you’re an imperial power it means anything you want, up to and including the whole earth and as far out into space as you can grab. But what does it mean for the rest of us?

On my travels in writing Bold Scientists I visited with conservation biologist Curt Meine in the midwestern state of Wisconsin. Near Madison, the capital, we explored a devastated landscape, the former site of a vast military munitions complex, which citizens are working hard to restore to a healthy Sauk Prairie landscape. They hope to take care of it, as part of their extended backyard. But where are the boundaries?

As Curt sees it, “In nature the boundaries of larger reality are never set. In my little local place I can walk around, grow a garden, watch the birds, keep an eye on the sand cranes and the wild turkeys. I can only see about a mile, but I know the river out there is connected all the way to the Mississippi River, 80 miles that way (he points southwest, more or less), that feeds eventually into the Atlantic Ocean, which is part of the global ocean system. It’s the same with landscapes, they can be as small as a few square feet where you’re standing, and as large as the planet. Among all the levels are feedback loops, so they all affect each other.

“This means you can’t have a healthy farm or forest, park or city, in a landscape that’s unsustainable, or on a planet where the climate is going haywire, temperatures are rising, oceans are acidifying, and the poles are melting, largely due to our actions. So there’s always this tension between wanting to save the world at large and wanting to focus all your energies close to home. At least if you can work well on your part, and others are working well on their part, eventually you can build a community of engaged people to collaborate on the larger pieces of the whole.”

Imagine if in our backyard, our extended backyard, there were no tar sands. No oil and gas pipelines. No nuclear plants. No tops blown off mountains for coal.  No fracking… Imagine.

Meantime, biologist Curt Meine carries on the long community struggle to restore one small sliver of this precious earth, ultimately the only backyard we’ve got. The story is here, in Bold Scientists.

Join me for a talk on gardening and the extended backyard, October 27, 2015, 6:30 – 8:30 pm, at the Toronto Reference Library.

Event details hereAddress & transit info here.  Scroll down for a Map link.