Cockburn: The Nation Magazine on Ted
Wolfensohn, Indian Killer
Every age contributes its own dollop of cant to the business of wiping out Indians. Today the humdrum business of ethnocide is spray-painted with uplifting language about “sustainable development,” with more menacing words like “resettlement” inconspicuously lurking.
Back in 1992 the huge Chilean utility Endesa embarked on the first of a series of hydroelectric dams on the Bío-Bío River some 300 miles south of Santiago. Endesa duly applied to the International Finance Corporation for funding.
The I.F.C. is part of the World Bank, now presided over by James Wolfensohn, a fellow often touted in the press as a veritable Renaissance man: patron of the arts and philanthropies tempering bankerly skills with steely resolve to discipline the proconsuls in the World Bank Group, who have made that institution a byword for arrogance and double-dealing. As we shall see, the Bío-Bío saga displays Wolfensohn in none of these guises, but as a chicken-heart.
In the late eighties, battered by justified charges that it had financed scores of projects that doomed indigenous groups, the World Bank drew up some protocols designed to stop this happening again. The new policy laid heavy stress on the informed participation of such groups in the devising of projects and policies affecting their way of life.
The I.F.C. staffers, who signed a secret dam agreement with Endesa, concealed from the I.F.C. board of directors the facts as they well knew them. There was not going to be one dam but several. Out of the 5,000 members of the Pehuenche tribe, almost a thousand were scheduled for resettlement across the construction of six dams. The Indians weren’t told that. Instead the I.F.C. colluded with Endesa in trumping up a “model agreement,” inaugurating a whole new era of harmony between Indian and white man. A newly established Pehuen Foundation would take a tiny slice of net corporate income from an Endesa subsidiary — around $130,000 a year — to launch “sustainable development” of three Indian reservations around the new reservoir.
The bulldozers rolled, and by 1996 the Pangue dam was virtually completed, watched with increasing disquiet by Chilean groups certain from the start that an environmental catastrophe would go hand in hand with disaster for the Pehuenche. In 1995 these Chileans took their concerns to Wolfensohn, and not long thereafter the I.F.C. retained the anthropologist Theodore Downing, former president of the International Anthropological Association, to go to Chile and undertake an independent review.
Off went Downing, and the Pehuenche for the first time encountered an interlocutor who listened to them. Downing filed his report on May 7, 1996. It was devastating. The Pehuen Foundation was a self-serving fraud. There was no “sustainable development” but merely the establishment of a corrupt system of stinted welfare handouts. The ancestral Pehuenche forests — more than 100 million acres vital for their survival — were being relentlessly logged, at the incredible rate of 8 percent a year, with what Downing and the Indians computed to be anywhere from $6 million to $18 million worth of timber already hauled off. In other words, the Indians were involuntarily subsidizing the dam that was finishing them off.
Downing’s report was sent to Endesa, which promptly threatened to sue the I.F.C., whose natural instinct was to keep Downing’s report from all inconvenient eyes, starting with those of the Pehuenche. The I.F.C. made the report available only to non-Indian members of the Pehuen Foundation board. By now the Chilean government and private Chilean groups were asking for the Downing report. The I.F.C. claimed that it favored “disclosure” and would hold confidential only “what is considered in the legitimate business interests of the company.” To which Downing tartly inquired, “Since when did controlling the internal affairs of an indigenous group become a legitimate business interest of a power company?”
In December 1996 Downing filed the first human rights complaint ever lodged by a consultant against the World Bank or the staff of the I.F.C., charging them with racism in treatment of the Pehuenche. Ludicrous cover-ups have followed. The I.F.C. launched its own “review,” which, inevitably, said Downing’s human rights complaint lacked merit. Meanwhile, in April of this year, the I.F.C. was hatching yet another agreement with Endesa, probably to deport the Pehuenche to the uplands. The agreement is secret, as ethnocidal schemes mostly are.
What of Wolfensohn? After an initial reproof of Endesa and agreement to retain Downing and also Jay Hair, formerly president of the National Wildlife Federation, to conduct yet another review, Wolfensohn has presided over interminable deception and cover-up, starting with the suppression of both Downing’s and Hair’s reports. Hair was most recently shunted into the presence of Wolfensohn’s friend Lloyd Cutler, big-time Democratic lawyer-fixer, who reportedly insulted Hair’s report and insisted its publication would be legally perilous. One supposition here might be that the Clinton Administration is eager to have fast-track approval of Chile’s entry into NAFTA and doesn’t want any ugly talk about ethnocide darkening the mood of uplift. Meanwhile, it looks as though the World Bank Group is backtracking on those brave commitments on resettlement and overall policy toward Indians.
As he strolls through the splendid new I.F.C. headquarters in Washington, D.C., Wolfensohn might spare a moment to reflect upon the nasty little fact that even as the I.F.C. was moving into this palace it was signing arrangements that would displace a small, indigent tribe from its ancestral home. He and his subordinates have partaken in a conspiracy that will see the Indians either “resettled” at higher elevations, which could see them die of cold or scattered in shiftless alcoholism on the outskirts of tourist or corporate enclaves. This is what is meant by “ethnocide.” Since Wolfensohn is Australian by origin he can perhaps concentrate his mind by studying the current furor in his native land over the carefully meditated plans, only a few decades old, to wipe out the
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