“The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference. The opposite of art is not ugliness, it’s indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy, it’s indifference. And the opposite of life is not death, it’s indifference…to remain silent and indifferent is the greatest sin of all.”—Elie Wiesel

Last night I put my head down on my keyboard and wept. I had been reading an article sent to me about the approval of the new hydroelectric plant, which will require construction of five new dams on the Tapajós River, in Brazil.  The article is short:

While newspapers and television talk about the lives of celebrities, the chief of the Kayapo tribe received the worst news of his life. Dilma, the new president of Brazil, has given approval to build a huge hydroelectric plant (the third largest in the world).
It is the death sentence for all the people near the river because the dam will flood 400,000 hectares of forest. More than 40,000 Indians will have to find another place to live. The natural habitat destruction, deforestation and the disappearance of many species is a fact.

What moves me in my very bowels, making me ashamed of being part of Western culture, is the reaction of the chief of the Kayapo community when he learned of the decision—his gesture of dignity and helplessness before the advance of capitalist progress, modern predatory civilization that does not respect the differences.

The Kayapos (Portuguese: Kayapó, also spelled Caiapó or Kaiapó, comes from neighbouring peoples and means “those who look like monkeys”) are indigenous peoples in Brazil, from the plain lands of the Mato Grosso and Pará in Brazil, south of the Amazon Basin and along Rio Xingu and its tributaries.

That photo got to me like few have in a long time. Here is a man, the chief of the Kayapo Indian tribe —a proud man, one who is used to being listened to as an elder—who now due to the desperate plight of his people and their land, is a broken man.

I started researching the project from its planning days in 1975 and speaking to people across the globe, trying to raise an awareness that would maybe be considered “slight disturbance” among many. I could work with that. I managed “slight disturbance” among very few. In fact, silence is what I received from most. Those who care deeply are already so immersed in the battle to prevent harm to people and the environment they hardly had breath to speak to me let alone discuss or take on another project. As one group put it to me:

We have way too much on our plate trying to be allies to campesino and artisanal miners trying to defend their land, livelihood and cultures in the face of multinational mining interests and the bio-fuel African Palm industry. They are the targets of extrajudicial killings, death threats and forced displacement.

I was going to lay out all the statistics of the Brazilian Hydroelectric Project- also known as the Belo Monte Dam Project, but all the statistics are available to anyone who cares enough. Having seen the flooding in Thailand, I was going to expound on the danger of damming natural resources once Nature gets it into her head to retaliate; but again, all the data are available to those who really care to look. There are sufficient sources of information to fill even the greediest “fact fanatic;” what’s lacking is the caring.

And then, as despondency was about to grab me by the hand, I found an article posted on International Rivers:

In the first days of the New Year, Brazilian contractors quietly started blockading the Xingu River to allow construction to start on the massive Belo Monte Dam. Often called the “Pandora Dam” by mainstream media because of James Cameron’s support for the struggle against it, the hydroelectric project could become the world’s third largest. While construction had started on roads and associated works several months ago, the building of coffer dams to divert the flow of the river started during the Brazilian New Year holiday, presumably to sidestep the scrutiny of civil society, NGOs and regional activists. But escape scrutiny it did not. Movimento Xingu Vivo Para Sempre (The Xingu Alive Forever Movement) organized an action to stop construction of the coffer dams on January 18th, denouncing the illegitimate process and lack of consultation that have become a hallmark of the Belo Monte Project. For two hours a small but determined group of protestors blocked work from continuing on Belo Monte’s Pimental site, and informed the workers about the damage the dam would have in their community.

Note the words, “a small but determined group”—that’s all it took to bring a mighty project to a standstill for a day—a small but determined group who cared enough to put themselves out there, to make a stand; to do something, if only for a day.

The rest of us? Why, we are caught up in politics, elections, the global economy, the exchange rate, the price of gold, the latest fashion, anti-aging creams, erectile dysfunction devices, health insurance, teeth-whitening products or “what did you do with your Philips today?”

And when things start going wrong, we are the most voluble—“Economy sucks. Gee, look at the price of gold! Why is fuel so expensive? Look at the price of cars or computers these days! What’s going on with food? Must be the wrong president—get a new one!” Our attitude is, as long as it isn’t in my backyard and doesn’t affect me, I really don’t care; what I don’t know can’t hurt me.

We are indifferent to what is happening with the environment as we believe we probably won’t be around long enough to see the effect of our actions; we are indifferent to the plight of a few indigenous folk, or when there is flooding in Thailand since “they’re used to it and can handle it.”

However, if we were to take a little time off from indifference, we would see how quickly our backyard is being encroached upon. Those indigenous folk that now have nowhere to go? Look in your backyard. The flooding in Thailand? Your electronics have suddenly become more expensive as the factories that manufactured some of the bits and pieces have had to spend vast quantities to get them operating again. The earthquake in Japan that caused severe damage and eventual shutdown to their nuclear plant? Manufacturers from automobiles to semiconductors temporarily shut down operations in parts of Japan that disrupted the flow of goods around the world, which means what? Goods suddenly became more expensive.

Around us things are on a collision course with disaster, but we choose to ignore them–we are indifferent.  We compose our small worlds with micro bits coming from the big world out there that is slowly falling apart. Yet we remain indifferent.

We can no longer afford to do so. The space we used to occupy has become a whole lot smaller, and the space that’s left is becoming a whole lot less habitable.

“The world is a dangerous place, not because of those who do evil, but because of those who look on and do nothing.”—Albert Einstein.

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