At night on the Parana, the stars still shine. The boatman cuts the motor;
we drift silently under the light of a full moon. This is the end of a four
thousand kilometer-long river, it's the "Delta front." The low islands to
the east extend fingers of land into the Rio del Plata estuary, and those
forested fingers grow about 70 meters longer every year, catching the last
of the sediments carried from the Andes and the Brazilian jungle. To the
southwest, the lights of Buenos Aires glitter on the horizon. Someday in
the future - quite soon, in geological time - the Delta front will reach
the city. Every month it's six meters closer. The mutability of this
territory makes my head spin. The stars, the moon, the lights, the islands
and the uncanny mirror of the river all come together like a wheel spinning
weightlessly in infinite space, or maybe it's a whirlpool, a cosmic gyre. A
homegrown joint makes its way from hand to hand, through the calm of a
winter night that is windless by good luck, and warm by devastating climate
change. The journey is well underway.

With Alejandro Meitin of Casa Rio we're making tactical media in the
wetlands, along a meandering path that leads from Punta Lara, south of
Buenos Aires, all the way north through the Pampa and the arid reaches of
the Grand Chaco to Asuncion, the capital of Paraguay. I wrote the paragraph
above a week ago; now we're at the halfway point. Our aim is to reach out
to riverside communities and build ecological awareness, while also helping
to accelerate the process of information-sharing among a network of
ecological NGOs called "Humedales sin fronteras" or Wetlands Without
Borders, whose member organizations are located in Argentina, Paraguay,
Bolivia and Brazil. My contribution as an artist-cartographer is an online
map and multimedia platform that can display text, scientific information,
photography, video, audio and social networks (it's FLOSS, built by Majk
Shkurti to my specs, see info below). The color scheme and iconography of
the map has been designed by Dani Lorenzo of Casa Rio, and most of the
videos you'll find inside were done by Andres Irigoyen. Lots of others are
involved, it would be long to list every one of them. As for Alejandro
Meitin, he's an artist, lawyer, environmental activist and
jack-of-all-trades who's been doing this kind of thing for thirty years,
first with the artists' group Ala Plastica, and now with the broader
community-based constellation of Casa Rio. We've taken similar journeys
before, stretching back to 2014 when Critical Art Ensemble generously
invited me to come along to Argentina for a roving seminar organized by Ala
Plastica under the name "Watersheds as Laboratories of Governance." In 2019
we brought an exhibition called "The Earth Will Not Abide" from Chicago to
the riverport city of Rosario, and Casa Rio published quite a beautiful
book with that material. Now we're in full-on activist mode, meeting
network members all along the river, pushing for a Wetlands Law in
Argentina, for a halt to dredging, sand extraction and dam-building, and
for the development, from below, of what we are calling "Biocultural
Corridors."

The notion of bioculturalism is grasped intuitively by all the people we
meet: It refers to the changes in orientation and behavior that arise when
human beings begin to see and feel themselves as participants in a web of
ecological relations, such that "an injury to one is an injury to all" -
whether it's insect, plant, animal or homo sapiens. The corridor part is
somewhat trickier. Many are aware of biological corridors, which are
designed by conservation specialists as safe passageways between small
islands of habitat which, on their own, are insufficient to sustain bird
and animal populations that range widely across the changing seasons.
Biocultural corridors, however, are not planned or instituted by experts.
They arise in areas where groups of people who might be engaged in
agroecological farming, traditional crafts such as willow weaving,
small-scale fishing, land defence and indigenous lifeways all come together
in mutual recognition and support, building the consciousness of what might
someday become truly sustainable productive practices. Like the
Bioregionalists of North America in the 1970s, we are inviting communities
to use our map in order to draw and describe the components of their own
biocultural corridors, which someday, we hope, will extend all the way up
and down the great uninterrupted fluvial corridor reaching from the
headwaters of the Brazilian and Bolivian Pantanal down to the Rio del Plata
estuary. For once, we're not necessarily kidding ourselves. Ideas based on
grassroots solidarity spread rapidly in Latin America. All along the vast
Parana Delta in Argentina you can see walls painted with the slogan "Pass
the Wetlands Law already!" (It's a bit more terse in Spanish: "Ley de
Humedales Ya!"). We are also promoting the idea of biocultural festivals,
where people can share and celebrate the changes that they are making right
now, in their own environments with their own hands. The fact is, many of
the people we meet are already doing something similar under other names,
so this transformation is definitely happening.

The reception of the mapping project is overwhelmingly positive. There may
be a bit of initial suspicion and resistance toward a Yanqui with a magic
box, but Alejandro speaks very convincingly and people get it: This is
sophisticated technology that can be seized by grassroots groups and used
in political struggles as well as popular education processes, in the face
of complex problems where all the legitimate expertise is typically on the
other side. The editing tools developed by Majk Shkurti make it possible to
place points and draw lines or polygons with ease, and then fill out a data
template that yields structured text and audiovisual content - stuff that
young people can learn in an afternoon. It's GIS on the easy and the cheap,
it can transmit knowledge and enthusiasm, and it can be put to political
work when it's time to stand up against municipal councils, provincial
governments and national legislatures. The idea this time is not just to
get spontaneous contributions from individuals - because we've already done
that in an earlier mapping project that's still being filled out, mainly
with denunciations of abuse. Instead, before they start drawing on the map,
we are asking existing community groups to engage in some collective
reflection about Casa Rio's three basic questions: Who designs the
territory? For whom is it designed? And what would a collaborative design
of territories look like? This is how the "laboratory of governance" idea
becomes a full-fledged social experiment.

Just two days ago I met an old fisherman who in the early 1990s had played
a decisive role in stopping a US-backed dam project, with no resources
except a good friend, a canoe and a pile of photocopied flyers. A regional
hero, exactly my kind of hero. He, too, seemed a little suspicious at
first. As a media maker I was profoundly moved when he later came up to me
and told me how vital our work would be to the educational project and
wetlands observatory that he's now coordinating with a local social
movement. What they've already done is to convince the city (it's actually
called Parana city) to pay for a bunch of wood, and then in three months
time the movement built a dock on a small island, a welcome center and an
elevated boardwalk about half a kilometer long through the swamp, where
they bring boatloads of schoolkids who live right next to the river and
have no contact with the water or the islands. Next they want to put their
interpretation center in the middle of a huge wetland on the city's edge,
which without a watchful eye is likely to be taken over illegally by gated
communities, factories or other profitable enterprises. You can imagine
they have a different interpretation of what this land is good for! These
are people who know their environment through generations of intimate
experience - and today that's something many others want to learn. With any
luck, we're about to discover a whole lot of local knowledge taking form
inside our magic box, and being shared along the entire wetlands corridor.

Today's environmental conditions are helping with this good reception -
unfortunately. In the context of a three-year drought and the arrival of
increasingly large herds of cattle, the traditional islander practice of
burning dry winter brush to stimulate the growth of fresh spring grass has
morphed into an emergency situation of uncontrolled fires in the Delta,
choking populations in urban centers with heavy smoke and even causing
freeway pileups due to loss of visibility. For two years in a row, while
lockdowns and pandemic anxiety reigned, a plunge in water levels revealed
vast sandy deserts where the Parana once flowed, causing many to fear that
the river would never come back again (thankfully it did this year). Sure,
it's always hard to attribute local phenomena to climate change - but the
best Brazilian science says that the atmospheric rivers arising from the
evapotranspiration of the Amazon jungle (aka flying rivers, "rios
voladores") are now drying up due to massive deforestation, leading to a
loss of rainfall at the headwaters of the Parana, way up there in the (for
me) mythical Pantanal wetlands. At the same time, it's well known by
everyone in the region that over a mere thirty years, industrial
monocropping (aka GMO soybeans doused in Round-Up) has devastated the
ecology of South America at continental scale, ruining entire drainages,
pushing cattle from bulldozed pastures into the wetlands, and provoking all
the above-mentioned disasters, at least as far as we can tell - with a big
push from rising CO2 levels, for sure. Now, horror of all horrors, the
government of Paraguay is calling on the US Army Corps of Engineers for
"help" in managing the Paraguay river, which is the major tributary of the
Parana, directly connected to the Pantanal headwaters. In case you don't
know, the Army Corps are the folks who destroyed the ecology of the
Mississippi river system with a straightjacket of dams and levees. Along
with the oil industry, the Corps is responsible for most of the land-loss
crisis in Louisiana - not to mention what happened to the Columbia River,
etc. Common people don't need the kind of "help" such agencies bring.

To increase awareness and spread more precise knowledge of all these
converging dangers, we have given our map of biological corridors a dark
side, which is a topology of the extractive corridors that are threatening
the Paraguay-Parana watershed. Here, instead of lush organic green
traversed by mud-brown water, what you see is a dessicated cinder, like the
leftover coals of some immense and gruesome barbecue - the frightful, yet
increasingly predictable and literal culmination of the centuries-old
colonial process. We focus on the heavily dredged Hidrovia, or Water
Highway, which is what the transnational capitalist groups see when they
look at the Paraguay-Parana River. IIRSA, which is the South American
banking complex behind the design of the Hidrovia, has for decades wanted
to extend their favorite transnational canal all the way to Amazonas and
beyond. What Eduardo Galleano called the "Open Veins of Latin America" are
in fact the waterways, which the European colonists used to carry away the
treasures of the continent, resulting in the denomination of the Parana
watershed as the "Plate Basin" or Silver Basin - the Moneyshed, you might
as well say. Well, the only thing that has changed is that the major cargo
is now GMO soybeans, and the chief destination of the ships is China,
followed closely by the EU of course. What Marx once called the "metabolic
rift" between the city and the country has now opened up between South
America and Eurasia. It's a process of alienation in every sense of the
word, at the largest possible scale. There is a tremendous amount to be
learned about all this, and we are currently multiplying our research
collaborations into the global political economy of extractivism, while
also engaging discussions about how to bring the many specialized reports
authored by members of Wetlands Without Borders onto our more popular and
intuitive map of extractive corridors. The whole project is a work in
progress with lots of gaps and question marks, but it's live on the net
right now, and I expect it to remain under active development for the next
couple years.

Life does not happen elsewhere, in some ideal garden to which you could
escape on vacation. Life happens right here and now, in a double world with
an inhuman and more-than-human face. I have always felt most alive amid the
struggles of this double world, in collaboration with all kinds of people,
of all races and classes and stations and professions, whenever and
wherever they are finding their own ways of resisting alienation and
contributing to a better life - some soft and affective, some local and
productive, some political and confrontational, or even better, political
and constructive. We live in a time when the so-called middle classes are
finally realizing that their seemingly higher station - their literally
higher ground, in river terms - will not protect them. The storms, floods,
droughts and fires of global ecological change are coming for them, or
rather, for *us*, as I'd put it from my own middle-class position. The big
question is this: Do the middle classes - including industrial workers
attached to states and large corporations - go fascist under the pressure
of rising threats to their old lifestyles and identities, or can we find
shareable biocultural pathways toward reparative socio-ecological worlds,
and through collaboration with other classes and cultures and races, create
neo-ecosystems that can ramp down the causes and mitigate the effects of
climate change? Please don't explain to me that such a swerve away from
ruling norms is impossible, due to human nature or economic law or
historical destiny or some other bullshit, because such self-serving
explanations have long been part of the problem. For a metamorphosis to
occur, everyone has to bring their own skills and dreams into play somehow
- preferably right now, because tomorrow is always a little hotter.

Therefore my dear friends, here I am in South America with some good old
tactical media.

All the best from https://tinyurl.com/jaaukanigas -

Brian

***

Corridors Map: https://map.casariolab.art

Casa Rio: https://casariolab.art

Humedales sin fronteras: https://humedalessinfronteras.org

Project repo: https://github.com/crystalball-mapkit/crystalball

Installation guide:
https://wiki.timetochange.today/home/installation/terminal-commands

The Earth Will Not Abide: https://www.regionalrelationships.org/tewna

(Feel free to contact me if you want some tips about deployment and use of
the software)
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