The Condor Flies
Gliding on Narco News' Wings through the Coca-Growing Chapare
By Al Giordano
President, School of Authentic Journalism
August 6, 2004
COCHABAMBA, BOLIVIA, AUGUST 6, 2004: The condor, that giant, sacred, bird of these Andes, does not easily attain flight. The breadth of her wings is longer than her length from head to tail. To fly with a wingspan of up to 10 feet, she requires either a thermal updraft along high cliff… or sufficient runway to hop and run to flight speed. Once in the air, a condor doesn’t need to flap her wings… she glides overhead. She parachutes down from the side of the cliff, spreads her limbs, and the winds carry her forward and upward. People point to the skies and note how graceful, how easily she sails the wind, without having to flap her wings to move effortlessly from point to point.
But to watch a condor on flat land attempt to fly offers a distinct vision of this legendary creature. She must run, awkwardly, burdened by the excess size and weight – up to 33 pounds – of her gigantic wings, on a flat and arid plain, in order to achieve take-off… and to watch the condor rise up from below, from the ground, kind reader, is to truly know the condor’s might: her stubborn persistence and unconquerable will. Then you will know: her divinity is just one percent grace… and ninety-nine percent perspiration.
The Andean Condor is classified as an endangered species. National Geographic notes that the Andean condor, once a common site, faced near-extinction in recent years and now, “biologists in Venezuela, Colombia, and Ecuador are now busy reintroducing young condors hatched in North American zoos to fill in the current gaps in the birds’ historical distribution in South America.”
The Authentic Journalist, too, stood at the abyss of extinction few years ago, and the Narco News School of Authentic Journalism has also been busy reintroducing young auténticos and auténticas to the region, preparing them to fly, together, the big condor that is the Authentic Journalism renaissance.
Our condor, The Narco News J-School, here in the heart of the Andes mountain range, has spent the past week gaining traction and speed on the ground and has now achieved flight. It was a long and arduous, stumbling and bumpy, push and shove on the runway to get here, now, sailing and circling our América with the wide vista that can only be achieved by the many working together, and never by the few. All flights, after all, begin from below. The hard part is not the flying, but, rather, the takeoff and landing. Come with me, kind reader, and look through this condor’s eyes, together with the 60 plus Authentic Journalists who have now spent one week together – with three days left to go – getting this bird off the ground.
From these heights, we have seen a gateway to the vast Amazon jungle, in the tropical lands of Bolivia’s Chapare region… the winding rivers – tributaries to the planet’s greatest waterway – and the dense, green, rainforest. Over there, look! We see a farmer in his field… if you can call it a field… it is a tiny square plot, really, just ten yards by ten yards… behind what looks like a woodshed but is in fact his family’s home… he is joined by half-a-dozen neighboring farmers, who must also hide their tiny plots near trees and behind ramshackle homes… because the Bolivian armed forces and police keep coming to destroy his and their crop of coca bushes as part of the U.S.-imposed “war on drugs.”
And here come sixty outsiders to see him. They come from all parts of this continent and beyond, carrying weapons: microphones, cameras, tripods, minidisc recorders, digital devices, pens and notebooks… The farmer smiles: they are here not to report a sensational “expose” revealing the location of his coca plot, but, rather, to do what Commercial Journalists so seldom do: listen to him, to his neighbors, to the land, and to this humble shrub that is the cause of billions of dollars in fretting and warring, while at the same time it is not just cause but effect.
Charlie Hardy, the former Catholic priest and columnist known as the Cowboy in Caracas has come from Venezuela. He translates the farmer’s words, phrase by phrase, methodically, carefully, accurately, so that all the journalists – about one-third of whom do not speak fluent Spanish, and 95 percent of who don’t understand the farmer’s native Quechua language, may understand him.
As he and the other members of his “syndicate,” – a term, Charlie interjects, that has a slightly different context than in other lands… here in the Chapare, a syndicate is a grouping of 25 peasant farming families, a unit of organization and self-defense that, like the Amazon’s tributaries, join with hundreds of other such syndicates to fight for their lives and livelihoods against the destruction of the drug war – tell of their problems with the soldiers who come, again and again, usually at dawn, to uproot the fruits of their labor under the heavy Chapare sun.
Photo: Jeremy Bigwood D.R. 2004
As most of the journalists listen attentively, still others are congregated a few yards away, in the middle of this coca plot… There, kind reader, we see, through this condor’s eyes, the former national drug czar of Brazil, Walter Maierovitch… If chewing coca leaves caused hallucinations (it doesn’t) one might simply presume that this is a psychedelic vision… a drug czar standing among chest-high coca bushes, speaking to cameras and microphones… explaining why the United States model of drug prohibition has failed and why Latin America must adopt a new way to address the problems and potentials of this controversial leaf….
But this was on Tuesday, August 3rd, when the condor was still taking off… and there are bumps on the runway… One of the students in the video and documentary filmmaking workgroup – where all had agreed to share their footage to produce, together, a documentary this week – took the video of the Maierovitch interview in the coca field and sent it, via Internet, to the Commercial Internet news site Terra.com and its “Jornal do Terra” (“Earth Journal”) online TV news program, without consulting with his fellow and sister team members. Within hours, Jornal do Terra blasted the video on its front page as a “world exclusive” report of its own. The TV anchorman, reading aloud a blatant lie, announced that, “a team from Jornal do Terra went to Bolivia and found hundreds of coca plants,” then presenting Maierovitch as the reporter on a video in which, in reality, he was being interviewed. This now serves as an example of the kind of sensationalist and yellow journalism, driven by hype and simulation, that the Narco News J-School sets out to destroy. That our own team’s work was obtained, then misrepresented, by Jornal do Terra continues to be a topic of reflection and discussion in the documentary group and among other J-Schoolers: What kind of journalism do we want to make? (Memo to Terra: you’ll be hearing from our lawyers if we don’t see the video credited to its true source shortly.) In any case, it was only part of our team’s interview, and the true and accurate context of it will be seen and heard soon enough on these Narco News pages through the documentary already in post-production.
Update: Well, that didn’t take long… By 4 p.m. on Friday afternoon, having heard our complaint echo from the Andean mountains, the Jornal do Terra website added a disclaimer to what, the previous night, it had heralded as an exclusive report: “The production of this report in the Chapare counted with the support of the School of Authentic Journalism that is being held this year in Cochabamba, Bolivia, between July 30 and August 8.” Once again, I remind the scholars of our J-School motto: “Here we don’t cry, we fight.”
Nicolau dos Santos Soares
Photo: Jeremy Bigwood D.R. 2004
Another bump in the road on Tuesday in the Chapare: some J-School scholars wander off, away from this coca field, led by Brazilian magazine editor Natalia Viana, she says, to interview local children… She brings Andrea Wilkins y Martinez of Riverside, California, also Irene Roca of Santa Cruz, Bolivia, and Paris, and Nicolau dos Santos Soares from the favela slums of Sao Paulo… this is, for Nicolau, editor of Forum
magazine’s book division, his first trip outside of his country… and now he is wandering deeper into a strange jungle far from home, following three young women… Cochabambino (a word that describes someone from Cochabamba) Gonzalo “Chalo” Gonzales, a member of the Narco News staff, can neither resist the urge to join these girls, abandoning his post… and off they go… away from the group… into the Amazon…
Twenty minutes later it is now time for the two Narco News buses – smoking and nonsmoking – to head for our next appointment, twenty minutes up the cobblestone road. “Where’s Natalia? Where’s Nicolau? Where are Wilkins and Chalo and Irene?” There is worry in the eyes of some of their new friends. They look to the chief – that’s me – each having heard from me, four days prior, the “First Commandment” of the Narco News School of Authentic Journalism: “Be punctual. If you miss the bus, the bus leaves without you.”
Egberto Winston Chipani
Photo: Jeremy Bigwood D.R. 2004
I signal the bus driver to take off without the five that strayed: The eyes of some of these baby condors look frightened. But if they and their fellow and sister journalists are going to be Authentic Journalists they must learn to not miss the bus, or that if they do miss the bus they will often, on these back roads of life, have to find their way and survive under difficult conditions. Not one had even a compass. But that is how I teach: I protect my students from others but I do not shield them from the consequences of their own actions. Yet, I know what the worried eyes of some other students are still finding out: I choose these scholars through a long, intense, application process, and choose those who have the potential to make it through all kinds of forests, whether of hardwoods or of concrete and wire. I also know that 96 percent of the local population, according to a survey by the national radio network known as ERBOL
(an acronym for the Bolivian Educational Broadcasting Network), listen to the local coca grower’s radio station – led by our professor Egberto Winston Chipani – and have heard that the foreign youths wandering through their coca fields this week, with those red-and-black glossy backstage passes, er, press credentials, are invited guests. The kids will be fine… Hours later, they find us…
Photo: Noah Friedsky, D.R. 2004
They found their way to us just in the nick of time for Natalia to comply with a special invitation from J-School professor Jeremy Bigwood, to join him, and also scholars Amber Howard and Eartha Melzer of the United States, on an important mission for the school: this is the group that will go behind enemy lines… to the U.S.-funded military base in Chimoré… in the town where, three years ago, I investigated the assassination of labor leader Casimiro Huanca with bullets sent from Washington… There are few professors that I would allow to take our students “off campus” and deeper into the conflict zone but Bigwood, the professor who will later offer our plenary talk on Personal Safety for Reporters in Conflict Zones, has been here before (including during the historic and violent blockades of September 2000)… He knows the terrain… and the people… Two days later they return with a scoop: the regional military commander, a Bolivian man trained by the infamous School of the Americas in Fort Benning, Georgia, perhaps out of boredom, perhaps charmed by the sudden presence of three smiling young women, gave our mission an unprecedented interview. There, he admitted that the eradication of coca crops wasn’t working, and that coca itself is not harmful: Read Viana’s version here, Howard’s version here, and Melzer’s version at this link.
Natalia Viana and Amber Howard with Colonel Dario Leigue
Photo: Jeremy Bigwood D.R. 2004
In the Chapare we also visited women who ran banana and palm farms as part of U.S. funded “alternative development” programs. As we trekked through the forest to see these plots we saw coca plants everywhere (so much for the strategy imposed from above) and we also heard these farmers explain how they’ve never received a fair wage, much less made a profit, off these alternative plants that they are told to grow instead of coca.
In downtown Villa Tunari (population: 1,500 families), where our troops stayed two nights at the Hostal San Antonio, the Posada Casa Grande and the Bibosi Hotel (Narco News thanks the workers and owners of each of these fine establishments for making our stay in the Chapare go so well), we also held long plenary sessions, hearing from, and asking so many questions of, coca grower leaders like Leonilda Zurita (the only accused “narco-terrorist,” to my knowledge, that has penned an op ed piece for the New York Times) and Margarita Teran, the 22 year old firebrand who moved our student and translator Karla Aguilar to tears during her descriptions of the horrid tortures against her when she has been brought to prison. Karla later explained to me: “Being from El Salvador, where there has been so much torture, I hate to have to translate this kind of information although I know it is important. I just can’t be a cold, objective, journalist about torture.” I beam at her because she is a real journalist. Anybody who can be cold and objective about torture isn’t even an authentic human being, much less a journalist.
Photo: Jeremy Bigwood D.R. 2004
We also heard from Villa Tunari’s current mayor Felipe Caceres and from coca grower leader Feliciano Mamani (who may well soon become the town’s next mayor) about how the coca growers organized to become the region’s dominant political and electoral force, and from the region’s Public Defender Godofredo Reineke who received me as an old friend although he was under the errant impression that I never quoted him from our 2001 interview
. Godofredo, who arrived at one of our plenary sessions at which the students and professors were clearly tired after a long day of travel – a grueling five hour drop from 2,400 meters above sea level to 300 meters, through military checkpoints and damaged, dusty, mountain roads – suggested, as is his job, that I was abusing the human rights of my charges by making them sit through another plenary session, so he agreed to say just a few words and then join us for dinner, making himself available as a source to those of our students reporting, taping, or filming on human rights themes in the region.
Of course, no trip to the Chapare would be complete without descending on a local chicheria – a bar that serves chicha, a local drink fermented from corn or other plants – where students and professors alike danced and reveled until we closed the place. Cochabambinas Maria Eugenia Flores Castro and Leny Olivera served up the chica in buckets and taught authentic traditional dance steps to pop cumbias blasting from the boom box… the custom is to drink the chicha from dried jicama shells, offering the cup of chica to a friend, who then downs it in one gulp… and suddenly people who spoke only Spanish, or English, or Portuguese… or Quechua… could begin to understand each other better through the languages of dancing, of laughter, and of mutual aid… All for one, and one for all, the J-School spirit emerges on the edges of the Amazon… “Things of this land,” as they say in Chiapas… and also in the Chapare… as the condor begins again to take flight…
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