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Protests Erupt in the US and Bolivia Targeting 'Progressive' Presidents Who Are Failing to Protect the Environment

Together these two actions highlight important, universal lessons about what it takes to press for protection of the planet, in countries both wealthy and impoverished.

In many ways the two protests could not be more different. In Washington two weeks of daily protests by the well dressed and well educated, more than a hundred strong each day, stand before the White House. The participants sit together cross-legged for photos as they display their carefully printed banners. A hemisphere away in Bolivia, more than 1,500 indigenous peasants - men, women, and children - march along a dusty dirt road in the countryside, wearing cheap rubber sandals, faded skirts and tattered pants. They are headed on a weeks-long march to their nation's capital, La Paz.

And yet, on separate sides of the equator the protests share a profound commonality. Both take aim at Presidents labeled as progressive and historic, leaders who have used soaring rhetoric about the urgency of protecting the planet. Both protests involve an important part of the Presidents' respective political bases taking to the streets to hold them to that rhetoric. Together these two actions highlight important, universal lessons about what it takes to press for protection of the planet, in countries both wealthy and impoverished.

A Pipeline for Climate Poison and a Road through the Rainforest

The protests in Washington, which are ongoing, target a proposed 1,700-mile pipeline, the Keystone XL, that would carry petroleum mined from Canada's Tar Sands through the central U.S. to Texas for refinement. U.S. and Canadian environmentalists have called the Tar Sands project "the most destructive project on Earth," because of the environmental decimation left behind by the radical extraction measures required. And by mining and throwing into the atmosphere one of the largest remaining carbon deposits in North America, the project will have even more devastating impacts on global climate change. NASA climate expert James Hansen has concluded, "if the Tar Sands are thrown into the mix it is essentially game over."

The legal authority to permit the pipeline's construction or stop it lies with President Obama. Pipeline opponents, who include a wide range of environmental organizations in both the U.S. and Canada, note that the President doesn't need any additional approval from Congress on the matter. He can stop the project on his own, which is what they began demanding in August at his front door.

Thus far the President has sent mixed messages about the Tar Sands project. He has said that, "importing oil from countries that are stable and friendly [i.e. Canada] is a good thing," but then added the qualifier, "there are some environmental questions about how destructive they are, potentially, what are the dangers there, and we've got to examine all those questions."

"His environmental policies have been terrible," said one of the Washington protesters, Nancy Romer, a member of the Brooklyn Food Coalition, explaining why environmental groups have decided to hold Mr. Obama's feet to the fire on the Tar Sands pipeline. "He gives away the store - on offshore oil drilling, on nuclear power." On the Keystone pipeline a coalition of environmental groups have decided to draw a political green line in the sand.

On the other side of the world, the protest march in Bolivia is aimed at a less technological means of turning natural resources into wealth - a road. On August 15 representatives from three dozen Bolivian indigenous groups, protesting in solidarity with those living in the TIPNIS forest (Territorio Indígena y Parque Nacional Isiboro Sécure), set off on a 250 mile march to the capital. Their aim is to stop construction of a 185-mile paved highway through virgin Amazon forest. The project is being pushed by President Evo Morales and financed largely by the government of Brazil, one of many eager suitors for the forest's natural resources, including petroleum.