Extractivism, Carlos explained, was the true heart of the problem: a model of development in which countries gain wealth by extracting substances from the earth; governments stay in power by promising their citizens they will benefit from that wealth; wealth is itself understood in primarily materialistic terms; the living world is seen as a set of resources for (some) humans; and both humans and other than humans are instrumentalised and treated as expendable externalities should they get in the way.
The word was new to me when I encountered it on that journey. I now think that ‘extractivism’ summarises pretty much everything that’s gone wrong with western, industrialised, ‘modern’ societies.
I’ve always been drawn to the idea of adventure. Despite its troubled ancestry and often high-impact reality, over the years I’ve become increasingly convinced that using (somewhat!) adventurous journeys to raise awareness and inspire action on our most urgent environmental issues can be genuinely powerful.
The Life Cycle was such an adventure: a thirteen month, largely solo ‘adventure plus’ bike ride the length of South America, loosely following the spine of the Andes. The idea of ‘adventure plus’ was to construct journeys that combine a wonderful personal experience, with giving something back. On previous trips I’d explored climate change on a bike ride from Texas to Alaska, through two of the most oil-addicted countries on earth, and ocean plastic pollution on a sailing voyage with Pangaea Exploration through the North Atlantic Gyre.
On The Life Cycle, the environmental focus was biodiversity. What is it? What’s happening to it? And why does losing it at the current rate amount to an environmental challenge every bit as serious as climate change? Above all, I wanted to learn from environmentalists living on one of the most biodiverse continents what we can do to protect biodiversity – though this turned out to be not quite the right question.
My steed was Woody, a bike with a frame I built from bamboo at a course run by the Bamboo Bicycle Club, using materials grown at the Eden Project in Cornwall. Woody is probably the UK’s first home-grown bicycle and the prospect of doing a ride for biodiversity on a bike that used to be a plant made me grin.
I was keen to reduce the negative impacts of The Life Cycle journey in other ways too. I crossed the Atlantic on a cargo ship which, according to environmental impact guru Mike Berners-Lee, reduced my travel footprint from about two tonnes of CO2e to around 50kg. Interestingly, Mike calculated that I saved even more carbon by powering my cycling with a vegetarian rather than a meat-based diet.
And, on a bicycle, particularly an eccentric-looking bamboo one, not only are your chances of being seen as a mobile advert for western consumerism diminished, but any lingering traces of the ‘conquering’ version of the adventure mentality are rapidly dispensed. As a relatively unathletic, slow and enamoured-with-freedom-and-the-world type of cyclist, I was not so much conquering the landscapes I was cycling through as becoming ever more immersed in them. I could hear, smell and feel as well as see them. Woody was a magician, transforming my encounters with people, places and other living beings into something more open, more obviously tinged with vulnerability, more alive than if I’d undertaken the journey by car, bus or train.
My journey began as the cargo ship pulled away from a northern French port on a dark November night. Eleven days later I disembarked on the coast of Columbia. Briefly touching the Caribbean, my route took me from turquoise waves to lush, hot, fruit-filled lowlands; from high Paramó grasslands to cloud and rainforests, amongst the most biodiverse ecosystems on earth, to the high, spiky white mountains of the Peruvian Cordillera Blanca; from the Atacama Desert, parts of which haven’t seen rain in forty years, to the Bolivian salt flats and the Patagonian steppe (notorious for its cyclist-soul destroying winds as much as its wildlife.) Biodiversity refers to diversity of habitats and ecosystems as well as species and, as the miles unfurled under my wheels, I found I was, quite literally, cycling through the topic I was exploring.
In the evenings, I dug out my laptop from a pannier, and set up project visits. I tried to choose ones that were roughly on my north-south route but many of the least resistible involved detours, so that my route became more meandering zigzag than crow-fly. I visited a school whose entire curriculum was based on turtles. I visited a monkey conservation project that fought to save the forest habitat of the endangered, pint-sized, Cotton Top Tamarin or ‘Titi’ monkey by collecting waste plastic (in an area with no rubbish collection at all), and then working with local people to turn the plastic into sellable products. This meant they no longer needed to cut down the forest to grow food, or catch monkeys to sell into the illegal but lucrative wildlife trade. With project after project, it became clear that ecological regeneration and habitat-protection were inseparable from brilliant and often original approaches to alternative income generation and community engagement, creating good lives for people.
I also met people putting their lives on the line to protect their land and communities. One of those was Jennifer, a young single mother, one of a group of young people fighting the arrival of a gigantic gold mine proposed to open near Cajamarca, Colombia, a small town in a high, watery, primarily agricultural region. The proposal came from AngloGold Ashanti, one of the biggest gold mining companies on earth, with a highly dubious human rights and environmental record. It was operating in Colombia with its own armed security force and the blessing of the Colombian government.
Gold extraction processes require mercury, whose toxicity is well known, and for every 0.8 of a gram of gold you need to shift about a tonne of earth. In that earth are sulphides that have never made contact with air and water before. When they do, they acidify, and the sulphuric acid then dissolves arsenic and other heavy metals into the soil and water, killing wildlife, turning water toxic and rendering farming impossible. This continues for thousands of years after the mine has stopped operating.
Jennifer and her group successfully fought off the mine, at least initially. (AngloGold has recently made a bid to return.) They carried out an extensive information campaign about what the actual consequences would be for the region, as opposed to the ‘jobs, money, infrastructure, hardly any environmental impact at all’ rhetoric from the mining company. Then they held a public referendum, legally binding in Colombia in cases where an entire community would have to change its main livelihood – from farming to mining, for example. The community voted overwhelmingly against La Colosa. But, during the campaign, two of the young people were murdered.
Tragically, this was not a unique case. In 2017, the year I met Jennifer and Carlos, 197 ‘environmental defenders’ were killed defending land and community – ecological and human – often against big business. Colombia is a fabulous place to be a random tourist on a bicycle but, in 2017, it was the third most dangerous place in the world to be an environmentalist or human rights activist. In the last decade, 1733 ‘environmental defenders’ were murdered that we know of, the majority in South America.
I thought the mining-related visits were a tangent: in fact they took me to the dark and glittering heart of the story.
For the rest of the journey, the extractivism theme kept recurring. I’d initially thought the mining-related visits were a tangent: in fact they took me to the dark and glittering heart of the story. In Ecuador, I took a boat trip on the Amazon River through a national park. In the rainforest, surrounded by lush and raucous life, we rounded a bend and saw a gas flare, associated with oil extraction. Even at a distance it was horrifying. The guide told us that the flames attract insects, who are followed by birds. The dead are so numerous you have to weigh them rather than count them.
In Peru, I looked in utter disbelief at a lead mine in the centre of a town, still-inhabited houses ringing the edges of the mile-wide, grey crater. There is no safe level of lead in a young person’s blood, and many of Cerro de Pasco’s children have chronic health challenges thanks to their proximity to the mine. And at 14,000 feet, toxic waste from the mine inevitably ends up in the watercourse, including rivers that feed entire ecosystems below and eventually flow into the Amazon.
In every case, vast amounts of money were being made. But there were also vast – unacceptably vast – environmental and social costs. Decimation of hyper-valuable habitats (from a biodiversity and carbon sequestration perspective) and of multitudes of communities of living beings. Gargantuan over-use of fresh water and pollution of what water that was left. Displacement – often brutal – of local people. What sort of mind-twistingly stupid perspective prioritises gold over water? Copper over vital biodiversity? Lead over children’s brain development? Profit over our own life-support systems? Profit over life? Ours, it seems. Ours.
Carlos’ view was that the companies are themselves part of economic and political systems – our systems – that don’t just embody but compel exactly these insane, life-destroying priorities. Extractivism, he said, is about worldviews as much as about particular industries, and we’ll never protect biodiversity or effectively tackle any of our deeply interconnected environmental and social issues while it holds sway across the world, unless and until we displace it.
It was the French activist and thinker Malcolm Ferdinand that helped put all this in context for me, a European cycling through colonised countries. Ferdinand writes that colonialism is not just as a practice from a historical era, but ‘a certain way of inhabiting the earth, from some believing themselves entitled to appropriate the earth for the benefit of a few … a violent way of inhabiting the earth, subjugating lands, humans and non-humans to the desires of the coloniser.’ He calls it ‘colonial habitation’, an entire mindset, a way of being in the world based on hierarchy, appropriation and a sense of entitlement. A sense of entitlement so strong it ‘justifies’ the relentless pursuit of material wealth no matter that wild ecosystems, entire communities of living beings, are destroyed; that water is rendered undrinkable; that rivers are drained; that local people are displaced and activists dispensed with; that biodiversity plummets.
Biodiversity is not a luxury. It’s the web of life we are part of and utterly depend on.
To state the obvious: biodiversity is not a luxury. It’s the web of life we are part of and utterly depend on. It’s the source of fresh water, clean air, fertile soil, pollination – of untold processes we literally cannot live without. And biodiversity is communities of living beings who are every bit as entitled to exist and flourish on our single, beautiful planet as we are. Losing it at the current catastrophic rate – wild animal populations are down by 69% since 1970, in less than my lifetime, according to WWF Living Planet Report – is both terrifying and tragic. It is ethically abhorrent. And it is profoundly interconnected with all the other environmental and social issues we face.
For me, the question has become not so much what to do as how to be. The legacy of colonialism, vivid in extractivism and other forms of colonial habitation, is alive and well. What other ways of inhabiting the earth can we in the industrialised west learn from, foster and pursue? How can we best throw our weight into urgently needed systemic change, and live the values and priorities that change must manifest?
I’ve been lucky enough to help establish a small eco-community in Cumbria, trying to figure that out. Mostly, though, since I got back, I’ve traded life on the road for life at a laptop. It’s taken me five years to write the book, a very much harder challenge than the 8288, fabulous, mountainous miles I cycled from Colombia to Cape Horn. Life on bicycle is saner than life at the laptop in a whole host of ways. Aside from the obvious pluses of being outside all day, it turns out there’s nothing like a long bike ride to underline what we already know. That our things have weight, literal and metaphorical. That the basics – water, shade, rest, something to eat – can give you such joy, and that living with less is not a hardship but a release. That beyond a certain point, experiences and connections are what really count, not possessions. In an extractivist era where the biggest single driver of ecological catastrophe is overconsumption in the west, what a gift to the world from the bicycle. Bamboo or otherwise.
The Life Cycle: 8000 Miles in the Andes by Bamboo Bike was published by Icon Books on 1st June, 2023. Available in all good bookshops, and as an Audible book.