Ramapo Trials

My first encounter with the Ramapo Indians was at the première of "Toxic Legacy" at the New Jersey Film Festival two summers ago. The documentary was produced by "The Record" to accompany the newspaper's exposé of Ford's complicity in contaminating the watersheds of northern New Jersey by dumping sludge and other industrial waste from their erstwhile Mahwah plant in the surrounding areas of Stag Hill, Hillburn and Ringwood. Coincidentally or not, all three towns have significant concentrations of these Native American Indians.

The 5000-people strong Ramapo community share their ancestry with Lenape Indians and Dutch soldiers who fought the colonists during the American Revolutionary War. After the defeat of the British, many of the mercenaries deserted their ranks and took refuge in the Ramapo mountains, where the inaccessible and inhospitable terrain shielded them from capture, but eventually isolated them from the frenetic pace of development in New York City, only thirty miles away. Although the Ramapo people formed the backbone of the mining activities that thrived in the Ringwood area, they still hold on to their traditional ways, such as fishing and hunting rabbits and deer. Their distrust of the "white man" has also been responsible for the myths circulating around them, including the pejorative use of the term "Jackson Whites" (allegedly a contraction of Jacks, or freed slaves, and Whites) in referring to them.

Even though the states of New Jersey and New York acknowledge the Ramapo as a Native American Indian tribe, they have not been granted federal recognition and all the benefits that accompany it, as a consequence of successful lobbying by big gambling interests. David Cohen's sympathetic study of the mountain people, while denying that they have direct Native Indian heritage, offers instances of the prejudice and discrimination that the Ramapo Indians have had to face, including segregated schools and churches as late as the mid-20th century. However, all these struggles pale into insignificance when compared to the injustice they have been meted out by unbridled corporate greed that has polluted their land and water. A visit to Peters Mine today, which had 17 levels and reached 2000 feet underground, is shocking not only because the huge honeycomb of shafts, tunnels and caverns has been stuffed with toxic paint sludge and automobile parts, but because it is a mere stone's throw away from the ramshackle company houses that are inhabited by the Ramapo Indians. Prolonged exposure to these pollutants has resulted in this community having a much higher incidence of cancer and asthma, even while the Environmental Protection Agency has declared the area off-bounds as a Superfund site.

The Ramapo mountain people, who had come out in full force to the film's screening, dominated the question-and-answer session with the director trying to unearth the truth behind successive mishandled government clean-up operations and repeated cover-ups by Ford. While it was heartbreaking to watch the families trying to come to terms with the greed and corruption that have wreaked havoc on their lives and livelihood, it also highlighted the need for another Erin Brockovich to take on the corporate behemoth that is responsible for this callous disregard of humanity and destruction of nature.

No, I'll not take the half,
Give me the whole sky! The far-flung earth!
Seas and rivers and mountain avalanches--
All these are mine! I'll accept no less!
Yevgeny Yevtushenko, No, I'll Not Take the Half

Godless Capitalism

Death, and taxes, have traditionally been the great levellers of society. This week, however, as news of laid-off Wall Street accountants dominated the airwaves, the vagaries of the economy emerged as a powerful equaliser of wealth. Faith in the free market may have been shaken by this financial crisis, but it also forces one to objectively reevaluate the culture of laissez-faire economics.

While frenzied fingers point in different directions to find a scapegoat, one is reminded of the old Nigerian saying that when one points a finger at somebody, there are three fingers pointing towards oneself. The current meltdown was orchestrated by the environment of deregulation that has been sweeping American markets for the last couple of decades. The theory was that competition would automatically convert a free-market into a fair-market, and a stable equilibrium would be maintained between the seller and the buyer, the employer and the employee, the lender and the borrower. Unfortunately, anybody remotely familiar with the tragedy of the commons knows that, without the supervision of a law-enforcer, human greed will always prioritise selfish gain over societal good.

The same is true for the free market. As is becoming increasingly clear, left to their own devices, the unregulated financial industry did not accomplish the goal of self-policing that would have provided long-term benefits to its employees, its shareholders and to society. On the contrary, the cumulative effect of years of malfeasance was so far-reaching that, ironically, big-government needed to be called in to save the day. Such an instance of heads-I-win-tails-you-lose would have been less likely in the presence of a government oversight body entrusted with the responsibility of raising flags for dicey transactions. Of course, a free market economy would allow a private company to make a risky investment, if it is approved by its board, but it should not expect to be saved by taxpayers if the deal sours.

Unfortunately, the ideology of deregulation is not just limited to the financial market. For instance, Nobel laureate Milton Friedman, father of modern American capitalism, had argued for the abolition of the Food and Drug Administration since, in his view, no private company would gamble with the health of its consumers. Although the FDA survived his campaign, years of budget cuts and gradual asphyxiation have rendered the watchdog as ineffective as a toothless tiger and the recent food contamination scandals demonstrate that faith in the moral compass of merchants is misplaced.

Paradoxically, most proponents of free markets, who dismiss the need for rules and regulations in the financial world, do not hesitate to sneer at a communist for believing that there is no need for a God who governs the lives of men.

I used to rule the world
Seas would rise when I gave the word
Now in the morning I sleep alone
Sweep the streets I used to own.
Coldplay, Viva la Vida