The Path of the Beast: An interview with Flaviano Bianchini

Italian writer and human rights activist, Flaviano Bianchini, talks to us about his adventures

, by Cristina Bettati

The Path of the Beast: An interview with Flaviano Bianchini

Flaviano Bianchini, age 35, is an Italian naturalist and environmentalist. In 2012 he founded the non-governmental organization Source International, whose aim is to provide scientific support to those communities enduring human rights violations. Flaviano was born and raised in Fabriano, Marche. He first graduated in Environmental Sciences at the University of Camerino, then specialized in Natural resource management and enhancement at the University of Pisa. In 2010 he received a scholarship to the Sant’Anna School of Advanced Studies in Pisa - ranked among the top universities worldwide by the British magazine Times Higher Education – where he earned a Master’s Degree in Human rights and conflict management.

Introducing Flaviano Bianchini

After his first two autobiographical travel books – “In Tibet. Un viaggio clandestino” (In Tibet. An illegal journey, 2011) and “Taraipù. Viaggio in Amazzonia” (Taraipù. Journey through the Amazon, 2014) – in 2015 Flaviano amazed his readers with a new incredible adventure: “Migrantes. Clandestino verso il sogno americano” (Migrantes. Illegal in search of the American dream). In this diary book – currently available in Italian and Spanish (El camino de la bestia, Pepita de Calabaza, 2016) – Flaviano strips himself of his privileged European identity and becomes Aymar Blanco, a Peruvian migrant attempting to reach the American dream as any other of the 1500 migrants who every day risk their lives on the desperate trek through Mexico.

In his 21 day pilgrimage, Flaviano/Aymar endured a suffocating trip in a false bottom of a truck together with several other migrants, the long days exposed to heat and cold on “the beast” – the moving freight train on which migrants climb and atop or above whose wagons they dangerously traverse the length of Mexico -, a two day false imprisonment improvised by local criminals, the Sonoran desert crossing, hunger and thirst, but he also experienced extraordinary solidarity by the poor but generous Mexican people.

What drove you to undertake such an experience? When you live in Latin America, you face this experience every single day. I remember my first day in Guatemala: the natural reaction of a taxi driver driving me from the airport was to tell me about his unsuccessful attempt to reach the United Stated. Just consider the fact that one fourth of the population of El Salvador lives in the United States. You see migrants or relatives of migrants in every corner. Since the beginning I have felt the need to report their experiences.

How did you prepare yourself for the trip? Mainly physically: I tried to get myself into the best shape possible running and biking. As for the rest, there’s not much to prepare. It is all a matter of luck and persistence.

A pretty long time passed between your trip and the publication of the book: Why? I started my trip from Tecún Umán, Guatemala, on January 18, 2012, and got to Tucson, Arizona, 19 days later on February 5.The book was published by the end of 2015. Since I wasn’t able to take notes during the trip – a real migrant would never take with himself pen and paper! - , I had to re-process the entire experience once I got home. This is why it took me a pretty long time to write the book. Besides, I wanted it to be comprehensive of every event and emotion I had experienced.

Is there an event – positive or negative – you have often found yourself thinking over? The days in prison have been the toughest. On those two chapters of the book I got stuck for almost a year. Every time I believed I had actually managed to convert my thoughts into words, I reread my writing and constantly judged it not accurate enough. And this seems to be true also for the finished version, since many readers have told me that my distress doesn’t shine through as particularly high in these chapters.

Once you arrived in Tucson, you took back your identity of Flaviano Bianchini. Which would have been the next steps for Aymar Blanco? Would he have made it? One could write an entire new book on Aymar in the United States! For most migrants reaching the United States means beginning another travel, if possible even more difficult than the border crossing itself. Aymar has arrived in town dressed in rags and with no money whatsoever. He would have had to start all over and rebuild his life from scratch, first creating himself a network in order to find a job. Only 10% of the 600.000 people entering the United States every year actually achieve the American dream. The rest of them end up working the land in the Southern States or in criminal street gangs. And these gangs are the first reason for the American hatred against Hispanic people.

To which extent are the migration from South to North America and the one from North Africa to Europe similar and on what do they differ? Similar are the trip brutality, the immense difficulties that both voyages imply and the reasons for starting it. Another aspect are the extremely high prices migrants have to pay for crossing the border illegally. This huge amount of money goes then directly into the pockets of organized criminals. This is the real nonsense: a voyage of hope from Guatemala City to Los Angeles costs 8.000 dollars a migrant and make people smugglers rich, whereas a standard flight for the same route costs 100 dollars and enables respectable companies to earn money. The same applies for migrants coming to Europe: the Balkan route cost them 1.000 dollars against the 25 dollars a regular citizen would pay for a round trip with a normal ferry. They largely differ on what awaits the migrants once they have reached their destination. In Europe, migrants are surely not doing very well, but at least they have more possibilities to become legal thanks to the right to asylum and other social benefits for refugees. On the contrary, in the USA most migrants stay illegal for the rest of their lives. Their only hope is to win the Green Card Lottery, a United States congressionally mandated lottery program which makes available around 50.000 Permanent Resident Cards for free every year.

Is this really the only way to become a US Citizen? Wouldn’t help to get a job in an American company? In order to hire a foreigner – and I speak from experience – an American company must prove that there is no US Citizen available for that position. The whole process can cost the company up to 10.000 dollars. Everyone will easily understand that an Oxford graduate will probably make it, but a Guatemalan farmer has no chance at all. Also acquiring the US Citizenship by marriage isn’t that easy, since one of its strict requirements is to have been a Green Card holder for at least three years before applying for naturalization. From my point of view, the only alternative to the Green Card Lottery is to give birth on US soil. Under jus soli – or right to the soil – which rules the nationality law of the Unites States, a child born in the USA automatically qualifies as an American citizen. This is the reason why many women decide to undertake this extremely dangerous journey late in their pregnancy in the hope of giving birth to a so called anchor baby. This children, however, can act as a sponsor for their parents only upon reaching the age of majority

Is there a solution to the immigration issue? As for the United States, at the moment there is no intention to give these people an opportunity. Trump has based most of his election campaign on the hate against the “Mexicans”, un umbrella term every migrant from South and Central America goes under. Actually, the percentage of Mexican migrants is pretty low compared to the 80% of migrants coming from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. Whereas Mexico, despite the Drug War, has still something to offer, in these other three countries hopes are long gone and poverty and crime indexes are insane. Just think of the fact that Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador are among the first most violent countries in the worldwide crime statistics, sadly competing with countries at war in Africa and in the Middle East. In the last five years Aleppo has hit 5.400 violent deaths per year; Guatemala City - two million inhabitants just like Aleppo – has had 5.200 homicides per year for ten years now. The only way to stop this slaughter in Latin America as well as in Africa and the Middle East is to improve the living conditions in these countries. It must be clear to everyone that no one in their right mind would a voyage like this, knowing there might be no coming back, if they weren’t moved by very strong reasons.

You know Latin America very well. Do you think President Trump is their enemy number one right now? I think it is still too soon to tell whether his promises are just rhetoric or he is really going to keep them. Positive is that the United States are not an elective dictatorship: new laws have first to be passed by Congress, where they can also be overruled. Moreover, having an enemy can sometimes be beneficial. In Mexico, for example, the fear of the wall has revived the national pride.

In your book you write that there are miles of gaps in the fences running the borders of Arizona, New Mexico and Texas. So as the Presidency of George W. Bush once promised, also Trump is willing to complete the 1.989 miles long Mexico-United Sates barrier. If this happens, which other routes will migrants try to enter the United States? I really don’t believe that the wall will ever be completed. First because the costs are prohibitive, and second because there are too many interests at stake. Such an executive order could easily be overridden by the Congress. It is true that the Republicans are currently controlling the Congress, but they are all very much aware that US industries and farms depend on illegal immigrants from Central and South America. Trump is willing to bypass the prohibitive costs by making the Mexican government pay for it… Sure, and by insisting on this nonsense he actually managed to make the Mexican President Peña Nieto seem nice! Peña Nieto is very unpopular among the Mexicans and also unworthy of my respect, but on this particular issue he stood up to Trump stating that his country doesn’t believe in walls and will surely not pay for them.

Do you believe that Trump’s decisions on immigration could influence the immigration policies in Europe? I am afraid so. An example of it is the success of parties such as the ones of Le Pen and Salvini as well as Grillo’s Five Star Movement, which in my opinion tends to far-right political stances and has an over condemning attitude towards the migration issue. Trump’s political ascent has added fuel to the almost extinguished fire of these European parties, which are now using his ideas. When Trump first announced the ban on entry to the United States from seven majority Muslim countries, 15 minutes later the same idea was put forward by Salvini. And yet, no one in these right-wing European parties has noticed – or has wanted to notice – that Trump’s Muslim ban list doesn’t include Saudi Arabia, the country where most of the 9/11 attackers came from.

Trump wants to cut the Environmental Protection Agency’s budget and divert the saved money to military spending. Will this choice also affect Europe? During the election campaign Trump has even claimed that as President he would have worked towards the abolition of the Agency. I fear that also on this point Europe is going to take the United States as an example. Trump’s ultimate goal is to bring back production and believes that tax breaks and deregulation are the only way. The first visible consequence will be a reduction of labor costs, which however represents only 2% of operating costs. The remaining 98% are expenses associated with the infrastructure maintenance: electricity, oil and gas bill, filters, purifiers and whatnot. These expenses will be halved or even eliminated by the environmental deregulation, a process through which environment-related state regulations are removed or reduced. This is how Trump will make the United States business attractive again, because here comes the real saving for companies, both economic and bureaucratic. Some European politicians are already trying to replicate this in order to attract new investors on their own territory. The Unites States are doing it to compete against China, we do it to compete against the United States.

Which are the most urgent environmental challenges Europe will have to deal with within the next 10 years? Climate change and land use, no doubt. These two challenges are closely linked: we have always has landslides and floods, the fact that they are now so devastating is due both to climate change, which implies an increasing frequency of extreme weather, and to land abuse. Just think of Genoa, the capital of Liguria: stretched along a mountain range, the city keeps getting bigger and bigger forcing its crossing rivers underground. In 2014 the city suffered numerous deadly flooding. Another example is the killing flash flood occurred in 1996 in Versilia, Northwest Tuscany, a once reclaimed swamp on which has been built like mad. This urban sprawl has de facto eliminated those buffer areas which allowed weather events to take their course without destroying. So we ed up treating a weather event just like a soccer referee: we win because we are good, we lose because the referee doesn’t know how to do his job. Climate change is on its way for sure, but I believe we still have room to work against it. Another challenge will be the renewal of obsolete industrial equipments which are harmful to the environment. In Italy we still work on plants installed during the economic boom between the 50s and 70s. In the countries of Eastern Europe the industrial model dates back to the Soviet time.

Do you think the European Union will succeed these challenges? We must succeed, there is no other way. Otherwise the situation won’t be sustainable for the States any longer, either economically or environmentally. Just think of the case of the ILVA steel plant in Taranto, Apulia, the biggest steel producer in Europe. The Italian government must yes worry about the already dead residents and workers, but even more it should worry about who is still alive and will sooner or later become ill, thus weighing heavily on the healthcare system. The same applies for fracking, shorthand for hydraulic fracturing, a type of drilling used for surging oil and natural gas production by pumping huge quantities of water under pressure. The wild use of this technique earned Obama one of his greatest accomplishments: energy independence and the repeal of oil export ban in December 2015. The immediate economic benefit is however hiding the immense environmental damages and public spending this technique will be responsible for in the long run. As a matter of fact, who will pay when 20 years from now the groundwater of South Dakota will be all contaminated?

How does the European Union look like from the other side of the Ocean? On one hand as an old banger, on the other hand it does scare a little. After all, a united Europe still represents the world’s leading economic power. This is why there are big interests in seeing it divided. The tensions between the United States and Russia could be nothing but a well-orchestrated move between the two superpowers to achieve this common goal.

You are founder and executive director of the organization Source International since 2012. When did you first start to work on it and what is its mission? The idea to found an organization such as Source International came to me in 2005, during my first project in Central America. Right after my Bachelor’s graduation, I visited a fair in Milan called “Fa’ la cosa giusta” (Do the right thing) which is about ethical consumption and sustainable lifestyles. I happened to listen to a speech of a Guatemalan woman who was reporting about the negative impacts of open-pit mining in her country. She was very well informed and passionate about it, but she had no data. At the end of her speech, I went to her and asked for them. She told me she had nothing, because Guatemala scientists were refusing to help the communities for fear of losing their jobs. I offered her my support right there and then. A month later I was in Guatemala with a one-way ticket. Later on I moved to Honduras and El Salvador. The mission of Source International has remained the same since then: offering scientific support to those communities who suffer violations of human rights, especially due to mining and industrial activities, and this not only in Central and South America.

How do local governments view your work? It depends from government to government. In Central and South America environmental activism is generally viewed negatively and implies risks. I myself was expelled from Guatemala in 2007 after winning a case against a mining company. Just today (03/03/2017 date of the interview, N/A) is the memorial of Berta Cáceres’ death, a Honduran environmental activist who was murdered in her own house in 2016. Gustavo Castro Soto, the Mexican environmentalist who witnessed the murder, is still forced to live in Spain for fear of persecution.

How can we support Source International? On our website it is possible to view our current projects and donate via PayPal. You can also find our fiscal code through which anyone who files an income tax return in Italy can allocate a percentage of their income taxes to our organization. Moreover, we are always interested in partnerships with scientists, lawyers and finance experts willing to work pro bono. Since our area of expertise is so specific and professional, highly qualified and trained volunteers are more than welcome.

What are your next projects? Do you have any other adventure in store? I wouldn’t tell you if I had them. I never told anyone. As for Source International, we are expanding our scope also to damages caused by the textile industry, the agribusiness and everything which can have a negative environmental impact. Besides America, we will be soon active also in Mongolia, Africa and Southeast Asia.

I noticed a lot of similarities between your path and the one of the great journalist and writer Tiziano Terzani: both of you studied at the Sant’Anna School in Pisa, you are both passionate about a continent different from the one you come from and you both want to spread information about big issues of your time even if this means putting your own lives at risk. Last but not least, both of your received a mention in the 2010 book award dedicated to the British adventurer and writer Bruce Chatwin. What do you think of Terzani? Have you ever thought about these similarities? I have never thought about them, but I am of course very pleased. What can I say about Terzani? He is great, one of my favorite writers, a wonderful person who looked curiously at the world around him. His life story speaks for itself, there is nothing else I could add to it.

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