Defending the commons

Food sovereignty in Thailand: light and shadow

ALTERRATIVE met Spanish, Mexican, and Rapa Nui farmers fighting for their land, Ecuadorians and Bolivians defending their water, Uruguayan and Indian activists preserving ancient local varieties of maize, millet and rise. What do all these people have in common? They are defending their food sovereignty, the ability of those who produce, distribute and consume food of controlling the mechanism and policies of production, distribution and consumption of food. Food sovereignty takes position against the ago-industrial production model dominated by large agribusiness multinationals. This system, too often supported by national governments and international institutions, fails to meet the requirements of healthy and quality food for the entire world’s population and, at the same time, is significantly contributing to the degradation of our planet and to an acceleration of climate change. Access to fertile land, quality seeds and pure water are three key factors to ensure local production of tasty, varied, nutritious and, above all, healthy food.

Considering all this, during our trip we couldn’t miss the opportunity of investigating the food system in its entirety, from processing to consumption, and to do that we chose Thailand, probably one of the countries where the local food has most surprised and delighted us for its variety of dishes and its exotic flavors and scents.

We then decided to attend a well recommended mini-cooking course in Chiang Mai, northern Thailand, a country that has remained in our heart not only for the food but especially for the spontaneous hospitality of its people. The cooking class with Sammy was our tasty last stop in Thailand, a moment that feels more like a “See you later” than a Goodbye. Our day at Sammy’s Organic Thai Cooking School starts in the back of a van that picks us up at the simple but well organized Diva Guest house, run by smiley and kind Pina. We cross the not particularly pretty and busy Chiang Mai heading to the suburbs to finally stop in the yard of a fruit and vegetable market where, without rush, we start exploring this colorful world of vegetables and grains. Some we know, most are completely new and different from what we normally use: dozens of different varieties of rice, spicy green, yellow and red peppers, tomatoes, tiny eggplants, huge cucumbers, many varieties of cabbage, lettuce and onions, piles of white, pink and brownish eggs, spiny fruits or looking like potatoes, the fleshy dragon fruits. All in a bustling but not overwhelming market where housewives and pensioners do their shopping and haggling in a calm and serene atmosphere. We curiously wander around the stalls taking pictures until Sammy calls our attention to talk to us about the rice and to show us how coconut is being separated into milk and pulp, both very used in Thai cuisine.

Once back on the truck, we start driving through the lush countryside of the surroundings of Chang Mai, where rice is growing in abundance thanks to the mid-September sun. The cottage that houses Sammy’s Cooking School has a large central space for cooking but also enough space to rest and relax in the quiet of the countryside, away from the motorbikes and constant honking of Chiang Mai: a tasty and peaceful oasis.

It’s finally time to start cooking and, although a little clumsy, we start following the instructions of Sammy and his wife. The couple worked as chefs for years in the famous Southern Thailand beach resorts and are now committed to promoting Thai food through cooking classes for travelers who want to learn and prepare their own food. Within a couple of hours of chopping, mashing, frying and stirring, Daniela will cook a green curry, shrimp soup, basil fried chicken and spring rolls while Stefano will prepare a red curry, Thai vegetable soup, Pad Thai (sauteed noodles with vegetables, chopped peanuts and bean sprouts) and a creative papaya salad.

Finally, for dessert, sticky rice with fresh mango and banana cooked in coconut mil, two delicious plates that will hopefully compensate the spiciness of the other dishes. After the hardest but also more interesting part, it is time to taste our creations and, excited and hungry, we sit at the table each to start tasting our food and the one prepared by the others, exchanging opinions and impressions.

After emptying plates and bowls, Sammy suggests a nap on the hammocks or in one of the several shady corners of the house. Despite the sun is strong, the temperature is still bearable so we decide to go for a walk and explore the rice fields around Sammy’s house, pondering on the abundance, variety and taste of the Thai cuisine which will be greatly missed once we leave to country and carry on to Cambodia.

Thailand in 1991 had an under-nutrition rate of 35%, reduced to 7% in 2015. Despite the numerous political crises, Thailand has managed in the past 25 years to ensure its population more and more food access and, at the same time, to export products like rice, rubber, pineapple, chicken and shrimps: it is estimated that the country could feed a number of people equal to 4 times its own population (68 million).

Despite this and the considerable improvement of the under-nutrition rate, some shadows still remain on the food production system of this country: how is it possible that 7% of its population still has not access to food considering the country could potentially feed nearly 280 million people? Also, what is the quality and environmental impact of the produced and imported food considering in 2012 analysis have revealed the presence of pesticides 100 times higher than the level allowed by the European Union and the use of 155 different type of pesticides considered dangerous to our health? Unlike other countries we have traveled and worked in, food is not lacking and yet there are still 5 million Thais who do not eat enough. Unlike other countries, conditions are favorable for agriculture: land, water, seeds and infrastructure are not lacking and yet substances that are harmful to human beings and environment are largely used. What is the reason? With this question in our mind we walk back to the house where Sammy is waiting for us and the last greetings before traveling back to Chiang Mai. Thailand is a wonderful country, green, welcoming and friendly. However, even here, the shadows of a production system harmful to humans and the environment cannot be ignored as we hope to build a better future for all, respecting mother earth that, with its generosity, continues feeding us despite our choices that too often endanger its balance and damage its fertility.

 

Some interesting links:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Food_sovereignty 

https://www.grain.org/article/entries/4357-food-and-climate-change-the-forgotten-link

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vrpJxXk7Rwk

https://www.tripadvisor.it/Attraction_Review-g293917-d2507163-Reviews-Sammy_s_Organic_Thai_Cooking_School-Chiang_Mai.html

https://www.facebook.com/Sammy-Organic-Thai-Cooking-School-121424394552150/

 

 

Anirban  and the fish on the roof

(Thanks to Raffaella Rossi for the translation)

Anirban looks at us with peaceful but wide awake eyes. He is about forty years old and the founder of Urbagrow, a small business of organic urban agriculture. We went to meet him in his office, a regular building in an urban area in the south of Kolkata, our first Indian stop. Anirban relocated to Canada very young together with his wife. They had children and after ten years of snow, ice and polar winds they decided the tropical heat was still the best choice. They then returned to India, where, after a long search, he started Urbagrow.

We have been in Kolkata for 10 days, too many for our liking: days are rather monotonous while waiting for Stefano’s passport renewal, which, despite the efforts of the Consulate in Kolkata, still hasn’t arrived due to the slow bureaucracy.

We spend our days resting, watching TV and venturing into the chaotic and crowded streets of the capital of West Bengal. Kolkata is known for its degrading, extreme and inhuman poverty, maximum expression of the sufferance made famous by the work of Mother Theresa. The Macedonian nun died some years ago but her work still carries on as much as the several problems of the city. The suffering of millions of Indians who try to survive in this real urban jungle of asphyxiating heat, the beggars reaching out for money, the stench rising from the garbage heaps, the scooters honking, the motorcycle and human rickshaws (one of the last places in the world where they are still common and widely used) remind us that the much vaunted India’s economic growth did not affect the sad reality of the majority of the population, as always, excluded and marginalized.

In these first days in India we discover the tasty, rich and varied Indian cuisine that makes more bearable the boredom of the passport wait. It is from food that our friend Anirban Chanda takes inspiration to promote his company that offers a simple, healthy and inexpensive answer to the problem of quality food supply in the big cities. His analysis of the world food situation is lucid and clear. Whilst the food cost continues to rise, the cultivable land constantly diminishes as the population, speculation and pollution of land and water grow. More and more often we find on our tables products prepared with grains and vegetables grown using large amount of pesticides and chemical and toxic fertilizer. The seeds used in industrial agricultural are often genetically modified and expensive because patented by large agribusiness companies such as Cargill, Monsanto, Syngenta, Bayer (yes, the same that produces Aspirin), Dow Chemicals (responsible for killing over 16,000 people and causing permanent damage to other 600,000 after an incident occurred in 1984 in Bophal) and BASF.

The solution proposed by Urbagrow is divided in three stages: visiting, learning and growing. Visiting the amazing roof terrace of Urbagrow is a unique experience for us. In the middle of polluted and chaotic Kolkata we find a green heart where Anirban, with passion and patience, grows every year tons of fish and vegetables such as tomatoes, lettuce, rocket, cucumbers and basil, according to the requirements of the season. All of it in a few square metres and without using any chemical products. How? Simple. The vegetable sprouts are planted in tanks full of stones that constantly receive water from a second tank filled up with fish. The chemical process generated by fish and bacteria produces all the nutrients that allow vegetables to germinate and bloom.

Obviously the process requires constant supervision and work that can be learnt in a few days, attending a short course held by Anirban himself and available for anybody who wishes to start growing healthy and tasty vegetables on their roof terrace. Furthermore Urbagrow sells everything needed to put in practice what has been learnt during the course: seeds, sprouts, aquaponics systems and obviously fish. The system requires about 2 Kg of fish per cubic meter of water which, in about a year, will grow up to 20kg, ready to be cooked with a side of home-grown vegetables.

The Aquaponics Agriculture carried on by Urbagrow might raise some doubts being so distant from the ideals of organic farming, normally developed in unspoiled countryside. However, considering the current agro-industrial system that supplies most of our supermarkets, the alternative proposed by Anirban seems a great way of producing vegetables and fish that are not only healthy but also organic, low cost and have zero carbon emission.

Link agricoltura acquaponica: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aquaponics
Link Urbagrow: http://www.urbagrow.com/
Link Bhopal: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bhopal_disaster

Green appartment buildings

(Thanks to Raffaella Rossi for the translation)

It is Sunday morning, our last day in Cochabama, We prepare our backpacks and wait for Oscar to pick us up on the main street, at the corner with our Hostel. It is sunny and the traffic is slow on the streets downtown. A few turns and we reach a parking lot, right behind the bus depot, where there is a bustle of people and a gate repeatedly opening and closing. The gate leads to the Tenants Organization of Cochabamba (OINCO) and the endless stream of people is caused by the upcoming meeting between the Organization and the Governor. The atmosphere is festive however you can perceive the anxiety of those who have been waiting for many years for this project to become true. With curiosity we join the event and, while drinking mocochinchi*, we discover the peculiar story of this group of people who have decided to congregate in a community.

Maria fills up our plates with the lovely food prepared for the occasion and explains us how OINCO was born eight years ago thanks to the effort of five urban and periurban communities of Cochabamba. “Today we are meeting the Governor to make sure our project will carry on and the land will be assigned to build our green apartment buildings.”

OINCO’s project is taking on the issue that in Bolivia and several Latin American countries is called “inquilinado”, referring to collective housing where several families share the same flat, often one for each room, making common use of toilet facilities and water. An issue that affects 55% of the Bolivian population. The law does not protect the tenants from bullying landlords who raise water and electricity bills at their own discretion, demanding up to $300 a month for renting a room, evict families at the first missed payment and refuse to take in couples with children. Moreover, the speculative overbuilding and excessive land allotment of the area have by now taken over spaces where the community used to gather.

OINCO has decided to fight these problems with an alternative architectural project, the green apartment buildings. People living in cities have lost a fundamental connection with nature which can still be restored by promoting urban gardens, recycling activities and constructed wetland systems**.  OINCO’s proposal of a “dignified house” involves not only suitable and safe infrastructures, but also living conditions that assure happiness, freedom and self-determination. Houses free from violence, where the community lives and coexist peacefully, has an active relation with nature and everybody can have their own privacy. OINCO places at the base the concept of community ownership of the land in order to avoid speculations and excessive divisions. These are the concepts behind the project called “Huertos en mi comunidad” (gardens in my community), whose aim is to prepare the community to the challenge of urban agriculture.

Maria tells us that many marches and demonstrations have been necessary to finally obtain a piece of land and start the urban garden. “From the Alalay lagoon we marched on the streets until we occupied seven blocks, until finally the Governor listened to us and decided to offer a space to start our experiment and practice with organic agriculture”. OINCO finally obtained a 1000m2 land in the middle of the city which was unfortunately covered with junk, rusty metals and old tyres left for who knows how many years. It took them several weeks to transform what used to be a garbage dump into an organized and lush garden. It also took a big effort to transform the hard and pebbled land in a field that produces tomatoes, lettuce, onion, potatoes, corn and carrots. The organization has over time established a constructive collaboration with local institutions and other associations in order to obtain training courses, bio-pesticides preparation workshops and the construction of a hydraulic system for irrigation, thus obtaining a much needed technical support. The urban garden now houses also University students who, together with the community, are experimenting new organic farming techniques. We get to meet Lucia who explains, for example, that the vertical cultivation modules, requested by Aniceto, chairman of the organization, are little-known in Bolivia and no University research has been written about it yet.

The training initiatives, the experiments and design of agro-ecological projects have transformed the urban garden into the “Escuela popular” (Popular school) of OINCO. “The houses projects” says Lucia “are being discussed and in a few years everybody will have access to their houses and gardens. The school was founded with the purpose of training future tenants to grow their own food in a natural way. The expectations are very high and we hope that all this will be possible. It is a very interesting experiment, unique in its kind: they will be the first green building apartments.” Last year they hosted about 20 students and part of the harvest has been donated to kindergartens and homes for the elderly. As we stroll in the garden, she proudly tells us about the organization’s achievements without hiding all the suffering of the last few years, the small room she shares with her three children and the fear of ending up on the street from one day to another. With tears in her eyes she says: “In these eight years, some have left the organization but I am staying. I learned to be brave, to fight and not to lose hope. I learned to believe that our dream will come true, we cannot be far from there. In these eight years I learned about the lives of other people, to give importance to details that sometimes we miss in the life of people we meet. When we come here we talk, listen, help each other and hug to give each other courage. I learned to be more human, because a handshake or a pat on the shoulder can make us feel better and pushes us to carry on.”

The Governor has left now and we also need to collect our backpacks and say goodbye, our bus leaving in few hours. We thank all the OINCO members: women, men, adults, children, kids, elderly, entire families. We also hug Maria tight. As we walk to the station, we keep thinking of her words: eight years, yes, are a long time but in these years a rubbish dump has become a school of organic agriculture, the housing problem has been brought to national attention together with an alternative project that trying to take land and urban spaces back to the people. A project that not only aims at building houses but tries, above all, to create communities.

*Typical Bolivian drink made of water, sugar, cinnamon and dried peaches

**Artificial wetland created for the purpose of depurating municipal or industrial wastewater

Rapa Nui or Easter Island

(Thanks to Raffaella Rossi for the translation)

Rapa Nui, better known as Easter Island, is usually described as a dot in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. What if we tried describing it from a different prospective? We could say instead: “Rapa Nui is that island right at the centre of planet Earth from which the rest of the world is far away”. It sounds different, doesn’t it? After all, the appearance of things changes depending on where you are looking at them from. From Mexico to Peru, from the Maya to the Incas, the past civilisations have built their sacred cities in the navel of the world, putting themselves at the centre of the Earth. This is the way Cuzco was built in the 12th century: Manco Capac, first Inca governor, was appointed by the Sun God Inti to find the navel of the world and start a great new civilisation. As for Rapa Nui, legend has it that Hotu Matu’a transported from Hiva, Polynesian island, a large rock containing the Mana, spiritual power bestowed by the gods to be placed at the centre of the new civilisation. The rock is called Te Pito O Te Henua, literally “navel of the world”, and it was probably also the original name of the Island. Other sources, instead, indicate that the original name was Te Kainga, literally “Earth”. Both versions express the centrality of the civilisation living on this island, large only 117 km2, seated between the South American continent, 3,601 km to the East and the “closer” Pitcairn islands, 2,075 Km to the west.

Rapa Nui is known around the world for its moai, enormous stone statues carved by the population to ask the gods for protection and prosperity and placed on top of the ahu, stone platforms that served as altars for religious, social and cultural ceremonies. The history of Rapa Nui civilisation started between 600 and 900 A.D. when the Polynesian settlers reached the island bringing seeds, plants and animals and everything that was needed to survive. From about 1000 to 1600 the society bloomed and developed more sophisticated technologies to carve and transport the sacred statues, weighing many tons. The moai grew bigger and bigger, measuring up to 21m in height and requiring even two years for their completion. From peak to downfall however is a short step and the harshness of life and limited resources led to ferocious fights between the 18 clans living there. There is very little we know about the society as many sources have been lost and some, like the Rongorongo tablets, still remain undeciphered and history has almost completely wiped out this civilisation and its population.

In 1770, two Spanish ships, the San Lorenzo and Santa Rosalia, sent by Manuel de Amat, viceroy of Peru, landed in Rapa Nui and took over in the name of Charles III of Spain. As they arrived, three crosses were planted on the top Mount Poike, one of the three peaks of the island, which are three extinct volcanos whose highest peak is 507 MSL. The island became property of the Spanish Kingdom without any clash, encounter or dialogue with the local community but simply through a unilateral declaration and no further expedition from the Spanish monarchy. In 1774 Rapa Nui was reached also by the British explorer James Cook who reported that the crosses had been torn down by the locals, in 1786 by the French expedition led by Francois de Galaup who mapped the island for the first time and finally by the Russian expedition led by Otto von Kotzebue in 1816.

In 1862, Peruvian slave traders from Peru reached the island deporting and killing about 1,500 people, about half of the population at the time. Peru had in fact abolished slavery in its territory and were looking for manpower outside the borders. The following year, all slaves were freed thanks to an international intervention but unfortunately only 12 Rapanui over 1,500 returned to the island, the others killed by physical strain and diseases such as tuberculosis and dysentery. In less than two centuries the population dropped from 12,000 to 111 (1877).

In 1864 the first Christian missionaries reached the island and started a massive campaign of conversion and imposed the end of rituals such as the Tangata manu, the bird-man competition.

In 1837 the first Chilean vessel, the Colo Colo, arrived at Rapa Nui followed by a second expedition in 1888 led by Policarpo Toro who had brought with him a treaty written only in English (language unknown at that time) and forced the King to sign it without him realizing that the signature was de facto annexing his Kingdom to Chile. From that moment the island became effectively Chilean territory even though the actual citizenship was only granted in 1966. From 1897 the inhabitants of Rapa Nui were confined to the village of Hanga Roa because the Chilean government decided to rent out the rest of the island, almost 90% of it, to the private Scottish company Williamson-Balfour for pastoral use until 1953.

In 1966 the local population regained access to the rest of the island but, given its strategic position during the Cold War, the management was entrusted to the Chilean Navy and used as an espionage post by the United States. Access to the land however did not mean that the population could manage their own land, in fact only a small part of it was given to the local population for agricultural and pastoral use. Since 1973, the entire island, which had already been declared National Park in 1936, was entrusted to CONAF, a private company dependent on the Ministry of Agriculture whose primary mission is the protection and management the Chilean forests.

In 1980 the Mataveri landing runaway airport was extended in order to increase the air-traffic and consequently both tourism and the amount of Chileans that would want to live and do business in Rapa Nui. This complicated even further the already delicate situation regarding ownership of the land, with the population reclaiming a community management of a territory that hosts the most important religious, historical and cultural sites of the island, against the privatization decided by the national government without consulting the local population.

In 2001 the Rapa Nui Parliament was first created as a political and cultural organization strongly desired by the indigenous population with the intention of recovering the ancestral territories, reviewing the 1888 Annexation Treaty and regulating the influx of Chilean immigrants from the continent.

In 2007 a constitutional reform granted the “special status” to the islands, which at the same time is recognized as municipality and province with consequent election of political office. The autonomy is still very limited as the province of Rapa Nui still falls under the administration of Valparaiso region, physically 3,000 km away. A partial concession that does not leave the population content.

In August 2010 members of the indigenous clans of Hitorangi occupied the Hangaroa Eco Village & Spa Resort. According to the occupants, the land was purchased in 1990 by Pinochet dictatorial government in violation of the agreement between Chile and Rapa Nui and subtracted by deception from the ancestors. Other areas were occupied by the Tuko Tuki clan that claimed ownership of the land. The occupation ended in clashes between the Chilean police and the 25 occupants who were hit by rubber bullets. The violence exercised by the Chilean security forces was later sanctioned by the Comisión interamericana por los derechos humanos (Inter-American Commission on Human Rights).

When we arrive at the Mataveri International Airport of Hanga Roa, a CONAF agent gives us a leaflet informing that the entry fee to the National Park of Rapa Nui has been temporarily suspended and that any collection attempt should be reported to the relevant authority.

The first thing we decide to do is visiting the Parliament in order to better understand what is happening. Once there we meet Leviante Araki, president of the Parliament, who explains us better what we had read during the previous days. On the 15th of August 2015, he and Mario Tuki had been arrested for preventing access to the ceremonial site of Orongo to a group of tourists who hadn’t paid the entry fee. Following the arrest, police officers visited to the Parliament and, without written order, demanded to confiscate tickets and receipts of payment of entry to the Park. Following the refusal, the Chilean Home Office closed down the Parliament and deployed the military forces to prevent any further problems. A completely unjustified repression that could lead the CIDH to sanction the Government in defence of Rapa Nui population.

Leviante explains us that the Parliament is reorganizing the land according to the ancient division decided by the King Hotu Matu who had assigned a section to each one of the 18 clans populating the island. At the same time it is planning on how to improve self-management of the various archaeological sites. Effectively there is no reason why an institution like CONAF, whose duty is to protect the forest areas, should be responsible for the archaeological sites and take benefit of the $ 3.6 million deriving from the entry ticket to the National Park and the nearly 90,000 visitors a year.

According to the Rapa Nui Parliament, Chile refuses to recognize some indisputable facts. First that the island is a colony according to the standards established by the General Assembly Resolution 1541 and 1514 of the United Nations. Second, that Rapa Nui is a geopolitical reality 4,000 km away from the Chilean government and finally that the special status recognized by the “ley Pascua” has very little use. Linked with the independence movement of the other Polynesian Islands, the Parliament is constantly opposing the Chilean government and pushing for independence. Leviante explains us that despite the good income derived by the tourism, basic infrastructures like schools, hospitals, sports have only been obtained after long negotiations and a strong opposition to the large tourist companies trying to build new luxury resorts that would alter not only the beauty of the island but also its delicate social and ecological balance.

Rapa Nui population believes the time has come to regain their land, recover their traditions, speak their own language and manage their territory. Independence does not seem near now. It seems hard to let go of the navel of the world, a place considered by everybody faraway from everything else. History has proved how little Rapa Nui has been and still is at the centre of the interests for many. At the moment the Archaeological site management matter is outstanding. On the 25th of October the Chilean government, CONAF and CODEIPA (Commission for the Rapa Nui Development) will meet with the intent ofengaging more the population in management of Easter Island National Park).

Once again, a vision “from the other side”, hierarchical and paternalistic, which does not recognize the centrality and sovereignty of the Rapa Nui population.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U7F-WLqjsFU

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2-9xclgNGqE

http://www.culturalsurvival.org/news/fighting-survival-easter-island

Ecuador is marching

(Thanks to Raffaella Rossi for the translation)

The night we arrive in Quito,  the taxi driver tells us that he would drop us a block away from our hostel as the road is closed to the traffic by a demonstration against the latest speculation and inheritance laws proposed by the government. Driving through the city we notice that roads are covered with images of Pope Francis, yellow and white ribbons and welcome banners celebrating the arrival of the Holy Farther. While the city is in turmoil because of therecent decisions taken by Rafael Correa’s cabinet, the governmentis also preparing to meet the Pope. His visit represents for many a chance to denounce the difficult living conditions faced in the countryside and suburbs, especially by the indigenous communities

It seems clear that the idea of the country we had developed through our readings and attendance at the World Social Forum, does not correspond to what we see and hear from the different social realties we come across during our trip from Quito to Cuenca.

 We first of all notice the strong environmental awareness and deep connection between social mobilization and defence of the territory. “Ecuador has a different history compared to the neighbouring countries,” said Yvonne Yanez from Acción Ecológica (Ecological Action) “it is a geographically small country with an incredible biodiversity and,   thanks to the large availability of arable land, have never experienced rivalry between colonial authorities. The relationship with nature has always been important for all Ecuadorians and, in the last 30 years, the indigenous movement has given a great impetus to this trend, confirming and reinforcing the concept that there is no separation between nature and human beings, between environment and indigenous communities.”

The governmental policies that led to the Free Trade Agreement with the European Union in 2014, coming into force in 2016, the land reform and mineral resources regulations, have certainly been important occasions for mobilization and convergence of different social actors. In 1973, with the approval of the previous land reform, the indigenous community  obtained for the first timeownership of the land and recognition of their work. From the ‘70s onwards, they started developing a more structured organization that eventually led to a protest   in the early ‘90s. During these years, the community established itself as a new political and social actor of civil struggle, demandingto play a fundamental role in the society and country. The new Ecuadorian constitution officially recognized 14 indigenous nationalities, 18 pueblos (communities) and 12 indigenous languages. In the 1996 elections, the indigenous movement was represented politically by the Pachakutik Movement of Plurinational Unity – Nuevo País, whose purpose was to enhance the political participation of the indigenous communities and led, in 1998, to the election of eight members to the National Congress. Over the years, however, Pachakutik, seems to have lost support of its social base and, consequently, political weight.

Founded in 1972 in the town of Urubamba, ECUARUNARI, the movement of the Quechua community living in the sierra (highlands),  has fought to defend the right to land and its local control  Carmen Losano, ECUARUNARI council member from 2013, told us about the long- lasting struggle of the Quechua community against the “green revolution” and intensive monocultures imposed by the government. Carmen says: “The government, through the green revolution, has introduced genetically modified seeds, pesticides and chemical fertilizers. They have imposed intensive monoculture cultivation that goes against the traditional production system and threatens the preservation of the indigenous cosmovision. This kind of agriculture is jeopardizing the health of our communities by producing unhealthy food; the industrial agriculture system does not respect the earth and soil’s natural cycle and destroys the collective work and management typical of the indigenous communities. From our relationship with the soil, the knowledge of medicinal herbs, the defence of our traditions, we can guarantee food sovereignty, people’s wellbeing and a relevant education for our children. Economic development brings roads and infrastructures but it is also plunders our territory with mining projects that compromize the ecosystem balance… can we say that we are living well then? “

One of the projects that Carmen is referring to is the Quimsacocha gold mining project where ECUARUNARI isworking to protect the water (sources?) in the area together with other organizations including the FOA (Federation of Organizations of Azulay) that has been working for 22 years in the Azuay region, southern Ecuador. “FOA” says its president Lauro Sigcha “was created to defend the rights of indigenous and rural communities and also to address  any welfare policies that does not allow the actual improvement of the living conditions of the communities themselves.”

Quimsacocha, which literally means three lagoons, sits in an area where two large hydrographic basins meet: the Jubones river, which flows into the Pacific Ocean and the Santiago, tributary of the Amazon river. In 2004, the Canadian company Iamgold inaugurated a mining project following the discovery of a  large  gold field, whose extraction would jeopardize the groundwater sources in the area. Quimsacocha, in fact, counts over 30 glacial lagoons  that originate three rivers the Tarqui and Yanuncay, supplying water to the Cuenca Guapondélig zone, and the Rircay river, providing water to the Giron, San Fernando and Santa Isabel areas. FOA immediately took the leadership of the community resistance against the project, organizing  marches, demonstrations, meetings and street blocks. The effort finally led to the first community consultation in 2011, a process in which people, for the first time, had a chance of questioning the work of local authorities. Lauro says: “Communities react quickly and tenaciously when it comes to defending the water”.

Initially,   the cabinet led by Rafael Correa elected in 2007, declared itself against the proposed gold mine and promised  they would do everything possible to stop it, but over time changed its position. In the strategic plan of the government, the area of Quimsacocha is indicated by the name of Loma Larga (Long Hill) in the attempt  of creating confusion. The government is now trying to gain the support of the population in favour of the project convincing campesinos (local farmers) that it could really improve their living conditions. “Currently the farmers are sitting on a lot of gold, but they live like beggars   while,  with the profit coming from the mining projects, we could build hospitals, schools and infrastructures.”

The communities have been pondering on the benefits of Quimsacocha project of on one side and the impact of this intervention on the other and have chosen to defend water,  an essential necessity to ensure people’s health, to cultivate, maintain the fields green and quench the animals. Without the presence of FOA and the commitment of the community of San Fernando, Giron, Santa Isabel, Sigsig, Chordeleg, Gualaceo, and Quingeo, the project would have already started “In the community of Condor Mirador, another gold field in a nearby area, the community resistance was not strong enough so the mining project started and now people  are suffering the severe consequences they had previously underestimated” says Lauro.

At the moment, the company is conducting an environmental impact assessment of the project but the study does not include a specific hydrological section and has not been able to ensure  there will not be any groundwater pollution around Quimsacocha. In this phase, FOA has filed a petition to call for second popular referendum in the Giron area that requires 10,000 signatures. The government bureaucracy has seriously slowed down the process as it took 2 ½ years just to grant permission to proceed with the referendum.  After only a week  another referendum on a counter-proposal was called asking the very same question but from a different point of view. In the first onethe question was: “Do you agree with the mining project in the periglacial and water springs of the Kimsakocha hydrogeological system?” The counter-proposal referendum was instead: “Do you agree that 60% of the mineral wealth is the exclusive property of only certain geographical areas?”

The confrontation with the institutions is often harsh, with clashes and arrests. Three members of the movement were arrested and convicted on charges of terrorism. The community mobilization requesting the release of the three was so impressive that the authorities decided to free them after only eight days of dentention.. FOA commitment is not just to defend water, but also  the land and the fundamental rights of the indigenous communities. Lauro explained us how the land distribution system works: “The land is not equally distributed: 12% of landowners own 80% of the arable land, while 78% of farmers only own 15%. Because of the lack of arable land, many farmers leave the countryside to  move to the city and start small economic activities, like selling cigarettes and candies on the street. It is clear that the land problem is still present and has to be solved. “

Education is another key action point for FOA. In 2012, the country had 22,000 schools but the number was reduced to 16,000 in 2015, with the aim of bringing it down to 5700. . From 1990 onwards, the indigenous communities had decided, with the approval of the government, to create community schools that would promote intercultural and bilingual education, revaluate the Quechua culture  and preserve the community values of the Andean area.  . The government has now decided to unify the educational system and create the so-called “millennium schools”, large modern buildings, centralized, equipped with the latest technology, in which teachers follow Western teaching curricula. Children are thus forced to leave their villages and move to the cities to study and soon lose contact with their original community.

The general situation of the country sees a government that is gradually losing popular support, not only among the indigenous communities, but also among many workers and teachers seeing their social security endangered, especially after the proposed Inheritance and speculation Acts.

We met Lauro while the FOA and other local organizations were planning a large event and a long march through the country all the way to Quito. We participated at the road block in Cumbe where by show of hands it was decided the starting date of the march: the first week of August.

Just as agreed, from the 2nd August, indigenous organizations, trade unions, student associations and ecologists have joined the march “for life, dignity and freedom” decided by CONAIE (Confederation of Indigenous National Ecuador, gathering all the indigenous organization of Ecuador) but originally proposed by ECUARUNARI (the Quechua speaking indigenous organization). The march is organized in three columns that will travel across 7 provinces of the country coming from the north, the south and the Amazon rainforest, that will finally meet in Quito on the 13th August. On that day, the organizations will also call for a general strike and peacefully occupy the main streets of the capital city centre. A very different country from what we were expecting, a country that once again is looking for a balance and it is doing it as usual:  struggling and marching.

http://www.slideshare.net/maxgalarza/gold-mining-in-ecuador

 

Mujica’s Uruguay: an agro-smart country?

(Thanks to Raffaella Rossi for the translation)

“Mujica is the best president we could have,” says Pablo, “everyone knows his beautiful speech at Rio+20 Summitin 2012 but, then when it comes to making decisions at home, things are different.” In Uruguay, between 2000 and 2011, with supposedly left wing parties in charge, 40% of the small farmers and 20% of the medium-small farmers have disappeared as the land has been rapidly acquired  by foreign investors. Public policies to support family farming are weak and inconsistent compared to the priorities of a government that wants to promote agribusiness and thus supports big investments of capitals coming from abroad.

Pablo Galeano, agronomist, organic farmer and professor of the Faculty of Chemistry at the University of Montevideo, also works with REDES (Red de Ecologia Social, Social Ecology Network)  and deals with issues related to biotechnology, GMOs and agricultural and livestock national policies.

REDES is an Uruguayan ecologist network established 1988 and inspired by Leonardo Boff’s social ecology theories, trying to develop a radical social change and promoting an improved  balance between natural resources and human beings’ needs. REDES is also a member of the international federation Friends of Earth (FoE *) spread in 75 countries and with over 2 million members and supporters.

“Pepe” Mujica, has been spreading the idea that all environmental concerns are  no more than Western propaganda whose final aim is to impede  Latin America’s economy development and he is a strong supporter of GMOs as a practical solution to produce more food and solve the problem of hunger. His vision seems to envisage a first period  of dependence on multinational corporations to develop and sell genetically modified seeds  followed by a second stage of disengagment. According to Pablo this is: “An illusion, a dangerous illusion. Agribusiness companies want to do what pharmaceutical companies are doing with drugs, that is,  making money with patents.” These companies, such as BASF, Bayer, DuPont, Dow Chemical, Monsanto and Syngenta, known as “the 6 agribusiness giants”, are portraying themselves as paladins of the fight against world hunger. In reality, like every corporation, their aim is to generate profit and they do so  by selling herbicides, carcinogenic pesticides and genetically modified seeds, products whose effects on living beings and environment are still unknown and are already destroying agricultural practices that have been in place for hundreds of years.

In reality, companies are not the only ones developing genetically modified seeds. There are also foundations like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, that are funding GMOs’ production,  like  the “golden rice” project, whose aim is to integrate beta carotene in rice. The idea, translated in simple words,sounds roughly like this: since the poor can only afford a handful of rice, rather than solving the problem of poverty itself, we’ll add beta-carotene to the rice so, at least, they won’t become blind.. A useless invention, as all it takes to reach a sufficient intake of  provitamin-A  is a varied diet including food such as milk, eggs, liver, carrots, tomatoes, spinach or peppers.

The results of the cultivation of genetically modified plants, however, are very different from those declared by agribusiness companies. Pablo says: “In 20 years of transgenic agriculture in Latin America all we have achieved is loss of biodiversity and a massive use of chemical herbicides and BT toxins.” (insert link).https://it.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bacillus_thuringiensis

In times of climate change it is essential to have access to a diversified range of seeds that will allow humanity to grow food even if the environmental conditions were to change quickly. The genetic diversity of seeds has been carried on for millennia with the exchange of seeds among farmers. This traditional practice is now endangered by the use of GMOs and government policies: the agribusiness giants would like to replace a millennial cultural practice with genetic engineering and speculate on it. For example, in the ‘90s in Uruguay there used to be seven maize varieties. Today 90% of the corn production comes from genetically modified seeds and is rapidly contaminating the traditional ones.

Uruguay has been featured in many articles in international media, and recently also at the EXPO 2015 in Milan, as an agro-smart country. Smart agriculture (also promoted by the FAO) aims to use the latest scientific discoveries in agriculture, such as satellite monitoring of cultivated areas, drip irrigation, livestock electronic tracking: some of these technologies are definitely positive butothers can be highly harmful in the long run to both human beings and environment. Pablo told us: “Looking at the data, we see that agriculture (in Uruguay) is not smart at all, as we suffer of  serious environmental issues and every day less and less farmers live in the countryside. It is true that agribusiness moves a lot of money but it also causes  depopulation of rural areas, migration to cities and selling or leasing of agricultural land. Uruguay imports all the chemicals for cultivation as well as all the tools, the machineries and the seeds so, we believe, there is very little smartness in the Uruguayan agriculture. “

The current system attracts international financial capital coming from European and American investment funds that rent farmland and outsource everything else: preparation, planting, cultivation and harvesting, promising profitable financial returns to the investors. Usually, this type of agricultural investment opts for genetically modified soybean (Round-up Ready or Round-up Ready 2 by Monsanto) which until now have ensured substantial profit. Pablo continued: “The cultivation of soy is based on high mechanization, namely agriculture without farmers, direct seeding, glyphosate (known carcinogen) to destroy the plants and transgenic soy resistant to glyphosate. If glyphosate not only is highly toxic but also clears any ground cover, as soybeans consume more nitrogen than it fixes in the soil. The two actions combined lead to a sharp deterioration of the soil.”

Moreover, Pablo insists: “While in the last 10 years the cultivable agricultural land in Uruguay has quadrupled, the import of agrochemicals has also seen a six-fold increase. Technology is not helping at all to create a truly sustainable agriculture, in fact Uruguay is facing a serious problem of eutrophication primarily due to the use of phosphorus-based chemical fertilizers. Capitalism has its cycles. There has been a phase when some commodities produced in Latin America where sold for high prices but, at the end of this period, when the capital will move somewhere else, Latin American countries will be left with depleted soil, landless farmers, polluted water, seeds contaminated by GMOs and destroyed roads. All damages that the government will have to solve with citizen’s money, as international companies pay very few taxes in Uruguay. “

Is this an agricultural smart Uruguay? We do not think so.

In this unreassuring context, REDES is pursuing a difficult but important goal: creating and promote alternative forms of development based on an agro-ecological and sustainable model. REDES work is accompanied by a significant communication effort: Radio Mundo Real, a web radio that also collaborates with LVC – La Via Campesina (the largest farmers movement in the world). Other initiatives include the protection of seeds biodiversity through the coordination of the National Network of Indigenous and Criollo seeds, the organization of the annual “seeds and family farming fair” to promote the use of local seeds, provide visibility to producers and promote family farming. REDES aims to generate debate on these issues in a serious and documented way with official figures showing the facts and discussing the pros and cons of GMOs. REDES also wants to create conditions which would allow families currently living in the countryside to continue living  there (and prosper). Small farmers are considered inefficient and according to most politicians should leave their fields, move to the city and let corporations produce food. The most recent initiative is the creation of a national plan for agro-ecological agriculture that Uruguay does not have yet and that REDES is developing in partnership with farmers, academics, agronomists and in constant dialogue with the government. Pablo says that, fortunately, organic agriculture in Uruguay is growing because it is proposed as a real alternative to food produced by transnational corporations, while small-scale conventional agriculture based on the use of herbicides and chemical fertilizers is disappearing.

The road is uphill for Uruguay and his land plundered and defaced by international capital and the pursuit of profit, but some solutions do exist and REDES is a small but bright hope for the future.

Chile: The corporate dictatorship worse than earthquakes and tsunami (Part II)

(Thanks to Raffaella Rossi for the translation)

Sara Larrain, director of the NGO Chile Sustentable (Sustainable Chile) told us the story of the organization.  Established in the late 90’s from the disappointment of part the society about the policies implemented  the post-dictatorship years, Chile Sustantable proposed a set of environmental, social and energy policies to overcome the neoliberal model in order to guarantee a more equitable, sustainable, fair and democratic transition of the country. Chile Sustentable agenda is a result of a detailed and participatory analysis on water, energy and biodiversity issues undertook by several civil society organizations.

Nowadays, the main goal of the organization is to pass a new water bill that gives priority to sanitary, agricultural and ecosystem conservation use of water over industrial water uses. In addition, Chile Sustentable is fighting also to protect rural drinking water concessions, the only ones that still retain a public management and community water. In Chile, despite the privatization, there are still 2,000 public-Community organizations for water management, both small, serving 150 people and medium, serving up to 8,000 people. Sarah says: “We want to protect their area of operation by the expansion of the urban-based private management spreading to the countryside.” Over the years the organization has achieved many successes such as the recognition of water as a human right in national legislation through a strong work of popular mobilization, marches and regional coordination supported by an extensive information network.

Sara Larrain remains conscious that the work of Chile Sustentable has strong limitations due to the overall structure imposed by National Constitution approved under dictatorship: “The present work is aiming at correcting some brutal distortions of the system but for a radical change we need to change the constitution, without a constitutional change water will remain in private hands.” She continues: “These small legal changes reduce poverty and overexploitation but this is not enough, for this reason, we are also part of a coalition advocating for a new Constitution. In the future we have to go beyond the social movements and trade unions involved in the fight for a new constitution and reach out more territorial groups especially in popular and rural areas, it cannot be urban-based citizen movement. “

From the agricultural point of view, ANAMURI (National Association of Rural Women and Indigenous) women explain us how: “FAO and the rest of the United Nations want to ensure food security, that is the capacity to acquire sufficient food, while we want to ensure the capacity to produce food, for us is not a problem of food security but of food sovereignty. For ANAMURI, food sovereignty has stopped being an abstract concept opposed to food security, it has become a principle that should always be supported, defended and, therefore, it is not negotiable.” According to ANAMURI to defend food sovereignty means primarily to defend seeds, in particular their indigenous varieties, but also fighting for the wages of seasonal laborers and a radical agrarian reform that returns the land stolen from the peasants (and assigned to large companies) during the period of Pinochet’s dictatorship.

Therefore, also ANAMURI agrees that Chile needs a new Constitution to address the root problems of many sectors: agriculture, water, health, education, social security. In the meantime, the organization encourages marginalized people meetings, the exchange of heirloom seeds and related knowledge between small farmers. In the future, ANAMURI will also manage a small training institute to promote agro-ecology and native seeds in collaboration with various public institutions including the National Institute of Agrarian Investigation (INIA). ANAMURI women leave us with a message: “Agroecology must find its own space back into peasant agriculture that has the responsibility to feed people, people need to eat and cannot eat pills as claimed by some big and agribusiness companies. We find iron and vitamins in our fruits and vegetables not in tablets or in golden rice. Corporate power is a monster cannot be eliminated, but people must unite around an alternative proposal that would allow us to prosper and decide for ourselves what we want to sow, grow and eat. We do not want technology packages of seeds, herbicides and pesticides, we want to continue to eat tomatoes that taste like tomatoes and peaches that taste like peaches.”

Regarding the resistance organized by the civic coordination of Maipo rivers, Tomas tells us: “We are a small snowball that is gaining more and more strength, every day there are people joining us. We fought in court but we lost because of inexperience, The strategy now is to report any violation to ensure the companies  are fined so many times by the environmental supervision department to stop the project. We are also calling for a new environmental impact assessment demonstrating that the project is highly contaminating and harmful for the environment and the people living in the basin area. We also organized a protest march to raise the attention of public opinion, we have a communication team that works very well and we have a large following thanks to a good use of social media like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.”

Tomas’ final message is a hopeful one: “In Chile we continue moving forward, fighting for environmental justice that defending our territory, our communities and environment from groups of entrepreneurs and large economic powers such as Luksic. People are waking up, things will change, wehope to have a new Constitution soon to protect natural resources from being sold off to multinational corporations. We continue teaching, sharing, educating our children because this too is very important. The only lost battle is the one you do not fight.” We think so too and wish our friends Sarah, Tomas, Francisca, Mafalda and Miriam and the whole Chilean people to see soon realized the country they.

 

Chile: corporation dictatorship worse than earthquakes and tsunamis (Part I)

(Thanks to Raffaella Rossi for the translation)

Tomas Gonzales, 30 years old, long hair and blue, honest and sad eyes,  shyly admits: “I’m afraid that my river might die: the  Maipo is now reduced to a stream throughout the whole year rather instead of being a mighty and ever-changing river I worry because if the situation does not change, I will have to leave my home and move to another area, leaving my family behind as they cannot move.”

Chile is a country that often makes the news headlines because of earthquakes and tsunamis. It is also well known for the terrible dictatorship that governed the country between 1973 and in 1990 but, away from the media hype, there are less famous challenges Chile is facing nowadays. A daily and systematic looting of its subsoil, a growing environmental pollution and the destruction of an ecosystem unique in the world. In reality,  the savage exploitation of natural resources is the true tsunami that hits the country every single day, all under the “subtle dictatorship” of large business groups, both Chileans and foreigners.

In Santiago de Chile, we met Tomas Gonzales, activist of the grassroots organization called Cordinadora Ciudadana Rios del Maipo (Civic Coordination for Maipo rivers); Sara Larrain, director of the environmental NGO named Chile Sustentable (Sustainable Chile); Francisca, Mafalda and Miriam, working for ANAMURI, Asociacion Nacional Mujeres Rurales y Indigenas (National Association of Rural and Indigenous Women), which is fighting for food sovereignty and farmers’ rights.

Sara Larrain explains  us that the Chilean water is almost completely in private’s hands: “Water has been privatized, not during the dictatorship, but in ’90s during the so called “democratic transition”, when water was bought by foreign companies like Suez (which owns 40% of the water in the country), the Canadian investment fund Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan and the Japanese Marubeni and Mitsubitshi, that are now aiming to buy up to 20% of Chilean water.”

Sara explains also how the intense mining activities represent a serious threat for the country’s environment. For example, *Barrick Gold, the largest gold mining company in the world,  present  in Pascua Lama (gold and silver mine) and Zaldivar (copper mine),. Barrick Gold is is destroying precious glaciers in the Atacama Desert, one of the driest areas of the planet, where glaciers are the only source of fresh water. The public company CODELCO, responsible for copper extraction, is expanding its operations with the project Andina 244 (central Chile) and  Teniente, in the O’Higgins region (southern Chile), multiplying the risk (of pollution?) for underground waterways. Tomas himself, confirms this situation,born and grown in the Andean valley of the Maipo river basin, where the Santiago aqueduct water comes from, confirms  one of the largest hydroelectric power station in the country is under construction.

Tomas passionately tells us: “The Maipo river basin is a fragile environment and the Governemnt is not protecting it: too many mining activities, hydroelectric power stations and highly polluting agriculture are rapidly contaminating the area. The Upper Maipo dam project consists in the construction of a huge 70 KM long tunnel, 6 to 8 meters in diameter which will drain 90% of the water of 3 the rivers forming the Maipo basin: Volcan, Yeso and Colorado, leaving the river with only 10% of its current flow for more than 100 km. In this project are involved transnational corporations such as AES (USA) that obtained the permission to build irregularly and found a necessary national partner in the Luksic’s group (40% shareholder), one of the wealthiest families in Chile, which finances all main Chileans political parties. The rest of the consortium, financing the remaining 60% of the project, is composed by: Inter-American Development Bank, International Finance Corporation, Corpbanca, Banco de Credito e Inversiones, Banco Itaú (Brazil), Banco del Estado de Chile, KfW IPEX-Bank GmbH and DNB Bank ASA. Initially the project was presented as having the aim to provide electricity to the city of Santiago, but then it became clear that the actual aim was to support the mining activity expansion in the 4th region where the Luksic group has strong economic interests”. As an engineer, Tomas also notes that: “The power station will produce less energy than planned because the calculations used records of the river flow of 50 years ago, when the rain was more abundant. Against the 530 KW programmed the central will actually produce only 190 kW of which 128 would be devoted to mining activities”.

The Upper Maipo dam project started last year and the excavation of the tunnel is ongoing. The environmental impact assessment has not consider what would happen to the glaciers and the surface water during the perforation and once the tunnel will be finished. The Maipo basin is a very complex area, rich of natural wonders, historical-archaeological sites and natural springs inhabited by a fauna unique in the world. Sadly, Tomas admits: “There is already a strong social impact with an increase in prostitution, abuse of alcohol and drugs due to the presence of more than 2,000 workers of the companies related to the hydroelectric project.” Same picture described by ANAMURI, which emphasizes how often the mining projects, as an indirect consequence, cause an increase of alcoholism, violence against women, prostitution and drug abuse.  Factors that lead to the disintegration of local communities and rising in social tensions between locals and immigrants about working and housing rights.

According to ANAMURI, conventional farming, with the use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides, contributes to the deterioration of social and environmental conditions in Chile: “The Green Revolution has imposed intensive monocultures in order to export wine grapes, fruits and vegetables, and, as a consequence, has caused loss of crops diversity and increasing debts for small farmers who tried to meet the market demand. Small farmers are primarily more interested in producing different types of vegetables to feed their families and in case of extras, sell their productsto the local markets, rather than competing  with larger companies.which is a lost battle.” ANAMURI women continued:” Chile does not have large soy plantations as Argentina, Uruguay and Bolivia, simply because the geography of the country does not allow it, but the agricultural production is changed here too. For instance, now people are no longer growing corn and beans , but rather importing them. The consequence is a a progressive loss of food sovereignty and a strong deterioration of the  farmers’ living conditions.

Luckily enough, in this dramatic picture, as in the case of many earthquakes that hit the country and the cruel dictatorship of Pinochet, Chilean people know how to mobilize and react. (It continues in the second part)

* In 2014, the Barrick Gold company (Canada) declared an annual income of approximately $ 10 billion, equivalent to the GDP of entire countries of Nicaragua, Armenia and Madagascar.

On 13th September, 2015 Barrick Gold was responsible for the spillage of 1,000,000 cubic meters of water contaminated by cyanurate in its mine near San Juan in Argentina. See (in Spanish): http://www.infobae.com/2015/09/23/1757554-barrick-gold-reconocio-que-derramo-mas-un-millon-litros-solucion-cianurad

 

Three women, a Country: Guatemala

(Thanks to Laura Piermartiri for the translation)

After three changes of minibus and a long run on the winding and verdant roads connecting Mexico and Guatemala, we arrive in Panajachel, on the lake Atitilan, where we go aboard a small motor boat to reach the village of San Pedro. It is getting dark and it is raining copiously. The small boat has perhaps too many passengers but that is the last trip of the day, so we get closer together to make room for everyone. In the dark of the night, completely wet, we arrive in San Pedro, we load our very wet backpacks on our shoulders and head straight to the hostel Nahual Maya: we really need to rest after such a long journey. When we wake up in the morning, we can finally appreciate the beauty of the lake, with the 3 surrounding volcanoes: Atitlan, Toliman and San Pedro, as well as the beautiful villages that complete the wonderful landscape. During our walk to the top of the “Indian’s nose”, so called because the mountain shape reminds of a person’s profile looking up at the sky, Francisco, the guide from the cooperative Asoantur, tells us about the sacredness of the lake and of the surrounding mountains for the local people. Francisco tells us that a long, long time ago, a young girl was sent by her mother to bring tortillas to her dad who was working in the forest near the lake. On the way, however, the girl was swallowed up by the mountains where she discovered a beautiful world, full of joy, love and happiness among people. Her parents, who were very concerned, sent the police to look for her, but when they found her, the little girl said that she wanted to stay in the belly of the mountain, because she was happy and had found her place among the mountain people. Since then, local people believe that there are ancient people living inside the mountains and for this we must move gently when walking up the mountains, not to disturb the mountain and its inhabitants. We go through green corn and coffee fields and high avocado plants, we greet the shy peasants working in their fields. Thanks to Francisco, we acknowledge that lake Atitlan is constantly raising and lowering, reaching the maximum and minimum level every 50 years, thus, many houses carelessly built along the shore of the lake get submerged in the water and disappear. Hotels and restaurants remain buried in the water for 50 years and then re-emerge 50 years later. Those who buy to invest in Guatemala are generally people from abroad who are not aware of this strange phenomenon. The raising and lowering of the lake waters is due to a large fracture in the lake bed widened by the magnitude 7.5 earthquake that stroke Guatemala on February 4th, 1976 killing about 26,000 people. The view from the 2,200 metres high el Rostro de Maya (Indian’s nose) is magnificent; in between the thick clouds we see the blue surface of the lake (1,560 m of altitude) reflecting the green volcanoes surrounding it. Along the way to reach the summit, through the dense forest we meet several boys and men who daily climb up and down the mountain to go working in one of the growing towns scattered around the lake. It starts raining again so we decide to jump on a truck covered with a plastic sheet and sit among local women, boys, sacks of potatoes and farming tools. We descend the steep and winding roads through the towns of San Juan and Santa Clara and finally arriving in San Pedro. Now it has stopped raining, of course. We bid Francisco farewell and decide to take a little walk around the lake.

A green sign with the inscription: “Lake Atitlan – Women Weavers Cooperative” draws our attention. Being curious we enter the small tienda (store in Spanish) just to have a look. Anita welcomes us immediately with a charming smile and, proudly, she begins to tell us her personal story and the story of the cooperative. Anita was born 27 years ago in San Pedro, last of five children. Unfortunately, her mother, suffered a stroke while giving birth, she fell very ill and for years her husband tried to find a treatment, investing all his resources and seeking medical consults in Ciudad Guatemala. Since her mother could not take care of baby Anita, she was fed and cared for by some temporary nannies and then sent full-time in Solola, the provincial capital, adopted on a temporary basis by a local woman. After three years, the mother partially recovered but remained on a wheelchair for the rest of her life. From her childhood Anita demonstrated her great intelligence and sense of responsibility in helping her family to earn a few extra quetzals (the Guatemalan currency): “I used to bet with my mother that if she gave me 2 quetzales, I would bring back home at least 10 by the end of that same day. Infact, with one quetzal I used to buy a bunch of bananas, sell it to tourists and earn 10 quezales to bring back to my mom”. Therefore Anita came into contact with many people, with her positive and enthusiastic stubbornness she decided to study in the capital to become a secretary, earning her deserved degree. In the meantime, Anita met the man who for a few years would be her husband. During her short marriage she gave birth to a child, who is playing in the tienda while we are listening to Anita’s story. She tells us how her husband, an educated urban man, did not respect her and belittled her because she was a woman and less educated than he was. Anita could not stand the constant humiliation, so she decided to divorce. Over the last years she has made her dream to become a tourist guide come true: she improved her Spanish, she learned English but most importantly she obtained the trust of those who immediately gave her the chance to work. After this she decided to fight a small battle for the women of San Pedro. She explains to us, how the idea of the cooperative came up with her mother, her sister and some women in the village. They created a cooperative of weavers who use only natural materials and traditional techniques, producing quality handcrafts and at the same time promoting their traditions and values respecting the Pachamama, mother earth. Anita shows us the entire production process: how to get the thread from a cotton ball, how to strengthen it, how the cotton is coloured using natural extracts: mint for green, cochineal for the red, how the colour is fixed, how to prepare the weaving belt and, finally, the actual weaving. A long and patient process: it takes about a week to make a scarf. She decided to tell her story because she is the only one speaking Spanish fluently out of the 12 members. The cooperative sought support from the local authorities but has not received anything. Anita and the others have not, however, lost hope: Anita, in fact, asked the permission to sell the products of the cooperative at the office of the agency for which she works as a guide. So, little by little, she found support and opened the small shop on the lake. From the 5 women who founded the cooperative, they are now 12 and more women want to join. “It is hard” says Anita, “people are now accustomed to industrial, low quality fabrics and products that can be bought at very low prices and they do not understand the amount of work we have to do, by hand, for several hours every day, using only natural products, producing long-lasting and high quality products. Furthermore, we follow the tradition and pass it down to the next generation in order not to lose it”. We were amazed to see at how a simple cotton ball can generate such a strong thread by using only 5 fingers and a little saliva. We were impressed by the determination we saw in Anita and the women of the cooperative who did not despair despite the many refusals and decided to start their project anyway. The project though is slowly bearing the first fruits and satisfactions. Anita continues: “We need to make people understand the importance of what we are doing, first and foremost to our people who is forgetting our roots and traditions, as well as the importance of respecting the natural environment and the use of its precious resources”. The way appears to be long, but Anita does not seem to care. Her energy is contagious and we cannot stop thanking her for all the stories and thoughts she shared with us in a few hours. A thousand goals and a great desire to achieve them.
We thought about Anita’s story for days, so much that a few days later when we met Andrea, we both immediately linked the two girls’ stories. Andrea is a 12-year-old girl who approached us while we were chilling out at a bar in Antigua. Loaded with scarves and bracelets she approached us with her bright eyes and catching smile. She stopped to talk with us. Native of Santa Catarina, a village on lake Atitlan, Andrea lives with her aunt and helps her selling the scarves and bracelets that she makes by herself. She said that in one day she can earn up to 150 quetzales (about 18 Euros) and that when she goes home empty-handed her aunt often reacts violently. Andrea is very cute and speaks Spanish very well, but, above all, she makes us laugh! In the end, we cannot resist and we end up buying a blue scarf for Stefano while Andrea chooses a bracelet for Daniela, giving us an extra one for free. We chat a little more until she greets us to continue her roaming. Andrea, as Anita, entered our hearts.

We also found similarities between Anita’s story and Feliciana’s words. Feliciana is a member of the national board of directors of CONAVIGUA and we met her during our last days in Guatemala, in the infamous Guatemala City. CONAVIGUA was founded in 1988 and it is the National Coordination of Widows of Guatemala created at the initiative of war widows following the civil war which saw the genocide of 200,000 people, mostly indigenous. COVAVIGUA works for the recovery of historical memory and supports the affected people seeking for justice and dignity. The organization mostly works in the cities of Quiche, Chimaltenango and Verapaces. CONAVIGUA works for the respect of indigenous communities, environment, the preservation of natural resources, the emancipation of women and the respect of human rights. The long march towards the affirmation of the rights of rural and indigenous communities that started in 1988 is still going on. The consequences of the civil war are still alive and new threats loom over the land and the indigenous communities. Feliciana has a sister who is desaparecida (disappeared without explanation). She struggles every day to achieve justice for herself and all the other mothers, grandmothers, sisters affected by the conflict.
This was a trip within the heart of Guatemala seen through the eyes of 3 women who allowed us to understand a bit more about this wonderful country that is rarely on the headlines of international media. A country and a lot of new discoveries: the struggles to defend indigenous traditions, the preservation of the Maya culture, the preservation of the natural environment on which we depend for our survival, the fight for justice and the for the respect of human rights in a present without hope filled with repression, violence and crime.

To the Zapatistas compas

(Thanks to Laura Piermartiri for the translation)

Compas of the Caracol* Torbellino palabras de nuestras palabras” (whirlwind of our words) – Morelia, Chiapas State (Mexico)

The Good Governance junta “Corazon del arcoiris de nuestra esperanza” (Heart of the rainbow of our hope) – Morelia, Chiapas State (Mexico)

(Caracol, literally means snail but in the Zapatista governance system it is the highest administrative level supervised by the Good Governance junta: 60 representatives elected by the communities for 3 years, divided in 5 weekly shifts of 15 people working on a rotational basis are responsible for carrying out most of the legislative, executive and administrative tasks in the zapatistas communities).

Dear compas,

It has already been a couple of weeks since Daniela and I visited your communities, which, as we have learnt, are called “support bases”. We were there for a few days and to us they are “hope bases.” These days we have read that the “bad government”, as you call it, continues to hinder your process of autonomy, your journey of hope and peace, through intimidation, violence and material destruction with the help of gangs of people bought to the sound of pesos. This saddens us, but we know that ideas never die and your daily commitment to build “a world that contains many worlds” is more alive and stronger than ever, despite the “hydra of capitalism” is using all the means at its disposal to stop you. We know that, in spite of everything, this hydra is weak and ineffective because it is made of money, lies and corruption while your eyes, your voices, your smiles speak of freedom, justice and dignity.

The phrase “to lead-by-obeying”, explained with the iconic sentence displayed all over the Zapatista territory: “the people command and the government obeys” seems an oxymoron but it is not, it should be a basic rule of democracy. Indeed, many governments that call themselves democratic tend to obey more to soulless and antidemocratic international bodies rather than to their own people because they are afraid that the lies and fears they spread through their media sooner or later will stop being effective.

We were pleasantly surprised to aknowledge that your young representatives, your government, do not have full freedom of initiative but must submit every new idea to the deliberation of the popular assemblies and above all that those who “lead-by-obeying” must also be accountable for every single peso spent in the administration of the caracol.

We can still feel the crunchy corn tostadas under our teeth, we’ve eaten them with you accompanied by your beans and a sweet hot coffee, all fruits of your wonderful land, thank you very much for sharing this tasty meal with us.

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Perhaps our visit was too short, but it was very intense. Putting our hearts close to yours during our hugs and handshakes, has deeply touched our souls. We were also quite impressed by seeing so much awareness of the local, national and international problems and at the same time, amazed to see your strength and determination to endure all of these challenges with peace and dignity. We have seen women, men and children, whole families united in creating their autonomy starting from the community and from everyday life because, as you say, “since our struggle is prolonged, you have to walk without hurry but without pause.” There was no better choice than the snail (caracol) as a symbol to represent the slow revolutionary path of the Zapatista communities that does not leave anyone behind, while the rest of the world (or almost) goes faster and faster, leaving behind those who cannot run, praising those who are quicker and clever in taking advantage of others’ weaknesses.

Before meeting in Chiapas, many people had told us that the Zapatistas and the EZLN no longer existed, nevertheless we found you more alive than ever; in recent months we have realised that even Zapata’s thought is alive and walking on many legs, both indigenous and non-indigenous, and that in this great American homeland the wind of his ideas blows. In some places people are still enjoying the fruits of giving the land to those who work in it, although the age of those in power do not allow them to foresee the future and the present with clarity and find appropriate solutions. In other countries, behind the lie of the 21st century socialism, the land and labour remain in the same dirty hands of a privileged few, applying old and antiquated recipes while selling them as revolutionary, when in fact the power, the one that comes from above, may change its colour or its skin but remains deaf to the cry of the past, de los de abajo (those from below) and continues to plunder mother earth.

Zapatistas hearts cry “land and freedom”, the freedom to work the land in peace in order to provide food, shelter, health and education to their sons and daughters with dignity and hope. Earth and consequently food, essential to the perpetuation of the resistance and the fight: to live a better life on their ancestral lands, according to the secular rhythms, rather than to be begging for a job in the city where it is almost impossible to keep one’s own identity and the mere survival becomes the goal of the whole existence. Your “action-thinking”, the combination of thought and action, is expressed from the agricultural point of view by cultivating without expensive and harmful chemicals which even create dependency on the market; the zapatistas feed their communities with healthy quality food instead of selling their products, they keep the soil fertile by loving it, because that is where life comes from, saving water, saving seeds, therefore making all conscious and courageous choices. This is the action-thinking alternative to the dominant agricultural model, largely dominated by chemical pesticides and fertilizers that damage the soil, an intensive use of water, genetically modified seeds and a monoculture model, all factors that endanger the delicate balance of Chiapas biosphere.

Sharing what you have, working together overcoming difficulties and selfishness, collectivizing land, time, food represents the only alternative to surviving begging the crumbs administered by the “bad government” which, however beneficial in the short term, divides the communities, creates differences and envy. The Zapatistas choose to work hard every day, work a lot, work together without waiting for the government to donate cement, money or food, poisonous fruits that eventually turn against the community by creating a bond of dependency, patronage and manipulation.

We visited you also to learn from your “walk-questioning” and you answered our questions with honesty and sincerity, not responding to those you could not. Concerning the future, you have answered that your future is to continue walking along the Zapatista path, continuing the struggle and the resistance started 20, 30, 500 years ago. A future you care and that you know is depending on todays’ children, for this reasons you have decided to educate them in the full sense of the word, to allow them to become members of the community at the service of the community, rather than sending them to urban school managed by the bad government where students forget the indigenous language, get ready for the life in the city and do not learn almost anything that can be useful in their communities of origin, in the countryside.

With this letter we want to thank you for giving us the opportunity to meet you and see with our own eyes how you are building a world that contains many worlds from below, gradually, independently, with justice and dignity. The emotions that you have unleashed in our hearts are very strong and in a very short time you have left a permanent mark on our souls, we hope that our paths will cross again in the future meeting each other again in the heart of the rainbow of our hope.

With sincere affection, deep respect and infinite gratitude.

Stefano and Daniela

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India: discovering the extraordinary strength of women’s solidarity

(Thanks to Rose Marchei for the translation)

It has been difficult to arrange a meeting, only a few days available, too many movements, but mostly because of water. Too much water. The plan to spend our last days in India in Chennai, the capital of Tamil Nadu state, seems at risk. The news on TV, the information we read on the internet and the emails we receive are daunting. Between the 15th and 16th November, 37cm of rain fell in just 24 hours, worsening the situation, already highly critical, due to the intense rains that have affected the city since the end of October. The level of the lake Chembarambakkam has been raised by about 7 meters, flooding the surrounding areas and increasing the regular regimen of Adyar river that destroyed thousands of homes built along its banks. More than 200 deaths and thousands of people displaced. The metropolis of Chennai, in south-eastern India, has a total metropolitan population of about 8,000,000; 4,000,000 considering the city centre only, of these 4 million, about 30% live in slums. The water has destroyed many of the simple shelters in which these people lived, the flooding took away the few clothes they owned and scattered the few things with which they survived. This flood has forced these “castaways of development” to walk barefoot for hours in search of shelter, food and water. A situation further complicated by a health crisis, with a rise in the incidence of diseases such as cholera, typhoid and malaria.

A real emergency situation that saw the women Working Women Forum (WWF, Forum of Women Workers) taking the lead in the rescue effort. These are the same women with whom we had made contact after reading about their impressive work. and. When we had already lost hope regarding a possible meeting, we surprisingly receive an email inviting us to visit the WWF office on November 19th.

We take the first bus from Puducherry (also known as Pondicherry) on the evening of 18th November. It’s still raining, but lightly, over the rooftops of this strange town influenced by French culture and architecture. The water enters through the window, we squeeze next to each other on the seat because there is no glass and therefore we cannot close the window. Running along the sunset line we ride on the road to Chennai. Gradually thousands of lights turn on in the dark night, they are reflected on the enormous pool of stagnant water that we see around us. The bus is very lively with coloured lights and the deafening volume of the last Kollywood [1] success, the other passengers seem to appreciate the movie as they are laughing very loudly. After 5 hours we arrive at the flooded Chennai station, we wear our raincoats, we hop on an autorickshaw that takes us to the hostel;  squeezed between our backpacks we observe the slow, noisy and chaotic city traffic.

The next morning, a shy sun brings respite from the heavy rains of the previous days. We arrive punctually at the WWF office for the appointment, unaware of what was going to happen. We could have never imagined such a warm welcome: attentive, kind, caring, but completely spontaneous and natural. With warmth and kindness, smiling Nandini hands us two red roses as soon as we set foot into WWF office. Nandini, a woman in her thirties is the assistant director of the organization, she takes us through various rooms, showing us the women’s bank and union’s offices, the classrooms for training and the various departments that form WWF. We sit together with a group of women to follow a lesson on soap making: the training is not just a list of items to mix, but it also includes several insights on domestic economy, child care, as well as on superstitious beliefs and behaviours that often undermine women’s self esteem and condition. Parvathy, the trainer, facilitates the discussion with energy and enthusiasm. We have the opportunity to exchange a few words with the women attending the training, they tell us about their work, their children, their small daily struggles and the bigger and more dramatic challenges that they faced during their difficult life. Most of these women live in Chennai slums and belongs to the dalit caste [2]. Some are seamstresses, others produce incense sticks or bidis (Indian cigarettes), others are rag pickers or street vendors. They explain how over the years they have managed to find dignity in their work, humble jobs that nonetheless should be respected, above all by themselves but also by those who benefit from these services. WWF is providing training, micro-credit, but also encouraging women’s self-confidence, self-respect and dignity, all factors that have allowed the women we met to make an important first step in their journey of hope. In essence, it means that a group of seamstresses were able to open a small shop where they sell handmade clothes, and that street vendors can better understand market demand and increase the sales of their products. We sense a lot of determination in their words and notice a few tears in their eyes.

With some of the women, beneficiaries of the micro-credit program, we go to the WWF bank tellers because today is the day that groups receive their loan. We celebrate by drinking a very sugary cup of chai (tea). We feel at home amongst them. Our hearts are confused by so much energy, warmth and hospitality.

We continue our tour because waiting in her office is Jaya Arunachalam, president and founder of the WWF. Behind her gentle eyes there is a long story of fighting with and for women, side by side with those living on the street, alone, abandoned and doing the most humble jobs. A woman  ahead of the  times, who broke convention which she  considered unjust, a woman who married a man belonging to a lower caste. Jaya was a young member of the Indian National Congress party, with a potentially brilliant political career in front of her, when, unexpectedly, circumstances led her to think about the role of the party in the daily lives of Tamil Nadu people. In 1977, during a major emergency due to a heavy flood, very similar to that of November 2015, Jaya Arunachalam participated in a rescue mission to distribute essential items to people affected by the heavy floods: people, mostly women, that seemed to wait for the recurrent natural disasters to have a good reason to ask for help. Marginalized women, with no social protection, unable to enter the system established by the Indian society of that period. She decides to leave politics and to commit all her efforts to the difficult and obstinate way of women’s emancipation, challenging the ancient Indian culture and Hindu laws, according to which a woman is not independent, but must always be protected by their father, husband or by her brother. Moreover, the spread of practices such as dowry, female infanticide or widows’ abandonment consolidate women’s subordination to men, creating second-class society.

Inspired by the microcredit model of Muhammad Yunus’ Grameen Bank, Jaya was one of the first women to establish an organization that combined economic development with  nutrition, health, labour law and human rights programs. According to Jaya Arunachalam, lending, by itself, would not have significantly changed women’s lives without a training on basic financial concepts (loan, investment, interest), without the recognition and protection of all those jobs until then considered ” informal ” and especially without a strong mobilization against child labour, prostitution, domestic violence, female feticide and infanticide.

An ambitious project that needed initial capital. Jaya Arunachalam sent the proposal to several banks to create a solidarity fund to lend cash to poor women. The idea was rejected because banks were not confident that women could pay back the loans. This first obstacle did not stop Jaya, who on the contrary, together with WWF, inaugurated the Working Women’s Co-operative Society that in 1981 was recorded as Indian Co-operative Network for Women. The result is an informal banking system capable of responding to the needs of poor women employed in the informal sector, which promotes their social and financial independence through the development of micro/small business as well as providing low interest loans, decent employment and a wide range of economic services.

An extraordinary revolution, that kick started the regulatory process of the immense indian informal sector. Through the National Union of Working Women (NUWW), jobs as the production of bidis, incense sticks or embroidery are now formally recognized and therefore their salaries are regulated: for example, if before the formalization a woman received two rupees (0, 02 euro cents) per 1,000 cigarettes, after she received 24 (30 euro cents). A working day in the fields used to be paid 4 rupees (0.05 euro cents), but after formalization it was paid 40 (0.53 euro cents). In addition, the NUWW developed a social security system to protect the unorganized workforce of about 600,000 women and conceived of micro insurance policies in favour of women workers in the event of illness, injury or death.

An entirely female movement that brings women, belonging to different castes, religions, ethnicities, promoting cohesion among the poorest belonging to various groups, toward a social platform for a common cause. An initial group of 800 women has grown today into a network of 5 million women. A strong network, made up of women who are able to plan how many children to have, to earn and manage money for their family but also to mobilize in marches and public meetings to request and obtain the recognition of political rights. The program initiated by WWF fostered an immediate economic empowerment that over time has also translated into greater political involvement: many of the WWF women are now members of the Panchayat [3].

Many achievements, many battles won, many difficulties overcome. The work of the WWF and the personality of Jaya Arunachalam were also recognized at national and international levels. Many presidents, prime ministers, scholars have visited the WWF and saw its work. From China to Italy, Jaya Arunachalam has become an ambassador of the Indian women’s situation participating in important conferences of major international organizations. But when we ask what is her most important memory, she does not speak of her travels or her meeting with Hillary Clinton, one of her most illustrious female visitors. She remembers instead the solidarity and participation of the women of her organization at her husband’s death, the first to arrive and to be present. A moment of profound communion. That’s what she tells us. WWF women, always, first and foremost. Perhaps it is thanks to this wonderful sensitivity that she has managed to set up such a strong and thriving network, all of this would not have been possible without the hard work of all her collaborators. Maybe it’s just because of her extraordinary sensitivity that we were welcomed like heads of state, almost like Hillary and Bill Clinton. No difference, only a warm welcome and sharing our ideas. We leave the WWF after a tasty lunch, loaded with books, enthusiasm and energy.

WWF commitment continues. The growing urbanization, population pressure, climate change, natural disasters, a patriarchal culture contribute in maintaining a heavy workload for Jaya and her team. Just as in these days of incessant rain, everything may look like when it all began: flood and assistance, but it is not so. When WWF operators visit the areas, affected by the flooding, there are not groups of women awaiting humanitarian aid, but women who have already thought of a plan on how to solve yet another challenge, ready to begin again, as always, with their own strength.

[1] Film Industry of Tamil Nadu, located in Kodambakkam, as opposed to Bollywood.

[2] The Dalits, are considered by the upper castes to be outside of the Varna, which is the system that offers a division of the Indian people into four main castes. For this reason, the Dalits are doomed to menial jobs, such as cleaning the streets, slaughtering, cleaning latrines and sewers. These activities were considered pollutants for the individual and this pollution is considered infectious. Hence the adjective untouchable. In the past, it was forbidden for dalits full participation in Indian social life. They were physically separated from the surrounding community and the other castes avoided any contact with them. In 1950, the constitution officially outlawed the caste system, followed by a series of reforms and initiatives aimed at levelling the inter-caste disparities, promoting education, employment and health. There has been a significant improvement in dalits’ living conditions, but cultural heritage, traditions and superstitions are difficult to eradicate, especially in the most disadvantaged areas.

[3] Literally “Committee of the fives” , in the indian administrative system is the local self-government unit

A grain of sand between the gears of the mining industry – the Xolobeni case

(Thanks to Rose Marchei for the translation)

The wiper moves rhythmically, cleaning the windscreen from the abundant rain falling out of Durban. We are in South Africa, and after a few days exploring the city and its spectacular waterfront, renovated for the World Cup of 2010, its beaches and the wonderful aquarium, we are moving towards the south, in a rental car, stuck in the rush hour traffic. After about an hour we manage to escape the city centre and we pass through Durban a very ugly and grey area: the harbour and the industrial area, surrounded by dilapidated townships, the ghetto neighbourhoods where the black population was forced to live in the apartheid era and that, still today, are the most deprived, poor and insecure urban areas.

We travel parallel to the coast, to our left is the blue Pacific Ocean, in front of us the grey highway, wide and well paved, which runs through the rolling, wavy and green hills of KwaZulu-Natal. On the roadside dozens and dozens of people, in the rain, are waiting for one of the many white vans that provide public transportation. For we Italians, it is very strange to see so many people walking on the highway and sometimes running across the lanes, terrified by the fast roaring cars driving by indifferently. We arrive at the Ku-Boboyi Lodge, a delightful place. It is already dark, we have a relaxing dinner listening to the ocean in the distance, interrupted from time to time by the owner’s life stories. Around 10 am, tired, we go to bed. We get up early in the morning, with a great view over Leisure bay, a golden beach that marks the beginning of the Wild Coast. No name has ever been more appropriate, since it is a magnificent stretch of absolutely pristine coast, not yet disfigured by concrete, from asphalt and from commercial exploitation, so heavy in other coastal areas of South Africa.

 

We are here to meet the representatives of the Amadiba Crisis Committee (ACC), a community organization that is fighting to defend its territory from the mining project developed by the Australian Multinational Mineral Commodities (MNC). This company owns the Transworld Energy and Minerals Resources (TEM) and the Xolobeni Empowerrment Company (XOLCO), founded by the MNC to manage the mine and promote the hypothetical positive effects brought by the mining project to the local communities. The plan is clear: to exploit the rich mineral sands in the area, transform them and export them through the nearby Durban port to the rest of the world. The project area has a length of 22 km and a width of 1.5 km for a total of 2,867 hectares. Only 5% of the sands contain heavy minerals, but of this 5%, as much as 65% has a high commercial value: 139 million tons of titanium-rich minerals, such as: ilmenite, zircon, leucoxene and rutile used mainly in the paint industry. The MNC would invest about 180 million euro to build a plant for the mineral separation and a foundry, which would employ about 300 people.

In short, what the company is proposing is to devastate almost 3,000 hectares of pristine coastline, inhabited by about 15,000 people, with large-scale mining projects, polluting factories and new roads, evicting 200 people and destroy once and forever the ecotourism potential in the area. This eco-social disaster to create 300 jobs, until the extraction of the mineral will last, i.e. for about 20 years. Any person with common sense will agree that the operation is not beneficial at all for the local community, which would benefit very little out of the millions of euro from the selling of the minerals. Exactly for this reason, the inhabitants of the area have always been strongly opposed to the project and willing to resist this kind of “development”. The project finds its purely economic meaning, only taking into account the huge profits for the company, nearly 700 million Euros, and the South African government, nearly 170 million euro.

The history of this project is quite similar to many we have already heard during our trip, unfortunately, from Mexico to Chile, from Cambodia to South Africa large “development” projects do not consider that local communities should choose the destiny of their territory and of their lives. A brief overview of what happened in Xolobeni reveals how the attitude of the multinationals is both violent and repeated, and very similar to what is happening in other countries and continents. In 2002 a first exploration license to extract titanium from the sandy beaches of the Wild Coast was approved. The relationship between the company and the local community worsened until breaking point in 2006/7 when the community refused to agree to any kind of mining in the area. In 2008, the government issued a license for mineral exploitation, suspended after four months due to new protests. In 2011 communities appealed against the granting of the license and so it was withdrawn. In March 2015, MNC company files a new application for a mining license, but government approval is still pending, blocked by the resistance of local communities who are stopping the environmental impact assessment required to obtain a license.

According to the Amadiba Crisis Committee representatives that we met, the mine would have a tremendous impact on the 5 communities living in the area and their natural environment. The extraction processes would consume 13 to 15 million cubic meters of water a year, when local communities are already struggling with water supply. Furthermore, sands removal would undermine the estuary of the local rivers and cause serious damage to the fauna that live in Pondoland marine conservation area. There would also be serious social impacts, caused by the expropriation of land, the forced relocation of entire communities and the need to build a new highway to transport minerals to the port of Durban. A new paved road instead of the current dirt road would result in a sharp increase in traffic, pollution and a disruption of the current rhythms and balance of these rural villages that are strongly against this kind of development.

New clashes between the mining company and the local communities occurred again last Christmas when villagers experienced physical intimidation, shootings, searches without warrants in the middle of the night, ambushes and beatings. Some people are still sleeping in the forests, away from their homes because they are too scared to go back. Four people were arrested for attempted murder during the violence in December, they are 4 local young men, probably bribed with a few rands (the South African currency) that at Christmas are useful to happily celebrate the festivities. It does not seem a coincidence therefore, that two people linked to the MNC multinational paid the deposit for the 4 suspected of attempted murder a few hours after the arrest. Even community leaders sometimes succumb to the temptation of corruption, in the form of a job, a guaranteed salary or a luxury car, in exchange for supporting the project. It happened to the village chief Bizana, one of the villages in the project area: Mr. Long Baleni, was a strong opponent of the project until he was hired as Xolco director, one of the subsidiaries of the MNC. So, for the interests of a multinational company, issues such as corruption, violence and social conflict are fomented in a community made up of people who would just like to be left alone to work the land, grazing cows and develop a much more sustainable business:  eco-tourism. Some community-based eco-tourism projects have already started and are regulated according to the procedures and limits agreed during assemblies, in meetings and on a democratic basis. They are an example of real democracy, which comes from the people, made of divergences but also of autonomous and shared choices, far from the example of the South African State, where, too often, transnational mining companies and the African National Congress (ANC) government decide without consulting and without listening to the voice of the people living on the territory.

Mzamo and Nonhle, members of the Amadiba Crisis Committee, smile shyly over a cup of tea which we enjoyed during the interview. They are normal people, humble, sincere, but with their words, their smiles and their eyes they convey a great inner strength. The strength of people resisting to decisions imposed by force, the strength of people believing in what they do, the strength of those who fight to defend their land, their own future and that of their children. For now the project has stopped. Xolobeni is greener and lusher than ever, the small organization formed by some hundreds of South African peasants is stopping a powerful Australian transnational company backed up by the South African government. Nelson Mandela used to say: “It always seems impossible, until it is done”. Amadiba Crisis Committee activists have proved that they can do it, we hope that they will continue to stand up against the giants of the mining industry, the giants of destruction and of the denial of human rights.

For further information:

http://www.groundup.org.za/article/imbizo-xolobeni/

https://wikileaks.org/plusd/cables/08PRETORIA2730_a.html

http://www.ejolt.org/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2015/07/FS-27.pdf

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Xolobeni_mine

Cochabamba: water is not on sale

(translated by Maria Grazia Patania)

This is the story of a war, a war between people and political-economic interests, a war between those who see water as a common good and those who see it as a private and tradable good. This is the story of the water war in Cochabamba in Bolivia which took place between November 1999 and April 2000 and is told by someone who experienced it at first hand: Oscar Olivera, spokesman of the Coordinadora de Defensa del agua y de la vida, a network of citizens leading the successful fight against water privatization in Cochabamba.

The starting point was given by the neo-liberal reforms during the 80s. Natural resources and services which were public started to undergo a privatization in Bolivia -as in many other areas all over the world under the leadership of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Big transnational companies -owned by foreign capitals- get most of the contracts signed at that time.

In 1999 water privatization in Cochabamba became law and the call for tenders was won by a consortium called Tunari Aguas (a river flowing in that region) and made of transnational companies such as Edison (from Italy), Abengoa (from Spain) and Bechtel (from the USA). Officially it was illegal even collecting rainwater without being authorised by the consortium.

Indigenous migrants were the first to take action, those who moved to big towns from rural areas, as well as citizen boards fighting to bring water in those areas not covered by the local supply system. Water privatization was an unknown and unprecedented idea, they had developed their own system rooted on farmers and indigenous traditions deeply connected with their culture and cosmic vision of life. Water is a common good and humans belong to a cosmic life which would be impossible without water, according to the indigenous peoples from Andes.

As stated by Oscar Olivera: “Water privatization means destroying a form of common living based on water”, a dangerous and useless intervention in a field run by and meant for people in order to introduce a redundant service in the hands of a foreign company. The fight for public water involved all social classes both rural and urban, water prices raised so dramatically that many household had to decide either to eat or to pay water bills. Water represented 20% of local households’ budget, breaking the WHO regulation imposing not to overcome a 2% threshold.

The fight for water represents an unprecedented turning point. It is a break with the country exploiting policy, a break with a system discouraging democracy and empowering rich people to decide about the future without hearing people´s voice. The water fight is “a war to decide the future of water as core element for life reproduction” affirms Oscar who adds “I used to manufacture shoes and every day we produced 10.000 shoes. The whole manufacturing process –from farming to the end product- for a single pair of shoes needs about 8.000 liters of water. But outside people had no water for living while there was enough water to manufacture shoes. This changed my point of view about life”

People in Cochabamba started protesting in November 1999 and reached the highest peak in February 2000 occupying the main square in town. Their startegies do not involve violence but symbolic actions like giving fire to water bills which was deemed as criminal by the government since they were destroying official documents. Nevertheless, on that occasion “people felt free from fear and burned their bills all together on the main square”, says Oscar. On March the 26th people organized a referendum and on April the 4th the Coordinadora del agua launched the final battle of this war for water: they occupied Cochabamba. Till April the 19th the situation there was a horrific chaos with protesters busy in defending themselves from the police with stones, stakes, home-made pepper bombs and molotovs.

On April the 7th local police is charged to find and shoot Cordinadora´s leaders. They start with home searches among activists and also at Oscar´s place when he was not there. On this occasion a gunfight occurred leaving in deep frustration his mother who –despite all the fear- urges him not to give up. The government tries everything possible to stop protests: the number of policemen involved dramatically increases, snipers (sometimes with no official sign) are all over, phone lines are interrupted together with TV and electricity in order to create panic and frustration among citizens.

People run the city over those days and the official government resigns while the major flees and finally police officers has to ask citizens the permission to go out. As mentioned by Oscar “When powerful people panic, citizens have already won”.

The war is won and people have full control in town also over some media. Oscar admits that their fight went even beyond their original goals (mainly regain water access and amend the national law about water). People won with no official leader, but just 5 rotating spokespersons who speak in the name of citizens according to what is decided by a permanent board.

The war had the usual negative consequences: 30 people got permanently wounded and lost their sight, some others lost their leg mobility, 5 people died (the 17 year-old Hugo Victor Daza in Cochabamba and 4 in El Alto, close to La Paz while they were protesting for the same reasons). Moreover, 30 activists were arrested, beaten and deported to the north of the country.

Despite their victory, after 15 years Oscar shows signs of disappointment: “People have thrown out multinational companies, have defeated Bechtel. The water company was made public again but people had something different in their mind: people wanted to have the last word and handle water supplies. We have not been able to turn the public water company into a company directly run by Cochabamba people”. The Coordinadora starts slowly losing importance and unity and many parts are absorbed Evo Morales´ government. In Bolivia in 2015 water is becoming a private good and the process has been started by the government – as Oscar explains us- “The government aims at destroying any form of community control on water supplies and life in general in order to convey it in its hands. President Morales wants to do through the state what Bechtel wanted to do as a company in 2000. The ultimate goal is to destroy boards and cooperatives run by people and transform those who pay water bills in mere banks”

For further information:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2000_Cochabamba_protests

Brand new women

(translated by Maria Grazia Patania)

Women are the very core of the association. According to Maria, many women -even very young- arrive at Yach´il Antzetic because they are pregnant without being married or victims of sexual violence. Sometimes their own families are responsible. These women are alone, isolated and with no support at all. They reach the association determined to undergo an abortion or leave the baby there for adoption. But then suddenly something changes and women find out a brand new world at Yach´il Antzetic: their world. They start discovering their body and feelings, their self-consciousness rises, they explore themselves and the relationship with their own babies. It is a holistic process empowering women with skills and abilities which make them brand new. They are aware of their rights and able to take decisions about their life.

We listen carefully to Maria´s tale and she introduces the main activities there: hand-craft products, self-financing, community life and humanized deliveries. The association -and namely Maria (a partera, a word meaning midwife)- makes everything possible to allow each girl to experience the delivery in the best health and emotional situation. They finally become aware of themselves and able to take decisions. The main tools to raise self-consciousness are: respect of their metis origin and tradition, obstetrics teachings, fitotherapy, sexual studies in order to fully discover their potential and gender skills. Afterwards women will also be aware about their own health rights, food, sex and reproduction. Those who prefer adoption deeply reflects on their own rights as mothers, minors rights as well as the rights of the foster family which is strongly supported during the welcoming process of the new-born inside the family itself.

Maria stresses that over the years the adoption and cesarean section rates dramatically decreased thanks to a higher self-consciousness and humanized deliveries. Indigenous people are victim of discrimination and more and more doctors go for cesarean sections -even when not necessary- since they receive extra funds for every surgical operation.

The association also runs external activities such as education projects and initiatives to raise awareness about women’s` rights, gender equality, non-violent communication, sexuality and reproductive health in local communities and schools. Mexican society almost considers rape, violence and kidnapping as a normality. Six women out of ten have been victims of violence and at least six women die every day, according to official statistics.

Yach´il Antzetic has recently started to work with couples. Maria affirms that usually men are suspicious at the beginning but then -after some meetings- they play an active role and are ready to reconsider those gender parameters they have grown with. It is a slow process generated by the word of mouth which also brings there girls from the surrounding countryside.

Unfortunately two years ago the funds devoted to the centre were cut and this made everything more complicated: people have been fired since then and pregnant women only receive a one-month course (15 days before and 15 days after the delivery) while before they used to enjoy a three-month care.

Maria and the other employees there work desperately to keep the centre open all day long in order to welcome those girls who arrive there after hours spent walking and walking. After delivering the baby many girls prefer to stay in town and not to come back to their old communities. In this case the centre will help them to find a job and a safe place to stay

It´s emotionally rewarding to listen to the stories of women who have finally found themselves despite all odds, who have finally found their own way, who are blossoming together with their children, who want to help other women to become brand new women.

As they did themselves.

 Thank you Maria.

The cuban revolution, the green one

(translated by Maria Grazia Patania)

No, we are not talking about the revolution that occurred during the 50s and headed by Ernesto Che Guevara, Camilo Cienfuegos and Fidel Castro. Many authors have already talked about it. The revolution we mean is more recent, less known abroad and totally non-violent. It is a green and environmental-friendly revolution we may call: agroecology. This revolution is slow and demanding as well as extraordinary in terms of extent, people involved and positive consequences on Cuba nutrition system.

We should go back to about 20 years ago in order to understand this silent revolution. At that time a social and political revolution was just beginning and it would have become the most relevant and long-lasting revolution of the 20th century.

Fidel Castro’s government inherited an agricultural system where 73% of the land belonged to barely 9% of the population and almost one quarter of the total island was owned by foreigner capitals, mainly American. Cuba prosperous soil fertility was mainly devoted to brown sugar cane, tobacco and cattle intended for exports. In 1958 Cuba richest classes and foreign companies controlled the whole agricultural system on the island. Consequently one Cuban out of 3 was unemployed and the forest destruction rate increased dramatically in order to expand the soil surface assigned to export products.

On March the 27th, 3 months after seizing the power, the new government passed the first agricultural reform whose main consequences were a reduction in land fields to 67 hectares, a state ownership of most land surfaces and a distribution of more than 1,2 million hectares of soil to rural cooperatives and families. Moreover, crop diversification was warmly encouraged, huge investments supported farmers’ harvest and offered valuable know-how enhancing agricultural developments.

In two years maize, beans and potatoes harvests –essential food in Cuba– increased at a pace of 25%, eggs quantity was 6 times higher and chicken quantity 4 times higher than before while tomatoes doubled. In 1975 in Cuba the total land devoted to feed Cubans doubled compared to 1958 levels while rice covered a surface 4,6% times vaster and citrus fruits covered a surface 9 times bigger. Throughout the 80s and 90s Cuba has experienced the Green Revolution illusion as many other capitalist and socialist countries did. The Green Revolution implied farm mechanization, large-scale irrigation, monocultures reintroduction but above all entailed a massive use of pesticides and fertilisers made abroad and supplied at cheap prices by socialist countries and Soviet Union.

At first farm production raised –even if at high prices- but soon after quality and quantity declined. Furthermore, soil and environment deteriorated with severe consequences on farmers’ and consumers’ health.

In 1989 the Berlin Wall fell down triggering the socialist bloc dissolution and the end of the Soviet Union. During the 90s the first decades were specially difficult since over 30 years Cuba economy had been based on mutual help and commerce with other socialist countries which are now unable to purchase Cuban goods and resell their own products. Oil imports shrunk 50%, fertilisers and pesticides more than 80% and food imports became impossible due to foreign currency scarcity.

The disappointing repercussions of the Green Revolution on agriculture and revolution in Cuba put the current establishment at stake. As confirmed by Fernando Funes Monzote in an interview with us, the situation on the island was desperate: “Body mass started decreasing”. For the first time since Fidel Castro had seized the power, food became hard to find. The socialist government had allowed millions people to access an adequate nutrition since up to 1959 only rich families could afford eating meat. Nevertheless, the whole system was now at stake because of Cuba import-dependent economy. At the beginning of the 90s 57% of the national nutritional needs were covered by imports.

Once again farmers safeguarded their own revolution, a revolution made possible by their braveness and courageousness. Once external aids were over, the national government in Cuba passed some special measures thanks to the cooperation of some scientists and professors aiming at agricultural self-sufficiency, decentralised production, enhanced market flexibility, production incentives, cooperatives modernisation, more fields given to farmers and more resources allocated to research and innovation.

The genuine core of this new revolution was the National Association of Small Farmers committed to boost farm production in compliance with the official government program. The main changes were: use of animal drawn instead of tractors, use of renewable energy (biogas, wind and so on) instead of fuel, introduction of organic fertilisers, reafforestation of derelict lands, higher cooperative efficiency and innovative farming methods. This first phase had lasted up to 1997 [and was named input because: non sono riuscita a trovare l equivalente inglese. Se riuscite inserite voi la nomenclatura altrimenti lo toglierei del tutto] and the main goal was to grant Cubans enough commodities with no external aid.

Since 1977 agriculture in Cuba started developing into “agroecology” thanks to a “farmer to farmer” strategy implemented by the National Association of Small Farmers with a new approach to agriculture and farmers. In this framework farmers play an essential role in sharing knowledge, expertise, doubts and innovative solutions both with professionals and other farmers. The peer-approach has developed by making tests and mistakes within comprehensive and progressive changes. All results come from field studies, assessment of local resources and sharing of mutual expertise about seeds and innovation between farmers during meetings, demos, agricultural fairs as well as poems, songs, theatre plays and videos. The idea behind this is “To see is to believe”: a much more dynamic methodology able to spread information faster and more efficiently. Thanks to the National Association of Small Farmers and the farmer-to-farmer approach cultivation methods have reached 110.000 families in just a few years (almost one family out of 3) and combined with traditional and local know-how. Figures show how successful this revolution was: 3 times more beans, one and half tuber crops, 83% vegetables more. Nowadays Cuba has one of the highest levels of food self-sufficiency and is able to fulfil people’s needs with organic and sustainable methods and no use of genetically modified seeds. Additionally, scientific studies after hurricane Sandy have revealed that organic crops have been less damaged and have gone back to higher production levels much faster than those crops based on conventional agrochemical farming.

Cuba and its farmers revolution should be finally evaluated and appreciated going beyond ideological barriers. It is undeniable that farmers achievements in Cuba have led to environmental-friendly food self-sufficiency while fully respecting the environment in such a way that only few countries in the world and no country at all in Europe have done. Just try to see how much of the food we buy every day has been organically produced.

 

All the land for all and forever!

It seems to be in a movie but we are not. The bad: the greedy managers of the american university allying with real estate speculators and transnational companies; against the good: normal people, shy and smiling youngsters, smiling, middle-aged retired ladies who cultivate a piece of land surrounded by asphalt, cars and sidewalks. The vegetables grown on the plot allow to save precious dollars, especially given the high cost of living in the area. Sometimes, vegetables are instead sold and the cash obtained is used to help those in need, an unforeseeable event, but rather frequent, in a society such as the US, in which easy dismissal and poor social welfare is the rule.

In the land of Hollywood we feel like in a movie, we are in the town of Albany, California, just north of Berkeley, in the San Francisco Bay Area, home of the first university in California and one of the best and most famous universities in the world. The ground where we sit is a place of struggle and resistance of the many “Davids” of the Gill Tract Community Farm against the “Goliath” of the University of Berkeley. We are talking to Vanessa Raditz, a 25 year-old American who attends a masters course in Public Health at the University of Berkeley and who “discovered” the community farm of the Gill Tract as a researcher and educator as part of a project to analyze the soil quality. Vanessa was teaching and took her students to learn at this beautiful community farm. Since then, she is involved in the struggle of this small community because ‘fascinated by their theory of change and by the vision of the world towards which they want to transition to.

The Gill Tract, a land originally inhabited by Ohlone indians, a plot of 20 acres (8,937 square meters) that is all that remains of a field of 100 acres (405,000 square meters), purchased in 1929 from Berkeley university. Over the time, the land was used to build military barracks and housing for students. In the mid-90s, the university, seeking funds, developed a project to exploit the land for the construction of retail shops and very expensive private housing. The project immediately generated strong resistance from the community and the same university students, also supported by the NGO Food First, which instead proposed to the university to transform the land into a center of urban agriculture.

The community fought politically within the City Council meetings, filing legal cases and raising issues of environmental and social impact and underlining how the project was breaching several municipal regulations. All these actions resulted in the temporary blocking of the process of commercial exploitation of the land. The situation remained blocked until 2012 but, 22 April 2012, community residents and students of the university, also inspired by the movement “Occupy” born in the meantime the United States, decided to occupy the land: they organized a march for the World Earth day, walked to the Gill Tract Community Farm, occupied the plot cleaned and prepare it and finally planted 2 acres with various vegetables. The participants, at least 80% women, were a mix of young people, children, elders, Mexican immigrants, African Americans, homeless, or as Vanessa says: “a convergence of energies for the common good.” The occupants camped 3 weeks to defend the land, at the same time they also launched a campaign to collect 1,500 signatures necessary to vote in the city council a local bylaw that would protect the land.

The supermarket chain “Whole Foodcompany, the largest investor in the project, pulled out from the project. Thanks to this land occupation, the College of Natural Resources at the University of Berkeley, which was already using the Gill Tract Land for agroecology experiments,obtained about 10 acres in use until 2022. Of these, about 1.3 acres (5,200 meters square) were assigned to the community to develop a community urban garden.

Vanessa tells us how the official and legal recognition of the land has created the conditions for many people to join the movement. Without it, many people would not have entered into the movement defending the Gill Tract since the occupation of the land is a radical and illegal gesture act, and therefore a barrier for many people to take action. Another key strategy was creating links with some sectors of the university interested in agro-ecology that have allowed the movement to bring resources to support the urban community farm.

One of the points of reference for the Occupy Farm movement of the Gill Tract Community Farm is the brazilian Landless Workers Movement (MST) with which they developed contacts and exchanged visits in occasion of special events. They admire the MST for its success in returning the land to the peasants in Brazil and in their flexibility in changing their strategy over the years but also for how they relate to the central government. In fact, as Vanessa says: “the MST tries to attract government schools financed by the State in their territories recovered though occupation. Similarly we are against many decisions of the university but we are trying to work with them to change the direction in where the university is going. Some people disagreed with this choice and left the movement because they wanted a more radical opposition to university. Our goal, however, is to bring our ideas to the center of public discussion. What we want is food sovereignty as opposed to the false solutions such as GMOs, pesticides, public-private partnerships. We try to move the realm of the politically possible towards food sovereignty and this is achieved also doing something radical, extreme, crazy, outside the politically possible. Our strategy is to chase crazy dreams, achieve them and make them law institutionalizing them. We must be strong also to balance the fact that the political field of the false solutions is continuing to experiment and create new false solutions.” Vanessa continues: “When you begin to wonder why the university chooses not to support urban ecologic agriculture, the issue becomes political and enter the dimension of power and money behind some political and administrative decisions. It is not just the fact that the university has no funds, it also depends on how the university uses these funds. In the model of the neoliberal austerity that encourages partnerships between public universities and private companies. Right now, companies have replaced the public interest as a guide of university research. For example in the plot of land belonging to the university next to our farm they are conducting genetic experiments on plants driven by a business model of agriculture and industrial giants like Monsanto and Novartis (now Syngenta) they have literally bought areas of university research. The same principal executive Associate of the Faculty of Natural Resources [Steven E. Lindow] has made a career doing research on GMOs and patenting microbes and living beings, the basis of life.

As can be understood from Vanessa’s words, starting from the land issue, the social mobilization gains strength when framed politically and socially in a broader context, when the movement realizes that the world they want is different from the one proposed by the political and economic powers and finally decides to fight to build a different world.

Despite this, Vanessa is hoping for a happy ending: “We hope to expand the project in the north and stop the speculation in the rest of the land. We are disputing the power, building the future we want to see materializing what we want. Our motto could be: all the land for all and forever!

Marinaleda, the concrete normality of utopia

The sun shines above the big trees along the avenue, the village streets are empty, deserted in this lazy and soporific Monday afternoon in April. We left behind the sparkling and colorful Seville, just over 80 kilometers of highway and 30 of lush hills, green, as the color of grain in this season, we entered in Marinaleda, a small town of 2,700 inhabitants in the province of Seville , the capital of the autonomous community of Andalusia. The houses are almost all white and lying on a slope uphill in the Genil valley. The basin is covered with olive trees literally out of sight, olive trees from which they produce the best oil in the world, as it says modestly one of the biggest oil producers in the area. We, however, are not in Marinaleda for its green olive groves but to see with our own eyes a village in the Andalusian countryside on which many articles were written on international media.

Usually the articles describe Marinaleda as a utopian place, where the municipal council and the people have made choices defined from time to time “socialist” or “communist”, where unemployment does not exist, all earn the same salary, everyone has access to social services and the house is given for free by the municipality. All this is only partially true, and often what is written about Marinaleda is approximate and superficial. Some articles even included photos that allegedly portray Marinaleda but in reality show some other nearby village.

In 1975 the Spanish dictator Franco died, in 1976 Spain legalized trade unions and, in the area of Marinaleda, a high school teacher, Juan Manuel Sanchez Gordillo, two priests: Estaban Tabares and Diamantino Garcia, along with other activists sensitive to the living conditions of farm laborers, formed the SOC – Sindicado Obrero del Campo (Agricultural Workers’ Union), who became SAT – Sindicado Andaluz de Trabajadores (Andalusian Union of Workers) in 2007. In 1979 the first democratic elections under the new constitution, SOC formed a political party called Colectivo de Unidad de los Trabajadores (Workers’ Collective of Unit) run for elections (and won) in Marinaleda, which at the time had 2,300 inhabitants, mostly day laborers and the landless. Since then, Marinaleda has always had the same mayor, who on May 24 this year will candidate for the tenth time. ALTERRATIVE met the current deputy mayor, Esperanza Saavedra, born exactly in 1979 and Saul, 29 years old, a computer technician and musician born and raised in Marinaleda. Esperanza, 36 years old, a mother and a kindergarten teacher, welcomes us in the mayor’s office where the flag of the short-lived Spanish Republic stand. Esperanza, with her smart and bright look tells us the story of Marinaleda, which she calls “a human experiment, with our virtues and defects”. She labels her community essentially as “anti-capitalist” but also, in some respects “communist, anarchist, socialist and Christian.”

There is not always work for everyone, every day and throughout the year, part of the solution to this problem is to work less but to work all, managing collectively the work and the shifts. The economic crisis that began in 2008 has affected Marinaleda too, but if the situation in the surrounding areas has put workers in competition against each other, leaving 50% of young people out of work, in Marinaleda, the crisis means only that people work a little less but at least everyone has a job After the outbreak of the crisis in the construction sector, which was based on the evanescent and unsustainable development promoted by Zapatero’s Spanish Socialist Party (PSOE), many young people with no education, qualifications and technical skills that used to earn up to 2,000 Euros a month as masons on the Costa del Sol, found themselves looking for work in the fields. Now they earn, as everyone, 47 euro per working day, including Saul, a qualified computer technician with a university degree obtained studying outside Marinaleda, who earns, per day, as much as farm laborer. The difference is that a farm laborer does not work out of season, whereas Saul is always works from Monday to Friday throughout the year. Esperanza explains how they select highly labour-intensive crops to be planted in order to create jobs, such as: peppers, beans, artichokes and olives.

The economic engine of Marinaleda is the agricultural cooperative founded after obtaining 1,200 hectars of land, result achieved through an occupation and a long negotiation with the government, in a almost feudal system the land was part of a large estate belonging to the Duke of Infantado who was not exploiting it. The land to the tiller, a goal achieved by men and women together. Women have always been participating in the struggles of Marinaleda, Esperanza says that if the woman is mobilized mobilizes the entire family, including children. Says that the development of Marinaleda has also changed women’s condition, many women now have a job, they have the driving license to reach the fields and their men are obliged to help out with the housework, this was unthinkable 30 years ago.

Another aspect of public administration of Marinaleda is making sure that living in the village does not cost much: nurseries at 2 euro per month, swimming pool at 5 euros per year and many other facilities for sports and cultural entertainment for free. Marinaleda, critics say, benefits from many subsidies from the community of Andalusia, the Spanish State and the European Union, this may be true or not (Esperanza says that Marinaleda receive 6% less than the average of the loans received by municipalities Andalusian) but one must also take into account that in order to be funded, a village must also have a strong, serious and authoritative council but above all honest and transparent, seemingly administration CUT led by Gordillo is all of this, and that is the envy of many Spanish municipalities.

Marinaleda defines itself a “utopia toward peace” but in everyday life, Marinaleda is not a utopia, it is just one example of serious politics, or thinking to the public before one’s own personal interests, both Esperanza Saul agree that not all the residents are always happy to all decisions, but decide together as a democratic majority. Almost always someone does not agree but it is the price to pay for Marinaleda prosperity. The data are clear: +400 residents in 35 years, a good sign for a small rural town in one of the poorest areas of one of the countries hardest hit by the economic crisis of recent years.

Marinaleda is not immune from the effects of the crisis, even here there is competition for job with workers from Eastern Europe and North Africa but, as Esperanza says: “you have to understand that the real enemy is those who exploit, who does not respect the rights and the minimum wage, not who is exploited because ‘desperate and illegally in the country. “

Esperanza adds that the successes of Marinaleda were made easier by the relative homogeneity of the social fabric, 90% of the working population are agricultural laborers. The CUT also governs other towns but since they are less homogeneous the struggles and demands of each interest group have made it more complicated to obtain similar results.

People of Marinaleda are conscious of being an example of the inconvenient fact that is possible to make decisions for the common good for the public interest, they are aware that this bothers the establishment and that is a dangerous example for the capitalist neo-liberal and individualistic system that is based on the mere research for profit and private advantage. Despite this, Saul, is not very optimistic, says that younger people, adolescents and neo-twenties, are struggling to work for free, sharing and being solidaire. Also for this reason, therefore, every year, during Easter week, in Marinaleda, takes place the Cultural Week for Peace, an initiative alternative to religious celebrations so common in Andalusia, a week to talk about peace, solidarity and justice.

A three-day visit is not enough to understand Marinaleda and we still have many unanswered questions, many doubts, but we found something much more normal, concrete and simple than we expected after reading articles on Marinaleda published by newspapers and international media. How perfectly sums up Saul: “What we are doing here is not that crazy. They are normal things that, if you wish, you can do from anywhere, provided that money and profit are not the guiding principle of everything you do and that people realize that it is not the money that we need to be happy and to live well. We just need to be more humble, satisfied with what we have and sometimes to fight for our rights, to be firm in our ideas and to defend them. In the end, if it’s not you that defend your ideas, none will defend them for you, that’s how things have been achieved here, so it can be done anywhere. “

 

The role of women in the democratization process of their countries: the case of Kurdish women.

One of the most interesting and unexpected meeting during the World Social Forum in Tunis, it is certainly the one with the representative of the Kurdish Women’s Relations Office, who spoke about the long struggle of Kurdish women for the recognition of their rights, within the overall democratic process of the complex  Kurdistan.

Kurdistan is not a nation but an independent state politically divided between Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria. The current territory division was defined at the end of World War I and it makes Kurdish people, up to today, one of the most numerous ethnic groups without a state. With 50 million inhabitants and more than a million displaced people in the Caucasian countries, Kurds are the largest ethnic group in the Middle East, exceeding in number Arabs and Turks. Since 2011, with the outbreak of civil war in Syria and after Saddam Hussein’s fall, the respective federal zones gained progressively a greater political autonomy.

In a complex situation as the Kurdistan’s one, where political and commercial interests are closely connected, occupying state and dozens of oil companies are reluctant to recognize the autonomy of these territories and where the Islamic State is now trying to advance, what is the status of women?

The celebration of March 8 of this year was devoted to the efforts of Women’s Protection Unit, female brigate of People Defence Forces (YPJ) who fought valiantly in Rojava and Kobanî to stop the advance of Syrian civil war and of the Islamic State.  Now, Women’s Protection Unit continues to fight against for the liberation from the oppression of the whole society, in general, and of women, in particular, but which role have women in Kurdish society that the YPJ wants to release?

Kurdish women face various forms of discrimination and oppression: as part of a nation without a state, as part of a society strongly patriarchal an influenced by Islamic fundamentalist. In the four political-administrative areas in which Kurdistan is divided, have very similar patriarchal characteristics that discriminate women as women and have repressive policies against Kurds as Kurds, which is in addition to the peculiarities of Kurdish feudal society. The result is the exclusion of women from political life, the spread of forced marriages, of female genital mutilation and honour killings: in 2014, 6,082 women were killed in Iraqi Kurdistan.

kurdistan2

The first sign of women’s participation in political life was the manifestation of 1 January 2006 to support Sevda Aydin, deported and raped by policemen ununiformed, followed by a public statement of support by 36 intellectuals women in favour of Pinar Selek, a sociologist accused of one explosion in one bazaar in Istanbul.

In fact, despite Kurdish women have a long history of struggle for national liberation alongside men, they have been marginalized even within the liberation movements, where often the structure is strong patriarchal too. The Kurdish context is only one of the examples where women are able to express their positions and claim for their rights only during social disorder phases that often represent an opportunity to establish their own movement, which would not have been possible under normal conditions. Activism or militancy legitimate indeed their claims that, once the crisis is over, are likely to be swept from the new political system established that draws easily to conservatism, in order to restore social and civil stability. The importance of the existence of women’s associations is crucial especially to continue the battle for recognition of women’s rights before, during and after the stages that mark the transition between the different government systems.

Currently South Kurdistan is the area that enjoys greater autonomy, in which there are relatively democratic institutions capable of promoting a fair economic development of the area, but many problems have not been addressed or not been identified yet. For instance, women are struggling to make the society recognize the problem of violence against women and to formalize the laws against violence against women. In fact, taking into account the number of reported cases, not considering that the majority of women fear to report case of violence, only 0.7% of responsible person was identified and arrested but often released after a short period.

For these reasons, the presence of female organizations are essential to achieve the effective recognition of women’s rights, as a top-down approach is often inadequate and reinforces the gender gap in an indirect manner. The mobilization of women, together with the presence of some Kurdish parties explicitly feminist oriented, led to the creation in 2006 of the co-presidency system: 1 man and 1 woman share municipalities’ leadership, management and responsibilities. In addition, equal numbers of women and men have to be guaranteed in the 5050 commissions at different administrative levels.

The formalization of the participation of women in the management of political, social and economic life of Kurdish society of the South has transformed some aspects of the national liberation movement, making women’s rights a prerequisite for the national liberation struggle.

kurdistan

The idea of gender equality as a fundamental prerequisite for the Kurdish national freedom cause, spread also in the other area of Kurdistan. For instance, a Rojava, in the West, the government adopted the co-presidency system and the equal number of women and men in the boards at various administrative levels, to ratify the free participation and full involvement of all women in the legal, political and civil system, including the army defence forces.

The government in Rojava do not allow men, who are responsible of domestic violence and/or are polygamist, to take part in politics or civil society organizations. Moreover, violence against women and early and forced marriages are outlawed and criminalized. Therefore, western Kurdistan political system puts the rights of women as one of the main pillars of its agenda, together the respect for the ethnic and religious diversity, democratic participation and environmental protection. It stands as a different system, synthesized in the word democratignation that is a modern democracy based on the dignity of persons, in which the rights of all are recognized and respected by everybody. Model who wants to be in contradiction with the current capitalist, nationalist and patriarchal global dominant system, transforming differences in diversity, using them to divide people based on gender, ethnicity and religion, rather than present the differences a chance to enrich and create new opportunities. The capitalist economy excludes women from the system and they have no representatives in many sectors of the society: this does not allow the establishment of a real and complete democracy.

The democratignation is an alternative, a model based on human dignity, gender equality, collectivism and ecology. Kurdish Democracy model, with the co-presidency system and the guarantee of women’s participation in all sectors of society, has shown that there is an alternative to the capitalist system: a form of modern democracy able to establish itself as an alternative to the modern capitalism.

Alternative Development or Alternative TO Development?

The World Social Forum, is the meeting place of new ideas and alternatives to the current global system, characterized by neoliberal policies promoted by the triad: World Bank, IMF and World Trade Organization. Precisely for this reason, ALTERRATIVE (never better name) decided to go to Tunis and to participate in the debates and reflections on why the current system should be changed and the various possible ways to build a more just and fair world.

A first reflection attains the meaning of words and the type of language used to define the concepts of model, system and development. In the collective imagination the word “development” has a positive meaning: the “developed” countries are the countries that contribute to global development, whose citizens have access to all the basic needs and more, in which civil, social and economic rights are recognized by the Constitution to all people living within their territory, regardless of sex, race, religion. Conversely, countries “under-developed” or “developing” are the countries that, far from political and economic integration, describe themselves as antagonists to the “developed” countries and / or aspire to become “developed” them too. Are we sure that this is true? The word “development” is often used in the economics field, or combined with adjectives, such as “sustainable” or “inclusive”, in the social sector, which is dominated by a specific idea of development that wants to establish itself as THE only way possible.

WSF 2015 - Tunis
WSF 2015 – Tunis

The concept of development, just as it was stated in the years 60’s/70’s, then revised in the 90’s, is going through a critical phase in which are emerging new claims, rights and requirements, especially with regard to the environmental issue, collective rights and the inclusion of indigenous and migrant populations.

These new issues have the power to push usto revise not only the concept of development itself but also the criteria by which we measure the degree of development of a country. For example, more appropriate criteria should consider how development has allowed all citizens the full enjoyment of the fruits of economic growth of a country, how the labor market has changed, the growing job related insecurity, what is the negative impact of productive activities on the environment and to what extent they have affected and influenced livelihoods and human relations. Also, it is important to check in what terms the development has led to an expansion of civil rights, has fostered a greater democratic participation and gradual integration of indigenous and immigrant.

These socio-economic changes raise other questions, for example: it still makes sense to speak of nation states rather than multi-country?

The new constitutions of Ecuador and Bolivia are an important testimony to that effect. In both countries, in fact, social movements of different nature (women, environmentalists, peasants, marginalized groups) were involved in the establishment of the respective constitutions and have influenced the political scene, leading to the election of indigenous political leaders such as Evo Morales and Rafael Correa Delgado, both elected and confirmed in power for 3 consecutive times. The Ecuadorian constitution, for example, defines development according to the criteria of ‘buen vivir’, it recognizes the Kichwa and Shuar as languages of intercultural relations, together with Castilian and that ‘the official language. The ownership of the rights is attributed to people but also to communities, peoples and collective groups, and going beyond representative democracy the constitution makes room even to direct and community democracy. In Ecuador, the chapter on development, recognizes the principle of food sovereignty. Principle that want to go beyond that of food security, because it places some conditions such as the recognition of land rights, ownership of the means of production, to defend biodiversity against the imposition of monoculture as fundamental and necessary for citizens’ livelihoods.

The recognition of such kind of rights in state constitutions can be a first step towards their effective affirmation, their full enjoyment and lay the foundations of an alternative system to the current one, that proved to be unfit to reach the poorest segment of society.

However, the main question is whether it is possible to establish an alternative system within the framework of the current capitalist system that is being challenged, or not and if the alternative answer is unique or. We must also ask ourselves if for this system there is only a single alternative or if we have to take into consideration a plurality of alternatives, each in response to a specific sector, to be promoted locally rather than globally.

What is the way forward then? What are the objectives that development want to pursue? The post-2015 UN development agenda proposes a closer cooperation between the private sector and the social one, restricting this way the concept of development to the economic sector, leaving little space for civil society initiatives and imposing a system that encourages individualism and demeans the sense of community.

In such a scenario, global social movements could provide an important contribution to the process of creating and implementing the alternatives to the current capitalist system. These alternatives would represent a real radical change and possible ensure a wider recognition of human rights and respect for diversity.

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