Colonialism with its dominant patriarchal and racist ideologies did not accept alternative ways of living. Its faith in the superiority of Western ways of thinking justified the violent destruction of original economic, social and ecological balances in all the regions of the world it invaded. Colonialism propagated an alienation from nature and an ecocide which nowadays finds its continuation in extractivism. As German philosopher Ernst Bloch put it, humans think they have the right to relate to nature like an occupation army relates to enemy territory. In many parts of the world, governments and mining companies act as if they had the God-given right to exploit the land at the expense of local communities and women in particular. Extractivist actors form the greatest threat to rural communities and women today, in particular where women’s land ownership is inhibited by tradition.
The wealth leaves the country while the social and ecological destruction remains on site.
In southern Africa many communities are being robbed of their
land. National governments most of the times condone this practice of
land grabbing due to the pressure of the transnational corporations
that are being granted the right to extract minerals from the earth.
Almost everywhere in the region people are under the impression that
local communities cannot deny governments and corporations access to
the land if it is needed for mining purposes. The governments let
themselves be persuaded by memoranda of understanding by the
companies that always promise to not only contribute to the wealth of
the countries but also to directly improve the situation of the local
communities. They promise the creation of jobs and to enhance
infrastructures for education, health and transport. In reality
nothing or only very little actually happens. Mining companies reap
the profits and leave behind environmental degradation and social
disintegration. Whatever governments collect in the form of license
fees and taxes, if they get paid, often disappears into the private
accounts of the elite of the national governments who have no social
connection to the communities in question. The wealth leaves the
country while the social and ecological destruction remains on site.
I was born in DR Congo, a very rich country when it comes to
natural resources. I have seen many of these cases in different parts
of the country and they occur in many other African countries.
Because extractivism particularly affects women this article wants to
emphasize the importance of tying antiextractivism and feminism in a
The negative effects of mining particularly affect women as they
are the ones who carry the responsibility for the survival of the
family, and families are dependent on access to the land and water
that is polluted and destroyed by extractivism. In extractivist
contexts, it is generally women who ensure the survival of socially
disintegrated societies; the men working in the mines suffer the
effects of unhealthy working conditions and become prone to
alcoholism, and women consequently dedicate more time to care
work—while also facing an increase in domestic violence.
In light of these developments it is important to understand the
scope of many local initiatives against extractivism. They are
campaigning for realizing their “Right to Say No.” In South
Africa for example, there is the Mineral and Petroleum Resources
Development Act (MPRDA), a law that prescribes that mining companies
must consult all concerned parties before starting their activities.
Unfortunately, South Africa is not an exception to the general
picture in which both national governments and transnational
companies reduce the required consultation processes to mere
formalities, which suggests that they hold colonialist beliefs about
their unchallengeable right to access the land of local communities:
landowners and users cannot refuse access. Faced with this
existential threat, the communities affected by mining are
rediscovering the value of solidarity. They are joining forces to
claim their space in the centre of decision-making processes
concerning their communities. Doing so they are discovering the
integrative strength of women, whose voices have been marginalized
for so long. Claiming space at the centre of decision-making means
that they design their own options for developing their communities.
They don’t see a future in extractivism.
The overcoming of extractivism and the dismantling of patriarchy must be understood as a joint struggle towards decolonization.
Not only does extractivism place a heavy burden on women and their local communities; it is also harmful to the environment. This combined assault on humanity and nature is not new, but rather indicates a continuation that dates back to the birth of the colonial project. Colonialism, understood as the commodification of the earth, its treasures, its flora and fauna and particularly its people for the economic benefit of the colonizing nations, still goes hand in hand with the domination over women and nature in the self-declared civilized nations. In the colonies people were alienated from nature and, by means of forced labor, induced to develop a violent relationship to nature. This relationship is being continued in extractivism. Therefore, the overcoming of extractivism and the dismantling of patriarchy must be understood as a joint struggle towards decolonization. Extractivism and its violent relationship with nature and people in the surrounding areas of the mines is a manifestation of skewed power relations, political structures, and economic dominance that maintain colonial logic and praxis. We can only successfully overcome the crises triggered by extractivism if the voices that have been marginalized up until now, especially those of women, claim a space in the center of the process of change.
Boniface Mabanza Bambu is a theologian, philosopher and literary scholar from DRC. He works for KASA, Kirchliche Arbeitsstelle Südliches Afrika/Ecumenical Service on Southern Africa in Heidelberg, Germany where the main focus of his work is on apartheid and post-colonialism.
Tens of thousands of Belgian students have been leaving their classes to go on strike in defense of the climate. For almost two months now, every Thursday many of these students are striking. And they’ve been taking to the streets in mass protests.
One of the adult protesters is Karen Naessens of Rise4Climate, an organisation that has coordinated a recent demonstration in Brussels. Almost 100,000 people showed up for the protest. Never before did Belgium have such a large climate march. Naessens explains:
We’re protesting because we feel politicians still haven’t got it. We want to show these demands are held by the public at large and that people really care. It’s not only Belgium that should be more ambitious. It’s one of the worst performers in the EU. The EU should take a pioneering role. Europe should take the lead. It’s up to us to put it on the agenda!
Much of the Belgian media has been remarkably benevolent towards the climate protests. I have been wondering if this will change, when many climate truants will have been campaigning every Thursday for months. In my view, some of the students are obviously planning to do just that: to strike every Thursday.
Protests of young people have gathered force in Europe over the past weeks, especially in countries like the UK, The Netherlands and Germany. In France, Sweden, Switzerland and elsewhere, activists have also gathered in large numbers, the protests taking a different shape in each country. Nevertheless, the movement does have its common inspirations.
Greta Thunberg, a 16-year-old Swede, has drawn worldwide attention and inspired many of the protesters. She was the first to raise awareness of global warming through a school strike. In the beginning she was striking alone. Nobody expected her to become so influential . But her idea has taken hold among the youth, and not without reason: the strikers belong to a generation that will suffer immeasurably from climate change and its impacts.
In this text I am focusing on Belgium, where I live, and where climate protests have been larger than in any other country. Here, all age ranges are out on the street demanding for better climate policies, and youth is at the forefront of it. But, the movement does have its challenges. First, there is some danger from the Right. Second, many people don’t seem to really understand what is going on when it’s about climate change and what to do against it. And so, there are many who turn to experts to solve the problem. I argue that radical democracy, and the ideas of social ecology, are a much-needed antidote.
One of the reasons for the climate movement here becoming so big is the fact that it is very influenced by the ecological left. The ecological Right is small, but growing. Yes, the Right is slowly turning green – or so it seems. Amongst other things, they’re proposing “nuclear energy solutions” (like nuclear fusion or using thorium) and new climate technology (whether it already exists or not), stopping what they see as overpopulation, putting electric cars on the roads and setting up climate taxes (for the rich as well as the poor).
But is it really that green? After all, it has kept rather close connections with industrial lobby groups (investing in fossil fuels, for example) and climate skeptics. Arguably, the Right is just nervous after the large climate protests. Greenwashing their policies and proposals could simply be a response to feeling the wind turn under the impetus of the climate movement. The mainstream of the Right is only just trying to appear more ecological than it is in reality, to obtain more votes because there are important elections coming up in May.
What we especially need now in Belgium is a growing movement from below that puts good climate measures on the political agenda, not false or unwelcome solutions like those proposed by the “green” Right. If we look at all the climate protests of the past couple of months, we are doing quite well in that respect.
Beyond the challenge from the Right, Belgium is also facing another problem: the over-reliance on experts. Lately we have heard more and more pleas to have climate-related problems “solved” by experts. Experts, the argument goes, should sit around the table with policymakers, or should be given more money to do research on new technologies. Normal people are considered incompetent to find adequate solutions for climate change.
And so, the opinion of many people, even some of the students, has become that more power must be placed in the hands of experts. Experts who have to come up with a new type of nuclear power plant. Or experts who know a lot about the nature of climate change because they are climatologists, or architects, or … policy makers.
Experts are called in if people do not know how to solve problems. For example, when proposed solutions do not fit within their own ideological framework, or when they see themselves as not competent enough to come up with enough adequate solutions. Experts can help to solve problems, but their large power must be treated with some mistrust. If experts contradict each other a lot, like in Belgium for the moment, one soon has to deal with social stagnation and political immobility.
When it comes to climate change, Belgium has already looked at what experts do or do not advocate. Or what people do who are viewed as experts in a certain area (or whose expertise is questioned or even denied by some). There is therefore a battle going on when it’s about measures against climate change and choosing the experts that are fit for this.
So if not the experts, then who? If we leave measures against climate change to current policy makers, we will be setting ourselves up for a long wait. Power is nowadays mainly in the hands of large companies, as lobby groups they determine a large part of the Belgian and European policies. The large corporations generally are not much interested in ecological life, harmony or production. Their main raison d’être often is making profits and competing with other corporations. They want to keep their important positions within the contours of the market economy, and many principles have to be denied for that.
When experts obtain too much power we have elitist technocracy. This is really problematic, it’s disempowering and patronizing for most people. It’s especially a problem when the experts who have too much power are just politicians of top-down parties defending technocratic statecraft—like the case is now in Belgium and many other countries—and not at all climate experts trying to do something against climate change… well, then we really are in trouble. Then it becomes important for us to build counter-power and participation through grassroots movements.
The climate movement in Belgium needs to come to grips with the fact that the current ecological crisis cannot be solved by the market, or experts, alone. As Murray Bookchin wrote in 1993:
Unless we realize that the present market society, structured around the brutally competitive imperative of “grow or die,” is a thoroughly impersonal, self-operating mechanism, we will falsely tend to blame other phenomena — technology as such or population growth as such — for environmental problems. We will ignore their root causes, such as trade for profit, industrial expansion, and the identification of progress with corporate self-interest. In short, we will tend to focus on the symptoms of a grim social pathology rather than on the pathology itself, and our efforts will be directed toward limited goals whose attainment is more cosmetic than curative.” Ecology should not become dismal science or co-opted by the right, and therefore it should be infused with good social theory and interesting politics. Ecologists should be aware of the way the present market society is structured and the ills and disadvantages of industrial capitalism.
Taking advantage of the growing momentum in the climate movement, a new group of grassroots activists in Liège, a city in the south of Belgium, is planning a large international conference on what is called “social ecology” in September. In the words of Murray Bookchin once again, what defines social ecology is:
its recognition of the often-overlooked fact that nearly all our present ecological problems arise from deep-seated social problems. Conversely, our present ecological problems cannot be clearly understood, much less resolved, without resolutely dealing with problems within society. To make this point more concrete; economic, ethnic, cultural, and gender conflicts, among many others, lie at the core of the most serious ecological dislocations we face today — apart, to be sure, from those that are produced by natural catastrophes.
Projects like the conference on social ecology in Liège in September can help influence the climate movement to ask the hard questions about the role of capitalism and the need for alternative, direct democracy. We already have many climate protests now in Belgium. What we especially need now are some good debates and analyses about what direction the climate movement in Belgium (and other countries) should take.
Rafa Grinfeld has been studying social ecology for more than 25 years, and has been active in social and ecological activism, writing and traveling to meet and talk with social ecologists in Europe and North America.
As part of Not the Anarchist Bookfair in London, Corporate Watch along with Uneven Earth and Plan C London organized a discussion on technology, ecology and future worlds. The event, named Techno Fantasies and Eco Realities, was attended by about 20 people and included some wide ranging and at times lively discussion around the role of technology and ecology in future worlds. In particular it focused on how we can free our imaginations from the grip of capitalist realism (the idea that capitalism is the only option for organizing society), picturing possible future worlds and the role that technology will play in them, while keeping our imagined worlds grounded in social and ecological realities. For example, not forgetting that we are living on a planet with limited natural resources or that we have to consider how to make these imagined futures real.
Participants were invited to read three short pieces ahead of the discussion:
Although initially a tongue in cheek provocation, Fully Automated Luxury Communism (FALC) has morphed into a serious proposition of how technology and automation could be used to provide for everyone’s needs and free people from the drudgery of wage labour. Bastani’s piece attempts to counter some of the ecological critiques of the idea, arguing that FALC can be green. Instead of trying to halt the progress of technological development, and reduce energy consumption, Aaron argues that we should ride the technological horse to move beyond scarcity, proposing a kind of accelerationism where technology is rapidly advanced in order to bring about radical social change.
In “Accelerationism.. and Degrowth? The Left’s Strange Bedfellows”, Aaron Vansintjan looks at accelerationist ideas like FALC and compares them to ‘degrowth’, evaluating the similarities and differences between the two frameworks. Degrowth is a movement that has emerged from environmentalism and alternative economics and is focused on theorising and creating non-growth based economies and societies.
Although accelerationism and degrowth are apparently opposed, Vansinjtan finds some shared ideas, including their recognition of the need for deep, systemic change, their calls for democratisation of technology and their rejection of ‘work’ (or at least the idea that work is inherently good). The key differences centre around accelerationism’s focus on reappropriating technology to achieve a resource-unlimited society, versus degrowth’s aim of limiting the development of certain forms of technology and staying within resource constraints. Degrowth also seeks to slow the metabolism of society, whereas accelerationism aims to increase the pace of social change. Ultimately, while supportive of accelerationism’s inspiring vision, Vansinjtan finds it seriously lacking in dealing with ecological critiques.
Rut Elliot Blomqvist examines three different visions of possible future worlds and the role that technology plays in them. ‘Pulling the Magic Lever’ is a reference to how technology is used to answer social or ecological problems without explaining how it will do so: you simply ‘pull the magic lever’ of technology and hey presto, it’s all solved. It’s a running theme in all three of the imagined futures Blomqvist chooses to analyse. The first is in The World We Made, a novel by environmentalist Jonathon Porrit, then The Venus Project, a technology based political proposition, and finally Fully Automated Luxury Communism. In their analysis, Blomqvist uses a World Systems Theory approach to evaluate the ideas, critiquing the story of modernisation by framing it around colonialism.
The World We Made is based on Design Fiction, where fiction inspires possibilities of new designs. It sees the human species in general as the villain responsible for destroying the environment. In the novel’s fantasy scenario, however, humans manage to turn things around and start to use technology and various existing world institutions for the common good. As Elliot points out, this book flags up an important discussion around the idea of the ‘anthropocene’ (a proposed name for a new human-affected geological epoch), which may support the view that the human species in general is the problem, rather than certain humans or, say, a capitalist growth-based economy. They also describe the book’s tendency towards technological optimism: it presents technology as providing the answers, without explaining how, and ignores the socio-cultural-political reasons for current ecological destruction.
The Venus Project is found to be even further along the techno-optimist spectrum and again ignores how its proposed technological utopia might be brought into existence. As well as highlighting its fetishisation of the scientific process, Elliot explains how The Venus Project often engenders conspiracy theories, a number of which are dangerously close to anti-Semitism.
Continuing the trend, FALC is found to involve similar techno-utopianism, where the working classes seize the means of production and use automation to create a world of plenty. Elliot points to a blind spot, as FALC doesn’t consider the limits of post-industrialism beyond the western world. Elliot describes how all three rely heavily on ‘pulling the magic lever’. While they show imagination, they are limited by the fossil-fuelled mentality they seek to criticise.
In our discussion at Not the Anarchist Bookfair, we asked participants to discuss two questions:
What role does technology play in our ecologically sustainable future, and how do we get there?
How can we move beyond the techno-optimist versus primitivist dichotomy? (I.e. beyond viewing technology as either the solution to or source of all our problems).
The questions were discussed in pairs, in small groups and then with everyone participating, and led to a broad discussion of the various themes raised. Some key points that came out included:
The importance of considering the social power necessary to make futures, and how human agency is often missing in visions of techno utopias.
The need to change who makes technology, how it is produced and the inherent politics of technologies.
The need to highlight and develop technology’s potential within the ecological movement, including within degrowth discussions.
The need to positively promote ecological future visions, and how to counter environmentalism’s ‘hair shirt’ image.
Considering whether we should assume that technologies will inevitably be developed, and so ride the tech bandwagon, or try to intervene and prevent or hinder certain developments.
Thinking about if/how we can change the basis on which automation takes places and is implemented. E.g. is non-capitalist automation possible, and if so, how could it be made non-capitalist?
Thinking about ways of bringing ecological and technologically based visions of the future back together.
A number of participants were keen to continue discussions and we are considering further forums to hold related future discussions. Corporate Watch is currently working on a technology project, if you are interested in knowing more or collaborating on future work, please email email@example.com. To get involved with discussions as part of the Plan C Climate cluster contact firstname.lastname@example.org
This article was also published on the Plan C blog, here.
Sita Maji of the Santhal tribe sits in front of her temporary house in Munda, Mayurnbanj district of Odisha, India. She lives with her two children, one and three years old, along with her husband and her old mother. In the hot May weather of 45 degrees, this small house is the only escape for her family of five—70 km away from her ancestral village in Kabathgai, from where she was forcefully relocated by the Forest Department on May 28 2016.
Kabathgai was a village located in the core area of the Simlipal Tiger Reserve, one of the biggest and most recognized tiger reserves in the East Indian state of Odisha. While the home of many tigers, Simlipal has also been home to numerous tribal communities such as Santhal, Kolho, and Khadia, which have inhabited these lands for centuries.
The red silk cotton trees of semul flowers, which give the name to the Simlipal National Park, have been the house, the shadow, and companionship to tribal people like Sita. But today to respond to the need for environment conservation, in Simlipal, as well as in many other Tiger Reserves of India, many villages have been relocated outside the forest area, because they are considered a threat to the wildlife and the conservation of the tigers. No longer considered the protectors of the forest, they have been targeted by the government and the wildlife “experts” as encroachers.
The relocation of Kathbagai village has been planned after the notification of the new Critical Tiger Habitat (CTH) in Simlipal Tiger Reserve. The critical tiger habitats (CTHs), also known as core areas of tiger reserves, are identified under the Wild Life Protection Act (WLPA), 1972, based on scientific evidence that “such areas are required to be kept as inviolate for the purpose of tiger conservation.” The term “inviolate” has mostly been interpreted as “free of human presence”. However, in many parks all over India, the demarcation of CTHs coincides with areas inhabited by numerous human settlements.
The Santhal village of Kabathgai fell under the demarcation of the new core tiger area in Simlipal, announced in December 2007. For this reason Sita’s family was relocated, as her family was considered dangerous for the wildlife conservation and for the protection of the tigers.
With a yellow bright sari, and a tired expression, Sita is resting after a morning of hard work of building up her new houses in the relocated Munda place. She tells me how difficult their life has been since the relocation: “Out of the forest everything needs to be purchased from the market, and after the relocation the forest department helped us with only 1 kg rice per person for the first 3 months. The food available here is of bad quality and we are suffering from bad health issues”. Sita explains about the conditions at the site of relocation, but her eyes glimpse only when she tells about her forest, remembering those days when their children could play freely on the ground, and the women used to rest under the big shading trees.
The relocated site is still a temporary camp, where a row of mud houses has been covered by plastic black tents that function both as shade and protection for the rain. Firewood and kitchen utensils are spread throughout the house’s lane where cooking, sleeping and washing clothes take place in the same narrow area. Electricity is still not available and a water pump and one temporary toilet have been considered to be enough for the entire community of 47 families.
“Here it is very hot. Without any trees, rivers and lands we feel lost! We are not used of living in such an environment and in the hot summer, we are suffering from lots of sicknesses and many people have been already carried to the hospital because of dehydration” says Sita Maji.
For two months the entire community have been working to build up their houses of about 10×8 feet per family, under the MGNREGA (Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme), a National scheme aiming at enhancing the livelihood security of people in rural areas.
After the construction is finished they will need to take some other wage labour from outside in order to survive.
The tribal people: puppet of the legal regime
The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, or the Forest Rights Act, (FRA) 2006 is the legal instrument that recognises the rights of Sita to inhabit the forest area and to carry on her traditional activities.
The FRA is a milestone act with the aim of restoring the traditional and customary rights of the tribal and the forest dwellers’ communities that have historically been denied and exploited by the colonial forest governance. Prior to the FRA, entire communities living inside protected areas were denied entitlements on their forest land, and always threatened by eviction due to being considered illegal in their own territory. Other forest entitlements such as grazing, fishing, collecting of minor forest products (MFPs) were also denied. Thus the FRA is a piece of legislation that gives hope to all the forest dwellers in India.
Sita’s family have struggled for many years to obtain the piece of paper that could allow them to live in peace, cultivate the land, carrying on their activities in the forest and finally enjoy the legal rights which they have previously been denied. After a long struggle, Sita’s community got their community title in 2015, but they were forced to relocate just after. “We fought for our land and for our children, but the pressure put on us by the forest department was unbearable, and we had to come out to find a bit of peace,” says Sita remembering the day they got pushed out of their forest.
“People living in the Kabataghai village in the core tiger zone were forced continuously to relocate by the forest department. Department also sent middle-men to lure village residents into accepting the compensation package, lying that it is a one-time opportunity” says Sanghamitra, a member of Community Forest Rights Learning and Advocacy, a group of activists from across India advocating the FRA. She has been working closely with the Tribespeople living in the core zone of Simlipal.
According to the FRA, the people can be relocated by the Critical Tiger Habitat only if non-coexistence with wildlife have been proved through scientific studies, and only after the voluntary and written consent of the gram sabha (the elder’s council). The people of Kobathgai were never keen to be relocated. In the middle of the winter, Sita’s family had to leave their ancestral land. The entire colony was moved with trucks to this desolate piece of land close to the main city of Jashipur. “In that same day our houses were turned apart, our cropped land destroyed by elephant and our community villages took over by the authorities,” explains Sita, remembering that day which is still very fresh in her memory.
When the District Collector of Mayurbhanj, who is responsible for the relocation of the people, was asked if the relocation was forced he absolutely argued that all relocation have been voluntary. But is continuous harassment, destruction of crops, and physical and mental torture considered normal behavior by the Forest Department, who instead should have cooperated with the villagers and recognized their granted rights as per FRA.
With a package of 10 lakh rupees (US$15,000) and a false promise of land, the Kabathgai community had no option but relocation.
The rights recognized under the Forest Rights Act are now expired, according to the District Collector, and people are not anymore able to go back to their ancestral land, pursue their traditional activities, and to collect the MFPs for their livelihood. Landless and helpless, the people of Kabathgai are yet to realize how to survive out of the forest. The men seem to show more strength and hope about a new modern life, while the women are feeling the frustration and the fear of a life not corresponding to their needs.
An ongoing struggle
Sita’s community is not the only one which has been forcefully evicted by the forest department disregarding FRA 2006. In the same Simlipal Tiger Reserve, since 20094 villages, 3 from the core tiger area and 1 from the buffer zone, have been already moved out of the forest. Conflicts between state forest departments and Indigenous people are being reported across the protected areas of the country. According to a report on displacement due to conservation published by the environmentalist A. Kothari, in the last 30 years a number between 100,000 to 300,000 people have been displaced in the name of conservation.
InKanha Tiger Reserve more than 700 families of the Baiga tribe have been displaced since 1970. InNagarhole National Park and Tiger Reserve a number of 3,400 families got displaced without any proper compensation and relocation; inKaziranga in the state Assam a 2015 high court order has ordered the eviction of more than 2,000 forest dwellers inhabiting the area, among which many are Mising tribal people, Adivasis and Bengali minorities.
The Forest Rights Act continues to be ignored by the authorities which carry on with illegal evictions in the name of conservation.
A recent circular issued by the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA), the government body that looks after the managing of the tiger reserves for the conservation of the big cat, ordered that ‘no forest rights under FRA should be anymore granted inside the CTH’. This means the annulment of rights for forest dwellers like Sita, whose traditional livelihoods are dependent on their ability to collect MFPs.
The order could indeed seriously aggravate the situation on the ground. Tribespeople who have been fighting for their rights in the forest even after the FRA being in place are now compelled to come together to fight against the NTCA’s order.
The conflict arising in the name of biodiversity conservation has been increasing in India as well as in many other part of the world. In the name of conservation today many communities are getting relocated and deprived of their means of survival without properly ensuring them any livelihood option and without any engagement in the real meaning of conservation.
Today conservation is just another name used as a justification for territorialism.
The positive connotation given to conservation is being used to hide the negative words of dispossession, land acquisition, and denial of rights. It is under this name that Sita’s family was relocated from her village, last year during the monsoons without proper shelter or facilities, and with only the support of a few kilos of rice. “We could not sleep at night and the children were constantly crying. We are now working day and night in the hot weather to finish the construction of the house before the new monsoon season starts, but after this who knows what our destiny will be,’ argues Sita.
While pronouncing these words she turns towards the empty space, and then looking at me she says: “We were before the protectors of the forest, now they turn us into its enemy!”
All photos by Eleonora Fanari
Eleonora Fanari is a researcher currently based in New Delhi. She has been working on the issue of social exclusion, minorities, and land rights in collaboration with several non-governmental organizations. She is currently associated with Kalpavriksh, a non profit organization working on environmental and social issues, where she is carrying on research on conservation and tribal rights in protected forest areas. She blogs here.
After eight months, starting with a few hundred young Native Americans and swelling to up to 15,000 people in the sprawling encampments of Standing Rock, North Dakota, a victory was celebrated. President Obama’s US Army Corps of Engineers denied the request for an easement to allow Energy Transfer Partners (ETP)* and their “family” of logistics corporations to build the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) under Lake Oahe and the Missouri River, which that could threaten the water supply and sacred burial sites of the Standing Rock Sioux. The Army Corps of Engineers further required a full Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), which usually takes months and sometimes years, to reconsider granting the easement.
DAPL is a $3.7 billion project that would link 1,200 miles of pipeline carrying over 500,000 barrels of crude oil every day from North Dakota through the mid-west and eventually to the east coast and south of the US. The sunny and wind-swept prairie of Standing Rock reveals the absurdity of building fossil fuel infrastructure that will further harm the planet when renewable energy is everywhere, waiting to be developed.
The December 4th decision came immediately after 2,500 US military veterans joined the “water protectors”, as they are called, at Standing Rock. The vets formed a human shield protecting the water protectors from the myriad local law enforcement officers who work on behalf of the interests of the private oil and gas industries. Several of the vets said that, after serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, their effort to protect Standing Rock was the first time they actually felt they were protecting the American people.
After almost 500 years of white settlers and the US government stealing land from Native American tribes and forging divisions between them, over 200 Native tribes have coalesced to protect Standing Rock. The history of government-sanctioned genocide and colonialism are recurring themes in this struggle.
The main “road” in the encampment is Flag Row, a long dirt path lined with hundreds of colorful tribal flags from all over the Americas, signaling unity. Strict rules of decorum prevail—no drugs, alcohol, or weapons of any kinds, total non-violence, respect for decision-making by the tribal council and for elders, and dedicating the encampment to non-violent prayer. Their slogan is “Water is Life”. Thousands of Indigenous peoples from all over the world and tens of thousands of non-Indigenous peoples have come to Standing Rock to defend Indigenous rights and to protect Mother Earth. They want to kill the “black snake”: DAPL. There lie the seeds of unity and dissent.
Mother Earth and/or Indigenous Rights
Indigenous activists such as Tara Houska, Anishinaabe lawyer for Honor the Earth and Tom Goldtooth, Navajo leader of the Indigenous Environmental Network, see fighting the pipeline as more than defending the tribes; they see it as defending Mother Earth. They see fossil fuel infrastructure as dangerous to the future of humans on earth. They want to see the development of renewable energy and the end of fossil fuels.
Dave Archambault, II, Chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe and primary spokesperson for the coalition of tribes, will be satisfied if the pipeline is re-routed away from the Sioux orbit. He has told the water protectors camping on the grounds to go home to their families for the winter: their jobs are done. He has repeatedly stated that he is not opposed to infrastructure projects or to “energy independence” but rather is opposed when Indigenous peoples are not consulted and when the pipelines go through their lands and waters. Native Americans, many of whom are desperately poor and denied opportunities, have sold mineral rights to their parcels of land to fossil fuel developers.
This is a basic contradiction for Indigenous peoples: those who see Mother Earth as their responsibility to protect for the next seven generations (a common saying for some Indigenous groups), versus those who want to address their own poverty which seems much more immediate. This is a global phenomenon.
Months of battles with brutal local law enforcement have left hundreds of water protectors facing arrests, rubber bullets, tear gas, concussion grenades, water cannons used in sub-freezing temperatures, serious injuries and brutal treatment when incarcerated. Images of this police brutality against Indigenous peoples and their supporters have galvanized support for the protests and brought thousands of people to the 5-6 camps that make up the sprawling Standing Rock encampment. Tribal elders often look askance at many of the “unofficial” actions advanced by the “Red Warrior Camp” and their allies because they have drawn so much violence against them. Nonetheless, the tribal leaders decry the violence and partisan nature of the “law enforcement’s” savage response. Red Warriors see these direct action confrontations as the reason that Standing Rock has gotten any publicity at all and has attracted the attention and won the hearts of radicals and human rights advocates across the world.
Life at Standing Rock: Building liberated spaces
Standing Rock has developed massive camps, replete with many cooking tents each serving hundreds at every meal, large-scale donation operations, legal, medical, and psychological counseling services, schools, orientation sessions, and direct action trainings. Each morning and evening people gather around sacred fires and hear information, speeches, and music, and they dance and feel the power of unity.
They are creating a liberated space, a space where progressive people can come together to protect their ideas and their cultures together. The utopian feel of the place is immediately apparent.
Comparisons with Occupy Wall Street and its spin-offs would reveal a much larger, more on-going, and much more disciplined space in Standing Rock. It has captured the imagination and support of hundreds of thousands of people across the planet, from the Indigenous Sami peoples of Norway to workers from all over the US who are angry at the lack of support from organized labor, specifically the AFL-CIO.
The presence of youth is immediately noticeable at the camps though there are plenty of elders and children as well. Supporters mostly camp out and help to winterize the teepee, yurts, army tents, recreational vehicles, camping tents, vans and school buses that create a small city of protest. They are creating a liberated space, a space where progressive people can come together to protect their ideas and their cultures together. The utopian feel of the place is immediately apparent. The pull of such a liberated space is all the more meaningful in the face of US President-elect, Donald Trump. The encampment is simultaneously a historic throwback and a futuristic village of care and commitment to a more egalitarian and caring world.
The parallels with Occupy Wall Street are many—both aiming to build a new way with progressive and humanistic values, addressing the oppression of our people. Both captured the hearts of progressive folks and engaged mostly young people but Standing Rock’s supporters include many more people of color of all backgrounds. The history of Indigenous tribes welcoming people of African descent, especially during slavery, is not forgotten in this solidarity. Standing Rock’s success is grounded in Indigenous cultural values of respect, formal representative decision-making, discipline, and work that is further expressed through a deep spirituality that connects our human activity to the earth. Standing Rock is orderly and behavioral norms are clearly articulated and encouraged, if not enforced.
Naomi Klein, in her groundbreaking book, This Changes Everything, asserts that the climate movement can only be successful if it addresses racial, gender, and economic oppression as its main strategy and if it takes leadership from those most affected by climate change and the savages of capitalism. Without so much explicit language this is evidently what is happening at Standing Rock. The power of this strategy impacts everyone who enters the camp and the movement; the pull of this approach is enormous.
What lies ahead?
On December 4 and 5, over 15,000 people celebrated the Army Corps of Engineers decision to deny the permit to complete DAPL as planned, but the struggle is nowhere near over. Several factors make for a complex web of possibilities that underscore the necessity of the encampment and wide support to continue.
First, Trump can overturn Obama’s US Army Corps of Engineers’ decision and force them to grant an easement to ETP. That will be challenged in court as the US Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled that federal agencies cannot change a settled ruling of a federal agency that is based on facts when a new administration takes over. The US Supreme Court declined to take up this ruling, leaving the Ninth Circuit decision to prevail. If Trump tried to get the permit without an environmental impact statement he would have an immediate lawsuit on his hands that would prevent the easement from taking effect, at least immediately. Additionally, Trump’s reported investments in DAPL of $500,000 to $1 million may create a conflict of interest he cannot navigate. Other lawsuits against ETP are already in the courts and proceeding, further slowing down the process.
Further, Trump has talked about privatizing over 56 million acres of Native American reservations in order to facilitate exploitation of the natural resources of those lands. According to the Indigenous Environmental Network, Indigenous reservations cover 2% of US land but contain an estimate 20% of its oil and gas plus vast coal reserves as well. That fight will ignite much more organizing and fight back.
Second, and perhaps most important, are the specifics of the contracts between ETP and Sunoco Logistics, their partner organization in this project, and the dozens of major financial institutions that have invested in DAPL. These contracts can be negated and/or open to re-negotiation if the pipeline is not completed by January 1, 2017. At that point the financial institutions will have the legal right to back out of or diminish their investments. There are dozens, perhaps hundreds, of groups in the US that are pressuring these very financial institutions to drop their investments in DAPL. Many of the pension funds of public workers and others are invested in these financial institutions and supporters are mounting campaigns to uncover them and demand divestment.
Supporters have been cutting up their credit cards and closing their accounts from banks investing in DAPL. The Sightline Institute did a study of DAPL financing and found them to be “rickety”. They found that the value of crude oil has declined by about 50% since these contracts were signed, making the windfall profits from this venture much less likely. They found a sharp decline in oil production that may signal no further need for the pipeline. For some of the investors, DAPL is looking risky on many levels.
Third, ETP has a way to sneak out of the job as well. Their contract indicates that they are not liable for project completion if “rioting” takes place. ETP along with their allies in local North Dakota law enforcement have been calling the direct action by water protectors “rioting”, setting the stage for a possible exit from liability. The demonstrators have been peaceful if sometimes provocative and a great deal of video evidence indicates that the violence has emanated from the law enforcement officers, not the protesters. But “rioting” is the language ETP and the cops use, and for a specific purpose.
Fourth, the popular support for Standing Rock seems to grow with each day and each report of violence against the water protectors. There are similar challenges of fossil fuel pipelines in many parts of the US and they are gathering people to protest in those places as well. The model of encampments, of creating liberated spaces that protect the activists, land, water, and movement, has taken hold. No force will hold that back. From the AIM Spectra Pipeline, slated to go under the Hudson River and immediately past the Indian Point Nuclear Power Station 10 miles from New York City, to the Black Mesa Water Coalition of the US southwest, the struggles to reject fossil fuel infrastructure and to build a sustainable energy economy are everywhere in the US as they are across the planet.
A new solidarity is emerging. A new world is conceived. Its home is everywhere, its people are many.
A new solidarity is emerging. One that has a great deal of potential to unite the left under the joint banners of the oppression of people, particularly people of color, and the oppression of the earth itself. The hope lies in navigating that unity with a vision of solving both oppressions simultaneously. A new world is conceived. Its home is everywhere, its people are many. While its opponents are on the ascent, the struggle continues. Compassion, respect, clear demands and decision-making and solidarity can guide the way.
*The “Energy Transfer Family” of corporations involved in the logistics behind building the Dakota Access Pipeline are: Enbridge, Inc., Energy Transfer Partners, Energy Equity Partners, Marathon Petroleum Corp., Sunoco LP and Phillips 66
Nancy Romer is a life-long social justice activist starting in the tenants rights movement, then the feminist, anti-war, anti-racist, anti-imperialist, union, food justice and, now, climate justice movements. Nancy is Professor Emerita of Psychology at Brooklyn College and now writes primarily on climate movement-related efforts, with particular interest in agriculture and peasant movements in Latin America.
Who works indirectly for the UK Border Agency? Volunteers helpburn down migrant camps in Calais and elsewhere. In part due to cuts to its maritime services, bodies continue to wash up on EU shores. And as a result of recent policies, the government has made it clear that it would like the border control team to include landlords, neighbours, teachers, bank clerks, social workers, welfare administrators, and doctors. It is increasingly clear that the enforcement of the UK border is not limited to its ports of entry.
But the activists and medical trainees who go by “Docs Not Cops” are not going to comply. In the context of the EU’s ongoing inadequate and even murderous response to migrants, I interviewed activists at DocsNotCops for Uneven Earth.* This group of medical workers and activists represent just one example – in Britain – of a struggle against border regimes that exclude and stigmatize migrants, to the detriment of everyone.
The UK National Health Service (NHS), a system of socialized healthcare introduced in the aftermath of World War II, has been universally operative and “free at the point of use” since 1948. But advocates of privatizing public infrastructure (as pioneered by Margaret Thatcher) are gaining ground in their longstanding assault on the NHS.
In the years since, millions of people have taken to the streets to defend “Our NHS” against those who would tamper with it. The campaign of opposition to “our” NHS has been multi-pronged—involving de-funding, speculation, and propaganda—but the consensus is that it seeks to convert a public good currently organised along principles of universal welfare into a lucrative and stratified medical marketplace based on private care and insurance premiums, similar to that of USA.
In 2015 and 2016, it is the NHS doctors on the “junior” contract, which Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt is threatening with reform, who have occupied the bulk of the spotlight within the wider social conflict over healthcare provision. In his attempt to impose the exploitative new terms, Hunt has come up against a tireless wave of resistance he visibly did not expect. Although public sentiment in support of a fully public health service was known to be high, the junior doctors surprised many by handing their union, the British Medical Association, an extraordinarily strong mandate for taking strike action against the government: the ballot showed that 98% of more than 37,000 in England had voted in favour of full strike action. Perhaps even more surprisingly, doctors on strike have consistently been found to enjoy full support from a vocal majoritarian cross-section of society.
Most of those involved with DocsNotCops are also heavily involved in the junior doctors’ struggle. One interviewee, who asked not to be named, explained the current state of affairs for the fightback against Hunt’s reform: “The vast majority of its members have said they’re willing to escalate things. Unfortunately the BMA (our trade union) has been dragging its heels and not wanting to appear too militant. We’re seeing many medical staff talking about simply quitting the National Health Service, or even quitting the profession altogether. They’re still a minority, those suggesting a mass exodus, but it’s catching on, and it’s a terrible argument for many reasons—most of all because it would play right into the hands of privatizers. At this point, any “emergency meetings” the government tries to have with our BMA reps will be stormed by activists so as to ensure that continuous, 48-hour plus, strike action is on the table.”
The [Immigration Act] enlists doctors themselves in a closing of the borders.
But, specifically, DocsNotCops came into being in response to the passing of the UK Immigration Act. Hotly contested and repeatedly blocked prior to its approval in 2014, the Immigration Act was justified by a series of xenophobic discourses in mainstream newspapers (from the Daily Mail to the Guardian).These ill-substantiated anti-migrant narratives, fuelled by soundbites from politicians across the party spectrum, connected widespread ill-feeling generated by austerity policies and slow post-crisis economic recovery with a supposed immigration and asylum-seeking crisis. According to them, an unsustainable influx of both “medical tourists” and refugees has “swamped” Britain’s capacities to provide care at taxpayers’ expense: supposedly “stretching” the NHS to its breaking point.
The bill enlists doctors themselves in a closing of the borders, inside institutions. It changes the fundamentally unpoliced nature of public medical provision by introducing unprecedented screening, designed to identify those the state deems (as above) “undesirables” at the point of healthcare provision, in order to charge them fees, exclude them, or else dissuade them from seeing a doctor in the first place. In other words, the bill – as they see it – essentially turns civil, medical and caring professionals into agents of harm: “cops”; border agents; spies and debt collectors.
The policy changes have already produced tragic effects. Reem Abu-Hayyeh (DocsNotCops) cites, for example, “the sad case of Dalton Messam (44), an undocumented migrant who died in 2013 in East Ham from an unknown illness, too afraid to seek medical treatment in case he was deported, is testament to the potentially fatal consequences of limiting or cutting off access to healthcare for migrants.”
The energetic ad-hoc network came together to prevent this kind of shameful occurrence from ever being repeated. In their own words, the aim is “a society in which people aren’t scared of illness.” One trainee doctor and DocsNotCops activist observed: “As we move on with this fight, we’ve all been obliged to re-think the question ‘What is cost, in the NHS?’ Because we’re constantly confronting the fact that it’s the capitalists themselves who are putting the numerical value on what happens to people’s bodies under this system.”
The activists frequently point out in their written materials that Aneurin Bevan, the minister who founded the NHS, understood this profoundly. Bevan famously affirmed: “Illness is neither an indulgence for which people have to pay, nor an offence for which they should be penalized, but a misfortune, the cost of which should be shared by the community”. For these reasons as much as epidemiological ones, as DocsNotCops maintain, if a health system isn’t for everyone, it just won’t work.
The Immigration Act: paving the way for more austerity and privatization
As one of their first initiatives, DocsNotCops devised a consciousness-raising survey: How will the Visitor & Migrant NHS Cost Recovery Programme affect you? By responding to the survey’s prompts, anyone can easily learn that the government’s proposed measures include the introduction of charges attached to accessing A&E and general practice. There is also now a £200 surcharge on work visa applications, even though the majority of migrants already pay for the NHS in various ways: taxes, VAT, National Insurance, tuition fees.
Are hospitals simply complying? No. Unofficial protocols, for now, still operate in most places to simply go ahead and provide care to those with the wrong documents (or none).
So, it’s not universal charges for the time being, but rather, charges for some of us—those of us who don’t meet certain residency and citizenship conditions. Rhetorically, this is justified in the language of ‘sacrifice’ with reference to overcrowding and balancing the budget. Yet it requires that hospitals work with the UK Border Agency’s data to scrutinize people – everyone, not just some of us – for their legal status, rather than just their illness. They must, of course, acquire the computer and bureaucratic staff capability to do so. DocsNotCops sees the introduction of this kind of administrative functionality as the thin end of a wedge that is designed to kill off any collective sense of entitlement to “no questions asked” medical care.
Are hospitals simply complying? No. Unofficial protocols, for now, still operate in most places to simply go ahead and provide care to those with the wrong documents (or none). To combat this resistance, as Sophie Williams (DocsNotCops) notes: “The Act states that NHS Trusts will receive ‘financial incentives’ to recoup costs. This could mean pressuring staff to racially profile patients … those deemed eligible for free care, and those not.” The ‘Overseas’ debt-collection teams now being introduced in many hospitals look set to start transforming UK healthcare into something more like the world’s infamously chaotic, ineffective, and inhumane for-profit models.
On a case-by-case basis, pro bono UK legal workers have argued for waiving medical fees on behalf of denied asylum-seekers awaiting appeal, and various other vulnerable people such as undocumented and mentally ill homeless migrants. Enormous quantities of time, money and energy have had to be invested for every individual in court in order to prove the principle: “can’t pay, won’t pay”. In 2015 DocsNotCops found out via a Freedom of Information request that one hospital’s eight such full-time staff, dedicated exclusively to recouping costs from migrants, succeeded with just 10% of invoices.
Perversely, increases in pointless salaried administrative staff, who are hostile to patient care and an encumbrance to those delivering it, are completely typical of ‘cost-cutting’ privatization drives across institutions.
Perversely, such increases in pointless salaried administrative staff, who are hostile to patient care and an encumbrance to those delivering it, are completely typical of ‘cost-cutting’ privatization drives across institutions. Similarly, both of the recent attempts to trial the type of computer system that is required to terrorize newly convalescing people in this way (linking the Home Office and NHS records), and thus supposedly enable savings, incurred a cost of around £10 billionand ended in complete failure. On the other hand, NHS workers found that the government had “inflated six-fold” the NHS ‘cost’ of migrants. These precedents make clear that, even if the figure for the “savings” represented by denying migrants free care were true, introducing the requisite computer system would likely be a financial fiasco that completely buried that sum.
With the advent of DocsNotCops, theatrical “border controls” (“Checkpoint Care” stunts) have appeared outside hospitals. Asylum-seeking Virgin Marys—unable to pay the £5,000 fee for maternity care for non-resident migrants—were symbolically prevented from giving birth at Christmas, and videos circulated in which a white coat is peeled off to reveal a border guard’s badge. These protests expose the introduction of selective charging in the NHS as racist, a perversion of care, and detrimental to all. As the manifesto states: “Instituting this scheme will drive vulnerable migrants away from NHS services. … No doctors should have to police the people they treat. … Charging migrants for healthcare is the first step to normalising charging for everyone”.
NHS workers found that the government had “inflated six-fold” the NHS ‘cost’ of migrants.
It is important to stress that the punitive UK border already existed to an extent within the National Health Service, insofar as it permeates British society in the form of immigration controls, raids, checks, and xenophobia. A 2015 report by Doctors of the World found that, contrary to xenophobic tabloid narratives, the majority of migrants have felt deterred from using the NHS. And that’s before the Immigration Act had even been announced.
At a Docs Not Cops rally in April 2015, one doctor (active with Tower Hamlets Keep Our NHS Public, or KONP) was contemptuous of these reforms, which she referred to as racist: “This is an NHS which entirely depends on foreign workers. [Yet] a real hatred of foreigners is being stirred up in the country and in the NHS. … Our borders exist for rich people only when it suits them. … And they have the cheek to say that … people who come in to work in the country in poorly paid jobs are not entitled to healthcare! … We have to say no to this. We need to have humane care, we need people to come and work in our health services, and we need to have borders that are open for people.”
“Making both arguments at once”: Connecting migrant justice and politics of care
Belief in the possibility of universal welcome and care for all is not utopian. For decades, among the ranks of public health-workers, it’s been practiced and substantiated – and that includes all sorts of workers, not only those who swear to do no harm. Pitted against their values and experience are the border regimes that gratuitously detain hundreds of thousands of people every day, in prisons and detention centres which – perversely – rely on doctors to function.
By strategically refusing to collaborate with the immigration police, DocsNotCops is innovative but not unique. While the experience of a defensive “rear-guard” campaign to defend a public good from buy-out is, at this point, an all too familiar one for the Left, in many ways it is when activists are on the ‘offensive’, making impossible-deeming demands and affirming a positive transformation, that they are most united worldwide.
DocsNotCops say they have been inspired by acts of resistance by doctors on the other side of the world. In February 2016, for example, amid migrant solidarity demonstrations, one hospital in Brisbane, Australia refused to discharge a baby whose parents are seeking asylum. And when staff at Melbourne Royal Children’s Hospital protested against Australian government policies in October 2015 of placing children in detention and denying sick asylum-seekers care “a thousand doctors, nurses and other workers [had] finally howled in protest”—as Dr. Ranjana Srivastava put it.
While anti-migrant austerity narratives can be exposed on their own terms, the principle that ‘docs will not be cops’ also goes beyond the fiscal—gesturing toward logics of care outside of nationalism and capitalism.
This double focus of their struggle requires DocsNotCops’ messaging to be more thoughtful than others when refuting their opponents’ arguments for surveillance and austerity. For instance, they often come up against false statistics which suggest that non-tax-paying migrants and ‘medical tourists’ greatly burden taxpayers, or that the NHS is ‘bust’ and requires private buy-out. While these frames can be exposed on their own terms, the principle that ‘docs will not be cops’ also goes beyond the fiscal—gesturing toward logics of care outside of nationalism and capitalism. As Sophie Williams (DocsNotCops) said to me, “it’s about making both arguments at once”. It is not enough to point out that non-British people in fact bring net income to the NHS – not to mention indispensable labour (although this is true). To stand in solidarity with migrants and asylum-seekers, and to centre them in NHS organising in the context of their persecution, cannot be conditional on their cost-effectiveness, usefulness or unobtrusiveness within the system.
The distinction breaks down anyway: diseases don’t make distinctions around visas or passports, and people who avoid health services, out of fear of questioning or deportation, won’t just die but will tend to spread them. Their suffering—from the viewpoint of the owners of capital—should represent false ‘savings’ that, as DocsNotCops activists have argued, lead to far more expensive outcomes for society.
But what they demand is an “expensive” imperative that is simultaneously ethical and medical: far more migrants in the UK should avail themselves of health services than currently do. DocsNotCops are unapologetic about the cost of both junior doctors and truly universal healthcare. To those who would turn health infrastructure and carers into a nationalist surveillance mechanism funneling the poor and marginalized onto deportation planes—or, who knows, highly profitable debtor’s prisons—demanding the very best of healthcare for literally everybody who needs it, literally everywhere, is the only conscionable response.
*some DocsNotCops activists asked not to be named in this piece.
Sophie Lewis is researching the uneven geographies of reproductive technology and ‘outsourced gestation’ (aka surrogacy) at the University of Manchester. She pursues joy and feminist killjoyism in equal measure and enjoys dancing, writing (e.g. at Mute, The New Inquiry, Jacobin), mushrooms, and militancy. She tweets @reproutopia.
A day after I reached Barcelona in Catalonia (Spain) in the last week of May, its first woman mayor was elected, much to the delight of large sections of its civil society. Ada Colau, a 41-year-old activist who has fought with social movements against forced evictions, is with Barcelona En Comú (formerly Guanyem Barcelona).
This is one of many new political outfits in Spain that are rising from peoples’ movements of various hues, including those seeking fundamental changes away from an economic system that has left 50 percent of the country’s youth unemployed, created a massive unpayable public debt, and caused ecological devastation.
Over the next few days I met with a number of researchers and activists and practitioners in Barcelona who are in one way or the other seeking alternative futures. There seems to be an explosion of experiments towards sustainable farming and producer-consumer cooperatives,eco-housing and communes, solidarity networks, complementary or alternative currencies, occupation of empty buildings (squatting) by the homeless or for social activities, cycling and car-free spaces, reclaiming the commons in cities, and much else.
Though still marginal in a society that is overwhelmingly consumerist and wasteful as also facing enormous social problems (including a resurgent right-wing in many areas), these initiatives are growing and provide hope for a different future.
This would especially be the case if the grassroots mobilisation in such initiatives can be combined with progressive new elements in the state, such as the ones that have taken power in Barcelona … and if the rapidly rising political formation Podemos takes over Spain in the coming national elections.
Promises for another way of living
I will illustrate this with a few examples that I got to know of during my visit. One is theCooperativa Integral Catalana (CIC), a network of activists working on various aspects of collaborative, ecologically sensitive living.
Its aim is to be “a tool to create a grassroots counter-power, departing from self-management, self-organization and direct democracy, and one that would help overcome the actual state of dependency on the structures of the system, towards a scenario of liberty, full awareness, free of authority, and in which everyone could flourish under equal conditions and opportunities.”
As CIC activist Ale Fernandez told me, sitting on the roof of one of their working spaces in the midst of an urban herbal garden, the initiative has a very interesting origin. In 2006-08, activist Enric Duran Giralt carried out an act of financial rebellion, borrowing 492,000 Euros from various banks, distributing this to a number of initiatives described as alternatives to capitalism, and refusing to return the money, arguing that banks had been stealing from ordinary people for decades (earning the nickname ‘Robin Bank’!).
When arrested (and later released on bail), Duran pointed out the irony that chief executives of banks who had ruined the lives of millions of people by their irresponsible acts leading to the 2008 financial crisis, were being let off scot-free.
The CIC was started by him and others as a model of how people could live perfectly well without capitalist institutions such as banks, through solidarity and collective actions.The CIC has also evolved into the proposal for a global cooperative called Fair Coop with its own currency (faircoin), similar to Bitcoin but with justice and sustainability principle.
CIC worker Joel Morist I Botines took me out for coffee, and with his eyes shining brightly and a big unruly beard flying in the wind, gave me a run-down on all that the collaborative does: The use of unused buildings or other available properties for collective, social housing; community-led, free and alternative education that is integrated with community living; sharing knowledge platforms; producer-consumer exchange especially of organic, ecofriendly products (food, soap, laundry items, toothpastes, etc); technological innovation and collective repair spaces; social or ‘free’ community currencies in which exchanges can take place without using euros and movie-making through crowdfunding.
CIC is involved in these and much else. It has one permanent assembly for decision-making, but many individual processes or projects linked to CIC have their own assemblies, in an attempt towards decentralised or direct democracy. There are about 5000 user members in the producer-consumer exchange.
The full-time paid employees of CIC, interestingly, can even have their salaries reduced as they are encouraged to obtain more and more of their living needs through sharing, alternative currencies, and other ways that reduce the need for money!
The second initiative I saw is fascinating because it is not something we are used to in India. Can Masdeu is an old hospital building that had been abandoned for a few decades and was occupied by an international group of activists who converted it into a housing and social centre in 2001.
They achieved fame in early 2002, when some 100 police came to evict them. Using passive resistance and tactics that would have meant the police possibly injuring themselves and the occupants if forcible eviction was attempted, and eventually winning both significant public support and a local court’s favorable judgement, the activists managed to stay on. Since then, repeated attempts by the Barcelona administration to evict them failed. (Incidentally, the new Barcelona mayor was involved in protesting against these attempts).
The 24 people who now occupy Can Masdeu have converted it into an example of collective living, permaculture and organic farming, simpler lifestyles, baking and cycle repairs and other survival or livelihood activities, and through all this less need for money.
The 24 people who now occupy Can Masdeu have converted it into an example of collective living, permaculture and organic farming, simpler lifestyles, baking and cycle repairs and other survival or livelihood activities, and through all this less need for money.
Can Masdeu’s building and surrounding fields and forests have also become a space for residents of Barcelona (and elsewhere) to come and volunteer for practical work, do joint activities on Sundays, tend to little garden plots assigned to them, bring schoolkids to get exposed to a different life and more.
Claudio Cattaneo, one of Can Masdeu’s veterans, father of a two-year-old child, and also a researcher who has studied the ecological economics of squatting in Barcelona, was quite frank that this was still an evolving experiment. There are many weaknesses to be addressed still (for example, energy use remains relatively high, and it is not yet clear how elderly people would fit in), but even in his statement of gaps one could see that there is already a lot that the place has achieved.
Can Masdeu’s occupation is still technically illegal. I asked Ale Fernandez, one of the early residents, whether he would prefer it to be legalized; he said he was in two minds, it would be ok if there was a good law covering it, but it was also scary to be “part of the machine,” referring to the system that could gobble up such initiatives in a minute.
This is a dilemma many alternative, radical initiatives face in many countries: whether to remain ‘outside’ the system and face continued harassment and possible closure, or to get legitimised by it, which entails the risk of getting institutionalised, less ‘edgy’ and less radical.
It’s not all about money!
Another widespread trend in Europe encompasses a similar paradox. People in several towns are trying out social currencies of various kinds. In this experiment, the unit of exchange between producer or service provider and consumer is a locally generated ‘money’ or equivalent unit. For that particular exchange, therefore, the relationship is outside the dominant monetary system.
In so far as many of these are ‘complementary’ currencies – working in limited circles, supplementing rather than replacing the dominant currency – they do not really threaten or seriously challenge this system. But some, if they become big like the Bristol pound, can indeed be subversive.
In Barcelona, I met Susana Martín Belmonte, who has helped write a chapter on social currencies for the Barcelona En Comú party that has just come to power in the city. I did not fully understand it, but Susana stressed that this model moved away from bank-related interest, and money as debt and speculation, that was at the centre of the economic crisis. Instead, it focused on positive value creation and trust-based economic exchanges, an early version of which is to be tested in Barcelona.
This initiative is part of a wider European Union funded process of piloting social currencies.
There are however challenges to making this widespread enough to challenge the currently dominant money system. Researcher Kristofer Dittmer, whom I met at the Autonomous University of Barcelona, recently conducted an interesting review of local currencies of various kinds. He concluded that there was not significant evidence of them leading to ‘community-building, advancement of alternative values in economic exchange, facilitation of alternative livelihoods, and eco-localization’, all of which are criteria that the Degrowth movement in Europe espouses.
But there are indeed a number of local benefits, and he said he had not looked at the Bristol pound, which may be one of the few to achieve larger social and economic impact.
Dittmer’s own inclination is for reforms towards a “more democratically controlled monetary system, which is a prerequisite for public spending and taxation that favor communities, egalitarian values, ecologically rational supply-chains, and other principles that degrowth advocates cherish.”
Belmonte, however, feels that if the kind of social currency she is promoting spreads widely, it has the potential to undermine dominant economic powers. This ongoing experimentation and debate in Europe should be of major interest to us in India, as increasingly our movements will also want to look at fundamental changes in economic and monetary systems.
The above initiatives are part of a growing search in Spain and the rest of Europe for alternatives: different ways of being, living, working, and relating that in various degrees question or rebel against the currently dominant economic and political order.
I learnt about these and others over several sessions and treks and meals with a wonderful team of people associated with the Institute of Environmental Science and Technology (ICTA) at the Autonomous University of Barcelona, including the ecological economics guru Joan Martinez-Alier, and his younger colleagues Federico Demaria, Daniela del Bene, Aili Pyhala.
It is through my interactions with them that I came to know of Som Energia, for instance, which is a cooperative buying renewable energy and putting it on the grid, making it more accessible to households. Eticom is a cooperative offering mobile services as an alternative to the big private corporations while ECOS is common working space where many of these cooperatives and projects have their office, with shared cleaning, transport, insurances, finances, design and printing.I also heard more about the movement towards ‘degrowth’, which espouses a considerable scaling down of Europe’s energy and materials use, and encompasses philosophical, ethical, economic, political and socio-cultural elements in its advocacy.
A couple of presentations I made on RED/swaraj were well-attended and generated very interesting discussion on a host of complex issues. People were very interested in the various examples of alternative initiatives that I mentioned, and asked many critical questions about them. It was clear that the presence of such initiatives in both Europe and India offers us a great opportunity, to exchange experiences, mutually learn, evolve common futures where globalization is about freer movement of ideas and cultures and people rather than of finance, and build solidarity networks that can also be a political force.
These initiatives in Europe are of course still marginal in a continent that has made its ‘progress’ based on colonial and neo-colonial exploitation of the south, and where a highly materialist lifestyle is as ‘natural’ as breathing air.
These initiatives in Europe are of course still marginal in a continent that has made its ‘progress’ based on colonial and neo-colonial exploitation of the south, and where a highly materialist lifestyle is as ‘natural’ as breathing air.
Increasingly, however, as the economies of Europe themselves face crises and it becomes clear that tinkering around within the same system is not helping to resolve them, as knowledge of the ill-effects of these lifestyles for the rest of the world and for themselves spreads, and as ecological and social movements gain ground, the ‘ordinary’ person will be faced with choices for the future that are clearly either irresponsible or responsible.
Hopefully, the thousands of initiatives that are springing up will then also provide available pathways to choices of a more responsible life, forging a future in which the colonial past of Europe is replaced with a truly collaborative role vis-à-vis the rest of the world.
Ashish Kothari has been active with a number of people’s movements in India. He is a member of the environmental action group Kalpavriksh which helps run Vikalp Sangam, a process that brings together people working on economic, social, and environmental alternatives in India, and a website showcasing these initiatives. He is the author or editor of over 30 books and over 300 articles. In 2012, he co-authored the book Churning the Earth, The Making of Global India with Aseem Shrivastava, where they outlined the concept of Radical Ecological Democracy, as inspired by India’s social movements.