Water and oil, death and life in Louisiana

Cherri Foytlin at a protest in solidarity with the DAPL and against the Bayou Bridge Pipeline. Photo: Avery White

by Nora Belblidia

Six months ago, a routine public hearing was scheduled in a nondescript gray government building in downtown Baton Rouge, Louisiana.  

“Normally these hearings go over really quietly,” said Scott Eustis, the Wetlands Specialist for Gulf Restoration Network (GRN). “Usually it’s me, my associates, and like ten people.” Instead, over 400 people showed up to the Baton Rouge hearing, and stayed for nearly six hours.

The debate centered on the Bayou Bridge Pipeline, a proposed route that would run 163 miles from Lake Charles to St. James, forming the “tail” of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL), and effectively connecting oil fracked in North Dakota to Louisiana refineries. If built, Bayou Bridge would cross 11 parishes, 600 acres of wetlands, 700 bodies of water, and the state-designated Coastal Zone Boundary.

Energy Transfer Partners (ETP) is behind both the Bayou Bridge project and the more infamous DAPL, but the parallels run deeper than a mutual stakeholder. Just like in DAPL, those who resist the project are drawing connections between past wrongdoings, conditions today, and a future climate. Residents cite safety concerns, environmental racism, pollution, and threats to the region’s wetlands and seafood industries as reasons to oppose its construction. “It’s not one thing it’s everything. It’s the water, it’s the land, it’s the crawfish, it’s the people’s air in St. James, it’s the climate, it’s people’s houses flooding – it really is – it’s corruption, it’s Trump,” said Eustis.

By now the fight against Bayou Bridge is a familiar one: multinational conglomerate vs. the local little guys. The David vs. Goliath metaphor is obvious. But, Bayou Bridge is playing out in 2017, a time when Goliath has never seemed so large and so ruthless, and when the horrors and lessons in Standing Rock are still fresh.  

“What we saw in Baton Rouge and Napoleonville at the hearings was hundreds and hundreds of people who had been inspired by people who had been kicked for eons, standing up to protect their water. You know what we can do that too, goddammit,” said Eustis.

That inspiration stands against the narrative of Standing Rock’s defeat. The camps suffered from a coordinated move to push the Dakota Access Pipeline’s approval through, and were forcibly evicted in February. Taylor Neck, a New Orleans activist who lived at Standing Rock through the winter who requested that her name be changed, said, “When I got home and so many people were like ‘Oh are you okay, I know it was such a loss,’ and ‘I’m sorry you guys lost’ and were saying things like that, it was kind of shocking to me at first because from my view and from the people that I was with, like my camp was all Lakota, it was such a win.”

In the DAPL’s migration south, the Great Plains of North Dakota have been substituted by hundreds of square miles of bayous and rivers and basins, one of the more romanticized segments of the Mississippi River, and finally the Gulf of Mexico. Water composes the very contents of Louisiana’s marshy soil and—with the threat of rising sea levels and natural disasters—is arguably the number one threat to its survival.

The spirit of an Indigenous-led environmental resistance has now come to a region wholly unique in culture and landscape. Cherri Foytlin, an Indigenous activist and the co-director of Bold Louisiana, called to the area’s strengths in a rally before the Baton Rouge hearing, “I’m sorry, Energy Transfer, if you don’t get it…but if you thought you saw some stuff up in North Dakota, you just get to the bayous,” she said, “our campers walk on water.”

The crowd at the hearing on the Bayou Bridge Pipeline in Napoleonville. Photo: Avery White

Oil’s grip on the land

The Gulf South has a long and inextricable relationship with the oil industry. When including offshore drilling, Louisiana is second only to Texas in its production of crude oil, and its 18 refineries account for roughly 20% of the country’s refining capacity. Pipelines aren’t new to Louisiana. Approximately 50,000 miles already cover the state and maintain the industry’s century-long stronghold. For supporters of the pipeline, the attitude is often “Well, what’s one more?”

Set to deliver 280,000 barrels of heavy and light crude oil every day, Bayou Bridge is promoted as a way to bring jobs to the region at a time when the state’s budget is running close to a $943 million deficit and is, according to the Times-Picayune, “a hot mess.” The website for Bayou Bridge reads “Good for Louisiana” and promises 2,500 new jobs. A report prepared on behalf of ETP (by Louisiana State University’s Center for Energy Studies) estimated the economic benefit to be $829 million. Yet in their permit application, the company promised just 12 permanent jobs, with most positions being temporary and tied to the physical construction of the pipeline.

Mark Koziorowski works offshore on a boat that runs supplies back and forth to the oil rigs in the Gulf, spending about a month at sea at a time.  He grew up in California but came to Louisiana when his uncle promised him a lucrative career. But he noted that the oil industry has suffered in recent years due to cheap oil prices and increased regulations. “A lot of the older people, like the captains that are in their 50s and 60s, they’re getting really hurt by that because they’ve never had any other jobs, they don’t really have another skill set.”

While Koziorowski doesn’t plan on staying in the field long-term,  that isn’t an option for everyone. “Being young and having the open air to be able to change careers gives me that power but if you’ve been stuck at one job it’s kind of hard to uproot,” he said. Of younger workers, “there’s definitely a few that are looking into other options but there’s also a diehard group of young people my age that are like ‘I’ll stick it out until it picks back up.’” Most people in the industry expect, and plan according to, boom-and-bust cycles.

Megan Falgout’s family is from Dulac, a small shrimping and fishing town in southern Louisiana. Though it sits off the proposed pipeline route, Dulac illustrates the cross-section of Louisiana industries, and the threats that climate poses to vulnerable communities. She described a childhood in which she wore shrimping boots to walk from the house to the car, “Dulac Reeboks,” she called them, “any bayou town they do that.”

“There was a shrimp factory and a Texaco factory and literally everybody down there made a living off of shrimping and fishing, all the families, that’s how they survived,” she said. Falgout lived on Shrimpers Row until she was 8, when Hurricane Andrew destroyed most of her town and her family moved to Houma.

Her father worked in the oil industry since he was a teenager, first doing pipeline construction and then working his way up to management until his job was moved to Texas and he was laid off. Despite her family ties, Falgout is against Bayou Bridge. “I just think that we’ve exhausted that energy source and we just keep getting greedier and greedier,” she said. Her father, on the other hand, is “for anything that will promote the oil industry in any kind of way, because of the job market down there,” she continued, “It’s crazy because it’s an area that’s affected but yet they’re so dependent on it.” Working in oil may come with its risks, but is one of the few opportunities to support a family on a high school diploma, and the high pay makes even temporary jobs welcome.

Photo: Avery White

Untold impacts

Supporters frame the debate as one of practicality, economic necessity, and, ironically, safety. Former U.S. Senator Mary Landrieu testified at the January hearing on behalf of ETP, in a move that elicited jeers from the audience. “There’s millions and millions of gallons of crude oil and refined product moving through this country,” she said. “Now there are many people in this room that think we should outlaw it all right now and that might happen one day, but that is not today. So the question before us is how to move this product as carefully as possible.”

And yet safety is also the primary concern for opponents of the pipeline, who say the Gulf South has suffered at the hands of industry practices. The National Response Center tallied 144 pipeline accidents in Louisiana in 2016. Because spills in waterways are more difficult to contain than those on highways, groups such as GRN and Bold Louisiana warn that the pipeline will threaten wetlands, harm the region’s crawfishing industry, contribute to pollution and climate change, and place undue burden on communities that have been historically disenfranchised.

Standing Rock called attention to environmental racism, where minorities face disproportionate exposure to pollutants as a result of discriminatory planning policy. Similarly, Bayou Bridge’s proposed route runs through Bayou Lafourche, the drinking water supply for Houma Nation. It may also cut off the only evacuation route for St. James, a historically African-American community that is part of “Cancer Alley,” the 85-mile stretch along the Mississippi River known for its numerous industrial plants and its numerous cancer patients. The town has already suffered 13 petrochemical accidents this year.  

Rev. Harry Joseph, the pastor of St. James’ Mount Triumph Baptist Church, testified at the public hearing in Napoleonville. “St. James, I love it, but they have people in that place that are very sick from the plants that are already there. People are losing lives down there,” he said. “It’s a poor community, and the few rich people that they have down there, they’re gone already. They’re gone. The plants have bought them out…. But what’s going to happen to the poor people?”

Eustis notes that while for supporters of Bayou Bridge, this may be just another pipeline, the proposed projectis particularly serious.  “You know I’ve seen a lot of pipelines because there are so many pipelines on the Gulf Coast, but this one is bad from a bad company with a large amount of impact, with a very diverse kind of impact on different communities in Louisiana affecting everyone in kind of a different way, at a time where we can’t really afford to lose more of our wetlands,” he said.  

Oil pipelines act as small dams in the waterways, which disrupts the water flow, turns it stagnant, and kills off plants and wildlife. Jody Meche, a commercial crawfisherman, testified at the hearing in Baton Rouge on the impact Bayou Bridge would have on his industry. “There are hundreds of pipelines criss-crossing the Atchafalaya basin that have been put in in the past six or seven decades, and [they have] crippled our ability to make a living,” he said. “We’re to the point of having hypoxic stagnant areas where we have to make our traps so tall that the crawfish can come up out of the water to breathe because they will die in our traps.”

While wildlife and fishing industries are at risk due to the disappearance of wetlands, Louisiana faces the additional threat of natural disasters. During a hurricane wetlands  absorb the impact of the storm; in heavy precipitation they act as a natural sponge. As climate change worsens and the surface temperature of the Gulf rises, water in the atmosphere increases and causes record precipitation. Last year Louisiana suffered devastating floods that resulted in 13 deaths and thousands of destroyed homes. A significant portion of that damage occurred outside a flood zone, indicative of the storms’ atypical patterns.

In a debate framed by economic necessity, the cost of such storms is noteworthy. A report commissioned by the Louisiana Economic Development office estimated the flooding damages last year to total $8.7 billion, the majority of which was due to damages to physical items such as housing structures, housing contents, and business inventories. $836 hundred million was lost due to interruption to business. Meanwhile, a 2008 study published by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences found that wetlands provided an estimated $23 billion in protection from natural disasters countrywide, with that protection being dependent on storm severity. The dollar impact of storms can be ignored, however, for the promise of high-paying jobs.

Former U.S. senator Mary Landrieu at the Bayou Bridge hearing. Photo: Avery White

The politics of industry  

Alternative industries have yet to take hold in an economy with scarce well-paying blue-collar jobs and a culture in which tradition holds fast. In 2008 Louisiana promised tax credits for solar panels, spurring a mini-boom for the solar industry. In 2015, the state terminated the program after deciding it too costly, leaving residents who installed panels, expecting credit, in a lurch.

Koziorowski, the shipper running supplies to oil rigs, said there had been talk of windmill construction offshore when he began working in the industry. “I was kind of hoping seven years later that there’d be a little bit of business going into that but that doesn’t seem to be happening,” he said. When asked why that was the case he said, “It’s got to be politics.”

Representatives in Washington continue to vote repeatedly against environmental regulations in the name of small government and big business, and appear to have little to no interest in reducing their dependency on oil. Former U.S. Senator Mary Landrieu, a Democrat, is now a lobbyist for ETP. Former U.S. Congressman Chris John is now president of the Louisiana Mid-Continent Oil and Gas Association. Rep. Garrett Graves authored a bill to keep oil lease auctions private. Politicians continue to maintain the state’s literally toxic relationship with the oil industry, and in so doing, bet against Louisiana’s future.  

Photo: Avery White

Actions and allies

Even as the hot Louisiana summer sets in, activists are busy calling attention to the risks that Bayou Bridge poses. Cherri Foytlin is leading the charge in organizing direct action trainings for volunteers, and building a resistance camp  along the proposed route. Organizers have plans for floating platforms and Indigenous structures to suit the area’s geography and have named the camp “L’eau est la vie,” French for “Water is life.”

Neck, the activist who participated in the Standing Rock encampment, is working with Foytlin, and she spoke of the camp’s strategic and spiritual importance. “It’s physically occupying the land that they want to construct on, it will give us a home that we can work from and conduct operations from, to non-violently stop the pipeline and stop ETP,” she said. “It’s a way for us to ask the Earth what she needs and what the community, what they need, because we’re living in it, we’re living with the water so…we can stay ‘prayered up’ as they said in Standing Rock.”

She said her priority is to maintain the camp as a safe space. “It’s such a hard fight against these giants that just getting to stand up for what’s right is so healing and my priority is that these people get to heal and get to fight like they want because they need it, and they deserve to do it.”

Pastor Joseph of St. James is another prominent community member leading the fight, and is using Mount Triumph Baptist Church as a hub for organizing efforts. He’s listed as a plaintiff in a lawsuit recently filed by the Tulane University Law Clinic, which seeks to overturn the coastal use permit issued by the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources (DNR). Co-plaintiffs include Genevieve Butler, another resident of St. James, along with the organizations Humanitarian Enterprise of Loving People (HELP), Gulf Restoration Network, Atchafalaya Basinkeeper, and Bold Louisiana.

The petition for judicial review filed against the DNR states that “the Department refused to consider potential adverse environmental impacts of the project on the majority African-American residents of St. James, who are surrounded by crude oil terminal facilities, pipelines, and associated industry.” It also claims the department failed to consider the impact of the pipeline on the community and “ignored evidence that the St. James community may be trapped in the event of an emergency and that no viable evacuation plan is in place for its safety.”

Activists across the state are working to connect affected residents in order to mount pressure against politicians and the industry itself. “More than any other oil resistance fight in Louisiana, people are going to show up for this, locals are going to show up because we’re mobilizing them,” Neck said, citing conservatives opposed to eminent domain, Catholics, and the restaurant and tourism industries as unlikely allies. In connecting with potential allies, “the first thing I do is learn from that person, learn what they’re going through or learn why they feel the way or what they’re passionate about, and I teach them how that is intricately connected to the fight,” a strategy which, she said, was informed by her experience in North Dakota.  

Water protectors at Standing Rock rallied against the ‘black snake,’ the anthropomorphized symbol for the sinewy and serpentine Dakota Access Pipeline. Louisiana has had its own black snakes for decades, hiding out amidst the cypress stumps and tall grass, and fed by politicians and industry until they’ve fattened and coiled around the bayous. As the “L’eau est la vie” resistance camp is built out, and activists build their offense, the fight against Bayou Bridge is only just kicking into gear. The question now is if Louisiana residents can unite to break the snake’s grip, and protect their water, their wetlands, and themselves.

Photo: Avery White

 

Nora Belblidia lives in Baltimore, MD, where she writes in her free time. She’s interested in science, politics, and environmental justice (amongst other things) and has previously lived in New Orleans, Montreal, and Los Angeles.

Planting the seeds of degrowth in times of crisis

Photo: Marula Tsagkari
Photo: Marula Tsagkari

by Marula Tsagkari

We must look for man wherever we can find him. When on his way to Thebes Oedipus encountered the Sphinx, his answer to its riddle was: ‘Man’. That simple word destroyed the monster. We have many monsters to destroy. Let us think of the answer of Oedipus.

These words are from the Greek Poet Giorgos Seferis’ speech at the Nobel Banquet. Today they are more relevant than ever, as humanity fights against a ‘contemporary Sphinx’: the utopian ideal of an infinite growth defined by economic indicators and theories. This promethean way of living has sustained the idea that increased wealth was the ‘one pill to cure them all.’

However, in the past years, it has become more and more obvious that resources are finite and that the planet cannot sustain continued growth. And just like that, the utopian ideal started falling apart. The latest economic crisis showed the cruelest face of the unsustainable capitalistic system. It has become clear now, more than ever, that we live in an absurd world, that despite increased wealth, unemployment and poverty are increasing, conflicts are continuing, and inequality keeps rising. In this context, the idea of degrowth points to an alternative route, and establishes a vocabulary to describe a new world based on solidarity and cooperation.

While the idea of degrowth is rather old (seeds can be found in the 1970s), the movement has only started to gain ground in recent years, especially in the echoes of the recent economic crisis. The Conferences in Leipzig in 2014 and in Budapest in 2016 brought together thousands of scientists and citizens with different backgrounds and ideologies including sufficiency-orientated critics of civilization, reformists, pacifist idealists, and libertarian leftists. However, they all seem to share the common belief that the current economic model is unsustainable, as well as a vision of a different way of living.

Perhaps because the movement found its voice through people’s dissatisfaction following economic crisis, many confuse degrowth with the idea of ‘unsustainable degrowth’, which is often synonymous with economic recession and social instability. On the contrary, the core of ‘sustainable degrowth’ is the concept of ‘progress’, but a progress not related to an increase of the GDP, large-scale production, or over-consumption. As Tim Jackson puts it, ‘Every society clings to a myth by which it lives. Ours is the myth of economic growth’. And exactly this is the myth that the degrowth movement seeks to demystify.

At the same time that the degrowth movement was gaining ground in the public discourse, my country, Greece, was living the most severe economic recession since the Second World War.

At the same time that the degrowth movement was gaining ground in the public discourse, my country, Greece, was living the most severe economic recession since the Second World War. Greece entered the Eurozone in 2001 and since then joined the privileges of being a member of the EU monetary union, which led to a rapid increase in GDP between 2002 and 2008. However, Greece was unable to recover from the global economic crisis and, in 2009, Greek debt peaked at €310.4 billion.

Since then, the country has been trapped in a vicious cycle of bailout programs and austerity measures imposed by the International Monetary Fund (IMF), under the watchful eye of the German government. These measures came with many costs. The austerity plans included strict public cuts (in health and education), measures in the private sector (massive dismissals), increased taxes, and reduced pensions. These decisions increased political instability and had a severe social cost. Unemployment was last reported to be at 23%, and 45.7% among young people (January 2017); while there are more than 20,000 homeless people (February 2016). Thus, the initial economic crisis has been transformed into a multifaceted social, political, and environmental crisis—what Geels calls a ‘triple crisis’, each of which is connected to the other.

In Greece, these interactions are now becoming clear. There was an increase in the number of smog events due to the increased price of oil, while it a rapid increase in illegal hunting and logging related to sharp budget cuts in conservation was also observed.

In the Chinese language the word crisis is represented by two symbols. The first means danger and, the second, opportunity.

In the Chinese language the word crisis is represented by two symbols. The first means danger and, the second, opportunity. It is true that economic crises are complex phenomena, and a form of exogenous shock in the society. On the other hand, they are also an opportunity to challenge the current way of thinking and they can open a door to a profound change.

As some supporters of degrowth have claimed, this new era will be born from the ashes of the present unsustainable system, or more specifically, active social movements can gradually pave the way for a bigger change. The work of Giorgos Kallis, Francois Schneider, and Joan Martinez-Alier offers a useful starting point. They claim that a crisis can be seen as an opportunity for alternative discourses and the seeds can be found in community-based initiatives that can form the pieces that, in the future, will fit into a bigger puzzle.

This idea triggered my interest, and I decided to focus my research on the question of a sustainable degrowth transition in Greece, and to what extent it could result from this increased civic engagement. And taking this as a starting point, the idea I want to put forward is that in Greece, despite the crisis (οr because of the crisis) one can find the seeds that can support the idea of degrowth.

The early seeds of a degrowth economy in Greece

Civic engagement was rather underdeveloped in Greece before the economic crisis. For instance, in 2005, the Civicus Survey pointed out that Greek civil society is anemic, as it was dominated by political parties and the family. However, in the wake of the economic crisis, civic activism appeared as a spontaneous response to increased social inequality and poverty. Aside from the increased number of NGOs, new, informal groups based on solidarity erupted and formed grassroots movements and networks. In times of crisis an ‘alternative, parallel’ economy was born.

But it would be a mistake to assume that this new economy came out of nowhere. Greece is a country with a strong sense of community and a culture of self-organization. The pharmacist, the butcher, and the fisherman of the neighborhood are integral figures of Greek culture. Everybody knows them and their stores are often a gathering point. Unfortunately, these small businesses are also the most harmed by the economic crisis and the austerity measures. Between 2008 and 2015, more than 20.000 small local businesses closed in Greece, according to the European Commission. As a response to the absence of local gathering points, and the loss of jobs, a number of social movements and cooperations emerged during the times of crisis.

The pharmacist, the butcher, and the fisherman of the neighborhood are integral figures of Greek culture. Everybody knows them and their stores are often a gathering point.

What’s more, the idea of cooperation has always been an important element of Greek tradition. In fact, Greek cooperative traditions may be the oldest in Europe. The idea of self-organization can be found in ancient Greek times in the form of trade unions. Cooperatives were also present, in a more advanced form, in the Byzantine Empire. These consisted of unions of land or livestock owners into common production and management systems. In this period they were recognized by the legislation of Leo VI the Wise and achieved increased autonomy—becoming a vital part of the economy.

Cooperatives were also present during the Ottoman rule (1453- 1821) and had an important role during the national liberation war of 1821. During this period new cooperatives popped up in small villages, where small groups of producers known as ‘syntrofies’ (companies or friendships) decided to cooperate to avoid competition. In some cases they were even able to export their products to other European countries.17 After Greece became an independent country the cooperations remained active, working for the establishment of a democratic regime.

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Photo: Marula Tsagkari

 

The revitalization of Greece’s cooperative movement

Coming back to the present, the Greek cooperative movement is still a vibrant part of the economy. The numbers speak for themselves, as there are currently more than 3000 agriculture cooperatives, 14 co-operative banks and 48 womens’ co-operatives. In addition, one can find 23 electrician, 33 plumber and 41 pharmacist co-operatives all around the country.

Lately, the idea of cooperatives has once again increased in popularity. People prefer products they can trust and remind them of their ‘grandmother in the village’. They also want to support local communities. Ιn this context, cooperatives offer products whose raw materials come directly from the land of the members of the cooperative or the village, they are often based on traditional recipes from the women in the villages, and in most cases they pack and promote their products by themselves.

On the island of Lesvos, more and more women who lost their job during the crisis joined the women’s cooperative. This increase in the number of memberships gave them the opportunity to augment their production and expand their network. They take advantage of the oranges produced in the area, which remained unused the previous years, to make desserts and jams. They also use ‘neratzath’, a type of rose water made from the leaves of the orange tree, to make cosmetics and perfumes. Nowadays, their products (sweets, jams, pasta, and cheese) can be found all around the country.

Even in big cities a number of cooperatives have sprung up. In Athens one can find the cooperative coffee shops Mantalaki, Pagkaki, Syggrouomeno; the Syn Allois shop, an importer of fair-trade products; the publisher Ekdoseis ton Sinaderfon; the computer repair shop Stin Priza; and the grocery store Lacandona, among others. Many of these stores operate under the umbrella of a bigger network, Kolektivas.

The ‘do you want milk’ cooperative started in 2011, and, despite the crisis, now counts more than 60 sell points, 50 farms, and, on a daily basis, they produce 10% of the domestic production.

One initiative is the ‘do you want milk’ (thes gala) cooperative. The cooperative is made up of milk producers from central Greece and supplies with fresh milk a number of ‘milk ATMs’ in Larissa, Athens, and Greece. Consumers can fill their bottles with fresh milk, produced less than 24 hours ago, with a cheaper price than can be found in the supermarket. The cooperative started in 2011, and, despite the crisis, now counts more than 60 sell points, 50 farms, and, on a daily basis, they produce 10% of the domestic production.

 

New consumption habits

Overall, consumption in Greece had been significantly reduced as a result of diminished wages and pensions. As documented by the Hellenic Statistical Authority in 2014, average household consumption expenditure went down by almost 32% since 2009.

As a response to this decrease in consumption and available funds, more and more second hand stores have popped up in the big cities

As a response to this decrease in consumption and available funds, more and more second hand stores have popped up in the big cities. One of the most famous is located in the neighborhood of Eksarcheia; a neighborhood known for its anti-establishment and anarchist character. In this store, one can trade old clothes for new ones. ‘Our store is a response to the overconsumption, which is one of the reasons that brought us into the present crisis,’ said one of the women who worked there:

Nowadays, more and more people prefer to buy second hand clothes, especially if they can exchange them with some of the clothes they don’t need anymore. Of course some of our clients are people who can’t afford buying new clothes but the past year we see more and more people who choose not to buy new clothes as a way of living.

In the same spirit one can find similar initiatives of book exchange, furniture exchange, and even exchange of mobile phones.

Another important element of the Greek tradition is the ‘100 km rule’ (before it became famous internationally as the ‘100 mile diet’). According to this principle, people should aim to consume products that are produced within 100km from the residence. Τhis concept was a pillar of the Greek diet between the 50s and 80s, however, due to increased urbanization and working hours, and the large variety of products available on supermarkets, it was replaced by the concepts of ‘easy’ and ‘quick food’. Recently, the idea of the ‘local farmers market’ aims to bring back this idea. Producers from all around the country gather in a different neighborhood every Sunday and sell their products without Intermediaries.

In one of my visits in a local farmers’ market in my neighborhood, I had the chance to speak with M.X., a cheese producer from northern Greece. ‘Because of the crisis people want to make sure they buy local products,’ she told me. ‘More and more people tell me that they avoid buying from big supermarkets, not only because the products are more expensive, but because they know that, in this way, international brands take advantage of the Greek producers and buyers,’ she added. ‘I talk with people and give them all the information they need about my products. I am even willing to negotiate the price when someone can’t afford it!’

Social solidarity groups are also rapidly growing these past years. The work of organizations like ‘Doctors without Borders’, ‘Doctors of the World’, which were active before the crisis, are now supported by new health care organizations like the ‘social infirmaries’ (koinonika iatreia). Acting at a municipal level, these groups consist of doctors and nurses who treat patients for free. Similar initiatives are organized by pharmacists, teachers, and even coffee shops, which offer a free cup of coffee to people who cannot afford it.

Last but not least, a number of more politically-oriented social movements emerged during the times of crisis as a response to the austerity measures and the dysfunctional democracy. The big protests of 2008, the movement in Sundagma square and the ‘I won’t pay movement’ (Kínima den Pliróno) are some examples. Squares and occupied public and private buildings were transformed into sites of political contestation and mobilization.

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Photo: Marula Tsagkari

From ‘a way of living’ to a way to ‘make a living’

The above examples illustrate an increased tendency around niches of social movements that can form an alternative model of growth, based on solidarity, cooperation, and mutual respect. Many of these initiatives form part of the tradition that is rooted in the Greek culture that did not fade completely in modern life. This can offer a comparative advantage towards a potential transition to a degrowth model, as many of the ideas this model embodies are neither new nor strange to the Greek society. Of course these former traditional societies had a number of limitations (e.g. racism, xenophobia) that are not in line with the ideas the degrowth movement puts forward. Thus it is essential to learn from the past and keep the positive elements that can pave the way for a new way of living.

These ideas are becoming popular mainly as an alternative to the economic crisis; however they need to form ‘a way of living’ instead of a way to ‘make a living’.

These ideas are becoming popular mainly as an alternative to the economic crisis; however they need to form ‘a way of living’ instead of a way to ‘make a living’. Nowadays, many of the people who choose to buy from second hand stores or to visit the farmers market are driven by need. On the contrary, this attitude should grow into a fundamental mentality. Most of the people I had the chance to interview pointed out that, in the past years, they observed a change in people’s attitude, mainly because of the ongoing crisis that made many question the success of the present system. But is this enough?

The answer is no. This is only a first step in a long path. These initiatives will not have a significant impact if they are not supported by adequate education and publicity. Such instruments can strengthen these alternatives by raising awareness—triggering the interest of more people and encouraging the formation of new projects.

State intervention is another factor that can shape social movements. In the case of Greece, the government seems to ignore the importance of these movements, and often threatens their existence through increased taxation and stricter legislation. In the present political situation, it is nearly impossible to picture a major movement that does not involve the state. At first glance, this seems to be a contradiction as it’s a common belief that the state is a unitary actor, and that social movements are a separate unity and often in opposition to the state. In this context one should realize that these initiatives, through their increased influence, can have the power to form a different political regime that, in turn, will also transform them. To use the words of Saturnino Borras, ‘societal actors attempt to influence and transform state actors, but in the process are themselves transformed—and vice versa.’ Thus, realizing the potential of these initiatives, especially at a municipal level, could be a crucial first step.

One should realize that these initiatives, through their increased influence, can have the power to form a different political regime that, in turn, will also transform them.

Today, we are participants in a complex and severe crisis, and a radical crisis requires radical solutions. Through a number of examples it became obvious that in Greece there is groundwork for a transition to sustainable degrowth. There are seeds in the numerous social movements, voluntary actions, and solidarity networks. What remains to be seen is if the seeds will flower. We should not forget that, as Rebecca Solnit says, ‘Change is rarely straightforward… Sometimes it’s as complex as chaos theory and as slow as evolution. Even things that seem to happen suddenly arise from deep roots in the past or from long-dormant seeds.’

Many thanks to all the interviewees and to Brayton Noll for his useful comments.

Marula Tsagkari is a researcher, and environmental professional from Athens, Greece. She holds a BSc in Biology and she is currently enrolled in the Erasmus Mundus Master of Environmental, Science, Policy and Management. She lives in Athens, Greece and her research focuses on the areas of Environmental Politics, Policy and Justice especially in the European South.

 

Kathputli colony’s fear of displacement

Houses torn apart with sledgehammer in the Kathputli colony.
Houses torn apart with a sledgehammer in the Kathputli colony.

by Eleonora Fanari

The vans and bulldozer came first, rumbling along the main road; they stopped

opposite the ghetto of the magician. A loudspeaker began to blare: “Civic

Beautification programme…Prepare instantly for evacuation to new site… this slum is

a public eyesore, can no longer be tolerated…while bulldozers moved forwards into

the slum, a door was slammed shut…but not all the magicians were captured; not all

of them were carted off…and it said that the day after the bulldozing of the magicians’

ghetto, a new slum was reported in the heart of the city.”

– Salman Rushdie, Midnight’s Children (1980)

In his famous novel Midnight’s Children, Salman Rushdie tells the story of a magician ghetto, or as Rushdie calls it, the “moving slum”. The magic infused in the novel has captured the attention of many readers worldwide, but only few know that this magic was the province of an actual community living in Old Delhi, and that the magician’s slum in which Saleem Sinai takes refuge is an actual slum that was subjected to “clearance” during the Emergency of the 1970s. Subsequently, the settlement managed to re-appear close to Shadipur bus depot.

Rushdie’s magicians are the magicians of Kathputli colony.

A family of artist in Kathputli colony.
A family of artists in Kathputli colony.

The story is repeating itself, and after 50 years of existence, the infamous colony of Kathputli (puppeteer in Hindi), is once again being threatened by the postcolonial city’s power, which, in the name of development and adjusting to the modern standards of a “global metropolis”, orders the eviction of its own inhabitants.

Kathputli, like other slums, is considered ugly and dirty ; the lack of sanitation, running water and sewage system gives this space a negative connotation while making the life of the inhabitants a constant struggle. Nevertheless, this does not prevent them from practising their beloved art, jumping on stage and performing in front of a respectful audience.

Today, Kathputli is considered one of the largest colony of artists in India, inhabited by acrobats, dancers, singers, musicians, puppeteers and shamans who share this ostensibly shabby space, where art and magic are practised amid narrow colourful streets. Kathputli, like other slums, is considered ugly and dirty ; the lack of sanitation, running water and sewage system gives this space a negative connotation while making the life of the inhabitants a constant struggle. Nevertheless, this does not prevent them from practising their beloved art, jumping on stage and performing in front of a respectful audience.

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Nikka the fire eater, playing Kachipuri (a Rajasthani dance) in his courtyard.

The present threat of eviction is one of the first strategically planned in-situ redevelopment projects aiming to rehabilitate the public space, both to finance the urban project that aims to make the city slum-free, and to relocate poor neighbourhoods. Being one of the first project, Kathputli will set up the base for a bigger plan of city gentrification. This means putting at risk the life of a huge population: in Delhi alone, the number of household inhabiting these almost “invisible spaces” accounts for more than 30 per cent of the city’s population.

The project and its opponents

In 2009, the Delhi Development Authority (DDA) sold this land to a private construction agency, Raheja Developers, famous for having created Mumbai’s modern skyline at the expense of numerous slums. The land was sold for just an amount of 6 crores rupees, (60 million rupees), an amount of money the colony dwellers argue they could have put together if they had known the land was far sale for such a low price at the time of sale. The real value of the land was of 1000 crores rupees (10.000 million rupees). The entire project is part of a larger development scheme launched in 2010 by the Indian government, the Master Plan of Delhi, 2021, a plan to make Delhi a global metropolis and a world-class city.

Banner at the entrance of the Kathputli colony.
Banner at the entrance of the Kathputli colony.

Following the plan, Raheja will be building a 5.22 hectares commercial center in the area. The result of this collaboration between the DDA and Raheja will be a luxurious showplace of grand proportions: the planned 54-floor tower will have a ‘skyclub’ and a helipad, and hold 170 premium condos of more than 1000 square feet per unit. Although the DDA is claiming that the Kathputli colony will be resettled in the same area as the planned high-end dwelling, no contract or written word was given yet.

Under the directive of the DDA, the police forcibly entered in the slum area with bulldozers, along with workmen carrying sledgehammers.

The apparent calm of the colony, which already witnessed violence and threat some years ago, got disrupted on 19 December 2016, when it got surrounded by 500 policemen and paramilitary troops. Under the directive of the DDA, the police forcibly entered in the slum area with bulldozers, along with workmen carrying sledgehammers.

Houses thorn apart by the DDA in the Kathutli colony.
Houses demolished by the DDA in the Kathutli colony.

While many houses have already been torn down, the dwellers of the colony, supported by NGOs and volunteers, are organizing themselves to oppose the unconsented demolition. Anwari Begun, a Rajasthani woman living in the colony argues, “This is our land! We came here more than 50 years ago when this place was only forest and we created our colony with our hands. Whose else is this land?”.

Narrow streets inside Kathputli colony.
Narrow streets inside Kathputli colony.

The entire process has been carried on without any involvement, or any kind of agreement reached with the inhabitants of the colony. The dwellers only learned about the eviction plan in 2013, when rumors came up in the news. At that time, a wave of violence hit the colony: some dwellers were beaten up by the police and other were arrested on false charges. Until now, only 400 households have moved into the transit camp in Anand Parvat, 4 km away from the current Kathputli area. Although some families have signed contracts recognizing their relocation to the transit camp as “voluntary”, Delhi Solidarity Group, the NGO supporting the cause, claims the officers are forcefully pushing the families to leave their houses, and some dwellers say their houses got demolished without any consent. Moreover, on January 8th, the 25 public toilets available in the colony were demolished, leaving the dwellers in even worse conditions hygiene-wise.

Although some families have signed contracts recognizing their relocation to the transit camp as “voluntary”, Delhi Solidarity Group, the NGO supporting the cause, claims the officers are forcefully pushing the families to leave their houses, and some dwellers say their houses got demolished without any consent.

Bhirju Bhaat, a young puppeteer of the colony who is active in the movement against the demolition, explains the inconsistencies of the project. “After almost four years of discussions, the DDA has not given us any document that specify the entire conditions of the relocation plan. They argue they will build up 2,800 apartments for all of us in the 20% of the entire area, but the number of the entire households is of about 3,600! Where will the other residents go? Moreover we do not want to live in 54-storey apartment buildings. What if the elevator breaks down? Who will fix it? “.

Singing and protesting in Kathputli colony.
Singing and protesting in Kathputli colony.

Today, the colorful Rajasthani clothes commonly seen in the settlement are mixed up with the uniforms of the numerous police officers. Puppets and dholas seem to already be submerged under the broken bricks that lay on the edge of numerous lanes, and songs evocating Indian mythology got substituted by political slogans. The dwellers are struggling for the recognition of their rights, at the daily meeting thousands of people are gathering to discuss their strategies, and to propose a new plan of development. “We won’t move unless all our demands are recognized, and only when all of us have a written paper with the allocated flat”, shouts Dilip Bhaat, the Pradhan (leader) of the colony.

The violence suffered by the inhabitants in the last years, and the brutality with which the police have invaded the colony definitely do not help to create an environment where solutions and decisions can be negotiated.

Overall, the project presents many inconsistent and unacceptable burdens, such as the current environment in the relocation site, which lacks of basic services such as running water, and hygienic conditions seem to be worse than those of the slum. Moreover, the violence suffered by the inhabitants in the last years, and the brutality with which the police have invaded the colony definitely do not help to create an environment where solutions and decisions can be negotiated.

Development for whom?

How much this process will actually benefit the people of the colony is highly debatable. Even if people obtain the promised flats and the recognition of their housing rights, will this represent a real improvement? Clearly, this in-situ relocation plan does not correspond to the kind of surroundings the people of the colony are used to, and it will be hard for them to adjust to the new life habits linked to the changed housing arrangements.

It is obvious that the people of the colony are not feeling very confident about living next to a massive, posh condo tower. Most of them do not believe it will be possible to share this space with the city’s wealthy inhabitants, and believe even less that they will provided with free houses close to a such iconic tower that embodies the identity of the idealized modern city.

It is obvious that the people of the colony are not feeling very confident about living next to a massive, posh condo tower. Most of them do not believe it will be possible to share this space with the city’s wealthy inhabitants, and believe even less that they will provided with free houses close to a such iconic tower that embodies the identity of the idealized modern city. “Nobody wants to live close to poor people” argues a young puppeteer of the colony, Vikram Bhat.

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Lala Bhaat, a master puppeteer, playing with his puppet.

The inhabitants also feel uncomfortable living in small and high floor flats. “How would we work in one-room flats with our wood and stone, which will apparently also host our families, and our huge equipment?” Asks Lal Bhaat, a Master puppeteer from the Kathputli colony.

It is clear that the flats will create an environment where these slum dwellers will prefer not to perform, as they will not have enough space to manage their material and practice. They will hence try to generate income from a new sort of livelihood and the art will be lost. Although they will be able to find other jobs, they will probably experience fear and embarrassment in doing another activities, as argued by G. Sikkha.The Kathputli colony will be destroyed and people will feel isolated and depressed. The women will start doing household chores as maids in the nearby high-end districts and apartments to meet their daily needs. Their lives will be harmed, but their identities as artists and their economic autonomy will also be completely lost.

An old master puppeteer of Kathputli.
An old master puppeteer of Kathputli.

What strikes me most in this struggle is the incapacity of the government to think of an urban development plan which differs from the commercial use of public space. The development model pursued by the Indian government continues to be driven by market forces, through which every place sees and evaluates itself. The gentrification of the Kathputli colony’s space relies on the creation of consumerist spaces necessary for the capitalist model of development to continue to thrive. It will convey the triumph of the Modern Indian State, symbolized and embodied by the iconic tower.

What strikes me most in this struggle is the incapacity of the government to think of an urban development plan which differs from the commercial use of public space. […] Social discrimination drives the Indian government to consider this space an embarrassment, and as a slum to be cleaned up, instead of looking at Kathputli colony as a resource.

As Ashish Kothari observes, in the present globalization era, countries and city have been redefined exclusively according to the world market, changing rapidly the meaning and function of places and their relation to each other and to their inhabitants.

Social discrimination drives the Indian government to consider this space an embarrassment, and as a slum to be cleaned up, instead of looking at Kathputli colony as a resource. If the policies were able to respond to the need of the people, as they are supposed to, and merge some commercial and economic activity with a real inclusion of diversity into the city spaces, Kathputli would be transformed in an attractive artistic space, with a craft market, a open theatre, a dance school. All this could benefit both the people and the government, which could implement its tourist development strategy in this peculiar and enchanting area.

Nikka showing the album of his family' s performances.
Nikka showing the album of his family’ s performances.

In fact, dwellers submitted their own proposal for local development, which integrated tourism and artistic contributions to the local economy. This proposal was not considered a serious alternative and rejected by the government. If this proposal had been accepted as a viable alternative, and agenda of improvement of living conditions for slum dwellers could have substituted the exclusionary, paternalistic and short-sighted “clean up the slums” plan. This would have been a sound development strategy using human resources in the best way possible and contributing in meaningful and sustainable ways to the local economy and cultural life.

A young artist of Kathputli leaving the colony to sell the "horses" in the market.
A young artist of Kathputli leaving the colony to sell puppet horses on the local market.

If the government does not use its power to intervene and modify these structures of oppression, India’s national motto “unity in diversity” will remain wishful thinking.

Unfortunately, today, both policies and architecture are failing at constructing spaces that are suitable to slum dwellers’ needs. As the professor Tapan Chakravarti argues, “it will be a tragedy if we lose such living evidences of intuitive architectural practice; it is fast deteriorating at the present site and it needs to be reinvented with sensitivity. A sterile reconstruction centered on designing spaces for wealthy newcomers at the detriment of the existing community’s right to self-determination will completely alienate people of the Kathputli colony from their surroundings. In a society like India, with an entrenched caste system, this kind of gentrification becomes even more dangerous as it is naturalized and justified in the already present stratification of society. If the government does not use its power to intervene and modify these structures of oppression, India’s national motto “unity in diversity” will remain wishful thinking.

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.

Are the Chipaya under threat of disappearing ?

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The Kawsay staff filling up the truck’s tank with gas as they got ready to load it with soil. Source: author

by Paula Monroy

The Uru-Chipaya territory is an autonomous indigenous municipality of the Plurinational Republic of Bolivia. The region stands 3876 m. a.m.s.l., located 194 km southwest of Oruro city, northeast of the Coipasa salt flat—the second most important in South America (2500 km2). Currently, the municipality counts with a permanent population of about 1814 people. The main productive activities are subsistence agriculture (quinoa, potatoes and kañahua) and livestock (sheep breeding—approximately 86%, and camelids—approximately 14%) also intended for self-consumption. In December 2015 Lake Poopo dried up and now the Lauca river is facing a similar fate, forcing Chipaya people to flee their territory due to water scarcity.

However, other factors cumulative to the stress occasioned by drought are as well relevant when inquiring how the continuance of the Chipaya nation is challenged. To explore the issues at hand, a skype interview with Leonel Cerruto, Founder and Director of KAWSAY-Centro de Culturas Originarias, was conducted. As an institution, Kawsay has the main objective of strengthening indigenous originary campesino organizations through projects that include La Escuela de la Madre Tierra (The Mother Earth School). The conversation started with a discussion about tourism.

I wanted to start off by asking you about the tourism initiative in the Chipaya territory. When I was there I remember hearing from our brothers about an Italian man coming in and incentivizing the overture to tourism. Are you aware of how that is going so far?

Leonel Cerruto: A few years ago the community built an albergue in Chipaya, but it is not doing very well. To my understanding, an organization is currently doing some work financed by the European Union, but [Kawsay is] not working with them. [Kawsay’s] strategy is more community oriented. They [the organization] want to promote tourism in general. However, it is up to the autonomous indigenous government to decide in the end. The autonomy was voted ‘yes’ with close to 80% of the votes. We are happy because it was the last step to confirm the indigenous autonomy. We will enter a process of transition to formalize [the Chipaya’s] own government. A bigger challenge will come about, such as where will the community get resources from, because people go to Chile to work and make money so they can sustain themselves. In that sense, tourism is a good choice because it does not require a big investment.

The organization Leonel referred to is GVC Italia—Gruppo di Volontariato Civile (Civil Volunteer Group). As he stated, the European Union is financing the project, which was named “Qnas Soñi (People of the Water): CHIPAYA, between tradition and technology, towards a resilient municipality”. It is an intervention plan that aims to assist the Chipaya people in adopting a strategy that pretends to help them reclaim their cultural identity and ‘treasure’ their ancestral inheritance. It pretends to do so by implementing four processes associated with the construction of a resilient community, one of which is developing services for tourists and promote it as a cultural destination nationally and worldwide.

It appears to be a good idea, but there is something missing. In their website, the organization [GVC] overlooks the importance of conducting an impact assessment. The Chipaya territory is located in a zone with pandemic flora and fauna species. Considering the Poppo Lake dried up not long ago, introducing an initiative like the one [GVC] is promoting would be adding more pressure to the ecosystem. For example, tourism requires sanitary services and food. It could also bring more garbage in the area like plastic water bottles and snack packages. What do you think?

L. C.: We are not too informed about [GVC]’s project. We’ve been more focused on the indigenous autonomy aspect. We are assisting the community in mobilizing to spread their own statuto because there were some people opposing to the indigenous autonomy. [GVC] is separate from us. However, things are about to change. For example, now that the indigenous autonomy has been adopted, the governance structure will change. So, tourism will be discussed in a participatory manner.

The state is interested, yes, but the problem I see is that they are not looking at it from the Chipaya perspective. They label it as ‘community tourism’, but they are misunderstanding it for rural tourism, which is not community tourism at all.

To my understanding the state is supporting [GVC]’s project.

L. C.: The state is interested, yes, but the problem I see is that they are not looking at it from the Chipaya perspective. They label it as ‘community tourism’, but they are misunderstanding it for rural tourism, which is not community tourism at all.

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A landscape of the Chipaya territory. Source: author

What comes to mind is the experience of my hometown Tepoztlan in regards of tourism in general. Back in the early 1900s Robert Redfield, American anthropologist and ethno-linguist, published a study about the campesino community in the village, which attracted sociologist Oscar Lewis whose research in the village revolved around poverty. Since then, the village underwent a process of urbanization as it became a hotspot for academic tourism. Then rich people were drawn to live there seasonally because intellectuals and artists were also living there. The pyramid and customs made Tepoztlan a mystical village that to this day receives thousands of visitors every year without any sort of control or regulation.

L. C.: What you are saying is true. We have to be careful when integrating tourism. What worries me, which I imagine is similar to what you just mentioned, is that the Chipaya is an ancient culture not only in Bolivia but in the continent. So tourism is a threat. It is valid what you were saying. This reminds me of the Taquile island found in the Peruvian side of the Titicaca Lake. It is a community that self-started tourism and yet did not change their everyday activities, which are all tourist attractions. Each family gets a tourist, and the community has a common fund they collectively administer and also redistribute between the families. This is a good reference of how community tourism is organized and administrated. I know many instances in Ecuador that are more diverse in this branch. In other words, there are many forms of community tourism that are more controlled and the flow of tourists is regulated. The problem is when money dominates the situation.

Yes, I agree. In Tepoztlan, for instance, people are turning their backs on agriculture and prefer to sell their land, land they inherited in most cases, as it is a faster source of income. This is problematic because the territory is fragmented and has become vulnerable to privatization.

L. C.: Right. This is also observed in Cusco. It is a very important point, indeed. Once a territory is fragmented, cultural identity is also fragmented. Indigenous autonomy is important because it integrates the political and especially the spiritual aspect. The latter should be reincorporated.

Putting this in the Chipaya context, what would you suggest as a strategy? Considering that globalization is already changing the lifestyles of teenagers.

L. C.: One way is by recuperating the ancestral view to regain spirituality. This is key. For example, last month I was at a meeting with a group of elders who were saying the importance of seeing the earth as a living being. Once nature is seen as someone who is alive, it is treated as if it were alive. This vision needs to be retaught to young people. We are working with youth to help them integrate in the community life.

In other words, there are many forms of community tourism that are more controlled and the flow of tourists is regulated. The problem is when money dominates the situation.

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A grain and seed storage hut. Source: author

Once nature is seen as someone who is alive, it is treated as if it were alive.

Don’t you think it’s a bit complicated with the internet and mobile phones?

L. C.: That is a reality and we need to embrace it. The internet cannot be eliminated. Most young people have cellphones and they spend most of their time chatting on it. The goal is to help them give the internet a different use. It is not a matter of prohibition, it is rather a matter of switching the use they make of this technology. We are producing videos with them, they are coming up with their own presentations with their own communities. It has been working positively so far, as participants are getting more engaged with their culture and identity. They are integrating in the communal activities more and more.

Are ancient rituals such as capturing the wind and harvesting dunes still practised?

L. C.: Yes, although I am not specifically sure about those two. But, we are working on reincorporating traditional practices into the spiritual and ritual activities. It is a slow process because not all participants accept it right away. It also depends on their families and community. In Charagua, a community where we are undergoing a similar project, we are doing pretty well. Participants are very active and actively integrate in the community.

In regards of food sovereignty and drought…

L. C.: That is serious. Especially in the Andean part, which includes the Chipaya territory, and the Chaco region. It is a desperate situation because, for example, the potato seeds that were cultivated could not germinate as it has not rained.

There is a study online stating that the drought of the Poppo lake is due to water mismanagement.

L. C.: On the one hand, as you say, it is due to water mismanagement. There seems to be a lack of communal management of the resources and a lack of prevention measures. On the other hand, one cannot ignore that drought and el Nino are effects of climate change. The absence of rain is not necessarily because the little water available is mismanaged. Climate change plays a big role in all of this. Both things are cumulative. Another thing I am realizing is that some news are manipulated with political intent. What is true for Bolivia is that, according to official reports, 40% of our glaciers have been lost in the past years. This means that our mountains have less snow, resulting in less water supplying to the rivers and springs. It is undeniable. We have many snowcaps that have lost snow, thus there is no water running from those places. Consequently, there are less volumes of water feeding the rivers. So this is what has been going on. There is no prevention, the proper measurements have not been taken to come up with a contingency plan, for instance. Our water resources continue being used as if nothing was happening. It is a complex matter, and climate change is a key cause.

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The rooftops of two neighbouring homes. Source: author

The absence of rain is not necessarily because the little water available is mismanaged. Climate change plays a big role in all of this. Both things are cumulative.

The following is something that I have been noticing (since my childhood) in communities deemed ‘poor’ in the capitalist sense. It is a dependency on the government for help, or an expectation to be helped from above. While conducting an interview in the Chipaya nation, the interviewee asked for financial aid to the government for the construction of a diversion canal, as if a bureaucrat would watch the video. His colleague told me that the money had already been approved and they were just waiting for the government to hand it out.

L. C.: Absolutely. More than the government it would be the state, though. This government has been giving out more resources, and it is up to the municipality to manage those resources according to the needs of the population. If the municipal agents do not allocate the resources properly, neither will the communities. In the last couple of years this has become a generation of dependency. For this reason, local authorities need to be strengthened, especially in the area of communal organization. This is something we are working on permanently. With the indigenous autonomy they should as well strengthen their organization so it is less dependant on the central state.

Car traffickers don’t respect the borders and the municipality was not capable of keeping them away either. The indigenous autonomy now allows the local authorities to fairly manage their territory.

I noticed that car trafficking is another threat to the territory. What is your opinion on this matter?

Indeed, trafficked cars are driven into their territory, but the Chipaya people are not involved in it. It is up to them to build barriers that will keep [car traffickers] from crossing. Territorial control has been a struggle that the Chipaya people have not been able to do to these days. Car traffickers don’t respect the borders and the municipality was not capable of keeping them away either. The indigenous autonomy now allows the local authorities to fairly manage their territory.

Let me pause to briefly explain what the indigenous autonomy is about. Back in 2007, with 4 states against (Canada, the United States, New Zealand and Australia)—and the abstention of 11 states (which included Colombia and the Russian Federation)—the United Nations’ General Assembly passed the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) by a majority of 143 votes in favour. Two years later, President Evo Morales made the official launch of the indigenous autonomy process with the Decree Law 231. As it is recognized in Article 2 and Article 290 of the constitution, indigenous peoples have the right to self-govern their ancestral territory in harmony with law and constitution as long as it is done within the structure of the unitary state.

A Chipaya man showing his hunting technique. Source: author
A Chipaya man showing his hunting technique. Source: author

I read a UN report that says that the health issues [Chipaya] children and women are more prone to get are anemia and malnutrition. What I found concerning is that during my visit I did not see any health centres.

L. C.: Presently, there have been some incentives from the state in this regard. However, as we were saying before [about depending on the state], as indigenous nations we had always had our own systems, not just in regards of health. We have ancestral wisdom. School teaches other ideas about culture.

Is the content taught at public school designed by the state?

L. C.: It is one thing that it is provided by the state, which should be the case anyway, and yet it should be the community who creates its own education system. Resources should be provided by the state because it’s part of a country; but, in this case, communities should have more capabilities to maintain their own education system.

Do you think this could be done in the indigenous autonomy?

L. C.: Yes, relatively because the educative system is centralized by the state. It will be more attainable as [the Chipaya people] get their own system, which needs further strengthening. In the instance of Bolivia, there are three curriculum levels: one is central, another is regional, and the third, which has not been effectively developed, is local. Therefore, it is possible to continue working on regular education. On the other hand, there is the need to continue working on our own community education, which is what indigenous nations have always had for thousands of years. Yet, since these themes are no longer researched in depth, it is as if they did not exist. All cultures have had their own education or formation systems that are actually meant to attain wisdom, including health and any other system. It is important to clarify which are our own systems.

All indigenous cultures have their own ecological principles, or cosmovision. When these principles are forgotten the ecosystem is destroyed.

To conclude, would you say the Chipaya nation is under threat of disappearing?

L. C.: Yes. However, the indigenous autonomy can facilitate the Chipaya people the possibility of recuperating their culture. The Urus are in the process of going extinct, though. A segment of the Uru population lived near the Poppo Lake. Since the lake dried up, they lost their livelihood because they are essentially fishermen. They were forced to migrate. For this reason, their territorial structure is scattering. They are moving to urbanized regions because they no longer have a means to survive. This is happening in a different region of Oruro. It is happening to other cultures, too, and the process is similar: it disjuncts, scatters, and then disappears. There has been progress in the case of the Chipaya nation because the indigenous autonomy will allow them to develop their own life model by strengthening their ancestral culture. At least that is what is hoped. All indigenous cultures have their own ecological principles, or cosmovision. When these principles are forgotten the ecosystem is destroyed.

 

Paula Monroy is an undergraduate student at Concordia University majoring in Urban Studies.

After Standing Rock, a new unity emerges

Photo: Dark Sevier
Photo: Dark Sevier

by Nancy Romer

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.

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Photo: Dark Sevier

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.

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Photo: Dark Sevier

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.

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Photo: Dark Sevier

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.

Denmark’s political alternative

Source: DR
Source: DR

by Rune Wingaard

The Danish political party the Alternative (Alternativet) was officially established in November 2013 and was elected into Parliament in 2015 with 9 seats and 4,9 percent of the total votes. The party’s main goals are to achieve a ’serious sustainable transition’, a new political culture and better conditions for entrepreneurship. The Alternative is critical towards pursuit of economic growth as a primary goal for policy makers and aspire to a new understanding of progress.

The Alternative is aware of the existence of a number of relevant indicators for sustainable progress, yet we have not found one that is considered politically applicable. For example, the ‘five headline indicators for progress’ by the New Economics Foundation is compelling but we find the five headlines to be too complex to communicate to the public in the hyped speed of contemporary media.

Many Danes respond positively when we talk about economic, social, and ecological sustainability, and we wanted our indicator for progress to include these concepts. Accordingly, we decided to have one headline indicator for each type of sustainability in order to make it easily understandable.

We are still in a developing phase of our indicator, but it seems we will decide on the following: Economic sustainability is improving when the rate of employment on collective agreement terms and self-employed increases. The rate of employment has a significant impact on the public budget, so it is a key indicator to the health of the economy. Additionally, we want quality jobs and strong labour unions, hence we decided to only include jobs on collective agreement terms. Social sustainability is measured by improvements in economic inequality in terms of the income difference between the top 20 and the bottom 20 percent of the population. Research has found equal societies to have fewer social and health problems, so equality is a very important indicator of the well-being of citizens. Ecological sustainability is measured by the degree to which the Danish CO2-emissions are declining at a tempo where Denmark makes a fair contribution to securing the internationally agreed goal of avoiding more than 2 percent increases in global temperatures and aim at a 1,5 increase up till 2100. Climactic changes are likely the gravest danger to modern society and CO2 emissions are therefore a relevant indicator for ecological sustainability.

Our general idea is that the main indicators for economic, social, and ecological sustainability have to be positive if we are to propose a policy in Parliament. If we are to vote for a policy proposal from another political party, at least two indicators must be positive, and optimally all three. We will be able to communicate this very clearly to the public and be accountable with regards to these indicators of sustainability.

We are aware of the fact that many other indicators are needed for serious sustainable development. Therefore, each of these indicators will be supplemented with second-level indicators relevant to their area. Economic supplementary indicators could be job employment measured by gender and other ethnic background, job stability, job satisfaction, balance of payments and ratio of private investments to private savings. Social supplementary indicators could be happiness, children’s wellbeing, mental wellbeing, social trust, quality of health care, health inequality, inequality in wealth and income inequalities between gender and for ethnic minorities. Ecological supplementary indicators could be biodiversity, air quality, nitrogen and phosphorus pollution, resource consumption and so forth. The supplementary indicators are considered important, and if a significant number of them are deteriorating or improving, this can affect our attitude towards a specific proposal.

We will decide on the main indicators shortly, and we will ask ecological sustainability experts to help us decide which supplementary indicators are relevant to their field. We will also host what we call political laboratories where we will invite citizens, experts and our own members to discuss the details of our new indicator for progress. This is in accordance with our vision on a new political culture with more democratic bottom-up processes.

We have discussed whether we should follow the headline indicator for New Economic Foundation’s indicator on ‘good jobs’. This includes the amount of the population with a secure job above the ‘living wage’. We are currently in favour of using the more simplistic percentage of the population with a job on collective agreement terms (and self-employed), since we wanted the indicator to be as simple and easy to communicate as possible.

If we vote for our own or a proposal by another political party in Parliament and the proposal passes, we can go to the media and evaluate whether the policy is improving the three main indicators for sustainability. If so, we can argue that it increases triple bottom line sustainability. When we participate in longer discussions we can discuss to which degree the policy improves or deteriorates relevant supplementary indicators.

Whether or not GDP increases is less relevant, the central goal is to ensure economic, social, and ecological sustainability.

We find this to be an accountable and transparent way of communicating with the public and participating in the political process. It matters to citizens whether new jobs are created and inequality and CO2-emissions are reduced. Also, we hope this approach can raise awareness of a triple bottom line understanding of sustainability in the public.

So is degrowth needed to ensure climate justice?

It is highly likely, but to us this is not the key question of our time. Whether or not GDP increases is less relevant, the central goal is to ensure economic, social, and ecological sustainability. Our indicator does not include GDP as we want to measure what really matters in relation to the wellbeing of mankind and nature. The public policy must be centered on achieving these goals and can only be successful via an intelligent cooperation with the private sector, civil society, and international actors.

Mother Teresa once said: “I was once asked why I don’t participate in anti-war demonstrations. I said that I will never do that, but as soon as you have a pro-peace rally, I’ll be there.”

The Alternative wants to communicate as clearly as possible that we are for a sustainable development rather than against growth, as we find this inspires and resonates deeper with the public.

Naturally, the main institutions of the current economic model will have to be reformed in order to ensure a serious sustainable development. Therefore, the Alternative proposes reforms of the financial sector, lower working hours, an ecological tax reform, increased investments in green research and infrastructure, more redistribution, increased financial transfers from the developed to the developing world partly focused on climate change mitigation and adaption, and a slowdown of the massive subsidies for conventional agriculture and the fossil fuel industry.

Rune Wingaard has a Masters degree in social science and international development studies from Roskilde University, where he also works and teaches economics, politics and quantitative methods. He is part of the Economic Council of the Danish political party the Alternative and is very engaged in co-creating a transition towards a much more sustainable, just and thriving society.

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Moving slowly and deliberately at Standing Rock

Photo: Nancy Romer
Photo: Nancy Romer

by Nancy Romer

In this report, I will try to give you a sense of what being at Standing Rock is like. Tonight completes my third day here. The weather has been mostly cold but very sunny. The colors, the sky, but most of all the people are startlingly calm and beautiful. The Standing Rock encampment is defined as a prayer site, a place to contemplate and to appreciate nature, “the creator” (not my words), and each other. The Indigenous people here from just about every tribe in the US and some from Canada are so welcoming and warm to outsiders. They repeatedly say how much they appreciate the presence of non-Indigenous folks and how they want to share with us. They are strict on the rules: no violence of any kind, no drugs, alcohol or guns, respect for Indigenous ways, making oneself useful.

The vast encampment contains 4 or 5 separate but connected camps, some on the Sioux reservation land, others outside.The largest one is immediately off reservation land, Oceti Sakowin Camp; it is the one in which most of the activities happen. The others are either defined by age—elders or youth—or vary by activity. We spend most of our time at Oceti but today I took a long walk and visited two of the other camps just to get a flavor of them.

NO DAPL stands for No Dakota Access Pipeline and signs with the slogan are everywhere as is “water is life”. There is a religious feel to the camps and great respect all around. In many ways this is a very old-style Indigenous encampment and in many ways it feels like a post-revolutionary or post-apocalyptic future.

The pace is slow though everyone seems to move with great purpose. People jump in and do the tasks that seem to be needed: cooking, cleaning, helping each other to put up a yurt or a teepee, chopping wood, tending fires, washing dishes, offering legal, medical or psychological help. Cell and internet service is miserable and probably interfered with by the constant drones that fly above the camps.

For me the most impactful point was respect. They defined that as including slowing down, moving differently with clearer intention and less reactivity.

On Friday I attended a brilliantly presented orientation to the camp. One of the presenters was Maria Marasigan, a young woman who was active in the Brooklyn Food Coalition. It was the best anti-racist training for allies that I have witnessed: succinct, not guilt-trippy, and very direct. The three main rules are: Indigenous centered, build a new legacy, and be of use. They shared the Lakota values that prevail in the camp: prayer, respect, compassion, honesty, generosity, humility, wisdom.

For me the most impactful point was respect. They defined that as including slowing down, moving differently with clearer intention and less reactivity. They suggest asking fewer questions and just looking and learning before our hands pop up and we ask to take up space.

Photo: Nancy Romer
Photo: Nancy Romer

They clarified a gendered division of behavior and practice, including asking women to honor traditional norms of wearing skirts during the sacred rituals (including in the cooking tent) and for women “on their moons” to spend time in a tent to be taken care of and rest if they choose. Somehow it seemed okay, actually respectful, not about pollution and ostracism.

While I was helping out in the cooking tent—my main area of contribution—an Indigenous woman came by with about 10 skirts and distributed them to the mostly women in the cooking tent and we gladly put them on. It served as an extra layer of warmth over my long underwear and jeans. It was not what I expected but it seemed fine to all of us. We just kept chopping away at the veggies.

Later that day I attended a direct action training that was also quite thorough and clear. Lisa Fithian, an old friend from anti-war movement days, lead the training and explained how to behave in an action and how to minimize police violence. Lisa, along with two other strong, smart women, one Black and one Native, laid out a plan to do a mass pray-in in town the next day. My New York City travel companion and I both felt that we couldn’t risk arrest and decided not to join that direct action but to be in support in any way we could.

At 8 am the next morning about 100 cars lined up in convoy formation at the exit of the Oceti Sakowin Camp, each with lots of passengers—including some buses and minivans—and went into Manwan, the nearest town. The Indigenous folks formed an inner circle and the non-Indigenous formed a circle around them. The Indigenous folks prayed, sand and danced. The tactic was exercising freedom to practice their religion while protesting the Dakota Access Pipe Line. No arrests were made despite massive police and drone presence. One local man tried to run over a water protector but she jumped aside; the man had a gun but was subdued by the cops. Lots of videos were taken and the man was brought to the local jail.

On Saturday I finally got a press pass as I got a request to cover the encampment from New Politics, a print and online journal. That gave me the right to take photos (otherwise not allowed), but still limited—no photos of people without permission or of houses or horses, again without permission from the people with them. I set out to interview people at the various camps and to get a sense of what people were planning to do for the winter.

I spoke with Joe, a part Lakota from Colorado who had been raised Catholic and attended Indian residential schools, taken from his parents by the state because they doubted the ability of the native community to raise their own kids. He said it was brutal. When asked why he was here, he replied, “This is the first time since Little Big Horn that all the tribes are uniting against a common enemy—the black snake—the pipeline that will harm our water, our people. This unity is making us whole.”

Photo: Nancy Romer
Photo: Nancy Romer

At Rosebud camp just about a 1/2 mile from Oceti, I discovered a group of people building a straw-bale building that was destined to become a school. Multi took a break to tell me how they came to create this project with the full collaboration of parents and kids in the camp. Their project grew out of a team of people from Southern California who are builders and designers who use earth and straw as materials creating almost no carbon footprint and providing both strength of structure and extraordinary insulation—very important for a windy and cold winter ahead.

“We spent five days gathering ideas from people at the camp as to what they needed. They decided on building a school for the many kids who might stay the winter or come and go over time.The parents and kids helped to design the structure with the builders.”

Multi told me, “We didn’t want to bring the colonialist idea of what was needed and just tell people at the camp. We spent five days gathering ideas from people at the camp as to what they needed. They decided on building a school for the many kids who might stay the winter or come and go over time. The parents and kids helped to design the structure with the builders. All the decision-making was ‘horizontal’, engaging everyone with equal voice, avoiding hierarchy. It will be a one-room schoolhouse with nooks for specific tasks and will serve K-8th graders.” A teen center is being built nearby.

When I visited there were five women and one man working on the project and they welcomed any help they could get to finish the project before the cold sets in. When I asked Multi why she was doing this project she said, “For me this is about coming together as a global culture, a people who have the resources we need for future generations. We are here to protect our futures together. Building a schoolhouse is a manifestation of that ancient technology for our future together.”

“This is all about the water and who lives downstream. We are testing a new economic system that requires governance, self-governance from the ground up.”

Down the road I met Danielle who was helping to build a multi-purpose center housing a kitchen, dining area and meeting room. She told me that “This is all about the water and who lives downstream. We are testing a new economic system that requires governance, self-governance from the ground up. The needs must evolve for us to create a system that will fit them.” She is particularly excited about engaging people to serve and to be united, to be able to work together with their passions for service, to be happy together in this way. The materials for the building were donated by people from Ashville, NC and were deeply appreciated. All over the camps one sees evidence of creative problem-solving, cooperation and contributions brought from afar. The “donations” building is brimming with winter clothes (adults and kids), foods of all kinds and practical items.

I was particularly interested in the many families that were at the camps, including lots of kids of all ages, including infants. One family from Boulder, Colorado, with 8-year old Oscar and 11-year old Audrey, were unpacking their car when I came upon them. Their mother, Susan, said, “We are here to support the protest and to have our kids learn from it. I want my kids to understand that we do what we can to take care of the water and support the Indigenous people. To step it up these days we have to hold some ground. This is one of the places we can meet. It would be great if Obama would release the land and kill the pipeline.” Amen.

I encountered a father-son pair from Manhattan. Fourteen-year old Declan Rexer learned about the encampment from a single segment on MSNBC news but couldn’t find anything else about it in the corporate media. He was particularly upset by the police attacks on elderly protesters. He then went to alternative and social media and found an enormous amount of information. His interest grew and his father, William Rexer, decided to bring him out to North Dakota to learn for himself.

They plan to bring back lots of information for Declan’s classmates and encourage more people to come out to see for themselves. William, a media professional himself, connected with some of the young documentarians at the camp and will provide some material support to them in order to advance their work.

“I’ve been here from the beginning and I will stay to the end. All winter if that’s what it takes. We have been colonized and divided for 500 years.”

I spoke with Joseph, a Salish man from Montana. I asked him how long he was planning to stay at the camp. He told me, “I’ve been here from the beginning and I will stay to the end. All winter if that’s what it takes. We have been colonized and divided for 500 years. This is our time to unite and resist. We must protect our water and our tribes.” He thanked me for coming to Standing Rock and being an ally. He asked me to tell my friends to come out and join the encampment, to be water protectors.

Generosity is evident all over the camp. I particularly love working in the kitchen, a huge army tent with large tables, stoves and lots of equipment. On each of the two days that I worked in the kitchen there were about a dozen people busily working in happy unison. There was a chief organizer and then 4 or 5 people who were in charge of a particular dish, each with 1-3 assistants. I was an assistant, happy not to have to mastermind anything. The chatter amongst the workers reminded me of the Park Slope Food Coop squads where people work together with shared goals. As one man put it, “We come together here with one vision. We are building a new world together.”

I am moving slowly and deliberately and thinking about the world we need to build together, on a much larger scale.

While I attend trainings and sacred fire circles, chop veggies, talk with people, drive people around, and walk around the various camps, I am struck by how happy I feel. Sure, this is temporary. Sure, this is not my “real world”. But it is a lovely world, a loving world, a kind world, where each person is greeted with kindness. Young men and women ride through the camps on horseback, connect to ancient traditions, and bask in the glory of a shared culture of resistance. I don’t come from this culture but I do support their determination, their right to protect their land and water and people, their valiant attempt to build a better world. I am moving slowly and deliberately and thinking about the world we need to build together, on a much larger scale. Can we decide to be kind to each other, to collaborate, to try to remove ego from our day-to-day practice? I don’t know the answer to these difficult questions. But I do know that when people share a common struggle we can be beautiful. I bask in that beauty at Standing Rock.

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Photo: Nancy Romer

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 a particular interest in agriculture and peasant movements in Latin America. Read their first report on life at the camp here

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Opening a crack in history

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Barceloneta residents at the demonstration reclaiming El Segle XX building, January 11 2014. Photo by Pedro Mata, Fotomovimiento.

by Santiago Gorostiza

When Aymara people in South-America look ahead they are facing the past. Literally. Researchers who investigated Aymara language and gestures have established that, unlike all the studied cultures and languages of the world, they refer to the past by gesturing ahead, while the future is situated behind oneself. The example of the Aymara indigenous people, when reflecting on how history can be useful for activists participating in socio-environmental conflicts, challenges our preconditioned views. We can put history into the foreground, not just as the background or the context of present events but as a central resource for the present and the future.

“All history is contemporary history”—Benedetto Croce.

But it is not only that we all write and research within the context of our own time. It is also that the stories and narrations that we unveil impact us now. They can affect how we look at the past—but especially, when it involves social movements, they can also shape how we look at the present and at the future, at what is conceived as possible and impossible today and tomorrow.

As the Zapatistas claim, it is necessary to “open a crack” in history. On January 1st 1994, the very same day that the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) came into force, the Zapatistas launched their revolt in the mountains of Southeast Mexico. From their very First Declaration, they emphasised they were the result of 500 years of resistance to colonialism.

A crack also disrupts the idea of unidirectional, non-linear history, opening a loophole that challenges views of what is in front of us and what in our backs. Once the past is reclaimed, the door to reclaim the future swings open.

One of the expressions of such resistance is precisely their critique of how history has been written. A history that tells the story of the elites just makes the present state of things seem natural, leaves aside the subalterns and silences their past. Against this type of historical appropriation, Zapatistas claim the need to “open a crack”– to write the history of the exploited. A crack that also disrupts the idea of unidirectional, non-linear history, opening a loophole that challenges views of what is in front of us and what in our backs. A crack that permits us to look to the past ahead—like the Aymara—as memories of the alternative non-disposable future. Once the past is reclaimed, the door to reclaim the future swings open.

Reclaiming silenced pasts is a task to be done both in the archives and the streets, both in libraries and mountains, listening to stories and reading dusty records. It can be about how a revolution was silenced and obliterated from history, as shown in the work of Michel-Rolph Trouillot on the late 18th century in Haiti. And also about how dictatorships try to wipe out the memory and heritage of those who opposed them. When, like in Spain, elites have succeeded to remain in power for decades, the stories of disappeared workers and activists and their emancipatory projects frustrated by a 40-year long dictatorship risk being left aside and silenced forever.

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Poet and Barceloneta neighbour Paco Jover, who passed away in 2015, at the demonstration for El Segle XX, January 11, 2014. Source: Photo by Pedro Mata, Fotomovimiento.

The Case of the Segle XX building in Barceloneta

In December 2013, residents of La Barceloneta (Barcelona, Spain) announced a demonstration to reclaim the empty building of the El Segle XX (“The Twentieth Century”) cooperative for its public use. El Segle XX had been founded in 1901, but after years of decline during the Francoist dictatorship, the cooperative was dissolved in the late 1980s and the building was later abandoned.

The importance of several cooperatives—El Segle XX among them—as spaces of socialization, consumption, and culture  since the late Nineteenth century soon emerged as a central aspect of the residents’ memories.

At least since 2008, the neighbourhood association La Òstia began collecting information about the history of the neighbourhood and interviewing veteran residents. The importance of several cooperatives—El Segle XX among them—as spaces of socialization, consumption, and culture  since the late Nineteenth century soon emerged as a central aspect of the residents’ memories. Later, the Barceloneta Cooperative Memory Research Group (Grup de Recerca de la Memòria Cooperativa de la Barceloneta) continued the work of the association by diving into archives, recording interviews, organising guided tours, and other activities.Similar projects in other neighbourhoods of the city, such as Sants or Poblenou, supported by the cooperative La Ciutat Invisible, greatly contributed to the impulse of the project.

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Poster “El Segle XX és pel barri” (“The Twentieth Century is for the neighbourhood”). Source: Grup de Recerca de la Memòria Cooperativa de la Barceloneta.

Barceloneta is historically a working-class neighbourhood with low salaries and few public and social facilities, but is now under high touristic pressure. And so the use of the El Segle XX building became a symbolic claim to the municipality.

Since the last decades of the nineteenth century, as part of a wider international movement, cooperatives grew in importance in Barcelona. In Catalonia, cooperatives had their heyday during the democratic period of the Second Republic (1931-1939) when thousands of families became members. Very often, they had their own theatres, bars, and shops. Consumption cooperatives allowed the avoidance of intermediaries between consumers and producers and thus brought urban space closer to the surrounding agricultural environment that fed it.

However, following the military coup that unleashed the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) and with the victory of Franco over the Republicans, cooperatives never regained the activity hey had had before. In fact, during the conflict, Barcelona was on the Republican side and Barceloneta was bombed so heavily that it had to be evacuated. El Segle XX was hit by Fascist bombings and reduced to ashes. Although the building was rebuilt after the war, its activity languished during the dictatorship, and most cooperatives were dissolved and their buildings sold. After the cooperative slowly dissolved, the El Segle XX building passed to private hands in the 1990s.

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Leaflet of Barceloneta’s Deleted Geography. Source: Geografia Esborrada de la Barceloneta.

Although the land on which the building is built was categorised by the City Council as a public facility, rumours of private commercial projects for the building started circulating. Already feeling increased pressure from gentrification and tourism, residents were getting uneasy.

In the final days of 2013, two weeks before a scheduled demonstration, an apparently fortuitous fire damaged part of the building. This event fostered a united front of the associations and residents of the quarter, and just a few weeks later, more than 30 organisations signed a statement asking the District to either expropriate or buy the Segle XX building. They also demanded a transparent investigation of the fire and the legal state of the building property, as well as the commitment of the City Council to keep the building categorized as a public facility.

Recording memories, collecting scans of old pictures and newspapers, finding old records or mapping places that have disappeared, residents have found a way to narrate their own story.

At the end of the demonstration in front of the El Segle XX building, several residents intervened by emphasising the historical role of the cooperative in Barceloneta. The march ended with two posters plastered on the wall of the building. One vindicated the historical memory of cooperativism with a quote from 1899; the other was a blank poster to be filled by participants with their ideas for the future uses of the space, under the title “What do we want for El Segle XX?” (“Què volem per al Segle XX?”). In the same fashion, the website of the Barceloneta Cooperative Memory Research Group, whose members had an active role in the march, stated clearly their views on the uses of the memory of cooperativism:

“More than an exercise of historical memory, it comes to us as a memory of the future: the practices of cooperation give us a powerful tool to face a present of cutbacks in social services and to build a shared future”.

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Residents of Barceloneta in front of the El Segle XX building at the end of a demonstration, January 11, 2014. Source: El Periódico.

 

Unearthing stories of the past, reconnecting struggles for the future

In a rapidly changing barri (neighbourhood), with growing pressure from luxury tourism stimulating higher rents and pushing former residents out, associations have resorted to historical research to enhance their struggles. Recording memories, collecting scans of old pictures and newspapers, finding old records or mapping places that have disappeared, residents have found a way to narrate their own story.

As highlighted by activist researcher Emma Alari, participatory mapping has been an essential tool in the neighbourhood’s struggles. Maps were used by Barceloneta’s residents to display the different threats suffered by the neighbourhood. The collaboration with mapping activists Iconoclasistas, who illustrated the dangers faced by the neighbourhood by creating a map for the residents, is a good example of this.

But mapping can also be a historical project. By mapping both long- and recently-disappeared places in “Geografia Esborrada de la Barceloneta” (“Barceloneta’s Deleted Geography”), residents not only narrate their history but configure an emotional geography of the barri, which binds together the stories of squatted houses already demolished with the story of buildings like El Segle XX or the Escola del Mar, a wood-constructed school on the seaside, which was burnt by Fascist bombings during the Spanish Civil War.

Such stories are disseminated by walking and talking together with residents (on organised guided tours), and through making audio recordings available online. These stories weave new connections between the past, the present, and the imagined futures. The guided tours in particular provide chances for interaction between those researching the history of the neighbourhood and their inhabitants, confronting and enriching each other’s stories. Residents’ relations to the space are connected with historical research about its uses by past social movements.

After years of actions and campaigns in the neighbourhood, the Barcelona City Council has finally committed to starting the process of expropriation of the El Segle XX building to give it back to the barri. The struggle, however, is far from over. As the recuperation of the building is close to becoming a reality, the neighbourhood association/assembly  is designing  its own project for the uses of the building through a grassroots process. In a major open meeting in the square, residents wrote their ideas for the future uses of the cooperative building on several large-size copies of the 1939 project drawings to rebuild the cooperative after the war, which had been located in the archives.

Nostalgia, often dismissed as over-romanticization, can also be an emotion connected to transformation and even revolution. Past experiences are opportunities for reinvention, possibilities for alliances across time.

This wasn’t just a practical way to collect all the ideas for the different floors of the building and a reminder of the building’s past. It was also a symbolic gesture: the maps of the project to rebuild El Segle XX after the Fascist bombings and the occupation of Barcelona in 1939 were recycled 76 years later to discuss an alternative future with the barri’s residents. The past can be a resource for imagining alternative futures—in a very material way.

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Planning the future of the El Segle XX cooperative on the base of the 1939 maps located in the municipal archive. Photo by Santiago Gorostiza.

While some would see a gloomy and nostalgic flavour in this struggle, activists explicitly state that they don’t intend to idealise, nor to romanticise, a return to a static lost past. They want to learn lessons about past experiences tried and failed, understand past hopes for imagined futures, explore the daily life and the problems of the neighbourhood in the past and its connections to today. Michael Löwy has suggested that Walter Benjamin used “nostalgia for the past as a revolutionary method for the critique of the present”. Nostalgia, often dismissed as over-romanticization, can also be an emotion connected to transformation and even revolution. Past experiences are opportunities for reinvention, possibilities for alliances across time. Stories like the one told by the El Segle XX building can be, as Italian authors Wu Ming and Vitaliano Ravagli have asserted, “axes of war to be unearthed”.

A version of the article appeared previously on the Entitle Blog. This post is also part of a series sharing chapters from the edited volume Political Ecology for Civil Society. Santiago Gorostiza’s contribution is included in the chapter on social movements. We are eager to receive comments from readers and especially from activists and civil actors themselves, on how this work could be improved, both in terms of useful content, richness of examples, format, presentation and overall accessibility.

Santiago Gorostiza is a PhD candidate trained both as an Environmental Scientist and as a Historian. He investigates socioenvironmental conflicts during the Spanish Civil War and the Francoist dictatorship. His research interests include urban geography, the environmental history of war and the role of historical research in political ecology.


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Talc, the widowmaker of Madarangajodi

A stone crusher used for crushing large blocks of talc in Madarangajodi. Photo: Indrajeet Rajkhowa
A stone crusher used for crushing large blocks of talc in Madarangajodi. Photo: Indrajeet Rajkhowa

 

by Arpita Bisht

Madarangajodi is a quaint hamlet in the foothills lining the densely forested Indian state of Odisha with a population of about 195 people living in 54 households.  Small, but neatly painted mud houses line the streets. Villagers collect mud of various colors to adorn the walls of houses, resulting in a series of dwellings with a variety of soothing, earthen colors. Each house has a courtyard and a garden, children play in common spaces, which are ample in the village, and old trees mark the beginning and end of streets. The village has a predominantly tribal population (composed of the Munda, Bhuyian, Milkawan, and Pattron tribes), who have historically been and largely still are forest dwellers.

This idyllic little hamlet, however, hides a harsh tale of exploitation, labor and human rights violations, and contamination. The village is the site of an ongoing environmental justice struggle against a private talc mining company that has operated there for over 15 years, and has resulted in the death of many miners.

Like the ghost town of Delamar, Nevada, nicknamed ‘The Widowmaker’, the deaths of the 45 miners has left 45 widows in the village over the past few years. Delamar, which witnessed a mining boom between 1893 and 1909, became the largest producer of gold within the state until 1909, and contributed significantly to employment generation and economic growth. However, large amounts of silica dust generated from gold mining resulted in the death of a large number of miners from silicosis. The exact number of people that suffered from silicosis remain unknown given the constant migration of people in and out of the mining town. The once flourishing mining colony of at least 1500 people currently lies abandoned.

Madarangajodi, unless stringent and timely action is taken, faces a similar fate. The major difference between the two is that Delamar—being a constructed mining town, enabled workers to have the option of moving back to their original home, whereas Madarangajodi is an old settlement of tribals. Indigenous inhabitants, largely income poor, often have the limited choices of either living in the environmentally polluted and socioeconomically exploitative environments, or moving to larger towns as daily wage laborers and slum dwellers.

This article presents a glimpse into the lives of the victims of environmental injustice due to mining. Although the case may appear to be an isolated event, it is only one small piece in the larger picture of the underbelly of the privatization and ecosystem exploitation-driven growth agenda that is becoming increasingly popular in India.

 

The mining industry in Odisha

The state of Odisha has some of the richest rainforests in India, with significant biodiversity—including endangered mega fauna such as tigers and elephants. Sacred groves of ancient trees dating back to over 500 years, found in various locations around the state, are sites of worship for local communities. Further, these regions are also home to 62 tribes, including 13 Primitive Vulnerable Tribal Groups—who have unique cultures and who are often dependent on forests and forest produce for livelihood sustenance. Incidentally, Odisha has 16.92% of total mineral reserves of the country—with chromite, nickel ore, graphite, bauxite, iron ore, manganese and coal accounting for 97.37 per cent, 95.10 per cent, 76.67 per cent, 49.74 per cent, 33.91 per cent, 28.56 per cent and 27.59 per cent respectively of the total deposits in the country. As such, the state is a prime location for the mining industry. The villages of the mining rich areas in the region have, over the past few decades, been witness to cases of police brutality, dispossessions, loss of livelihoods, spread of mining mafia, as well as Naxalism—an internal insurgency and a violent manifestation of the struggle against dispossession and often termed the greatest threat to India’s internal security.

Talc mining in Madarangajodi

Talc is a hydrous magnesium silicate and is used in various industries such as cosmetics, food, paper, pharmaceuticals, plastic, paint, coatings, rubber, electrical cable, and ceramics. Large boulders of talc are first broken into smaller pieces and then crushed using mechanical crushers—often generating large quantities of silica dust which disperses in the air during stone blasting and quarrying. This makes the talc mining industry workers extremely prone to lung disease.

Talc mining in the region has had various impacts on the local community and ecosystem. The mine has visibly consumed almost half of the hill nearby. Destruction of forest land, which is a source of livelihood given the dependence on forests of the local tribal communities, has implications on access to food and fuel. As a result of reduced access, villagers are forced to clear new spaces for agriculture and to walk farther for forest produce collection activities. Forests are also closely intertwined with tribal culture, which often means that forest clearing due to mining has impacts on traditional ecological knowledge and alters the patterns of interaction between local communities and forests. However, what forms the core of the environmental justice struggle in the region is the death of over 45 men working in the mine from silicosis.

Silicosis, also known as miners’ disease, is the most commonly occurring occupational disease for miners and stone cutters. It occurs as a result of fine particulate silica dust settling in the lungs of workers upon prolonged exposure without adequate protection for a prolonged period of time (between 5-10 years). Silicosis is an easily preventable but progressive disease that has no cure. This means that it gets progressively worse over time and the aim of treatment is limited to the reduction of symptoms and pain. Silicosis paves the way for other respiratory infections and patients often die from diseases such as tuberculosis. In mines with largely non-mechanized mining and quarrying, the chances of silicosis are extremely high.

However, prevention of the disease is not difficult. Procedures such as wet-drilling and provision of adequate safety masks which can capture the fine silica dust are some of the easy measures to be taken to prevent or at least reduce the occurrence of this lethal disease. And yet various factors such as income poverty of local residents, lack of alternative livelihood options, monetary and social power wielded by the mining companies, lack of regular checks etc., allows the companies to get away with avoiding both maintenance of safety standards and paying compensation to the affected people and families.

During our time in the village, we were taken into the house of a late-stage silicosis patient. Entering into the dark mud hut, what we saw could only be described as a barely alive, barely human figure. No muscle, no fat, only skin and bones, eyes wide and hollow due to extreme weight loss and malnourishment. The man lay on a bed, incapable of moving, of eating, drinking, or of any motion except occasional violent shivering. The torture he was going through was conveyed by the violent movements of his constantly shaking body, and a repetitive groan emanating from his throat. This man had no healthcare options, no doctors, no medicine, and no sedatives to dull his pain. He lay there in bed, awaiting an agonizing death. He received no compensation and no healthcare from the company that he dedicated over 10 years of his life to. He will leave behind a wife and three young children. He is emblematic of the face of oppression, of exploitation, of unimportant and forgotten deaths, and of the brutality of a system that favors private profit over individual human life.

 

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View of the talc mine from a distance showing the scale of mining operation, the location of agricultural land with cattle, and the appropriation of large section off the top of the mountain due to mining operations. The village is located at the foothills of the hill, within the remaining forested land. Photo: Indrajeet Rajkhowa

 

The widows of Madarangajodi

The widows of Madarangajodi appear to have been the worst indirect victims of the mine. Owing to marriage at a young age, most of these women have on average two or three children whose education, nutrition, and healthcare suddenly becomes their sole responsibility. Women, especially those of the older generation, have rarely had access to work outside of the household, thus making it either difficult for them to get jobs, or forcing them to end up working in exploitative jobs. The relatively more financially stable families have the option of engaging in agriculture, but the more financially unstable and income poor are forced into daily wage labor.

These widows receive a small compensation of 1000INR (€13.7) per month by the company and 300 INR (€4.2) per month by the government. Further, the MGNREGA (Mahatma Gandhi Rural Employment Generation Act), which guarantees 100 days of paid labor per year to anyone willing to work, has allowed some of these women to get employed in small jobs such as construction of roads, government buildings, or cleaning jobs. However, often repayment of costs of medical care for their late husbands and maintenance of basic livelihood sustenance forces women to put their young children into child labor. Children as young as 8 were employed as daily wage earners in the village—often exploitative.

 

 A mud hut in the village of Madarangajodi belonging to a relatively income poor family which has suffered the loss of the primary earner to silicosis due to talc mining. Photo: Indrajeet Rajkhowa

A mud hut in the village of Madarangajodi belonging to a relatively income poor family which has suffered the loss of the primary earner to silicosis due to talc mining. Photo: Indrajeet Rajkhowa

One woman who lost her husband to silicosis in 2006 now has the disease; their household conditions forced her to often replace her husband at work once he started falling ill on a regular basis. She has three children aged 8, 10 and 15, all of whom are currently forced to work as daily wage laborers in a nearby village since she is no longer capable of doing any laborious work, let alone grueling construction work in the heat.

Yet another woman, aged 33, whose husband happened to possess agricultural land, now farms to support her two children—a daughter aged 13 and a son aged 7. She breaks down and cries while recounting the horrors of her husbands’ disease, and her struggle to provide children with two square meals, a primary school education and to keep them from being forced into child labor. She describes the years of economic instability, the pressure of protecting her children from hunger, the struggle of protecting her land from outsiders, all the while handling the physical strain of dealing with her husband’s severe illness and soon after the emotional strain of dealing with his death. She has finally, after five years of his death, been able to afford a decent standard of living surviving off agriculture, is able to send her children to school, and has built a small two-room mud house.

 

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Sarojini Kuthia, wife of Keshav Kuthia (died 2006), standing beside her small mud hut. Currently suffering from silicosis due to replacing her husband as a daily wage laborer in the talc mine during his illness to support her family. She has three children: an 8 year old boy, a 12 year old boy and a 15 year old girl all of who are employed as daily wage laborers since she is no longer capable of earning sufficient income to maintain her family. Photo: Indrajeet Rajkhowa
Left: Sarojini Kuthia, wife of Keshav Kuthia (died 2006), standing beside her small mud hut. Currently suffering from silicosis due to replacing her husband as a daily wage laborer in the talc mine during his illness to support her family. She has three children: an 8 year old boy, a 12 year old boy and a 15 year old girl all of who are employed as daily wage laborers since she is no longer capable of earning sufficient income to maintain her family. Right: 33 year old Subhashi Munda, wife of Sunia Munda (Died 2011) who has to two children, a 7 year old boy and a 13 year old girl. Photo: Indrajeet Rajkhowa
33 year old Subhashi Munda, wife of Sunia Munda (Died 2011) who has to two children, a 7 year old boy and a 13 year old girl. Photo: Indrajeet Rajkhowa

 

Social mobilization and resistance

With the help of a local activist and some lawyers, the widows have been able to shut down the operations of the mining company by bringing the matter to the local court. As of now, about 29 court cases against the mining company have been filed by the women. However, the threat of the mining mafia looms large in the areas, often preventing them for pursuing, and sometimes forcing them to withdraw cases. For instance, on the day that we visited the village, death threats were immediately communicated to us, issued presumably in order to discourage any interventions by outsiders, and to prevent the publication of the piece in media.

 

The need for alternatives

Natural resources have historically formed the basis of the socioeconomic system. Whereas pre-industrial economies relied on terrestrial natural resources by using forest products, agriculture and surface water for livelihood sustenance needs, the current economic system relies on an expanded base of sub-terrestrial resources for sustenance. From groundwater to fossil fuels, metallic and non-metallic minerals—it is largely dependent on resources, often extracted in scales that have resulted in ecological degradation at the local, regional, and global level. This comes at the cost of ecosystems—either on the source-side (e.g., in the form of resource extraction) or sink-side (e.g., in the form of ‘filling’ of ecological sinks such as oceans)—evidenced by the fact that 15 out of the 24 ecosystem services quantified by the MEA are already being degraded or seeing unsustainable rates of extraction.

Since sub-terrestrial resources are not evenly distributed within the earth’s surface, specific areas with large volumes, high concentrations, and relatively pure forms of minerals tend to suffer most from exploitation. As indicated by the concept of ‘resource curse’, such regions do not often benefit directly from the appropriation of these resources. In fact, many mineral-rich regions tend to suffer the most in terms of other sectors such as education, healthcare, environmental and ecological indicators, and alternative income generation opportunities. Further, these locations are often the site of environmental injustices occurring from the imposition of negative environmental and social externalities upon local people and communities, which are increasing in frequency across the world.

Socioeconomic progress through access to electricity, sanitation, medical and healthcare facilities, and education are certainly necessary for large sections of disadvantaged populations in India, and in other parts of the world. However, looking beyond the rhetoric of pursuit of growth for the poor, there is an urgent need to examine how the real costs and benefits of economic growth are being distributed. The village of Madarangajodi, some could argue, is a small case with respect to number of victims, given the benefits of the talc mine to economic growth and industrial development in the larger context. However, the growing incidents of similar such cases of environmental injustice taking place across India highlight the urgent need to question a system which incentivizes large-scale ecosystem degradation, livelihood destruction, and associated human rights violations for the benefit of fictitious growth for the poor, and real growth for the already advantaged elite minority.

What is needed instead is a political economic system that ensures ecologically viable progress for the vast majority of the marginalized people across the country. This is not only possible, but very much practical, as has been evidenced by the hundreds of successful grassroots and community initiatives in India documented by the organization Vikalp Sangam— ‘the coming together of Alternatives’ in India. Alternatives exist and must be explored if we are to transition into a socially, economically equitable society with a sustained ecological base.

Arpita Bisht is a Doctoral Scholar studying biophysical expansion of extractivism and related socio-ecological conflicts, ecological degradation and human rights violations in India. She is interested in exploring linkages between, and implications of, social mobilization on unsustainable patterns of extractivism. Her research interests also include anthropological studies of indigenous and tribal communities with a special focus on the pluralistic conceptualization of nature as God, and on the nature of human-nature interactions in these cultures.

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Plastic and the city

plastic 4

by Thérèse d’Auria Ryley

The burden of single-use plastic bags on urban infrastructure has been a focus of the environmentalist movements and urbanist thought in the 21st century. Single-use plastic bags, however, are not the only plastic that becomes entangled in the cityscape. In fact, plastic in all its forms is so integrated into cities that it is not possible to imagine urban infrastructure without it.

Plastic in all its forms is so integrated into cities that it is not possible to imagine urban infrastructure without it.

In the urban context, plastic is ubiquitous. Like the concrete, steel, and tar that compose the urban landscape, plastic is integral to the form and function of urban space of the 21st century. Plastic piping carries water from dams to cities; plastics encase fiber optic cables and electrical wires. Plastics are necessary to power electronics, maintain the shelf life of foodstuffs, and move goods quickly across oceans in vast quantities from one node to another. And while each of these differs in chemical composition, once discarded, they all are obstacles to urban waste management systems.

Urban dwellers differ by origins of class, place, occupation, race, and so on. And so they also differ in ways by which they engage plastic objects.

What follows is an exploration of the intertwined social and material landscapes of Dakar – the bustling capital of Senegal. Senegal banned plastic bags one year ago, in April 2015, as a means to curb environmental and infrastructural damage particularly severe in the nation’s capital. The vignettes capture social interactions in which plastic objects transcend material stagnancy and figure dynamically in the social lives of Dakar’s inhabitants. Urban dwellers differ by origins of class, place, occupation, race, and so on. And so they also differ in ways by which they engage plastic objects

These vignettes highlight the ambiguity of this material, and the challenges that such ambiguity poses to reimagining urban infrastructure in a way that meets the social and material needs of diverse inhabitants. Ultimately the social world of the city complicates the 21st century politics of plastic.


 

Madické calls himself a true ecologist. He does so several times during our conversation. He lives in a French military bunker, long abandoned, at the top of a steep hill. His artwork hangs everywhere, along with other things that I assume serve as artistic inspiration. Madické’s work features recycled materials—trash, really. He repurposes cellphone cases, old water bottles, anything commonly found in the city’s litter. He sells his works at Gorée Island, one of Dakar’s major tourist attractions.

Tourists come to see the Museum of the Slave House, and then meander the island to buy souvenirs, like Madické’s art. From Madické’s home one can observe European visitors, unconditioned to the Sub-Saharan sun, huffing and puffing up to the hilltop with red faces. Madické is passionate about his work,  that much is clear. He tells me so as he balances himself on his plastic chair, whose spines are broken. His balancing act gives him an air of stoicism as he speaks, slightly leaning forward, quietly bracing against the precariousness of the chair.

Madické calls himself a true ecologist. He does so several times during our conversation. He lives in a French military bunker, long abandoned, at the top of a steep hill.

He talks about what he incorporates into his work, how he finds these items, and the ecological message he tries to convey. He uses cigarette butts for mud huts, discarded cellphone cases for human torsos, spoons for legs. He is moved by the tragedies he sees in Dakar. Seeing young boys begging in traffic sickens him, he tells me they often get hit by cars. Society treats them like trash, he says. We converse for a little over an hour, with mostly Madické speaking intensely about the social problems he sees, and how he wields his perspectives into art. He needs a break. He pulls out a little bag of weed and another little bag of tobacco and rolls a spliff.

He moves the dilapidated plastic chair to the entryway for me to sit.

Source: author


 

I went to see Moustapha. We met at the tea shack, and he expressed an interest in speaking with me. I sat down with him, and began our conversation with the following question: why do you make this art from recycled materials?

He shrugs, what an easy question. “Because white tourists like to buy it.”

Moustapha took me to see his other works, all the while carrying on about all the European tourists who want to buy art made out of trash. It really cuts down on overhead costs, he says, to use discarded items found in the street rather than purchasing materials from an art supply store.


 

The first time I bought one of Modou’s wares, I tried to begin the conversation in Wolof, but he quickly changed to French. He doesn’t speak Wolof. Modou is from Guinea. He must be in his 60s. I walk by the corner where he sells his fans and woven baskets almost every day to get to  my office, to go to the grocery store, to the bank. His stand is placed in a perfect thoroughfare, with lots of foot traffic, but right at a corner where pedestrians naturally have to slow down and observe surroundings to safely navigate the intersection. I imagine his small business does well. He always says hi, and I always say hi. It is a nice feeling to see this familiar face in the neighborhood on my way to work and on my way home.

We are both foreigners in Dakar, but in different ways. Modou explained that he had been a basket weaver all his life, and that he had lived in the capital cities of countries in the region like Guinea and Sierra Leone before making his way to Senegal. I asked where he got the long spools of colorful plastic thread with which he crafted baskets, fans, and tote bags. As he speaks, he reaches to touch fans hanging from thread in the acacia tree, directing my gaze at different items. Modou has only ever used plastic twine to make baskets in Senegal; in the other countries he used natural fibers, like raffia.


Plastic 2

I walk down one particular road often. It is just adjacent to the main road, but it’s so quiet. It is narrow, and it has not been repaved in a long time. In fact, it looks like someone started repaving it and had removed the top layer of tar to do so. Two buildings on the street are currently under construction, and piles of mixing sand pour into the weathered city street. There are rarely people out on the street. Sometimes the neighbor kids play soccer, and the soccer ball ricochés off the divets in the road and bounces  back and forth between the tight walls. It looks like much more fun than playing on a flat pitch; exciting in its unpredictability.

This morning, I walk down the street on my way to work. Near the bend, there is a large plastic water container in the road. There is a calm breeze, and the container skids back and forth on the unpaved road. It is scuffed from this friction, but it still catches the sunlight in a few places as it rolls. On this quiet street, the only sound is of the container’s movements against the concrete.

Bump bump bump. Bump. Bump bump. Then a thud, when it hits against the curb.


 

Nabu passed us by on the street. She was carrying a large bucket on her head and we couldn’t see all of what was inside–just a few plastic bottles peeking out of the top. But it seemed  heavy by the effort that showed in her face and her gait.

“Women’s work is very hard.”

Pierre said this in a pensive but stoic way as she passed.

Nearby, in Nabu’s small home, I sit with her, her cowife, and her husband, who is sprawled across the bed. We are in their bedroom, and a t.v. in the corner is playing Senegalese sit-coms. I began to go through the consent process prior to beginning our interview and she just begins to tell me about her work. She, with great enthusiasm, told me everything I wanted to know. I didn’t ask a single question. She makes juice for the mechanics that work on taxis. Her stand is right next to the gas station. She puts the juice in these used plastic bottles, which she buys at the market.

Yes, there are these people who collect used plastic bottles and then they resell them at the market. Only 25CFA per bottle! It’s a great deal!”

Nabu passed us by on the street. She was carrying a large bucket on her head and we couldn’t see all of what was inside–just a few plastic bottles peeking out of the top. But it seemed  heavy by the effort that showed in her face and her gait.

Less than 5 cents USD a bottle. Nabu runs out of the room, and comes back with a large clear plastic trash bag filled with empty plastic bottles. The bottles were all used – old plastic coca cola bottles, fanta bottles, and so on – but in good condition, and well cleaned.

“Look, I buy them all at the market!”

Nabu’s colleagues – the market vendors – collect the discarded bottles mostly from restaurants and corner stores, and resell them to Nabu and other juice makers, who then resell them filled with juice.


Plastic 1

Ali met Moussa and me at the entrance to the waste dump. He is very energetic and I am not because I’ve been sick. Moussa is calm as always, and Ali’s intensity stains our quiet. After a bit of awkward formalities at the Waste Pickers Association’s center, Moussa puts the car in gear and we move slowly into the heart of the waste dump, Moussa careful to protect his tires from the compacted debris below.

I wasn’t prepared for the familiarity of the waste dump. Looking down at my feet, seeing limbs of the plastic chairs in which I frequently sit, the empty crunched water bottle—was that my water bottle? All the things that nobody wanted anymore, and wanted out of their personal space, found its way here. All of this below our feet, as we stood atop a large hill made entirely of trash, the integrity of its structure maintained by non-biodegradable discarded plastics. I began to mentally catalogue my contributions to this trash mountain since arriving in Dakar earlier that summer, since May. How many plastic bottles? A shampoo bottle maybe. I sometimes indulge in a Coca-Cola, but they are always in glass bottles, whichI return to the butik once I’ve finished. So, no Coca-Cola bottles. But perhaps a plastic bag or two, or three? Definitely an empty ibuprofen bottle.

I wasn’t prepared for the familiarity of the waste dump. Looking down at my feet, seeing limbs of the plastic chairs in which I frequently sit, the empty crunched water bottle—was that my water bottle?

Ali’s job, and the job of his fellow workers, is to search through the trash, pull out plastic objects, sort it, and then sell it to plastic companies to melt down and make plastic pellets or plastic reams. New things will be made from these old worn plastic things. But most of these old worn plastic things will just remain in the waste dump.

A man walks by with a horse cart overflowing with mesh bags full of single-use plastic bags, the kind you get at the grocery store. I watch as he trudged through the waste, leading his tired horse, on his way to sell all the dense bundles of plastic bags.


 

There are a lot of tubaabs in Dakar. The presence of tubaabs – white westerners – is just one feature of Dakar’s international fabric. Dakar is a cosmopolitan city and its urban dwellers hail from across the globe. These foreign diplomats, dignitaries, NGO workers, interns, and volunteers are sprawled throughout the city. They tend to congregate in certain spaces more than others. Mark’s potluck brunches are one of these spaces. At these events tubaabs tend to talk about ‘back-home’ as though Europe and North America are planets in a distant galaxy and not one nonstop flight away.

Mark is younger than most of his guests, a charismatic undergrad from a prestigious university whose social finesse makes him seem much older and more refined than his counterparts. As we prepare the meal, Mark asks if anyone would like some water.

There are different degrees of bottled water reliance that must be addressed during the ritual: Do you wash your teeth with bottled water or with the tap water? Do you dare to even let the tap water rinse your mouth for fear that some small yet mighty battalion of bacteria might advance to the deepest recess of your intestines? What happened when you visited that rural village?

And so the grand drinking-water debate is initiated. A ritual really, amongst tubaabs in Dakar, between tubaabs in Dakar and their loved ones on Skype. The debate centers on whether or not one is either brave enough, or stupid enough – depending on who is holding court – to drink the local water, rather than buy endless supplies of bottled water. Once a tubaab divulges his or her personal practices pertaining to one’s bottled water use while in this Sub-Saharan African city are discussed, you will know which tubaab sub-group you belong to.

There are different degrees of bottled water reliance that must be addressed during the ritual: Do you wash your teeth with bottled water or with the tap water? Do you dare to even let the tap water rinse your mouth for fear that some small yet mighty battalion of bacteria might advance to the deepest recess of your intestines? What happened when you visited that rural village? A woman offered you some water from the ndaa upon seeing how uncomfortably hot you were, red-faced and sweating profusely under the Saharan sun. You found an acceptable way to reject her offer, or you boldly accepted, sacrificing your health and maybe even your life to maintain social graces.

Mark drinks the tap water exclusively. He is willing to face typhoid head-on, daring microbes to defy his immune system.

As we chop potatoes together at the dining room table, a young woman quietly comments to me that she only drinks bottled water. With furrowed brow, she pauses to share with me her frustration over the hassle of making so many trips to the corner store to buy bottled water. She doesn’t know what to do with all these bottles.

 


 

In April 2016, one year after the announcement of the ban on single use plastic bags, the absence of plastic bags at checkout lines and corner stores is more and more tangible as store clerks hand out the last of the plastic bags. Social interactions begin to mold not around the presence of plastic items, but their absence.

“I don’t carry plastic bags anymore”, the clerk of the corner store told his customer. This small neighborhood corner store is filled from floor to ceiling with all kinds of food items, beauty products, and sundries. There is just barely enough space for the clerk and his customer to occupy either side of the counter, and I stand on the threshold waiting for this transaction to be settled so that I can buy credit for my phone. The rusted doorway, contrasted with the colorful packaging of the stocked items, has an aesthetic quality, serving both to beautify and define Dakar’s residential neighborhoods. By the casualness of their body language, it’s obvious the clerk and his customer know one another. His customer must have come to his shop several times a week for who knows how long – sometimes a morning coffee, an evening cigarette, a bottle of soda on a hot weekend afternoon.

In April 2016, one year after the announcement of the ban on single use plastic bags, the absence of plastic bags at checkout lines and corner stores is more and more tangible as store clerks hand out the last of the plastic bags. Social interactions begin to mold not around the presence of plastic items, but their absence.

The customer was not pleased. He bought a small bottle of juice, a bag of potato chips, and a card of phone credit. The items were displayed on top of the glass counter, and the clerk gestured to each one, silently mouthed their individual prices, paused to mentally tally, and then finally announce the total out loud.

“We don’t carry them anymore; they stopped making them.” He explained as he took his customer’s crumpled bill and searched for change in the cashbox.

His customer became more vexed. The customer had not been aware that the government banned single-use plastic bags almost a year ago. He held the clerk accountable, and pressured him to explain how one is to conceal purchases. The thought of walking through the neighborhood with his – the customer’s – purchases exposed is an indecency that disturbed him. In so doing, he would be inviting the curiosity of his neighbors, who would see this open display of consumption as an equally open invitation for them to engage in additional social faux pas in the microcosm of the neighborhood. What a gross negligence on the part of his trusted neighborhood clerk to not provide him with an opaque black plastic bag, a requisite for appropriate public behavior and consumption, however insignificant they may seem at times.

He gathered his purchases, and with a disgruntled sigh shoved the snack in his pants pocket, taking extra care to pull his shirt over his pockets to conceal his purchases from onlookers.


 

Plastic has always been meant to be molded, bent, melted, into many forms. At times plastic catalyzes new social arrangements, at other times it disrupts these arrangements, and still at others its presence is barely significant. Plastic often factors into social engagements as a central topic of inquiry – whether that involves debating whether or not to consume bottled water instead of drinking the potentially contaminated tap water, or making  political statements through art about the intersections of plastic pollution and social ills.

Yet the very objects that cause us to take pause and question the damaging ways in which they affect urban lives are also the very same objects that in other ways uphold that life—offering a chair for a friend to sit in, a cup to drink from—without reference to or acknowledgement of the fact that these items are as much a part of the industrial economics of plastic materials in urban circulation as that notorious plastic water bottle and single-use plastic bags.

While our environmentalist conversations focus on plastic bags, we often ignore the fact that plastic is present everywhere and in many different forms. Because of its ubiquity, it more often than not occupies an ambiguous and contradictory role in social life. It plays an important role in social lives and urban spaces, but also results in challenging impacts on city infrastructure. Its benevolence is counterbalanced by its own malevolence. As urban spaces like Dakar phase out plastics and turn towards alternative materials and systems to mitigate problems, questions of the benevolence of those materials will continue to arise.

All photos by Thérèse d’Auria Ryley.

Special thanks to Dr. Richard Kernaghan. His ethnographic writing workshop was the catalyst for this piece.

Thérèse d’Auria Ryley is a design anthropologist whose work explores the nexus of environment, urban infrastructure, and public life. Her work explores the impact of modern living on urban space in Philadelphia, USA and Dakar, Senegal. She is a proud Philly native. She tweets at “@thérèsedauria.”

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“Where you least expect it”

Photo by Alexander Panez
Photo by Alexander Panez

by Diana Aguiar, Alessandra Cardoso, and Marcela Vecchione

 

In the airport of Belém in the Amazonian state of Pará, Brazil, an advertisement of the French company Imerys states, “Where you least expect it. Kaolin is a mineral that is part of your day.” The ad tries to tell the story of the positive widespread presence of the mineral in our daily lives. Kaolin is a mineral used in the production of paper, toothpaste, cosmetics and other daily use products.

The sad irony is what the ad hides: how little the communities surrounded by kaolin’s presence in their rivers and soil feel positive about it.

Barcarena is a city close to Belém and is home to the biggest aluminum-industrial center in Latin America. The first industry established in the area was Albras-Alunorte (at the time a project of Japanese capital and of state-owned, now Brazilian-headquartered private corporation Vale) in 1984. The project was part of the global process of relocating polluting and energy-intensive industries to the South. More specifically, it was part of Japan’s decision–in the context of the 1970s oil crisis–to outsource the production of aluminum needed to feed its post-War industrial boom.

The Brazilian military regime embraced the opportunity to host aluminum processing in the Amazon, signing up to huge debts denominated in Japanese yen. It then took on the task of building the energy infrastructure needed for the industry to flourish. The Tucuruí megadam, built in the late 1970s in the Tocantins River, was inaugurated in 1984 and resulted in social and environmental disasters of great proportions. Since then, Tucuruí megadam has been providing energy to the aluminum industry at subsidized rates, below production costs.

Currently, the refinery Alunorte (Alumina do Norte S.A.) transforms a mineral abundant in the Amazon, bauxite, into alumina. The refinery’s owners are Norsk Hydro, whose main shareholders are the Norwegian state (34,3%), the Norwegian Government Pension Fund (6,81%), and several transnational financial corporations. The factory Albras (Alumínio Brasileiro S.A.) transforms Alunorte’s alumina into aluminum and is owned by Norsk Hydro (51%) and the Japanese consortium NAAC (Nippon Amazon Aluminum Co. Ltd) (49%). Industries in the region also include, amongst others, steel plant Usipar and kaolin processing Imerys Rio Capim Caulim S.A. and PPSA (Pará Pigmentos S.A.).

The high concentration of these industries has turned the area into a “sacrifice zone” for local populations. As is widely known, the whole process of producing aluminum is water-and energy-intensive and is highly air-polluting. While the aluminum makes its way through global value chains, the devastation of the environment—which is the basis of the lives of the surrounding poor communities—remains. Three decades with the industrial center in Barcarena has meant a rampant population surge in the city due to labour-seeking migration and intense dislocation of traditional peoples and rural populations toward poor slum-like urban areas.

The high concentration of these industries has turned the area into a “sacrifice zone” for local populations

The process of turning Barcarena into an industrial center started during the time of the military dictatorship but continued unabated in the era of post-democratization government planning. It turned the area into an important vector of several trade corridors (Trombetas-Baixo Amazonas, Carajás-Tocantins, Capim river valey, etc. with hydroways and pipelines transporting kaolin and bauxite). In recent years, continued industrialization has become part of the economic policy of ensuring continuous trade surplus through the exportation of commodities.

Social movements have continuously criticized the financial imperatives justifying this “development” model, its environmental devastation, and the role it plays in the increasing dispossession of communities. It was exactly this interconnection between the financialization of the global economy, the “development” policies it entails and its consequent territorial impacts that the Latin American “Financialization of Nature” workshop debated from 26 to 27 August 2015 in Belém do Pará, Brazil.

As part of the workshop process, two days before the meeting, groups of social activists, researchers and popular educators took part in caravans that visited communities in the region of Northeast Pará. The caravan we took part in was confronted with a reality of devastation and despair. We visited communities Acuí, Curuperé and Dom Manuel, all of which are facing disintegration of social ties and the never-ending expectation of compensation that could allow them to relocate to a healthy place.

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The Acui community, living in a permanent transitory state.  Photos by Cíntia Barenho

The Acuí community saw its population decrease from 160 to 70 families due to the hardship of living on their land. During our visit, they claimed to be expecting a solution to their situation for the past 12 years, living in a permanent transitory state, including not seeing reasons to make efforts to improve their houses or vegetable gardens due to constant promises that relocation is soon to come. According to them, their soil and bodies are contaminated with heavy metals and their health is jeopardized. They cannot drink water from streams or wells and are dependent on the delivery of water by trucks. Disbelief in any promise and feeling of abandonment by the state were common. We left the community with a deep sense of impotence, hoping to at least express our solidarity to their struggle.

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The Curuperé community. the living expression of living with kaolin, “where you least expect it.” Photos by Cíntia Barenho

The second visited community, Curuperé, was the living expression of the tragedy of having kaolin as part of your day “where you least expect it”. The stream that served the community was constantly contaminated by infiltrations of kaolin – and heavy metals associated with its industrial processing – from Imerys tailings dams for the past ten years. Where 60 families lived, only 3 remain, now dependent on trucks to deliver water and facing corporate allegations that the land belongs to the corporation. As stories of dispossession usually go, those people saw their territories invaded by the industrial dump of a production process that has nothing to do with their needs and ways of living.

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Dom Manoel, almost a ghost town. Photos by Cíntia Barenho

 

The situation is similar in Dom Manoel, almost a ghost town that saw its population decrease from 164 to 8 families. The families that left before compensation did so due to the impossibility of living in such an environment. The ones that stayed say they have nowhere to go while they await compensation. Imerys claims it has bought the land where these people have been living for decades—taking advantage of the irregularity of land access and ownership—and hence refuses to pay compensation. The community is landlocked by industrial plants in one side and an Imerys tailings dam on the other. Piles of coke used in aluminum processing could be seen meters away from the houses. Even during our short stay, breathing the air caused discomfort.

The three communities, along with several others in the region, have been facing the huge impacts of mineral processing industries with little support from the state. The first serious kaolin leak happened in June 2007. 200,000 m2 of white material discolored 19 km of the river, compromising its use and affecting the water wells. At the time, the factory was fined with 2,6 million Brazilian reals and shut down for a month. According to studies made of the soil, the leaked material had high concentration of iron, aluminum, zinc and cadmium—these accumulate in the body and may cause degenerative diseases, hepatic dysfunctions, immunological deficiencies, and dementia.

Later that year the Prosecutors Office of the state of Pará and Imerys signed an extrajudicial memorandum of understanding. The TAC (Termo de Ajustamento de Conduta) included commitments to not throw any more toxic substance in the environment, to build up a plan for reparation of the area (including repopulation of native fauna) and restructuring the tailings dams. The financial compensation included 463,000 Brazilian reals in collective moral damage to be given to local associations and 4 million for the state as compensation for environmental damages and to finance projects to improve peoples lives. However, since then, leaks have continued to happen and communities claim that no reparation of their situation or the environment has occurred.

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Photo by Cíntia Barenho

Meanwhile, just outside of the Imerys factory, a big sign affirms proudly that the “company benefited from tax incentives to production” by the Superitendência para o Desenvolvimento da Amazônia (SUDAM) linked to the National Integration Ministry. Tax incentives in the Amazon, especially in its Eastern portion, have, for a long time, been a factor of social and territorial disruption. In the state of Pará, incentives at times included 100% tax exemption on the circulation of goods and services that are part of the value chain, such as electricity and fuel.

This has happened in conjunction with an increase of state debt at the provincial level, deepening of ecological debt (disproportionately concentrated upon affected communities), and inadequate distribution of wealth in the affected municipalities.

The Federal government helps to aggravate the problem by stimulating the so-called “tax war” among states that want to attract companies to their territories allegedly to create jobs and improve their revenue. In this way, it is not just a problem of development pushed by the capital, but also a matter of the way the contested regional and sustainable development model is being driven by sub-national units over and against community development. In Barcarena, for example, the provincial government has played a central role in promoting and reproducing a “development” model that jeopardizes the lives and cultures of local communities.

Shortly after the caravan left Pará, Norsk Hydro announced it is bringing Norwegian pop band A-ha to play in Barcarena. This type of propaganda, as much as the Imerys advertisement is part of a set of corporate tactics designed to build a narrative that disguises the crude reality lived by the communities we visited.

This set of tactics includes the criminalization of those who dare to protest: many people we met are facing criminal charges for fighting for their rights. No wonder there was so much disillusionment.

This set of tactics includes the criminalization of those who dare to protest: many people we met are facing criminal charges for fighting for their rights. No wonder there was so much disillusionment. Many of them asked for our help to disseminate the struggles they are going through and the systematic impunity these corporations enjoy. This article is our modest attempt to do so.

Diana Aguiar is part of the National Advisory Group of Brazilian social organization FASE. She has a M.A. in International Relations from PUC-Rio and is currently pursuing her Ph.D. degree at the IPPUR/UFRJ (Federal University of Rio de Janeiro). Her research is on the role of transnational capital and the state in accumulation by dispossession processes related to megadams projects in the Amazon basin. 

Marcela Vecchione is Adjunct Professor at the High Level Amazonian Studies Center at the Federal University of Pará, Brazil. She holds a PhD in Political Science/International Relations from McMaster University where she completed her studies on Indigenous Peoples political and historical articulations across borders within the Pan-Amazon region. Marcela`s current research focuses on land use and changes in land use in the Amazon basin and how this affects life projects by shaping resistance within and beyond the rain forest.

Alessandra Cardoso is Policy Advisor at INESC. She holds a Masters Degree in Economic Development from the Federal University of Uberlandia, and is pursuing her PhD in Applied Economics – Development and Environment, at Unicamp. Alessandra is responsible for developing the “Investments and rights in the Amazon” initiative.

Social ecology, Kurdistan, and the origins of freedom

Göbekli Tepe (Urfa, Kurdistan) site of one of the earliest known human structures. Kobane lies beyond the horizon.
Göbekli Tepe (Urfa, Kurdistan) site of one of the earliest known human structures. Kobane lies beyond the horizon.

by Eleanor Finley

I recently had the opportunity to visit Turkey and North Kurdistan. In that short time, Istanbul celebrated the third year anniversary of Gezi Park, the Democratic Union Party (HDP) won unprecedented political representation in the Turkish parliament, and the cantons of Cizire and Kobane were joined.

Throughout these dramatic events, I was often sitting cross-legged on living room floors, drinking tea and listening to the stories of journalists, activists, and families who had participated in the Rojava Revolution. Such conversations were made possible through many comrades, most of all through Jihad Hemmi, who acted as a guide, translator, and intellectual companion.

Through my travels, I was given a glimpse of the relation between the Kurdish freedom movement and the philosophy of social ecology. By the same token, I gained a much clearer sense of the extraordinary scope and meaning of this particular revolutionary struggle.

 

Reviving Politics

Social ecology is a coherent Leftist vision that underscores the potential for human beings to play a mutualistic and creative role in natural evolution. We can fulfill this potential, social ecology argues, by uprooting the irrational, hierarchical, and ecologically-destructive society we currently live under, and by replacing it with a socially-enlightened and ecological society.

An essential feature of such a society would be the Aristotelian notion of politics, that is, the direct management of towns, cities, and villages by the people who live there. In other words, social ecology maintains that we can supplant capitalism and the state with a global federation of directly-democratic municipalities.

Left-libertarian thinker Murray Bookchin invented and elaborated on social ecology from the 1960s until his death in 2006. However, many other education projects, publishing ventures, political organizations, and writers also constitute this intellectual movement. Social ecology groups exist in many countries- including Turkey, Norway, Spain, Greece, Columbia, the United States and others. Although marginal on the Left as well as the mainstream, social ecology has had 40 years of steady influence on social and political movements throughout the world.

PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan started reading Bookchin at the beginning of his prison exile in the early 2000’s, bringing Bookchin’s works to his lawyers as recommended reading for the rest of the PKK. In 2004, Ocalan recognized himself in a letter to Bookchin as his “student”, and was in the process of establishing his own theories modeled on Bookchin’s ideas.

In 2006, the PKK began organizing Democratic Autonomy, an administrative system of civic councils to statelessly govern North Kurdistan. Democratic Autonomy would become an important antecedent for the cantons in Rojava, as well as for the confederal projects currently being set up within the Turkish state by the HDP (Democratic Union Party).

Democratic Autonomy is one of the first revolutionary Left projects to exercise power under an explicitly confederalist agenda. Although it did not practice direct democracy, it did mark the 21st century’s first serious attempt to approach the municipality—not the nation or the state—as the authentic unit of governance.

Unlike traditional Marxism, which reduced politics to economics and thus failed to offer democratic solutions, this approach brings economic decisions under the umbrella of communal decision-making. And unlike traditional anarchism, which avoided the question of institutional power altogether, this approach seeks to popularize power and render it transparent. Democratic Autonomy, the Rojava cantons, and other projects under democratic confederalism are steps toward creating (however imperfectly) a new realm of human activity characterized by free deliberation, debate, and the exercise of reason.

Freedom and Organic Society                                                                                                       

“The PKK never regarded the Kurdish question as a mere problem of ethnicity or nationhood. Rather, we believed, it was the project of liberating society and democratizing it.” – Abdullah Ocalan, 2011.

Intellectual commentators of the Kurdish revolutionary movement often focus on the juncture of principles and practice, looking no farther back in history than the establishment of the PKK in the 1970’s. But in order to understand how (or rather why) these principles came to emerge, one must use a deeply historical and dialectical lens. Social ecology offers one crucial piece of that puzzle. Through Ocalan’s interpretations, it has offered Kurds a radical new framework for asserting their role in the history of human liberation.

In The Ecology of Freedom, Bookchin accounts for the historical development of the concept of freedom. He identifies the beginning of this development in the earliest human settlements of Mesopotamia, what is now modern-day Kurdistan. Nearly 12,000 years ago, human beings initiated a decisive step in social development, undertaking the project of living together with more than they could carry on their backs.

This project presented vast new challenges for organizing and making sense of the world. Thus Mesopotamia is where we find the earliest instances of written language, mathematics, architecture, and agriculture. It is also, Bookchin recognized, where we find the beginnings of the struggle between ideologies of freedom and domination.

Bookchin points to the cuneiform word amargi (“return to the mother”), which first appears nearly 5,000 years ago in juxtaposition to the newly oppressive conditions under the Sumerian state. Organic society, he argues, had no previous word for the concept of ‘freedom’, just as fish might have no word for ‘water’. This conflict between freedom and unfreedom has stayed with society to the present day. Indeed, the revolutionary challenge we face today is that of pushing the development of freedom forward, making freedom, rather than hierarchy, the dominant social principle.

Just a few short days within a Kurdish household reveal that the organic society upon which the earliest states imposed themselves never fully vanished. From oral traditions of epic song to meaningful practices of naming children (I spent time with a little girl named Amargi, for instance), Kurds have retained ancient forms of egalitarian and organic social life since the Neolithic.

Like many organic or so-called indigenous peoples, traditional Kurdish kinship networks are vast and intricate. Once, while explaining the role of tribal groups in the Kobane defense, Jihad turned to me and asked, “How many cousins do you have?” “About 20,” I replied, “I have a big Catholic family on my father’s side,” to which he responded, “Counting both sides, I have over 200.”

Many of the Ocalanist revolutionaries I spoke to described their struggle as one of organic society against authoritarian society. They articulated a clear sense that not only capitalism and statist forces produced ISIS, but also the mentality of hierarchical society itself.

Many of the Ocalanist revolutionaries I spoke to described their struggle as one of organic society against authoritarian society. They articulated a clear sense that not only capitalism and statist forces produced ISIS, but also the mentality of hierarchical society itself. However, it was also emphasized that the purpose of democratic modernity is not simply to revive organic society. Rather, it is to revive the social and ethical aspects of organic society and weave them with the ethical principles gained by Western enlightenment. At the same time, it advocates the use of reason to work out the unethical aspects of traditional Kurdish society (tribal rivalries, for example), while also refusing the cold scientism and positivism of the West. Such a synthesis moves us into a new stage in the development of freedom, one which Ocalan calls “democratic civilization” and which Bookchin referred to simply as a free society.

Kurdistan2-284x300
An Ocalanist and the author share tattoos. Tattoos are prohibited under Islam, but are a retained aspect of Zoroastrianism in Kurdish culture.

The Power of a Coherent Narrative

By focusing on hierarchy instead of class, Bookchin became the first Leftist thinker to offer a coherent, meaningful framework to understand the liberation struggles in the Middle East. His narrative implies that a revolutionary movement in Kurdistan is a struggle at the material origin of institutional hierarchy itself.

Although such a localized struggle cannot automatically release hierarchy’s tight grip over rest of the world, it does powerfully illustrate the full scope of the revolutionary task at hand. In this way, the Kurdish freedom movement is not only influenced by social ecology, it also enriches that perspective and articulates it further.

The human beings who live at the material origins of institutional hierarchy, and who have maintained organic ways of life there for millennia, are now answering the call to establish the positive conditions of a free society.

Many Westerners are baffled by the determination of PYD and YPJ fighters, their ability to simultaneously withstand multiple attacks of genocidal violence and maintain a commitment to the praxis of anti-authoritarianism.

Many Westerners are baffled by the determination of PYD and YPJ fighters, their ability to simultaneously withstand multiple attacks of genocidal violence and maintain a commitment to the praxis of anti-authoritarianism. In Kurdistan I found myself humbled by the seriousness with which revolutionaries went about their project. Yet from a social ecological perspective I was also able to grasp that the Kurdish movement is infused with a deep sense of purpose, a knowledge that they have a catalytic role to play in world history. I was reminded of one of the passages in Bookchin’s essay, “The Communalist Project”,

“[Communalists] do not delude themselves that the state will view with equanimity their attempts to replace professionalized power with popular power…That the new popular-assemblyist municipal confederations will embody a dual power against the state that becomes a source of growing political tension is obvious. Either a Communalist movement will be radicalized by this tension and will resolutely face all its consequences, or it will surely sink into a morass of compromises that absorb it back into the social order it once sought to change.”

Clearly Kurds have selected the former path. What remains to be answered is how will we respond? Will we resolutely face the consequences of a coherent, historicized revolutionary vision, or will we continue to slowly fade into a morass of ever-diminishing compromises? Kurds have found—indeed, have chosen—their place in the development of human freedom. What is ours?

Eleanor Finley is a board member of the Institute for Social Ecology. She has a background in feminist activism and was a participant in the Occupy Wall Street Movement. Eleanor is a graduate student in anthropology at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, where her research focuses on social movements, environment, and energy in Europe. She is currently conducting action-research within the Spanish anti-fracking movement, and interns with Environmental Justice Organizations, Liabilities and Trade (EJOLT) at the Autonomous University of Barcelona.

This article was originally posted on The Kurdish Question and has been revised from its original version. 

Is Europe staring at a second Renaissance?

by Ashish Kothari

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.

Bank squatted for social purposes, Barcelona. Photo: Ashish Kothari

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.

Joel Morist I Botines, CIC, Barcelona. Photo: Ashish Kothari

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.

Can Masdeu – the fields and the house, Barcelona. Photo: Ashish Kothari

 

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.

 

Other initiatives

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.

With the above team at ICTA and other local researchers and activists, we discussed the similarities and differences between degrowth and other alternative approaches from elsewhere in the world, including Buen Vivir and Sumak Kawsay in Latin America, swaraj or radical ecological democracy (RED) in India and ubuntu from southern Africa.

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.

Thanks to Federico and Daniela for comments.

This article originally appeared in India Together.

We’ve been here before, haven’t we?

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by Salvador Pueyo

We are often told that we need economic growth to address social problems such as unemployment and poverty and to improve everybody’s welfare. However, if one of your sleeves is tight on you, this does not necessarily mean that you need a bigger shirt: perhaps what you need is to reshape your shirt. Indeed, this will be your sole option if you have little thread left.

Economic growth is not a realistic answer to social problems in a world with vanishing natural resources, ecological degradation and climate change. The sensible answer is a deep transformation of the economy to make it more egalitarian and better suited to people’s aspiration to satisfy their basic needs and to live a meaningful and fulfilling life, while we get rid of many economic activities that we do not really need, and contract the economy to sustainable levels, carefully and in a truly democratic way. Currently, this idea is best known with the name of degrowth (see this website or this one), and their supporters pursue it at all levels, including individual consumption choices, grassroots self-organization to experience alternative forms of collective functioning, and political action.

However, very few people in the degrowth movement are aware that we are essentially repeating a cycle of mobilization that had already taken place from the late 1970s to the early 1990s (Piulats 1984 is a good sample, in Spanish). In that period, the ideas and practices that we currently call degrowth were labelled just as green, without knowing that the environmental movement would later become dominated by other different shades of green. The movement was especially strong in West Germany, becoming a reference all over the world when its political arm, Die Grünen (the German Greens) irrupted into the Federal Parliament in 1983.

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Unfortunately, Die Grünen became split in two main factions. The fundamentalist or fundi, which we would currently call degrowther, would soon have to share the party with the self-called realists or realos, closer to what we currently call green capitalism. Fundis went under pressure after an electoral defeat in 1990 (when the Greens did not share the general enthusiasm for a quick reunification of Germany, warning of the many problems that this would cause to East Germans, and focused their campaign on the then virtually unknown issue of climate change; paraphrasing the German Railways’ slogan Everyone is talking about the weather. We don’t, their slogan was Everyone is talking about Germany; we’re talking about the weather!; e.g., Jungjohann 2013). In a party congress in 1991, the fundis were defeated and left the party (see different views of this congress here and here). The end of the German Greens of the 1980s was rounded off with the death in 1992 of its most emblematic member, the fundi Petra Kelly.

After these events, the ideas, experiences and illusions of the early Grünen were forgotten almost completely. However, their spirit has never ceased to manifest itself in lots of grassroots initiatives. And, behind this veil of amnesia, there is a hidden treasure: the political programmes of the German Greens of that times. As described in a paper that Jorge Riechmann published in Ecología Política in 1994 (if you understand Spanish, this review is a must read), there was a conscious process of programmatic elaboration. It was carried out by the assemblies and representatives of the party all over West Germany, the many social movements where they had their roots, and hundreds of experts hired with the funds obtained from the presence of the party in the institutions. They envisioned, with much detail, how Die Grünen could foster a transition toward a socially fair degrowth.

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Even though Die Grünen had already moderated some of their positions before the upheaval of the early 1990s (Blühdorn 2009), the rich programmatic document on international economic policy elaborated between 1988 and 1990 still declares that “For us it is no longer international politics in the national interest but national politics in the international interest” (p. 7) and that “we should not hide the fact that our foreign economic guidelines could bring about a noticeable reduction in our current standard of living” (p. 93). Few current radical parties would dare to go so far.

I was appalled by the amnesia surrounding the early Grünen, which I noticed in many different ways, not least by failing to find some key programmatic documents with search engines. Taking advantage of a trip to Berlin to give a talk, I visited the historical archive of Die Grünen (run by the Heinrich Böll Foundation) and I photocopied some of these documents. I put them together with some other documents in this small repository.

By studying the early programmes of Die Grünen, the degrowth movement can save much effort and leap forward in the detail and quality of its political proposals. Like the protagonist of Groundhog Day, we can also learn from that past to avoid a repetition of the same story.

This is just the beginning. I hope that this (or some other) repository will be enriched with more programmatic documents and with translations.

Salvador Pueyo is a scientist and an activist. He holds a PhD from the Dept. of Ecology of the University of Barcelona, and has worked at research institutions in several countries. He applies complexity science to macroecology, macroeconomics and global change. He is a member of Research & Degrowth.

The two images in this article were found in the document, “Gegen arbeitslosigkeit und Socialabbau: Sinnvoll arbeiten – solidarisch leben” by Die Grünen.

The binge economy past and present

Images taken from Richard Wilk's chapter in Rethinking Environmental History: World-system History and Global Environmental Change
Images taken from Rethinking Environmental History: World-system History and Global Environmental Change

by Aaron Vansintjan 

Recently Richard Wilk, an anthropologist at Indiana University and director of their Food Studies program, was studying 19th century newspaper advertisements and cargo records of sailing ships in Belize—a major source of mahogany at the time. Wilk noticed that advertisements of luxury products—liqueurs, expensive fabrics, pickled oysters, and champagne—weren’t just targeted to the rich.

Those employed to cut down the lumber in the bush would often, when they received their pay and came back to port, blow all of their money on festivities and  luxury products. Wilk calls this the ‘binge economy’: men who work in extractive industries, surviving on cheap rations designed to last long voyages, go on binges with their ‘mates’ whenever they get paid off.

The development of the binge economy, according to Wilk, is an extreme example of how colonialism brought about a change in both the food system and inter-personal relationships. On the one hand, a system based on preservatives, industrialized food processing, and rationing could support a large standing army without relying on pillaging. This system of rations was then extended to support a navy, and eventually a proletariat class sent to the New World, Africa and Asia to extract resources.

On the other hand, this change in how people eat food was also extremely gendered. Food systems in Western Europe were initially based on complex relationships of reciprocity and redistribution, where every member of the rural household contributed in some way to ensure an adequate diet through hunting, farming, or foraging.

But the privatization of common lands through measures like the enclosure movement that saw its greatest increase in the 18th century also caused the erosion of the availability of subsistence-based food. When land no longer became accessible to hunt or farm, masses of pauperized peasants filled the cities, uprooted from the social structuxre that previously sustained them. This led to a large surplus of labor, leading countless indebted European men to board ships, cross the ocean, and eventually work in extractive labor projects or on ships.

With the erosion of household structures and the advent of an increasingly industrialized and processed food system, these men were forced to take care of their own needs and rely on cheap and easy-to-prepare food.

Wilk’s work challenges two common arguments in today’s environmental and food movements. First, we often hear that our traditional food systems are increasingly becoming eroded. While this may be true, Wilk’s research, along with a growing field exploring the history of today’s food system, illustrates how the industrial-military food system has been a cornerstone of many traditional food systems.

Second, the idea that globalization has recently caused an unprecedented proliferation of luxury and exotic food products, allowing even lower-class Westerners to access foods originally reserved for the rich. In fact, Wilk’s research suggests that the proletariat has had access to rare luxury products from around the world for a much longer time than we often imagine. As a result we need to consider, not just the distance our food travels, but how a kind of ‘binge economy’ has been institutionalized.

In this interview, Wilk gives us a glimpse of how ‘binge economies’ can still define our lives today, and the kind of social delinking that continues to make this possible.

 

I read your article about the food system in extractive economies. You start the article putting it in context, saying that for people who are now working on food issues, we often hear this idea that we are erasing traditional food cultures, seasonal food cultures, but that actually if you look at the history of the food system, that argument  goes way, way back.

Here’s one example. Native Americans have frybread [bannock]. No Indian festivity is complete if you don’t have frybread. It is traditional. That’s just basically taking a pork ration and rendering the fat and then taking your flour ration making dough with it and frying it. If you look into it, it’s the same food that was used to feed Native Americans when they were driven off their lands and could no longer get their own subsistence.

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“The only thing that makes it possible to send a man out to the new world, or to go whaling, is cheap rations.”

I think in some ways the global division of labor would not have been possible if we didn’t have cheap food. Because cheap food, as we know, enables a lot of other things. For one thing, it frees up money for people to spend on other things, but also it makes it possible to squeeze wage labor much harder than they ever had before. This idea of ‘ration’ became a substitute for a whole food system, a large complex network of different kinds of food where all kinds of collaboration and cooperation was involved. And instead they take the unit of collaboration, the household–often formed around a marriage–and they split it.

The only thing that makes it possible to send a man out to the new world, or to go whaling, is cheap rations. And at the same time women are flooding into the labor market and everybody is hiring them as maids… it becomes the great age of servitude. By commercializing the things that people have traditionally gotten from households and families and making them into commodities, it was possible to turn the proletariat into a new kind of market.

Now, rations make standing armies and large navies possible. It turns an army from a horde of people looting and raping through the countryside, stripping everything of food into a more disciplined group of people who are being fed by the military.

Once you’ve got cheap protein and cheap calories down, it’s possible to send men on board of ships for much longer periods of time.

 

Luxury goods like reindeer tongue and beaver hats were often targeted at impoverished extractive workers such as those in the mahogany industry in Belize. Wilk argues that such behavior still defines our food system today

What was life like for these early extractive workers?

If you’re on a work gang, or engaged in any kind of extractive industry–logging, mining, whaling, and things that are kind of like extractive industries like herding sheep and cattle on large open parts of the countryside–all of those things are men being self-sufficient, subsisting on a ration of food that doesn’t really require any elaborate cooking. And the work is inherently dangerous, and always badly paid, usually at the end of a season or a voyage.

This new food system also made people sick, which led to a huge industry making patent medicines. You know, if you think of any service that is provided by the household system, by the collaboration of men, women, children, and all the members of the household, you can see in this era, single men learning to do those sorts of things. Sailors and loggers are all learning to sew; some of them are even knitting. They washed their own clothes. They sometimes made their own clothes.

What else do you get from being in a family? You get companionship, you get sex. There’s a lot of disagreement of how much these men were having sex with each other, and amongst historians it’s kind of a volatile issue, because the absence of evidence can never give you evidence for abstinence. They get their companionship from their buddies on board the ship, and they form a very tight male grouping.

Today if you look at gangs, if you look at drinking cultures, there’s still a lot of extractive industries out there, a  lot of mining and fishing. What you see is that the qualities and characteristics of masculine binge culture are still there. I think what we’ve done is kind of made it into a stage of life. In your late teens and early twenties, nobody’s expecting you to be particularly hard-working, and if you go out and binge on the weekends, you’re kind of excused. But then you’re supposed to grow up and become responsible.

 

Could you talk a bit about how these binge economies informed relationships between genders?

I think there’s a degree to which these binge economies nurture a kind of combative and competitive relationship between men and women. I saw this really clearly in urban Belize, where women are always trying to get men to support them, and men are always trying to get more sex while shirking their responsibility for children. So you’ve got this kind of game that goes on, which you also saw amongst loggers and miners when they were in town. When I was younger I hung around with a lot of Belizean men who talk about women in a hostile way. They have something we want, but they’re going to make me pay for it. And women say horrible things about men as well. That is not to say there are no functioning marriages and households in Belize, but infidelity is common too.

 

How do you think an extractive culture causes that kind of relationship to happen?

It tears people apart and makes them compete. I’m not so sure it’s just the extractive industries that cause that to happen. You see it in a very exaggerated way in extractive industries, but I think you see something similar amongst young people who are single. In the sense that they don’t belong to a household and there’s no obligatory relationship, there’s no contract. These are called “implicit contracts” … it’s an unspoken agreement that if you’re living with somebody, you’re going to be collaborating. It turns out that much of our life is guided by these implicit contracts. You raise kids, you send them through college, and then if you become destitute you expect them to help take care of you. And if you’re living without those kinds of contracts, itmakes you to do things in a very different way.

You don’t have to save money, why would you save money? The thing about extractive workers is that they did have relationships but mostly  with other men, and they did not put their money together. You’d call that person your ‘mate.’ Which is interesting. And ‘mates’ would often stick together for their whole lives. Because they needed somebody they could count on and somebody they could trust. The lack of obligation helps people form binge cultures.

 

We were discussing the gendered nature of binge economies. How is our current food system gendered and how does that have reflections from the past food system?

At one level you have men and women often eating completely different diets. At a more global level, fast food and convenience foods mean you really don’t need a family in order to have a comfortable life.  Personal independence shortens your time horizon so you’re not thinking so much about keeping your family going into the future.

If you have no reason to invest, why not spend it freely or run up debts on your credit card? If you think about how many Americans have no personal savings, it’s astounding 76% of the adults in the country don’t have anything in the bank for retirement. That’s really weird. It’s what I call a grasshopper logic rather than an ant logic. The ants are industrious and denying their immediate pleasures for the sake of the future.

 

Something I found interesting in your article was that you said that, on the one hand, people were reliant on these basic goods, like staples, that you can easily transport, at the same time you have these luxury food goods that also were developed and sold to the very same class that was extracting them across the world.

It’s kind of ironic.

 

So you have these luxury goods that are also made to be able to transport all across the world. It seems incredibly similar to what we have now. There’s this term, ‘food miles’, that people are using now to signify how the food we eat is more and more reliant on a global transportation system. But it seems at the same time that carrying exotic products on ships has always been a product of the extractive industry, except now we have even better technology to preserve those luxury products. It also seems to go against this idea that with the increase of globalization ‘everyone’ can now have these luxury goods… your work suggest that the proletarian class, especially the extractivist workers, has always been consuming these rare luxury products.

That’s such an interesting connection I had not made. The production of luxury goods was often done by those same extractive workers and slaves. The old money spent their money on giant houses; they were amassing durable things that were going to gain value over time. Whereas people with limited money often spend it on luxuries that have a short lifetime – what some call “populuxe” goods. They’re left with no value after they consume things.

When you look at the bills of lading for sailing ships, they’re carrying these rough fabrics, generic rums, barrels of flour and salted meat. They’re also carrying delicacies in little jars, liqueurs from all over Europe, and fortified wines, like Port. All over Europe there’s the beginnings of a popular luxury trade. They were bringing in processed foods like olives, salted tongue, cornichons. It wasn’t just the local elite that was consuming this. In Belize, when the mahogany workers who just came in from working in the bush got paid, luxuries meant a great deal to them. This is a point that I’m constantly having to make to people. People think that poor people don’t, or shouldn’t, buy expensive things. And the thing is that if you’re poor, luxury is much more meaningful than if you’re rich. If you’re rich, you have luxury all the time. It’s poor people who have to work and scrimp and save to have a big steak dinner. For those people it really means something to have a fancy meal.

During the gold rush merchants would haul these wagons full of ice imported from Alaska, oysters from the Pacific Northwest, champagne from France, and they’d carry it up the Sierra because if you struck gold you were going to take all your buddies and have champagne and oysters, and food cooked by a real French chef.

 We’re still working for luxuries, everybody’s still in debt of one kind or another. It’s not so much that you have a single employer who is exploiting you. It’s much more diffuse than that. And that means that it’s hard to figure out who’s screwing you.

How do you see the food system that was developed in colonialism reflected today? And how has it changed since then?

Something that I’ve been looking at in the last couple of years is that extractive industries had a tendency to destroy  resources. They killed almost all the whales. Sometimes a whole industry would grow based on something like herring, but then the herring would disappear or move somewhere else. At the other end, because of fashion tastes are changing all the time. People who were hunting for alligators to make alligator-skin bags might be out of work 10 years later because tastes changed in Paris.

It’s similar now, but it’s just become more spatially dispersed and complicated. We’re still working for luxuries, everybody’s still in debt of one kind or another. It’s not so much that you have a single employer who is exploiting you. It’s much more diffuse than that. And that means that it’s hard to figure out who’s screwing you. If you seek to go behind the brand and find out where things are really made, it’s really hard to find information.

 

Richard Wilk is the director of the Food Studies Program in the Indiana University Department of Anthropology. His research focuses on consumer culture, past and present; gender; households; and the food culture in Belize. He has written over 140 papers and book chapters, demonstrating his ability to deftly weave together varying and complex issues—such as energy use, mass media, and local food movements—in a lucid, careful, and engaging manner.

Aaron Vansintjan studies ecological economics, food systems, and urban change in Barcelona, Spain. He is co-editor at Uneven Earth and enjoys journalism, wild fermentations, decolonization and degrowth, and long bicycle rides.

 

Reversing the commodification trap

Polly Higgins is the superpower behind the movement to make ecocide illegal.
Polly Higgins is leading the charge to make ecocide illegal. Source: huckmagazine.com

by Vijay Kolinjivadi

The seemingly insurmountable ecological crisis and staggering inequality facing humanity requires a vision that links urgency with inspiration. In recent years, a number of calls for a ‘safe living space’ have been made. This refers to a civilization that addresses fundamental human needs but does not overstep biophysical limits. In other words, we need governance institutions that reside between a social ‘floor’ and a biophysical ‘ceiling’. While this has garnered increasing traction among academics, activists, policy-makers, and well…just about anyone who cares about the future of children, unfortunately, the centre of power (Washington, London, Ottawa etc.) has another future vision.

The supreme rationale of this vision is to forever fabricate new ways to create new wants (i.e. new commodities) from consumers in the so-called “developed” world. The creation of new markets for new ‘wants’ we didn’t even know we wanted does not appear without consequence. Resource inputs, cheap human labour and a repository for waste products become imperative as ever-growing markets become a touchstone of the global economy. No corner of the world is left unscathed in the search for new raw materials, cheap labour and waste dumps. Often these activities occur at the periphery of the global economy, where pristine environments and culturally unique yet marginalized societies offer new sources of “fodder” to assimilate back into the centre of global economic power.

What’s more, any attempt at solving this from within the system has continued on the same lines. To protect nature, we are told we need to turn it into a commodity, or trade it on the market. Hence cap and trade schemes and eco-tourism enterprises, which just makes it easier for the same systems to keep profiting. Conceiving of market solutions to solve this crisis created by markets only serves to reinforce this dangerous power which is destroying true wealth, the kind that cannot be bought back or retrieved when lost. It is clear that this process, which is oh so reminiscent of colonialism, is not the way we are going to arrive at a ‘safe living space’. It is no wonder why it is hard to be enthusiastic about the prospects of searching ‘within the system’ for a solution.

Recently, however, I was refreshingly surprised to find a glimmer of hope from the institutions of our own global governance system. At this August’s meeting of the International Society of Ecological Economics in Reykjavik, there was a lot of excitement sparked by the talk of one plenary speaker, Polly Higgins. Higgins was a barrister at the Royal Courts of Justice in the UK and has since devoted her life to demystify the law and provide a potential solution to curtail the destruction of our global commons. At the plenary, she explained her campaign to legitimize “ecocide” as an international criminal law against humanity. Yes, that’s right…a law! Is it possible to enact a law so global in its vision, that it would serve to cut off the dangerous feedback of new market creation and associated eco-social destruction?

Through skillful chicanery, the neoliberal agenda has greatly influenced conservation policy in recent years by turning the benefits of ecosystems into tradable commodities which can be allocated through the market to maximize individual utility (and hence aggregated to achieve social well-being). However, such an approach ignores the high costs of defining property rights for ecological benefits which simply cannot be owned. Instead, the recognition of ecocide and subsequent codification as an international law would sanctify ecosystem structure and resulting processes that ensure human well-being for present and future generations. Without recognition of the sanctity of the global commons for our collective welfare, continued economic growth will invariably result in local (and increasingly global) resource depletion, fueling more social conflict and war.

Ecocide refers to damage or destruction to ecosystems (either by direct human agency or climate catastrophes) to the extent that human well-being is negatively impacted. By invoking criminal implications, an international criminal law would trump national sovereignty and could set in motion a paradigm shift away from continuous economic growth on a planet of finite resources. Corporate leaders would not be liable to monetary fines; instead they would be tried in an international criminal court for committing ecocide. It may come as a bit of a stretch to make an argument for improving the law, given that law has undeniably advanced further ecological degradation under a dominant political economy in which corporations are legally bound to put profit first in responding to their shareholders. However, an ecocide law would supplant corporate obligations by imposing a higher normative obligation to address injustice and equality first in the stewardship of a ‘safe living space’.

One outcome of causing mass ecological damage and destruction has been manifested in climate change as a result of greenhouse gas emissions. In relation to floods, tsunamis, rising sea levels and other naturally-occurring forms of ecocide, all nations would have a legal duty of care under an ecocide law to give assistance to communities suffering directly or indirectly from the degradation of the global commons and the ecological services these resources provide. In the case of climate change, the loss of the beneficial climate regulation service, irreversibly degraded by industrial activity, results in impacts often far removed from the source of degradation. An international criminal law on ecocide would place the burden of proof directly on those most powerful to influence and direct human impacts on ecological structure. These include heads of state, ministers, heads of banks, and corporate executives who are in a position to make decisions that impact many millions of others. In this way, we can begin to prioritise decisions that put the well-being of the planet and society first above private interests.

Much to the disregard of most economists, there are inherent dangers of viewing the earth and its resources as property–in which an imposed value can be placed to hasten and facilitate trade and consumption. The insightful aspect of Higgin’s plenary talk on an ecocide law transmitted the often neglected yet fundamentally moral characteristic of the environmental problems we face. Pretending that these can be addressed objectively under a single value ethic (e.g. utilitarian welfare) through cap-and-trade or punitive taxes will continue to mask and even reinforce perceived climate and other environmental injustices in the world today. If a ‘safe living space’ is our collective goal, we need to look beyond national laws and appreciate the boundaries for which the earth is sovereign…for which no space exists for bargaining or buying time. A global law brings with it an unavoidable ethical decision to put an end to the self-serving driver which crashes the floor and shoots the ceiling way into the air, away from reality.

For more information on the proposed international criminal law on ecocide, have a look at: www.eradicatingecocide.com.

 

Vijay Kolinjivadi is a PhD student studying Ecological Economics at McGill University in Montréal, Canada. His research has led him to report on the dangers of commodifying nature and to identify how and when human-nature relationships can be resilient in the face of inevitable change. He enjoys traveling and reading in grassy meadows among other things.

 

Does The Climate Movement Have A Leader?

Bill McKibben during his "Do the Math" tour
Bill McKibben during his “Do the Math” tour.                 Source: rollingstone.com

by David Gray-Donald

Climate change is big. As is the climate movement seeking to confront the issue, though it is not yet as powerful as the fossil fuel industry. People all over the world are standing up in very different ways, as evidenced by a quick glance at the over-800 partner organizations for the Peoples’ Climate March in New York City on September 21. It’s a real challenge to bring together these very different groups.

In Canada alone examples abound of the diversity of people and range of strategies being used to address the problem. Many people at the Unist’ot’en camp are returning to their lands and effectively blocking pipelines. At universities, people like McGill Environment student & Divest McGill organizer Kristen Perry are demanding endowment funds become fossil fuel free. Shaina Agbayani and others are focusing on the relationship between migrant justice and climate change. In Toronto’s Bay Street offices people like Toby Heaps are selling low-carbon investment strategies. Amanda Lickers, a Haudenasaunee environmental organizer, is working to oppose fossil-fuel infrastructure (including pipeline) projects destroying native communities. The scale of the challenge has been responded to with many strategies from diverse groups that together are sometimes called the climate movement.

In this movement, there is no central leadership, no intelligentsia behind closed doors like in Ralph Ellison’s 1952 novel Invisible Man. Ellison’s protagonist, an unnamed young black man who becomes a spokesperson for what could be called the civil rights movement, is told what to do and what to say by a small group of white men using supposedly scientific formulas that perfectly guide the movement. Thankfully this is not how the climate movement works: it is more decentralized and people have more autonomy to act as they see fit. This comes with its own set of challenges, as seen recently during Occupy and a few decades ago with the leaderless women’s liberation movement.

But wait, interacting with climate activism may give you the feeling that there is a centralized organization and a mastermind leader.

When someone hears “350” mentioned and asks what it is, I’ve often heard the response that 350.org is the climate movement and Bill McKibben its leader. This is easy to believe when articles on environmental news sites like Grist and RTCC announcing the Peoples’ Climate March include only McKibben and 350.org by name as leaders and planners. The RTCC article begins “Led by Bill McKibben…”, and it is his thoughtful articles that appear in youth-targeted Rolling Stone. The 350.org “Do The Math” tour description reads “In November 2012, Bill McKibben and 350.org hit the road to build a movement strong enough to change the terrifying math of the climate crisis.” The notion that McKibben is the leader and 350.org the movement is in large part due to the way the organization has framed itself from the start.

The story of 350.org is similar to that of many NGOs in that it began with a core dedicated group and a compelling call to action. As McKibben himself likes to point out, it started out at a college in Vermont with 7 people, and they decided to each take a continent and build a movement.

The organization has been acting out that global narrative ever since. They’ve gained prominence and power that most grassroots groups would never dream of through a combination of millions of dollars of support from the Rockefellers and others and a persistent mentality that they lead the worldwide movement-building process. Following a notable lack of discussion with other groups, 350.org called out for and selected 500 people to gather in June 2013 in Turkey for a Global Power Shift and claimed it as “the starting point for a new phase in the international climate movement.”

The well-intentioned Americans of 350.org venturing overseas to be the global umbrella for the movement have created an organization that has unfortunately bulldozed over other voices in the climate movement and has come to be seen by many as the movement itself. So while the movement is bigger and more complex than 350.org, having this unofficial and unaccountable focal point limits how we think about and interact with climate activism.

Take, for example, the problem that those who have the least wealth will likely face the worst of climate change-caused catastrophes including drought, flooding and storms. This means that those who already face deep injustices will have very different demands from those who simply want to preserve the earth as it is. We need spokespeople who can be accountable to these groups. Unfortunately, 350.org’s insistence that they represent the movement while they don’t actually respond to these diverse demands ultimately hurts the movement.

In fairness, considerable credit is due to 350.org and to Bill McKibben for building momentum. McKibbon is a good writer, if over-simplifying, as seen in his very widely read July 2012 Rolling Stone article. Recently he has been sitting down to have serious conversations with powerful people like university presidents to push the divestment agenda. As a celebrity in the climate world he is drawing big crowds to the Peoples’ Climate March in NYC, and at hype talks in recent months 350.org has used his draw to put the spotlight on some local groups and individuals. The staff of 350.org seem very motivated, with their hearts in the right place, and the problems of being a big international NGO are not unique to 350.org.

That said, constructive criticism is what will help the movement learn and improve. At a September 2 event in Montreal organized by 350.org and local campus groups, some issues were clearly visible. First, there were two lines of French spoken by all the speakers combined, a shame for an event happening in French-speaking Quebec, a hotbed of radicalism in North America. Thankfully the audience did hear some Kanien’keha (Mohawk), the language native to the area, from Ellen Gabriel. At one point McKibben attributed the initiation of the fossil fuels divestment campaign one half to journalist and 350.org board member Naomi Klein and one half to Nelson Mandela. Hopefully Klein, a thorough researcher, would dismiss such a claim outright as disinvestment is not a particularly new tactic for showing disapproval of an activity, even in the climate world. Throughout his talk, McKibben perpetuated the idea that 350.org was the movement, that it was the umbrella organization connecting everyone, that the 7 people from Vermont who went out build a worldwide movement had been more or less successful.

Near the end of his presentation, while he has talking about getting things right, Amanda Lickers, mentioned above, interrupted McKibben. He at no point tried to cut her off. She brought up the lack of acknowledgement of the centrality of indigenous contributions to the front-lines struggle to resist extraction and pipelines, the erasure of indigenous history in the planning of the upcoming much-hyped Peoples’ Climate March in New York City, concerns about inclusion of people most affected by climate change, and more. This drew many cheers of support from the audience. After she spoke, McKibben did not responded to her comments directly. He was visibly uncomfortable and while he briefly and generally mentioned the importance of front-line communities he unfortunately treated Amanda Lickers and everything she said as an interesting aside that was easy to ignore. In a place like North America, indigenous groups have been expressing and acting on their understanding of the earth for many centuries longer than the 25 years since McKibben’s first big book came out. In many ways, indigenous groups are at the front of the struggle here and in much of the rest of the world. They are more central than to the side, but they keep being pushed out, which is part of the injustice of worldwide colonialism. And if justice is not the goal in this movement, what is? A spokesperson better understanding the movement and the forces at play in our society, and conscious of the way they themselves perpetuate those forces, may have been able to better address Lickers’ comments and build a constructive dialogue with the audience.

It’s not that McKibben is a bad guy. It’s that he is currently not a good spokesperson for the climate movement, which is effectively what he is now given how he and 350.org project themselves and are seen by the media and general public. Naomi Klein will fully share the spotlight once her book is released. As with most of us (myself included), McKibben needs to undo his colonial mindset. As evidenced by Lickers’ interruption, when he speaks it is not on behalf of the whole movement and not on behalf of the most affected nor those fighting the hardest like the Unist’ot’en. The lack of confidence and imagination within the movement to put forward spokespeople intentionally but instead allow McKibben to remain at the front limits what it can do.

McKibben writes uncomplicated articles and speaks in ways comfortably relatable to American liberal-arts college audiences. While it is important to talk to those people, we need a movement with broader scope bringing forth dialogues about justice from different perspectives. We need to think hard about how the movement is represented, we need to listen to the voices in it, and to identify leaders intentionally. Being seen as spokespeople, McKibben and Klein could stress that they don’t represent anybody, that the main resistance is being done by others often completely separate from 350.org, and they can point to some of those struggles. 350.org can choose to stop over-extending itself in trying to be the movement and to not play the role of selecting who gets put forward as a leader. While not perfect, the Peoples’ Climate March appears to be a good collaboration between groups, and there are exciting possibilities for where the movement can go from here.

David Gray-Donald studied Environment & Biology at McGill University then worked there facilitating community sustainability projects. He is actively part of the struggle to undo our reliance on fossil fuels and is trying to educate himself on how to be a responsible adult male. He lives in Montreal and Toronto.

 

Just what is gentrification anyway?

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In Hanoi, urban gardening is a means of survival. Photography by Aaron Vansintjan

by Aaron Vansintjan

We hear the term ‘gentrification’ often nowadays. The news is full of it. Protests against Google and Microsoft buses, people in Vancouver fighting condo development by burning condosfood co-ops in Brooklyn worried about whether they’re displacing the local Hispanic community. The news almost always frames the wealthy new residents as the culprits, and those unable to afford rising rent and property taxes as victims.

A month ago, I was staying in Tay Ho, a neighbourhood of Hanoi known for its growing expat population. Here I found chain supermarkets, unfinished luxury apartment complexes, brand-new chic boutiques, and dog spas. In between all of this, there remain some thin strips of orchards, garden plots, and vegetable markets hidden in the alleyways. A wealthy and mostly foreign social class seems to be increasingly encroaching on agricultural land. These, I thought right away, are the telltale signs of gentrification.

I wanted to find out more. To start my search, I met up with Roman Szlam. Roman is a volunteer guide for Friends of Vietnam Heritage, an English teacher, a blogger, and also happens to be a walking Wikipedia on the history of Hanoi.

“I’ve noticed everything you’ve noticed,” he noted, recognizing my discomfort. “I see all the farms disappearing, all the high-rises coming in here. All the luxury development.” But Roman didn’t seem too troubled by the changes in Tay Ho.

Apparently, everyone who originally owned land in Tay Ho has been able to sub-lease it at high prices. “Even the farmers,” noted Roman, “who are losing their farms here directly around West lake, tend to be happy. There are no protests from anyone.” What’s more, agriculture in the neighbourhood was primarily for decorative plants – in no way would the sale of this land affect the need for food access in the city.

I wondered whether it was really all that rosy in Tay Ho: were there some people that weren’t as happy as others? Nevertheless, to Roman, the real gentrification problems were occurring in the outskirts of the city and in the city centre.

What’s really happening in Hanoi?

In the early 2000s, Hanoi was facing mounting traffic problems, while the Old Quarter, the prime tourist attraction, was being slowly destroyed by untrammeled development. In 2008, the Vietnamese government allowed Hanoi to expand its borders significantly. To do this, they re-zoned huge swathes of land for commercial and high-income residential uses.

The re-drawing of Hanoi’s borders coincided with a spate of farm acquisitions by the land management department. Officials offered farmers a small payment in return for the land and then leased it to developers – often acquaintances – at inflated prices. In other words, outright corruption. These developers thought it was the perfect time to build houses for Hanoi’s new upper-middle-class. But this didn’t go so well.

“Nobody bought any of these developments,” Roman explained. “As they began to go bankrupt, these people who had borrowed 90 per cent of the money could no longer repay the banks.”

The criminalization of the informal sector, which grew in large part due to land dispossession, in turn sets the conditions for the creation of a cheap new labour market.

At the time, many government-owned corporations had started investing in the stock market. Come the crash of 2008, Vietnam’s banks had no more money, and foreign investors started pulling out, causing a banking crisis that still hasn’t been resolved. What’s more, a group of farmers started making a stink, holding in-your-face protests in front of the government buildings.

“This huge land grab,” remarked Roman, “became a national scandal. It couldn’t be hidden anymore. There was no money to be had anywhere. Consequently, a lot of the food production around Hanoi has been lost.” In a city where 62 per cent of the vegetables consumed are locally produced, you can imagine the effect on food prices.

Around the same time, the city cleaned up its downtown core by, on the one hand, criminalizing street vendors, and on the other, promoting supermarkets and shutting down two of the city’s open markets, replacing them with high-end – but mostly empty – malls.

Noelani Eidse, a PhD candidate at McGill, has been researching the case of Hanoi’s street vendors and how their livelihood has been affected by land grabs on the urban fringe. “It’s all part of this larger push for Hanoi to become a global city,” Eidse said. “The rationale behind banning vending is that vendors are adding to traffic congestion. A less explicit reason is that vendors are seen as uncivilized and their livelihoods are considered to be anti-modern, and a hindrance to development.”

There is no doubt that gentrification is an international phenomenon, and what links each case is the opening up of markets, privatization of public goods, and collusion between the market and state.

Eidse has found that it’s often the same people who were pushed off their land who are also forced to make a living in other ways. “For a lot of these people,” she explained, “it’s either working in factories or working informally.”

Those who choose informal work, like street vending and trading trash, are now being targeted by these new laws. Arrests and fines are more and more common, making it difficult for these people, mostly women, to practice their livelihood.

In sum, the unfair leasing of farmland to developers, shuttered and empty markets, lack of space for food vendors, and the inaccessibility of supermarkets for most Hanoians, has meant that many people in the city centre are now facing increased food insecurity and precarity. And so, the cycle of dispossession, precarity, and criminalization continues.

The all-too-real effects of gentrification

In Hanoi, top-down decisions to make the city more appealing to foreign investors helped trigger a nationwide banking crisis, followed by a shortage in food production and access locally. This is gentrification at its worst – far more devastating than a fancy boutique in the expat neighbourhood.

The changing of land rights, the corruption that came with privatization of land, and the increase in high-end development projects – all of these happened at about the same time that Vietnam opened its markets to foreign investment and encouraged foreign factories to set up shop. The criminalization of the informal sector, which grew in large part due to land dispossession, in turn sets the conditions for the creation of a cheap new labour market. People have no choice but to start working in the new factories run by foreign corporations.

Before I go on, I have to stress that Hanoi is unique. Vietnam, as a socialist state, also has an unusual land rights system and one-party-closed-door-politics. Pair this with increased liberalization, and a system of state-owned corporations, and you have a one-of-a-kind situation. It is also important to reiterate how sometimes it isn’t all that bad, like in the case of Tay Ho and its wealthy expats.

But it’s striking how these patterns repeat in other cities, like Lagos, Nigeria. Eidse noted that Singapore’s model of development and regulation has been a reference point for Hanoi’s own city planners. Gentrification in London and New York is well-documented. There, social housing and tenant rights were increasingly eroded through active government policies encouraging outsider investment. There is no doubt that gentrification is an international phenomenon, and what links each case is the opening up of markets, privatization of public goods, and collusion between the market and state.

In all cases, gentrification should be understood as the concerted effort, by a coterie of businesspeople and government officials, to profit from communal wealth.

It’s easy to vilify the upper-middle class – those taking the Google bus or the expats moving into the new high-rises – but if you really want to address the problem, you need to follow the money.

In all cases, gentrification should be understood as the concerted effort, by a coterie of businesspeople and government officials, to profit from communal wealth. In Hanoi, this came in the form of land grabs and policies targeting the informal economy, but elsewhere it can happen through the privatization of social housing, or the branding of a city as a haven for the creative class.

It all seems a bit hopeless. Yet, there are plenty of avenues for resistance. In Hanoi, a group of villagers who had been pushed off their land started protesting in ways that made it hard for the media to ignore them, or for the police to beat them up. As a result, they were able to bring national attention to endemic corruption and initiate a series of laws to protect against land seizures.

While gentrification hurts those who have little to start with, those who have lost the most often have the loudest voice. If we want inspiration for future actions, it’s these voices we should listen to. These villagers have it right – they followed the money, smelled something fishy, and created a stink.

This article was originally published in The McGill Daily.