IV Americas Social Forum: Grassroots Organizations Are Still in Charge
By Raúl Zibechi
Today, social movements are uniting to defend common resources and criticize extractivism. However, they are far from the unanimity characteristic of the period when rightwing governments prevailed in most South American countries and are separated when it comes time to evaluate progressive and leftist governments.
“We left Colombia eleven months ago and have ridden nearly one thousand kilometers each month. We’ve traveled through Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Argentina and Uruguay. We are the Cicloexpedición group and we want to understand what’s happening on our continent. We continually ask ourselves what we’ll do when we return. We’re not the same people anymore”, asserted Juan José Correa, a 35 year old Colombian who lives in Chocó, on the Pacific coast.
Around 15 thousand people congregated at the IV Americas Social Forum, held from August 11 to 15 in Asunción in an enormous sports complex about ten kilometers from the city center. The primary issues were: the achievements and challenges of processes of change, imperial militarization and domination, food sovereignty as the keystone of new vital equilibrium and plurinationality. The delegation with the most members was from Bolivia. The strong presence of Guaraní, the official language of Paraguay, was notable. Also notable was the financing from the Itaipú dam, which donated 100 thousand dollars to the Forum.
The final declaration drew attention to the fact that “the continental Right is rearticulating itself at a rapid pace to stop any processes of change” and called for the defense of “natural resources in the face of ravenous capitalism”. As it drew to a close, it stated that “social movements are faced with an historic opportunity to develop emancipation initiatives on an international scale. The struggles of our communities are the only thing that can lead us forward toward the ybymarane’y (earth without evil) and allow us to realize the tekoporâ (living well).”
Haiti Seven Months after the Earthquake
The alarming situation of the Haitian people stirred considerable debate. Economist Camille Chalmers, professor at the University of Haiti and promoter of a network of social movements, denounced the hypocrisy of the international community. “We have 300 thousand dead and 3 million injured and affected. 1.6 million people lost their homes and 75 million women have their children on the street as hurricane season begins. International aid isn’t getting to the people because it’s being used by governments and big international agencies as a form of domination, with the main objective of strengthening their bureaucracies”.
He said that refugee camps are turning into permanent settlements. “At the United Nations conference in Haiti on March 31, 9,000 million dollars were pledged in aid. Today, we have received less that 2 per cent of that amount”, Chalmers protested. The only countries that have made payments are Brazil, Estonia, Norway and Australia.
The Interim Haiti Reconstruction Commission (IHRC) is not even functioning. It has held only one meeting, and its two priorities were to inaugurate itself (this cost 10 million dollars) and a public relations project with a U.S. business directed by a former political advisor to Bill Clinton, who is paid a monthly sum of 80,000 dollars to build the IHRC’s image.
“For centuries, Haiti suffered the violence of the debt incurred after signing the 1825 contract. This contract forced us to pay 150 million gold francs in indemnities to French former slave and plantation owners. The balance of that debt was purchased by U.S. banks at the beginning of the last century in the context of the expulsion of the European powers from the Caribbean Basin. The debt served an important role in the forced reinsertion of our country in the world economy and the neutralization of the content of the Haitian Revolution, Chalmers noted.”
In the second half of the 19th century, debt payments absorbed 70 per cent of the state’s income. Despite declarations by the international community, Haiti continues to pay a debt that is double its public budget, even after having lost the equivalent of 120 per cent of the Gross Domestic Product in the earthquake.
Chalmers criticized the UN presence in the country. “We consider the presence of the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH), created in 2004, an imperialist presence under the auspices of the United Nations that spends 700 million dollars a year and did not achieve cooperation with the people in response to the earthquake. On the contrary, the mission conformed largely of Latin American countries has devoted itself to repressing mobilizations of Haitian students and workers”, Chalmers explains.
The crisis brought on by the destruction of the state and production apparatus can only be resolved through the mobilization of the people of Haiti and by solidarity brigades. “The attitude of the international community contrasts with the role of Cuba, which has 1,300 doctors in Haiti. As a result of the second coup d’état against Aristide in 2004, the Haitian government cut its subsidies to Cuban doctors for a year. However, these doctors were taken care of, given shelter and fed by peasant communities, which is evidence of marvelous solidarity. For other people, Haiti is a testing ground for the re-militarization of the continent”, Chalmers concluded.
Indigenous People and Peasants
“We want natural resources to be administered by indigenous people and communities and not by the municipalities. That’s why we’re working for a new distribution of power, for self determination.” Diego Faldón explains his reasoning with firm serenity. He is one of the Chiquitano people, who have recently taken part in a 35-day march with other people of the lowlands to demand autonomy. The Coordinator of the Ethnic Communities of Santa Cruz makes a related comment: “Although brother Evo is in the government, we have to keep fighting, because we don’t obey the government, we obey our communities”.
“We came to the Forum to spread the word about what we do more than to sell things”, says Gladys Gómez of the Association of Northern Women. “Our second objective is to continue to commercialize our products with other movements similar to our own, so that we can elude the traps of the market controlled by big business. And we achieve this in department-level gatherings and in other, very specific places” she adds.
The association is made up of 230 peasant women from the district of Horqueta, 430 kilometers to the north of Asunción, in the department of Concepción. The fourteen committees that are part of the association specialize in different products: natural medicines and pomades for ulcers, hemorrhoids and burns; natural soap, cleaning articles, sweets, agro ecological fruits and vegetables that are sold in local markets. The association’s distillery equipment functions as a basis for all the committees to manufacture their products. They also have a community farm and orchard, and a livestock-raising collective with cows and hens.
“Asphalt only came to Concepción ten years ago”, says Gladys. Horqueta is the second city in the department. Its 60 thousand inhabitants produce corn, cassava, beans and cotton. Like its neighbor San Pedro, it is home to soy planting expansion and, consequently, to significant rural emigration. In Paraguay, the expansion of monoculture is annihilating rural economies. People are forced to emigrate to the urban peripheries one way or another, as both departments are controlled by the so called “narco ranchers”, who combine raising livestock with growing marijuana.
Historically, San Pedro and Horqueta have been the most active departments in the peasant organizing and mobilization, through dictatorship and democracy. Now Lugo’s government has included them among the five departments in which a “state of exception” has been declared. “Concepción is the department with the most peasants in the whole country and 50 per cent of their production is for their own consumption”, Gladys states. “We believe that militarization is a means to facilitate the introduction of soy by agribusiness.” Isidoro Bazán, veteran leader of the Northern Farmers Organization, goes even further and affirms that since the September 11 attacks, “peasants have become suspects.”
His assertion comes from every day experience: “Those of us who resist and fight against agribusiness are accused of terrorism; we’re faced with prison or similar measures. In Horqueta there are over one hundred peasants who have to go to the police station every month and sign their names.” The auditorium, filled with dozens of young people from countries around the region, can’t believe what they hear. “If this is what happens under a progressive, what was the dictatorship like?”, exclaims a young Colombian.
“What we all have in common”, says Gladys, “is the desire to continue to live in our communities, to continue to be rooted in the earth, because we don’t want to go to the cities, but if we want to resist, we must overcome the invasion of the soy planters. This is why we have to organize, offer training in gender equality, sexual and reproductive health, non-violence and human rights. The community farms allow us to strengthen our collective fabric and this strengthens our resistance.”
Children who Work
“When we contribute something to our household our parents take us into account, they ask us what we think.” Gladys González says through her leaping and shouting at the Forum’s inaugural march. She is barely 16 and began her working life nine years ago selling corn in the bus station in Asunción. A while back, she decided to join the National Coordination of Child and Adolescent Workers (CONATS).
The organization began in 1999, growing from Calle Escuela, an NGO that works to make boys and girls the subjects of their own lives. The participants in CONATS share nearly identical biographies: they began selling things in the market or the bus station, or shining shoes. They have experienced “verbal abuse”, at the very least, and they fell behind in school. They have more than six or seven siblings and live in the poorest neighborhoods, usually in settlements inhabited by families expelled from the countryside by the unstoppable advancement of soy.
Graciela García, 14, lives with her mother and seven brothers. She doesn’t remember when she began to work as a stall-keeper, but she is certain that “when I was in my mother’s belly I was already going to the market”. She gets up at two in the morning every day to arrive at the market at four. She sells fruits and vegetables and goes to school in the afternoon, “very tired and wanting to sleep”.
Francisco Estigarribia, who is now 18, tells an incredible story. “I’m the fifth of nine brothers and sisters. We live in San Antonio, a city that’s close to Asunción. We all work. I live with my parents, but since about a year ago I only go home on the weekends, because I go to school at night and I don’t have the means to get home when I get out of class at ten pm”. Francisco started selling his mother’s empanadas in their neighborhood. Then he sold fruits and vegetables and started working in the market. “We went to the bus terminal to sell things. I worked with her until midday and then I went to school”.
When he was ten, he joined the Bootblacks of the Asunción Bus Terminal Organization and when he was twelve, he was chosen as a representative. “There were 50 bootblacks and I worked from 12 in the morning until 6 at night. When I finished I stayed with my mom in her food stall until 12 at night. Then we went home together, and the next day I had to be at school again at 7 am.” Today he works in the Department of Childhood and goes to college with several of his fellow former members of CONATs.
Mothers are also getting organized. They’re following their children, as is often the case in these situations. Lourdes Torres, the mother of a working child notes: “I learned that my children have a right to have opinions and be heard”. Mothers are in charge of the collective kitchens in their settlements, and of sustaining the ever precarious territorial organization of their daughters and sons.
Gladys doesn’t want to gloss over the most controversial topic–the confrontation with supporters of the United Nations Convention article 32, which rejects child labor. “What has to be eradicated is poverty. If we don’t work, we don’t eat. Work helps us develop as people and, in any event, it’s about our parents having a job with a livable wage so we don’t have to collect garbage to be able to eat.”
At the City’s Margins
A few months ago, liberal senator Luis Jaeggli proposed a law to take windshield washers and car parkers off the street. His proposal has given rise to much opposition from organizations of working boys and girls, as well as from a good part of the social movement. When defending his proposal, Jaeggli gave an indication of the way he thinks, which includes defending military coups. “What happened in Honduras, in my opinion, is totally legal”, he says.
The attitude of politicians from the right contrasts with the support the NGO Calle Escuela offers working children. The one-year anniversary of the capoeira classes conducted in the Asunción Bus Terminal coincided with the Social Forum. Dozens of children take part in these classes, which teach an Afro Brazilian specialty that mixes martial arts, music and physical skills.
Underneath a small tent in the center of the Social Forum, the members of the Community Defense Coordination (CODECO) showed a video that depicted how thousands of families live in El Bañado Norte, a parcel of land on the Paraguay River taken by rural people who arrived in the capital five decades ago. In 2004, CODECO broke away from the mother organization COBAÑADOS to break away from the clientele relationship with the Partido Colorado and to stand up to poverty through solidarity and minga, the collective work thanks to which poor people across the continent can survive.
Inspired by neoliberal speculation, in 1994, the municipality legislated that El Bañado is a green zone, valuable as a natural reserve. As a result of this order, an entire population can be displaced from an area they’ve inhabited for decades. “In 2004, they tried to take the land from the people who lived on it, but the mobilization put a stop to the Costal Strip project which was being financed by the World Bank”, María explains. A little over 35 years old, she is the secretary of the CODECO, and runs a family business with 40 pigs that are fed in a bartering arrangement with garbage collectors. “They bring us food they gather on the street, and I give them pigs for parties and on May 1.”
On December 10 they organized a march to the center of the city, denouncing the renewed evacuation efforts, in which the Association of Horse-Cart Drivers, Hand-Cart Drivers, Recyclers and Garbage Collectors of El Bañado San Miguel played an important role. They survive by collecting and classifying the city’s trash. Like almost all peasants, the inhabitants of Los Bañados keep animals: hens, pigs, and above all horses, a valued work instrument which allows them to increase the capacity of their carts. Patricio Pintos acts as veterinarian, since she learned to give injections as a public health worker.
María takes a moment to explain how the committees of CODECO work. She observes that the spokespeople fulfill a special role in their communities because they “bring back the people’s calm with their soft words”. It’s impossible to forget the Christian background of this group of activists.
Carmen Castillo, a dark-skinned woman who is the organization’s central figure adds that “we have a horizontal organization in which we all participate in making decisions”. In response to the inevitable jokes, she insists that she is not the leader and illustrates this with a phrase that used more and more frequently by the people on the bottom in this continent: “I don’t give orders, I take them”.
Raúl Zibechi is an international analyst for Brecha of Montevideo, Uruguay, lecturer and researcher on social movements at the Multiversidad Franciscana de América Latina, and adviser to several social groups. He writes a monthly column for the Americas Program (www.americas.org)
Translated by Jenny Marie Forsythe
This post is also available in: Spanish.