Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Campesinos of the World

Peasant Representatives from Korea, Brazil, the USA and Mexico speaking together in Chiapas prior to the Second Encuentro of the Zapatista Peoples with the Peoples of the World

I'm excited to present this first of several reportbacks from the Second Encuentro, and related events, such as this plenary.

Also check out these new reports from Movement for Justice in El Barrio on their continued
organizing against repression of the Other Campaign and their upcoming activities in NYC and beyond. For their part, the Zapatistas have just released a new communiqué regarding the upcoming Indigenous Encuentro, even as they face new paramilitary hostilities against bases of support and women. Also of note this week, the North American heads of state (of which at least 2 of 3 can hardly say they were elected!) are meeting in Canada right now to further solidify with the "Security and Prosperity Partnership" an anti-democratic, NAFTA meets the War on Terror, agenda. And as Naomi Klein recently reminded us, "...we never lost the battle of ideas...we only lost a series of dirty wars..." And so, with that in mind, here's our first reportback:

Facing Capitalist Disposession, the Defense of Land and Territory
a reportback by Jennifer Whitney
from the July 19th Plenary featuring members of Via Campesina and the Zapatistas at the University of the Land in San Cristóbal de Las Casas, Chiapas, México

We arrived at the Round Table Among the Campesinos of the World nearly an hour late, which is to say, before anything had begun. Representatives from Vía Campesina, a global organization of farmers and fisherfolk with members in over 50 countries, were there to share their experiences of struggle, and to attend the entire encuentro.

We were greeted warmly at the entrance to the The University of the Land, which, when it is not the site of an international plenary, offers three- and six-month programs to indigenous people, covering a wide range of trades, including carpentry, sewing, mechanics, computer skills, and more. The campus is beautiful – it sits far back from the outlying neighborhood, down a rough muddy road from which it climbs up the forested hillside. It is full of new landscaping, white gravel pathways lined by saplings, canna lilies exploding with red blossoms around the dormitories. Its focal point, at least for tonight, is a beautiful octagonal building, with windows on all sides.

The octagon was far too small for the 2,500 or so of us that wanted to attend the discussion; and clearly this was not unpredicted – sloping down the hill from the octagon was a long narrow strip of bench seating, covered by a bit of roof. Approaching it from below reminded me a bit of the arduously climbing infinite staircases leading to the churches to the east and west of San Cristóbal – the likes of which can be found in most towns I’ve seen in southern México.

Dotting the rest of the campus were other wooden buildings – classrooms, dormitories, a communal kitchen, a library. I followed the signs that pointed the way to the registration and credentialing office, bumping into a few old friends from San Cristóbal and Mexico City along the way.

Despite the fact that I had registered online about five hours prior, my credential had already been handwritten, laminated, and filed neatly away with stacks and stacks of others. I gave the requested two peso donation to cover the costs of the pass, and was on my way in five minutes – surely the most efficient registration system of up to three thousand people I’ve ever encountered.

When I returned to the hall, the evening’s host had just introduced Dong Uk Min from the Campesino League of Korea, who started off by speaking of his movement’s participation in the WTO protests in Hong Kong. He then spoke of their desire for a united Korea, and of the difficulty they have had, uniting the farmers with the workers of the cities – how a large part of their work is to demonstrate the common interests of both groups, and to this end, the campesinos have begun attending the demonstrations of the urban workers and unemployed:
We’re building a large national alliance now. We promise that within the next ten years, we campesinos will create a new country where we will be the caretakers of the land, and through it all we will remain in solidarity with the Mexican campesinos’ struggle.

Soraia Soriano of the Movimento Sem Terra (MST) of Brasil then spoke of the confusion that the election of the supposedly leftist president Lula wrought on her organization, and the left in general, with some people wanting to be patient and give him time to enact reforms that would bring about substantive change, and others quick to recognize that all the so-called public works projects that his government invested in were to develop the export economy rather than to invest in internal and social development. She spoke most about the land crisis, which is, among Latin American countries, worse in Brazil than anywhere else. In particular, she focused on the disaster that ethanol production was already creating in the countryside, and with Brazil poised to become the hemisphere’s main producer and refiner of agro-fuels, that things could only get worse. Yet, in the face of so much bad news, she managed to bring some hope into plenary:
Compas, as we have seen, we have many reasons to be pessimistic, but in our hearts we have a lot of optimism. We face a challenge – to build a new cycle of the left, with new forms of politics. We know that the enemy is big capital, and that we have to develop our politics at the same time as we fight capitalism. As we say, no one person has the answer; we have to think strategically, and find the first, second, and third answers.

George Naylor, a corn and soy farmer from Iowa, who is the out-going director of the National Family Farm Coalition of the US followed up with an overview of how, since the worship of the market (that he identified as coming with the Cold War), US farming has been suffering under systematical destruction. He began by mentioning that the family farm only ever existed because of the theft of indigenous land by his (our) European ancestors, and also spoke admiringly of indigenous food security plans he was learning about. Offering sobering statistics on the concentration of food cultivation in so few hands, and the possible impacts of a further-increased specialization, with the boom market of ethanol cultivation threatening to take over even more land with monocultural industrial crops, he made it clear that this system is far from isolated to the US: “I’ve been privileged to be able to travel the world and I tell the people everywhere that farmers in the US have lived the future of the market and we know that it is going to destroy you.” With that, he planted the question in all of our minds – who will feed us in ten years, and from what land?

Wrapping all of this up was Subcomandante Insurgente Marcos, Delegado Zero of the Sixth Commission of the EZLN. He began by holding up a soft drink can, and recounting a story of how, during the last encuentro, when the Zapatistas asked for comments and discussion, someone brought up several transnational products that were for sale in the stores at Oventik, dumped them on the table with a “dramatic gesture,” and criticized and condemned the Zapatistas for selling such products. “We remained silent during this judgment and condemnation, as a matter of courtesy, not because we were in agreement with what he said. And now I am going to explain what that silence meant,” said el Sub. He carried on saying that there were many ways of attacking capitalism:
You could choose to consume in an anticapitalist way, like he who judged us suggested, by picking one product over another, or you could try to influence the flow of commodities by boycotting big stores and corporations, and only buying from small businesses, both of which are “respectable” ways of struggling. But, the Zapatistas, in developing the Sixth Declaration of the Lacandón Jungle, said, ‘Well, of course, the problem with capitalism is that very few are the owners of everything, and very many own nothing, and this must change, must be turned on its head, subverted turned around.’ That is to say, the Zapatistas decided to become anticapitalist and attack the means of production, and he who judged and condemned us, and those who applauded him – they thought that our anticapitalism was not attainable, and that theirs is better, more visible, more immediate….We say that our anticapitalism is more unassuming – it’s aimed at the very heart of the system, because you can change your consumption habits, or the ways and means of circulating commodities, but if you don’t change the means of production or the exploitation, capitalism carries on, alive and operational.

He carried on, sharpening his critique, and his tongue, adding that,
Years ago, before our revolutionary laws were in existence and before we began our war…people used to make booze, from sugar cane, or corn, or fermented banana…. And so, with out any transnational consumption, without exploiting labor (because the workers made it in their own milpas…), and without enriching the bank accounts of the CEOs, people got drunk, beat and raped women, mistreated children. It was an anticapitalist alcoholism, but it was and is a crime. And since the uprising, the Zapatista women reject alcoholism, whether it be capitalist or anticapitalist.

Afterwards, during the standing ovation that followed, the Sub added, “PS. PS, that tells an anti-gender tale,” and the room filled with gasps and then silences. The tale was great, and invoked the unfazeable character Elias Contreras, of the Zapatista Investigation Commission, who, to my knowledge, first appeared in Marcos’ detective story, Muertos Incomodos: falta lo que falta, co-written two years ago with Paco Ignacio Taibo II. In the PS, Elias tells a story to a person called Magdalena, who is “transsexual, that is to say, neither man nor woman, but both.” Elias addresses Magdalena as “compañeroa,” (no @, no slash between that “o” and “a” but rather, both are pronounced in this five syllable word, for those of you who know a little Spanish). The story concluded like this:
Magdalena asked, ‘But why do you use the word “ellos” when you know that they are male and female at the same time?’ Elias got very serious, with a far away look, and said, ‘Well, it’s because we Zapatistas know that there are things for which there are no words, and we have to use the words we have, but we know well that even though we don’t know how to name them very well, they still exist…And one day…one day we will have words in order to understand that which we now do not understand, because there are many worlds that exist, even though they don’t have names.’… Long live that which still remains nameless!

And with that high-velocity journey through “ethical” consumption, taking over means of production, alcoholism, and genderqueer linguistic debates, the event was over, and as people streamed down from the building, a tumultuous melee of enthusiastic greetings and chattering ensued. The enthusiasm burned from people’s eyes, glittering in the streetlights. This thing had finally begun, and what a beginning!

Jennifer Whitney is co-author of We Are Everywhere: the irresistible rise to global anticapitalism, (Verso, 2003) and co-founder of the Seattle marching band, the Infernal Noise Brigade. After hurricane Katrina hit her home state of Louisiana, she moved back to New Orleans where she coordinates a free mobile health clinic for day laborers, and where carnival gloriously erupts in the streets more frequently than in most places she's ever seen. She currently is trying to figure out how best to support solidarity work between hurricane-affected peoples of the US Gulf Coast and of México and Central America.

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