To open a crack in history
September 5, 2001 / New Internationalist
When Macbeth saw what seemed like a grey mist pouring over the horizon, fear rose in his throat. As it came closer he could make out the branches of the trees which the forces of opposition carried aloft. The forest was coming to the centre of power to confront the tyrant.
In March 2001 the forest marched on Mexico City.
The Zapatistas, the indigenous rebels hiding deep in the Lacandon jungle, had done the unthinkable. The most wanted men and women in Mexico had emerged to travel from Chiapas through 13 states, arriving at the Zócalo – the central square of the capital – to demand a place in the constitution.
Their voices echoed round the Zócalo: ‘It is the hour of the Indian peoples, we who are the colour of the earth… We are rebels because the land rebels when someone sells and buys it, as if the land did not exist, as if we who are the colour of the earth did not exist.
‘Mexico City: We are here. We are here as the rebellious colour of the earth which shouts: Democracy! Liberty! Justice!’
‘Y la selva se movió,’ declared the poster advertising the march. And the forest walked.
In 1998, a year before 50,000 protesters shut down the meeting of the World Trade Organization in Seattle, Subcomandante Marcos, spokesperson of the Zapatistas (EZLN), said: ‘Don’t give too much weight to the EZLN; it’s nothing more than a symptom of something more. Years from now, whether or not the EZLN is still around, there is going to be protest and social ferment in many places. I know this because when we rose up against the Government we began to receive displays of solidarity and sympathy not only from Mexicans but from people in Chile, Argentina, Canada, the United States and Central America. They told us that the uprising represents something that they wanted to say, and now they have found the words to say it, each in his or her respective country. I believe the fallacious notion of the end of history has finally been destroyed.’
In Mexico a jungle came to the city: in Thailand a village came to the capital, Bangkok.
On 25 January 1997 some 20,000 rural poor gathered at the gates of Government House. They were villagers affected by big dam projects, small farmers, fisherfolk who had come together to create a rural coalition – the Assembly of the Poor – of those left out of Thailand’s tiger economy.
The people erected a makeshift ‘Village of the Poor’ of plastic shacks which stretched back down the Nakhon Pathom Road for more than a kilometre. Amidst the cacophony of economic growth, they camped here in the stink of the smog and the traffic for 99 days, surviving by growing vegetables illegally along the banks of the city’s river.
They declared: ‘Rivers and forests on which the survival of rural families depend have been plundered from the people… The collapse of agricultural society forces people out of their communities to cheaply sell their labour in the city… The people must set up the country’s development direction. The people must be the real beneficiaries of development.’
In 1998 the village came again, this time to join the coalition of protest movements against the International Monetary Fund’s (IMF) bailout programme in the wake of the Asian financial crisis; and again when thousands converged on the Asian Development Bank meetings in Chiang Mai in May 2000. On their backs the protesters carried a tombstone on which were inscribed the words: ‘There is a price on the water, a meter in the rice paddies, dollars in the soil, resorts in the forests.’
At the time, 30 per cent of Thai children believed that the IMF was a UFO. For the indigenous people of Ecuador, the IMF-imposed ‘dollarization’ of the beleaguered Ecuadorian economy might as well have come from outer space.
In response, the Confederation of Indigenous Nations of Ecuador (CONAIE) turned into a storm that broke over the city of Quito in February 2000:
‘The indigenous and popular insurrection… has advanced from the field to the city… The buses travelling between towns have received orders to transfer “any thing, person, even animals, except Indians”. Buses in the military zones are stopped and all those who are dressed in Indian clothes or appear Indian are forced off… But the insurrection grows like a swelling waterfall…
‘[The President] has decreed the dollarization of the Ecuadorian economy. This means that while the pay is 40 dollars, the shopping basket for a family of five is 250 dollars. In the agricultural field, inputs are no longer within reach of indigenous people and farmers. Will we have to leave the fields?
‘We cannot walk about on our own earth. They prohibit us from meeting. But we have defied with what little power we have left, with civil disobedience.
‘For that reason we have advanced to the taking of Quito. The [indigenous people] have passed like rain, like fog, like the wind, deceiving the military controls. Now we are more than ten thousand indigenous people in Quito.’
A forest, a village, a rainstorm. The most marginal people on earth gather their forces and enter the cities to march on the centres of power. These are the excluded, the expendable, the invisible people whom globalization ignores or eradicates in what the Zapatistas call the ‘fourth world war’.
As the cycle of destruction spins ever-faster – a forest felled, a people uprooted, a village displaced by a dam – new coalitions of the dispossessed are uniting not just within their countries, but internationally. These are the social movements of the South which form the invisible mass of resistance to economic globalization. They want land, constitutional recognition, meaningful participation in development planning.
Despite the current vogue for so-called ‘anti-globalization’ critiques, the mass-based peasant and social movements on the frontline of this fourth world war have remained invisible for a simple reason: those from below are not those who get to write history, even though they are the ones making it.
They are a troublesome forest that walks, a stream that joins other streams to become a river. This is a rebellion by those who are the colour of earth.
Grown out of the grassroots, this movement is posing the biggest challenge to neoliberalism in 20 years. From the countryside to the city, from the South to the North, unrest against the global economic order is spreading.
A global fabric of struggle
Seattle, Melbourne, Prague, Quebec, Genoa, Washington. The cities of the North, where thousands of the uninvited have turned up to blockade international summits, have taken on iconic status. No institution of global governance – the World Trade Organization, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund – has been able to meet in recent years without being accompanied by protest.
The writer and activist Susan George explains why: ‘National and international élites would happily and without hesitation transport us all back to the 19th century if they could get away with it. They constantly seek ways to employ fewer people, lower wages, cut benefits, hand over public services to the market, stop paying taxes, and so on.’
Filipino activist Walden Bello says that, despite the material differences between North and South, people in industrialized nations are being ‘structurally adjusted’ too. In Europe we are in danger of losing our free healthcare systems, victims of an identical ideology that imposes ‘proper systems of charging’ on the poor of Zimbabwe or Ghana. Our resistances arise separately, but we are beginning to recognize one another – and the protests on the streets of London, Seattle and Genoa have not been on behalf of, but in solidarity with, the poor.
Medha Patkar of the Narmada Bachao Andolan (Save Narmada Struggle) in India was with us on the streets of Prague in September 2000, protesting against the World Bank and the IMF. She told me: ‘It’s not about the First and Third World, North and South. There is a section of the population that is just as present in the US and in Britain – the homeless, unemployed people, on the streets of London – which is also there in the indigenous communities, villages and farms of India, Indonesia, the Philippines, Mexico, Brazil. And all those who face the backlash of this kind of economics are coming together – to create a new, people-centred world order.’
While this backlash against neoliberal globalization has been picked up by the world’s media – because those at the centre of privilege, the youth in Northern cities, have now joined the struggle – resistance at the grassroots has been going on for years.
Across the South, ‘IMF riots’ – over the price of staples such as food and fuel – have been occurring since the 1970s. The Committee for Academic Freedom in Africa traces the connections: ‘[The World Bankers] used to think that the African students’ struggle could not touch them as they were safely ensconced on H Street in Washington. They were happy to have their “front men” in Africa get their hands dirty dealing with the opposition to their programmes. But the anti-globalization movement, which had as one of its sources the persistent anti-structural adjustment student movement in Africa, has finally leaped from the streets of Harare, Addis, and Algiers into Washington DC and Prague… They have been hounded to the “Meccas of their Murders” by a truly international youth movement which has carried the African student dead to their front door.’
Owens Wiwa, brother of murdered Nigerian activist Ken Saro Wiwa, describes the civil disobedience of the Ogoni people of Nigeria, who formed human shields to prevent Shell from drilling for oil on their lands. He told me: ‘I was in Seattle. It was incredibly gratifying to see the disruption of these meetings. But one thing the protesters in this movement need to know: if we want to stop the big transnational corporations, we have got to stop them at the point of production too.’
And dozens of ‘Seattles’ have occurred across the South. In 1996 the Asian Pacific Economic Community (APEC) meeting in Manila, the Philippines, was wreathed in the now-familiar scene of teargas and a ring of steel around the summit centre as thousands of sweatshop workers converged on the city. In 1998 200,000 Indian farmers erupted onto the streets of Hyderabad to protest the WTO; when WTO head Mike Moore visited India in 2000, he joked rather uncomfortably that in no other place on earth had so many effigies of him been burned.
Three years ago Susan George was running workshops about an élite, almost totally unknown business talking shop – the World Economic Forum. Nowadays it cannot meet anywhere – anywhere – on earth without protesters turning up; Davos, Switzerland; Melbourne, Australia; Cancun, Mexico; Durban, South Africa – and, later this year, Hong Kong.
These disparate threads are the early stages of a movement that is reconstituting the global landscape, reshaping the way politics is played out in the new century.
Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt, in their work Empire, call this grassroots network ‘the multitude’. It is the inversion, the mirror opposite, of a stratum of concentrated power from above, where decisions that affect billions of human lives get made at a transnational level and the market is king.
The multitude embodies the real world below, the sphere of all that is not reducible to a commodity to be bought and sold on a global marketplace; human beings, nature, culture, diversity. In fact, it is not an ‘anti-globalization’ movement at all. It embodies ‘globalization from below’ – a multitude that, as Negri and Hardt suggest, challenges the idea that ‘the global surfaces of the world market are interchangeable’.
As a result, in each locality, the moment when the people cry ‘Ya Basta!’ – ‘Enough!’ – is different, but is usually when something regarded as sacred, central to the culture, comes under assault.
For the Zapatistas it was the signing of the NAFTA agreement which outlawed the common ownership of land that Emiliano Zapata, folk hero of the Mexican Revolution that began in 1910, had fought for. For South Africa, it is seeing the former rebels against apartheid making trade-offs with the global economic élite as income inequality grows greater, not less, in their country. For much of Southeast Asia it was the IMF austerity measures imposed on their shattered economies after the financial crisis of 1997. For France it was the WTO’s attack on their food culture. In Britain it may be the slow sell-off of the National Health Service to private healthcare multinationals.
Against the single economic blueprint where the market rules, the multitude represents diverse, people-centred alternatives. In the Zapatistas’ words: ‘One no, many yeses.’ Against the monoculture of economic globalization it demands a world where many worlds fit.
Dollars in the soil
Over the past decade a transformation has been taking place as the threads of local movements are woven into a new global fabric of struggle. They are beginning to understand that unless they can organize transnationally, they’re dead.
Via Campesina, the international peasant union uniting farmers, rural women, indigenous groups and the landless is one of the most extraordinary examples of this form of international networking. Its members include the Landless of Brazil (MST) and the radical Karnataka State Farmers’ Association, who burned Monsanto’s genetically modified cotton crops. José Bové, from the French Conféderation Paysanne is Via Campesina’s most visible member.
With a combined membership of millions, it represents probably the largest single mass of people opposed to the World Trade Organization. For the first points of resistance to global capitalism appear not to have been Marx’s constituency of workers, but those who still depend directly on natural resources for their livelihoods.
Not just the farmers of Thailand, of India, of Bangladesh, but the indigenous of Ecuador, Aotearoa/New Zealand, Mexico. The U’wa of Colombia, the Ogoni of Nigeria, the dam protesters of the Narmada Valley in India.
Corporate globalization requires the eradication of the peasantry, small farmers, indigenous people the world over. Food is to be produced in large industrial monocultures; the rural poor must migrate to the cities to be cheap labourers or sleep under the flyovers of Manila and New Delhi. In the eyes of the World Bank, forest-dwelling peoples are the ones destroying their natural resources – as opposed to the large logging companies – and must be removed.
In response, movements of natural-resource-based communities are creating coalitions of the dispossessed.
For example, members of a network of Indian adivasi (tribal) activists invaded World Bank offices in New Delhi and plastered its walls with cow dung. They declared: ‘For the World Bank and the WTO, our forests are a marketable commodity. But for us, the forests are a home, our source of livelihood, the dwelling of our gods, the burial ground of our ancestors, the inspiration of our culture. We do not need you to save our forests. We will not let you sell our forests. So go back from our forests and our country.’
The National Alliance of Peoples’ Movements, galvanized by the incredible energy of the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA), unites over 100 mass organizations – from fisherfolk to farmers – in India. Common to all their struggles is the fight for peoples’ control over their own lives and resources. Sanjay Sangavi of the NBA describes this as ‘the emergence of a new politics of environmental socialism in India’. As NAPM leader Thomas Kocherry explains: ‘Two-thirds of our population depend directly on the water, the forests and the land.’ For them, questions of ecology and social justice are one and the same.
The potential political force as grassroots groups like these begin to link up internationally can’t be overstated.
Noam Chomsky, interviewed during the Zapatista march, said: ‘Throughout what has essentially been the Neoliberal period have arisen social movements that include the Zapatistas in Mexico, the Landless Movement of Brazil, the farmers’ movement in India, and an increasingly popular opposition to globalization in the North. The most important thing would be if these diverse, dispersed movements everywhere manage to construct bonds of solidarity and support. If it is possible that they establish ties, and if they manage to support each other, together they will be able to change the course of contemporary history.’
This is what democracy looks like
‘Democracy used to be a good thing, but now it has gotten into the hands of the wrong people.’ This was Fortune magazine’s take on the chant that was born on the streets of Seattle: ‘This is what democracy looks like’.
Each resistance movement, in its own way – usually operating outside the structures of state power – has attempted to recreate models of direct democracy. The dispersal of power back to the people themselves is at the heart of this emerging movement with no name, no leaders, and no manifesto. Perhaps, then, it is best framed as a ‘pro-democracy movement’.
Rather than conduct a guerrilla war that might destroy as many communities as it saved, in July 1995 the Zapatistas called for a consulta to determine conditions for an autonomous peace. This was an attempt to replicate their village-level democracy on a wider stage. Thousand of activists across Mexico mobilized a million people to vote, radicalizing communities as they went. An old man from Morelos told them: ‘You came and found us sleeping, but now we are awake.’
In a similar way, for the Ecuadorian indigenous people power is a collective concept. Their word for it, ushay, means the capacity to develop collectively. They echo the Zapatistas in their claim: ‘Our struggle is not for power itself. There are many more important things than power for its own sake, such as society changing from within.’
In India the idea of decentralized democracy is evident in the way rural people have demanded control over their rivers and forests. One adivasi village – Mendha in Maharastra – has adopted the slogan ‘hamare gaon mein hamara sarkar’; ‘in our village we are the government’. They formed their own forest-protection committee which has kept at bay the incursions of paper mills and dam projects. This is so effective that, in an unprecedented development, government forest officials have agreed to abide by their rules.
And the new networks of international resistance mean that different movements are learning from each others’ tactics.
One activist from the Narmada Valley in India had come to Prague in September 2000 to join the protests against the IMF/World Bank meeting. Wrapped in a brown-wool cardigan and shivering slightly, he stood in the gigantic cavern of the convergence centre where the direct action was being planned, watching the meeting – which had gone on for hours – proceed.
‘What do you make of this?’ I asked him.
‘These people!’ he said fiercely, throwing out his hand to encompass the entire draughty old factory, full of anarchists, dogs, juggling punks, painters making mad puppets, unwieldy translations into five languages, endless disagreements over obscure points of principle. ‘These people have no leaders!’ He paused, waggling his head sternly. ‘It’s very, very, very good.’
Civil society across Latin America is now mobilizing for the largest, most ambitious self-organized referendum, or consulta popular, ever attempted. At the end of this year 14 countries in the Americas will be asked to vote on the principles of the Free Trade Area of the Americas. This will be the first time the people have been consulted on the treaty, which was negotiated in secret and only revealed after vigorous citizen action. Now, groups in Canada are hoping to join the consulta.
But the biggest lesson the Northern protesters can learn from the Southern movements is that summit blockading is not enough – we must move into our communities and build broad-based social movements at home. This will take time and patience. While we must continue to delegitimize the institutions of global governance, and develop our alternative economic models, we must also begin the slow work of rebuilding democracy from the ground up.
Above all, we need to become the change we wish to see enacted.
On the outskirts of Mexico City we are breakfasting, under a large canopy, on tortilla, beans and coffee before the big entrance into the Zócalo. Everybody is busy getting things ready. I walk out into the hot sun. A man with a ponytail is holding a brush dripping with bright-blue paint. He walks over to me and takes one of my hands. Then he grins and paints the entire surface of my palm a thick blue colour. He gestures over to a banner spread out on the dry earth, where his friend is mapping out some large lettering. I lean over and press my palm hard against the sheet. My palm-print joins hundreds of others in different shapes, sizes and colours. The banner says: ‘La historia se construye con estas.’
‘History is made with these.’