Their opulence is our destruction: the meaning of living well for the Tseltal and Tsotsil Mayans of Chiapas

24 07 2013

A dialogue with Pedro Hernández Luna and Miguel Sanchez Alvarez concerning el lekil kuxlejal, June 29, 2013

By Jeff Conant

In Chiapas, Mexico there is a joke that goes, “How many people are there in a Tsotsil family (Tsotsil being one of the region’s twelve indigenous ethnicities)? The answer is, the mother, the father, the children and the anthropologist.

But despite being among the most studied corners of our America, and despite its conversion by the 1994 Zapatista uprising into a global center of revolutionary thought and action, Chiapas remains clouded in mystery, and its living Mayan cultures remain caught, to the outside eye, between a past of glorious achievement marked by the construction of the great sculptured cities Palenque, Toniná, Yaxchilan and Bonampak, and a present of miserable poverty, represented by Mexico’s highest rates of illiteracy and infant mortality, as well as persistent and ongoing social conflict.

From the First Indigenous Congress held in San Cristóbal de las Casas in 1974 to the 1994 uprising in which the Zapatista Army of National Liberation launched a struggle for land and liberty that would change the political geography of the state and shake loose historical memory across the continent and around the world, to the 2001 March for Indigenous Dignity in which thousands descended on Mexico City to demand that the congress of the nation amend the constitution to include a Law of Indigenous Rights and Culture, Chiapas has been at the vibrant heart of the construction of new forms of indigenous struggle and territorial autonomy.

One set of beliefs, generally translated as el buen vivir, or living well, is at the heart of indigenous resistance in Chiapas. A similar concept, the Quechua notion of sumak causay, gained a certain recognition among climate activists following the Cochabamba People’s Summit on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth convened by President Evo Morales of Bolivia in 2009. As sumak causay was brought to the awareness of the non-indigenous by Andean social movements a few years ago, now in Chiapas a generation of autocthonous scholars is bringing to light – theorizing, they would say – the local understanding of buen vivir: el lek’il kuxlejal.

I first encountered el lekil kuxlejal in 2009 in a book by scholar Antonio Paoli called Education, Autonomy, and lekil kuxlejal. Paoli resists a simple definition of lekil kuxlejal in favor of giving its socio-linguistic context amidst related concepts such as k’inal, (meaning environment, including both ecosystem and mind) and the broader slamalil k’inal, a tranquility of mind on which the state of lekil kuxlejal depends. Lekil kuxlejal, or buen vivir,” Paoli writes, “is not a utopia, because it is not a non-existent dream. No, lekil kuxlejal has been degraded but not extinguished, and it is possible to recover it.”

Through reading, I’ve come to understand lekil kuxlejal as a kind of ethical compass and motivating force in Tseltal and Tsotsil life; the root of agreements in the family and the community, in the practices of agriculture and governance, of medicine and stewardship.

Eager to learn more, I sought out two Chiapaneco scholars – two of what seems to be a generation of Mayan intellectuals turning the lens of scholarship on their own cultural knowledge and practice. Pedro Hernández Luna (Tseltal Maya) and Miguel Sanchez Alvarez (Tsotsil Maya) are scholars associated with the Intercultural University of Chiapas (UNICH), an institute of research and higher education devoted to scholarship that fosters and strengthens indigenous cultural knowledge and identity. I sat down with them in a café in San Cristóbal de las Casas to talk about lek’il kuxlejal.

Jeff Conant: Do you see el lek’il kuxlejal as an alternative to Western notions of development?

Pedro Hernández: The proposal of lek’il kuxlejal is not another model of development, but it’s how we see our own development. The Zapatistas have put it in practice, and for the government, for outsiders, it appears contradictory – how are these indigenous people going to have development if they don’t accept government programs, schools, television? But unless you’ve lived through hunger, you’re not going to find it easy to understand these other ways of seeing, and of constructing the world.

This is an unreachable hope that goes beyond the desire for material goods. There needs to be much greater understanding of the perspectives of indigenous peoples, and even many non-indigenous peoples who share this commitment to a different way.

Miguel Sanchez: In Mexico, in Latin America, in the world, there are two models of development broadly speaking. There are many of course, but for clarity, let’s say there are two – they are the globalized system, the system that dominates, that is hegemonic for many people in the world. In Mexico specifically, all of the policies—education, health, environment—who defines them? The United Nations. The UN defines lines of development, but for us as indigenous peoples the concept of development doesn’t exist. In Tseltal, in Tsotsil, development doesn’t exist. The concept comes from natural sciences and was adopted by Harry Truman – that development is growth, accumulation, opulence. But from our viewpoint, nature is not just the mazorca, the ear of corn that is the product, but the entire milpa [the Mayan cornfield] and the milpa doesn’t grow without the social base, without the Mother Earth.

There is corn in different colors – white, blue, red, yellow. And there are still more different colors if we mix these – they are so diverse, just like us. This imposition of a political economy defined by the UN and the dominant nations brings a grave problem – the loss of knowledge of our ways of life. In the case of Mexico there is a vision of development seen from the dominant culture, but we see a vision of development based in the language, the earth, the culture, the sacred places. Since the colonial period, they’ve imposed Christian evangelism. We weren’t even people, we were animals – we didn’t even have a soul according to the Spaniards. This doesn’t just bring ethnocide, but linguicide, epistemicide [the killing of ways of thought], cosmocide [the killing of entire worlds]. It brings an ongoing destruction.

Despite this, our ancestors have always continued building this vision in a way that is simple, humble – as E.F. Schumacher said, small is beautiful. Because the human being is small, human production should be small. The most humble way, then, is the life of buen vivir, lek’il kuxlejal. It doesn’t seek wealth or domination, but peace.

The other system is one of domination, pillage, destruction, violence. The UN claims to uphold policies of equality, justice, the patrimony of humanity, but it is violating its own policies, violating the rights of peoples, leaving aside the rights of peoples even as it says it is protecting them.

Returning back to the milpa, to the mazorca – we see that amidst this political approach in Mexico, copied from Europe, from the U.S., people continue maintaining their own forms of use and management of their territories. They continue maintaining the forests, the soils, the language. The corn and beans are being multiplied still, but with a great threat that the acculturation is penetrating very strongly, and it puts at risk the permanence of our cosmovisions, our practices, our knowledge.

So, here there’s a grave problem. Fortunately, speaking from the social sciences, we have a base to work from: the great work is where to go from here, how do we advance the notion of buen vivir, living well. It begins with respect, with no aggression, with the understanding that we are part of the universe, that we are children of the earth. This is the beginning of el lek’il kuxlejal.

JC: In your vision, what are the perverse effects of the neoliberal model of conservation?

Pedro Hernández: When we talk about conservation, there is a wide gap between Western and indigenous understandings. In Tsotsil and Tseltal, the word “conservation” doesn’t exist. We could look for equivalents, but that would be the wrong approach; instead we need to value our own traditional understandings.

First, conservation why, and for what? The Natural Protected Areas implemented by the Mexican government bring about a huge separation between nature and society, whereas, from the point of view of indigenous peoples, we see ourselves as part of nature. We have our own community reserves, with their classifications, and we have what in conservation they would call nucleus areas, but we don’t prohibit anyone from taking plants, from using wood, from gathering mushrooms, because this is all part of the life of the community. There are many communities that have fallen into the neoliberal model, that have learned to look at a mountain and see dollar signs. But there are still many who have not. There’s a great wealth among our ancestors who see nature as an extension of the community, and the community as part of nature.

For example, the iloles or curanderos, and the midwives, who pray on behalf of life, who pray for health, who evoke the gods. Our fathers go to the milpa to pray, and this keeps the milpa alive and keeps the form of prayer alive as well.

JC: In the Western model of conservation, the idea is to set aside natural places where nobody can go, or where people can go but can’t make any use of the plants and animals there. In your communities, are there places like this, maybe sacred places, where no one should go?

Pedro Hernández: Independent of the idea of conservation, for many communities there are sacred places, and it’s important to maintain the significance of these places. In the occidental vision, I pay you so you’ll protect this place, but don’t touch anything in the forest. But it’s precisely due to the intervention of humans in the forest that we find the richest biodiversity in indigenous territories.

Part of our informal education is that the sacred places are the places we visit most – it’s not that you don’t go, but that you have to know how to go, and how to present yourself. You have to ask permission for certain activities. If you don’t know how to ask, you have to ask in the way you know.

Miguel Sanchez: Ch’ul os’il balamil means respect for the earth. It’s a philosophical principle if we want to see it that way. Ix ta’muk is to take ourselves at our most grand, to dignify the universe, to dignify the earth, to dignify life. The iloletik, the traditional prayer-makers and midwives, still maintain this vision and they continue venerating the earth, the mountains, the home.

Among the principles of buen vivir are common work; comun pas’kin, community celebration; comun chapanel, collective governance, the way communities work things out collectively in assemblies.

But we can also recognize the decomposition of these ways. Now, we can’t find a pure expression of lek’il kuxlejal that hasn’t been changed by these international institutions, but its still present. It’s there in the celebration of sacred places. In Huixtan we’ve identified more than 220 sacred places that have prehispanic, colonial, and contemporary antecedents.

Another principle of buen vivir is education in the family and the community that transmits knowledge in a way that is much more powerful than state-sponsored education. The problem is that this has been marginalized. How to do you produce a chicken, or a turkey, for example? This is a teaching you don’t learn in school. All of this knowledge – how do you cultivate corn? Children now aren’t learning this. So this is an important part of buen vivir.

How do international policies affect this? For example, they decree these biosphere reserves in Mexico, but the people don’t know their importance, the wealth of plants, of animals – they’re isolated. They say it’s dangerous for the Indians to enter there because they’re going to take an axe and cut it all down. But, if there were common work, a more harmonious relationship between people and the land, we wouldn’t have this problem. On television they are announcing that children should go to the jungle to draw pictures because it’s very pretty, but they keep out our communities because we might destroy it.

This doesn’t mean I’m against the Reserves. The problem is the policy of exclusion. They have protected areas, but they’re not even helping to educate the children about these areas; they’ve broken the cosmovision. These are the great challenges, the great threats to el buen vivir.

But buen vivir is not just for us the indigenous peoples, the Mayas, the Zoques, Quichuas, Aymaras. It has to serve global society. We have to achieve a synthesis because the capitalist system has to end. We may not see it, but our great, great grandchildren will. They’re going to live this collapse.

We see it like this: we can destroy all the wealth of the earth, but we’ll destroy ourselves, like the dinosaurs. Now we’re going to use up all the petroleum, and then what? So, here, I think its not that we’re so important, it’s that if we’re extinguished by el cho’pol kux’lejal – bad living – we lose. How do we ensure that this ear of corn can continue to grow with all of these colors?

Our Mayan ancestors were able to adapt. They didn’t just disappear, they dispersed into small pueblos, and here we are. We are very adaptable. Hopefully in some moment, the big wealthy people can separate themselves from their wealth. They need to stop using so much oil, food, water, metals, energy, everything. Their opulence is our destruction.

JC: When you say there’s a crisis now, do you mean just now as in the contemporary moment, or are you referring to the crisis of the past 500 years?

Miguel Sanchez: Yes, there has always been a crisis. But it’s accelerated due to the extractive model of development. Since the industrial revolution, how many cultures have been destroyed? Fromm the 1950’s until now in Chiapas, not just the Catholic Church but the Protestant Church too has atomized the communities.

We have a lot of work to do to keep denouncing, to keep protesting. This is the importance of the role that we play, the professors. There’s still a lot of fear of the indigenous question – that the indigenous ‘wakes up’. Well, look, we’ve always been awake. We’ve never been without historical consciousness, we’re always aware of what we’re living through. Those without historical memory are the wealthy.

JC: What does the current moment of indigenous peoples’ uprising have to do with lek’il kuxlejal?

Miguel Sanchez: The truth is, the indigenous uprising has never stopped. The politicians now just know more quickly because of the communications media. In this way, we’re seeing a resurgence of the indigenous movement, but at the same time, its always present – we’ve always resisted, we’ve always been conscious of the crisis we’re living through. I think right now, in the crisis of civilization, that they hear us, that they listen to us, that we’re present. We’re in a moment of a lot of movement for these reasons.

Our ancestors saw that this moment would be a moment of transformation. There is a waking up, but we haven’t connected much, we haven’t built a greater unity, due to national borders. The entire Maya nation should be connected to brothers in Canada, in the South, among ourselves. There is a subterranean river that is connecting us, that has always connected us, by way of our rejection of certain programs, by way of resisting.

We see this in GMOs, in biofuels, in African palm plantations. We’ve always resisted, and we get together and we plant the milpa as our way of resisting. Communal forms of organizing, sharing knowledge, sharing seeds, sharing the different varieties of chickens, of turkeys, all of this has to do with buen vivir. But it gets constantly weakened by the question of capital.

JC: Can you have buen vivir in the cities?

Miguel Sanchez: If the people open up to it, I think so. If they realize that we can’t be dependent on Walmart, on Sam’s. It’s important to have commerce, but it needs to be balanced. I’d say that el lekil kuxlejal means a simple life, it means no accumulation or excessive consumption. So in fact it should begin in the cities.

JC: What is the role of lekil kuxlejal in intercultural education?

Pedro Hernández: They use the term ‘informal education,’ but it’s poorly named. It’s formal in that it forms us – this child knows how to plant the milpa, this child knows how to make posole, this child knows how to hunt. That’s true formation.

They can put these words in the Constitution, that we have a right to culturally appropriate education, but as long as there’s not a just distribution of what this country produces, the whole thing remains empty rhetoric.

Miguel Sanchez: We have been formed by an occidental education system, we’ve been contaminated by it you could say, but over time, we’ve come to reclaim the epistemology of our mothers. We can do this by way of the rural path, the campesino path, but also by way of the academic path. We have to eliminate the bias against becoming academics, just as we have to eliminate the bias against being rural people, agricultural people.

Pedro Hernández: Little by little we go decolonizing, recognizing agricultural knowledge, forest management, systems of justice, of education, of governance, we need to recover these great bodies of knowledge in the question of the relation people have with the environment, the family, the community. How does a community organize itself to do communal work, to sanction those who don’t do their part, to avoid abuse of resources? When they take up their cargo [the traditional form of individual service to the community], its not because they’re avoiding sanctions, but because they are doing what the community requires of them.

We also can’t fall into an idealization of indigenous communities. Buen vivir isn’t free of conflict – in our assemblies we have conflicts, but the community assembly has a tremendous capacity to come to an agreement through the conflict. The community exists because of the tensions—the process of working through conflict is the practice of producing and reproducing the community. We have understand this—to talk about buen vivir, we have to begin with decolonization of knowledge, of our own perspectives.

JC: It seems to me it must be a great challenge to apply academic frameworks to your own cultures, and to bring to light indigenous forms of knowing through a fundamentally western form of constructing knowledge.

Miguel Sanchez: Lekil kuxlejal is a concept that has a philosophical base, and has always existed in practice, but now we’re doing the academic work of theorizing it.

It’s a great shame that when we bring these ideas forth, we’re told that we need to cite Badiou, Marx, Hegel, Aristotle, that otherwise it’s invalid. We have to decolonize all of this – and to remember that these ideas already have form, already have life.

For us, its important to know the history of humanity, to know Socrates and the Greeks and the Western canon, but to know it in a way that’s engaged with a diversity of thinking. When I speak of indigenous science, indigenous technology, no one knows these terms. Science makes us think of Asia, of Europe, of the ancient Egyptians, of the Arabs, but not the Maya. But 1000 years ago, the Mayans had a very sophisticated science, mathematics, astronomy, medicine, agriculture.

So its important that we develop an understanding of our own science and of our philosophy, and at the same time to take a stance that is critical, even rebellious, toward Western science.

The Popul Vuh says the world began in dust and silence, and that’s what Western science has come to understand, and it’s good to see these confluences. But, look at our hands, we have ten fingers, and each one is a different road we can walk down. When we talk about the development of seeds, the domestication of turkeys, of chayote, of yucca, this is science, these are technologies, and these are roads the Maya have gone down.

I’ll say it again: our ancestors were great mathematicians. My father, when he would wake up before dawn, he could look at the sky and know exactly what time it was. Isn’t that science? Now, I don’t have that ability. I feel a great sadness in my heart that we’ve lost too much. There are things we’ll never recover.

El buen vivir isn’t a discourse, it’s a way of life, and that’s the hard part, it’s how to make a life. We can do this with a certain amount of technology, but as Schumacher said, small is beautiful. We need to practice pijil winik, the management of time; we need to control the machines, not be controlled by them.

Where el buen vivir has been forgotten, technology fills the void. I’m not against the use of high technologies, but against their abuse, and the monopoly of them. An example is agrochemicals and transgenics – these are perverse technologies because they’re about controlling the entire agricultural base.

Pedro Hernández: Buen vivir is not just ‘harmony with nature’, this romantic vision of indigenous peoples. I think we can use this romanticism, but really this is a political project. Shamanism and all of that, this is a part, but just one part. Every pueblo in Mexico has its own version of buen vivir, and the challenge is to see how to come to agreements so that we can transform these into policies. But it’s for the present also, it’s in the practice – I always say that the best school we have is in the milpa, and the richest library we have is in our grandparents.





Life and Dreams of the Perla River Valley: A River that Runs through History

2 03 2013
The mural, Vida y Sueños de la Cañada Perla, recreated at City Lights Books, San Francisco

The mural, Vida y Sueños de la Cañada Perla, recreated at City Lights Books, San Francisco

In April, 1998 after most of three years in Chiapas, Mexico, installing drinking water systems in villages supporting the Zapatista struggle, the village I was in, called Taniperla, was invaded and occupied by Mexican military. It happened that, in Taniperla, an artist named Sergio Valdez Ruvalcaba had guided the painting of a mural celebrating village life and the Zapatista struggle. The mural was destroyed by Mexican authorities during their occupation of Taniperla.

Upon returning to San Francisco I organized the reconstruction of the mural on the wall of City Lights Bookstore. There, in Jack Kerouac Alley, the mural persists today, as fresh as the day it was finished, fourteen years ago. The mural, known as Vida y Sueñoes de la Cañada Perla, has been recreated in dozens of other sites around the world, and is celebrated as el mural magico, for its constant reproduction, like corn from buried seed. 

I recently had the opportunity to reestablish a relationship with the artist and to conduct an interview with him about his work, his vision, and the persistence of revolutionary art in Mexico. Following is the entire interview, reproduced in full.  -- Jeff Conant, March, 2013

Interview of Sergio Valdez Ruvalcaba

Sergio Valdez Ruvalcaba is a Mexican muralist, caricaturist, painter and arts educator who has taught for many years at the Autonomous Metropolitan University of Xochimilco in Mexico City. In 1998, he guided the process of creating a mural in the remote village of Taniperla in the Lacandon Jungle of Chiapas. Taniperla, a Tseltal Mayan community, was an important base of the Zapatista rebellion, and at the time was being declared the municipal headquarters of a newly established Zapatista autonomous municipality. In an act of violent state repression, the Mexican military occupied the village, destroyed the mural, arrested and deported a dozen foreigners present in the village, and jailed the artist and several others.

After its destruction, the mural, known as La Vida y Sueños de la Cañada Perla, came to be reproduced around the world. The collaborative process Sergio Valdéz used to produce the mural has come to be an important method for popular painting in Chiapas.

I conducted this interview with the assistance of Claudia Medina, in September 2012.

Jeff Conant: As an artist and educator, what drew you to Chiapas in the first place?

Sergio Valdéz: What drew me to Chiapas was, basically, curiosity. In the university, a professor was asking us to help develop graphic work for an event about human rights and education, to be undertaken with Tseltal indigenous communities. We were three professors, and we were somewhat resistant to the idea. One of the arguments I gave for not wanting to undertake the project was that developing graphics for people I didn’t even know seemed to me to show a lack of respect.

So the professor, Antonio Paoli, wrote a phrase in Tseltal: Ji ix el ta muk’ – a phrase that means ‘respect’ in Tseltal. He then did a linguistic analysis of the phrase, and concluded that, when a Tseltal speaks about respect, the literal translation is, ‘the heart is made larger with the other person’.

This struck me as a great contrast to how we talk about ‘respect’ in Spanish. In Spanish, when we use the word ‘respect,’ it has implications of authority, of distance. The dictionary might say something different, but in reality this is the meaning: to draw a sort of line between two people based on a relationship that is essentially hierarchical, one person standing above the other. So I thought, what a sensational, marvelous culture! The very concept is a poem: to grow the heart, to make oneself larger with the other. So I said, I want to get to know this culture. And that’s what brought me to Chiapas.

I knew about as much as anyone else about the phenomenon that was unfolding in Chiapas, just from reading, from the press, basically the newspapers, La Jornada, El Proceso, and the communiqués of the Zapatistas. So, we headed to Chiapas out of sheer curiosity, to get to know what was going on there, and to make posters and the graphic pamphlets as we were asked.

JC: What sparked your initial interest in doing a mural there, and in what sense was the struggle in Chiapas fertile terrain to develop your projects?

Sergio Valdéz: Once we were there, we took on the role of human rights observers, as a way to get to visit the communities. We were three professors and Antonio Paoli, and of course, there we met up with others, who were also foreign to the place. They gave us jobs, sweeping, standing watch, and other tasks that they routinely gave to the human rights observers, and they set us up in the hut that was called the Civil Peace Camp, a very precarious little hut, like all the houses there, I suppose – you could call it the architecture of precarity: A tin roof, wooden walls, a dirt floor.

We set about making some art, we went around taking photos, making drawings, with the plan to stay about a week. One day, they asked us if we could help them make a sign. I said sure, I’d be glad to. The others then had to leave, but I stayed on and I helped to make the sign, with very basic materials: half a liter of black paint and an eighth of a liter of white paint on four beautiful pieces of mahogany that had been cut with a chainsaw and planed by hand.

So, we painted the sign, and when we were just about done, one of the authorities arrived, surely one of the clandestine Zapatista leaders. Let’s remember the context – at this time, the autonomous municipalities were not public. They were being developed in the shadows. The Zapatista uprising began in 1994, and this was 1998, so they’d now spent four years developing their autonomous municipalities. And in my understanding, this was going to be the first of the autonomous municipalities to be declared publicly. What they had asked me to make was the sign declaring this an autonomous municipality, to be set in front of the municipal headquarters.

Now, when I say an authority, the man I saw was a poor campesino, not in very good shape, very modest, very humble, tall. We didn’t speak, I was busy painting. I’d already painted Flores Magón on the sign, and I’d painted Zapata. And, the only thing he said was ‘mamalito chingón.’ I didn’t understand what that meant, but someone later explained to me that mamal means old man, so what he said was a Spanish-ization, he’d called me a ‘bad-ass old man.’ And he walked off.

Paoli, when he left, said, the guy was a commandant in the EZLN [the Zapatista Army of National Liberation]. I had no idea, but when Paoli told me the guy had called me a bad-ass, I felt like my work had been approved.

So one day, just before I was going to leave, some other authorities came down from an encampment they had up in the hills. One of them asked if I could give them advice about making a big painting for the façade of the municipal headquarters. I didn’t even quite realize that he meant a mural, they didn’t have any concept of a mural. They just knew they wanted to represent something on the building.

And it’s there that the question arises about pedagogy, politics, education. At that time I had been a professor for a number of years, 15 or 20. The University where I work is not a traditional University, it is a very progressive University, with a modular system you only find at the Xochimilco campus, whose fundamental bases are Marx and Piaget. So, with this experience, with my political concerns, and above all, based in recent work I’d been doing on collective creativity, a lot of ideas came up to respond to their request.

Their motivation was to make a painting that would be foundational for their autonomous municipality. I had never before worked with indigenous peoples, let alone with illiterate people, and this was a great challenge, to work with the indigenous people, to help bring out their creativity so that they would develop the ideas that would go into the mural. We then agreed it would be best if they came from different communities, because it would then represent the whole municipality. I knew that if we were able to capture the ideas of the ordinary folks of the different communities, we could come up with a painting that was interesting, and relevant to the whole municipality. And if this was achieved, surely what would appear in the painting would be the fundamental values that form the basis of their community life.

So, we could unite these three intentions, and there would be a synergy that allowed me to design a course adequate for the circumstances. I agreed to return and help develop the painting. I knew from that moment that the expressions that would come out would represent their rebellion, their struggle for autonomy, and that the work would be, essentially, political.

This was a social struggle in which they are trying to achieve very important transformations. These people, known as Zapatista rebels, are people who emerged from the obscurity of a history in which they’d remained for many centuries. They’d been kept in obscurity as much by the pre-Hispanic kings as by the invaders, the colonizers, and, after the independence of Mexico, by the internal colonists, as they’re called now – they were now colonized by Mexican nation. And then, of course, again by foreigners. From their perspective, Chiapas is distinguished, just like other parts of Mexico, by large properties belonging to foreigners, including entire towns and cities. Chiapas is practically foreign.

At this moment in the rebellion, the arms had been set aside because of the truce between the government and the rebels. Now they were at peace but in resistance, and in control of their territory, autonomy, and communications, in ways that were foreign to the government. So obviously this was fertile terrain to develop ideas that would be coherent with the ideals and aspirations of this great collection of people that formed the Zapatista rebellion.

JC: At the time when you developed the project, what was the environment like in the Zapatista communities?

Sergio Valdéz: Taniperla was very poor and very far from everything, and it was recognized by the government as a center of the rebellion, so there was a military base there with about 300 soldiers. This was about 300 meters from the municipal headquarters, which is to say, it was right in the community.

While we were in the process of the making the mural, we worked together in a one-room shack and there were no problems. We worked in the civil peace camp for twelve days. Then, some PRIistas [government supporters] showed up to watch what we were doing, essentially to spy on us, but they didn’t do anything. Then when we began to paint on the wall, the army came out to provoke us; they photographed us and videotaped us, helicopters flew over low to blow dirt on us. The helicopters were very loud, and it created an environment of fear and constant tension. Still, there was a lot of enthusiasm on the part of the rebels, for the construction of their autonomy and their municipality.

I was, frankly ignorant of the political atmosphere. I knew something about Zapatismo, I can’t say I didn’t – I knew I was working with the Zapatistas, but I didn’t know all that much about what was going on politically behind the scenes. It wasn’t a big deal for me, but it was a bit of a mystery, and the people were very enthusiastic. More than anything, for me it was an opportunity to do popular education within the plastic arts, that is, painting, and to do it within a social, cultural, political context. So for me it was a very rich experience, a beautiful experience.

This was the environment, desperately poor. Taniperla was one of the oldest of the communities that were founded by the fleeing of the indigenous people from the fincas [large plantations based on a model of serfdom that existed well into the twentieth century] going back to the ‘40s and the 50s. In drips and drops people escaped from the fincas, the owner would look for them – where the hell did they go, it’s time to plant? They’d come back and plant, then escape again, return again, go with the family, then finally flee altogether. And these are more or less the stories that we know in the cañadas, [the river valleys that characterize the topography of the Lacandon Jungle] – people escaping one by one, one by one, and founding these communities that were the product of this exodus. Drop by drop, drop by drop, they formed communities of people who didn’t have a peso to their names.

In the long period leading up to the rebellion they had gone about taking over lands, by every means possible – by just settling it, or through invasions, or by attacking the landowners. For a long time before the uprising, they went about reclaiming land. Well before they had an idea of having a rebellion, they had been acting like rebels.

JC: How do you understand this mural as public art?

It’s public art because it is in the public eye. Maybe the question refers to public art in urban centers – sculptures, paintings in public spaces, many other kinds of expressions. These can all be called forms of public art. But it seems to me that it would be pretentious to call what we do art – more properly speaking, what we do is popular painting, painting as a popular expression.

I have my own judgments, my own doubts about using the term ‘art’ so freely, no? I consider art to be very demanding and to require great rigor, so I’d be careful about using the word ‘art,’ as such. But yes, I consider it public art, emerging, popular, public art.

JC: What role does public art, murals specifically, play within the Zapatista struggle?

 Sergio Valdéz: I believe we have to distinguish two things. Of the paintings made in Zapatista territory before 2002, the great majority were made by visitors. Visiting painters, with the best intentions and the best objectives, would make a gesture of solidarity with the Zapatistas. But they did it from own points of view – the point of view of the outsider, the foreigner.

In 2002 a solidarity organization from Barcelona did an inventory of the paintings that existed in the Zapatista zone, and they counted 823. But of these 823 paintings, I guessed, not even ten had involved the participation of the indigenous people. All the others were painted by foreigners. This is one group of paintings.

The other group of paintings, which is still just barely getting going, are paintings by indigenous people, with their ideas, with their ways of seeing, and their own concepts. Of these, the Taniperla mural is the very first. This is my own speculation, I don’t have any proof, but I believe that this was the first, and although I was involved as a person from outside, I intervened to facilitate their process in creating, with their own resources, this painting that is now known as the Taniperla mural.

JC: What relevance did this artistic intervention have nationally and internationally?

Sergio Valdéz: To begin, one of the things that really excited me was that the people made the painting their own from the beginning. They didn’t consider it a gift, they considered it their own. Even people who didn’t know what they were doing, people who arrived for the fiesta to celebrate their autonomy, they arrived and said, “see how beautiful my mural looks.” So, from the very beginning, they claimed it as their own. This is the first thing.

I believe that, though we don’t realize it, that paintings of this nature, with a social message, a political message, apart from their important cultural role, have an important place in the history of Mexico. Above all, if we take into account that the first contribution from America to universal art was Mexican muralism, an art that originates from America, from Mexico. There have bee murals for thousands of years, naturally, beginning in the walls of caverns, and continuing inside palaces, churches, etcetera.

There have always been murals and they’ve always been relevant, and they’ve always had very specific social uses. Paintings in the churches for example have the social purpose of indoctrination, of creating convictions, of cultural domination. This comes out of Europe in the Middle Ages. Then you have the Egyptians, with their paintings as well, though they weren’t destined to be public – they were painted for the dead, and they were sealed off when the tomb was sealed off, to accompany the dead.

The desire to paint exists in every culture. But there are always direct social uses, for religion, or for war, or for economic reasons. And all of this is political. But Mexican muralism is distinguished because it is made for the public, to bring about very specific social ends.

Mexican muralism developed roughly between the ‘30’s and the ‘60’s. During that time it was not only tolerated, but promoted by the Mexican state, dressed in revolutionary garb. These murals that we admire so much in the National Palace, in schools, in the universities, in government buildings, were valued by the Mexican state.

It made everyone think Mexico was a very revolutionary country, and there was a sort of symbiotic game going on between the state and the revolutionary painters, including those who were in the communist party, and other tendencies, that finally

turned these artists into elites who earned a lot of money. And these are the antecedents.

So what are the repercussions of the Taniperla mural? There are books that show the Zapatista murals, where they are called Zapatista murals, but what are shown there are murals made for the Zapatistas, not murals made by the Zapatistas. The first one made by the Zapatistas is the Taniperla mural.

This mural and all the others have served to spread the word about the Zapatista struggle. What we can say is that the paintings made in Zapatista territory, made by whoever, have served to strengthen the Zapatista movement. Though some authority, I think from [the Zapatista village of] Morelia, said, “they go ahead and make paintings, but we don’t understand them. They make their paintings on our walls, but we don’t know what they mean…”

JC: What was the process of envisioning and painting the mural?

Sergio Valdéz: Here is where we put into practice the workshop of making the mural. First, I arrived and I presented myself to the authorities, I asked when the people would arrive, and I requested that people come from different communities, so that the mural would represent the whole municipality. I didn’t understand at that time their form of working that, despite living in different communities, that if a task was to be done for the whole municipality, that people would come from different communities, and in this as in many other areas, my ideas about popular education, acquired in the university, coincided with the way of working in the indigenous communities. And it was logical, because popular education was born from the forms of education in the communities, not in Mexico, but in Brazil and in other countries, but mainly from Brazil where Paolo Freire developed the idea of the pedagogy of the poor, from which the notion of popular education, as it is now taught in the university, descends.

So, the people arrive, sixteen of them. All of it was a surprise for them, many didn’t know what the task was, so everything was new, a challenge. I began with techniques, group integration, etcetera, and above all I asked them to draw what they wanted to appear in the mural. First a quick explanation – we’re going to make a big painting where there will be many elements, and among those things, please draw what is important to you. So they drew what they saw as important for themselves and for the community.

We showed the drawings, some of them very basic – several of the people had never so much as held a colored pencil, and, in general we had a lot of fun. After each round of drawings, everyone interpreted the drawings, each person would explain what they had drawn, and I asked questions to draw them out, what is this, oh it is work in the milpa [the corn field], so I’d ask, what do you do in the milpa, what do you grow, what do you do with what you grow, etc. etc., and so like this I went looking for more depth in the drawings they made.

After three days of doing this I received a very unpleasant surprise. As a professor in the university, the most common way to work is that you work with the same group until the course is complete. But here what happened is that one or two or three people suddenly told me they had to leave. After three days, at dinner, one of the guys announced that he was going to leave in the morning. So I asked, what happened, weren’t you aware that this was a job that would take 20 days, or a month? Yes, yes they told me. So, you don’t like it? No, I like it. Okay then, why are you leaving? Well, I just came to work for three days. It came out that this was how they worked. Another one was planning to leave tomorrow, another the next day, and on like that, but they would be replaced by others who would arrive. So, I had to adapt to this situation, which was, essentially a failure of my calculation, because I hadn’t known their ways of working.

So I decided, I’d continue working as if they were the same group the whole time, and we’d make do. Two days later, when the group was entirely new, I received another surprise: those who arrived didn’t work the way western people work. When we come to a job that’s already underway, we ask questions, and we might even start over. Here they didn’t arrive with this attitude – they arrived with a much more simple and much more practical attitude: what has to be done, how is it to be done, and what part of it is for me to do? And this resolved everything – this attitude of not questioning but just taking up the work.

So we worked like this for twelve days, generating ideas. The work went on largely in silence, drawing in silence, one single piece of paper, two people drawing two different themes, but they had to relate to each other. And they had to do this in silence. So, they made drawings with two people, and then with three or four, in groups of up to six people. The work of developing a single drawing on diverse themes, by six people, is a very lovely process, very intellectual, that allows communication without words that is very interesting.

We made a great number of drawings, but in the end, we had three drawings that were put forth as proposals for the painting we would put on the wall. The group decided to unite the three in one single drawing, and this is how the final draft was agreed on. All of this with a constant exchange of people. So, we began painting, and the work went the same way – someone would paint for a few days and then would leave and be relieved by someone else.

I had two ideas then – one, that it would be only the indigenous people who would paint, and the other, that I would not contribute any ideas of my own. So the painting went along, with only indigenous participants painting. We achieved my goal of not contributing my own ideas, but then, in the process of painting, some hands that were not indigenous joined us, one of them a mestiza and the other a foreigner, and they brought some ideas that were taken into account. But beyond this, we can consider that this is a work conceived and carried out by indigenous people.

The participants were all young men. I had originally hoped for the voice of women, but this capacity was not very well developed yet. In these communities, the customs and traditions are very restrictive for women. These are things that are questioned by the rebel movement, but the role of women is essentially very limited in this culture, as it is all around the world. It’s a very paternalistic world, I’m afraid to say.

JC: It seems to me that the pedagogy, the process, was as important as the result. Why was it important to you to undertake the mural in this way?

Serio Valdéz: Obviously, my objective was to achieve the ideation of this painting by the people, in a way that would engage them and that they would enjoy. This was a participatory process, and for this reason I tried to keep my ideas out. It was for both personal and political reasons – that it should be just they who carried out the work.

Why is it important to me to have done it this way? As an artist, I could have gone there to paint what I thought, and I could even have listened to them and painted my perception of what they said. But this strikes me as giving too much prevalence to the ego. In these years, I was working consciously against my own ego; this was painful, because working against the ego is painful. But it was very fruitful. And this attitude turned out to be very important, above all for the municipality, for the region, for the Zapatista movement – that it would be their own ideas, not the ideas of foreigners. Participation, diversity of opinions, all of this is part of the pedagogy that we worked with. You could trace it to many forms of pedagogy, but basically the point is to engage participation.

JC: In what sense was the project an attempt to incarnate practices articulated by the Zapatistas, such as ‘todo para todos,’ (‘Everything for everyone, nothing for ourselves’), ‘mandar obediciendo,’ (to lead by obeying), and the concept of a ‘un mundo donde quepan muchos mundos’ (a world where many worlds fit)? That is, in what sense is the mural an example of Zapatista philosophy as it was being articulated at that time?

Serio Valdéz: I believe that during the process, we discovered many things. As I said before, at the beginning I didn’t know much; I had no more information than anyone who reads the newspaper. From the process I began to learn how to listen and how to act on these ideas of ‘mandar obedeciendo’; in this moment the notion of mandar obedeciendo still wasn’t very well known. Nor was the idea of a world in which many words fit. So, the influence of these ideas came to be more widely recognized during this work, and after. You can see very clearly that the ideas I brought from my own background corresponded strongly with the ideas that emerged in Taniperla, and thus we had a positive result: the process of painting itself always had an atmosphere of fiesta, of being a game.

It struck me as important that they gave a lot of space in the painting to the militia. The first plane is a picture of daily life, the present, the past, and aspirations for the future. And in the background, behind the hills, they put the militia, a large number of them, ninety or so, and I asked them, why are they in the hills? Ah, because they are taking care of us. There you see very clearly the notion that one thing was the civil bases, and another was the combatants, their army, to take care of them. This was the popular conception in this moment.

And so, at each step it was very interesting, the opportunity to draw out meanings from the painting. The Zapatista philosophy begins from popular education, from their ancestral practices which are very distinct from post-industrial views. Their culture is still based in the land, and in defending the land, while modernity and post-modernity exist to exploit the environment, to advance the over-exploitation of resources and contempt for traditional societies, because these societies stand in the way of exploitation.

JC: The mural was completed just in time to celebrate the inauguration of the autonomous municipality in rebellion, Ricardo Flores Magón. What role did the mural play in this event, and how was it perceived by State authorities?

Serio Valdéz: In the first place, the communities that attended the inauguration party for the municipality, represented by 600 or 800 people from different communities, quickly took ownership of the mural, as we said earlier. I proposed in my first questions, is it possible that people with no experience at drawing, through listening to their own experience, could generate a painting relevant to their community? Clearly, it was highly relevant. It was unique, in these remote regions, it was the first painting of its kind, on a wall, in the entire municipality, and it was a great event for the heart of the communities…

Then comes the operation to repress the municipality. About 40 hours after we finished the mural, 1200 soldiers arrive in fifty trucks, from all the police forces of the state, the federal police, immigration, and the army. Twelve hundred soldiers invading a community of barely 2500 people, no? If we take into account that most the villagers are children, it was one soldier for each villager, or more. It was a very effective theater of terror: they burned down houses, a community kitchen, an auditorium that had been recently built by the Zapatistas. And obviously the mural was a target of this repression.

I imagine that the painting bothered them not only for being Zapatista, but because it spoke so clearly to people who were largely illiterate. It spoke volumes about the richness of the struggle to people who could barely read, so obviously it was very troubling, and they destroyed it immediately, before my eyes. They painted over it, and finally, weeks later, they stripped the plaster off the building and re-plastered it so as not to leave any trace.

Clearly I was indignant, not only because I witnessed the repression, but because I was a victim of it, arrested and put in jail for a long time. I didn’t know if I was going to spend twenty years in jail, if I’d be tortured, so I was angry. But I also felt a certain satisfaction: the mural had achieved its objectives: it was foundational for the community, it was creative and collectively claimed. But above all, when I got into this, I didn’t have any experience with murals – I was a cartoonist, a designer, a caricaturist, so all of this was new for me, and I wanted to try this project that would get beyond the ego, and there was a great chance it would fail. But as it turned out, it was successful – I had developed a form for doing popular painting without falling into academics and without teaching people to paint, but rather by inspiring them to paint. So for me it was very valuable, and it served its purpose.

JC: Your imprisonment must have been very difficult. Did you have any idea while you were in prison, that he mural had become a seed that was beginning to be planted all over the world?  

Serio Valdéz: I was in the jail over a year, but after just a few days there, one of the things I thought about constantly was the method we’d used to produce the mural. All of us who were jailed in this operation joined an organization called The Voice of Cerro Hueco, made up of Zapatista prisoners. We were all in one big room, sleeping on the floor, 72 prisoners in a room of 70 square meters, with nothing but cardboard boxes to sleep on. In one of the assemblies, after I’d been there a month or six weeks, I proposed that we paint a mural there, inside the prison. I was still excited by the method. For me being in jail, all of the anger of being jailed, this was secondary. I was obsessed with the method we had discovered, and I had a strong desire to try it again. The majority of the prisoners were Tojolabal Mayans from the municipality of Tierra y Libertad who were apprehended in the same chain of operations that began with Taniperla.

So we began. Obviously we couldn’t consult with the community because we were in jail, but we did consult with all of the visitors that came from this municipality. There were always a lot of visits. We conducted interviews, sometimes people would even stay with us for several days, and the process was very successful.

JC: How do you understand the proliferation of Vida y Sueños de la Cañada Perla?

Serio Valdéz: This phenomenon is very interesting… Obviously, if the painting hadn’t been destroyed in the context of a repressive military operation, it never would have transcended the original work. It would have stayed in the community, the community would have enjoyed it until the colors faded in the sun, and then maybe we would’ve repainted it, or maybe not. And nobody would’ve even known of it.

So, by being destroyed the way it was, in the perverse way it was by the government with all the harm they did during the operation, the destruction came to be very significant for national and international civil society that supported the Zapatista struggle. And a phenomenon was unleashed which had nothing to do with me, it was a spontaneous, international happening – nobody came to any agreements with anybody else, but rather the Zapatista solidarity groups took it up as a very powerful symbol, to spread the word about the Zapatista struggle and demonstrate their solidarity.

So, they began to do reproductions very quickly, but not in a way that was entirely random. Here two things happened – a rapid response from some colleagues from the University. Victor Ortega had some photos from the operation in Taniperla, and he reproduced them digitally and doctored them in Photoshop, and Paoli distributed this image through emails that went around the world.

So, very quickly the mural became known through the circumstances in which it had been created and destroyed. Obviously this provided visual material, and it was converted into a Zapatista icon. Zapatismo was recognizable now by way of the ski mask, the red bandana, and the Taniperla mural. These are like the iconic figures that represent Zapatismo.

So, this very lovely phenomenon, I don’t know how to interpret it, repeats itself now in Argentina, now in Germany, now in Spain, now in Italy, now in Canada, now in the United States, and in many countries and in many cities of these countries, the mural is reproduced, sometimes at scale, sometimes larger, sometimes smaller, sometimes in better quality, sometimes less quality, but always with this great heart of the Zapatista movement. It’s a phenomenon very particular, a communication effort that no one could have planned or articulated. This was the only way it could have happened.

JC: How many reproductions have there been?

Serio Valdéz: I have counted 46 reproductions of the mural that have been painted. I can’t count the number that appeared in print, maybe tens or hundreds of thousands of printed versions. It has had repercussions everywhere, suddenly some group says lets make postcards, or posters, or a calendar, or the cover of a book. There have been theses on the theme and it has been presented in anthropology conferences as a recent work of Mayan art. That does not only give homage to Mayan artists of the past, but also those of the present day.

JC: What does this spontaneous explosion of reproductions mean?

Serio Valdéz: What does it mean? That there are noble hearts everywhere… That this is a marvel, that something on which I collaborated has been taken up as a symbol of something very noble, the Zapatista struggle, which has now given birth to so many other struggles in the world and that continues being a model for social struggle.

JC: What is the lesson of the mural, in regards to the criminalization of free expression and repression of social struggle?

Sergio Valdéz: I believe the lesson is to continue painting, and to continue painting in this way – to promote popular, participatory painting. That social groups should take up the mural as a medium of communication.

There will always be repression, as long as there are people who want to dominate or to maintain their privilege. I believe, in the end, that for those who do not choose to take up arms, the mural is our firearm, our pencils are our rifles, and our colors are our shots.

JC: What is the interest of the State in repressing social art and the artists that produce it?

Sergio Valdéz: The state is always going to repress whatever bothers it. We’re not talking just about the Mexican state, but of the hierarchy of North American financiers. Four or five years ago, I don’t remember who, but some financiers announced that in Latin America there are many walls painted, many murals, and we better go taking them down because they make people restless. That is, there is a clear sense of painting as subversive. For their established order, for the hegemonic class, the dominant class, the exploiting class, painting will always be a threat, if it is not juts portraying beautiful things, children playing, or erotic art for their own enjoyment, like in the ancient world, for example in Pompeii for the nobles.

Painting is subversive, because art, genuine art, is always subversive. It’s subversive for art itself, whether or not it’s subversive for the ruling class. Art always breaks with previous conceptions, this is its nature, it is revolutionary, always. For this reason it will always be a threat for the dominant classes, and if it is compatible with social movements that question the current social order, even more so.

JC: Almost fifteen years later, how do we understand the impacts of La Vida y Sueños de la Cañada Perla, both the original and the many reproductions?

Sergio Valdéz: It’s an expression of solidarity and of the internationalization of this movement. The impact of the Taniperla mural is so strong that we’ve gone on working in the same zone. Like the rebels we are, they put me in jail for painting one mural, and now we’ve painted about 100 more. More than 100 in the region, and more beyond the region. With this method we’ve discovered that we can paint murals in very different social and political contexts, in very different cultures, urban as well as rural. But these are questions for another interview.

JC: Have there been any advances since the original painting in the question of sociopolitical art, or a greater acceptance of the struggle for indigenous rights?

Sergio Valdéz: I keep painting rebel paintings in the Zapatista region, and we can name several very evident advances. Now there’s great interest in develop paintings as a way of defending their territory, as a way to mark it as Zapatista territory, as didactic material for children and adults, as a medium to pay homage to their heroes, as a way to represent those who have fallen in battles, the events that happen internal to the movement, of which there are many, to strengthen their identity, to reinvent themselves and transform themselves through self-perception.

The popular Zapatista murals are, finally, a window through which outsiders can see them, and a mirror by which they can see themselves. It is a very strong and very durable medium of communication. A mural will be there two, five, ten, twenty years, something that no newspaper or magazine and television broadcast can claim. The mural remains and is enjoyed over many years.

Remember the title of the mural: Life and Dreams of the Perla River Valley. There you have represented daily life, the past, the present, the aspirations of the community.  In the murals they are painting now, what you see are local stories: how the community was founded, what struggles there have been, the battle of Ocosingo, these kinds of things that are relevant within the movement. In the end it is a document, or a documentary, made by the people who are living the story.

– September, 2012

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Planning for Climate Disaster: Resilient Communities Respond

2 03 2013

From the latest issue of Race, Poverty & the Environment

By Jeff Conant

After months of silence on the presidential campaign—preceded by years of denial by big industry—climate change was forced back into the national political conversation last October by Hurricane Sandy, which swept across the northeastern U.S. A New York Times opinion piece entitled, “Is This the End?” ran with a photo of the Statue of Liberty underwater;[1] and a front page story in the San Francisco Chronicle noted that “water levels in San Francisco Bay could rise 16 inches or more by 2050, inundating shoreline habitat and infrastructure.”[2]

Meanwhile, 14,000 public-housing tenants in New York were left for weeks without electricity or running water in the wake of Sandy.
After President Obama’s reelection, California Senator Barbara Boxer predicted that several of her colleagues would be quick to introduce climate legislation in the new Congress—a move that had been considered political suicide since the Waxman-Markey bill was killed by a Republican Senate in 2009.[3]

But will legislation considered politically realistic be enough to address the scale and urgency of the climate crisis? And will it address the equity crisis? Imara Jones wrote in Colorlines, “Sandy smashed into the world’s wealthiest city but hit its poorest neighborhoods the hardest.”[4]

Climate change has been called the “greatest market failure in history,”[5] but as with all market failures, those most affected have historically been excluded from the benefits of the market.

“The reality of ecological disruption is that instability and unpredictability, not just in the climate, but in the economy itself, are the new normal,” says Gopal Dayaneni, an organizer with the Bay Area-based Movement Generation Justice and Ecology Project. “We have to innovate on our organizing strategies if we are going to navigate these changes.”

To that end, as organizers in New York set up emergency relief efforts following Sandy, Movement Generation released a statement calling for a focus on community resilience in the age of climate disasters.

“There will be many more shocks—acute moments of disruption, such as extreme weather events—and slides—incremental disruptions, such as sea level rise—that play out over longer timeframes in devastating ways, if we are not prepared,” they wrote. “The question is how can we prepare to harness these shocks and slides to win the shifts we need in favor of people and the planet?”[6]
The statement went on to cite the work of organizers from New Orleans to Haiti to New York and beyond, who offer both practical solutions and a larger vision of a “just transition” to “new economies defined by public transit, zero waste, community housing, food sovereignty, wetlands restoration, clean community-owned power, and local self-governance: all efforts that foster community resilience and to cut the carbon emissions and change the economic system that is driving global warming.”[7]

Frontline Communities Demand Real Solutions
“Communities on the frontlines of the climate crisis have never been silent about the solutions that will save our planet and our soul as a society,” says Cecil Corbin-Mark of WE ACT for Environmental Justice in West Harlem. “We have advocated for bus rapid transit, affordable safe housing and resilient communities, green jobs through public investment, and policies that cut and eliminate carbon.”
But resiliency-based responses to the climate crisis are nowhere on the mainstream policy agenda.

On November 14, as communities in New York and New Jersey were still shivering in the dark without electricity, food, or gasoline, one of the nation’s most closely watched efforts to regulate climate pollution—an auction of carbon emissions allowances—was launched in California as part of the state’s new cap-and-trade system.

More than 70 companies submitted bids for the price they were willing to pay to continue releasing greenhouse gases, with the price for a ton of emissions swinging as low as  $10.09, just above the $10.00 floor price set by the California Air Resources Board (ARB).[8] Of the total number of emissions allowances distributed, 10 percent were sold and 90 percent given away, in an effort to maintain a comparative advantage between California companies and out-of-state businesses, and to appease utilities.[9]

ARB Chair Mary Nichols declared the auction a success.[10] Groups, such as Environmental Defense Fund, agreed, noting that the demand for credits was a market signal that the cap-and-trade program was here to stay.[11]

Bill Gallegos, executive director of Communities for a Better Environment, rebuts those assertions. “The cheap price of credits in the recent auction came as no surprise—they follow the pattern that [occurred] repeatedly in Europe and offer an ‘out’ for big polluters like oil refineries to buy their way out of cleaning up local and global pollution without providing an environmental benefit. This system could even allow big polluters like Chevron’s Richmond refinery to refine dirtier grades of crude oil.”

Cap-and-trade means putting a declining “cap” on total emissions, while allowing trading of pollution permits. Regulators in California will set a ceiling on CO2 emissions from utilities, oil extractors, and fossil fuel-burning factories and require them to pay for their pollution by buying carbon allowances in quarterly auctions. In year one, the program is expected to generate between $660 million and $3 billion in auction proceeds. By 2020, cap-and-trade could send $8 billion into state coffers annually.

But will it reduce climate pollution?

Cap-and-Trade: More Loopholes than Benefits
Although environmental justice groups rallied to keep the fossil fuel industry from overturning AB 32 in a referendum in 2010, they have been deeply critical of cap-and-trade.

“Cap-and-trade has not been shown to actually work to reduce greenhouse gas emission,” says Sofia Parino, senior attorney with the Center on Race, Poverty and the Environment (CRPE).

Many cap-and-trade critics believe that the untested system is packed with loopholes and dangerous possibilities for financial gaming.
“CRPE and our communities are opposed to a trading scheme because of the inherent inequities for communities of color and low income communities, and the missed opportunities for real localized emission reductions,” Parino says.

These concerns led CRPE, along with Communities for a Better Environment, to take the Air Resources Board to court in 2011 to challenge AB 32’s cap-and-trade provision. The lawsuit eventually lost, leading some environmental justice groups to push for legislation directing a percentage of revenue from carbon allowances to vulnerable communities, enabling them to receive some benefit from the state’s new carbon market. (See story on SB 535 and AB 1532).

“The recent auction did not change our position on cap-and-trade,” Parino says. “A cap-and-trade system will not succeed in addressing the problem of superstorms. And, even if it were to reduce emissions, the reductions would not be enough to affect the changing climate.”

The most problematic aspect of the California system is that it allows greenhouse gas reductions to be made through carbon offsets rather than actual reductions in production.

Offsets are reductions in emissions made in one place or sector in order to compensate for emissions elsewhere: for example, a landowner is paid not to cut down his forest so that it can continue capturing CO2 from the atmosphere. Purchasing this offset allows owners of a coal-fired power plant to burn extra coal. While such offsets are considered indispensable to keeping cap-and-trade affordable, experience in Europe has shown no net reduction in greenhouse gases. By permitting burning above the cap for a given source, the likely result of a carbon offset is not a decrease in emissions, but an increase.

Overcoming the Fatal Flaw in Cap-and-Trade
Many of the climate policies promoted at state and national levels seek to tinker with the symptoms of the crisis without addressing root causes. Contrary to such approaches, Michelle Mascarenhas-Swan of Movement Generation says, “Our social movements need to be ambitious and bold—to articulate what is truly materially and culturally necessary to tackle the crisis at hand.”

A few bold organizing strategies that Movement Generation cites as key to building grassroots resilience include WE ACT’s fight for bus rapid transit and public sector jobs. There is also the work of groups—such as Right to the City, Grassroots Global Justice Alliance, Picture the Homeless, and Make the Road—to end displacement and economic inequity, which they see as integrally connected to climate change. The New York City Environmental Justice Alliance, for instance, works to protect communities from the compounded burden of toxic inundation when hit by storm surges like Hurricane Sandy.

There are widespread efforts to reclaim vacant lots for community gardens and build regional food systems by groups from Detroit to Haiti. “Zero waste” solutions are promoted by Ironbound Community Corporation, the New Jersey Environmental Justice Alliance, and the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives, to create recycling and composting jobs while drastically reducing climate and toxic pollution from landfills and incinerators. And, as a direct alternative to the false promise of cap-and-trade, the Indigenous Environmental Network works to free indigenous lands and communities—and our collective atmospheric space—from fossil fuel development, such as tar sands and the Keystone XL, Kinder Morgan, and Enbridge Northern Gateway pipelines.

Such efforts do not fall in line with conventional legislative approaches, rather they mirror direct action strategies that are more common internationally—the land takeovers of Brazil’s Movimento sem Terra; or La Via Campesina’s international peasant farmers’ movement with its  slogan, “Peasant farmers cool the planet.”
“Social movements must be unafraid to put forth a holistic vision and real solutions, and build and model them in the world in a way that contests for power,” says Mascarenhas-Swan. “This means transitioning out of an economy that lets some populations and communities profit at the expense of others, toward an economy that works for people and the planet.”
That’s a far cry from cap-and-trading our way out of the crisis.

Endnotes
1.     James Atlas, “Is This the End?,” New York Times, Nov. 24, 2012. <nytimes.com/2012/11/25/opinion/sunday/is-this-the-end.html?pagewanted=all>
2.     Peter Fimrite, “West Coast at risk for hybrid storms, too,” San Francisco Chronicle, Nov. 3, 2012.
3.     Jean Chemnick, “Emissions legislation poised to make a comeback in new Congress – Boxer,” E&E News, Nov. 27, 2012.
4.     Imara Jones, “What Hurricane Sandy Should Teach Us about Climate Justice,” Colorlines, Nov. 15, 2012.
5.     Nicolas Stern, “Stern Review on Climate Change,” Oct. 30, 2006. <en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stern_Review>
6.    <movementgeneration.org/communities-across-us-stand-with-those-impacted-by-sandy>
7.    Ibid.
8.    capandtrade/auction/november_2012/auction1_results_2012 q4nov.pdf>
9.     Rory Carroll and Dan Levine, “California Chamber of Commerce seeks to stop cap-and-trade,” Chicago Tribune, Nov. 13, 2012. <articles.chicagotribune.com/2012-11-13/business/sns-rt-us-california-carbon-lawsuitbre8ac18b-20121113_1_carbon-allowances-cap-and-trade-program-emissions>
10.    Lynn Doan, “California Carbon Allowances Sold Out at $10.09 in Auction,” Bloomberg, Nov. 19, 2012.
11. Dana Hull, “California’s first cap-and-trade auction sells out, declared ‘a success,’” San Jose Mercury News, Nov. 20, 2012. <mercurynews.com/ business/ci_22028077/californias-first-cap-and-trade-auction-sells-out>





The Dark Side of the “Green Economy”

15 09 2012

BPsignsBIG.jpg

 
By Jeff Conant

Photo by Ben Powless.

YES! Magazine, August, 2012 – Everywhere you look these days, things are turning green. In Chiapas, Mexico, indigenous farmers are being paid to protect the last vast stretch of rainforest in Mesoamerica. In the Brazilian Amazon, peasant families are given a monthly “green basket” of basic food staples to allow them to get by without cutting down trees. In Kenya, small farmers who plant climate-hardy trees and protect green zones are promised payment for their part in the fight to reduce global warming. In Mozambique, one of the world’s poorest nations, fully 19 percent of the country’s surface is leased to a British capital firm that pays families to reforest.
These are a few of the keystone projects that make up what is being called “the green economy”: an emerging approach that promises to protect ­planetary ecology while boosting the economy and fighting poverty.

On its face this may sound like a good thing. Yet, during the recently concluded United Nations Rio+20 Earth Summit in Brazil, tens of thousands of people attending a nearby People’s Summit condemned such approaches to environmental management. Indeed, if social movements gathered in Rio last month had one common platform, it was “No to the green economy.”

Whose Economy? Whose Green?

Just a few years ago, the term “green economy” referred to economies that are locally based, climate friendly, and low-impact. But since the global economic meltdown began in 2007, the green economy has come to mean something more akin to the wholesale privatization of nature. This green economy is about putting a price on natural cycles through a controversial set of policies called “Payments for Ecosystem Services”—an approach to greening capitalism that some liken to a tiger claiming to turn vegetarian.

Click here for more articles from It’s Your Body, the Fall 2012 issue of YES! Magazine.

Rather than reducing pollution and consumption, protecting the territorial rights of land-based peoples, and promoting local initiatives that steward resources for future generations, the approach is doing the opposite: promoting monoculture tree plantations, trade in pollution credits, and the establishment of speculative markets in biodiversity and forests, all of which threaten to displace land-based communities.

A report by Ecosystem Marketplace, the leading purveyor of “Payments for Ecosystem Services,” lays out the green economy argument: “Ecosystems provide trillions of dollars in clean water, flood protection, fertile lands, clean air, pollination, disease control. … So how do we secure this enormously valuable infrastructure and its services? The same way we would electricity, potable water, or natural gas. We pay for it.”

The United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), among the chief proponents of the green economy, says this approach will result in “improved well-being and social equity while significantly reducing environmental risks and ecological scarcities.” The World Bank, also promoting the green economy, says, “Natural capital accounting would add to our national GDPs the wealth stored in our natural resources: minerals before they are mined, forests before they are felled, water while it is still in the rivers.”

But, for social movements, land-based communities, and indigenous peoples, the question is, who really pays? For what are they paying? And, most poignantly, since when has nature, the source of all life, been reduced to a service-provider?

One concern is that this new green economy is a form of “disaster capitalism”—a global effort to put the “services” of nature into the same hands that caused the global financial meltdown. And that seems like a very, very bad idea.

Increasingly, the evidence on the ground bears this out.

The reforestation plan in Mozambique has peasant farmers planting industrial monocultures of African palm for biofuel production, not native forest. The Kenyan farmers of the Green Belt Movement, while initially receptive to a World Bank-backed scheme that would pay them to protect agricultural soils, became discouraged when they realized the payments would add up to less than 15 cents per acre per year, and that they would have to wait many years for payment. In Brazil, the “green basket” of food staples adds up to 100 Reales per family per month—but cooking gas alone can cost 50 Reales a month, leaving families without access to the forest hungry and dependent on paltry state support.

And in Chiapas, where families in the Lacandon community are paid to protect the forest against their neighbors, the struggling campesinos from the Tzeltal, Tzotzil, Chol, and Mam ethnic groups are forced off the land and into prefab peri-urban settlements, where their customs and traditional livelihoods will be forever lost.

Kari-Oca photo by Ben Powless

Signing of the Kari-Oca II Declaration at the indigenous gathering held prior to the Rio summit. The Declaration states the indigenous delegation rejects the green economy as a continuation of colonialism.

Photo by Ben Powless.

Carbon Dumps?

All of these initiatives are based on carbon offsetting—essentially, permission slips purchased by corporations and governments to allow them to continue dumping CO2 into the atmosphere in exchange for the ecosystem service provided by forests and agricultural soils in the Global South, which act as carbon sinks.

But, as Nigerian activist Godwin Ojo says, “Forests are not carbon sinks, they are food baskets.” Ojo tells of a rubber plantation near his home that has deprived hundreds of farmers of their livelihood under the auspices of the  United Nations Collaborative Initiative on Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation, a pillar program of the green economy.

“We find that most policies affecting indigenous peoples are designed without our participation,” Ojo says. “If this trend continues, it will lead to a vicious cycle of poverty and violence.”

If this is how the new green economy is playing out on the ground, it is no wonder that it has sparked resistance.

Social movements in the Global South do not mince words: The invitation for the People’s Summit in Rio declared, “Nothing in the ‘green economy’ questions the current economy based in extraction and fossil fuels, nor the patterns of consumption and industrial production, but extends this economy into new areas, feeding the myth that economic growth can be infinite.”

At the People’s Summit, spokespeople allied with smallholder farmers, women’s organizations, human rights groups, and others debated Achim Steiner, director of the UNEP.

Larissa Packer, a Brazilian lawyer with Terra de Direitos, an organization that works to secure land rights for landless communities, was among those who participated.

“Payment for environmental services,” Packer said, “posits that the actions of nature—the water cycle, the carbon cycle, the pollination of flowers by bees—are commodities, subject to the law of the market. In essence, such an approach implies the natural enclosure of these ‘services,’ and, when encoded in legal norms and property rights, the actual enclosure of the natural areas—forests, watersheds, wetlands. … Such an approach is akin to the continued enslavement of nature.”

She then offered a clear summary of the economics at work: “In the current market,” she said, “prices are based on supply and demand, that is, on scarcity. As petroleum becomes scarce, its value goes up. The green economy will follow the same logic. … If we put a price on forests, on biodiversity, on other common goods, those prices will be driven up by scarcity, So, for investors in these things, the greater the scarcity of ecosystem services, the greater their value. Where do we think this will lead?”

Steiner responded by saying that, while we may be frustrated with the state of the world, “whether we like it or not, economic thinking is dominating all our nations,” and we need to come to terms with this.

“When you say we give a price to nature and automatically it becomes a tradable commodity, I would ask, is it not useful to capture the value of an ecosystem also in economic terms? If countries began to understand how dramatic the value of our ecosystems and resources is to the future of our development prospects, then maybe we would enact laws to protect nature, we would increase protected areas, we would have far more indigenous peoples manage land and reserves, and we would pass far harsher laws to prevent the private sector from engaging in destructive practices.”

Steiner’s plea, however, left the social movements cold. Speaker upon speaker rose to denounce the green economy as the commodification of life, the final enclosure of the commons, and the largest land grab ever dreamed up by the corporate sector.

Tom Goldtooth, director of the Indigenous Environmental Network, boils it down to “the difference between money-centered Western views and the life-centered indigenous worldview based on the sacred female creation principles of Mother Earth.”

On June 21, winter solstice in Brazil, a delegation of indigenous people from an encampment called Kari-Oca II near the Rio summit delivered a declaration to U.N. officials. The declaration, signed by more than 500 indigenous leaders and blessed in a ritual ceremony, took direct aim:

“The Green Economy is a perverse attempt by corporations, extractive industries, and governments to cash in on Creation by privatizing, commodifying, and selling off the Sacred and all forms of life and the sky, including the air we breathe, the water we drink, and all the genes, plants, traditional seeds, trees, animals, fish, biological and cultural diversity, ecosystems and traditional knowledge that make life on Earth possible and enjoyable.”

Life-Affirming Alternatives

What is especially offensive about this new green economy is that it removes from the table all of the positive, life-affirming approaches that the social movements of the Global South have been nurturing for decades:

  • The solidarity economies, where values and prices are set within a local, social context in order to create an exchange of goods and services outside of corporate-controlled markets;
  • Rights-based frameworks that protect women, indigenous peoples, and other vulnerable populations not only within the market, but from the market;
  • The Rights of Mother Earth, which says that all of life has inherent and inalienable rights;
  • Territoriality, the notion that land-based people are not stewarding “a piece of land like a piece of bread,” but a sovereign space to call home;
  • Climate debt, the idea that northern countries, whose prosperity is built on resource extraction, slavery, and protectionism, must pay for what they have taken; and
  • The Commons, that age-old notion that democratic governance of shared resources must happen in spaces explicitly protected from the dominance of the market.

In other words, rather than expanding the scope of markets to every domain of nature, a true green economy would do the opposite: reverse the tide of commodification and financialization, reduce the role of markets and the financial sector, and strengthen democratic control over the world’s ecological commons.

As the Kari-Oca Declaration was delivered at the Earth Summit, many of those present looked up to notice a condor circling over the ceremony. In a week filled with acrimony and heated debate, with the United Nations poised to sell off the very foundations of life and our common heritage, the moment was rich with significance. If the social movements are able to stand their ground, that condor, the wind upon which it hovered, and the life which its solstice flight affirmed will remain ever as it was that day—just out of reach and priceless.





A Darker Shade of Green: REDD Alert and the Future of Forests

24 01 2012

I directed and produced this video with Global Justice Ecology Project and Global Forest Coalition. Have a look:





“Peasant Farming Can Cool Down the Earth”: An Interview with Chavannes Jean-Baptiste of Haiti

11 01 2012

Source: Climate Connections

Chavannes Jean-Baptiste

Made up of 150 organizations in seventy countries, and with more than 200 million members, La Via Campesina holds the claim to being the largest movement of peasant farmers and artisanal food producers in the world. La Via Campesinabrought an international delegation to United Nations COP17 in Durban, South Africa, that included a caravan of some 200 African farmers, and regional representation from Mexico, Haiti, and elsewhere.

As a grassroots movement, La Via does not participate directly in the United Nations climate summits. But, like a peasant army stationed outside the gates of a walled city, they tend to establish a presence nearby, to monitor the negotiations, to build alliances, and to make their presence known.

La Via Campesina was born as a movement in 1993, but traces its roots much further back. Alberto Gomez, the national director of UNORCA makes it clear in this interview that the movement’s roots are entwined with the long history of agriculture, land reform, and social movements throughout the ages.

In keeping with its struggle to maintain what Gomez calls “a permanent agriculture” – the diverse forms of peasant farming that continue to resist “the industrial, agrotoxic agriculture that turns the entire world into a supermarket” – La Via Campesina gives voice to a theme that has been fundamental to societies throughout the ages, but which has become a site of struggle over centuries of enclosures of land and entire peoples: food sovereignty, the ability of a people to feed themselves.

Ricado Jacobs, with the Food Sovereignty Campaign in South Africa, points out in this interview that the most recent threat to food sovereignty – which in many ways is also the most ancient threat to food sovereignty – is land grabbing. But, Jacobs points out, land grabbing now takes a different form: “It’s no longer one colonial power coming over on ships. Now it’s China, it’s the Arab states, it’s Goldman Sachs. So we need to take a different approach to address the challenge.”

One such approach, Jacobs says, is direct action: occupying land and reclaiming it for peasant agriculture. “You cannot talk about climate justice without addressing this kind of redistributive justice. Where are we going to practice agro-ecology if we don’t take land?”

As Chavannes Jean-Baptiste points out in the interview that follows, climate justice and the proliferation of false solutions to the climate crisis, such as “Climate Smart agriculture,” carbon markets, and REDD, are a primary concern for La Via Campesina. La Via promotes food sovereignty, Chavannes says, not only to resolve the food crisis, but also the climate crisis.

Chavannes Jean-Baptiste is the Executive Director of Mouvement Paysan de Papaye (MPP), [the Peasant Movement of Papay] the oldest peasant organization in Haiti, and, in Chavannes’ words, “possibly the oldest in the world.” MPP is the Haitian member of La Via Campesina. I interviewed Chavannes in Durban, South Africa, in English – not his native language – on December 11, just  after the closing of COP17.

Jeff Conant: What are you doing here Durban during United Nations COP17?

Chavannes Jean-Baptiste: I am here with the Via Campesina delegation in Durban. La Via Campesina is promoting food sovereignty as the way not only to resolve the food crisis, but also the climate crisis. There are a lot of studies to show that peasant agriculture, agro-ecological production, can cool down the earth. Around the world, La Via Campesina is fighting against industrial food production, which is responsible for more than 50 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. We are fighting against agrofuel production, and agribusiness consortiums like Monsanto that are destroying the soil, and the biodiversity with pesticides and GMOs, and killing native seeds in developing countries. A lot of peasant organizations and NGOs came to Durban to say no to REDD, no to agriculture in the negotiations, and no to the carbon market.

JC: What is the struggle of peasant farmers in Haiti?

CJB: In Haiti we are fighting against agrofuel production, jatropha plantations, and GMO seeds. It’s a big struggle because industrial agriculture wants to kill peasant agriculture, to kill our native forests with REDD, REDD+, the carbon market, and other false solutions. Now a Brazilian company is planting jatropha to produce agrodiesel. We see this as a big land grab, and we’re fighting it.

Haiti is a very small country, and about eighty percent of Haitians are peasants. After independence we had about thirty percent of our native forests left, and now we have less than two percent. Climate change in Haiti is a major problem – the environment is in very bad shape. We can go six months without rain, and then we have flash floods, where we lose crops, animals, houses… We have between one and three hurricanes every year; in 2008 we had three hurricanes in three months, destroying everything.

Haiti used to be sovereign in food production. Now we produce only 40 percent of our food. Every day we depend on food from the Dominican Republic, and from the USA, where farmers receive a lot of subsidies, and are dumping a lot of their cheap food on us. Haiti was self-sufficient in rice, and now we import eighty percent of our rice. With rice flooding in from the U.S., small farmers in Haiti can’t afford to produce.

Right now our big fight is to defend native seeds. For more than 200 years, peasants in Haiti have produced seeds to plant; now we are working to select and preserve seeds. We are using natural pesticides, we have seed banks, we use organic methods to produce food. We are doing a lot of work with soil conservation, water management, reforestation, and now we have a program to help families produce enough food around the home, to have food for the family and put the rest into the local market.

But the problem now is that the government, after the earthquake, has a plan to give a lot of land to a big corporation from Asia, to make an Export Processing Zone, to produce goods for export. The point is to use the labor of our workers; the Export Zone agreement pays very low wages, and the workers can’t defend themselves, because no laws apply.

JC: Here in Durban the Clinton Foundation held a high-profile to promote REDD carbon forestry projects. We know that Clinton is deeply involved in Haiti, and has been for a long time. If you could speak to Mr. Clinton, what would you say?

CJB: Bill Clinton has this project, he’s trying to take our land and to give it to this big corporation from Asia. So the message we would send to Mr. Clinton is, we don’t want your project promoting REDD, we don’t want your agribusiness projects. We need our land to produce food, we need our land to rebuild native forest. So we would ask Mr. Clinton to keep his money. We don’t want him to kill our country. The Haitian people know what the Haitian people need.

JC: How do you see the relationship of La Via Campesina to the United Nations Conference of Parties?

CJB:La Via Campesina always goes to all the places where the UN, the G8, or the WTO, or anyone else are making decisions about our lives. Because it is a question about our lives, and it’s a question of the destruction of the planet. We are very concerned because small farmers represent about three billion people, producing about seventy percent of the food for all of the world’s seven billion people. The United Nations process is not about the climate crisis, it is about big business, because the rich countries with their big corporations want to put all the world’s resources into the market. This is why it is very important for La Via Campesina to be spokespeople for the peasant sector – to be the peasant voice.

So we are here to say NO to the false solutions: industrial agriculture, land-grabbing, carbon markets, REDD, REDD+. We are here to say we don’t want agriculture on the table of the negotiations because agriculture is too important for life for it to be a business. We can’t put agriculture on the table where the big corporations are discussing how they can continue to pollute the planet and get more money. We are here to say agro-ecology can cool down the planet, to say that food sovereignty is the way to resolve the climate crisis. The biggest problem for the climate is industrial agriculture. With agro-ecology we can produce food for the world, develop local markets, and cut off the industrial process. The studies are very clear: industrial agriculture and the industrial food system are responsible for 57 percent of greenhouse gas emissions.

JC: We have just heard this term “Climate smart agriculture” – a new approach being pushed here in Durban. What can you tell me about this?

CJB: This is a new term that we have heard here, where the President of South Africa was very forceful about the need to put agriculture on the negotiating table. But we know this did not come from Jacob Zuma [the President of South Africa]. It came from the World Bank. They call it smart agriculture, where they want to use GMO seeds, to plant tree plantations, to use soils in the carbon market, to put agriculture in the carbon market. All of this is very, very bad news. This is why we say here in Durban that this is not a conference to resolve the climate crisis; it is a conference to see that the companies make more money.

JC: So, what is the point of coming to the COP?

CJB: When we see the situation in the world we could say it’s impossible to do anything. But here in Durban I saw a lot of people coming, from the US, from the EU, from all over the world, to say, the planet is not for sale. Nature is not for sale. A lot of organizations from around the world give me hope that we can resolve not only the climate situation, but that we can change the capitalist system that is fighting everyday to make more money. It is a very long struggle – the next meeting is the Rio+20, and the same companies will be there to promote green capitalism, and what they are calling “the green economy.” We know this is just the next project to help transnational capital to make more money, so we will be there. Why? Because they are making decisions about our lives.





“Our Struggle is for the Permanence of Agriculture”: Interview with Alberto Gomez of La Via Campesina, Durban South Africa

26 12 2011

While in Durban, South Africa for UNCOP17, I conducted several interviews with members of La Via Campesina. This one, with Alberto Gomez, of UNORCA in Mexico, was posted on the home page of La Via: have a look:

“Our Struggle is for the Permanence of Agriculture”: Interview with Alberto Gomez of La Via Campesina

 








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