I do not want this “development”

23 05 2014

Julio Monsalvo is an Argentine doctor and people’s health activist I’ve met along the way, a wild bearded Diogenes on a Guevara-esque crusade to serve the poor in wealth by elevating the riches of the spirit. He coined the Spanish medical term “alta alegremia,” meaning “the level of happiness in the blood” — an important diagnostic. Julio sends out a regular series of missives called Letters that Emerge from the Body. His latest dispatch, “I do not want this development,” charmed me into producing a quick translation and sharing… — JC.


For those who are or who were once pediatricians, the word “development” has a beautiful connotation: it refers to the attitudes of small children that make visible their enjoyment of life.

Crawling , first steps, running, the first little words, drawing, painting, inventing games…these are some of the manifestations of development that have been expected throughout the history of the world.

We imagine a development that is at once personal and collective.

The word “growth” refers to a child’s weight, height, muscle mass. This growth in the human being has a limit, just as it does in specimens of every species of flora and fauna.

In general terms, we would say that “growth” is quantitative and “development” qualitative.

However, capitalism has imposed a language that uses these two terms interchangeably. For capitalism , development is synonymous with consumerism without limits, which inevitably involves destruction.

To satisfy the insatiable thirst for consumerism, everything is commodified and all priority is given to the multiple activities that share one common element: aggression toward the planet.

I do not want this “development ” driven by capitalism. This planet being abused is none other than the one and only House of Humanity.

Recall that capitalism is one more emergent trend in the dominant culture of anthropocentrism: the human being feeling greater than Nature, believing himself to be owner and master of Her, failing to consider that he is a mere part of Her.

Science and technology, from the paradigm of modernity, are in service to this “development,” to the point that today, science is synonymous with control and domination of nature.

Returning to biocentrism, to feel that we belong to nature, humankind can regain the ability to dance harmoniously with our being-in-nature, and so grow to the limits that life reveals to us, to develop always in art, in wisdom , in solidarity, in tenderness, in love .

Hasta la victoria de la vida, siempre!

Dr. Julio Monsalvo, 2014

A child in Indonesia

A child in Indonesia


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


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.

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>

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:

“If I go around selling someone else’s home out from under him, well, he’s going to get angry”

12 04 2011
Santiago Martinez collecting medicinal plants Photo; Jeff Conant

An Interview with Santiago Martinez of Amador Hernández, Chiapas

Santiago Martinez is a community health worker from the village of Amador Hernández in the Lacandon jungle of Chiapas, Mexico. Amador Hernández, a village of about 1500 people, sits at the biological center of the Montes Azules Biosphere Reserve, and at the edge of a roughly 500,000 hectare area of jungle known as the Lacandon Community Zone, which was deeded to sixty-six families from the Lacandon tribe, and a few communities of the Tzeltal and Ch’ol ethnicities, in the 1970’s. The conflicts that have ensued since then have given birth to many local campesino and indigenous organizations, the most famous of which is the Zapatista Army of National Liberation.

The community of Amador Hernández is historically allied with the Zapatista movement, and is now facing a new threat: the delineation of the Lacandon Border (la brecha Lacandona), which may force the community to abandon its territory, due to the fact that the villagers have never had legal title to the land they occupy.

On March 25, 2011, in Amador Hernández, I had the chance to speak with Santiago about the situation. Following is a part of the interview I conducted with him. The text of the interview is transcribed and translated, but is edited minimally, with little background, in the hope that Santiago’s perspective might come through as clearly as possible. – Jeff Conant

Jeff Conant: There are plans for the ‘brecha lacandona’ to pass through your community. What is the brecha lacandona, and how will it affect your village, Amador Hernández?

Santiago Martinez: The brecha lacandona came to be in the year 1972. It hasn’t just appeared as a problem today, but was a problem born many years ago, in our grandparents’ time. Our parents and grandparents had to confront it, they organized, and they never allowed it to be completed. The original intention was that gringo companies had to define the limits of what is called the Lacandon Community, because these companies, one was called Maderera Maya, wanted to be able to extract precious wood, especially Mahogany. But there was no area defined where they could extract the wood from. At that time, our parents did not allow the brecha to be drawn, because they didn’t want any company taking out wood. Not on this side of the brecha, and not on that side. They had to be very organized, and they managed to prevent the brecha, always with the idea that we were born on this land, and on this land we will die.

Montes Azules from above Photo: Jeff Conant

JC: It appears that the brecha lacandona is the local manifestation of the REDD Program [Reduction of Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation]. What do you know about REDD? What is REDD?

Santiago Martinez: Supposedly, from what we’ve heard about this REDD program, it’s a global program that’s lead by the rich people of the world, the businessmen, the Europeans. They think because they’re rich and they have a lot of resources, they can do whatever they feel like. We’ve heard that REDD is a program that the government is promoting to do what they call “capturing carbon,” and conserving the jungle. As indigenous people, we’re accustomed to working in the milpa [the traditional agricultural plot of maize, beans and other native crops], but now the rich are saying to us, it’s no good to work in the milpa, that we’re destroying the jungle, that when we make the milpa by burning in the forest, we are causing contamination. This is what they tell us.

But we make our milpa every year, and those who are supporting REDD, they came up with the idea of REDD because of the change in the climate, because of flooding, because of too much heat, because people are losing their crops, so they came to ask, what is the main problem causing climate change? And they decided that it had to do with us, that we cut down the forest, and with that idea they went and developed this program.

But we, as indigenous peoples, since many years ago, since the beginning of the brecha lacandona, they’ve always blamed us, they’ve always tried to find ways to prove that we’re the cause of the problem, but in reality we are not what they say we are. In this program they’re saying again that we’re destroying the jungle, so we need to stop planting our milpa. They say this is the main cause of climate change. But the climate, just as much global warming – we haven’t done this ourselves, it’s the fault of the factories, of cars, of industrial production in many countries. In contrast, what we do is get around by walking, we move our products on horseback, on mules, and we produce what we need to eat ourselves. In exchange, they need to use gasoline, in the case of the industries, they’re the ones who burn petroleum everyday, and this is the main source of pollution and of climate change.

Photo: Jeff Conant

They won’t stop this in one day. And that’s why we know that this REDD program that they’re pushing on us, that they are the guilty ones for what the world is suffering. We’re seeing that people are suffering from floods, from being forced off their lands, from vast changes in their lives, but those who have caused it aren’t us, it’s them. They are promoting the idea of giving carbon credits to these industries, so they can continue contaminating.

JC: If you could speak with the Governor of Chiapas, what would you tell him?

Santiago Martinez: If I had the chance the chance to speak with the governor, I’d tell him that we’re extremely angry for the injustice that they’re forcing on us, and for the lies that they’re telling us. We’d tell him that we know that he’s not just pushing these programs here in the area of Montes Azules, but also in Marqués de Comillas [a municipality to the south and east of Montes Azules, on the border with Guatemala]. There, Governor Juan Sabines is promoting projects of African oil palm so that they can take the oil and use it to make fuel. They’re doing this because they think one day soon the petroleum will run out, and this is a good business for them. So they’re saying it’s also a good business for the indigenous people, that instead of planting maize, we should plant African palm. But we’ve talked to the people who are planting it, and they’re having a hard time feeding themselves and living as they did before, because the price isn’t as good as the government told them it would be.

So, the governor always goes around speaking in other states, in other places; for example, we know that he went to the state of California in the United States to promote the sales of carbon credits, and to the part of Brazil called Acre. We know he goes around selling all these projects, but without being the one who owns the land. If I go around selling someone else’s home out from under him, well, he’s going to get angry. So, for that reason, since he goes around selling our land, our very Mother that supports us, well, it makes us very angry. If we had the opportunity to speak with him, this is what we would say.

Village scene, Amador Hernández Photo: Jeff Conant

Declaration of Patihuitz: Divided We Become Allies of the Government

5 04 2011

Women from Amador Hernández preparing traditional medicines. If their community is forced to relocate, they fear that much of their traditional knowledge and their way of life will be lost. For the people of this region of the Lacandon Jungle in Chiapas, the defense of biodiversity is a daily practice, expressed in their traditional medicine and their way of life. Photo: Langelle/GJEP

Members of Global Justice Ecology Project traveled in late March to Chiapas, Mexico, to investigate the emerging local impacts of the REDD+ Program (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation), and specifically the REDD Agreement signed between Chiapas and California. What we found was an astonishingly complex web of economic development projects being imposed on campesino and indigenous communities without any semblance of free, prior, and informed consent. Among these projects is a government program to delimit Natural Protected Areas in order to generate carbon credits, and to pay some indigenous communities to protect these areas, to the detriment of others. As we’ve seen in other parts of the world, the REDD Program, in both intention and in operation, divides communities and breeds conflict.

Our visit coincided with numerous events, including the inauguration of a “Sustainable Rural City” (apartheid housing for the displaced), a public protest by a community that had previously been evicted from the Montes Azules biosphere Reserve, and the first efforts at community education about REDD in the Lacandon region. To this end, several local campesino organizations convened a gathering in the village of Patihuitz, in the cañada of Ocosingo, April 2 and 3. GJEP was invited to send a message to the gathering on behalf of ourselves and our allies, as an effort to build bridges across struggles and across borders.

Following is the declaration that emerged from that gathering.


“Divided, we become allies of the Government”

During the days April 2 and 3, 2011, more than 300 delegates of regional campesino and indigenous organizations gathered in the Forum: Indigenous and Campesino Prespectives on the Climate Crisis and the False Solutions, to dialogue and analyze the situation in which our communities are living right now. During these dialogues, the memory of our compañero Porfirio Encino was present among us; eight years after his passing, his acts and his thinking continue to live in our hearts.

We came from different parts of the State of Chiapas to unite with our brothers and sisters from the jungle of Ocosingo; over the course of two days we shared the challenges that we see arising at the local, state, and national level.

Following our discussions, we conclude:

1. The peoples and communities of Chiapas reject policies that benefit only large national and international capital interests. These policies are manifestations of the neoliberal project that dominates the planet, and is provoking more poverty, marginalization, and exclusion of campesinos and indigenous peoples in Chiapas and around the world

2. The poorest of the poor find ourselves in a permanent crisis. In the world and in our country, we hear about the food crisis, the climate crisis, and the economic crisis. But in our communities we have a permanent crisis whose history is in the history of the Conquest and in the governments whose prime objective is the continual enrichment of the dominant class. Public money is used to enrich the political and economic classes of this country, with only crumbs given to the people through poverty alleviation programs, which, themselves, are a business for corrupt bureaucrats and service providers. These programs do not address the root causes of poverty.

3. As indigenous and peasant communities we are being denied the responsibility of feeding our people. Now, it is the transnational corporations that produce, distribute, and commercialize food, and who also want to appropriate the seeds that we’ve developed and improved over the course of thousands of years. The government would prefer that our communities be fed by foreigners, rather than desiging and promoting public policies that support the production, distribution, and sale of food from our own communities, which would simultaneously serve to strengthen peasant and indigenous agricultural production.

4. The current food crisis also signifies an increase in the price of food, which means that every day we have less economic capacity to purchase basic staples. In indigenous and campesino communities, access to food is made even more difficult due to our low levels of income and because the marginalization we suffer makes price increases that much more difficult to bear. For this reason, it is necessary that we be able to continue producing our own food and that small-scale agriculture be recognized as the most viable method for food production and for cooling the planet.

5. Our lands and territories are at risk. The conservation programs that are being implemented today have as their primary goal the transformation of our natural resources into commodities.

6. We express our urgent concern about disinformation regarding the REDD Program as it is being implemented in the Lacandón Jungle. We consider that in the medium and long term it will not benefit the peoples and communities that live here, but that it will benefit the transnational corporations that stand to make huge profits from the carbon market. It will generate the privatization of forests, the expulsion of communities, and increasing financial speculation. Carbon markets are one of the false solutions to global warming being promoted by transnational corporations and governments.

7. In Chiapas, the operation of REDD has already begun stimulating landgrabs from pueblos and communities. Three facts confirm this: 1) the agreement signed between the government of California, USA (the most polluting state in the world) and the government of Chiapas for the sale of carbon credits; 2) the decree of the Law for Adaptation and Mitigation of Climate Change in the State of Chiapas on December 7, 2010, and 3) the signing of the Pact for Respect and Conservation of the Lacandón Jungle in December of 2010 to give economic support to the landholders of the Lacandon community to preserve the jungle and allow the sale of carbon credits to the government of California.

8. Global warming will not be solved by the privatization of natural resources. Its root causes can be traced to current models of production, distribution, consumption, and commerce, which are based in the concentration of capital (more wealth for the few); massive consumption of fossil fuels (oil); overproduction and free trade. All of these are characteristics of transnational capital, which is seeking to continue expanding its dominance over the entire planet.

In these moments, in which peoples and communites, and specifically the Lacandón jungle, are subject to the multiple pressures of landgrabs, incomplete processes of agrarian reform, extreme poverty and conflict over natural resources, indigenous and campesino organizations manifest that:

1. We need access to adequate information in order to decide how to best confront global warming. The Federal and State governments give priority to solutions proposed by transnational coprorations and international governments, rather than hearing the demands voiced by campesinos and indigenous peoples.

2. The REDD program is not a solution to global warming. Its objective is the privatization of carbon, land, air, seeds, water and other resources. Its final objective is that industrialzed countries “buy” the right to pollute, at the cost of the lands, territories, and natural resources of the indigenous peoples and peasant farmers.

3. We demand that conservation programs must be sustained by the vision and practice of indigenous and campesino communities. We are convinced that smallholder peasant farming and community forestry can cool the planet.

4. The production of food is a family and community obligation. The policies of the Federal and State governments should be oriented toward the food sovereignty of our peoples. We close the door to the transnationals.

5. Those of us in this Forum value sustainable peasant agriculture. For this reason we insist that it is the solution to both the food crisis and the crisis of global warming that we are suffering today.

6. We demand that primary and secondary education take into account ecological perspectives on global warming, and the solutions proposed by our peoples. But it is also important that we design and implement our own programs of environmental education, in ways that are autonomous and in solidarity with civil society organizations whose ethic is to accompany popular struggles. We reject those who join our work in order to attempt to discredit us later.

7. As peoples and communities we take the conservation of natural resources into our own hands. We will be fomenting new forms of organization for action and protest to make our initiatives and our proposals heard.

8. We are moving toward a constant mobilization to awaken the consciousness of our compañeros and compañeras throughout the region. We need to generate more information in our communities, aware of the fact that television and the press are all in the pocket of the government, and always speak in the government’s favor. We are aware that the reality behind what the media portrays, is other.

9. We promote the defense of our native seeds, which is necessary to recuperate and restore our agrarian history, in order to improve our crops. We resist the privatization of seeds by interests such as Monsanto.

10. We will implement community laws to procure the conservation of natural resources and the establishment of agroecology for food production.

11. We call for an immediate halt to the theft of lands, territories, and natural resources in the Lacandón Jungle. Respect for the word and the life of those who live here.

12. We reject the rights recently approved by the Congress, which puts our lands and our indigenous and campesino territories at risk. No to the sale of land in our communities! We defend our right to live.

13. This Forum appreciates the message sent by the compañeros of the Global Justice Ecology Project of California and Vermont in the United States of America. In the same sense, we are committed to strengthening and linking our struggles in order to achieve climate justice.

14. We offer our solidarity to the Tzeltal educational project of Guaquitepec in the municipality of Chilón, promoted by Patronato Pro educación Mexicano AC. We denounce the government’s contribution to the theft of lands by those who have appropriated the social and educational infrastructure of indigenous education.

15. From Patihuitz Ocosingo, we send our voice in solidarity with the 35 families of the OCEZ-CNPA-MLN in the municipality of Chicomuselo, who suffered the burning of their houses and the theft of their belongings. We demand punishment of those responsible, whoever they may be.

16. We call for the unity of all peoples and indigenous and campesino communities, and for all of our organizations to defend our lands, our territories, and our natural resources. We call for a struggle in defense of life.

Walk without hurry, but with meaning and with conviction.

Porfirio Encino Hernández


Comisión Ejecutiva Nacional


Comisión Ejecutiva Estatal


Coalición de Organizaciones Autónomas de Ocosingo (COAO Ocosingo)

ARIC Independiente y Democrática

Coordinación Región Avellanal

Coordinación Región Patihuitz

Coordinación Región Agua Azul

Coordinación Región Amador Hernández

ARIC Unión de Uniones

Coordinación Región Patihuitz

Coordinación Región Batzil Winiketie

Yachil Atel

Organización Regional de Cafeticultores de Ocosingo (ORCAO)


Unión Democrático del Pueblo (UDP)

Patronato Pro-Educación Mexicana AC

Patihuitz, Ocosingo, Chiapas. April 3, 2011

Pushing for Climate Justice on Buffalo’s West Side

2 09 2010

Buffalo, New York is the quintessential rust belt metropolis. With a population lower today than it was in 1900, Buffalo is the third poorest U.S. city of over 250,000 people (following Detroit and Cleveland), with more than a quarter of the city living below the poverty line. And, like Detroit and Cleveland, even as Buffalo’s job market hits rock bottom, its share of community gardens, neighborhood revitalization projects, and adventurous urban initiatives, is on the rise.

An abandoned house on Buffalo's West Side

“The great thing about rust belt cities right now is, it’s easy to get a hold of properties and do some pretty creative things,” says Aaron Bartley, the Director of People United for Sustainable Housing, or PUSH.

Passing through Buffalo on book tour, I spent a few hours touring the West Side with Aaron, a quietly determined Harvard Law School grad helping to rebuild the city where he attended public school. What I saw impressed me.

“I don’t want to use clichés,” Aaron said, as we set out about the ‘hood in PUSH’s donated Subaru, “but this neighborhood is incredibly diverse.” With a history as a working class Italian and Puerto Rican neighborhood, since the 1980’s, three major national non-profits have used the West Side as a catch-all for refugees from conflict zones around the world. Indeed, Wikipedia calls the West Side “a traditional landing zone for immigrant populations; today the area has large Somalian, Sudanese, Middle Eastern, Eastern European, Mexican and Central American, Puerto Rican, and Southeast Asian enclaves.”

Our first stop bore witness. At a Laundromat flanked by boarded-up houses, Aaron introduced me to the owner, Zaw Win, a slight, smiling Burmese man in a Che Guevara t-shirt. When I asked Zaw what his connection was to PUSH, he said in clipped English, “They knock on my door, and I saw an opportunity to help my people. A lot of my people cannot read, write, understand English. I help them to translate, make appointments.”

Zaw Win, Democracy Activist and Aaron Bartley, PUSH Director, in the West Side laundromat

I noticed several posters around the laundromat celebrating democracy and denouncing Burma’s reigning military junta. “Were you active in the democracy movement in your country?” I asked.

Zaw smiled. “Four years in jail, political prisoner. After prison, I escaped through Thai-Burma border, and later got work on a ship.” After some time at sea, he discovered he wasn’t free to leave. “Indentured servitude,” he said. “Too much heat on the ship. Finally, I jump in the ocean. Want to die. But didn’t die. Later, I went to U.N., High Commission on Refugees. They send me to Buffalo.”

Leaving Zaw’s laundromat, Aaron took me to a demonstration house that PUSH is retrofitting, and ran down the list of amendments: “solar hot water, solar panels, weatherization, good windows, and radiant floor heat from geothermal.” A lot next door was lush with flowers and vegetables, in stark contrast to the decrepit houses around, many tagged with gang graffiti, others with windows broken or roofs caving in. As we drove off, he said, “We bought that house for $3000. The lot next door: $500.”

A West Side garden

In front of the first garden, and in the several gardens we visited after, some with vegetables and several, Aaron explained, planted with flowers to attract pollinating bees, I saw signs that read, “Turn up the heat on National Fuel.” When I inquired, I learned that National Fuel is the regional gas company.

“We don’t just do neighborhood projects,” Aaron told me. “We run campaigns.” The company, he said, has a conservation program, to improve home fuel-efficiency; but it’s funded by a tax, and most of the benefits go to middle and upper income homeowners; essentially, the poor are subsidizing home heating for the rich. So PUSH is working to get the company to increase its share of the fund, and to create a clear path toward green jobs by training low-income residents in home efficiency.

As it turns out, National Fuel is also heavily involved in hydraulic fracturing, better known as hydro-fracking, one of the region’s emerging environmental catastrophes. The practice involves fracturing the gas-bearing layer of subsurface rock and forcing formation fluids into it to create permeability, so the gas can be drawn to the surface. Its recent application to a layer of Marcellus Shale that runs from Western New York down through West Virginia has already led to numerous reports of water contamination and illness, with one of the more dramatic signs being tapwater that burns as it comes out of the faucet.

Back at PUSH’s office – a former neighborhood library that the organization bought and reopened after the city let it close down – I asked if hydro-fracking was on PUSH’s radar.

“That’s the great thing about organizing,” Aaron said. “When we decided to launch a campaign against National Fuel, I’d never heard of hydro-fracking. Now we have the makings of a region-wide coalition.”

The organization gets it’s funding from what Aaron described as “the usual mix of foundation funding and individual donors, with some stimulus money thrown in.” I’d heard they host a big fundraiser in Manhattan every year, to get Buffalo’s own refugees – those who fled the city for greener pastures – to give something back. “Yeah, we’re gearing up for that right now,” Aaron said. “It’s a terrific event; but most of the giving from that focuses on ‘poor Buffalo,’ not on the justice piece.”

I asked him what he meant by “the justice piece.” His answer, typically soft-spoken, bore little stamp of radical ideology, and less still of the high-mindedess he must have confronted at Harvard Law School.

“In every part of life here, from education to job opportunities to health access to environmental health,” he said, “you can see your classic post-industrial whatever-happens-after-your-working-class-doesn’t-have-work-anymore syndrome. Like everywhere else, those hit hardest are those at the bottom of the totem pole. Where does capital go, and what happens after it disappears? It leads to what you see around the West Side.”

At a streetcorner in front of the office there were Teddy bears and plastic flowers tied to a signpost. “Someone died here?” I asked. Aaron told me he’d witnessed two shooting deaths on this corner, just within the last few months. The most recent, he told me, was a fifteen-year-old.

Monkey on a streetcorner: tribute to the dead

PUSH’s work, Aaron said, has always focused on creating opportunity, and specifically on creating housing and jobs as antidotes to the neighborhood’s problems. “Any campaign we run,” he said, “we try to show how it will produce jobs.”

But after spending little more than an hour with him, touring houses being gutted and then weatherized and retrofitted for solar, stopping by garden plots planted solely for the bees, and hearing him talk about epidemic asthma rates correlated to the diesel trucks idling on a neighborhood overpass, it was clear that there was not just a “justice piece,” but an environmental ethic at work here as well. So I took a leap.

“Everywhere we look,” I said, “social movements and grassroots groups are building an analysis based on the climate crisis, and the need for climate justice. You’re doing neighborhood improvement. What does all that have to do with the climate issue?”

Aaron smiled and said, “I have talking points, but I’ll give you the informal version instead. These houses were built before insulation. One family can pay as much as $350 a month for gas in the winter. After we green the building, they pay $60 a month. We have no doubt that National Fuel runs those numbers and doesn’t want this to happen, just as much as we do want it to.”

“One of the biggest contributors to CO2 emissions,” he continued, “is residential heating. We’re burning gas and producing carbon to heat the outdoors. Isn’t it obvious? Lack of insulation is both an environmental crisis, and an economic crisis.”

And so it is that, with a little push from PUSH, the West Side of Buffalo, like Richmond, California, Detroit, Michigan, and other low-income neighborhoods around the country, emerges as ground zero, not just for grassroots urban renewal, but for climate justice.