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Apartheid Housing Posed as Solution to Climate Vulnerability in Chiapas

Article by GJEP Communications Director Jeff Conant

All Photos by GJEP Co-Director/Strategist Orin Langelle

Cross-Posted from UpsideDown World Friday, 13 May 2011 12:25

The "Sustainable Rural City" Project of Santiago el Pinar
The “Sustainable Rural City” Project of Santiago el Pinar

Chiapas, Mexico’s poorest state, with the country’s largest indigenous population, has always been extremely vulnerable to volatile climate events. High levels of hunger and marginalization are exacerbated almost annually by torrential rain and flooding, which can only be expected to get worse as the climate crisis deepens. In 2009, the state launched and began widely publicizing its Climate Change Action Programme (CCAPCH). The plan includes vast biofuel plantations, forest carbon offset projects, and a statewide “productive conversion” initiative to convert subsistence farmers into producers of African palm, Jatropha, and export-oriented crops such as roses, fruits, and coffee.

The plan also includes a program called the Sustainable Rural Cities initiative; under this plan, the state is developing between six and twenty-five prefabricated population centers designed, according to the state’s publicity, to “promote regional development, combat the dispersion and marginalization of local peoples, and play a significant role in making efforts [to develop infrastructure and provide basic services] cost-efficient.”

In a brief interview I conducted at the United Nations Climate Summit in Cancún last December, Chiapas Governor Juan Sabines said that “The Rural Cities program has three objectives: to mitigate poverty, to mitigate the risk of people facing climate-related disasters, and to reduce the threat of global warming. It is based in the Millenium Development Goals of the United Nations, which in Chiapas are obligatory.”

In 2009, Chiapas revised its state constitution to include a commitment to the United Nations Millenium Development Goals, the highly touted set of eight benchmarks for reducing the worst inpacts of poverty worldwide. The UN Development Programme (UNDP) explicitly supports the Rural Cities Initiative; GontránVillalobos Sánchez, in charge of Disaster Preparedness at the UNDP office in San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas, told me in an interview that the Rural Cities are “a good option. Before anything, the Rural Cities intend to bring together the dispersed population. [They] are also an answer to disasters,” he said. “The challenge is that the people themselves are not accepting the project.”

While state officials and UN officials promote the Rural Cities as a positive response to the climate crisis, even a superficial analysis makes it clear that the program will increase vulnerability, not decrease it. Worse, critics such as the recently disbanded Chiapas think tank Centro de Investigaciones Economicas y Politicas (CIEPAC) suggest that the project is part of a regional integration strategy designed to move rural and indigenous peoples off their lands in order to gain access to strategic resources. In this regard, the Chiapas Climate Change Action Programme appears to be a complex and interwoven set of initiatives that use the climate crisis as a pretext for large-scale economic and territorial restructuring, with the goal of freeing up productive land and destabilizing local resistance. This, critics point out, is tantamount to ethnocide.

In late March of this year, I traveled to the newly inaugurated Rural City of Santiago Del Pinar, with photographer Orin Langelle and Social Psychologist Abraham Rivera Borrego, fomerly of CIEPAC, to see first hand what one of these centers looks like.

Santiago Del Pinar is in the highlands of Chiapas, less than two hours from San Cristóbal de las Casas, just beyond San Andrés Larráinzar (known to the Zapatistas as San Andrés Sacamchen de Los Pobres) and directly contiguous with the community of Oventic, one of the five Zapatista caracoles, or centers of resistance. What we found there was a set of insultingly diminutive pastel-painted ticky-tacky houses made of chipboard, set on stilts on a bald hillside, burning in the open sun; fenced playgrounds of concrete; greenhouses full of pesticide-treated roses; and an angry local official who said that the houses might endure “eight to ten years at most,” and that the floor of his own house “had broken when the children were playing on it.”

In the burning sun on the bald hillside overlooking Santaigo del Pinar, I spoke at length with Abraham Rivera about his view of the Rural Cities program:

Abraham: Santiago del Pinar became a municipality after the dialogues of San Andrés Larráinzar between the government and the EZLN (Zapatista Army of National Liberation) in 1996. It’s there that they sign the San Andrés Accords [ the 1997 peace agreement that binds the Mexican government to Consitutional reform, later ignored]. So, San Andrés becomes one of the first Zapatista autonomous municipalities. As a counter measure, the state governor at that time, Albores Guillen, in 1999 made a remunicipalization plan, to combat the autonomous municipalities. So, Santiago del Pinar had this objective from the beginning, the disarticulation of the autonomous municipalities. After that time, the town was virtually abandoned for a long time, becoming one of the municipalities with the highest indices of poverty in the state of Chiapas. And now they’ve taken it up again, let’s say, as a model for the resettlement of the population in indigenous territory. The other Rural Cities they’ve begun, as in the case of the first one that was founded, Nuevo Juan de Grijalva, are in campesino territory, not indigenous territory. The defining characteristic of Santiago del Pinar is that it’s in indigenous territory; this aspect gives it a different connotation.

In the first Rural City, Juan de Grijalva, the houses are much bigger, like 60 cubic meters, while here the houses are 30 cubic meters, and rather than walls of brick they’re made of pressboard, this wood conglomerate that is essentially good for nothing; so the houses that the State is giving them have very little useful life. You can see the racism implicit in these new houses, no? There’s a mentality of “they’re indigenous so we’ll give them less and they’ll accept it.”

You can see also that there’s no sense of the indigenous cosmovision, of how to live in a place. For one thing, there are no agricultural plots – absolutely no place to plant. For another, indigenous families tend to be large, so you have eight, nine people and you’re putting them in these little houses, two rooms of 30 cubic meters. In this you see clearly that the architects have no idea, no vision.

Another aspect fundamental to the indigenous culture is cultivating and eating corn, and it’s clear that they’ll have no land to plant corn to eat, nor will they be able to make tortillas in the house, because tortillas are cooked over firewood. If they do this inside, they’ll burn the house down. So, it’s clear to see that there’s a complete dislocation between the imposition of this Rural City and the forms of community life here in the region.

Jeff Conant: What’s behind the design, behind the concept of the Rural City?

Abraham: Making a map of all the Rural Cities that are planned for the State of Chiapas, you discover the elements that go unspoken by the government, and the bigger picture that’s not in the official discourse: basically, in the Northern Zone, where you find Juan de Grijalva, the key element is that they want to clear the territory to advance the mining industry; there have been huge mining concessions authorized in the last two years, without any consultation. So, all the relocation of the people to Juan Grijalva, which the government says was done due to the natural disasters there, well in reality it wasn’t due to that, but to the economic plan, to ensure access to the mineral reserves in the region.

In the case of Santiago del Pinar, the concern is that there are large extensions of territory here, and important natural reserves, so its an area that’s important for the sale of carbon credits. These large areas are to be decreed as reserves, so the carbon they capture can be legally sold to other countries. They’re going to make forest reserves that can be sold to other countries for sequestering carbon.

In the Soconusco, the coastal zone of Chiapas, they plan to build a Rural City, and behind this one is the fact that they are making huge plantations of biofuels there, African palm and Jatropha; seven out of every nine biodiesel plants in Mexico are in Chiapas, and the largest is in the Soconusco, therefore they need to “liberate” huge extensions of land in order to transform it into monoculture plantations and get them producing for agroindustry. So that’s what underlies the Rural City in Soconusco.

In Jaltenango they’re planning another Rural City; there what they plan is to clear the land in El Triunfo, a Reserve almost as large as Montes Azules [the largest of the Protected Natural Areas in Chiapas, in the Lacandon Jungle, and subject to its own problematic climate-mitigation plan]. Just like what’s happened in Montes Azules, the objective is to clear the area to make it useful for bioprospecting and for sales of carbon credits.

These aspects are not in the official discourses. The official discourse only speaks of combatting poverty and the dispersion of the population, but they don’t speak about the most fundamental element, which is the extraction of natural resources from the territories of Chiapas.

JC: It seems to me that there are many similarities with Indian reservations in the U.S. and with what they call Apartheid architecture in South Africa, no?

Abraham: Yes, basically capitalism has always worked by reorganizing or reordering territories, and this is one such reorganization; we’ve seen it time and again throughout our history. In Guatemala we saw it when they built model villages to concentrate the displaced people, we’ve seen it in Africa. Right now there are similar Rural Cities projects in Africa, also under the aegis of the United Nations Millenium Development Goals [the Millenium Villages Project]. It’s the same model, exactly, with the same forced displacement, the same process, the same social face to the discourse. But it’s clear that it’s a totally backwards way of providing services to the population. It’s not allowing the people themselves to decide how they’d advance their development, or even to see what kind of development is in line with their cosmovision. It’s imposed from the outside. So you have a situation where the population that’s receiving these “services,” their culture clashes directly with the architectonic model being imposed on them, as much as with the model of production and the model of social organization.

It’s clear, too, that the principal impact on the families that live in these places is their loss of food sovereignty: this is completely broken because the population no longer eats from what they plant; now they need to seek work, wage labor, and this work is going to be either for tourism or for industrial agriculture. So what’s at the bottom of this is Project Mesoamérica 2011 – a project with enormous ambitions that intends to free up vast extensions of territory between southern Mexico and Colombia, for global economic production.

Colombia’s part of “Proyecto Mesoamérica” is to link it with “Plan IIRSA,” which is the plan for vast regional infrastructure for South America. So, in essence, we’re talking about a strategy of territorial control covering all of Mesoamerica and South America, to permit full exploitation by the market economy.

Young child outside of her pre-fabricated houseYoung child outside of her pre-fabricated house

Another element that we see in Santiago del Pinar is counterinsurgency; remember that this municipality originated as a counterbalance to the Zapatista autonomous municipalities. According to the Fray Bartolomé de las Casas Human Rights Center, several people who are going to be resettled here are former paramilitaries who participated in the massacre in Acteal [Note: Acteal, where 47 people were massacred in cold blood by paramilitarias back by the Mexican army in December, 1997, is only a few miles from Santiago del Pinar]. It should be clear that this entire project is developed to be antagonistic to the Zapatista caracoles [centers of resistance and autonomous governance].

Its clear to see when you compare the two kinds of social spaces: in the Zapatista autonomous municipalities, people can live in small, dispersed communities but they have the caracoles, a space to come together and organize; because public space is constructed collectively, just as in autonomous education, in agricultural production, in electricty, in communications, you walk down the streets in one of the caracoles and you see murals everywhere. Then, you come to a Rural City and you see that all of the space is imposed. The streets are named for corporations: in Juan de Grijalva, the streets have names like “Coca Cola” or “Omsa.” So you see that the population doesn’t participate in the creation of this public space, nor in their own education, nor in agricultural production, nor in communication.

So what we see really are great spaces of isolation. One of the things that [Chiapas Governor Juan Sabines] likes to say is that the people who live here are more connected than ever, with internet and everything. But what you see is that the people have no access to computers, and even if they do, they are totally alienated from their reality and their context.

So this is another element: inherent manipulation and racism. They call this social action because they’re giving homes to people, and giving them work, when what the people need is for their indigenous way of life to be respected, and not to have a foreign model of development imposed on them, like Apartheid: a little house with four square walls and an occidental model of development that in many cases clashes directly with the indigenous cosmovision.

Playground enclosed in barbed wire and chain link fencesPlayground enclosed in barbed wire and chain link fences

One of the elements that the UN uses to measure the indicators of poverty is whether people have a cement floor; well, in many communities the people say “we don’t want a cement floor – our mud floor is our way of having direct contact with the earth.” It’s there that we see the great separation, and where we see the free will of the pueblos being violated by the construction of these spaces.

JC: And isn’t it true that the concept of territory and the decentralization of the population is actually central to the Mayan concept of home?

Abraham: Absolutely. The relationship with the environment is crucial. So, to create population centers or nuclei with high density generates problems. For example, for the question of common land, each family, each community, needs a certain number of hectares to satisfy their needs for water, energy, and food. So if they make large communities it begins to cause problems for them. So decentralization is a very important aspect of their vision. They have elements of organization that bind them, but living together in large centers isn’t one of them.

JC: And, the government is carrying out these projects as a solution to the climate crisis?

Abraham: It’s unbelieveable, the capacity of capitalism to absorb everything, every discourse, every concept. Now we’re seeing that it’s absorbed even the concept of respect for nature, and they’ve invented “green capitalism,” and the idea of biofuels to stop burning fossil fuels. But they don’t seem to understand that as long as we don’t change the model, the exploitation of the earth is the same. Its not enough for them that people have their needs met, but they have to make a business of it.

For example: today we have huge areas of arable land no longer devoted to producing food for people, but instead they’re producing food for automobiles, something absolutely counterproductive. The question of clean energy, for example, wind energy, is great, but when it becomes a big business and displaces entire communities and huge tracts of land are devoted to it, now its not addressing a fundamental need, nor is it respecting local development in the region, but it’s become exploitive and damaging to the environment.

So, we say that all of this paraphernalia about climate change is nothing but a lie. The sale of carbon credits is provoking displacement of communities from their homes, so that Japanese or American companies can come later, buy these spaces emptied of people, and continue polluting. It’s a very serious contradiction.

JC: Along with the effort to address climate change goes the concern that poor people are most vulnerable, yet these houses, for example, if a heavy rain comes and brings down the hill, these houses won’t hold up at all.

Abraham: Exactly, its a very wet region, and one of the problems that Chiapas has is precisely that, mudslides with the rain, so its impossible to believe that people would want to live in these houses. It’s clear as day that the goal is economic: the businesses that participate in building these are the same business that have power in the state government, that have relations with the governor and the rest. The last thing they’re interested in is to speak the truth about whether this is an adequate model of construction, or really sustainable. The word sustainable is totally empty of meaning.

JC: And what about land ownership?

Abraham: Well, in the campesino zone (Juan de Grijalva), people are allowed to continue owning their own land. What changes is the way the land is used. Now the land is not collectively worked, for food sovereignty, but rather devoted to what the government cals “productive agricultural conversion:” they’re planting fruit trees that have nothing to do with the ecosystem, but that bring big profits, like lemons and things. And the corn….

JC: For the government, corn isn’t “productive,” right, not “sustainable”?

Abraham: One of the most amazing parts, that the governor mentioned last year as a fundamental element in the construction of the Rural Cities, is the idea that “Corn perpetuates poverty.” Now, corn is a fundamental element of indigenous culture, so this is a direct attack: the criminalization of being indigenous. You’re not poor because you cultivate corn, you’re poor because you’re indigenous; and its your own fault.

This is where we see that what’s being imposed completely ignores the reality of rural life. Another aspect that’s different here in indigenous territory, as opposed to campesino territory, is that the indigenous are obligated to sell their lands. So all these people in all these little houses no longer have land. These houses will last two or three years, and then what? They’ll be without land, living in a refugee camp gone rotten, and they’ll be forced to migrate toward the U.S. and the cities.

JC: And the people that have come to live here, have any come from the nearby refugee camps in Polho, or Acteal [camps that have been occupied by thousands of internally displaced people since the height of the paramilitary attacks on the Zapatistas in the mid-‘nineties]?

Abraham: No, almost all of them come from communities in the region towards Simojovel, indigenous Tzotziles who were obligated to resettle here.

JC: Obligated in what sense? How?

Abraham: Well, we came here to do interviews and collect testimonies with the man in charge of public works for the Rural City, and we have the testimony on video of him saying the people were forced to sell their lands. First they were pressured and then they were offered large sums of money; actually, not large sums, some 200,000 pesos per hectare. Those who wouldn’t sell were pressured harder until they were threatened with having their electricity cut off, which is what assists them in harvesting their beans and their corn, and they were going to leave them without a paved road; so, abandonment by the state is the threat that’s floated to generate pressure and push them off their lands toward where they can get these services.

But they come here and they realize that it’s all a fiction. And this is what you see writ large when you’re in a Rural City. You go around and you see there’s not a single tree, there’s no public space to generate a social life, the streets are open to the fierce sun, there’s no shade, the houses aren’t climate sensitive. Of sustainability this place has absolutely none.

JC: And the carbon credits are already being sold?

Abraham: We spoke with the municipal representative of Jaltenango, which is where they’re going to resettle the people from the jungle of El Triunfo, and he told us, “Look, I’m going to tell you the truth, what we want is to clear out the reserve of El Triunfo, for carbon credits.” Just like that.

JC: Is Conservation International involved? They actually manage that reserve.

In the hothouse growing roses, the sign reads "food security"In the hothouse growing roses, the sign reads “food security”

Abraham: They are. What they want is to empty the reserve of people, because once it’s empty it can be decreed legislativly as a “Nature Reserve.” This, then, becomes eligible for the sale of carbon credits. So, its a whole process, because there are communities disposed to resist and not move. But what they’ve managed to do is to get the communities that live there to destroy their own houses. They arrive and they say “You have to take down your own house, we’re going to resettle you.” The ones that aren’t destroyed are the concrete houses because they’re too difficult to destroy, but with the wooden houses, no problem.

And there you see the frontal assault that the communities are living. On a symbolic level its quite strong, to have to destroy your own house, to be displaced and to have to change your way of life completely, and on top of it they say it’s for your own good, so you get out of poverty.

A lot of people just don’t understand it. “What does that mean, to get out of poverty if I’m still screwed?”

JC: Then, what is poverty?

Abraham: For me, poverty means someone who has been dispossessed. Its not that someone doesn’t work, but that someone has suffered a process of dispossession; the vast majority of indigenous communities here have lived through 500 years of dispossession. Its such a long process that poverty begins to appear natural. It appears as if being born poor is something natural, but its not; rather, its that an entire people has been affected by a process of dispossession in order to facilitate accumulation by other people who are gaining tremendous wealth. The people they take this wealth from are called “the poor.”

But these dispossessed people have a different concept of work, they have different concepts of development, and if they were allowed to determine how to make best use of the territories where they live, the question would be different; so its not about their need to escape from poverty, but rather that that they be allowed to do in their territory what they want, and that nobody should come and impose a model of development that we know doesn’t work, and which, in fact, is what is leading to planetary destruction.

JC: All of this dressed up now as reducing vulnerability to climate change.

Abraham: Exactly – it’s about sustainable development, confronting the vulnerability of climate change. So we speak about this great crisis in the Global North, which is responding to all of this reordering of territory that’s going on in the Global South, to be able to weather the crisis.

On a global level, one third of the world’s natural resources is still healthy, and this third is in the South. So this is becoming a big priority for every nation. The U.S. put in its 2009 National Security Plan the element of securing natural resources. It’s taken as a public fact that you have to be ready to act at any moment of uncertainty, any region could become a priority for the global economy in terms of natural resources, so you have to be prepared to take immediate action. Europe has its immediate action forces, the U.S. has its, so wherever there is a territory in some uncertainty, they can act on it. We begin to see how natural resources are an element of geopolitics, and how territories with great quantities of natural resources become zones of conflict.

JC: I think it was Tom Ridge, the Director of Homeland Security several years ago, who said that the border of the U.S., in terms of natural resource security, is in the south of México.

Abraham: Exactly. The United States depends on 18 minerals for the arms industry that are found in Mesoamerica. The mining concessions here, in El Salvador, Guatemala, México. Its important to them to get their hands on these resources.

Another important element of this city is the speed with which it’s been built. According to testimonies, in April 2010 the local assembly decides to come together, they have a meeting, and they agree that they don’t want the Rural City. At that moment, police arrive and surround the assembly. They bring out teargas, and they disperse the assembly. In less than a week, the machines were working, with no consultation. Since then the assembly hasn’t been allowed to meet again. Meanwhile, the municpal authorities are bought out directly, and they sign the agreement for the construction of the Rural City. It’s difficult to get any testemonies because people are silent, or scared. In Juan de Grijalva, one man began to speak badly about the life there, that the houses were badly built, that there was no work. Well, they published his statements in the state newspaper “El Cuarto Poder.” Two days later we went to interview him and he had completely changed his position. He said, “Today I am totally content, the place is great, the governor is good, etc., etc.” It was clear that something had occurred.

JC: Either a threat or a payoff…?

Abraham: Exactly.


Jeff Conant is a journalist, author of A Poetics of Resistance: The Revolutionary Public Relations of the Zapatista Insurgency, and A Community Guide to Environmental Health, and acts as Communications Director for Global Justice Ecology Project.

Orin Langelle is an award-winning photojournalist and the Co-Director of Global Justice Ecology Project. He is currently compiling a book of his four decades of concerned photography.

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Filed under Carbon Trading, Chiapas, Climate Change, False Solutions to Climate Change, Land Grabs, REDD

GJEP Co-directors to Speak at Johnson State College April 26th

Orin Langelle and Anne Petermann, Co-Directors of Global Justice Ecology Project will speak about the work of GJEP at Johnson State College in Johnson, Vermont Tuesday, April 26th at 4pm at the Stearns Performance Space at the Student Center.

Orin will show slides from his recent trip to the village of Amador Hernandez in the Lacandon Jungle of Chiapas, Mexico.  He will discuss the resistance of Indigenous communities there to false solutions to climate change such as REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation).

Elders in the Village of Amador Hernandez in Chiapas, Mexico. Photo: Langelle/GJEP-GFC

Anne will additionally speak about the organization’s work with the climate justice movement internationally.

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Filed under Climate Change, Climate Justice, Indigenous Peoples, REDD

Chiapas, Mexico: From Living in the jungle to ‘existing’ in “little houses made of ticky-tacky…”

Photo Essay by Orin Langelle

Selva Lacandona (Lacandon jungle/rainforest)

At the Cancún, Mexico United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) last year, journalist Jeff Conant and I learned that California’s then-Governor Arnold Swarzenegger had penned an agreement with Chiapas, Mexico’s Governor Juan Sabines as well as the head of the province of Acre, Brazil.  This deal would provide carbon offsets from Mexico and Brazil to power polluting industries in California—industries that wanted to comply with the new California climate law (AB32) while continuing business as usual.

The plan was to use forests in the two Latin American countries to supposedly offset the emissions of the California polluters.

Conant and I took an investigative trip to Chiapas in March.  When we arrived, we were invited by the people of Amador Hernandez–an indigenous village based in the Lacandon jungle (Selva Lacandona)–to visit, document and learn of the plans of the government to possibly relocate them from their homes. What we uncovered was another battle in the ongoing war between a simpler or good way of life (buen vivir) vs. the neoliberal development model.

The following photographs were taken in or near the community of Amador Hernandez; during an over flight of the Selva Lacandona and surrounding African palm plantations; and in the “Sustainable Rural City” Santiago el Pinar.

Mist rises near the community of Amador Hernandez in the Lacandon jungle and the Montes Azules Biosphere Reserve

Elders of the community

Young girls in the morning

Men on horseback were a common sight in Amador Hernandez. On horseback was one of the few ways to get out of the community by way of a twelve kilometer trek to the nearest village.

Another way out of Amador Hernandez was to walk the twelve kilometers

There are no roads to or from the village

Razor wire embedded in a tree from when the Mexican army had an encampment next to Amador Hernandez in 1999

When the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) went into effect on 1 January 1994, the Indigenous Peoples of Chiapas staged an uprising.  The EZLN (Zapatista Army of National Liberation) denounced NAFTA as a “death sentence” for the Indigenous Peoples of Mexico.

Amador Hernandez, deep in rebel territory, was a hotbed of resistance to the Mexican military’s attempt to crush the Zapatistas.

In the Mexican daily, La Jornada, journalist Hermann Bellinghausen wrote in 1999,  “A detachment of 500 Mexican Army troops, made up of elite troops and Military Police, are keeping the access blocked leading to the road that joins Amador Hernandez with San Quintin, where the chiapaneco government and the soldiers are trying – at all costs – to build a highway.

“Hundreds of tzeltal indigenous from the region have been holding… a protest sit-in at the entrance to the community, which is also the entrance to the vast and splendid Amador Valley,  at the foot of the San Felipe Sierra, in the Montes Azules.”

The people of Amador Hernandez did not let the army go through with their road plan and the army broke its encampment.

Building with Zapatista murals in Amador Hernandez

The uprising continues today and has been an inspiration to millions of people throughout the world.

Life goes on in Amador Hernandez

Men relax after a day’s work

Another view of the Montes Azules Biosphere Reserve from Amador Hernandez

The struggle continues. Concerned father holding his son in Amador Hernandez, Chiapas, Mexico. Earlier that day (24 March 2011) the boy had had convulsions; by the next day, several others from the community had experienced the same thing. Drinking water from the community supply was suspected. Since last year, Amador Hernandez has been denied medical supplies, and the Mexican government has suspended emergency transport of the gravely ill.

Communiqué from Amador Hernandez, Chiapas:

“We, the residents of the Amador Hernandez region in Chiapas, which forms the core of the Montes Azules Biosphere Reserve, well known for its extraordinary biological richness, and the site of historic resistance by indigenous peoples, denounce that the illegal threats by the bad government to expel us, culturally and physically, from our territories, have moved from words to deeds.

Our opposition to the theft of our territory, as decreed in May 2007; our rejection of the unilateral delimiting of the agrarian border of the Lacandona Community demanded by investors in projects associated with the REDD+ [Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation] Project; our refusal to accept the conservationist programs of “payment for environmental services” and “productive land reconversion,” and our decision to reinitiate a process of self-determined community health based in our traditional medicine, together have aroused the arrogance of the bad government, motivating them to advance a “new” counterinsurgency strategy to undermine our resistance.

It is a strategy that doles out sickness and death, dose by dose.”

Amador Hernandez is a barrier to the Chiapas-California deal.  People ‘are in the way’ and it appears for the deal to go through, they need to be relocated.  The community of Amador Hernandez is refusing.

If people leave Amador Hernandez they say their way of life will be gone forever

They say their traditional way of life will be over

They will not be able to prepare their traditional medicines, which they harvest from the jungle

The government refuses to provide health care, but traditional medicines are still prepared

Woman bringing the prepared traditional medicines to the small clinic of Amador Hernandez

The Lacandon jungle from the air

Many residents of Amador Hernandez feel that in addition to REDD, another reason for potentially relocating them from their village is because the Lacandon jungle is rich in biodiversity which the transnational pharmaceutical companies want to exploit.

The Mayan ruin of Bonampak

African 0il palm plantations

After leaving Amador Hernandez, we flew over the Lacandon jungle and see the dense forest and some Mayan ruins, but when we left the jungle, we were confronted by many African oil palm plantations that the government says are going to be used for agrofuels (biofuels).

The "Sustainable Rural City" Project of Santiago el Pinar

The following week, Jeff Conant and I visited of Santiago el Pinar.  The government of Chiapas has begun developing “Sustainable Rural Cities” like Santiago el Pinar– as places where scattered rural populations can be relocated.  The government claims this enables these populations to have services such as electricity and roads, that they could not have in the rural areas.  We were told by activists, however, that these “Sustainable Rural Cities” are designed to enable the relocation of communities that are based where development projects–such as large-scale hydroelectric dams, agrofuel plantations, mines, etc–are planned.

On every house or structure in Sanitago el Pinar, “Son Hechos – No Palabras” is emblazoned.  Roughly meaning that the government is taking action not just talking about it.

The new towns consist of flimsy, rapidly built pre-fabricated structures, about which we heard many complaints

In the hothouse growing roses, the sign reads "food security"

We were told the hothouses were built with food security in mind, but instead we found roses being grown.

Santiago el Pinar comes with a playground enclosed in barbed wire and chain link fences

Young child outside of her pre-fabricated house

The government overseer of Santiago el Pinar

The Government overseer of Santiago el Pinar told us that the day before we arrived, Chiapas Governor Sabines had been there for the official dedication.  He informed Sabines that a few days earlier his children has been playing inside his pre-fabricated home and they fell through the floor.

The real Mexico

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Filed under Chiapas, False Solutions to Climate Change, Greenwashing, Indigenous Peoples, Latin America-Caribbean, Photo Essays by Orin Langelle, REDD

Jeff Conant on KPFK Radio’s Sojourner Truth Program

Each week Global Justice Ecology Project teams up with Margaret Prescod and KPFK Radio’s Sojourner Truth Program to deliver interviews for their weekly segment on the environment with experts from around the world. This week our own Communications Director, Jeff Conant, discussed GJEP’s recent trip to Chiapas, Mexico investigating the California-Chiapas Climate Deal and documenting the impacts of REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation) and other development plans on the Indigenous peoples and jungle of Chiapas.

Click here to listen!

Jeff Conant is a writer, and social justice activist with a focus on international development and ecology. As the coordinator and lead author of A Community Guide to Environmental Health (Hesperian Foundation, 2008), he spent most of a decade collaborating with grassroots development initiatives in many countries to develop popular education materials addressed to the needs of under-resourced communities. As a researcher and independent journalist he has published articles and contributed to reports on water privatization, resource colonization, food sovereignty, ecological sanitation, environmental injustice, climate crisis, and related issues. He won a 2010 Project Censored Award for his coverage of the World Water Forum in Istanbul, Turkey.

His book, A Poetics of Resistance: the Revolutionary Public Relations of the Zapatista Insurgency (AK Press, 2010) examines the cultural politics of the Zapatista movement of Chiapas, Mexico, focusing on the Zapatistas’ persuasive use of symbolic language and colorful imagery to bring their struggle to the world’s attention.

He is a Fellow with the Oakland Institute, a coordinating committee member of La Red VIDA (the InterAmerican Network for the Defense of the Right to Water), a permaculturalist, and sits on advisory boards of several non-profit organizations. He lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with his wife and daughter.

For more information check out these recent blog posts:

A Broken Bridge to the Jungle: The California-Chiapas Climate Agreement Opens Old Wounds

Medical Services in Amador Hernández, Chiapas Withdrawn in Advance of REDD+

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A Broken Bridge to the Jungle: The California-Chiapas Climate Agreement Opens Old Wounds

By Jeff Conant, Communications Director at Global Justice Ecology Project

Photo: Jeff Conant

When photographer Orin Langelle and I visited Chiapas over the last two weeks of March, signs of conflict and concern were everywhere, amidst a 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 renewed government effort to delimit Natural Protected Areas within the Lacandon Jungle, in order to generate carbon credits to be sold to California companies. This effort, it turns out, coincides with a long history of conflicting interests over land, and counterinsurgency campaigns aimed at the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN), as well as other allied or sympathetic indigenous and campesino groups.

California’s Global Warming Solutions Act, AB32, mandates targeted Greenhouse Gas reductions statewide. An important component of AB32 is its controversial reliance on market mechanisms, such as cap-and-trade, which will allow California companies to buy offset credits from participating domestic and foreign agencies. The cap and trade provision of AB32 hit a major roadblock a few weeks ago, when the San Francisco Superior Court ruled that the California Air Resources Board violated the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) by not fully evaluating alternatives to the cap-and-trade system in the 2006 law. This is a significant sign of opposition to market-based climate solutions in California; but the local impacts in California are but one side of a global equation.

Bonampak. Photo: Jeff Conant

When Governor Schwarzenegger signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the states of Chiapas, Mexico and Acre, Brazil last November, to establish the world’s first sub national cap and trade agreement to use the emerging mechanism known as REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation), he set in motion a process that critics see as leading to potential land grabs in Chiapas and Acre, as well as continuing industrial contamination in California.

REDD, in Brief

The U.N. defines REDD as “a mechanism to create an incentive for developing countries to protect, better manage and wisely use their forest resources, contributing to the global fight against climate change. REDD strategies aim to make forests more valuable standing than they would be cut down, by creating a financial value for the carbon stored in trees.” On its face, the idea of “reducing emissions from deforestation” sounds good, especially given that 15 to 25 percent of global CO2 emissions are linked to forest loss. But while the major multilateral institutions, including the UN, the World Bank, and many large environmental organizations, support REDD, many forest-dependent communities, environmental justice advocates, Indigenous Peoples organizations, and global South social movements see REDD as a way for industries in the North to continue polluting, and for forest communities in the Global South to be evicted from or denied access to their lands.

A policy brief from the US Agency for International Development (USAID) on the application of REDD in Mexico notes that “there are a number of problems for which solutions need to be found if [the REDD] mechanism is to achieve its potential. One of these is linked to local difficulties, both in terms of policy integration and application in communities.” Indeed, that is precisely the concern: while the overall concept may be appealing (assuming that creating a market value for non-market commodities like air, carbon dioxide, and forests is not inherently problematic), its application in real-world communities brings many real-world problems.

Welcome to Zapatista territory. Photo: Jeff Conant

The Tangled History of The Lacandon Community Zone

The Lacandon Jungle is the northernmost intact rainforest in Mesoamerica, sitting in a remote region of Chiapas, directly bordering Guatemala. The region is marked by a long and complex history of conflicts over land rights, including a long history of settlement by migrating indigenous and non-indigenous populations, as well as many cases of indigenous peoples being forcibly removed from territories they see as their home. Key to understanding the conflict in the region, however, is the story of the historic construction known as “the Lacandon Community”.

For centuries following the collapse of classic Mayan civilization around 900 A.D., the Lacandon jungle – a montane rainforest marked by rugged terrain, snaking turquoise rivers and limitless biodiversity – was largely inaccessible, and too remote to draw much attention from the outside. The original inhabitants, relatives of the Chontal Maya, had been responsible for building the great temples of the region, but were virtually wiped out during the first centuries of the conquest. At the end of the 18th-century, however, a group of indigenous Caribes migrated into the Lacandon from Campeche, northeast of Chiapas. In the course of the 20th century, many other people began to settle there, including colonists, encouraged by government programs to open the jungle, and wave after wave of indigenous peoples escaping from the fincas – the large plantations where they’d been held in indentured servitude for generations.

By the late 1960’s, there were an estimated 30,000 people living in isolated settlements in the Lacandon. This population explosion led to land-related conflicts and an increasing pressure on the rainforest. To halt the migration, the government decided in 1971 to declare a large part of the forest (614,000 hectares) a protected area: the Montes Azules Biosphere Reserve. As tenants and guardians of the area, they appointed the Caribe tribe, erroneously understood to be the region’s original inhabitants, and now designated, by government fiat, as “Lacandones”. At the time, the Lacandon, neé-Caribe, tribe consisted of sixty-six families. These families, along with a few settlements of Tzeltal and Ch’ol settlers, became the new owners of the territory, officially designated “the Lacandon Community.” In order to designate the Lacandon Community, 2000 Tzeltal and Ch’ol families from 26 communities had to be displaced.

These evictions, and the government programs that followed, led to a state of constant tension between the Lacandon Community and the rest of the region’s inhabitants. Several campesino organizations formed throughout the 1970’s to demand redress; among them was an organization called Quiptic ta lecubtesel, whose rallying cry was “No a la brecha Lacandona!,” or, No to the Lacandon border – a specific reference to efforts to demarcate the disputed territory that had been given to the Lacandon Community.

In Amador Hernandez. Photo: Jeff Conant

It was into this jungle of tensions that several militants from northern Mexico arrived in the early ‘eighties, to begin forming what would become the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN). On January 1, 1994, the day the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) went into effect, an armed insurgency broke out, led by the EZLN. The Zapatista movement, “the first Postmodern revolution,” as it became known, brought the world’s attention to the region, and helped spark what would soon be called the “anti-globalization movement” worldwide.

But, while the Zapatistas gained a lot of attention (waning in recent years) due to their strategic use of symbols and their expert handling of communications, few are aware that the Zapatista organization represents the first and only time that six of the seven ethnic groups in Chiapas (all but the Caribe/Lacandon tribe) have united under a common banner – that of opposition to the “brecha lacandona.” Indeed, as often as the Zapatista story has been told, few people outside of Chiapas are aware that this movement, which seemed to appear as if out of nowhere, grew out of the long history of resistance, but specifically out of the indigenous peasant organization Quiptic ta lecubtesel. In this sense, since the very beginning, the Chiapas conflict has been the result of an arbitrary “forest protection” scheme.

While Zapatista communities, like peasant farmers throughout the world, practice a form of swidden agriculture based on opening productive spaces in the forest to plant maize and beans,  they have, since the beginning of their uprising, maintained a strong stance on protecting the jungle from neoliberal development—especially cattle ranching, illegal logging of precious hardwoods like mahogany, expansion of military installations, and exploitation of the eight unexplored oil reserves in the jungle. Perhaps more to the point, the history of Chiapas, like the history of most of the “New World,” is built on successive waves of resource extraction: hardwoods, medicines, and rubber, followed by sugar, coffee, cattle, and petroleum – all of which have done immeasurable damage to the jungle ecosystem. The cheap labor force that allowed this exploitation to occur was provided, in Chiapas, by Tzeltal, Tzotzil, Ch’ol, and Tojolabal indigenous people who were virtually enslaved for centuries to work as peones on the haciendas and latifundios that formed the basis of the New World economy. The communities that make up most of the Zapatista support base, and most of the population of the jungle region of Chiapas – those who are today being expelled yet again from the only lands available to them – are the direct descendents of these enslaved people.

Photo: Jeff Conant

The Lacandon Today

In the forty years since the Lacandon Community was established, the Mexican government has been unable to demarcate the Lacandon Border, despite many attempts. Many of these attempts have involved military efforts by the government of Chiapas to remove settlers, and specifically Zapatista-aligned communities, from the territory of the Lacandon Community and the Montes Azules Reserve. On October 18, 2000, then-President Zedillo expropriated 3.5 hectares of the ejido Amador Hernández, a Zapatista-aligned community located precisely on the border of the Reserve, to build new military installations. On July, 4, 2004, the government moved families from the community of San Francisco El Caracol, in the Montes Azules Reserve, to a “new population center” called Santa Martha, in the municipality of Marqués de Comillas. On January 23, 2005, 160 Tzeltal families were displaced from Montes Azules to the pre-planned community of Nuevo Montes Azules, near Palenque. On November 13, 2006, hundreds of armed peasants from the Lacandon Community reportedly attacked seventeen families living in the village of Viejo Velasco Suárez, leaving 4 people dead (including a pregnant woman) and 4 people disappeared, in what entered local mythology as the Massacre of Viejo Velasco. On August 18, 2007, a joint police and military operation evicted 39 families from the communities of Buen Samaritano and San Manuel, also in Montes Azules.

Now, with the promise of financing under REDD, work is underway again to delineate the “brecha lacandona”. While there are many other potential sites for REDD-related projects throughout Chiapas and throughout Mexico, all worth keeping a close eye on, the historic tensions in the Lacandon region make the reopening of la brecha lacandona a case of particular concern.

As I traveled with my colleague Orin Langelle throughout the region over the past two weeks, signs of la brecha were legion. On March 19, Juan Francisco Leo Durán, a federal government topographer with the Secretary of Agrarian Reform working at the archeological zone of Bonampak, told me that the demarcation was nearing completion, with all but 80 kilometers left to delineate.

A Lacandon jungle reserve. Photo: Jeff Conant

“That 80 km,” he said, “lies in the region of the cañadas, where the EZLN communities are.”

The next day, on March 20, the Governor of Chiapas, Juan Sabines, paid a high profile visit to Frontera Corazal, a population center of the Lacandon Community, to deliver the first REDD payment of 2000 pesos to each landholder, and to stage a photo opp. Mexican newspaper La Jornada reported that this was the first visit of a governor to the community of eleven thousand people, mostly indigenous Ch’oles, since Sabines’s father, a former governor, paid a visit in 1980. In the La Jornada article, based on a press release from the State government, Governor Sabines is quoted as saying, “After thirty years, we are here to respond to the needs of Frontera Corozal, and we are doing it by way of this program, REDD +, that we have initiated in the seven reserves of the Lacandon jungle.”

“Before eleven thousand inhabitants,” the article says, “Juan Sabines Guerrero made it clear that payment for environmental services is a project in support of life, and that their children and their grandchildren will thank them, because from this they will live; they’ll receive money to care for the forest.”

The article concludes, “The State government authorized a monthly payment; however, this is merely to allow the completion of the forest inventory so that [members of the Lacandon Community] can access federal and international funds, as well as complement these funds with projects like agricultural conversion outside the reserve with species such as oil palm and rubber.”

While the members of the Lacandon Community are the beneficiaries of both the monthly REDD payment and access to vast territory, such benefits come at a high cost. In the words of Miguel Angél García, Coordinator of the  Chiapan NGO Maderas del Pueblo, “Of all the ethnic groups in Chiapas, the one that has suffered the greatest abuse of their rights are the Lacandones; they’ve been robbed of their history, of their identity, and of their dignity, and they’ve been turned into walking folkloric entities. There’s nothing worse than that.”

Further, García explains, the monthly payments for forest protection go to only about 600 landholders; as the next generation comes up with no possibility of planting to feed their families, and with no options for employment besides tourism and managing plantations of African palm, what it means for the Lacandon culture is all too clear.

In Amador Hernandez. Photo: Jeff Conant

Amador Hernández: A Village on the Edge

On March 23, I traveled with photographer Orin Langelle and two local videographers to Amador Hernández, a village of about 1500 people that lies on the border of the Lacandon Community – and the site of the previously mentioned expropriation of land, as well as a site of intense military interest during the hot years of the Zapatista uprising in the late ‘nineties. On arrival, we learned that the community had received a government advisory just a few days previous, announcing that a demarcation team would come through soon. Residents of Amador Hernández told me that their best planting land lay within the Lacandon Community, and that without it they would be unable to grow enough food to support themselves. They also said that, a year earlier, all medical services, including vaccinations, had been cut off to the community, in what they believed was an attempt to force them to move or negotiate. Several elderly people and children had died due to lack of medical attention. It turned out that this village, and a few small outlying settlements, were the only communities left that had not capitulated to the brecha Lacandona.

At the same time, those communities that had negotiated for resettlement, were beginning to protest that the terms of their resettlement were hostile and abusive. The day before we arrived in Amador Hernández, on March 22, the residents of Nuevo Montes Azules issued a public denouncement condemning the conditions of their resettlement. In their statement, they say:

“On February 4, 2005, seven communities that were located in the Lacandon Jungle, in the Montes Azules Biosphere Reserve, were relocated in the municipality of Palenque. We accepted the offer of relocation due to the fact that, in the process of negotiations, the government of the state of Chiapas assured us that the lands we would be given were in perfect state, that our land title was assured, that the houses were well-constructed, that our electricity would be subsidized, that we would receive good educational and health services, potable drinking water, and modern systems of sewage and drainage. They offered us a dream, but they gave us a nightmare. As we were moved to the new location, we were threatened that if we returned to our former home in the jungle, we would be arrested and taken to jail; those who refused to leave were forcibly removed.”

The denuncia goes on to describe the living conditions in Nuevo Montes Azules: “We live in utter abandonment, with grave health problems and insecurity. Our houses are too small for our families, they have no foundations, the roofs are badly built, and the walls are collapsing due to the poor construction. When there is wind, our houses tremble.” The water and sanitation systems have failed, there are neither medicines nor medical personnel in the health center, and the land is too compacted to grow anything. When it rains, the land floods, and further deteriorates the houses.

To the residents of Amador Hernández, resisting the brecha Lacandona means refusing to accept the nightmare of Nuevo Montes Azules.

African palm plantation, Marques de Comillas, Chiapas. Photo: Jeff Conant

The Broader Context of Economic Development in Chiapas

Many NGOs in Chiapas support REDD, while many more criticize and resist the program. Of those who support it, with whom I was able to talk, there was agreement that any REDD program would have to be developed slowly, with community engagement and participation.

“There is no REDD project currently in operation in Chiapas,” a representative of the Mexican NGO Pronatura told me. The Chiapas office of Conservation International, on the other hand, said they are working on REDD-related project in the southern Sierra Madre, in the coffee-rich areas around the National Park El Triunfo, which the global conservation group manages. When asked about the government REDD program, those I spoke with generally refused to comment, or indicated that the government was moving ahead with its own REDD program, and that this would surely be a topic for discussion in upcoming meetings.

Whatever the case with REDD itself – which, even its proponents agree, is a vanishingly complex set of policy initiatives that must be handled with great care – delineating forest reserves in Chiapas in order to place them into the carbon market is pouring salt in old wounds. Further, the growth of carbon-sequestration projects in Chiapas can only be understood as part of a massive wave of economic development that is sweeping the state and the region, accompanied by displacement, conflict, and deepening marginalization.

Among these intertwined developments are the rapid expansion of African palm and Jatropha plantations for biofuel production (Governor Sabines made the first biofuel-powered flight from Mexico City to Chiapas on Friday, April 1), numerous dams and mining concessions, and the dubious resettlement centers known as “sustainable rural cities”.  These so-called sustainable cities include sixteen pre-fabricated housing developments planned precisely at the locations of strategic resource extraction and land conversion (with the sad case of Nuevo Montes Azules considered to be the first trial effort, followed by two more UN-backed efforts, Nuevo Juan Grijalva and Santiago El Pinar). Also under development is an effort to further exploit the Mayan history of the state for tourism; a superhighway under construction designed to link major tourist centers and Mayan archeological zones has led to violent conflicts in the communities of Mitzitón and Bachajón, where several people have been killed and hundreds arrested for attempting to block the development. All of these development projects run roughshod over autonomous indigenous territories.

"Rural city: Santiago El Pinar" Photo: Jeff Conant

Two decades after the Zapatistas put Chiapas on the global map of resistance, the region is again coming to represent all of the conflicts and tensions of arbitrary economic development. Such development – turning land, life, and livelihoods into market commodities for the benefit of global elites – continues to be antithetical to the needs and desires, indeed, to the cosmovision, of most of the residents of this, Mexico’s poorest and most indigenous state.

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Lunacy at the Moon Palace: Aka: The Cancun Mess(e)

By Anne Petermann, Global Justice Ecology Project Executive Director

Mexican RoboCop Poses for Photos in Cancun. Photo: Langelle/GJEP-GFC

Global Justice Ecology Project Co-Director/strategist Orin Langelle (on assignment for Z Magazine) and I arrived in Cancun for the UN Climate Conference the day after U.S. Thanksgiving to a hotel infested with Mexican federales.  “You’ve GOT to be kidding me,” was our immediate reaction.  We dodged their chaotically parked armored vehicles and jeeps to enter the hotel, where we found hoardes of uniformed officers armed with automatic weapons everywhere we went. The breakfast room, the poolside, the beach, the bar.  Walking out of our room (which was surrounded on both sides federales) I literally bumped into one.

Most of them were mere youths who, judging by the way they carelessly swung their weapons around, had not had sufficient gun safety courses…  Orin nearly collided with the barrel of one at breakfast one morning—its owner had it lying casually across his lap as he ate as though the deadly weapon was a sleeping cat.  When we were walking around that first day, we happened upon the bizarre scene above.  A photo shoot of fully armed robocops posing in front of a giant fake Christmas tree.

Absurd?  Yes.  But not nearly as absurd as the events that unfolded at the Moon Palace—home to the UN Climate Conference (COP16)—over the next two weeks.

Once upon a time at these climate talks, organizations and Indigenous peoples’ groups roamed freely.  They could wander around at will—even into the plenary, where the high level ministers were negotiating the fate of the planet.  No more.  The open range is now fenced off.  What precipitated such a radical change?  The overreaction of those in power to that strange and wondrous thing known as protest.

Reclaim Power March in Copenhagen. Photo: Langelle/GJEP-GFC

The UN Climate Secretariat and their security enforcers view protest as a bull views a red cape.  They go blind with rage, lashing out at whomever is in their line of sight.  When hundreds of non-governmental organizations (NGOs), Indigenous peoples and Party delegates marched out of the UN Climate Conference at the Bella Center in Copenhagen in December 2009, the Secretariat responded by stripping every participant of their right to participate in the talks.  But before the protest even started, entire delegations of Friends of the Earth and other groups that had committed the sin of unpermitted symbolic protest earlier in the conference were barred outright from entering the Bella Center.

Since then, the UN Climate Secretariat has been scheming and conniving how to control these rogue factions and cut off any protest before it can begin.  At the interim UN climate meeting in Bonn that I attended last May, they had a special meeting to discuss “observer” participation in the climate COPs.  As a spectacular indication of the absurdity to come, when Friends of the Earth prepared an intervention (a short statement) for this meeting to emphasize the importance of observer participation to the UN Climate Conferences, they were prohibited from reading it…

So in Cancun, the UN Climate Secretariat contrived an elaborate set of demobilization tactics to curtail any potentially unruliness.  In addition to the highly visible force of federales, they devised a complex obstacle course for conference participants.

Anyone not rich enough to stay on the luxurious, exclusive grounds of the Moon Palace resort and (highly toxic) golf course—in other words, developing country parties, most NGOs, Indigenous Peoples and social movements—was treated to a daily bus ride from their hotel to the Cancun Messe (no, seriously, that’s what they called it) that lasted anywhere from 45 minutes to 2 hours, depending on how badly the federales had bottlenecked the highway. Once in the Messe, we had to go through a security check point and a metal detector, pass through a building and emerge from the other side to wait for a second bus (bus #9) to take us on another 20-25 minute ride to the Moon Palace.  Then in the evening, the process was reversed.

The Moon Palace itself was split into three sections—the Maya building, which housed the plenary session and the actual negotiations, the Azteca Building, where those not permitted into the negotiations (that is, most of the NGOs, IPOs and all of the media) were allowed to use computers and watch the proceedings on a big screen.

The media were given their very own building—the Nizuk building, which was yet another 10 minute ride from Maya and Azteca.  As you might imagine, it was virtually empty, as most of the media based themselves out of the Azteca to be closer to the action.

I had the pleasure of being a guest on Democracy Now! on the morning of December 9th, which meant finding my way to Nizuk, where the show was filmed live daily at 7am.  I left my hotel at 5:15am to catch a 400 peso cab to the Cancun Messe (no cabs allowed to go to the Moon Palace), then catch a bus to Nizuk.  I got there with 20 minutes to spare.

Democracy Now! and the other live broadcasts (their neighbor was Associated Press and around the corner was Al Jazeera) were filmed outside on the balcony.  While Amy Goodman interviewed me, her hair whipped in the gusty breeze.  A loud generator hummed nearby.  I wondered what they would do if they got a big rainstorm. (By the way, if you’d like to watch that interview, which was all about REDD [the Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation scheme], click here)

But all of this nonsense was a mere inkling of what was to come.  One of the first real tests of the Secretariat’s demobilization strategy came on Tuesday December 7th, when Global Justice Ecology Project hosted a press conference that turned into a spontaneous march.  Our press conference was scheduled on the day that La Via Campesina (LVC) had called for the “1,000 Cancuns” global actions on climate, one of which was to be a mass march in Cancun itself.  The press conference morphed into another “1,000 Cancuns” protest inside the very walls of the Moon Palace.

GJEP had made the decision to turn the press conference over to LVC, the Indigenous Environmental Network and youth so they could explain the “1,000 Cancuns” actions in the context of the silencing of voices occurring in the Moon Palace. UN Delegates from Paraguay and Nicaragua also participated to express their solidarity with the day of action.  I moderated the press conference and introduced it by invoking the name of Lee Kung Hae, the South Korean farmer and La Via Campesina member who had martyred himself by plunging a knife into his heart atop the barricades in Cancun at Kilometer Zero during the protests against the World Trade Organization in 2003.  At that time, it was the global justice movement.  Now it is the climate justice movement.  But really it is the same—the people rising up against the neoliberal oligarchy: i.e. the elite corporados bent on ruling the world and running it into the ground.

Mass action against the WTO in Cancun in 2003. Photo: Langelle/GJEP

Back in 2003, Robert Zoellick was the U.S. Trade Representative who tried to force bad trade policies down the throats of so-called “developing countries” during the meetings of the World Trade Organization.  Today he is the President of the World Bank, and is trying to force bad climate policies down the throats of the developing world under the umbrella of the UNFCCC, aka the World Carbon Trade Organization.

Writing this blog post from San Cristobal de las Casas, in the Mexican state of Chiapas brings to mind one of the most hopeful attacks on this neoliberal paradigm—the uprising of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) on January 1, 1994—the day the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) went into effect.  The Zapatistas took up arms against NAFTA saying it would be a “death sentence” to the Indigenous peoples of Mexico.  Indeed, in order to be accepted into NAFTA, Mexico had to re-write Article 27 of the Mexican Constitution.  Article 27 was implemented to protect Mexican communal lands and came out of the Mexican Revolution led by Emiliano Zapata in the early 1900s.  But communal lands and free trade do not mix.  Edward Krobaker, Vice President of International Paper, re-wrote Article 27 to make it favorable to the timber barons.  Then it was NAFTA, today it is REDD—but the point is the same—it’s all about who controls the land.  The Zapatista struggle was and is for autonomy, which has been an objective of Indigenous communities for centuries.

But I digress.  Back to the press conference.  Pablo Solon, Bolivia’s charismatic Ambassador to the UN was supposed to be one of the speakers at the press conference but got tied up and could not get there.  Activists from Youth 4 Climate Justice requested to speak after yet again being denied an official permit to protest, and later turned the press conference into a spontaneous march. If they would not be given permission to protest then they would do so without.  Democracy is a messy thing.

Tom Goldtooth of IEN Speaks to the Media. Photo: Langelle/GJEP-GFC

The youth delegates marched out the press conference room chanting “No REDD, no REDD!”  The rest of us joined them but stopped on the front steps of the building when Pablo Solon suddenly joined the group. In the midst of a media feeding frenzy, he proclaimed Bolivia’s solidarity with the LVC march happening in the streets. Behind him people held banners from the press conference.  Following Solon’s speech, Tom Goldtooth, the high-profile Executive Director of the Indigenous Environmental Network, and one of the most vocal Indigenous opponents to the highly controversial REDD scheme, spoke passionately to the crowd.  When he was done, the youth delegates resumed their chanting and marched toward the Maya building where the negotiations were occurring.

Then UN security moved in.  They had to contain this anarchic outbreak before it spread through the halls and infected the delegates. The three youths, deemed to be the leaders of the unrest, had their badges confiscated and were loaded onto a security bus to be removed from the premises.  Other observers, not understanding the nature of this bus (it looking like all of the other buses), got on believing it would take them back to the Messe where they could then take yet another bus to join the LVC march.  This included three people accredited to participate by Global Justice Ecology Project.  They were removed from the UN grounds and dropped off.

The UN also stripped Tom Goldtooth of his accreditation badge for the terrible crime of giving a powerful interview to a hungry media.  Another of our delegates was de-badged for filming and live-streaming video of the spontaneous protest onto the web.  Another lost his badge merely for getting on the wrong bus.  Others for the outrageous act of holding up banners.

We did not learn that Tom and others had been banned from the conference until the next morning, when they attempted to enter and the security screen beeped and flashed red.  Alarmed and outraged, representatives from Friends of the Earth International, the Institute for Policy Studies, and I took the bus over to the Moon Palace to meet with NGO liaisons Warren and Magoumi.

The encounter was immensely frustrating.  We staunchly defended Tom Goldtooth and his right to speak publicly to the media.  We also defended the right of our delegate to film the protest.  I also spoke up in defense of the three de-badged youth leaders, explaining that this was their first Climate Conference and they should have been given a warning (as was the norm in Copenhagen) that if they continued the protest, they would lose their accreditation.  In one ear and out the other…  Magoumi responded that the youth’s delegation leader should have informed them of the rules, and besides, she pointed out, if someone was committed murder, would they get a warning that if they did it again they would get arrested? (Really… that was her response!)  Our retort that chanting and marching could hardly be equated with murder was waved off by Magoumi as though we were a swarm of gnats.

In the end, Tom got his badge back after pressure was put on the UNFCCC by country delegations.  But he lost one whole day of access to the talks.  Several of the other delegates never got their badges back.  Security had deemed them “part of the protest,” and there was no opportunity for appeal.

For GJEP, the repressive actions of the Climate COP had to be answered with action.  We were prepared to put our organizational accreditation on the line.  Someone had to stand up for the right of people to participate in decisions regarding their future.

Occupation of the Moon Palace. Photo: Langelle/GJEP-GFC

Six of our delegation (including our Board member Hiroshi) were joined by four more youth delegates plus representatives from Focus on the Global South and BiofuelWatch to occupy the lobby of the Maya building.  We locked arms in a line, blocking access to the negotiating rooms.  All but three of us wore gags that read “UNFCCC”.  Those of us without gags shouted slogans such as, “The UN is silencing Indigenous Peoples!” and “The UN is silencing the voices of youth!”—in both English and Spanish.

Warren and Magoumi were on the scene in a flash and I heard them directly behind me trying to get me to turn my attention to them.  Magoumi was tapping my shoulder while robotically saying over and over, “Anna…Anna…Anna…Anna…is this you ignoring me Anna?  Anna…Anna…” (not sure why she insisted on pronouncing the silent “e” in my name.)  When I continued yelling slogans, she changed tactics and walked directly in front of me.  “Anna, come on, let’s take this outside.  We have a place where you can do this all day long if you want to.  Anna…Anna…Anna…”  I have to admit to being slightly rattled by having to do my shouting directly over Magoumi’s head, but fortunately, she is quite short.

GJEP Board Member Hiroshi Kanno is Manhandled by UN Security During GJEP's Occupation of the Moon Palace. Photo: Langelle/GJEP-GFC

The scene had become another feast for the media, but after about 10 minutes, I could sense them tiring of the same old shots, so it was time to move.  As soon as we made a motion toward the door (arms still locked), security was on us in a flash and used pain compliance tactics on the two people who bookended our interlocked line—including our 73 year old Board member Hiroshi.  Surprise surprise, once we got outside we were not escorted to their designated “protest pit” where permitted protests were allowed to occur, as Magoumi had promised, but rather forced onto a waiting bus and hustled off the premises.  Jazzed with adrenaline, we all felt pretty damned good about what we had just done and the coverage we got—even when the UN security guard on the bus pointed out that if we had done that protest in Germany we would have been arrested.  “You’re lucky this is Mexico,” he sneered.  Indeed I have been threatened with arrest by German police for holding up paper signs protesting genetically engineered trees outside of a UN Convention on Biological Diversity meeting in Bonn.  German police have even less sense of humor than UN security.  None-the-less, those of us on the bus felt elated for taking action—for standing up for the voices of the voiceless.

You can view Orin’s photo essay from the Moon Palace Occupation by clicking here

Democracy Now! covered the silencing of voices at the Climate Conference in a feature that included our action and a youth action that followed later in the day.  During the latter, the media nearly rioted when a Reuters photographer was grabbed and beaten by UN security on one of the buses.  DN! ran the feature on Monday, December 13th following the end of the talks.  You can watch that coverage here

I have not yet heard from Magoumi or Warren if Global Justice Ecology Project has lost its accreditation to participate in future UN Climate COPs.  Or if any of us will be allowed to enter its premises in the future.  But those conferences are such energy-sucking, mind-numbing, frustrating clusterf#*ks that if we are not allowed back in, I can’t say I will have any regrets.

Next year’s climate COP will take place in Durban, South Africa, where the UN will face off with the social movements who, against all odds, brought down Apartheid.

Now THAT will be something…

African Country Delegates Protest Unjust Climate Policies in Copenhagen in December 2009. Photo: Langelle/GJEP-GFC

Signing off from San Cristobal de las Casas, near Zapatista rebel held territory in Chiapas, Mexico.

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Earth Minute on KPFK Sojourner Truth Radio Program

Listen to Global Justice Ecology Project’s most recent Earth Minute and join La Via Campesina‘s call for “Thousands of Cancuns,” the mobilization to end false solutions to climate change at the UN Convention on Climate Change (UN COP-16) in Cancun, Mexico.

Click here to listen!

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