Native Peoples’ Struggle to Defend Mother Earth and Collective Organization

[Translator's note: This article by Hugo Blanco is effectively an explanation and manifesto of ecosocialism. Although it was prepared in late 2010, it is not outdated in any significant way. For example, while Alan García is no longer the president of Peru, his successor, Ollanta Humala, continues the practices condemned here.]

 

Global Warming

As a young man I fought for a just society in the belief that future generations would achieve it if my own did not. I now see that I was mistaken. If we fail to put an end to the worldwide predatory economy system, there will be no such future generations. Accordingly, as I fought for a just society before, I now fight for the very survival of society.

Global warming is an undeniable fact. The United Nations have had to face the evidence, as have the governments of those countries that emit the greatest quantities of greenhouse gases through large capitalist enterprises. It is not a case of a group of evil capitalists conspiring to exterminate humanity. That is not their intention. Rather, their goal is to maximize profit, and if that means casting all of us into the void, that’s too bad. It is possible that some of them willingly breathe this by-product of their sacred mandate, which is to earn as much money as possible in the shortest possible time.

Richard Branson, the British businessman who owns Virgin Air, offered a prize of US$25 million to anyone who could devise a way to eliminate greenhouse gases. People said “But you are contributing to global warming with your airline.” His response to this accusation strikes me as quite apt: “What are you proposing? If I shut down my company, British Airways will immediately take its place.” If any capitalist, out of concern for his descendants, closes a factory that emits greenhouse gases, someone else will come along and set up an equally damaging factory.

It is not the level of understanding and morality of individual capitalists but the unstoppable wheel of the system that impels them toward the destruction of humanity. The solution, then, is not to stop one or another capitalist. Rather, we must do away with the system that places humanity’s destiny in the voracious grip of big capital.

 

Effects

Without understanding its causes, the country people are now suffering the effects of climate change more than the urban populace. Streams are drying up. Rivers are narrowing, so that some of the bridges across them are less and less necessary. Even the Amazon is now narrower than ever. Mountain snow caps are melting. The North Pole used to be a gigantic block of ice, but today in the summer one can even sail past it.

The sea level is rising, so that the island of New Moore — known to the Bengalis as Talpatti — has been consumed by the Indian Ocean. Lohachara, located where the Ganges and Brahmaputra empty into the Bay of Bengal, formerly had 10,000 inhabitants and has now also been lost to rising waters. The Republic of Kiribati, a collection of 33 islands in the central Pacific, has called for international assistance to relocate its 97,000 inhabitants as incursions of salt water devastate farmland and contaminate springs. A fragment of Greenland has separated from the main island; it is now known as Global Warming Island, or Uunartoq Qerertoq in Inuit. The land of the Kuna Indians in the islands of Panama is threatened with disappearance, as is also reported of some areas of Piura department in Peru.

Environmental changes through warming give rise of a number of climatic calamities. Winters become harsher, as we saw most recently in the northern hemisphere and in Puno, Peru, leading to heightened infant mortality. On the other hand, exceptionally warm summers have been reported in Brazil and Africa. The “Chill” is a wave of cold that negatively impacts the Peruvian rainforest. According to reports, this phenomenon is expected to affect 11 of Peru’s 24 departments. In my home department of Cusco, flooding was so severe during the last rainy season that in some communities only the roofs of the houses remained above water, hundreds of hectares of crops were destroyed, for weeks a river of mud flowed through the town of Zurite and buried a colonial temple, the medical center and the main school.

Not long ago, Pakistan suffered from severe flooding. Some of the victims of Hurricane Katrina, which devastated New Orleans undertook to sue the big companies for their role in bringing about global warming and thereby the hurricane. Of course the mass media, controlled by those who brought us climate change, do not report on its causes but rather present it as a set of “natural disasters”. It is plain that they are by no means natural, that they are caused by big capital through the accelerating emission of greenhouse gases. The core pages of our monthly magazine Lucha Indígena (http://www.luchaindigena.com) are dedicated to reports of global warming’s effects under the general title “Big Capital’s Attack on Humanity” (Ataque del gran capital a la humanidad).

 

Dealing with the Problem

In 1997 the main greenhouse-gas emitting countries met in Kyoto, where they agreed to reduce emissions by at least 5%. However, the accord was not ratified by all. Among the abstentions were the USA, responsible for 25% of worldwide emissions yet with very little compliance with the Kyoto meeting’s goals. In 2009 in Copenhagen there was another international meeting on this problem, again called by the United Nations. This time there was not even a consensus accord. The African countries, some of whose people have to walk great distances every day in search of water, called for indemnities from the polluting countries of the North, something that the latter absolutely refused to consider. Outside of the official meeting, Obama gathered a number of pliant delegates, who were persuaded to sign the so-called Copenhagen Accord. This document contains no commitment to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions, just expressions of good intentions. The USA later bought signatures from additional countries. Ecuador responded that if it just was a matter of money, it would be easy enough to take up a collection to pay the USA to sign the Kyoto Protocol.

The positive aspect of the Copenhagen meeting was the 100,000 people outside, calling loudly to “Change the system, not the climate!” and “If the climate was a bank, they would already have saved it!”

In view of the meeting’s failure, President Evo Morales of Bolivia convened the People’s World Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth on 12-19 April in Cochabamba, Bolivia. The meeting was successful in bringing together and facilitating networking among defenders of the environment from different parts of the world. Unfortunately, the eruption of the volcano in Iceland at that time grounded many flights and prevented attendance by a number of Europeans. It is also regrettable that the meeting did not reach agreement on collective actions. A table set up outside the meeting served to publicize criticisms of the present government’s continuation of its predecessors’ extractivist economy.

Big capital does all it can to deny or downplay the effects of global warming. A few months ago there was a campaign — later shown to be entirely false — to discredit scientists who work on climate change. An association of American big businessmen recruited journalists and “scientists” to treat this topic in line with the views of the emitters of greenhouse gases. The mass media, which are under the control of these same capitalists, continue to refer to the effects of global warming as “natural disasters”. They maintain that similar disasters occurred at various times in the distant past, so that the present situation must be “natural”. They tell us that the Maya predicted the end of the world in 2012, while specialists in Mayan texts point out that that this prediction, in fact, has to do with later events. It is all part of big capital’s attempt to resign the people of the situation, to vitiate their will to fight for an end to the existing system.

The United Nations have set the next official meeting on climate change for Cancún, Mexico from 29 November to 10 December of this year. It does not take a crystal ball to foresee that this meeting, too, will deliver nothing more than eloquent speeches. Regrettably, at Cancún there will not be 10,000 people demonstrating outside the meeting, as happened in Copenhagen. Travel costs will keep many Europeans away, and we Latin Americans can certainly not afford to go, quite apart from the repressive forces, which will certainly be much more severe than in Copenhagen.

In Vienna I heard an excellent proposal: Create hundreds of Cancúns throughout the world. In as many cities as possible we should organize meetings to take place at the same time as the official meeting, in order to analyze the meaning of global warming, who causes it, its destructive impact, and how to fight it. Together, these meetings can be infinitely more effective than the official meeting in Cancún in countering climate change.

 

Native resistance

I have indicated that rural people are those who suffer most from the effects of global warming. However, most of them do not understand its causes and see it as a set of “natural disasters”. What they do understand very well are big business’s other attacks against nature (which in Quechua we call Pacha Mama, meaning Nother Earth or Mother Nature). Native peoples are the ones who are most distrustful of the benefits of civilization and who know “progress” on through its attacks against them. We all depend on nature, but in cities the children grow up believing that food comes from the supermarket. Many adults are not much better in their understanding and show little concern for the destruction of our environment. In contrast, the native populace is well aware that life depends on nature. For this reason, native peoples are the first to respond to attacks on Mother Nature. The following are some of these attacks:

Mining, especially open-pit mining, is very damaging, as it destroys the mountain in order to extract its minerals. It diverts water from agriculture and pollutes it, poisoning the soil and killiing plants, animals and people.

Extraction of oil and gas poisons the rivers of the Amazon, killing the fish that feed the people, leaving animals and people without clean water.

Construction of hydroelectric plants also takes water away from agriculture and human consumption in order to provide power for mining, as in the case of Cacapucara in Cusco department, Peru. The Inambari project plans to displace thousands of native people and their livestock and crops in parts of three departments of Peru in order to build a huge dam to provide electricity to multinational corporations based in Brazil.

Deforestation for lumber extraction removes the tree cover from the very thin topsoil layer in the Amazon, so that within a few years the intense rainfall turns the area into a desert.

Deforestation for livestock farming — The native peoples of the forest live from hunting, while ranching serves to feed city dwellers. Again, removal of the forest cover turns the area into desert.

Big agribusiness subverts nature to the logic of industry. The more of the same product that can be generated year after year, the better. For this reason, it continually grows the most productive variety of a crop species. Such monoculture is damaging to the soil, as is the use of agrochemicals, such as fertilizers, insecticides and herbicides. All of these render the soil toxic in just a few years. Big capital is unconcerned about this. After poisoning the soil in Peru, the company can move on to another country in Latin America, Asia, Africa or Oceania to continue these same practices.

A native person, on the other hand, sees the land as the place where his grandparents lived and his grandchildren will live, something to to be protected and nurtured. 10,000 years of agriculture have taught the native the need for crop rotation, growing legumes one year in order to fix nitrogen in the soil, then a year of potatoes to take advantage of this nitrogen. He also practises intercropping, growing two or more crops together, which benefits the soil and inhibits the buildup of pests. And he understands that some fields require fallow periods of one, two or three years, according to the nature of the soil. (Quechua speakers have a word for this fallow period, layme.)

While a field is taking a rest from cultivation, the farmer may use it for pasture. And he makes use of manure as an organic fertilizer. The Peruvian government is trying to take this water away from the small-farming community of Espinar, which feeds Cusco, in order to irrigate the big agricultural export businesses. Several have been injured in the course of this effort. President Alan García refers to the natives as a “dog in the manger”, because they lack the capital for such “developments”. That, according to Mr García, must be left to the powerful corporations, so that Peru can experience progress.

Usurpation of native land for tourism is another type of attack, now being felt by native peoples in British Columbia (Canada), Chiapas (Mexico) and Africa.

 

It is not only native peoples who stand up for Mother Nature

The struggle has been joined by many other groups that feel big capital’s predatory attacks, such as the courageous people of Andalgalá in Catamarca province, Argentina. And the urban populace of Moquegua, Peru has been fighting for its water rights.

 

All the world’s natives

I have drawn my examples mainly from Peru, yet it is not only Peruvian peoples who are struggling in defense of Mother Earth. We see that it was native support that impelled Evo Morales into the presidency of Bolivia, and it is he who convened the international meeting against climate change. Bolivia’s new constitution explicitly recognizes Mother Earth’s natural rights. Native peoples in Chile, Argentina, Guatemala, Panama, Canada, the USA, Australia, the Dongria Condh of India, and the Bushmen of Africa are among those who have come out against the creation of nuclear waste. This shows that the struggle as a whole is not ethnic but cultural. As Eduardo Galeano writes in his latest book, Mirrors,

“What could we do? Whether to be the mouth or the mouthful, the hunter or the hunted, that was the question. We were to be despised, or at least pitied. In the storm of contempt, no one respected or feared us. We were afraid of the forest and the dark. We were the most insignificant little creatures in the animal kingdom, useless whelps or grown-up no-accounts, without claws, sharp teeth, swift feet or an acute sense of smell. Our earliest history is lost in the mists. It is as if we were destined for nothing more than penal servitude and beatings.

“But, one might well ask, did we not yet survive when survival seemed impossible, because we knew to stand together and share our food? Would today’s humanity, this civilization of every-man-for-himself, have persisted in the world more than fleetingly?”

A great love of Mother Earth was a part of this overall ethic at the dawn of humanity. It is not, however, the only common theme. The world’s native peoples are the most constant keepers of this ethic. Let us consider the other aspects of primitive human culture that are shared by native peoples worldwide.

 

Collectivism

The problems affecting the community are resolved by the community, not by any individual of small group. If this were the practice of humanity as a whole today, we would not have global warming, as it would not be up to the corporation whether or not to set up a factory that would emit greenhouse gases; rather, it would be decided by the entire society.

Where there are native people, you would find a native community, an organization of collective governance. It is a small political force, very much limited by the state, but still a political entity. It is sometimes a corrupt entity to one degree or another, as it exists in a corrupt broader society. Even so, in general native communities persist as truly democratic governments in miniature. And they are recognized as such by many national constitutions, such as that of Peru.

Sometimes there is a community of communities. Such larger collectives appear to exist in some parts of the Peruvian rain forest, but not in the highlands. In the highlands the district native federations are instruments of struggle, but not of government. They exist in the Cauca in Colombia and are recognized by that country’s constitution. The Cuna community of communities of the islands of Panama is likewise recognized by the constitution, apparently an outcome of the 1929 Cuna revolution.

Where we see this phenomenon most clear is in a small area of Chiapas state in Mexico. For 16 years the native people there have governed by means of Committees of Good Governance. These collective bodies change from time to time, as their members are subject to recall at any time. The Zapatist Army of National Liberation (EZLN) is in charge of guarding the liberated zone from attacks by the “bad government”, as they call the government of Mexico. Any Mexican soldier who wants to join a committee must first resign from the army.

As in our native communities, members of the Committees of Good Governance serve without pay, as they know and practise the native principle that a public position is for service to the community, not for personal gain. This is entirely different from what we see in so-called “democratic” regimes, in which politicians fight for public office like dogs around a piece of meat, as they know that a great deal of money can be made from bribes and giving positions to family and friends. A while ago I attended a community election. A comrade was nominated but declined on the grounds that he had already served in various capacities, so that they should instead choose someone who had not yet had that opportunity.

The class enemy knows full well that community organizing is our means of defending the environment, and that is why he opposes it. Almost simultaneously in Mexico and Peru, Salinas and Fujimori issued laws to eliminate community organizations. The flood of new legislation from Alan García includes not only many provisions to facilitate the rape of the environment but also several aimed at attacking our communities. The native community is the nucleus from which we can start building an egalitarian society. The alliances of communities that I mentioned above represent another step forward. The majority of our native people are unaware of theswe, but that does not invalidate them.

Obviously, we do not advocate that the urban populace should follow this same path. City people will know what steps to take toward a society that is not divided into those who command and those who obey. The factories in Argentina that are managed by the workers are a good example of the way forward.

 

Ecosocialism

These two characteristics of native peoples — a profound love of nature and collective organizations — are what captures the attention of European ecosocialist comrades, as it is precisely these motives that they share. They understand that the only coherent way to ensure that the environment is respected is to take power away from capitalist enterprises and put it in the hands of self-governing, horizontally-organized communities. Lucha Indígena, the monthly magazine that I direct, serves to publicize native peoples’ struggles in defense of Mother Nature and collecting organizing. For this reason, the organizations Green Left and Socialist Resistance invited me to do a tour of the United Kingdom to explain these struggles. My public talk was very well received in Britain, and people in various cities characterized it as “inspiring”. In truth, it wasn’t my words but the native struggles, themselves, that so inspired my listeners, to most of whom this was all entirely new.

 

Living well

Although such an expression is not found in native South American languages — for native peoples it is simply living — it seems to me an interesting contribution of nativist intellectuals in opposition to the capitalist conception that happiness consists in accumulating a great deal of money as quickly as possible. This wealth can then be used to buy those things that fashion demands, so that one is the envy of one’s peers. Living well, in contrast, sees happiness as a matter of living in a satisfying way. Let me explain this through a few examples.

A man from the Andes, speaking in his own native language (and mine) of Quechua, told me that the Amazonian people are lazy. To illustrate this, he related how a big landowner asked an Amazonian native to clear a certain plot of forest for crops and promised to give him a machete in payment. The landowner was impressed by how quickly and well the native accomplished the job. He handed over the promised machete and then proposed that the native should clear another plot, only a quarter the size of the first, for which he would be paid another machete. The native loosed at him in surprise and replied “I have only one right hand. What am I supposed to do with two machetes?” He had no sense of “getting ahead” and just wanted to live. I relate this story not only to illustrate the concept of living well among Amazonian people but also to show how the highland natives have been so tamed by consumerist society.

Even so, we find examples of the living-well attitude among the Quechua speakers of the Andes. When one asks a native farmer what his land produces, he does not reply in terms of yield or prices but says that it is hunt’asqa, meaning complete. That is, he grows a good variety of crops. The judges at agricultural fairs, who are often professors of agronomy, have learned not to award the prizes for the biggest potatoes or the greatest yield per hectare but rather for producing the best range of varieties, as that is where our native farmers’ pride lies. I have on occasion met an adult or child sitting on the ground with only a small quantity of vegetables to sell; I ask the price, the vendor tells me, I offer to guy the whole lot without asking for a discount, and the vendor says no. When I ask why, he or she replies “If I sell it all to you, what will I sell to the others?” Market selling is seen not just as a commercial but as a social activity.

A love of nature and the search for an egalitarian society are not exclusive to native peoples but are shared by today’s ecosocialists. I have found the same sense of living well in sophisticated modern people. I have a friend in Stockholm who delights in going to the supermarket. When I asked why, he said “You evidently don’t understand the pleasure of seeing how many things I don’t need in order to be happy.”

 

Love of the ancestors and descendants

Elinor Ostrom, Nobel laureate in Economics in 2009, said “I am very grateful to the American Indians, who taught me how to think in the seventh generation.” That means bearing in mind whether what we do today will benefit or harm our descendants down to the seventh generation. This is completely different from the disdain shown by many people brought up in the capitalist system, who even care if their grandchildren have water to drink.

 

Respect for diversity

In Peru, dozens of Amazonian peoples, speaking many different languages, came together as a single strike force to defend the rain forest. Each native people has its own manner of dress, which is respected by the others. In Chiapas, Mexico, a native asked me if I were a native. When I said yes, I am Quechua, he looked at me disapprovingly and asked “Is that how people dress in your community?”, referring to my western clothes.

 

Conclusion

I have described some features of the native peoples’ outlook, but of course not all think the same way. For example, former President Toledo of Peru was of native ancestry but had a Harvard education. Let me repeat that the ethical principles of native peoples are not exclusive to them but are shared by many who live in modern society. It is well known that those natives who are least tamed by the system — the so-called “savages” — are the ones who fight the best fight, as we see in Peru and Ecuador.

Looking into the past, we see the same thing. When the European invaders arrived, they found advanced civilizations here, the Aztecs and Incas. These were quickly overthrown, while the “savage” peoples continued to resist. In Cuba, they could only be defeated through extermination. In Argentina, President Sarmiento, the “educator of the Americas”, continued to fight the native peoples with a racist outlook that is quite plain in his writings. In the USA, we see much the same outlook in cowboy movies. It is understandable that some native people reacted with hostility to western people and things as a whole. Fortunately, these individuals are in the minority, and no native organization holds this attitude.

The natives of Chiapas say “We are native people and proud of it. We expect to be respected for who we are. We are the sisters and brothers of the poor people of Mexico and the rest of the world.” This is not mere lip service. They convened the first meeting titled “Against Neoliberalism and for Humanity”, which brought together citizens of 70 countries, including from Europe and North America. This came long before the World Social Forum.

As representatives of big capital, the governments of Europe and North America are attempting to place the weight of the crisis that they have created on the backs of working people. They are raising the retirement age and reducing spending on critical social services. In Greece, France, Spain and the UK, among others, the people are rising up against this assault on their rights.

We and the people of the industrialized countries have the same enemy. It is big capital, which is destroying nature everywhere and burdening the people of the world with this crisis of its own making. Destruction of the environment in our region harms not only the local people but all of humanity. Experience has shown the great value of the solidarity from our comrades in the right countries with struggles in defense of the environment and the so-called Third World. It put a stop to the planned degradation of the agriculturally rich Tambogrande Valley in Piura, Peru. Thanks to the brave fight of local people, together with international solidarity, Canadian ecologists condemned the Canadian mining company’s plans. A demonstration by British citizens at the annual shareholders’ meeting of Vedanta Resources in Westminster was enough to force the servile government of India to withdraw approval of a destructive mining plan that would have impacted on the native people of Dongria Condh.

It is my view that humanity can only survive by recovering our original ethics. To continue to accept rule by the big corporations and not society as a whole will inexorably lead to the death of our species.

A return to our original ethics does not mean going back to primitive life. When science and technology stop serving big capital and turn to the service of humanity, they will determine which of the benefits of civilization we can keep without imperiling our survival. It will probably emerge that by harnessing wind and solar energy we can continue to enjoy many of civilization’s advances.

We must get to know each other better in order to understand the many different forms of resistance. We have no thought of implementing uniform methods and fully respect the diversity that gives us our strength. We must learn from each other, while remaining different.

In the face of economic globalization in the service of big capital and against the interests of humanity, we must globalize humanity’s resistance in order to ensure our own survival.

 

Globalize the struggle. Globalize hope.

 

Hugo Blanco

September-October 2010

 

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