Monday, 27 September 2010

Latin America and the Ecosocialist Alternative

Latin America and the Ecosocialist Alternative
University of London Union, September 18 2010

Organised jointly by Socialist Resistance and Green Left.

The guest of honour at this conference was Hugo Blanco, who is a tireless campaigner for the rights of indigenous communities in Peru, where he led a peasant revolution in 1961. He has been imprisoned and at one point was facing the death penalty. He is the editor of Lucha Indigena, a journal about the struggle of the indigenous peoples of Latin America. (As far as I am aware, this journal is not yet available in English-language editions). His campaign is based on the concept of Ecosocialism, and we were very proud to have him among us as a guest speaker. (He spoke via an interpreter).

He was introduced by Derek Wall, who was formerly Principal Male Speaker of the Green Party, and is a well-known campaigner for Ecosocialism. His most recent publication is The Rise of the Green Left, to which Hugo Blanco has written the introduction.


A general introduction to the day was presented by Diana Raby, an expert on Latin American affairs from the University of Liverpool. She spoke in general terms about the  'politics of hope' that is beginning to emerge from Latin America, for instance the fact that the Zapatistas were among the first to say no to the policies of neo-liberalism. She also referred to the leadership of Evo Morales in Bolivia, and advances for the Left in Guatemala, Paraguay and Uruguay, and the fact that the right-wing dictatorship in Chile is facing growing opposition by the indigenous Mapuche movement.

Blanco began his speech by quoting from an Uruguayan writer to the effect that "In 1492, America discovered capitalism". 

It is thought that before the 'discovery' of the Americas, there had not been a vast slave-owning society as it developed after the Conquest. This has to be qualified by acknowledging that the Aztec and Inca societies were in fact very hierarchical and stratified, and probably did own slaves - prisoners of war who were not killed. But other indigenous cultures of the Americas seem to have been more egalitarian. Blanco is of the opinion that what Marx called 'primitive communism' still exists, but has been weakened by the centralised power of the state.

The Conquest led to a virtual genocide of indigenous peoples, not all of it intentional, many died from diseases introduced by the Europeans, to which the indigenous people had no immunity, and civil strife among some nations made the Spanish conquest easier. The resistance of indigenous communities is not a phenomenon of our has in fact been continuing for 500 years, but of course has not been well documented. The 500 years of struggle have been in defence of the indigenous communities and their relationship with Nature; the movement is sometimes known as PACHAMAMA; Mother Earth in the Andean languages Aymara and Quechua.

Some gains have been made in recent years; for instance some Latin American states, such as Panama and Peru, recognise indigenous communities. Blanco quoted the example of Chiapas state in South-Western Mexico, which is governed by indigenous communities, protected by the Zapatistas. The Zapatista army, however, does not rule in the area: the government is made up of unpaid volunteers, and their functions rotate. If members of the Zapatista army wish to take part in any of the governing boards, they have to give up their membership of the army. (There is more information about Chiapas on Wikipedia).

The indigenous movement in Peru is at the forefront of the struggle. Blanco's idea is that all the indigenous organisations are by definition eco-socialists, although this is not a term that is actually used - or at any rate not in indigenous languages. (I think it must exist in Spanish....Blanco was speaking through an interpreter). That is, the campaigners don't call themselves eco-socialists, just defenders of Mother Nature.


When the time came for questions from the floor, some of the discussion was about the fact that the introduction of monoculture and European farming methods damaged the land; the indigenous cultures were familiar with the concept of crop rotation, one of the most common methods of cultivation was to grow beans, squash and maize together, not separately in plantations but in small plots. 

Many foodstuffs that we now take for granted in Europe originate in the Americas, and there is actually a close link between imperialism and exploitation and the introduction of these foodstuffs to Europe...the discussion today helped to raise our awareness of this, although it wasn't possible to discuss it in detail, due to time constraints - it would have required a whole new conference! One of the most obvious examples, though, is the introduction of the chili pepper (Capsicum annuum var.  annuum, Capsicum frutescens, Capsicum chinense, Capsicum baccatum var. baccatum and Capsicum pubescens) to Europe.

When Columbus landed in the Americas, he was convinced he had found a route to the spice lands of the Far East, and one of the spices he was looking for was pepper (Piper nigrum), which is native to India.

What we now know as the Chili Pepper is unrelated to the genus P. nigrum.....however, it was one of the New World plants that was very swiftly adopted and spread into Europe and eventually Asia after what is sometimes referred to as the 'Columbian Exchange'.  


(The meeting then divided into various workshops.)

Workshop on Water Resources in Latin America

This was subtitled WATER POVERTY AND WATER THEFT IN LATIN AMERICA, and introduced a great deal of information about the use and exploitation of water resources in various Latin American countries.
The first topic to be introduced was the threat to the town of Espinar in Peru, 400 miles south of Lima, which will be left without water if the Majes-Sigur dam project goes ahead. More recently (subsequent to the conference) it has transpired that residents of the city of Cuzco have staged a strike in support of the residents of Espinar; during the previous protests in Espinar, at least one person was killed.

The next topic was the Cochabamba Water War in Bolivia.

This resulted from an attempt in 1999-2000 to privatise water, and to make it illegal for people to collect water in water butts, rain barrels, etc. 


Then some statistics were discussed; apparently about 80 million people have no access to safe, clean water, and about 100 million have no access to sanitation of any kind. There are 260 million dependent on latrines and septic tanks; and only about 15% of sewage is treated. Poor people pay 150%-300% MORE for their water than the better-off. Access to water is a serious problem, especially for women: after the conference, I found this link, which elaborates upon why access to water is more of a problem for women. Water in Latin America: the importance of gender relations.

We were also given some information about Mexico City. In the barrios (shanty towns), there is no running water, or it is available for only one hour a week; the poor have to buy water. The water supply is polluted during the rainy season, and black water (untreated sewage) is used on crops as fertiliser; but untreated sewage is usually a health hazard. (In fact there are methods of treating sewage to render it harmless, but Mexico City doesn't have the infrastructure to do this). It has been found that 100% of the food sold at street stalls in the barrios is contaminated with fecal matter from the sanitation ditches in the barrios; when they dry, the wind blows the contents over the city.   

A solution to the many problems faced by Mexico City would be to change the model of agriculture in the region. Agri-business has created a huge 'surplus' rural population who are forced to migrate to the mega-city, as there is no longer any possibility of earning a living from the land.

Then we returned to discussion of Peru. It so happened that, a few days previous, there had been an article in The Guardian  (click  here to read it) about the threat to the Peruvian water supply by the cultivation of asparagus for the export market. It informs the reader that

The study, by the development charity Progressio, has found that industrial production of asparagus in Peru's Ica valley is depleting the area's water resources so fast that smaller farmers and local families are finding wells running dry. Water to the main city in the valley is also under threat, it says. It warns that the export of the luxury vegetable, much of it to British supermarkets, is unsustainable in its current form.

This led to a discussion about the whole concept of food miles and production of cash crops for export, to the detriment of the local ecology. I had always been under the impression that asparagus could be cultivated in the UK, and that it was a seasonal vegetable, only available for a few short weeks in the summer - in fact that the short period of availability was rather the point! I mentioned this in the discussion, and someone said that Peckham, In South London, used to be a centre of asparagus production, and that it was produced locally until comparatively recently. The discussion widened to take in the idea of local produce, to some extent it was related to the previous discussion about foodstuffs from the Americas, but was more based on the fact that in Europe it seems that we no longer have 'seasonal food', as the example of asparagus shows. 


Hugo Blanco delivered a final speech to the meeting, which he prefaced by saying that the indigenous peoples of Latin America are only a part of the general struggle against neo-liberalism and in defence of the planet. He reminded us also that the indigenous peoples of Latin America don't form a homogeneous unit, there is great diversity of peoples, languages and cultures. After 500 years of struggle, people are beginning to take pride in being indigenous and and trying to sustain cultures and ways of life that were more or less destroyed by the Spanish conquests. But he said he didn't want anyone to think that the indigenous peoples are in any sense the LEADERS of a movement of resistance; they are part of a movement which also includes working class people in the mega-cities of Latin America and the people of the barrios. He quoted the example of the question of the leadership of the struggle for water in Ecuador.  Water Management in Ecuador's Andes Mountains. The indigenous peoples of Ecuador have said that they don't see themselves as leaders in the struggle, but as part of society as a whole.

He concluded by reiterating what he had said at the beginning; we are all campaigning for the construction of a new society, and although the movement in Latin America may not use the same terminology, we are all part of the same struggle, the campaign for Mother Nature - what we in Europe call Eco-Socialism.

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