Tag Archives: social justice

Chico Mendes

23 Dec

A little while ago I heard from a friend I hadn’t seen or heard from in about 20 years. He happened to send me an instant message on Facebook while I just happened to be online myself – Facebook is funny that way.

My friend, Gomercindo Rodriguez, was typing on his keyboard from Acre state in Brazil, just near the border with Bolivia, and I was in Ontario, Canada, trying to dredge up my long-unused Portuguese (battling autocorrect the whole time) on my iPad. But ever since then, we have been Facebook, and not just historical, friends. And yesterday he posted about an event that affected both us tremendously.

I’m talking about the shooting death of Francisco ‘Chico’ Mendes exactly 28 years ago.

I learned about it at a Christmas party, from someone who had heard it earlier that morning on CBC radio. Gomercindo was the first person to arrive at Chico’s tiny wooden shack in the town of Xapuri after his wife, who was home at the time with their two small children, raised the alarm.

A rancher named Darli Alves had sent his son, Darci, with a shotgun to murder Chico Mendes when he stepped out of his house, and the news went around the world. But for each of us personally, Chico’s death was shocking, horrific, deeply saddening and impossible to accept. It also, I believe, had an effect on us that in some way made its mark on both of our lives.

For me, the thing about Chico is that he was a truly nice person, kind and empathetic, generous and determined to change the world for the better without being authoritarian or arrogant about it.

Changing the world, above all the world of impoverished and disenfranchised forest dwellers, by changing the way we understood the environment around us, was like a normal, even unremarkable goal for Chico. It was just something that needed to be done, something logical and sensible and fair. Actually – let me highlight the fair. Thousands of families earned their living by extracting the natural products of the rainforest, and at the same time, the forest was a global resource that belonged to all of humanity. Destroying it to produce meat was an injustice. And that fight for what was fair, what was right for all of us, cost him his life.

Chico’s death – and the lackadaisical judicial response to it – bothered me for years. It seemed to symbolize the powerlessness of the average person, and the way people with money and influence but no ethics can so easily ride roughshod over our collective rights like an out-of-control steamroller. It could almost have made a person turn cynical and bitter.

But the legacy of Chico Mendes’s life and ideas also had its influence (and not just because Google featured him on its search page recently).


In the case of Gomercindo Rodriguez, it led to him becoming a lawyer. One of his first, most significant cases involved the defence and eventual liberation of three young men falsely accused of rape in order to protect the real culprit, the son of a local mayor.

For me, it made me increasingly curious about the way poor and disenfranchised people are actually coming up with collective, positive solutions to powerlessness, all the time. It got me looking at the way this happens, and for more examples of people doing this. It’s what made me write Broke but Unbroken: Grassroots Social Movements and their Radical Solutions to Poverty, and, looking at it another way, looking at the essential problem of top-down, First World aid, The Anatomy of Giving.

Yesterday, on the 28th anniversary of the murder of this kind man who was our friend, Gomercindo emphasized the fact that Chico Mendes is still alive because his ideas are still among us and are gaining strength. There are now protected Extractive Reserves throughout the Amazon. The fact that burning rainforest is a big part of the potential destruction of the entire planet is common currency. Most of all, though, the notion that people with few resources can come together and fight against what’s wrong and win – that too is more true than ever.

Chico Mendes would have been 72 years old now, if he hadn’t been murdered. None of us can say what he would be like. But I tend to think that the years wouldn’t have changed him much. After every and any victory for forest dwellers and for the forest itself he always thought about the next step. He would always say ‘the struggle continues.’


And now, a word about Honduras

7 Mar


People always refer to Haiti, the country I write about in The Anatomy of Giving, as the poorest country in the Western hemisphere. But not too far away from it on the poverty stats list is Honduras.

Canada gives it about $30 million in foreign aid; its biggest donor, the U.S., more than $80 million. That sounds like a lot.

Yet like Haiti, it remains a nation where no amount of foreign aid can make up for the lack of democracy and government accountability that keeps people poor, disenfranchised – and dependent on that foreign aid. Try to stand up and demand the kind of basic rights that will allow the poor to earn more and have more, and you can get yourself killed.

The latest is a woman named Berta Cáceres. A coordinator of the National Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras, she campaigned for indigenous and environmental rights, in particular helping to organize protests against a hydro-electric dam project that has displaced thousands and will prevent impoverished peasant farmers from irrigating their land. Her murder is particularly tragic because she had denounced the death threats, on the one hand, and because she had the support of many social justice and environmental organizations. In many ways, Berta Cáceres was not alone.

But none of that stopped the people who wanted her dead.

Worse, the official response to her campaigning is not an anomaly. More than 100 people have been murdered in Honduras between 2010 and 2014 for defending the rights of the poor. That number, according to a study by the NGO Global Witness, represents of the world’s highest death tolls relative to population.

Honduras has been plagued with social unrest and by extraordinarily blatant attacks on the poor by their governors for a while now. And by “a while” I mean since the 2009 military coup against former president Manuel Zelaya, who had been taking a few modest steps towards improving things in the country. That coup was wholly supported by the U.S. government, including President Barack Obama (something I still can’t quite understand) and his then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (which I can.)

The current president, Juan Orlando Hernandez, has been described thus by Dana Frank in Foreign Affairs magazine: “In the past six years he has proven himself to be a terrifying thug. Now, a little more than a year into his presidency, it’s clear he is perpetuating an ongoing human rights crisis while countenancing a cesspool of corruption and organized crime in which the topmost levels of government are enmeshed.”

So, despite the foreign aid flow, poverty has increased; impunity and violence has grown – and no one is connecting the dots.

I highly recommend Dana Frank’s article for a full accounting of the terrible things happening in Honduras. It sets the context in which the murder of Berta Cáceres is one more detail in an ongoing saga of land grabs, economic chaos and a kind of war against the Honduran people.

Yes, it’s time to mourn the tragic end of one woman’s story of courage and selflessness. It’s also time for people to get angry about the appalling price of such hypocrisy. It\s a price both the people of Honduras and we, the taxpayers of the richest countries in the Americas through our official aid agencies, are paying.

In Honduras at least, there has been a pushback, with anti-government protests throughout the country. We can support them by demanding our politicians and representatives stop coddling Cáceres’s killers.

Anniversary of a Bad Day

13 Jan


4293703325_3868444d23(Photo: Colin Crowley)

I’m having some renovations done to my house these days.

Walls and ceilings have been taken down, heating ducts rerouted, and old carpet pulled up. I’ve had to turn my office into a pantry, dining room and sitting room. There is rubble and dust everywhere, and while I know it’s ridiculous, I keep thinking about the Haiti earthquake as I step on pebble-sized chunks of plaster (or worse, once, a nail) and battle the endless dust.


Ridiculous because if it gives me a tiny glimpse of what it must be like to live in an environment where destruction has occurred , my circumstances are infinitely better than anything people had to deal with – and are still dealing with – after January 12, 2010.

Close to 60,000 homeless people woke up today to begin their seventh year in a tent in what is still a disaster zone. That alone is unbelievable in this day and age. Tens of thousands more live in utterly sub-standard housing, including the desert-scape of shacks outside of the Port au Prince called Canaan.

But everyone today woke up to a political situation that is distressingly same-old same-old. Hugely flawed elections continue to be the way a group of squabbling politicians divide up resources among themselves and their pals.

In eleven days, Haitians will go back to the polls, for the third time since August, to choose a new president. This final run-off is the last chapter in a sorry but repetitive tale of fraud, voter intimidation, and outside interference in the electoral process.

That horning in by outsiders has been taken care of by something the Core Group. Made up of representatives of some of Haiti’s biggest foreign assistance donors, it has, according to Prospere Charles of the 1804 Institute, “been pushing by all mean necessary to ensure the continuity of Haiti’s elections, no matter the flaws.”

So while the Provisional Electoral Council found that 47 per cent of the vote results it verified were questionable it is still going ahead with the January 24th vote with all the mechanisms of fraud in place. Despite their findings – and what many have simply observed – Council members seem to have been swayed by voices such as that of American ambassador Peter Mulrean, who said, “The world cannot wait for Haiti. There is no evidence of massive fraud in these elections.” After all, the country he represents put $30 million into making them happen.

What’s more, Mr. Charles summed up three big issues that neither aid nor history has resolved in Haiti. The first: “The abject failure of the international community to build and support effective public institutions after at least 30 years of unaccountable, astronomical spending and broken promises.” He also cited the complete inability of Haiti’s institutions to create a political system that is fair and free from local and foreign manipulations, as well the two-hundred year old “rift between the bourgeois elite and the mass poor in Haiti that is more pronounced than ever.”

To be honest, it is difficult to perceive much difference among or between Haiti’s presidential candidates. The whole ‘building back better’ theme failed to get through to them. They still couldn’t care less about making their nation better, or more about grasping power and money.

As I found while researching my newly published book, The Anatomy of Giving, there are many, many thousands of Haitians working hard to build a better nation, but they are being swamped by that “bourgeois elite”, the Core Group, and the deep trench of poverty in which most Haitians must try and survive.

My rubble will eventually be cleared away and my home rebuilt.

I wish I could say the same of Port-au-Prince, but that’s not on the cards – not while the same groups of unaccountable politicians continue to fight over their country’s resources and its future.

Who Us?

10 May
Memorial for Mariano Abarca Photo courtesy of Mining Watch

Memorial for Mariano Abarca
Photo courtesy of Mining Watch

For Silvia Nuñez of the national Autonomous University of Mexico’s Centre for North American Studies, it’s really not possible to say that Mexicans are actually changing their (generally) positive impression of Canadians simply because our mining companies are damaging their nation’s environment while sloughing off any responsibility for the abuse of the rights of those who are complaining about it.

But maybe they should be.

I mean, I do understand when Ms. Nuñez says that it “is a very focused sector that is tracking this issue” – NGOs concerned about human rights and the environment.

What’s more, the Mexican media already have a lot of other serious issues – from missing students to economic malaise to government corruption to drug cartel hyper-violence — to deal with.

But there seems to be something especially wrong when it are foreigners coming to your town and causing havoc, yet pretending to be good guys. And in Mexico, increasing numbers of people all over the country have been complaining and protesting about what happens when a Canadian mining company finds something valuable under their land.

Most of those protests have to do with water pollution, such as in Guerrero where the cyanide used by Vancouver-based Goldcorp in La Carrizalillo has caused major health problems, or in Zacatecas, where the same firm’s Peñasquito open pit mine grabbed most of the water supply, or in San Luis Potosi, where New Gold’s leach ponds at their Cerro de San Pedro mine overflowed into the community’s water source.

In other cases, such as in Veracruz, communities are simply concerned by potential disasters, such as that presented by Goldcorp and Timmins Gold blasting near a nuclear power station.

These protests tend to be given short shrift by local and Canadian authorities, and by the media. After all, these are mostly poor, mostly rural, often indigenous people who are doing the complaining. Shouldn’t they just be happy that some local investment is coming to their hardscrabble hick towns? Some actual development? Even the current Canadian government considers mining companies excellent promoters of development, to the point that it wants Canadian charities to work with them in the global struggle against poverty.

Indeed, one small town in Durango called La Sierrita did take that approach. When Toronto-based Excellon Resources showed up wanting to exploit the zinc, lead and silver in their area, they signed a contract that seemed to make the most of the situation. Along with paying some royalties, the company would provide a certain number of jobs to locals, buy all their food from the community, and build a water treatment plant.

The only problem was the company immediately reneged on most of their side of the deal. What’s more, when mine workers tried to organize after a workplace death, they were fired. Subsequent demonstrations were used by the Canadian Embassy in Mexico City to dig up information of use to Excellon, while the protest camp at La Sierrita was attacked and burned down by Excellon employees. No wonder the company is, according to its website, “positioning itself to capitalize on undervalued projects by focusing on increasing La Platosa’s profitable silver production and near-term mineable resources.”

But maybe the folks in Durango should consider themselves lucky. In Chihuahua, two protestors against the Vancouver-based MAG Silver Corp mine were killed, while in Oaxaca, according to Mining Watch, “numerous members of the Coordinating Committee of the United Villages of the Ocotlán Valley, which leads opposition to Vancouver-based Fortuna Silver’s mine in San Jose del Progresso, were shot or assaulted.”

And in Chiapas, Mariano Abarca, an outspoken organizer of the protests against the Chicomuselo barite mine run by Calgary–based Blackfire Explorations also paid with his life.

(In an interesting side note, Blackfire actually sued the corrupt mayor of Chicomuselo when his demands for bribes became untenable; not only did he want even more money than what the community was getting in royalties, and vacations for him and his family, in return for his support of the project, but the sexual pleasure of his favourite Mexican soap opera actress.)

So as Canadian companies now account for 70 per cent of all the mining exploration going on in Mexico, and as the clauses of the 1994 Free Trade Agreement protect them from any liabilities, and as the Canadian Embassy works hard to smooth any obstacles in the path to their profits, I for one wouldn’t mind if I had to face some opprobrium when an average Mexican learns that I am an average Canadian. I would be happy to declare that I, too, deplore this kind of behaviour, and even more so to know that my taxes are helping to pay for it.

But so far, the most I can do is wish this egregious behaviour would get more of our attention, that of both Canadians and Mexicans. As vacationers from the north start to worry about Mexican drug traffickers spoiling their week at the beach, I wish they at least recognized that, for too many Mexicans, it are Canadians who are ruining their livelihoods and lives.

Fool’s Gold

4 Sep

Fields of Fool's Gold So- called ‘Golden Rice’ is back.

If, that is, it ever really went away.

I remember people talking about Golden Rice several years ago — and not in very complementary terms either. What’s with spending millions of dollars figuring out how to get more vitamins into white rice when it could be spent on promoting small-holder agriculture, land reform and anti-urban-poverty initiatives in general so people could add some vegetables to their rice?

Or on food education showing how cheaper brown rice is much healthier?

But now the spectre of this genetically modified rice is coming at the urban poor again, this time with a golden halo of self-righteousness that imbues it with altruistic life- and sight-saving miracle powers.

“We’re talking about saving millions of lives here,” said Nina Fedoroff, a professor and former science adviser to the Bush administration, in the New York Times recently. Dr. Fedoroff even helped spearhead a petition supporting Golden Rice, signed by thousands of like-minded scientists, many of whom “vented a simmering frustration with activist organizations like Greenpeace, which they see as playing on misplaced fear of genetic engineering in both the developing and developed worlds,” said the Times.

Yes, at issue now is not the absurdity of going to extraordinary, typically technical, First World lengths to deal with malnutrition instead of acknowledging that we already produce enough food for everyone on the planet, but just don’t have a system whereby the poor can afford to buy it. It has instead been cloaked with an aura of legitimate scientific research, the kind that could see all kinds of foodstuffs beefed up with nutrients and other cool stuff. Complaining about genetically modifying — as opposed to using natural hybridization techniques to improve  — what we eat is like complaining about progress itself, in this scenario. After all, as former Monsanto engineer Gerard Barry puts it, the idea of the poor eating healthy, abundant and varied diets is both expensive and logistically challenging.

Right.  So it’s okay for the poor to eat nothing but a couple of bowls of white rice everyday — or roti or tortillas — as long as it contains some beta-carotene.

It reminds me of something the International Institute for Environment and Development’s Diana Mitlin said to me in London earlier this year, about how “one of the appalling things about development is it’s lack of ambition.”

This came up actually in the context of the Millennium Development Goals and its (still unachieved) plan to halve extreme poverty by 2015. Indeed. Why half? “The whole concept almost goes back to, you know, Sophie’s Choice,” said Ms. Mitlin. “Which of her two children is she going to save? Which of my two children am I going to give water to?”

Today’s critics of Golden Rice are calling it a “Trojan Horse” that will help convince farmers that GM products are, in general,  not such a bad thing after all. They won’t even have to pay royalties to plant it.

But for me the very notion that someone even thought about devising something like Golden Rice is a seriously dangerous one. An either-or proposition that actually reinforces the status quo of inequality that creates entire populations of people who are dying of hunger, it’s one that says, “We really don’t care if you  are poor and hungry. We just want to make your paltry rations slightly more nutritious.’


Paulo, Maria — and the Hulk

19 Jun


About a week ago,  fully expecting to receive a ‘yes,’ I sent an email to find out if legal possession had finally been granted to the families occupying an already expropriated estate in north east Brazil. I had stayed with the families in June 2006, after which the National Institute for Agrarian Reform designated the land as “unproductive,” and visited again in 2010.

But the answer I received instead was ‘no.’ Why? “Because,” in the words of the Landless Peasant Movement coordinator there, “the purchase value is very high because of the many physical structures” on this estate.

What??? Excuse me, Brazilian government, but haven’t you just spent $30 billion on a soccer tournament? Aren’t you pouring more billions into “physical structures” for the upcoming FIFA world cup and the Olympics? You don’t have a few tens of thousands available to pay for the estate owner’s house, office and the simple concrete dam he built in the nearby Meio River?

If an illustration were needed to explain the nation-wide anti-government protests roiling Brazil right now, the predicament of landless peasant farmers like Paulo and Maria da Silva would provide the perfect one. Theirs is just one example of the extraordinary inequality between a huge population of poor and under-served Brazilians and the comparative few who have reaped fortunes from the country’s erstwhile economic boom.

For me, Paulo da Silva is one of this world’s great unsung heroes. He had a job on the 5000-hectare estate, where a Recife-based magnate named Slaibe Hatem raised a few cattle. When the MST targeted the land for occupation and expropriation, he went straight down to join them, frustrated for years by his paltry salary and the unrelenting refusal of the estate manager to let him plant a garden, raise chickens or even collect honey. He has stuck with the occupation through thick and thin, patiently waiting for the day when the INCRA would finally — finally — make good on its decision to hand this enormous piece of land to the hundreds of poverty stricken families who would turn it into a patchwork of productive farm land.

And now it’s saying, sorry, giving you the right to earn your own living is just too expensive. There is money for show-off projects that will bring no economic capacity to Brazil, but none for agrarian reform, education, health care or paying the people, whose houses we have bulldozed in order to build stadiums, a fair and decent indemnification.

The lack of action on the plight of Paulo and Maria da Silva is especially heart-breaking. I have huge respect for this couple and know about their many great ideas to make Hatem’s former fazenda a model of diversified organic farming, including a major honey operation that could potentially boost exports and provide jobs in a region where unemployment is chronic.

No one should be surprised at the level of fury behind the current protests in Brazil. People expected better of a government run by the Workers Party, a party that struggled for years to win acceptance and always vowed to forge a different, more equitable society. Because of their popular political positions, it was difficult to organize any meaningful protests against them when they fouled up on their principles, although in fact, the MST has been demonstrating for years on the lack of importance given to agrarian reform. But now the rhetoric of the WP government has been shown for hollow thing it is, and the tables are being turned. For several days now, hundreds of thousands of people have taken to the streets of Rio, Sao Paulo, Florianopolis, Curitiba, Belo Horizonte and Belem. On Tuesday, members of Toronto’s Brazilian community held a sympathy march in front of City Hall.

Even the Brazil team midfielder Givanildo Vieira de Souza, known as Hulk, has come out in defence of the protesters. “I come from the bottom of the social ladder and now I have a good life,” he said. “I see these demonstrators and I know that they are right.”

So if the news about Paulo has left me depressed and incredibly indignant, the news a few days later about the scope and determination of the protestors has given me back some hope. I hope it gives Paulo some as well. And I hope Brazil’s bureaucracy wakes up, looks out the window and sees the real Hulk, the average person who has turned into an angry, fed-up super-hero. And  realizes that these are the people they should be working for. Not a government that has lot all sense of fairness, honesty and integrity.

(This great little video by Carla Dauden has me feeling pretty good as well.)

Two Stories: Flora and Elie

28 Jan

Last week, I bought my dog — a pug named Flora — rubber boots.

Last month, a two-year-old boy in Haiti named Elie Joseph died from gastro-intestinal infection, complicated by the fact that he had a hole in his heart.

Photo: John Carroll

Photo: John Carroll

There’s nothing wrong with buying rubber boots for my dog, of course. They only cost a few dollars and allow her to keep going for walks through all the slush and salt on the city sidewalks this winter.

But I can’t help but think that my dog, that any dog in Canada, receives better care than a toddler like Elie, than any poor child in Haiti. Here, even poor people can take care of their dogs, make sure they at least have enough to eat and a warm place to sleep.

I know about Elie because Dr. John Carroll wrote a blog post about him yesterday. According to Dr. Carroll, Elie and his family had been living in a tent in an IDP camp called Cite Aviation since the earthquake that ruined their house. His parents and an older sister, a little girl called Karen, are still there, of course. The Haitian government can find land to build a five-star hotel near Petion Ville, but it can’t find land to build apartments for families like the Josephs.

Last February, Elie’s mother, Claudette, brought him to the peds clinic where Dr. Carroll works, and where an examination showed that he had a congenital heart defect, called a ventricular septal defect.

Elie and his Mom were supposed to go to the Dominican Republic (paid for by a U.S. charity) for an operation that is routine here. But the Haitian bureaucracy kept delaying the issue of a passport which  would allow them both to take that lifesaving journey.

“Due to Claudette’s excellent care, Elie was able to survive somehow in the filthy subhuman environment of Cite Aviation,” Dr. Carroll writes. But last month, he became sick with diarrhea and vomiting. He spent seven days in a hospital but could not eat anything despite getting medication, and on the seventh day, he died.

Dr. Carroll asked Elie’s parents, he writes, “if they thought it was the Haitian government’s responsibility to help them out. They calmly replied that yes they thought it was the government’s responsibility but in three years they had never seen anyone from the government visiting their tent city. They said they would be happy if a government official did visit. I asked them if they are angry about their situation. They said they are not angry that they live in these dire conditions. They explained to me that they have no money to build or rent. They didn’t take it any further than that. They never blamed anyone for anything and they didn’t blame anyone for Elie’s death.”

Dr. Carroll also writes about the utter lack of urgency in housing Haiti’s 350,000 homeless people still living in tents. And it’s true: during both my trips there last year and through all the reading and research I’ve done, I haven’t seen any sense of indignation, any show of energy from anyone, whether it be the government, the big lenders or the big donors or the NGOs, expended in dealing with this problem. It’s just ‘well, there’s no land and no clear land tenure, so it can’t be done.’

And so today I think about the death of a fragile little boy whose entire life span fits into the post-earthquake period, whose entire life was spent in a tent in a slum. And I wonder what kind of a world we live in where some of us are so care-free and others so care-worn, about what it must be like for Claudette to have lost her battle to save a child who clung so fiercely to her, it was difficult for Dr. Carroll to even get his stethoscope onto his chest.

This story doesn’t make me angry either, just sad. Making dinner in my nice warm house, the snow-covered garden outside dark and silent, it makes me feel even more solicitous towards Flora, feeding her pieces of chopped apple, relieved to have her company because, somehow, she takes me away from all things human and into a simpler world, of simple needs and unalterable affection, simply given.

There is no moral to this story and nothing to say. It’s just one more minute detail in a system that imposes this reality on us, in a picture that is, in so many ways, all wrong.