Tag Archives: social movements

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.

Meet Daniel Tillias

16 Apr



DSCF1057Daniel Tellias is a person I respect a lot. He  works with young people to counter gang violence and crime in his Port au Prince district, a special place called Cite Soleil.


Cite Soleil is special mostly for the wrong reasons. It is a slum where people with no money struggle to make a living; it houses many of the ill-paid factory workers who toil in Haiti’s garment industry; it’s right on the Bay of Gonâves so all of the trash from the upper parts of the city come flowing down into the St. George Canal from which it spills out onto the street and into people’s shacks; its neighbourhoods are divided by pointless, usually violent rivalry; and it is the go-to place for unscrupulous politicians for all stripes to buy gang support that makes them look like “Men of the People.”

But as Daniel says, it is also a place of resistance and struggle.

I first met Daniel two years ago, when I went to check out the organization he founded, the Community Centre for Peace Alternatives, or SAKALA, to use its Creole acronym. SAKALA had organized a soccer team, called Union, built a community centre, and established a community garden on a piece of landfill using old tires as planters.

This is what it looked like in 2012 ->6758004553_18fcc3c4a3








<- And this is what it looks like now.







Here are some excerpts from an interview I did with Daniel, who speaks fluent English, last month.

So, what has been happening in the past two years with SAKALA?

I would say that the last two years have been the most difficult because that is when the international community started to forget about Haiti. And a lot has changed for me because I have understood that it would never be the change we want to see, or the improvements we want to see, with the support of the international community. It has to be by Haitians and for Haitians.

I always use this motto that says ‘it’s not about them, it’s all about us.’ It’s us who let this country fall into this trap, into this condition, so it should be about us to have it rise again.

Why do you think the international support has been drying up?

Right after the earthquake, NGOs were mostly flirting with (local) organizations so that they can justify, I would say, money that they have received. Two years later, they don’t have this money anymore. Two years later, people don’t really see Haiti as a country that has been devastated by an earthquake. They just see Haiti as a failing state, so it goes back to Haitians to really make a difference.

You just got back from India, where you went as part of the masters program you are enrolled in with a U.S. organization called Future Generations. What did you get from that trip?

If there’s one thing that I’ve learned, and I’m very grateful, it’s that many countries that really made a difference in their lives, they did it through their own effort.

I’m glad that I know about this and that is why I am really trying to build on this seed, trying to find in Haiti things that are working so that people will remember, again, that it’s about them to make a difference. So I would say that yes, a lot has changed. We know that we can longer depend on the aid promise, or on the international community, so we have to find simple ways to make things happen.

Do you see that as a positive thing?

When you keep receiving you think there’s always going to be a way to get something from someone. Until one day you knock at one door and you have a negative response, you start questioning yourself and saying, ‘hmm, maybe it’s not that easy. Maybe I have to find alternatives.’ When someone can have a chance to really reflect on this, that’s when I think it starts. To me that’s really positive, but we need to find people channeling this positiveness toward great effort. Instead of having people say, ‘oh, we should go look for more in NGOs. Or different NGOs, from a different country.’ They should start thinking about how would we find a way to deal with this on our own.

What about peace building here?

This is a constant challenge because while we do this, government people, business people, do the exact opposite thing, trying to pay gangs, trying to pay for demonstrations in the street and it’s really like, you try to do this with all your strength, while these people are trying the negative way and people tend to try to easiest way.

Cite Soleil is a meeting place, a place that when it rises the whole country feels it should follow, because it is a place of resistance, a place of struggle.

(But) when you have control over the head guy, even if there’s a big mess in the country, you can tell the guy, you know what? I will take care of you. But please don’t have Cité Soleil  rise and mess up everything.

So they want to keep on manipulating the people here? If they have a meeting or demonstration, they want these people to show up and make this person look popular?


It’s like they are the extras in his personal movie?

Exactly. It’s really bad because when you try to work with the guys and explain to them that we are not the enemy, that you should be working together so that we can get schools, we can get jobs, and the (politician) says, ‘you know what? I have $50,000 for you, but I need 1000 guys in the street.’ It’s like you don’t tell someone not to get $50,000.

But there have been some good changes over the past two yeas as well, right?

I am very positive about our efforts, and the kids still come from everywhere in Cité Soleil. People really respect them, and value them. People see them as the future. People see them as ambassadors. And the soccer team has even moved now to second division league. People are very excited about that.

So people talk about that, and not just about Cité Soleil as the most violent neighborhood, or the most trash neighborhood or just gangsters. They talk about these talented kids playing with a lot of fair play and a lot of happiness, and taking school and education more seriously. To me that’s good but we need to build on this to get more from it.

You were also on CNN last year!

Yeah, that was good. Coming from CNN, that has always talked about Cité Soleil for the violence and everything, it was definitely positive.  And this inspired people here, as well, to know that people really value what we are doing here.

So what are these trees that I didn’t see the last time I was here?

Those are moringa trees. Mostly they dry the leaves and use them as a food supplement. More and more people come to us and ask if they can have a couple seedlings that they can plant at home. People from all of the neighborhoods come and harvest the leaves which are really good in soup. They can come anytime they want but I really encourage them to plant their own tree.

We’ve spoken before about how international aid tends to encourage people to focus on their needs, instead of their abilities, because that is what their funding is for, and therefore fosters this situation where there is a kind of pay-off in being in need instead of organizing for systemic change.

This is the kind of vicious circle I would like to see broken, so people can start thinking they have the potential to do a lot more than what they’ve been doing so far. And that’s why I am so happy with this garden. Our wish is that we can send an example to the whole country, teach people that this is happening in Cité Soleil so it can happen everywhere. So why don’t you start your own garden? Why don’t you start eating Haiti? Why don’t you start eating what you grow? And to me this is a revolution that will make a huge difference.




It’s Back!: Sand, Solidarity and Occupy Sandy

13 Nov

Photo: Natalia Porter

Last weekend while in New York doing research, I spent some time helping out at one of the many distribution centres set up in Brooklyn and other parts of the city now offering clothing, bedding, groceries and hot meals to people still suffering the effects of Hurricane Sandy.

Mine was in Coney Island and I only had to walk by one open door to a dank and ruined basement apartment, a mound of broken and softened drywall on the sidewalk, to imagine what having your home flooded is really like.

Down on the beachfront, with its iconic Ferris wheel and hotdog shacks, people were picking rubbish and wreckage off the shore and shoveling sand off of the boardwalk. Further up, mounds of trash were still piled onto the sidewalks, and parked cars left with the grimy imprint of rising water. ‘I want to buy your flood car,’ one enterprising person had written on signs taped to their windows, along with a phone number.

The place where I worked was a small evangelical temple with a mostly Hispanic congregation, and most of those arriving there with their little kids and many needs were immigrants from Central America, Mexico and the Caribbean. The church, itself barely cleared after being flooded as well, was packed with giant bags of and boxes of donated items. In the middle of it all, a long trestle table was spread with buffet-style metal servers of chicken, rice and chile con carne.

I spent most of my time sorting and dividing up the packs of clothing into boxes by age and gender; these would, in turn, be trucked out to other centres in the devastated Rockaways and Staten Island.

And one of the organizations sending out both volunteers by the dozen and  supplies by the ton was Occupy Sandy.

That’s right. The Occupy movement is back. And in New York, most of its energies are going towards providing — not charity, but mutual aid, as they like to call it — to Sandy’s many victims, especially the poor. People who lost not only personal possessions but electrical power, heat and in some cases, their homes.

“This is a tragedy that is still unfolding,” as a guy named Justin had put it earlier in the day at an Episcopal church in Clinton Heights, where people young and old were showing up in droves to see what they could do.

Occupy Sandy was restocking “a bunch of recovery sites,” he told a group of us. “People are communicating what the needs are with us through different means to let us know what’s going on,” he said, “and other people go to the recovery areas and distribute supplies out to individuals.”

According to Justin, Occupy Sandy — written up just last Sunday in the New York Times — was also looking for volunteers to go out into apartment buildings and talk to tenants as well. The idea was not so much to ask, ‘what do you need,’ but to engage in active listening. That way, he said, “they would become part of it as well; they start sharing the hotline number and resources and we can start amplifying our efforts.”

Occupy Wall Street got back together a couple of months ago in Zuccotti Park on its one-year anniversary, according to an older woman named Fatima, camped out in front of Trinity church in Lower Manhattan. While there was certainly a kind of organized disorganization to everything the previous day, the work Occupy Sandy was doing now wouldn’t have been possible, she said, without that two-month-old revival.

“One of the things it was able to establish was this network of people who had a common goal, as far as being the change you want to see in the rest of the world,” she said.

With the hurricane and its resulting chaos, “everybody was almost instantaneously able to mobilize, groups of volunteers who already know how to do a kitchen, how to contact each other and go into areas where there was nothing. Because that’s what the Park was; it was just a space that developed into a community within a couple of weeks with a kitchen, a media centre, a distribution centre, a mobile medical tent, everything a community needs,” she told me.

“For some of us,” she added, “it was about getting together, those of us with like minds, to figure out how to create a network to move this up and out and back into families and communities and address the issues that are going on.”

Based on their interests, abilities or perspectives, occupiers broke out into all kinds of different working groups, she said, “because there’s a million different issues on the table.”

Fatima said that she believed that, previously, most observers hadn’t seen what she called “the good that was being done behind the scenes” at Occupy, “that it is in the communities, that it is outreach and feeding station and free stores and ‘what can we do to help your community?’ It isn’t about charity because mutual aid is a community effort. It’s helping communities help themselves.”

Meanwhile, the tiny encampment at places like Trinity or the home of the CEO of Goldman Sachs was just a small part now of what Occupy was all about. “This is ground action,” she said, referring to the flattened cardboard and sleeping bags, bringing them some added visibility “and to set up a platform for people to come by and discuss and ‘oh, I didn’t know you were still here,’” she said, “because there’s a ton of Occupys throughout the city that people don’t see.”

So, aside from Sandy, what does the future hold for the Occupy movement? For Fatima, “now, we’re starting to blossom. It’s starting to resonate.

Yet it is still difficult, she admitted, “to figure out what we’re about, because we are all different people and come from different perspectives. But we all agree on one thing: something has to happen. Something’s got to change.”

Forty years from now — “because it takes a long time for stuff to happen” — the history books will have the final say, she felt, on this unusual and innovative but possibly unworkable movement. “Either they’ll say ‘how fabulous. Look at all the stuff they’ve done. Or else they’ll say, what a bunch of assholes. We don’t know.”

The thing about social movements is that there is no way to predict what will happen to them. The important thing, however, is that they are there, like all those young people who understand that solidarity is part of what makes us human, and that whatever our problems, we are all in this together.

The Dinosaurs Are Back

3 Jul

It’s not easy to put a brave face on it. The return of the Party of the Institutional Revolution to power in Mexico, the thought of the vapid Enrique Peña Nieto and his wife Angelica Rivera (star of one of the most ridiculous soap operas ever) smugly walking into the presidential home of Los Pinos, the galling prospect of the most corrupt old guard of Mexico’s political class — from Emilio Azcarraga to Elba Esther Gordillo –congratulating themselves for having pulled the wool over the eyes of the voters yet again.

There’s no way to look at it coolly, to not feel emotional about it, or to think of some justification for why so many people in Mexico voted for appearance over substance.

And so I can not only imagine but share the deep and dispiriting frustration that has now taken hold of all those people, especially young people who will see six more years of the status quo, and who tried valiantly in the days prior to Sunday’s election, as they realize that, yet again, liberal democracy has let them down.

As in the past, moreover, Mexico City, home to about one-fifth of the entire population, voted overwhelmingly for Peña Nieto’s main opponent, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador of the PRD, meaning the aspirations of the more progressive-minded capitalinos, rich and poor, educated or not, are being held back by the rest. The dinosaurs are back and the Jurassic Park they will run in Mexico leaves a lot of people yearning for a different country.

So I am not going to try to search for any silver linings to this particular cloud — except to say that, with the mess Peña Nieto and his administration are bound to make over the next six years, things should be looking great for a Marcelo Ebrard candidacy in 2018!

Viore Cafe’s post election poster

Selling Land, Stealing Livelihoods

14 Dec

Today the International Land Coalition released a report they and several other organizations joined together to produce on the buying up of arable land in poor nations for immense personal and corporate profit. Think of a country where protests erupt — like Egypt — or where donors send money to help the poverty stricken — almost everywhere in sub-Saharan Africa — and you will find rural families’ inability to make a living at the root of their poverty. While they own tiny parcels of land that don’t allow them to eat, let alone prosper, either wealthy families or the state itself control extremely large swathes of it.

So the report and its findings make for dire news indeed. In fact, it’s hard to know where to begin. Researchers found purchase or lease deals adding up to 203 million hectares between 2000 and 2010, most of them in Africa. While 78 per cent of those deals they were able to cross-reference went to agriculture, only about a quarter was destined for the cultivation of food. The rest was for revenue-rich bio-fuel production.

Other scary conclusions include the fact the best, most fertile land is usually targeted for lease or purchase; that poor farmers are being dispossessed of both land held by custom and access to water; that rural women are particularly vulnerable; and that extensive areas of natural ecosystems are being felled for bio-fuel, tourism, industrial projects and so on.

“The competition for land is becoming increasingly global and increasingly unequal,” said ILC Director Madiodio Niasse in a press release from the International Institute for Environment and Development. “Weak governance, corruption and a lack of transparency in decision-making, which are key features of the typical environment in which large-scale land acquisitions take place, mean that the poor gain few benefits from these deals but pay high costs.”

I have posted twice already about these ‘new enclosures’ and written about foreign companies coming in to desperately poor nations to make use of their best land. But apparently, national elites – who are often let off the hook for taxes in order to attract investment — are playing a far larger role in land grabbing than previously thought.

What else lies behind this pernicious trend that will only deepen rural poverty in the third world?

It is actually the same political and economic structure that has people protesting from Wall Street to West Africa: the notion that financial elites know what is best for the rest of us. It simply flies in the face of common sense to think we should help the poor of the developing world with meager handouts and let big business convert their land into mega-estates.

But as the IIED’s Lorenzo Cotula (one of the report’s authors) put it, “Part of the problem is … that many policymakers think small-scale farming has no future and that large scale, intensive agriculture is the best way to achieve food security and support national development.”

Personally, I don’t think many policy makers truly believe that. I can’t help but surmise instead that affluent nation governments and the corporations that donate to their legislators think that there are still more ways to squeeze what little they have out of the world’s poorest.

Getting Their Act Together

18 Oct

It’s interesting how one of the most common themes taken up when people talk about the Occupy Wall Street movement – aside from marvelling at its staying power – is its lack of focus. At the same many say they support what they’re doing, they complain about the fact that they have no concrete demands and no leaders.

One Idea

So I have been thinking about this lately, after hanging around Toronto’s Occupy Canada site for a while on Saturday, and following a lot of the comments all kinds of people, from my FB friends to Paul Krugman to even a PR expert, have been making. And oddly, I think the point has been lost: namely, that we’re talking about it!
We’re all thinking about the fact that an ever-growing group of people is saying what none of our so-called leaders in politics, business or the media are saying, that there is something very wrong with the status quo. That the wealthy have inordinate power over democratic processes, to the point where the whole shebang is being called into question.
I can’t help but think about some of the social movements I have been following for several years now, from urban poverty activists to La Via Campesina. Often, those movements do not set up a hierarchy of leaders, and purposely so. They want to keep the ideas and opinions of their members bubbling up and flowing to the surface. They want just regular folks to know they’ve got space in there to voice what they think.
The results are always going to be dispersed – but broad. If you look at the Sept. 30th “Declaration of the Occupation of New York City” (helpfully provided by a guy on the sidewalk near King subway stop on Saturday), you’ll find a long list of observations and complaints, from the corporate bailouts to illegal foreclosures to media control to a monopolized food system based largely on animal torture. And at the end of that long list there is an asterisk. Below, the asterisk is explained –“These grievances are not all-inclusive.”
Personally, I am hoping that this whole phenomenon is a process, one in which demands will coalesce, and strategies and solutions will – ideally – evolve. We often forget that real democracy is not a small group of people “leading” a far larger one and speaking on their behalf. It’s all about discussion and argument and time, about realizing that, if you want something to change, you need to think about what and say so. I may not have the same issues an unemployed person does. I support the movement because our current government bugs me so much, with its smug, small-minded and self-serving actions, whether that’s denying a union of (mostly female) flight attendants the basic right to demand better conditions and wages through a strike , spending $35 billion on battleships instead of something useful, like infrastucture – or in a recent, under-reported move, blacklisting a Canadian artist named Franke James because her work criticizes the oil-sands project they love so much. (Ms. James said their meddling has caused sponsors in 20 European cities to withdraw support for a tour she was preparing. A nice day’s work for diplomats whose salaries we pay.)

What will happen as the weather grows colder and staying in a park outdoors just becomes crazy? Sure, many people will probably need to move. But I have a feeling that new methods of protest – and above all of getting us to pay attention to the massive injustices that go on around us every day – will manifest themselves. So let’s stick together, and not let the complexity deter us from keeping this great act on the road.

And Another Idea

Voices for Change

12 Oct


Harvesting the Fruits of Solidarity


I subscribe to a great wordpress blog called What Gives, one that offers a daily dose of optimism by shining light onto a series of wonderful projects, many of them set up by regular folk who are just trying to help others. A particular favourite was one that rescued baby elephants. Others showcased Room to Read, the Little Flowers School for children in India too poor to pay school fees, and yet another, One World Futbol, that brought unbreakable plastic soccer balls to impoverished youngsters around the world. Recently, tho’, I was inspired by one on something called the Voice Project to investigate further and come up with an article for the Toronto Star.

The Voice Project not only offers viewers truly amazing video clips of musicians singing to support a cause – in this case, women in northern Uganda who are trying to bring home family members press-ganged into Joseph Kony’s notorious Lord’s Resistance Army. It also introduces to people like me the talents and integrity of a great many superb musicians one might have heard of before.

But aside from that, it provides a glimpse into the connect between art or music and honest (as opposed to press-hungry) solidarity. As Bedouin Soundclash bass guitarist Eon Sinclair told me during the interview I did with him for the article, “I think that as artists we are afforded a real opportunity to really create awareness of some things, whether you like it or not. You have a platform to do it. Not everyone chooses to do it but think the three of us,” he added, referring to the band, “have grown up somewhat socially conscious with some reference for our environment and the people that inhabit it as well. So whenever we have those opportunities we try to think critically about how we can help.”

As the article states, the band chose a song by K’naan, another extraordinary talent, who Canada has adopted as its own despite the fact he was born in war-torn Somalia. K’naan not only contributes a lot to important causes – his producer, Sol Guy, frequently speaks in schools about the power of culture in effecting social change  – but often addresses social, race and I would say even political issues head on in his art.

In fact, art and music can sustain and entertainment us, and also work as powerful weapons against status-quo thinking. “From the moment that we are able to step in front of a group of people,” said Eon, “and have them appreciate the music and take it in, you realize how powerful that medium actually is. Having a great speech or a powerful quote is a great thing to be lasting, but a melody or a rhythm seems to be able to quickly penetrate people.”

So aside from the link to my article, do yourself the favour of checking out The Voice Project at http://www.voiceproject.org