Report: Unfair, Unsustainable, and Under the Radar

undertheradar-lowresA paper from the Democracy Center, published May 2013, sheds an urgent public light on the system of international investment rules and arbitration tribunals that is being used by corporations to undermine citizen and government action on a range of urgent social and environmental issues.

On this page you can read an article and a summary of the report, listen to an interview with the author, watch the video, and share the news on social media.

Here you can read the full report.

Versión en español se encuentra aquí.

Posted in Corporate, Featured, News | 1 Comment

Some good news from the climate battlefield…

by Ben Castle



Let’s face it- climate change is just too depressing. Hardly a week goes by without us hearing of new temperature records being set. This summer the US has suffered one of the worst droughts in living memory and just two weeks ago we were told that Arctic sea ice cover had reached a new record low. All the while our political leaders seem unable, or perhaps unwilling, to take the necessary actions to avoid disaster. The annual climate summits now follow an all too familiar pattern of encouraging rhetoric, followed by long rounds of finger-pointing, before agreement is reached to effectively put-off making any major commitments. This collective failure of our political leaders to get to grips with climate change recently led the IEA to warn that the world is now on course for at least 6° warming this century, a pace of change far greater and more dangerous than previously feared.

Protesters in Andhra Pradesh, India, march in opposition to the planned Sompeta coal plant

Given this outlook we could all be forgiven for reaching for a large drink (or three!), or worse: giving up on any thoughts of fighting to change the worsening status quo. However, while things may appear grim, there are reasons for optimism. Right now across the world there are thousands of inspirational true stories being created by citizens who are leading the fight against climate change from their villages, towns and cities. They are making a stand and delivering real action while refusing to wait for their political leaders to catch up.

The Democracy Centre today brings you seven in-depth profiles of such campaigns from across the globe. We don’t often get to hear the positive news, but climate activists are beating powerful oil companies on the ballot in California, halting fracking plans in Bulgaria and elsewhere, putting a stop to new coal-fired power plants in India and Kosovo, challenging coal export infrastructure in the US, pushing infrastructure creation for renewable alternatives in Thailand, and challenging Hollywood from the classroom. In many of these important fights decisive victories are being won. If our societies are to kick their deadly addiction to fossil fuels, it will be the cumulative result of these hundreds and thousands of local battles fought by normal, yet extraordinary, citizens.

These stories are helpful for putting to rest any creeping pessimism. They also offer vital lessons for those of us engaged in climate change campaigning. Paying careful attention to the experiences of fellow activists can teach us how to ensure that our efforts are as strategic and worthwhile as possible. After all, we don’t want to waste our own energy as well. We reached out to lead campaign organizers in five countries to get to the heart of their planning and pass on a detailed understanding of their objectives and targets, what alliances they formed, what messages they framed and what actions they took – and to find out what worked and why.

The series of profiles is designed to allow readers to trace the strategic thinking behind these important wins and see why and how it achieved results. They illustrate, for example, the importance of communication and messaging strategies which focus on the negative local impacts of climate-altering projects. While many campaigners will be rightly motivated by the threat of global climate change, highlighting the damage a project will cause to health or livelihoods in the immediate vicinity will, these profiles demonstrate, often be far more politically fruitful. In the fight for a better climate future sharing some smart action in the midst of bad news has never been more necessary.

Posted in Advocacy, Climate, Featured, Getting Action | 2 Comments

Launch of ‘Climate Change is About…Water’ microsite

Dear Readers:

Twelve years ago this month, in April 2000, Bolivia drew worldwide attention due to the Cochabamba Water Revolt – a battle over who would control water: the people or a giant global corporation. Today the people of Bolivia are again at the center of a struggle over water, this one with even deeper implications for the nation’s future. Today the struggle is not over who will control water but whether some areas will have any water at all. Global climate change threatens Bolivia’s natural water systems like no threat that has ever come before. Today with this newsletter the Democracy Center launches a major new project to help people around the world understand in a much more real and direct way the impact that climate change is having on water – and what that means for people: Climate Change is About…Water.


[Update: We are very happy to announce that the Spanish version of this new project is also now available!]

Far too often today, the crisis of global climate change is dismissed as something abstract, distant or off in the future. The people of Bolivia do not have that luxury. In Bolivia, as in many other “early impact” nations around the world, climate change is real, immediate and urgent. That urgency can be found most intensely in the crisis over water. Or three crises actually: droughts, floods and melting glaciers.

Think of it like this. For thousands of years the planet’s water system has been relatively stable and civilizations have settled themselves accordingly. We live in some places and not in others based on water. We build houses in certain ways, grow food in certain ways and organize our lives in certain ways all based on expectations about how the world’s natural water systems behave. Climate change is rearranging that whole system in radical ways – and over the quick course of a few generations, not millennia. In few places are the disastrous effects of this more on display than in Bolivia.

To capture this story in a powerful and visual way the Democracy Center team has created a new microsite, Climate Change is About…Water.  Here is some of what you’ll find there:

The Story of Drought:

Droughts are about far more than dry ground and hotweather. We visit the town of Pasorapa and document the ways in which climate change-driven drought can destroy a whole community.

The Story of Floods:

What happens when the rains don’t stop?  We visit the city of Quillacollo and see how chronic flooding brings sewage into some homes, destroys others, and wrecks the lives and dreams of those who live in the water’s relentless path.

The Death of Glaciers:

Bolivia’s Chacaltaya glacier was once the highest ski resort in the world. Now the glacier is melted and gone and never coming back. What happens to the villages beneath a glacier when it disappears – and what happens to the vast urban center that depends on threatened glaciers for their drinking water?

Climate Change is About…Water bring you images and interviews with the people living on the front lines of the climate and water crisis. If you are interested in deepening your own understanding of what climate change means, or if you are an educator looking for a way to help students understand this crisis in a clear and meaningful way, have a look. If you are an activist, journalist or a researcher looking for something in-depth, you can dig even deeper into a resource full of original research as well as links to further information.

This new multimedia site is the start of several new climate projects the Democracy Center will be rolling out over the coming months, looking both at what climate change means and also what we, as citizens, can actually do about it. Stay tuned to this newsletter for more in the months ahead and also to the Democracy Center’s main Climate and Democracy page.

Jim Shultz
The Democracy Center

What’s New in ‘Getting Action’?

What you might have missed recently on Getting Action, the Democracy Center’s global blog on citizen action and advocacy. Have a look here or via the article links below for the latest!

Interview with Emily James – Doing It Justice: In the first in our new ‘Campaigning Creatives’ series we interview the director of climate direct action documentary ‘Just Do It’

Not a Democracy News subscriber yet? Sign up.

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Beating Goliath: free campaigner resource

A resource for corporate campaigners

Published in October 2011, ‘Beating Goliath’ gathers case studies from previous successful campaigns against corporations, looking at how they won and what we can learn from them. It provides links to many useful resources for activists, and highlights current campaigns engaged in the fight against climate change through targeting corporations.

Read more and get hold of a copy here

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The Network for Justice in Global Investment



The Network for Justice in Global Investment – founded by the Democracy Center and the Institute for Policy Studies – is a joint effort by citizens and organizations across the world to challenge the unjust rules governing international investment.

Visit the website to find out more, access resources, and get involved.

Read more about our work on challenging corporate power



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Damming Dissent: How An Italian Multinational Is Persecuting Environmental Defenders In Colombia

The practices of an Italian multinational in Huila, Colombia, exemplify how the criminalization of activists is increasingly used to end dissent and real democratic participation in Latin America. We have a live campaign underway in relation to this case.  Find out more. 

By Philippa de Boissière and Thomas Mc Donagh. Originally published in Open Democracy. También en español.

“EMGESA ’s strategy is to stop this resistance, because the whole department of Huila is rising up against dams, against fracking.”
– Miller Dussan

In his late sixties, Miller Dussan is an affable, well-respected Colombian academic and community leader. Yet on 6th February 2017 the father of two will appear in court to face one of two legal charges that could see him locked behind bars for up to twelve years. Miller’s alleged crimes stem from his committed defense of Colombia’s main waterway in his native region of Huila and the livelihoods of those that depend upon it. His accuser, EMGESA, is the local subsidiary of Italian multinational energy giant ENEL.

EMGESA is the operator of the Quimbo megadam project that Dussan, together with local communities in the province of Huila, has been tirelessly resisting for nearly a decade. It is clear to those fighting this battle that the court charges are a powerful weapon which the corporation is using to try and break that resistance.

Now, instead of dedicating his energy and resources to community organizing, Dussan spends most of his time defending his name and reputation in the public media and in the courts of Colombia.

The story of the Quimbo dam and what is happening to Dussan now is an increasingly familiar one across Latin America and elsewhere, of corporations and governments clamping down on dissent by criminalizing public protest. It is yet another example of how corporate power attempts to trump people power, using criminalization as a tactic -one of many – to stamp out dissent and real democratic participation.

The Quimbo dam – A brief history

Plans for the Quimbo hydroelectric dam were initially shot down in 1997 over a series of ecological, economic and technical concerns. The impacts of stemming the flow of the Magdalena river, Colombia’s most important waterway – which assessments had indicated would displace and destroy the livelihoods of farmers and fisherfolk and put the region’s food security at risk – were deemed too high a price to pay. But ten years later, like a plot from a zombie blockbuster, the Quimbo dam project was resuscitated and forced through planning processes by the government of President Alvaro Uribe. So numerous and glaring are the exceptions that have been granted in favour of EMGESA that the megadam’s very legality remains in question.

By 2012 the predicted dire impacts of constructing the dam were becoming reality.  So much so that a coalition of residents, government and civil society bodies declared a humanitarian crisis in Huila. Nearly 1,500 people have been evicted to make way for the dam, many forcibly and without recourse to compensation. The project has destroyed thousands of hectares of the most agriculturally rich lands in the region and pushed families into economic vulnerability and food insecurity.

Environmentally, the toll is just as devastating. The project not only floods part of an Amazon Reserve, it is a climate disaster. EMGESA’s failure to comply with regulations to remove biomass from within the reservoir has turned it into a methane time bomb as a result of rotting vegetation.  Methane is 86 times more potent a greenhouse gas (GHG) than carbon dioxide in the short term.

In classic corporate spin, EMGESA’s own locally distributed radio program and newspaper paint a very different picture of el Quimbo, promising vast improvements in the wellbeing of ordinary Colombians through the provision of energy to the national grid. However, you don’t have to look too hard at the facts on the ground to see that the purpose of the project was never to serve ordinary people. Colombia already generates more energy than it consumes and President Santos’ vision for ‘development’ is hinged on the expansion of extractivism. Rather than connecting more families to the grid, the energy from el Quimbo is destined to meet the energy demands both of the export market and of new fracking and mining projects domestically.  While major hydroelectric projects are often sold as clean, green energy – this is dangerously misleading when their real beneficiaries are extractivist multinationals such as Drummond, Pacific Rubiales and Anglogold Ashanti.

Local resistance

The people of Huila take to the streets. Authors´photo. All rights reserved.

National frameworks designed to uphold human rights, including Colombia’s very own Constitution, have systematically failed to protect those living in the shadow of the megadam. International agreements, such as those ratified between Colombia and the UN International Labour Organization (ILO) have done no better in the face of Enel’s private interests.  Given the failure of both national and international safeguards, local communities were left with no recourse but to exercise their democratic rights by organising locally. The Association of those Affected by the Quimbo Dam, (ASOQUIMBO) is a collective of farmers, fisherfolk, academics, labourers and local families, formed in 2009.  Elsa Ardilla, former President of the association, explained that communities felt that they had been left with no choice but to take action when it became clear that ‘consultation’ processes were a mere formality, not actually designed to take local opinion into account. Ardilla, like Dussan, also faces criminal charges at the hands of EMGESA.

Over the past three years ASOQUIMBO has combined direct action tactics, such as public mobilisations and regional strikes, with more institutional approaches including testifying at the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.

Despite this opposition the Quimbo dam began flooding the region’s richest agricultural land in June 2015 and began generating its lucrative energy output in November of 2015 – over a year and a half late and US$256 million over budget.

Although ASOQUIMBO has not managed to block the dam’s construction, it has been successful at mobilizing broad social sectors against further extractive projects in the region. This effort has achieved numerous successes, including the election of a candidate with a strong position against the construction of new mega dams as new governor in the regional elections in late 2015, as well as the establishment of a Roundtable on Environment, Water and Territory with the aim of reviewing mining and energy policy regionally.

Miller Dussan has been at the forefront of this effort. He has been spokesperson, president, and one of the driving forces behind ASOQUIMBO since its inception in 2009.

But these successes in local organizing have come at a high price.

Together with Ardilla, Dussan is accused of obstructing public roads and affecting public order – a charge that carries up to four years in prison. According to Dussan, these charges relate to a January 2012 mobilisation that was organised by a broad range of affected social sectors – not just ASOQUIMBO- to protest damage made to a local bridge by EMGESA.

Dussan also faces a second charge for allegedly instigating the occupation of land owned by the corporation, a charge that carries a sentence of up to eight years in prison. According to Dussan’s lawyer, these charges relate to land occupations by small farmer communities in 2013 as part of a protest against forced displacement and in order to demand just compensation from the corporation.

The court cases and the potential of up to twelve years in prison now hang like a dark and threatening cloud over Dussan and ASOQUIMBO.

Criminalisation of protest as corporate strategy

While EMGESA’s persecution of Dussan through the courts is causing him and his family high levels of personal stress, the resistance leader is clear that this is about much more than him. “Their strategy is to stop this resistance, because the whole department (of Huila) is rising up against dams, against fracking”.

Indeed, more and more people across the region are connecting the dots between individual megaprojects and the overall extractivist model that they form a part of.  As well as the localised protests against the Quimbo dam, there have been several regional mobilizations and days of action against this and other extractive projects including mining and fracking – one of the most recent of which mobilised over eight thousand people in the towns of Pitalito, Garzon and Neiva in 2016.

Dussan’s lawyer, German Romero, also sees the criminalization of protest as a very deliberate strategy designed to quell dissent. According to Romero “in Colombia this is a recurring practice by multinationals…they associate themselves with powerful groups of lawyers and with sectors close to economic and political power…that are trying to affect the human rights work of social leaders or to break their organizations….It’s basically a strategy of terror, fear and repression that corporations have been involved in more and more when they feel under pressure by successful social leaders working in defence of human rights”.

The extent of the chilling effect on social protest has particular nuances in the context of Colombia – a country with some of the highest rates of both internal displacement and killings of environmental defenders in the world. The risks to prominent social leaders go way beyond attacks on their public reputation, or even their freedom. The heightened public profile and the association with criminality also bring risks to one’s safety.  According to the UN High Commission for Human Rights, fifty-seven social leaders were murderedbetween January and November 2016 in Colombia. That’s a rate of more than one every week. Many of these were social leaders defending their territories against extractive projects.

Dussan has raised these issues in previous conversations with us. “All of this has consequences here in Colombia for one’s personal security. People start to say that you’re a criminal. If somebody decided to kill me, people would say that they killed him because he was a criminal.”

Despite the dangers, civil society in the province has taken a firm stand in support of Dussan. Institutions ranging from the city council of the region’s capital Neiva to the Association of University Professors (ASPU-HUILA) of the Southern Colombia University have publicly come to his defence, calling for a halt to the ‘unjust and irregular charges that are being made against him by the Multinational EMGESA’.

Genuine justice: holding multinational corporations to account

Taking action with affected community members. Authors´photos. All rights reserved.

Although frontline land and climate struggles are being fought within communities, they are far from ‘local’. The struggles of ASOQUIMBO in Colombia, of Berta Caceres’ COPINH in Honduras and countless others represent the first line of resistance to an international raid on resources across Latin America and the Global South. The corporate players heading up this assault are causing irreparable damage to cultures, ecosystems and the climate. The bounty from these raids – the minerals, crops, grabbed land and water, fossil fuels – serve to fund lifestyles of conspicuous consumption among the world’s rich minority which stand in stark contrast to those of the people resisting such assaults.

On the 6th February, Miller Dussan and Elsa Ardilla will be back in the dock to face ENEL-EMGESA’s charges. Their liberty and personal safety hang in the balance as a result of these attempts to repress their work in defence of their communities.

Dussan’s story vividly illustrates the power imbalance at the centre of struggles for land and environmental justice. It also points to two potentially important roles for international solidarity.

The first is to deepen our collective understanding of judicial persecution and the criminalisation of protest more broadly as one of many corporate strategies being used to undermine community resistance. In Dussan’s own words “if they put me in prison, others are going to stop going out to protest”.

The second is to take the struggles of local communities to the seats to power of those who benefit most. Distance and anonymity are factors that allow corporations like ENEL to disassociate themselves from such cases and to present themselves as responsible corporations in their home countries. As such, one essential role of international solidarity must be to bridge that distance and to remove that anonymity.

To begin with, the names of those being pursued through the courts, and of those whose blood is being spilt in the quest for cheap raw materials, need to be hung around the necks of corporate CEOs such as Francesco Starace of Enel.

Posted in Climate, Corporate, Getting Action, News | Comments Off on Damming Dissent: How An Italian Multinational Is Persecuting Environmental Defenders In Colombia

Persecución y represión de defensores ambientales en Colombia

Las prácticas de una multinacional italiana en Huila, Colombia,  ejemplifican cómo se utiliza cada vez más la criminalización de los activistas para acabar con la disidencia y la participación democrática real.

Philippa de Boissière y Thomas Mc Donagh. Publicado en Democracia Abierta – also in English.

Comunidades locales organizadas. Fotografia del autor. Todos los derechos reservados.

La estrategia de Emgesa es parar la resistencia, porque ahora todo el departamento (del Huila) se está levantando en contra de todas la represas, en contra del fracking.
– Miller Dussan

Miller Dussán es un carismático y muy respetado académico y líder comunitario colombiano. Sin embargo, el 6 de febrero de 2017, este dirigente de 67 años de edad y padre de dos hijos, debe presentarse ante un tribunal para enfrentarse a uno de los dos procesos legales, que sumados podrían derivar en su encarcelamiento por 12 años. Los supuestos crímenes por los que se acusa a Miller provienen de la defensa comprometida del principal cauce de agua en Colombia ubicado en su región natal, el departamento de Huila, y de los medios de subsistencia de aquellos que dependen de este cauce. Su acusador, EMGESA, es la filial local de la gigante multinacional de energía italiana, ENEL.

EMGESA es la empresa operadora del proyecto hidroeléctrico El Quimbo, al que Dussán, junto con las comunidades locales del departamento del Huila, han resistido incansablemente durante casi una década. Es claro para aquellos que luchan que los procesos judiciales son una poderosa arma que la corporación está utilizando para tratar de romper esta resistencia.

Ahora, en lugar de dedicar su energía y recursos a la organización comunitaria, Dussán pasa la mayor parte de su tiempo defendiendo su nombre y reputación en los medios de comunicación públicos y en los tribunales de Colombia.

La historia de la represa de El Quimbo y lo que le está sucediendo a Dussán es una historia cada vez más común en toda América Latina y en otros lugares, en donde las corporaciones y los gobiernos reprimen la disidencia criminalizando la protesta social. Esto es otro ejemplo de cómo el poder corporativo intenta sobreponerse al poder de la gente, utilizando la criminalización como una táctica – de entre muchas otras –  para acabar con la disidencia y la participación democrática real de la población.

La represa de El Quimbo – una breve historia.

Inicialmente los planes para la represa hidroeléctrica de El Quimbo se vinieron abajo en 1997, debido a una serie de preocupaciones ambientales, económicas y técnicas. Se consideró que los impactos de represar el caudal del río Magdalena, la vía navegable más importante de Colombia, eran demasiado altos, pues los estudios indicaban que se desplazarían y destruirían los medios de subsistencia de los agricultores y pescadores de la zona, poniendo en peligro la seguridad alimentaria de la región. Sin embargo, diez años más tarde, como si se tratara de una película de zombies, el proyecto de la represa de El Quimbo fue resucitado y viabilizado forzosamente por el gobierno del entonces presidente Álvaro Uribe. No obstante, han sido tan numerosas y evidentes las excepciones que se han concedido a favor de EMGESA, que hasta ahora todavía sigue en duda la legalidad de la mega-represa.

Para el año 2012, los graves impactos previstos de la construcción de la represa se estaban convirtiendo en realidad. Fue tanto así que una coalición de residentes y representantes de organizaciones de la sociedad civil y de algunos organismos gubernamentales, declaró una crisis humanitaria en el Huila. Casi 1.500 personas habían sido desalojadas para dar paso a la represa, muchas por la fuerza y sin recurrir a compensación. El proyecto ha destruido miles de hectáreas de las tierras más ricas para la agricultura de la región y ha llevado a las familias a una situación de vulnerabilidad económica e inseguridad alimentaria.

En términos ambientales, el daño es sencillamente devastador. El proyecto no solo inunda parte de una Reserva Amazónica, sino también significa un desastre climático. El incumplimiento por parte de Emgesa de las regulaciones para retirar la biomasa del interior del embalse lo ha convertido en una bomba de tiempo de metano debido a la descomposición de la vegetación que quedó bajo el agua. El metano, como gas de efecto invernadero (GEI), es 86 vecesmás potente que el dióxido de carbono  en el corto plazo.

Siguiendo un clásico comportamiento corporativo, el programa de radio y el periódico difundidos localmente por EMGESA, pintan un cuadro muy diferente de El Quimbo, prometiendo grandes mejoras en el bienestar de la población a través de la provisión de energía a la red nacional. Sin embargo, no se tiene que indagar mucho en los hechos  para entender que el propósito del proyecto nunca fue servir a la población. Colombia ya genera más energía de la que consume, y la visión  de “desarrollo” del Presidente Santos depende de la expansión del extractivismo. En lugar de conectar a más familias a la red, la energía de El Quimbo está destinada a satisfacer las demandas energéticas tanto del mercado de exportación como de nuevos proyectos de minería y fracking (explotación de hidrocarburos mediante la fractura hidráulica) en el país. Aunque los grandes proyectos hidroeléctricos a menudo se venden como energía limpia y verde, esto es peligrosamente engañoso cuando sus verdaderos beneficiarios son multinacionales extractivistas como Drummond, Pacific Rubiales y Anglogold Ashanti.

Resistencia local

La población del departamento de Huila toma las calles. Fotografia del autor. Todos los derechos reservados.

Los marcos nacionales diseñados para defender los derechos humanos, incluyendo la propia Constitución de Colombia, han fallado de manera sistemática a la hora de proteger a los que viven bajo la sombra de la mega-represa. Los acuerdos internacionales, como los ratificados por Colombia en la Organización Internacional del Trabajo (OIT) de las Naciones Unidas, tampoco sirvieron de nada  frente a los intereses privados de ENEL. Dado el fracaso de las salvaguardas nacionales e internacionales, las comunidades locales no tuvieron más remedio que ejercer sus derechos democráticos mediante la organización local. La Asociación de los Afectados por el Proyecto Hidroeléctrico de El Quimbo (ASOQUIMBO) es una organización creada en 2009 y formada por campesinos, pescadores, académicos, trabajadores y familias locales. De acuerdo a Elsa Ardilla, ex presidenta de la asociación, las comunidades no tuvieron  más remedio que actuar cuando se puso en evidencia de que los procesos de “consulta” eran una mera formalidad, y que no estaban diseñados realmente para tener en cuenta la opinión de la población local. Ardilla, al igual que Dussán, enfrenta cargos criminales impulsados por EMGESA.

Durante los últimos tres años, ASOQUIMBO ha combinado tácticas de acción directa, como movilizaciones públicas  y huelgas regionales, además de otras iniciativas con enfoques más institucionales, incluyendo una intervención en la Corte Interamericana de Derechos Humanos.

A pesar de esta oposición, la represa de El Quimbo comenzó a inundar las tierras agrícolas más ricas de la región en junio de 2015, y comenzó a generar su lucrativa producción de energía en noviembre de 2015, con un atraso de un año y medio y 256 millones de dólares por encima del presupuesto original.

Aunque ASOQUIMBO no ha logrado bloquear la construcción de la represa, ha tenido éxito en la movilización de amplios sectores sociales contra nuevos proyectos extractivos en la región. Este esfuerzo ha logrado numerosos éxitos, incluyendo la elección de un candidato opositor a la construcción de nuevas represas como nuevo gobernador del Departamento de Huila en las elecciones regionales de  finales de 2015. También se ha creado una Mesa sobre Ambiente, Agua y Territorio, con el fin de replantear la política minero energética en favor de la región, que no afecte medio ambiente.

Miller Dussán ha estado a la vanguardia de este esfuerzo. Ha sido portavoz, presidente y uno de los impulsores de ASOQUIMBO desde su creación en 2009. Pero este éxito en la organización local le está costando un alto precio. Junto a Elsa Ardilla, Miller Dussán enfrenta cargos que pueden llevarlo a prisión durante 4 años. Según Dussán, estos cargos se remontan a una movilización llevada adelante en enero de 2012, y que fue organizada por una amplia gama de sectores sociales de la región afectada -no sólo ASOQUIMBO- para protestar por los daños causados en un puente local por parte de EMGESA.

Dussán también se enfrenta a un segundo proceso, supuestamente por ser autor  intelectual de promover invasiones de tierras en localidades de EMGESA, un cargo que lleva una sentencia de hasta de 8 años. Según la defensa de Dussán, estos cargos se remiten a las ocupaciones de las propias tierras por parte de comunidades campesinas en 2013, como parte de una protesta en contra del desplazamiento forzado y con el fin de exigir una justa compensación de la corporación.

Esta posibilidad de ser condenado – sumando los dos procesos – a una pena de hasta doce años de prisión, significan una dura amenaza en contra Miller Dussán y por consiguiente en contra de ASOQUIMBO.

Criminalización de la protesta social como estrategia corporativa

Tomando acciones con los miembros afectados de la comunidad. Fotografia del autor. Todos los derechos reservados.

La persecución de EMGESA a Dussán por medio de los tribunales está provocando en él y en su familia altos niveles de estrés y preocupación personal. Sin embargo, el líder de la resistencia tiene claro de que esto va mucho más allá de él. “La estrategia de EMGESA es parar la resistencia, porque ahora se está levantando todo el departamento (del Huila) en contra de todas la represas, en contra del fracking”, afirma.

En efecto, cada vez más personas en toda la región están relacionando cada uno de los megaproyectos individuales con el modelo extractivista general del que forman parte. Además de las protestas territoriales en contra de la represa de El Quimbo, se han producido varias movilizaciones regionales y jornadas de acción en contra de otros proyectos extractivos, como la minería y el  fracking, siendo una de las más grandes una reciente movilización llevada adelante el 2016, y que contó con la participación de más de 8000 personas en Pitalito Garzón y Neiva, Huila.

El abogado de Dussán, Germán Romero, también considera que la criminalización de la protesta social es una estrategia diseñada deliberante para acallar la resistencia. De acuerdo a Romero “En Colombia existe una práctica recurrente de las empresas […] que se asocian directamente con grupos de abogados poderosos y con sectores de poder tanto político como económico […] que buscan afectar directamente el trabajo de liderazgo social de los defensores del medio ambiente y de los derechos humanos.  Tratan de romper las organizaciones […] fundamentalmente es una estrategia de terror, de miedo y de represión , y en Colombia las empresas han ido cada vez más lejos, cuando se sienten acorraladas y presionadas por parte de los liderazgos sociales y de defensa de los derechos humanos.”

El alcance del efecto paralizante sobre la protesta social tiene matices particulares en el contexto de Colombia, un país con una de las tasas de desplazamiento interno y asesinatos de defensores medioambientales más altas del mundo. Los riesgos para los líderes sociales prominentes van mucho más allá de los ataques a su reputación pública, o incluso a su libertad. Elevar el perfil público de estos líderes, y asociarlos con la criminalidad y la delincuencia, también implica riesgos a su seguridad. Según el Alto Comisionado de los Derechos Humanos de la ONU, 57 líderes sociales fueron asesinados entre enero y noviembre de 2016 en Colombia. Esa es una tasa de más de un asesinato por semana. Muchas de las víctimas eran líderes sociales que defendían sus territorios de los proyectos extractivos.

Dussán ha planteado estas cuestiones en una entrevista. “Todo esto tiene consecuencias aquí en Colombia para la seguridad personal. La gente empieza a decir que eres un criminal. Si alguien decidiera matarme, la gente diría que lo mataron porque era un criminal”, afirma.

A pesar de los peligros, la sociedad civil en el departamento de Huila ha tomado una posición firme en apoyo a Dussán. Instituciones que van desde el consejo del Municipio de Neiva hasta la Asociación de Profesores Universitarios (ASPU-HUILA) de la Universidad del Sur de Colombia se han manifestado públicamente en su defensa, pidiendo que se detengan los “cargos injustos e irregulares que se están imputando en contra de él por la multinacional EMGESA”.

Justicia verdadera: Responsabilizar a las empresas transnacionales

Aunque las luchas en defensa del territorio y el clima se dan dentro de las comunidades, éstas están lejos de ser “locales”. La lucha de ASOQUIMBO en Colombia, la del Consejo Cívico de Organizaciones Populares e Indígenas de Honduras (COPINH)  al que pertenecía Berta Cáceres, y muchas otras, representan el frente de la resistencia hacia una incursión internacional que busca saquear los recursos en América Latina y el Sur Global. Los actores corporativos que dirigen este asalto están causando daños irreparables en las culturas, ecosistemas y en el clima. Los beneficios de estas incursiones -los minerales, los cultivos, la apropiación de la tierra y el agua, los combustibles fósiles- sirven para financiar los estilos de vida y de consumo suntuosos de una minoría enriquecida en el mundo, que contrastan con el de las personas que resisten a dichos  asaltos.

El 6 de febrero, Miller Dussán y Elsa Ardilla volverán al banquillo para enfrentarse a los cargos de ENEL-EMGESA. Su libertad y seguridad personal están en juego como resultado de estos intentos por reprimir su trabajo en defensa de sus comunidades.

El caso de Dussán ilustra claramente el desequilibrio de poder en las luchas por la tierra y la justicia ambiental. También nos muestran dos importantes  roles que la solidaridad internacional puede asumir.

La primera es profundizar  nuestra comprensión colectiva de la persecución judicial y la criminalización de la protesta como una de las muchas estrategias corporativas que están siendo utilizadas  para socavar la resistencia de las comunidades. En las propias palabras de Dussán “si me meten en prisión, otros van a dejar de salir a protestar”.

La segunda es llevar las luchas de las comunidades locales a los lugares en donde se encuentra el poder de quienes más se benefician. La distancia y el anonimato son factores que permiten a corporaciones como ENEL disociarse de estos casos y mostrarse como corporaciones responsables en sus países de origen. En ese sentido, un papel esencial que debe jugar la solidaridad internacional es el de cerrar esa brecha y eliminar el anonimato de las corporaciones.

Para empezar, los nombres de aquellas personas que están siendo perseguidas mediante procesos judiciales en  tribunales  y cuya sangre está siendo derramada por la incesante búsqueda de materias primas baratas por parte de las multinacionales, tienen que ser confrontados públicamente a los directores corporativos, como Francesco Starace de ENEL.

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How One Urban Activist Community in Bolivia Thrives on ‘Abundance For Everybody’

By Sian Cowman. Originally published by

La Casa de los Ningunos (The Nobodies’ House) is tucked away at the top of a flight of 39 steps on a steep cobbled street in the heart of the world’s highest capital: La Paz, Bolivia. The project brings together the dreams of a group of young people in an experimental community.

The name Los Ningunos comes from the poem Los Nadies by Eduardo Galeano – Los Ningunos are the have-nots, those seen as ‘nobodies’ by society at large. This community is re-imagining economic and social relations to help build a world where the ‘nobodies’ are no longer marginalized.

So many of our relationships are driven by money, devoid of generosity or love – shopping in huge supermarkets with automated checkouts, working at jobs we don’t love nor believe in, eating our meals surrounded by strangers as we rush to the next task. These dynamics are part of our daily lives, but are caused by how our society is structured. The Casa is a glimpse into a different vision and approach – one that puts people and happiness first, seeks to live more in balance with the earth, and to address the root causes of the climate crisis.

Three people permanently live in the house right now, and there are many more people who consider themselves part of the community and regularly work in the house. Quoted here are Ángela, Ariel (known as Apniuq), Fabrizio, Gadir, and Yumey, educated urban activists in their late twenties and early thirties who have all worked in fields related to environmental and social justice.

The experiment of the Casa offers us three fundamental lessons on how to build people-driven alternatives to a money-driven society: the power of food, the subversiveness of community, and what a local economy looks like when profit isn’t the main driver.

The Power of Food

It’s Thursday morning in the Casa de los Ningunos, and the community is exploring its full potential to reach out to their neighbors. Everyone is gearing up for the weekly Comida Consciente (Conscious Food) lunch – a locally-sourced, natural, vegetarian meal prepared for up to 80 people.

A team of Comida Consciente chefs occupy the large, well-equipped kitchen all morning; you can hear the music and laughter coming from the open windows. Members of the community prepare tables and chairs for the guests in the Casa’s ample indoor shared space and out in the garden.

A recent lunch featured a ‘conscious’ version of fast food – vegetarian, homemade burgers and oven-baked fries. Another meal was cooked in a solar oven. Many dishes feature sabores ancestrales – ancestral flavors – Bolivian traditional foods that have been losing ground to fried chicken and rice, such as quinoa, cassava, corn, fava beans, and plantain.

They also serve ‘forgotten fruits’ such as uchuva (cape gooseberry or goldenberry), pomegranates, guava, and pacay (ice-cream bean). Fruits or grains are made into natural drinkssweetened with chancaca, raw unrefined cane sugar.

At the Casa, the Comida Consciente lunches open up discussion amongst attendees about how to make healthy and environmentally wise food choices and how our food choices are part of the causes and consequences of the climate crisis.

And the issue is not just about how we consume food but also about completing the circle by taking back power over producing our own food. The Casa has its own vegetable garden and holds weekly community work sessions called Manos a la Tierra (Hands to the Earth). Yumey leads this activity, and for her it is a powerful way to create a deep awareness of where our food really comes from: “When you do this work, only then do you value producers, people in the countryside, who live from this. We pay so little for something that takes so much work…For me, working with the land is a way of healing, to raise people’s awareness. They understand much better where food comes from.”

From the first lunch three years ago attended by only a few people to today’s long queue every Thursday, the power of food to reach out to people is evident, as Apniuq notes, “It’s the issue of food, because all of us eat. You can use food as a tool to spread ideas. Eating is a basic need of the human being.” And the idea of Comida Consciente has spread – there are now weekly lunches in other Bolivian cities.

The Subversiveness of Community

The people who come to Comida Consciente might otherwise grab a bite in a restaurant where they don’t know where the food comes from, don’t know any of the people who cooked the meal, and don’t know anyone else they’re eating with. In contrast, the communal lunch and the many other events at the Casa are about connecting people, about sharing, and about making lifestyle choices that take other people into account.

Activities in the Casa range from workshops around sustainability, documentary screenings, activist meetings, barter and exchange markets, a gratiferia (a ‘free market’ – bring what you want, take what you want), local food markets, theatre rehearsal, and yoga and dance classes. These events draw in diverse attendees for diverse purposes, but a common thread between them all is the welcome people receive in the Casa, a welcome to be part of the community.

Every week many young people come to the Casa, some are travelers passing through, some are regular helpers. But they all support the Casa with their work, drawn by the magnetism of community – they feel connection with others, a sense of being part of something bigger, in a way they don’t in their job, their school, maybe even their family. And they will leave with a deep question inside: why doesn’t it feel like this always?

For Angela, the key is about transforming the nature of the relationships: “Community is about love. When you work with people you love the work has a different meaning….here we are building different relationships; the intention is very important. After this experience I couldn’t work another way.”

The idea of building different ways of working together through community was not present when the project first started over three years ago. These concepts were integrated after two members of the Casa travelled to Portugal to visit the Tamera community. They came back from that experience enthused with the idea of community as way of building alternatives to the causes of climate change. Tamera was originally founded in order to develop ‘a non-violent life model for cooperation between human beings, animals and nature.’ The idea is that the tangible practical work of living sustainably goes hand in hand with the intangible, more internal work of changing societal structures within ourselves.

One of these entrenched societal structures is the favoring of the individual over the collective. Apniuq explains, “In the wide view, of global community, it’s about thinking about the common good over your own personal gain. This doesn’t mean I let go of my individuality.”

This is the subversiveness of community: the power that we have against societal structures which focus solely on money and personal gain is our ability to create alternatives which draw people in. ‘Alternatives’ are not just about creating different options; they’re a way of taking power away from the status quo and slowly undermining it. In a world where individualism is encouraged and rewarded, working in community does just that. It creates networks of support between people that strengthens us beyond anything money in the bank can do – being able to fulfill our needs through collaboration with others.

A Local Economy Not Solely Driven by Profit

On any given day, those who contribute to the Casa are working away at all the jobs that need to be done for the project to function: cleaning, working in the veggie garden, cooking, doing admin work on the computer, managing the planning process for Comida Consciente Thursdays, or organizing workshops or classes in the Casa’s large sala.

One of the goals of the Casa de los Ningunos is to find new ways of shaping economic relations, which means everyone’s work should be valued. Those who live in the Casa earn Bolivia’s minimum wage of around $240 per month, no matter what they ‘do’.

The wage isn’t high, but as Ángela explains it is enough because: “I don’t have to pay rent, I don’t have to pay internet, water, electricity, all of that is included. In that sense I earn well, I don’t need more. The idea of the Casa has never been to profit.”

While developing an alternative economy, the Casa has no choice but to operate with money in order to pay the bills (members are buying the house with payments over time). But a big part of their economic ethos has to do with living and working in community: the concept of reciprocity. Reciprocity is a moneyless exchange that goes beyond barter – it is giving for the common good and trusting that you will receive in return, also known as the gift economy. It’s not about expecting an immediate exchange.

Recently the Casa ran a three day workshop on regenerative sustainability. Even though the 40 participants paid to attend the workshop, the Casa itself did not make any profit -the money went to cover the costs of the facilitators and Comida Consciente meals for participants. But as the workshop covered natural building and soil enrichment techniques, the Casa got a new handmade abode and timber structure to use as a food kiosk, and a newly fertilized vegetable bed, additions to the project that go beyond profit.

And while participants gave a monetary retribution for the workshop, they gained more than just the knowledge from attending a class. They left the Casa with a deep sense of connection to others – a knowing that there are others who share similar visions for a different world. As one participant at the workshop, Lis, said: “I feel that the dynamics in the workshop left people with something inside them, not just in their heads, but in their hearts.”

As Fabrizio explains, the idea of the reciprocity economy is to build networks that are resilient to crises: “One big group can help along many small groups, and when these small groups grow, they will also be able to help along many other small groups, so the functionality of the reciprocity economy is to weave networks.” This is precisely what events like the sustainability workshop do, weave networks and connections between people.

Community Values bring Wellbeing, and Challenges

It’s not a coincidence that the Casa exists in Bolivia. Bolivia is a country hotwired by its culture to live in community through values such as reciprocity. For example, in rural indigenous communities, land is traditionally held collectively and the cultivation of crops is shared. Many of these community practices are founded in the concept of Vivir Bien, “living well”, an indigenous philosophy that has now become known globally. The basis of Vivir Bien is that our wellbeing is not measured by the accumulation of material goods, but about fulfilment of our material, spiritual and emotional needs in a way that is balance with others’ needs and with the earth. In many ways the Casa is a modern urban version of long-standing Bolivian community principles.

Of course, the community at the Casa is not without substantial challenges. The Casa has to balance developing alternative economic relations such as reciprocity while also generating conventional income. They do this by taking on Comida Consciente catering contracts outside the Casa, and they receive a grant from a friend of the project who administrates a foundation. While this could be seen as a contradiction to their reciprocal values, it reminds us that building these kinds of alternatives is a process, and what’s important is that the process is moving in the right direction. Projects like the Casa often have no choice at the beginning but to have one foot in the system, and one foot in the alternative. The point is to be constantly seeking to shift the balance away from the status quo.

The status quo – a society based on profit and competition – has led us to this point of urgent climate crisis. “If we look at climate change as a consequence of structural problems, then we have to go to the root of the structures, step by step. And this project for me has been a very important step towards that root,” says Gadir.

To move towards an alternative to the status quo, we need people to live out these ideas to show their desirability and viability and draw others in, like at the Casa. It’s not about everyone being so inspired by the Casa that they decide to live in community. It’s about taking the important elements: valuing relationships and connections with others as a way of fulfilling our needs, and working with others in a collaboration that’s not based on money, and integrating them into our daily lives.

Operating with reciprocal values in a capitalist economy brings inevitable challenges and compromises. Yet the Ningunos have persevered, and the work they are doing is opening up the cracks and letting the light in – not only about the injustices of the status quo, but about the possibility of changing it. And while living in a capital city can provoke more compromise, it can also provide more opportunities to show more people that a different way of living and relating is, indeed, possible.

Explore the microsite: ‘Abundance for Everybody’

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One woman’s victory against a mining giant in Peru

Máxima Acuña has just won the Goldman Prize for her resistance against a gold mine – but why are women’s bodies on the frontlines of resistance to extractivism?

By Sian Cowman. Originally published in New Internationalist

Este artículo también se publicó en español en


Máxima Acuña, a farmer from Peru’s northern highlands, recently won the 2016 Goldman Environmental Prize. NC under a Creative Commons Licence


Máxima Acuña, a farmer from Peru’s northern highlands, recently won the 2016 Goldman Environmental Prize for her resistance against the mining consortium Yanacocha in Cajamarca, Peru.

At the prize acceptance ceremony in San Francisco on 18 April, in lieu of a speech Máxima sang her story: ‘Because I defend my lakes, they want to take my life.’

Yanacocha is the largest gold mine in Latin America and fourth largest in the world, operating since 1993. The mine is now owned by the USNewmont Mining Corporation, a Peruvian mining company, and the World Bank’s International Finance Corporation.

Gold mining causes ‘toxic mine drainage’ – when you break up rock that’s been underground for a long time chemical reactions cause it to release toxic metals and acids. And at Yanacocha cyanide-laced water is usedto separate the gold from the rock.

Locals have been complaining for years of contaminated water and the disappearance of fish in the rivers, lakes and streams. Reinhard Seifert, an environmental engineer who spent years investigating the effects of the Yanacocha mine on the area’s water quality found traces of lead, arsenic, cyanide and mercury in the drinking water, linked to the rising rates of gastrointestinal cancer amongst residents of Cajamarca.

One Woman’s Story of Resistance

In 2011, Yanacocha bought up lands in Cajamarca in order to expand their operations into a new mine, Conga. Yanacocha claims legal ownership of Máxima’s land while Máxima says she never sold any of her land to the company, and the land deeds bear her name.

Quoted in these pages in 2012, Máxima said: ‘I may be poor. I may be illiterate, but I know that our mountain lakes are our real treasure… Are we expected to sacrifice our water and our land so that the Yanacocha people can take gold back to their country? Are we supposed to sit quietly and just let them poison our land and water?’

The Conga mine had plans to dry up five lakes, including the one that Máxima’s land borders. It became the highest profile environmental conflict in Peru amongst an estimated 200 such conflicts in 2012, with several deaths of defenders at the hands of the police.

In 2012, Yanacocha sued Máxima and her family for alleged illegal occupation of their own land, and the court ruled in Yanacocha’s favour. The judge sentenced four members of the family to suspended jail sentences, which were then overturned in December 2014 with a verdict that saw Máxima victorious against Yanacocha’s claim to her land.

The family had already suffered numerous eviction attempts and physical violence on their property, and after the 2014 verdict things intensified. On 3 February 2015, agents from the Peruvian police special operations division and private security forces destroyed parts of Máxima’s house that were undergoing construction. One year later, and the family was still suffering intimidation: on 5 February 2016 Máxima’s home was again stormed by security forces, this time to destroy her crop of potatoes.

But since then, the company has said ‘We do not anticipate development of Conga for the foreseeable future,’ a statement which has been hailed as a victory for Máxima and those who are resisting Conga.

What Does Extractivism Mean In Latin America?

Sadly, this story is not unique to Cajamarca. Mining for minerals such as gold, silver and copper is common across the continent – Latin America consistently tops the global list for mining exploration, and in 2014 had one of the largest shares of total global exploration budget, at over 26 per cent. Fossil fuel extraction shows a similar picture. In 2011, the Latin American Energy Organization released figures that placed Latin America as the region with the second largest oil reserves after the Middle East, with 20 per cent of global reserves.

This kind of mining and fossil fuel exploitation is referred to as extractivism in Latin American contexts. It is the base of many Latin American neoliberal economies such as in Peru and Colombia. In countries like Ecuador and Bolivia, it’s referred to as neo-extractivism – when government taxes from extractive activities are invested into health and education programs.

But the meaning of extractivism is not just about extraction: it is also about the conditions under which extraction takes place, and in whose interests. In Latin America, the conditions are often situated within a rural and/or indigenous context. This means communities in these areas live principally off the land and are subject to the forces of nature to access water and grow crops, forces of nature that become distorted by extractive activities and ever more sharpened by climate change impacts.

Why Does Extractivism Affect Women More?

Because of socially assigned gender roles, women are often the principal caregivers of the family – responsible for growing or providing food – in the kinds of community contexts where extractivism usually takes place. And so when water is contaminated and/or scarcer, women feel the negative impacts more. The declaration from the 2014 Gathering of Women against Extractivism and Climate Change in Ecuador said that ‘the impacts of extractive activities alter the cycle of the reproduction of life, whose regeneration falls on the shoulders of women.’ The altering of natural cycles, such as the contamination of water near the Yanacocha mine, manifests as more work in women’s lives.

The impacts of extractivism on women not only include an increased burden to the work women do to provide food and water to their families, but permeate deep into the social fabric of communities. At the gathering on extractivism in Ecuador, women gave testimonies: ‘When the mining and fossil fuel companies come to our territories they cause huge problems, they break the social weave and replace it with conflict in families, division in the communities, and confrontation between us.’

In these situations, the gendered divisions of labour show up in starker relief as men take on jobs in the industry. The local economy now revolves more around the masculinized wage labour in the mine and reduces importance of the shared economy of caring for the practical and emotional needs of the community. The existing gender divide of labour creates power imbalances, worsened by extractivism: as ‘women’s work’ mostly goes unpaid, the waged work in the mine that men can access lends increased power to men’s voices in the community (though they also suffer from extractivism in a dangerous, unhealthy, exploitative workplace).

Extractivism breaks the social fabric of communities in other, more violent, ways. As respected Uruguayan environmental analyst Eduardo Gudynas writes: ‘There is no such thing as neutral or inoffensive extractivism…Violence is always present in one way or another, ending up affecting above all the weakest, the local communities, especially campesino small farmers and indigenous groups.’

The violence permeates the entire community, but affects women particularly because of gender-based violence. Melissa Wong Oveido, a representative of the Latin American Union of Women (ULAM, a regional network of women affected by extractive activities and policies), quoted in El País said:

‘In Latin America psychological, physical and environmental violence against indigenous, rural and Afro-descendent women on the part of extractive industries is on the rise. Women are dispossessed of their lands; they are victims of sexual abuse and trafficking.’ 

Rising Up In Resistance

With the upswing in extractive projects in Latin America and its negative impacts on local communities there’s been a corresponding rise in socio-environmental conflict on the continent. Resisting extractive projects is a dangerous business, and more land and environmental defenders died in 2014 in Latin America than anywhere else in the world, with 88 out of 114 total recorded deaths.

More and more women are joining and leading resistance movements: and as women, this comes with certain risks linked to their gender. In a comprehensive 2015 report (PDF) on criminalization of women environmental defenders in the Americas, the authors state that:

‘In all of the cases presented women suffered an attack linked to their gender: rape threats, public shaming linked to sex and sexuality, harassment of several types, and infamies against their honour. These attacks prevent women from developing their activism in surroundings favourable to the rights of people, of territory, and of nature.’

It might not be immediately apparent why the intimidation in Máxima’s case is particular to her being a woman. But when women resist extractivism, they become easier targets for retaliation by those in power. For example, they are less likely than men to have the resources to deal with court cases – as Máxima herself has said, she is illiterate. For a woman who doesn’t have the title deed to her land, as Máxima has, the outcome is likely to be dispossession. And much of the intimidation that Máxima has suffered focused on destruction to her home and crops – women’s traditional domain, and Máxima’s source of income.

Violence Against Women Is Linked To Violence Against The Earth

Women feel negative impacts of extractivism more because of their roles as caregivers. But there are more subtleties at play here: why are women obliged to take care of the family, the home, the sick, and children? Similarly, why is the earth obliged to be a provider of ‘environmental services’; to give up its buried riches to profit transnationals? The logic of exploitation of women’s work and of the earth is the same: they are resources to be profited from. The struggles of women to free themselves from the cycle of unpaid labour as caregivers are linked to the struggles to protect the earth from desperate over-exploitation.

There is another subtlety. Extractivism is inherently violent, and tears not only at the earth but at the fabric of whole communities. Women already experience everyday gender-based violence, which is exacerbated by extractivism with impacts such as sexual harassment from migrant workers. But when women resist in their communities, the violence they already face increases: it is used as a tactic against them.

Máxima’s refusal to bow to the intimidation she faces because of her struggle only increased the violence against her. But she, like so many women, is not going to give up the fight. Máxima’s connection to her land underlies her decision to fight the corporation. As she said to El País: ‘I won’t be quiet. I know they’ll come after me and they’re going to disappear me. But on the land I was born and on the land I’ll die.’

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For Indigenous Peoples, Megadams Are ‘Worse than Colonization’

These mega-projects expropriate land, spoil environments, and pollute democracies. Berta Cáceres gave her life resisting them.

By Philippa de Boissière and Sian Cowman. Originally published in Foreign Policy in Focus.

COPINH participating in a march against a U.S. military base in Palmerola, Honduras, 2011. (Photo: Felipe Canova / Flickr)

COPINH participating in a march against a U.S. military base in Palmerola, Honduras, 2011. (Photo: Felipe Canova / Flickr)

Early in the morning of March 3, Berta Cáceres was assassinated as she slept.

A world-renowned environmental activist, Berta had been a driving force in protecting the lands and waters of rural communities in Honduras. Among the many victories of the organization she founded was the delay of a megadam project on the Gualcarque River that could be disastrous for the indigenous Lenca people living there.

Berta is not alone, nor is her story unique to Honduras. Across the Global South, mega hydroelectric projects are expanding — driven by governments and multinationals as a source of cheap energy, and branded by international institutions as a solution to poverty and the climate crisis.

But despite claims that they create clean energy, dams often have devastating impacts. They can displace communities, destroy the local social fabric and spiritual ties to land, lead to privatization of land and water, and generate food insecurity. Often used to power mining and fossil fuel extraction, they’re part of a system that damages the ecosystem and advances climate change.

Increasingly, communities throughout Latin America have been resisting these projects. Some have succeeded in protecting their territories in the face of violent repression. Yet when these groups go so far as to speak out about the root causes of the projects — corporate greed, unfettered capitalism, political impunity — they, like Berta, may be targeted and killed.

Megadams and Neoliberalism

International development banks and transnational corporations are pushing an expansion of mega­hydroelectric dams at a rate never seen before. In Honduras, the Agua Zarca dam that Berta fought against is far from the only project: The Lenca people alone are facing the prospect of 17 dams being imposed within their territories.

This picture is being replicated across the region. In Colombia, President Juan Manuel Santos’ master plan for the strategic use of the Magdalena River calls for adding 11 to ­15 megadams to those already in operation. In Peru, former President Alan Garcia made the construction of 20 megadams along the Marañon River into a national priority with the signing of a single decree in 2011.

Overall, 829 hydroelectric projects were approved in South America during 2014, with a total investment of $22 billion.

The power and resource grab going on throughout Latin America has roots stretching back to Spanish colonization. The river Gualcarque — with its deep spiritual significance for the Lenca people — was famously defended against Spanish invaders by indigenous resistance leader and hero, El Lempira. Although the form has evolved, the struggle against powerful foreign forces in the region has continued to this day.

Conquering not with swords and horses but with a ruse of “corporate social responsibility” and market-based mechanisms, the plunderers of the 21st century are bolstered by a deepening and globalized neoliberal agenda. The package of privatizations, deregulations, and loosening of restrictions on trade and finance prescribed under the “Washington Consensus” for global trade — widely implemented by institutions like the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank in the 1990s — tipped the balance of power towards the interests of corporate global elites.

In Honduras, market-oriented principles reached a new extreme following the U.S.-backedmilitary coup in 2009. The new de facto government immediately overhauled Honduras’ legal frameworks in a bid to create favorable conditions for foreign investment. In practice, the sweeping changes — ranging from enforcing eminent domain to repealing laws preventing the construction of dams in protected areas — were intended to facilitate the rapid and cheap transfer of the country’s natural wealth into global markets.

Berta was highly critical of the coup and of the subsequent handover of the country’s wealth. “There are a projected 300 hydroelectric projects planned,” she said in a 2015 interview with El Tecolote. “We are a small country with many riches. To give 30 percent of the territory to the transnational mining companies is worse than the colonization of 500 years ago. And, they do it with impunity.”

The explosion in the number of megadams under construction in Latin America follows a decade-long hiatus in the World Bank’s hydroelectric strategy — a pause that was prompted by social protests.

After being rebranded as a “clean energy” solution to the climate crisis, however — a position amplified by industry representatives at the Paris climate talks last December — the megadam staged its comeback. Taking advantage of the new business opportunities created to respond to the climate crisis, corporations are now being effectively bankrolled by UN-sponsored market solutions such as the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM).

But mega hydroelectric projects are anything but clean. In tropical regions like Honduras, they are a major source of the potent greenhouse gas methane. Moreover, mega hydroelectric facilitates the extraction of fossil fuels, such as coal and fracked gas, as well as other minerals. In Peru, as in Colombia and Brazil, mega hydroelectric dams are being brought online with the express intention of generating cheap energy for extractive industries.

This unprecedented expansion of mega hydroelectric power is increasingly generating resistance. Berta’s fight against dams is being repeated in community after community in Latin America.

Resistance in Rio Blanco

To defend the territorial rights of indigenous and campesino people against logging and other extractive projects, Berta cofounded the National Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras, or COPINH. For over 20 years, COPINH has been a major player in resisting Agua Zarca, and in 2015 Berta was awarded the Goldman Environmental Prize for her role in that effort.

COPINH and local communities have pursued formal routes of resistance against the dam. Yet their calls for prior, free, and informed consent as required by international law have not been heard. Cases brought to the Honduran courts denouncing the illegality of the dam were also not pursued. The imbalance of power between the industry and local communities is evident: While Agua Zarca’s backers benefit from police protection, the communities’ legal cases against the dam lapse. In these situations — a story repeated throughout Latin America — affected communities are left with little choice but to take direct action.

In 2013, defying a military lockdown of the area, the Rio Blanco community took a stand. They maintained a road blockade that prevented machinery from reaching the dam site for over a year.

In clashes with police and paramilitary guards hired by the corporation, Tómas Garcia was shot several times at close range by a soldier. Garcia died instantly, and his son was left injured. The activist’s assassination brought the number of deaths suffered by defenders against the Agua Zarca project to three.

In a video made for the Goldman Prize ceremony, Berta explained how Garcia’s death prompted increased local resistance during that conflict. The resistance prompted Chinese Sinohydro, the largest dam builder in the world, to pull out of the project. That accomplishment “cost us in blood,” Berta said. The World Bank’s International Finance Corporation also pulled its investment from Agua Zarca.

This was a temporary victory, however, because threats against the defenders failed to abate. In an interview with El Universo newspaper in 2015, Berta said: “I never doubted I would continue the struggle despite the threats; they even gave me more resolve. Today we are receiving death threats not only against me, but against other compañeros.”

With Latin America being the most dangerous region in the world for environmental defenders, Honduras tops the list.


Berta Cáceres founded the Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras. (Photo: Goldman Environment Prize)


Challenging the Powerful

Berta’s resolve to continue resisting led to her voice being prominent on the international stage. In conversation with the Guardian in 2015, Berta asserted:

“The political, economic, and social situation in Honduras is getting worse, and there is an imposition of a project of domination, of violent oppression, of militarization, of violation of human rights, of transnationalization, of the turning over of the riches and sovereignty of the land to corporate capital, for it to privatize energy, the rivers, the land; for mining exploitation; for the creation of development zones.”

Publicly calling out the dirty politics, human rights abuses, impunity, and systemic drivers behind the dam made her even more of a threat to the powerful actors involved. Her supporters have no doubt that’s what led to her death.

“We know very well who murdered her,” COPINH said in a statement on March 3. Speaking of the Honduran government, corporations, and financial institutions backing the Agua Zarca dam, COPINH wrote, “their hands are stained with indigenous blood and with the blood of the Lenca people.” In a statement, her family concurred: “Her assassination is an attempt to end the struggle of the Lenca people against exploitation and dispossession of their territories.”

The repression in Honduras is the kind of backlash to resistance all local communities face as extractivism and mega hydro expands across Latin America.

Some examples will show the scope of these killings.

Before the 2014 climate talks in Lima, Peru, four indigenous environmental defenders in the Amazon were murdered for protecting their territory from illegal logging. “Edwin Chota had received numerous death threats for his resistance to the criminal gangs who were gutting his community’s forests,” reports Global Witness, “but his appeals to the authorities were ignored.” The loggers are reputed to have connections to the government.

Similarly, indigenous tribes living in the area of the Belo Monte megadam in Brazil have been resisting the dam for decades. They’ve suffered threats of imprisonment, police violence and militarization of the area, killings of defenders, and sexual abuse. There have been a number of legal cases made against the dam that have gone nowhere.

And the megadam El Quimbo in Colombia has provoked strong resistance from local communities — who in response have faced assaults and arrests at protests, and violent evictionsfrom their homes.

Accompanied by militarization, privatization of land and water, violence, and power imbalances in the judicial system, megadams are a symptom of a new form of colonization. The resistors who have died throughout Latin America have been doing the same thing Berta did: challenging the powerful.

The Fight Continues

Opposition to dams isn’t only taking place in dispersed communities. It’s also spurred a global movement.

The effort officially began 19 years ago. On March 14, 1997, representatives of affected peoples from 20 countries assembled in Curitiba, Brazil to take part in the first International Meeting of People Affected by Dams. Recognizing a common struggle — one that transcended different economic and political contexts — activists decided that the Brazilian Day of Struggles Against Dams would be globalized. And so was born the International Day of Action for Rivers and Against Dams, held annually on March 14.

This new international platform aimed to make visible and to connect the diverse struggles taking place across the globe to protect rivers and the communities that depend upon them. But for those losing their homes and sovereignty to megadam expansion, these battles are fought not once a year, but on a daily basis.

The need for international action against megadams has been underscored by Berta Cáceres’ murder. Following her example, there’s an urgent need for global activists to continuously and vociferously denounce the mega hydroelectric dam complex — calling it out as a false solution to the climate crisis that it’s helping to drive. Berta not only put her body on the line to protect the rivers, lands, and communities she felt a part of. She also went beyond her own community struggle, relentlessly shining a light on the global dynamics of power that lay behind local injustices.

Like transnational corporations, resistance movements are strongest when they connect beyond fenceline struggles. Berta’s strength of resistance and international perspective posed a threat to a development paradigm based on the enrichment of global elites — so much so that the forces pushing that agenda felt it necessary to take her life.

But there can be no silencing of a movement. As those celebrating Berta’s life cried just days after her murder, “Berta lives, and the fight continues!”

As of this writing, Gustavo Castro Soto, the only witness to Berta’s murder (who himself suffered two gunshots) is still being held by Honduran authorities for questioning. Please sign the petition calling for his release and safe passage out of Honduras. Additionally, organizations and activists across the world are calling for an independent investigation into Berta’s murder and an end to the ongoing criminalization of members of the COPINH. Please add your voice here

This article was originally published in Foreign Policy in Focus.

Posted in Climate, Corporate, Getting Action, News | Comments Off on For Indigenous Peoples, Megadams Are ‘Worse than Colonization’

Corporate Power Doesn’t Always Win: Remembering the FTAA

A decade ago, a transnational coalition beat back the largest corporate trade deal in history. Here’s what they can teach opponents of the TPP.

By Aldo Orellana López and Thomas Mc Donagh. Originally published at Foreign Policy in Focus on January 25th, 2016.

In retrospect, it sounds like a dream come true: a mobilized population, intercontinental organizing, cooperative left-wing governments — all culminating in the downfall of a major corporate-friendly trade agreement that would have covered a large chunk of the global economy.

It wasn’t just a dream. The proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas, or FTAA — meant to span all of North and Latin America — went down in defeat in 2005.

Now, over a decade later, as we face two other upcoming trade deals — the Transpacific Partnership (TPP) uniting 12 Pacific Rim countries, and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) connecting the United States and Europe — the FTAA victory has a lot to teach us about successful social movement strategies, and the challenges of building and sustaining power.

Not Just a Trade Deal

In 1994, Western hemisphere elites were riding high. The North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA — which stitched the United States, Canada, and Mexico into a trade bloc — had been signed in January. By December, delegates at the first Summit of the Americas came up with a new, even more ambitious plan.

Meeting in Miami, the presidents from 34 countries (every nation in the Americas except Cuba) resolved to create what U.S. president George H.W. Bush had envisioned in 1990 as a “free trade zone stretching from the port of Anchorage to the Tierra del Fuego.” With a market of 800 million consumers and a GDP of $11.5 billion — 40 percent of the world’s total at the time — the FTAA promised to become the largest free trade area in the world. Those assembled decided to begin negotiations in earnest, with the aim of making FTAA a reality by 2005.

Having seen the problems with NAFTA — which included major labor dislocations and new legal mechanisms that undermined all manner of consumer and environmental protections — civil society organizations were concerned. As they began to get access to draft chapters of the FTAA, their analyses pointed to grave implications for food security, the availability of medicines, water, and basic services, and access to scientific knowledge itself.

One of the biggest concerns was the investment chapter of the FTAA. Just like NAFTA’s Chapter 11, it granted expansive new rights to foreign investors, which they could enforce through the now-infamous Investor-State Dispute Settlement Mechanism (ISDS). That system allows corporations to bypass national courts and sue countries directly in private international arbitration tribunals when they feel that their investments — and profits — are being affected by a public policy. Social organizations considered this a direct attack on sovereignty and democracy.

Controversy over ISDS bolstered the popular perception that this was not an agreement for trade or integration based on the common good, but rather an expansionist project into Latin America — with its huge consumer market and immense natural resources — based on the commercial and corporate interests of the United States.

The consequent mobilization against the deal was enormous and decisive. At the fourth Summit of the Americas, held in Mar del Plata, Argentina in November 2005 — the very year in which the FTAA was supposed to be inaugurated — the proposed trade deal was pronounced dead.

Defeating the FTAA

(Photo: Shooting Chris / Flickr)

(Photo: Shooting Chris / Flickr)

While the social organizations’ analysis of the proposed trade agreement might have been on point, it’s a big leap from robust critique to outright victory. What strategies did social movements use?

The first was to construct a diverse yet united movement with a common goal. Building on the experience and the networks created through U.S., Mexican, and Canadian organizing against NAFTA, the movement began to coalesce during the late 1990s into the Hemispheric Social Alliance, or HSA. The alliance united diverse sectors — including indigenous, labor, student, environmental, and women’s movements, as well as sympathetic NGOs and others — from across North and Latin America.

Among the HSA’s most important activities were People’s Summits, scheduled to coincide with rounds of FTAA negotiations. These were popular assemblies where discussion could happen and strategic lines of struggle could be defined. The summits pushed the movement to develop a common agenda and construct a common language. According to participants, one very important decision was to concentrate on what members found agreement on, and leave areas of disagreement open for discussion. The summits were also moments for filling the streets of the host cities with debate and color — and for dialogue with local people about the ways in which the FTAA was going to affect their lives.

By closely examining the impact of prior trade agreements such as NAFTA, and the drafts of the proposed FTAA text, the HSA grounded its opposition to the deal in high quality analysis. But in order to persuade the public, this had to be accompanied by effective campaign messaging. “No to the FTAA!! Yes to Life!! Another America is Possible!!” became ubiquitous across the region — from the banners displayed in demonstrations to buttons, hats, and pamphlets distributed in the streets.

Also important was the ability of the alliance to propose alternatives. The movement wasn’t opposed to the integration of the Americas. Rather, underlying the “Alternative for the Americas” proposal was a vision for an alternative to neoliberal integration based on principles of democracy, sovereignty, social wellbeing, equality, and sustainability.

A final key factor in defeating the FTAA was the ability to build on alliances with leftist governments in the region and bring them into the opposition camp. Leaders with critical viewpoints toward “free trade” and many with close ties to social movements were coming to power in Brazil, Argentina, Bolivia, and Venezuela. ” It is often assumed that it was the progressive governments which defeated the FTAA,” notes Alberto Arroyo from the Mexican Free Trade Action Network. But the truth is that it was the movements that brought these governments to power, and later the movements were able to show these new governments the seriousness of what was happening.”

By 2005, the regional balance of power had shifted, and progressive governments — in response to sustained social movement pressure — were changing their positions. Despite the efforts of President George W. Bush to resuscitate the agreement in Argentina, the summit that year marked the death knell for the FTAA. The social movements had won a major victory and celebrations took over the streets.

There was plenty for the social movements to rejoice about. But organizers were neglecting at their peril the scope of challenges to come.

Corporate Interests Regroup

It didn’t take long to see that corporations and free-trade oriented governments had designed a new way to expand the system.

Undaunted by the setback, corporate interests shifted strategies, moving ahead with bilateral and other multilateral free trade agreements, or FTAs. For example, the United States signed FTAs with Chile, Peru, Colombia, and Panama, as well as with a bloc of Central American countries and the Dominican Republic (DR-CAFTA). Similarly, the EU signed an FTA with Mexico in 2000. Then, after its failure to negotiate a free trade agreement with the Andean Community of Nations, it signed FTAs with Colombia and Peru.

Initially, only the countries most open to neoliberal economics — Chile, Peru, Colombia, and Central American nations — agreed to this new wave of FTAs. In contrast, those countries where leftist governments had maintained close alliances with social movements in the fight against FTAA — Venezuela and MERCOSUR nations such as Argentina and Brazil — stayed away.

But over time, even those latter countries have begun to accede to corporate power. Strikingly, Ecuador — formerly a very vocal critic — joined Colombia and Peru’s FTA with Europe. Brazil — the one country in Latin America that for years had avoided entering bilateral trade agreements — signed an FTA with Mexico, and is moving toward others. MERCOSUR (consisting of Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay, and Venezuela) and Brazil are negotiating a free trade accord with the European Union.

Enrique Daza from the Colombian Free Trade Action Network notes a slow but steady strategy on the part of corporations: “They have an agenda that is not maximalist… they are willing to take gradual steps to slowly implement their policy.”

Opportunities for corporations emerge in particular when social movements lose their strength.

After the Victory, the Decline

With all of these free trade agreements being signed across the region, it’s worth asking: What happened to the social movement that only a short while earlier had defeated the FTAA?

The movement’s inability to stay united and independent from leftist governments post-FTAA worked against it. In 2004, Cuba and Venezuela spearheaded the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA). Not only did ALBA’s vision grow out of HSA proposals, but it established a Social Movements Council as the “principle mechanism that facilitates integration and direct social participation.”

As HSA turned toward supporting this grouping of “pink tide” governments, it lost some of its critical edge. In the words of Arroyo, “remaining silent in order not to weaken governments in relation to domestic right-wing groups was a mistake.” Lamenting that “losing autonomy weakens the movement for the next stage of struggle,” he observes, “at the end of the day the subjects of change are the people, not the governments.”

Having lost both its international unity and its independence from left-wing Latin American governments, the movement was prepared neither for the corporate counteroffensive nor for sustaining itself during periods of decline.

Lessons for Current Struggles

By 2016 it’s become clear that big inter-regional agreements — combined with new bilateral trade and investment deals — are the most prominent way to write the rules of the global trade system in the 21st century. What the United States and Europe couldn’t do within the World Trade Organization or with the failed Multilateral Agreement on Investment in the 1990s, they’re doing country by country, region by region.

Now comes the real moon shot. If the TPP and TTIP are fully implemented, they would cover 60 percent of global GDP and 75 percent of global trade, as the Transnational Institute’s Susan George indicates.

A cohesive trans-continental social movement like the kind that coalesced around the FTAA is unlikely to form again. But current movements fighting trade agreements can draw important lessons from the anti-FTAA movement. As we engage in these struggles, what does the successful FTAA campaign tell us about how to build power in our respective domestic contexts?

One lesson is to harness the power of groups that are already mobilized. The FTAA effort effectively drew on Latin Americans’ anger and frustration following years of structural adjustment, austerity, privatizations, and deregulation, and built on a growing anti-imperialist consciousness. It was able to channel the energies of the groups already mobilized on these issues into the FTAA campaign.

Although today’s political context is very different, connecting our analysis and messaging on the TPP to the concerns of current movements in the TPP countries will help to maximize our power. Examples include the labor movement working on issues of inequality, jobs, and the minimum wage; groups mobilized on issues of digital privacy in the wake of the NSA scandal; student movements in Chile, Mexico, and the United States; and the environmental movement mobilized around the Keystone XL pipeline and fracking in the United States, tar sands in Canada, nuclear power in Japan, coal campaigning in Australia, and climate change everywhere.

Another related lesson is the importance of making the abstract concrete. The FTAA campaign effectively connected analysis of hard-to-understand and seemingly irrelevant aspects of the draft texts — such as investor-state dispute procedures — with specific concerns of different domestic sectors.

Now that the final text of the TPP is available, there’s an urgent need to do the same.

That means, for example, communicating to public health advocacy groups and health professionals’ organizations about how intellectual property provisions and extended patent protections for pharmaceuticals will affect access to medicines. It means making it much clearer for the environmental movement how energy and climate legislation — such as restrictions on fracking, coal, and nuclear power — could be undermined by investor-state lawsuits, like the $15 billion suit just launched against the US government for blocking the Keystone XL pipeline. And it means showing small and medium-sized business associations how restrictions on procurement will prevent governments from favouring local producers.


ISDS was a key issue in provoking outright rejection of the FTAA. Now, over ten years later, we have much more evidence to demonstrate, in very concrete ways, the risk that this system represents for a wide array of urgent public issues. With the high profile of the ISDS issue in Europe currently, there is a multitude of qualityaccessible campaign materials that can be used to this end — including a diverse array of voices, from conservative think tanks to trade unionists, joined in unlikely alliance against it.

Finally, we should note the importance of creating alternative proposals. The anti-FTAA campaign was very clear that they were not against the integration of the Americas. Rather, they proposed a different kind of integration that was not based on the interests of corporate profits, unhindered competition, and a race to the bottom.

While regional integration in Latin America has been slow, if the FTAA had been signed it may well have made these initiatives impossible, as regional economies would have been pulled even more tightly into Washington’s orbit. Obama was quite explicit about his intention to re-write the rules for international trade in these new deals. Highlighting the geo-strategic implications of the TPP, including the potential impact on alternative regional integration processes in Asia and Latin America, may also give us some leverage at the domestic level.

The FTAA campaign undoubtedly holds valuable lessons for our current efforts. However, what happened in Latin America subsequently — when corporate power regrouped and went on the counterattack in the face of a weakened civil society — tells us something even more important about the nature of the challenge we face.

Even if we defeat the TPP, challenging corporate power is like playing whack-a-mole: it will find other ways to expand. So while we fight our local battles, and continue building a globalized movement of local struggles, we mustn’t lose sight of this bigger question about how we dismantle corporate power. The calls for a restructured, fairer global economy are growing louder by the day. While we have our mallets poised and ready, we also need to continue planning how to put the mole out of action for good.

Posted in Advocacy, Corporate, Getting Action, News | Comments Off on Corporate Power Doesn’t Always Win: Remembering the FTAA

Keeping Paris in perspective on the journey to system change

By Nicky Scordellis

After spending nearly three weeks in Paris around COP21, I had to leave on Friday 11th – one day before the big final day of action. My destination was an inner transition facilitation course in rural England, a stark contrast from the chaos of a squat shared with 60 other activists in a disused factory in urban Paris. Many asked me why I was leaving just before the major finale, and I answered that I trusted that me going on this course was my contribution to the larger story at this moment. But there was clearly still a part of me that did want to be there in the midst of the action. All day on Saturday I struggled to be present at my training, feeling a real urgency to go and check the internet to see what was going on in Paris. However, when evening came and I finally did so, what I found left me with a deep sense of emptiness. Huge newspaper headlines greeted me with the “success” of the climate deal (see my colleague Maddy’s blog to find out why this is an illusion) and barely a mention of the massive protests that some of the people around me had been pouring their bodies, minds and souls into for the last few weeks.

This moment of reality check, of seeing from the outsider perspective, provoked me into a sudden process of re-visiting my own values. Whilst I had walked into Paris three weeks earlier with clarity that neither the COP itself nor the mobilisations around it would constitute major turning points along the road to system change, at some level I had clearly got sucked into that whirlwind of excitement and adrenaline that comes with intense activism. But this moment of realisation – of seeing what this looks like from the standpoint of any other person reading the news – pulled me suddenly back. I was reminded that I need to let go of grand expectations and remember that building the deep transformational change needed to respond to the severity of the climate crisis is much bigger and broader than just these mobilisations and “moments”. That it really involves a long, gradual process of building up a new version of our reality day by day, from the roots up.

Protesters got the last word at the Red Lines action on the last day of the Paris talks. Here with the Parisian business district La Défense in the background. Photo: Yann Levy CC-NC-SA

Protesters got the last word at the Red Lines #D12 action on the last day of the COP21. Here with the Parisian business district La Défense in the distance.
Photo: Yann LevyCC-NC-SA-2.0

Yes, these moments can serve to galvanise the movement, to inspire us, bring us together, and send us home feeling part of a stronger movement. And Paris was successful in that. This was the main message of the Red Lines action on December 12th, which had the slogan “we are the ones we have been waiting for”. And over the two weeks of COP, as many have reported (including Maddy again, and Jess Worth and Danny Chivers from the New Internationalist), it was evident across many spaces that there was some really positive progress in terms of movement building and developing a stronger and more coherent collective narrative.

However, I did feel that large parts of the movement are not really engaging with some of the more challenging questions that we need to face if we really want to see deep systemic change: Why are the vast majority of people in our wider societies still not engaging with these issues? What are the underlying values that sustain the current system? How would those need to shift in order for the system change we believe in to be possible? And as an activist movement, to what extent are we really moving towards shifting those values? Or do our own actions on some levels actually replicate and even reinforce those values? Are actions that leave people stressed, exhausted and without time for human connection, really reflecting the change we believe in?

The good news on this front was that there is more and more emphasis on building alternatives to the current system. As in previous years, in Paris the message of “System Change Not Climate Change” could be seen and heard everywhere. And there were many spaces and events that were sharing and exploring autonomous initiatives that have the potential to form part of that shift. The Global Village of Alternatives run by Alternatiba during the middle weekend of the COP was one example of this, and at the parallel Peoples’ Climate Summit, almost half of the self-managed events were focused on solutions, ranging from community energy initiatives and just transition, to agro-ecology and co-housing. However this is not what makes it into the mainstream coverage of what’s going on at COP. And even on the ground, the initiatives on show in these diverse spaces around the COP don’t truly reflect the scale of the rapidly growing movement of people building alternatives in their local communities across the globe. So when we think about where to go next as a movement, as well as connecting up grassroots resistance struggles I also see great potential in beginning to put more energy into building bridges between efforts to build alternatives, integrating them better into the narrative and giving them more visibility.

Learn about how the concept of community has become embedded in the Casa de los Ningunos, and how the principles represented by their ideas of "community" support their vision for radical social change.

Learn about how the concept of community has become embedded in the Casa de los Ningunos, and how the principles represented by their ideas of “community” support their vision for radical social change.

At The Democracy Center, our contribution to this process is our latest project: Abundance for Everybody: tackling climate change and exploring ways to live well in urban Bolivia. We have been listening to and learning from La Casa de los Ningunos, an experimental community project in La Paz, Bolivia, where a group of young urban activists have come together to experiment with finding new ways to collaborate and coexist amongst themselves and to share those experiences with others. Originally motivated by their concerns about climate change, their work started off centred around a conscious food project which focuses on promoting awareness of the environmental, social and economic impacts of food as a path to awakening a more critical view of our concept of progress and development in general. Now they also integrate experimentation with reciprocal economic arrangements, such as work exchanges and the gift economy, and they particularly focus on building a new set of values, based around sharing and collaboration instead of competition, as a response to the root causes of injustice. And fundamentally, they consider this work to be profoundly political. As one of their members says: “That’s why we need community, because in community you can set up all the necessary structures. You need education, food, economy. And that is political. Because the political is not about political parties, it’s about how you structure your society, even your mini-society of four people.” We invite you to explore more about the Casa on our new micro-site, which we hope will also provide some food for thought and insight around the questions posed earlier in this blog.

So my conclusion around COP21 is that overall we are heading in the right direction and we can look back at Paris and feel positive about the progress made in terms of building the movement and shifting the narrative. But as we look forward, with this wind in our sails, let’s not be afraid to also step back for a reality check and look at those underlying questions with a critical eye. And let’s start giving more priority to the projects that are working to build the alternatives, as they can offer experiences and sources of inspiration to help us build a deeply coherent and collaborative movement that genuinely embodies the “system change not climate change” that we all dream of.

Posted in Climate, Getting Action, News | Comments Off on Keeping Paris in perspective on the journey to system change

Keeping it Grounded

The real message of hope coming out of Paris is the one which puts power in our hands

by Maddy Ryle

Last week I spent just a couple of days in Paris to listen and meet with people from what, in the wake of COP21, is getting talked about as an ever-strengthening climate justice movement. If you read one piece on why the accord reached there is divorced from the principles this movement is growing itself around, make it this one from the New Internationalist (whose reporting throughout from Paris has been invaluable).


Messages from the movement at the Climate Action Zone (the ‘ZAC’)

I couldn’t stay longer because I had to get back to my 2-year-old son. When I think about the chances for greater social and environmental justice in his lifetime I flip-flop, as all you parents do I’m sure, between hope and despair. When I think about the implications of things getting worse (or staying the same, which is actually the same thing), my mind hits a wall. I can’t think about it.

Carlos Larrea of the Ecuadorian YASunidos movement to keep oil in the ground in the Amazon - and everywhere.

Carlos Larrea of the Ecuadorian YASunidos movement to keep oil in the ground in the Amazon – and everywhere.

Government representatives, the mainstream media, and parts of the climate movement are currently floating off on a wave of congratulatory rhetoric after the Paris Agreement was gavelled in last weekend. The accord is being hailed as an historic game-changer and signalling the end of the fossil fuel era.

There has never been a more important time to come back to Earth. The words ‘fossil fuel’ are not even mentioned in the Paris agreement. At its best the Paris deal may, as Kumi Naidoo of Greenpeace said, make the sides of the hole we have to dig ourselves out of a bit less steep. It may give us a bit of leverage in our fight. At its worst, it entrenches a status quo that opens the floodgates to carbon trading, geoengineering, and a whole dystopia of market mechanisms and privatisation of nature; a positive jamboree for transnational corporations. The climate justice movement is doing good work pointing these things out. Those on the frontlines of this depredatory fossil-based economy are already witnesses to this dystopia, and in Paris it was heartening to see that more and more they are recognised as the most crucial actors in driving this movement forward. With their feet firmly planted, they are leading the calls to #keepitintheground.

Pascoe Sabido of Corporate Europe Observatory guides activists on a 'corporate lobby tour' of Paris. Check out CEO's new  'Polluter's Paradise' report.

Pascoe Sabido of Corporate Europe Observatory guides activists on a ‘corporate lobby tour’ of Paris. Check out CEO’s new ‘Polluter’s Paradise’ report.

Everywhere the deal has been referred to as ‘legally binding’ by the main press corps. But try (as I have been) to actually find out in what sense and how it will be legally binding and you come up against another brick wall. The very fact that it is an ‘agreement’ and not a ‘treaty’ seems to indicate its relative weakness in terms of international law. Carbon Brief gave a useful overview of these issues back in November. In that piece they said that ‘Some or all of the provisions could be softened with aspirational language’ – and indeed that seems to be exactly what has happened. Lots of ‘shoulds’, ‘will work to pursues’ and ‘aim towardses’, but not much enforceable commitment. And that includes on that much-lauded wording about aiming for 1.5 degrees. Apparently the new agreement does write in a binding commitment to submit an emissions reduction target – but not to say how much that will be nor how you will achieve it. In a gushing piece in the Guardian on what a diplomatic victory the deal represented, much of how substance was sacrificed in order to achieve this can be read in this one short paragraph:

‘The EU backed down on having the intended emissions cuts, agreed at a national level, to be legally binding; the US accepted language on “loss and damage”; China and India agreed that an aspiration of holding warming to 1.5C could be included.’

So there’s some nice language and aspiration – but, as we already knew, the actual commitments to reduce emissions via INDCs are based on voluntary pledges by country and are not binding. Unlike, we have to keep emphasizing, the TTIP, TPP and other free trade agreements which have been and are being written into law and which threaten to completely undermine any chance of climate regulations.

So, as Danny Chivers and Jess Worth of New Internationalist (again!) have written, ‘Of course there are elements of the deal that climate justice activists can use…But to openly celebrate this deal would be a kick in the teeth to the hundreds of millions of people for whom its wording spells out the end of their homes and livelihoods.’

Nnimmo Bassey of Oilwatch talking about the connections between extractivism, militarism, and climate change at a general assembly in the ZAC.

Nnimmo Bassey of Oilwatch talking about the connections between extractivism, militarism, and climate change at a general assembly in the ZAC.

What is being celebrated instead, by activists and the alternative media who actually care about a just transition and building a new and better society and economy, is the organizing which is already going on to resist dirty energy, resist false solutions, and get on with that building work. Also to be celebrated is the daily-growing insistence on the intersectionality of the climate crisis with the other crises which corporate power thrives on. As we often say here at the Democracy Center, climate change is about much more than climate change. Everyone at Paris – frontline defenders, trade unionists, indigenous representatives, feminists, peace activists, solidarity activists – was talking about the importance of linking and thereby strengthening their diverse struggles. Now we have to carry on with the extremely hard work of actually doing that, and doing it effectively.

Those who are waltzing off into the sunset declaring Paris a success are also those, one suspects, who would like to step back and convince themselves that deeply compromised political systems and corrupt leaders are going to deliver us from this mess. In the end, this is a disempowering stance, a mirror of the passivity which we are encouraged to adopt in our consumer culture.

Much more empowering, for all of the challenges it faces, is to join the chorus which says: we know it is up to us. We hope that the piece of paper you have written your agreement on turns out to be worth something on our path to a better future – but we are certainly not going to rely on your signatories to deliver it; we are already working on it.

Feet on the ground, eyes open to the traps and hazards around it, this is where the climate justice movement stands today – reclaiming power. When I think of my son, this is where hope lies.

Maddy Ryle is the Democracy Center’s communications director.

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NEW PROJECT: Abundance for Everybody


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Over the past several years the Democracy Center has covered the impacts of climate change and responses to this crisis in many ways. We’ve looked at the impact of climate change on water in Bolivia, how California activists beat back the power of the Koch brothers, and unmasked the decimating activities of a set of multinational corporations operating in the Andes and Amazon.

But responding to climate change is about more than understanding its impacts around the world and it is about more than political action. It is also about how we live our lives and building new and creative ways of doing so that move away from the habits of consumption and increased individualisation that help foment the crisis at hand.

‘Abundance for Everybody’ looks at how a group of young, urban activists are working day by day to build genuine alternatives in the centre of Bolivia’s hectic capital, La Paz. The Casa de los Ningunos is an experimental community project that aims to challenge the systemic causes of the climate crisis from the roots up. Through group and personal interviews with residents of the house, we have developed a set of materials that explore three main pillars of the project: food, community and economy. These touch on issues of community organizing, system change as a response to climate change, food as an accessible approach to activism, alternative economy and self-sufficiency, privilege, healing our personal relationships and love as a fundamental component of social change.

Learn about how the concept of community has become embedded in the Casa de los Ningunos, and how the principles represented by their ideas of "community" support their vision for radical social change.

On ‘Abundance for Everybody’, learn about how the concept of community has become embedded in the Casa de los Ningunos, and how the principles represented by their ideas of “community” support their vision for radical social change. Photo: Jocelyn

This project’s producers have a personal interest in the issues discussed here. As with many young people today, they are seeking models and inspiration for alternative, environmentally and socially sustainable ways to construct their lives, with community at the center. Nicky Scordellis, from the UK, brought the “Jueves de Comida Consciente” movement to Cochabamba while she lived there and together with fellow activists opened up a sister house to the Casa de los Ningunos in Cochabamba, called La Kasa Muyu. Leny Olivera, a Bolivian feminist activist who is interested in alternatives to tackle patriarchy and climate change at a structural level, appreciated this opportunity to enrich her reflections around the challenges of communities in urban spaces. And Sian Cowman, an Irish activist and writer, has really enjoyed researching and writing about the practical and theoretical aspects of collectivity in this work – especially how it is a tool for social change.

By sharing the experiences of the Casa de los Ningunos, both as a source of inspiration and to bring to light some of the challenges implied in these types of projects, this work aims to contribute to the global process of transitioning towards new ways of, as the Bolivians say, “living well”.

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Here’s What We’ll Do After the Paris Climate Summit Drops the Ball

No global agreement is coming to save the day. Our powers lie elsewhere, in our communities especially, and this is where we must take the battle.

by Jim Shultz – first published in Yes! Magazine

cop21-660x330Across the world, the eyes and the aspirations of climate activists are turning toward Paris. At the end of this month, delegations from more than 190 nations will gather in the French capital for the 21st annual U.N.-sponsored global summit to address a planetary crisis: our warming Earth. But COP 21 (the acronym stands for “Conference of the Parties”) will not be just another climate summit. The Paris meeting marks the deadline for reaching a new a global agreement—a “final exam” preceded by years of complex negotiations. It is that looming deadline that is making the Paris summit the object of intense attention from governments, activists, and many others.

Heads of state from around the world will descend on Paris, offering up a parade of lofty statements about forward progress and a string of announcements about their new commitments. Outside of the summit, a diverse alliance of climate organizations, labor unions, youth groups, and many others are mobilizing to turn hundreds of thousands into the streets of Paris, as well as other cities across the globe. The marches will call out the inadequacy of government promises and demand a serious global commitment to keep 80 percent of remaining fossil fuels in the ground and a swift global transition to 100 percent renewable energy by 2050.

The reality, however, is that we already know the essence of the climate deal humanity will awake to the day the conference ends, and the news isn’t good. While the Paris accord will mark an important global recognition of the crisis, and a loose structure in which nations pledge to act, none of that will halt the crisis that is already changing the planet in huge ways.

Paris will make it official that no global agreement is coming to save the day. The work of taking concrete action will still lie ahead. And the center of that action is going to come increasingly from creative communities taking leadership on their own and joining forces.

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