New Internationalist

Postcard from Cancún: the struggle

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There was some mystery around la marcha del día siete, as the grassroots march of 7 December was referred to by those who knew about it. Although the purpose – to express disagreement with the ‘false solutions’ of the COP 16 climate negotiations and demand the rights of Mother Earth to be respected – was clear, nobody could, or would, tell the exact time, place or route until the last moment. ‘For security reasons’ – why make it easier for the authorities to obstruct it?

‘This day is not for a party, it’s for struggle and protest!’ went one popular chant. And so it began at around 9 am in downtown Cancún, led by Via Campesina, the international peasants movement, with around 1,500 participants from more than 40 countries – Latin American farmers, grassroots activists, indigenous peoples, and the ‘hippies’ from the alternative Klima Forum – all colourful, excited and united.  

The message from the bus with loudspeakers: ‘Repressive politics destroy natural resources and violate the rights of indigenous peoples. We are calling for the unity of social movements and organizations, both national and international. We cannot allow our environment to be continuously contaminated. We are marching to tell the governments that we don’t agree with them. It’s a struggle of all of us.’ Struggle is one of the most repeated words of the day – people are determined, and creative.

Getting ready in style!


The March


Wrapping up posters, flags, and other marching equipment, protesters get on buses which would bring them closer to the Moon Palace, an extravagant place where the COP 16 negotiations are being held (a 30 minute ride from the city centre). They would then march and present their demands to the world leaders.

Instead, they are stopped long before their final destination…

…Which hardly is surprising to anyone. As if ours was a just world in which the voice of the people was respected? ‘To march is not a crime. It is our right to protest.’ To which the powerful create a right of their own – to ignore.

Having failed to advance a bit more in the caravan, the protesters start marching, among them children and the elderly. For seven hours, slowly. ‘Zapata lives, the struggle continues!’ – echoes of the Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata, people’s power, demands to get the dirty business hands off the forests and leave the fossil fuels in the ground, among others – plus some singing and dancing and sandwich-sharing. ‘The authorities hope they will wear us out in this heat so that we give up – but we won’t.’ (A local newspaper reported that the organizers of the march had already agreed with the authorities not to advance to the Moon Palace, a decision which angered many, but was nevertheless respected.)

But the authorities are waiting, and so are their barricades – the police wouldn’t allow any further movement. Peacefully, protesters assemble to listen to speakers. Shield-armed federal police, some 500 of them, are waiting several hundreds of meters away.

Silent dance. Their unmoving presence is the perfect stage for a silent dance.

The local guy. ‘[COP 16,] Why did you all come here? To contaminate even more?’

He comes from Cancún. Addressing COP 16 which doesn’t listen, he asks: ‘Why did you all come here? To contaminate even more? All those planes, hotels and waste… For 16 COPs you’ve been doing this.’ It needs to stop. Just like REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation, one of the points COP 16 is expected to agree on). ‘No more REDD! No more REDD+, REDD++ and REDD+++!’ he says. ‘They are all pure corporations. I am here to tell you that we, the indigenous people, defend nature. We want to bring conscience to all people.’

Back at the assembly, speakers highlight the power of the people. ‘I am here to show your strength [to save the environment], the strength that they at the COP 16 don’t have.’ They [the delegates] might have realized it by now. ‘They come here to negotiate climate change, which we haven’t caused, and discuss the fate of our lands. We have to show them that a different world is possible.’ Tom Goldtooth, from North America’s Society for Threatened Peoples, denounces the negotiations: ‘Over there, at the UN meeting, there is a lot of confusion and darkness.’ He adds, ‘It’s business there.’ Pure business.

Hammer and wall. A floating hammer, a symbolic crasher of the corrupt processes of international climate negotiations, is passed to the other side. There are no plans to try to bring down the barricades. The protest remains peaceful.  

There are now several hundred police officers on both sides of the barricades. They’ve had orders not to take any action, I am told. Too much international presence, both activist and press – the Mexican government wouldn’t risk getting involved in something dirty when the whole world is watching.

‘That’s not the case for our local protests,’ says my compañero from the north of the country. ‘When there are no foreigners around, the police beat us without thinking twice.’ The officers at the march don’t have name badges or numbers – they cannot be identified. That’s an extra security element, another compañero from Chile says: in case, in case something happens, the guilty couldn’t be traced.
The march didn’t reach its destination. But it spoke its heart – and hoped someone out there listened.

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