New Internationalist

Daring to dream

Issue 400

Dinyar Godrej finds dreamers hard at work, living the change they want to see.

Fran Harvey / New Internationalist
The exuberant children of Calayo. Fran Harvey / New Internationalist

We smoothed out the promotional brochure on the sand and did a double take – on the glossy paper was a transparent turquoise sea, a beach that sparkled like sugar and vegetation of such a vivid green it was an invitation to get lost. Looking up from the brochure I saw it was all real – except for one little detail that was missing from the photograph: the village of Calayo.

Yet there it was, nestled among the trees: its tidy huts and houses, the bunting fluttering from its sole street, domestic animals rooting around and people going about their business.

Details matter. For the Manila Southcoast Development Corporation and Fil-Estate, two companies that want to carve out golf courses and build marinas here, it’s much more convenient to depict the region as uninhabited. But while photographs are easily faked, people are a different matter.

Calayo is one of the four villages of Hacienda Looc which is threatened by the development. As usual in the Philippines, the background is convoluted – involving land rights swindles and the usual Government corruption. Big money has razed communities across the country, replacing them with shopping malls and tourist developments.

Visiting Calayo I was struck by the creativity of the villagers’ resistance. Rather than looking inward, they welcome outsiders. A group of young activists has arrived to set up an art workshop for local children. A student from the University of the Philippines is visiting for an experience of ‘community immersion’. Then there is Lara, the village belle – a cross-dressing young gay activist who has been living here for some months doing drama work with the youngsters. His popularity, especially with the kids and grannies of the village, is evidenced by the clusters that form around him wherever he goes.

What was truly inspirational was how everybody got listened to in defiance of the magnetic pull of status

The conflict between the villagers and the developers has been brewing for many years. During that time the farmers and fishers of Hacienda Looc have lodged a court case against the development; they have made various forays into the capital to demonstrate; they have been the subjects of fact-finding missions and documentary films. At an evening assembly there are fiery speeches and a dramatic enactment of the village’s struggles. The sea breeze drifts into the shed. Kids doze and wake, and drift in and out of the assembly. And so do some of the grown-ups. For all this coming and going and dozing and waking, the gathered village never seems less present, its spirit seemingly breathing as one.

My visit to Calayo was two years ago. But the village’s fight continues – like other long-running struggles around the world, where spurious ideas of ‘modernity’, ‘wealth creation’ and ‘development’ seek to dispossess communities that have infinite human wealth and are supremely developed already. What was truly inspirational about Calayo was the ease with which people shared their resources, the way the kids roamed about owning the place, how everybody got listened to in defiance of the magnetic pull of status. If I had to choose just one of the many visionary ideas the Majority World has to offer today, it would be this – the reliance on other human beings as a given. It’s a lived idea, just as fragmentation, isolation and slavery to the self are lived.

It is tempting to take a rosy view of communities when in fact they can have deep flaws which are part of their cultural make-up. They can take hierarchy as comfort even when that hierarchy has little practical positive function; they can put women into second class by default; they can ostracize sexual minorities or worse. Communities in the West have their flaws too – a tendency to equate groupthink with consensus, mistaking detail for principle, and unseemly competitiveness. However, almost without exception, all that is destructive in our world is also divisive; and all that is truly progressive strengthens our reliance on each other.

At this moment it would seem that what is truly destructive and divisive is our continuing embrace of capital as the ordering principle of our lives. If we make money the measure of our lives, we end up increasingly impoverished. Despite ‘growth’, we are reduced to the status of hoarders rather than participants, caught in a trap where our labour is increasingly channelled to serve the few.

Currently, the mainstream view of India is of economic boom. A lumbering, protected, post-colonial economy is finally getting its skates on and whizzing on to the thin ice with the big players. This is a view based entirely on the muscle of its corporations and its high levels of ‘growth’. Why then is India home to a third of the world’s malnourished children when such fabulous wealth is being created? Among India’s technocrati there is a persistent delusion that a country of over a billion people can miraculously transform itself from an agricultural economy to a service economy. Government seems to share this view. There is a cavalier neglect of farming and rural matters while the country’s software sector booms. Indian eco-campaigner Vandana Shiva comments: ‘I have witnessed again and again that as people’s resources are commoditized and people’s economies are commercialized, money flow does increase in society, but it is mainly outflow from nature and people to commercial interests and corporations. The money economy grows, but nature’s economy and people’s economy shrink.’1

Food is sovereign

The frontline of the people’s economy has got to be food production. In countries like India, Government policy seems intent on shifting farming out of the hands of those who do it and into those of the corporate interests who would control the entire industrial food chain – seeds, chemical inputs, harvests and the processing and sale of foodstuffs. According to Shiva, this means death to biodiversity, the soil and the farmer – there have been over 100,000 suicides of indebted farmers in the last 10 years in India.

This, thankfully, is not the whole story. Many small farmers are realizing that they don’t fit into this vision of corporate farming and are responding by organizing and doing what they do best – growing food for themselves and for their communities. Indeed, were it not for community support, their struggle would have little viability. In Bangladesh, the Nayakrishi (New Farming) movement is preserving hundreds of varieties of local seeds while decreasing dependence on inputs from outside the community. And it is producing more food per hectare than high-tech industrial farms in the same region. Its bedrock is the local community – this way of growing food is part of the cultural heritage and emphasizes the old Gandhian idea of self-reliance.

Such self-determination is now spreading globally in the food sovereignty movement. Food sovereignty is partly a reaction to the debasement of the idea of ‘food security’ which had come to mean supplying cheap food from abroad even if local producers lost out. But food sovereignty is much more than that. It’s an assertion of culture over profit, of ownership of one’s work. And of creating meaningful choice.

Mali is one of the first countries in the world to have made food sovereignty national policy. According to Malian economist Mamadou Goïta: ‘People have the right to decide, according to their culture and beliefs, with whom and in what way they will produce their food without being influenced by other nations or outside institutions… Food sovereignty enshrines our right to eat what we want to eat, to produce what we want to produce, and to do it in a way we want to do it. It is a deeply political concept and it has many dimensions.’2

Change never began through hesitation. It doesn't start with the outcome known or guaranteed

If food sovereignty is about privileging the local in order to fight a global disease, there’s a parallel struggle to liberate the public from the private erupting in many countries. In South Africa, it is being waged on several fronts. There is a growing demand that water, electricity and telephone systems be considered essential services, delinked from the ability to pay. There are also campaigns for basic income led by churches and trade unions, for free antiretroviral treatment for five million HIV-positive South Africans and for the poor to have access to idle farmland. As activist and political scientist Patrick Bond puts it: ‘As so many South Africans have learned these last few years, the fight against privatization is also a fight to decommodify the basic services we all need simply to stay alive. And by winning the fight, there is a chance that the state can be won over to its logical role: serving the democratically determined needs and aspirations of that huge majority for whom the power of capital has become a profound threat to social and environmental well-being.’3

At the World Social Forum in January 2007 representatives from social movements from over 40 African countries launched the African Water Network, a continent-wide bulwark against the privatization of this essential resource. This is one expression of the uphill battle by Africans to get more control of the natural wealth of their continent – often against corrupt and fractious politicians and the clout of international financial institutions. Some mountains may seem impossible to scale but no change is achieved without trying.

In our wired-up world, momentum and support can come from almost any quarter and the gift of solidarity increasingly binds and supports social movements and socially conscious individuals. If you thought ‘in solidarity’ was just a buzzy tag with which some people end their emails, consider the mass movements for self-determination in the last century and the role solidarity played in backing them. Working at the NI, I have the privilege of meeting many people who have achieved incredible victories against overwhelming odds. And many others who are enmeshed in the good fight within systems that seem designed to snuff them out. When I ask what our readers can do to help, I usually get an answer that threw me the first few times I heard it. Instead of seeking some material contribution, which would obviously help, the request is often to lend one’s voice and commitment and to let them know they are not alone.

As gifts go, solidarity is wonderful – the potential is limitless, it can be transferred from giver to giver with no expectation of return and it benefits not just the recipient but wider society. If only we could make our economy do the same.

Whatever the different aims of movements for social change, there are common denominators. One is the belief that everyone should benefit, that the tide of change should lift all boats, not just some. Another is that power needs to be earned, not stolen, and that people can be united by building bridges between them. That all of this goes against the grain of how the world is currently structured is certain; but the principles appeal, despite our cynicism, to what is human in us.

The roots of power

Burma’s Aung San Suu Kyi knows a thing or two about power. Elected her country’s Prime Minister in 1990, she has been kept a prisoner ever since by the military dictatorship. As the regime clings to power, her moral strength grows. Power for her rests elsewhere: ‘It is undeniably easier to ignore the hardships of those who are too weak to demand their rights than respond sensitively to their needs. To care is to accept responsibility, to dare to act in accordance with the dictum that the ruler is the strength of the helpless.’ It’s a vision of power as duty that has been the guiding principle of all the inspirational leaders the world has known. They tend to be the ones unconcerned with the trappings of leadership themselves, but impatient to ensure the autonomy it implies for everyone. Social movements in the Majority World have become increasingly keen to embrace this notion of ‘power from below’.

Change never began through hesitation. It doesn’t start with the outcome known or guaranteed. But in many situations change can seem like the first green shoot that dares to poke its way out of stony soil. Then it’s up to us to nurture it. It may die out or it may thrive. Much worth emerges from the tending of it.

One particularly beautiful plant has taken root in the Middle East. It’s the West Eastern Divan orchestra which brings musicians from the Arab world to play with their counterparts from Israel – the brainchild of the late Palestinian intellectual Edward Said and Israeli conductor Daniel Barenboim.

Said explained that they had ‘chosen this course… on the assumption that ignorance is not a strategy for sustainable survival’. Barenboim, discussing the way the orchestra functions, says: ‘When Palestinians and other Arabs meet Israelis in music, the primary quality that is missing in the political life, namely the equality, is already a given.’ He has few illusions about what the orchestra can achieve: ‘Of course the West Eastern Divan orchestra is not going to bring about peace. What it can do, however, is to bring understanding. It can awaken the curiosity, and then perhaps the courage, to listen to the narrative of the other, and at the very least accept its legitimacy.’4

Dialogues and processes, brave acts and foundation building, the journey and people, people, people. That’s got to be what it’s about. •

  1. Vandana Shiva, ‘How wealth creates poverty’, Resurgence January/February 2007.
  2. GRAIN, ‘Nyéléni – for food sovereignty’, Seedling January 2007, www.grain.org/seedling/?id=456
  3. Patrick Bond, ‘The Decommodification Strategy in South Africa’ State of Nature Winter 2006, www.stateofnature.org/decommodification.html
  4. ‘Meeting in Music’, Reith Lectures 2006, www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/reith2006/lecture4/shtml

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