Jen Wilton is a freelance journalist, researcher and photographer currently living in London, UK. In 2013 Jen spent time in Mexico working on an Investigative Journalism Fellowship for the Tyee, Canada, looking at Canadian mining in the region. She reports on social and political issues related to Mexico and Latin America more widely. Her particular interests include indigenous rights, migration and the role of the extractive industries.

Jen has been published by the Guardian UK, Canadian Dimension, ROAR mag, Latino Rebels, Upside Down World and the Dominion (Media Co-op Canada). You can read more of her written work on Revolution Is Eternal.

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Jen Wilton is a freelance journalist, researcher and photographer currently living in London, UK.

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Mapping human rights from Colombia to Congo

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Screenshoot of the Voz geospatial social justice project. by New Internationalist

Last month, violent clashes broke out between police and protesters in South Africa’s northern-most province of Limpopo. Locals blocked a road leading to the foreign-owned Bokoni platinum mine over grievances related to unpaid money the community claims they were promised 8 years ago when the company first arrived. The confrontation turned deadly as one protester was killed and another was seriously injured by state forces.

Information about this tragic event was uploaded to a newly launched geographic mapping site by an anonymous user. Perhaps this person feared reprisals for sharing the information or perhaps they had other motivations for concealing their identity.

Whatever the reason, the fledgling site Voz, which means voice in Spanish, provides human rights and environmental defenders a secure way to share information in real time. This means NGOs and media outside the immediate area can pick up on stories as they happen, but the site also allows activists and campaigners across the globe to connect with each other and share information about common issues.

The birth of Voz

Voz founder Doug Specht has spent the past 3 years developing the site, which he began by mapping Canadian-owned mining companies in Central America. Specht was travelling around different communities at the time and recounts how many of them were facing similar issues, yet not a lot of information-sharing was taking place.

‘I started to think about ways to connect these communities together a little better,’ he explains. He wanted to create a tool to collate their knowledge. ‘As a geographer and a map geek, of course a map seemed like the best possible way to do it,’ he adds brightly.

‘The problem comes when you are mining so far away from other infrastructure, in communities that are already disempowered through poverty,’ Specht continues. ‘Corporate social responsibility, if it ever meant anything, becomes not worth the paper it’s written on. So communication between those communities, and to the wider world, helps hold those companies to account.’

I started to think about ways to connect these communities ... As a geographer and a map geek, of course a map seemed like the best possible way to do it

Being able to tie information to a particular time and place means it could also potentially be used in a court of law. It is notoriously difficult to launch successful legal cases against companies and governments that commit human rights or environmental abuses, so this kind of geospatial mapping could offer one more tool to help achieve justice.

Specht is quick to point out the idea for Voz came not from a lofty sense of wanting to save the world but rather from a desire to bring together people already doing important human rights and environmental work.

Fighting foreign mining in El Salvador

El Salvadoran organization MUFRAS-32 (Movimiento Unificado Francisco Sánchez-1932) was quick to see the potential for Voz. They use the site to share information about their campaigns with an international audience.

MUFRAS-32 campaigns against the exploitation of natural resources in the north-central department of Cabañas. They are committed to sustainable development and environmental social justice. Zenayda Serrano, a member of the organization, explains they support ‘collective effort for the defence of land, water and food sovereignty and security, which have been threatened by mining companies who want to exploit the El Dorado mine in Cabañas.’

El Dorado is managed by transnational mining corporation Pacific Rim, now owned by Canadian-Australian firm Oceana Gold. Pacific Rim has been accused of subverting democratic processes after suing the El Salvadoran government for $301 million for not granting the company a goldmining permit. The dispute has been ongoing since 2009.

For more than a decade MUFRAS-32 has assisted communities to find alternatives to the extractive industry. They see civil society as having a central role in deciding the fate of their territories and the forms of development that are acceptable and sustainable.

Serrano gives a recent example of the threats they receive in their work:

‘At midnight on 16 April 2015, about 7 people dressed in black, hooded and armed, stormed the farm where we are developing economic alternatives to extractivism, stealing part of the production and safety equipment. To this date we don’t know the reason for the attack, but our organization submitted relevant complaints to the authorities responsible for the investigation. We still don’t have answers, which has generated fear among the farm workers.’

Serrano says that through Voz they hope to achieve ‘an alliance that allows us to reach the international level in our fight, in the search for solidarity, with the main objective of uniting other strategic actors in our efforts’.

Environmental protection in Colombia

‘In early 2015, the city council of Cajamarca refused to consider a community participation mechanism, called a referendum, against mega-mining project La Colosa,’ explains Jorge Rubiano of Colombian NGO Semillas de Agua. He describes the referendum as ‘a constitutional legal instrument that allows the citizenry to decide on the implementation of projects that threaten to substantially transform the territory, its environment, culture or productivity.’

La Colosa, owned by South African corporation AngloGold Ashanti, is in advanced stages of exploration. Locals and human rights NGOs are concerned about the mine’s future need for enormous amounts of water and energy. One community leader has already been killed for his opposition to the proposed mine. Over the past 3 years, Semillas de Agua has worked with a Swiss NGO to put in place safety protocols for individuals and organizations that resist local mining projects.

Rubiano sees Voz as ‘a mechanism for reporting events that affect the environment and human rights, and that allows world-renowned organizations to keep track of human rights violations’

Rubiano sees Voz as ‘a mechanism for reporting events that affect the environment and human rights, and that allows world-renowned organizations to keep track of human rights violations.’ He says it also permits ‘the general public to know what is happening in Cajamarca, with stigmatization and threats against a peaceful resistance movement.’

Anonymity and security

In many parts of the world, people who speak out about human rights abuses are subjected to reprisals and repression. As such, the safety of Voz users is an issue that has been given a great deal of thought.

Voz uses ‘military grade encryption’ to protect users’ identities. The site’s servers are located in Iceland, which has some of the best data protection laws in the world.

‘There are no platforms where you can post information in this way,’ Specht says of Voz’s strict security protocols. ‘That is really the major selling point.’

When asked what his hopes are for the site, Specht replies, ‘I don’t think we want it to achieve anything, in terms of an end goal. I think that is problematic with development projects normally. They start at one point and they want to achieve “X”.’

There is no such thing as a completely neutral, non-political piece of technology

‘What we want it to achieve,’ he continues, ‘is [for Voz] to be a robust platform that we don’t have to be involved in any more. It can then be used to facilitate conversations between people who do have ideas about what they want to achieve. They can then decide what is achievable and share local-to-local knowledge.’

‘There is no such thing as a completely neutral, non-political piece of technology; it will always have our politics running through it,’ Specht concludes. ‘But the more we can remove ourselves from the project, I think the stronger it gets.’

Jen Wilton is a freelance journalist and researcher who regularly writes about mining conflict and human rights issues in Latin America. She tweets as @guerillagrrl and blogs at Revolution is Eternal. This is a slightly modified version of a post which appeared on the Contributoria website in June 2015. Republished here with permission.

‘The parents need certainty and they need proof’

Mexican protesters

© Jen Wilton

‘Let us stand for a minute of silence,’ Emmanuel Decaux, chairperson of the UN Committee on Enforced Disappearances, told those gathered in Geneva on 2 February to discuss the grave problem of involuntary disappearances in Mexico.   

A high-level government delegation and a sizeable civil-society contingent travelled from Mexico to attend the two-day event. Several family members of missing young Mexicans were also at the hearing, including parents of students abducted by local police in Iguala last September. The disappearance of the 43 students from a rural teachers college in Ayotzinapa thrust Mexico into the international spotlight.

‘We have been searching for our children, but we cannot find them,’ Bernabé Abraján Gaspar, whose son was one of the 43 students, said in Geneva. ‘We have demanded of our government that they help us.’

‘We carry great sorrow and we are asking for help so that our children can be returned to us,’ explained Hilda Legideño Vargas, mother of missing Ayotzinapa student Jorge Antonio Tizapa. ‘It is the only thing we want.’

Olaya Dozal, whose 16-year-old daughter disappeared five years ago in Chihuahua, described the sessions in Geneva as a window of opportunity. She wants the government to work harder to locate missing persons across Mexico.  

The committee pressed Mexican officials for basic information on involuntary disappearances. ‘How many alleged cases of enforced disappearances have been received in Mexico?’ the rapporteur for the report of Mexico asked. ‘We need to ask you that question again and again.’

The government delegation was unable to provide accurate figures, leading the rapporteur to conclude it will be hard to find a solution without knowing the full extent of the problem. Daniel Joloy from Amnesty International argues the Mexican government has not been willing to shoulder its responsibility: ‘Even here before the Committee of Enforced Disappearances they do not acknowledge how grave the problem is,’ he said.

The rapporteur went on to say he was ‘shocked’ to read that remains of another 40 people had been found in mass graves dotted around the town of Iguala. ‘Why has it taken so long for the Attorney General to open its own investigation?’ he asked, stating that an immediate and systematic enquiry should have been launched.

‘We continue to face challenges that we need to overcome,’ Juan Manuel Gómez Robledo, Undersecretary for Multilateral Affairs and Human Rights at the Mexican Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said in his opening statement. With reference to the forced disappearance of 43 Ayotzinapa students, he said that there had been ‘an unprecedented criminal investigation’, while affirming that poverty, exclusion and corruption played an important role.  

However, civil-society groups point out that Mexican officials tried to close the case of the missing Ayotzinapa students in January, saying they had exhausted all angles. ‘What we would like the government to do is to wait for scientific proof,’ explains María Luisa Aguilar Rodríguez from Tlachinollan, a Guerrero-based human rights organisation. ‘The parents need certainty and they need proof.’

In terms of the wider issue of involuntary disappearances, Undersecretary Gómez said that only when perpetrators had been punished and the disappeared persons found could Mexico ‘move from pain to reknitting the social fabric.’ He reported that Mexico is open to help from foreign governments, stating the US, Britain, France and Germany had already offered assistance. ‘We welcome constructive criticism,’ Gómez said, but warned that ‘we should not just indulge in condemnation.’

The rapporteurs asked when Mexico’s Ante Mortem-Post Mortem database, designed to help in the identification of missing persons, would be adopted nationwide. Eliana García Laguna of the Office of the Attorney General said that to date only 102 people have been identified through the database, which was launched in early 2013. Officials estimate that more than 20,000 people are currently unaccounted for in Mexico.

‘We do not forget that behind the numbers there are real disappeared people,’ García gravely stated. However, another delegate member confirmed that there are still six Mexican states that do not recognize enforced disappearance as a crime.

The committee asked pointed questions about the controversial practice of arraigo, in which people suspected of connections to organized crime can be detained without charge for up to 40 days, or up to 80 days with a court order.

‘We are aware of the abuses that arraigo can give rise to,’ Undersecretary Gómez admitted. However he confirmed the practice would not cease when a new criminal justice system comes into effect in 2016. Rapporteur Luciano Hazan questioned why the Mexican government would keep the practice of pre-charge detention when it greatly increases the risk of forced disappearances.

‘We leave with the clear knowledge of the challenges we face,’ Undersecretary Gómez said. He stated the delegation would not leave Geneva with the sense of a job well done, as there is hard work ahead.

‘Without a doubt, what needs to change is the control that criminal groups have in state institutions,’ Ruth Fierro Pineda, from the Centre for the Human Rights of Women in Chihuahua, asserted at the UN. ‘Above all, we hope that the Mexican government will move beyond pretence, to take action to help locate all disappeared persons.’

Committee chair Decaux concluded the session on Tuesday 3 February by thanking the family members of the missing Mexican youth for attending. ‘We are deeply touched by your presence,’ he said. ‘We are very aware of the deep hurt you have felt as a result of enforced disappearances.’

Jen Wilton is a freelance journalist and researcher who writes about human rights and environmental issues in Mexico, and across Latin America more widely. Jen tweets as @guerillagrrl and blogs at Revolution is Eternal.

Mexico’s ‘worst environmental disaster in modern times’

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Grupo Mexico handing out drinking water in Sonora. © Grupo Mexico

On 6 August 2014, copper-producing company Buenavista del Cobre, a subsidiary of Mexico’s largest mining corporation Grupo Mexico, spilt 40,000 cubic metres of copper sulphate acid into public waterways near Cananea, in the northern Mexican state of Sonora. The toxic leak has affected seven communities, home to more than 24,000 people.

Mexico’s Secretary of Environment and Natural Resources Juan José Guerra Abud called the spill ;the worst environmental disaster by the mining industry in modern times’. The company reports that high concentrations of heavy metals, including iron, aluminium and zinc, were released in the copper sulphate solution. PROFEPA, Mexico’s federal environmental protection agency, estimates that environmental damage from the accident will cost more than $134m.

‘Buenavista del Cobre has created a 2bn peso ($148m) trust through an agreement with the federal government to cover the environmental repair programme and damages caused by the spill into the Bacanuchi and Sonora Rivers’, the company website states.

The company says it is ‘supporting the local communities by supplying water and, through public service channels that are available in all these communities, to quickly resolve any claims for material damages incurred as a result of the accident.’

However, some residents report that they have not received any assistance at all. Many people in the affected communities do agricultural and farming work, and they now have trouble selling their goods because of fears of contamination. This has knock-on effects for local vendors, who also report a drop in sales as there is less money circulating locally.

‘They are leaving us to die slowly’, says 53-year-old resident Jesús Francisco Salcido Morán, whose income has plummeted since the accident. ‘We have always been hard-working people, but we have reached the limit. I am desperate.’

Environmental regulator PROFEPA carried out preliminary assessments to gauge the extent of the damage to water, flora and fauna. Head of PROFEPA Guillermo Haro Bélchez says the spill will have long-term consequences, but that it will take time to assess exactly how the toxins behave in the affected waterways and soil. Grupo Mexico will be required to monitor the situation for years to come.

Risk to food chain

Alberto Rojas Rueda, head of environmental policy for Greenpeace Mexico, estimates it will take between 15 and 20 years to decontaminate the area.

‘This involves not only repairing the damage, but there are also a number of substances that are being left on the bottom and sides of the river, which will involve great expense to remove’, he says.

Rojas Rueda warns that over time the chemicals could enter the food chain, causing toxicity to animals and people.

Grupo Mexico initially blamed the toxic spill on higher than usual rainfall, but environmental authorities firmly point to faulty company equipment. Grupo Mexico subsequently said in a statement to the Mexican Stock Exchange that ‘one relevant factor of the accident was a construction defect in the seal of the pipe’ where the leak occurred.

PROFEPA said in an official report: ‘The pipe was open, without a control valve, such that the [waste water] flowed uncontrollably towards the stream.’ The toxic materials travelled almost 90 kilometres downstream.

‘The spill of the copper sulphate solution could put the integrity of the ecosystem at risk’, the report warns. ‘When a spill of dangerous substances remains unattended, it can cause persistent and increasing damage to the soil, subsoil, water and other natural resources.’

The Mexican state of Sonora is home to more than a quarter of Mexico’s mining activity, and is prolific in the production of gold, copper and graphite. Grupo Mexico is the world’s fourth largest copper mining company, with the largest copper reserves worldwide.

Grupo Mexico subsidiary Buenavista del Cobre is spending $3.4bn to expand its copper mining operations in the state of Sonora. As a result, annual copper production will double by early 2016. Grupo Mexico also has mining operations in the US, Peru, Chile, Argentina and Ecuador.

Record environmental liabilities in the US

In 2009, a US subsidiary of Grupo Mexico, ASARCO, paid out a record $1.79bn to settle hazardous waste claims across the US. The massive payout primarily funded environmental clean-up and restoration ‘from operations that contaminated land, water and wildlife resources on federal, state, tribal and private land’, reports the Environmental News Service.

‘The settlement resolves claims pertaining to past and potential future [clean-up] work performed at approximately 18 ASARCO-owned sites in 11 states’, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) said of the case, $70m of which went specifically to ‘address a wide variety of environmental contamination, from arsenic to zinc.’

The EPA reports the funds will be used for ‘an estimated clean-up of at least 10.5 million cubic yards of contaminated soil, or enough to cover more than 1,960 football fields with three feet of dirt, and at least five million cubic yards of contaminated ground water, which is enough to fill over 1,500 Olympic size swimming pools.’

One of the largest settlement areas includes Tar Creek in Oklahoma, dubbed ‘one of the most polluted sites in the history of the US’. While ASARCO’s lead and zinc mine closed in 1970, the company left behind sand dune-like mounds of tailings, containing heavy metals.

Lead dust from the toxic waste has had a severe impact on the local community. In 1996, almost one-third of local children under the age of six were found to have dangerous levels of lead in their blood, which can severely affect mental and physical development. The town eventually had to be abandoned and the federal government spent $46m buying land from residents so they could move to safer areas.

As a result of its extensive environmental liabilities in the US, ASARCO filed for bankruptcy. ‘Under the agreements reached in the bankruptcy court, ASARCO is relieved of all the liabilities it incurred during its 100 years of operation’, say academics Lin Nelson and Anne Fischel of Evergreen State College, in Washington State, who have worked to document the stories of several communities affected by ASARCO mines.

‘This means that future costs to human health and the environment stemming from the impacts of ASARCO’s 100 years of operations will be borne by workers, families, communities and ultimately, by US taxpayers.’

A widespread problem in Mexico

In August 2014, shortly after Buenavista del Cobre’s major copper sulphate leak in Sonora, four other accidents associated with Mexico’s extractive industries made news across the country. In northern Mexico, 2,000 cubic meters of cyanide solution leaked at a gold mine in Durango, after heavy rain caused a tailings pond to overflow. More than 20,000 people were left without drinking water.

It is not just active mines that cause environmental damage; there are thousands of abandoned sites across Mexico, some of which still cause problems today. One of Grupo Mexico’s mines in Taxco, in the south-western state of Guerrero, was closed in 2009, but has left an ongoing legacy of toxic waste.

Mexico’s National Water Commission (Conagua) recently carried out a study to assess the long-term damage from the Taxco mine to soil and water. In September 2014, the agency reported that levels of arsenic and lead still exceed acceptable levels, concluding that ‘the pollution is caused by the tailings dams’. Land that should have been decontaminated by the company still cannot be used by local residents for other purposes, such as cultivating crops.

‘Currently in Mexico there is no law or norm that requires mining companies to carry out mine closure plans in a manner that is adequate, complete and financed in its entirety’, says Miryam Saade Hazin, a consultant for the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean. Many communities are haunted by hazardous waste for decades to come after mines are closed.

Lack of accountability

Grupo Mexico’s track record also includes serious breaches of workplace safety. Eight years ago, a methane explosion at a coal mine belonging to Grupo Mexico subsidiary Industrial Minera México (IMM) claimed the lives of 65 miners. Operations at the mine, located in the northern Mexican state of Coahuila, were suspended indefinitely following the tragedy.

The United Nations International Labour Organization found that IMM had ‘clearly failed in its obligations as owner and operator of the mine, leading to this tragic loss of life’. An organization representing families of the deceased miners released a statement in August 2014, stating that to this day there has been ‘no reliable investigation, nor anybody sentenced, nor reparations for the damage’.

Today, while the Mexican government recognizes the enormous environmental consequences of the copper sulphate spill in Sonora, it has chosen to leave the Cananea mine open. Secretary of Environment and Natural Resources Guerra Abud said: ‘We cannot stop or slow down economic activity. We need to direct it, and we need to facilitate economic activity when it meets environmental standards.’

Instead of taking legal action against Grupo Mexico, the government has opted for a dispute resolution approach. Authorities have set obligations the company must fulfill, including providing $151m towards clean-up costs. The company could also face fines of more than $3m, a relatively small cost for a company that reported a net income of $1.7bn in 2013.

According to Rojas Rueda from Greenpeace Mexico, mine sites across the country would benefit from improved regulation and supervision.

He argues that if the Mexican government wants to prevent such toxic disasters in the future, ‘it should strengthen environmental laws and provide [PROFEPA] with more and better inspectors to make random inspections, particularly at the [tailings] dams associated with mines’.

‘As soon as you can hold members of a company the size of Grupo Mexico responsible for contamination like this, you can be sure they will stop doing those things’, Rojas Rueda says. ‘Today, because economic sanctions are for very small amounts, [the companies] do not care if they cause contamination.’

This article has previously been published at Revolution is eternal.

The Spanish town where people come before profit

The direct action economy

Jen Wilton

In the south of Spain, the street is the collective living room. Vibrant sidewalk cafes are interspersed between configurations of two to five lawn chairs, where neighbours come together to chat over the day’s events late into the night. In mid-June the weather peaks well over 40 degrees Celsius and the smell of fresh seafood wafts from kitchens and restaurants as the seasonably-late dining hour begins to approach.

The scene is archetypally Spanish, particularly for the Andalusian region to the country’s south, where life is lived more in public than in private, when given half a chance.

Specifically, the imagery above describes Marinaleda. Initially indistinguishable from several of its local counterparts in the Sierra Sur southern mountain range, were it not for a few tell-tale signs. Maybe it’s the street names (Ernesto Che Guevara, Solidarity and Salvador Allende Plaza, to name a few); maybe it’s the graffiti (hand drawn hammers-and-sickles sit happily alongside encircled A’s, oblivious to the differences the two ideologies have shared, even in the country’s recent past); maybe it’s the two-storey Che head which emblazons the outer wall of the local sports stadium.

Marinaleda has been called Spain’s ‘communist utopia’, though the local variation bears little resemblance to the Soviet model most associate with the phrase. Classifications aside, this is a town whose social fabric has been woven from very different economic threads to the rest of the country since the fall of the Franco dictatorship in the mid-1970’s.

A cooperatively-owned olive oil factory, houses built by and for the community, and a famous looting of a large-scale supermarket, led by the town’s charismatic mayor, in which proceeds were donated to food banks, are amongst the steps that have helped position Marinaleda as a beacon of hope.

As the Spanish economy continues its post-2008 nosedive, unemployment sits at 26 per cent nationally, while over half of young people can’t find work. Meanwhile, Marinaleda boasts a modest, but steady local employment picture in which most people have at least some work and those that don’t have a strong safety net to fall back on.

But more than its cash economy, Marinaleda has a currency rarely found beyond small-scale activist groups or indigenous communities fighting destructive development projects: the currency of direct action.

Rather than rely exclusively on cash to get things done, Marinaleños have put their collective blood, sweat and tears into creating a range of alternative systems in their corner of the world.

When money hasn’t been readily available – probably the only consistent feature since the community set out on this path – Marinaleños have turned to one another to do what needs doing. At times that has meant collectively occupying land owned by the Andalusian aristocracy and putting it to work for the town; at others it has simply meant sharing the burden of litter collection.

Even minor crimes are collectively addressed via the assembly, as the town has no police or judicial system since the last local cop retired.

While still operating with some degree of central authority, the local council has devolved power into the hands of those it serves. General assemblies are convened on a regular basis so that townspeople can be involved in decisions that affect their lives. The assemblies also create spaces where people can come together to organize what the community needs through collective action.

‘The best thing they have here in Marinaleda, and you can’t find this in other places, is the [general] assembly,’ says long-term civil servant for the Marinaleda council, Manuel Gutierrez Daneri. He continues, ‘The assembly is a place for people to discuss problems and to find the solutions,’ pointing out that even minor crimes are collectively addressed via the assembly, as the town has no police or judicial system since the last local cop retired.

In his time as mayor, Juan Manuel Sánchez Gordillo has managed to leverage considerable financial support from the state government, a feat which Gutierrez Daneri attributes to the town’s collective track record for direct action. ‘If you go ahead with all of the people behind you, that is very powerful,’ he says.

As a result, the small town boasts extensive sports facilities and a beautifully-maintained botanical garden, as well as a range of more basic necessities. ‘For a little village like this, with no more than 2,700 people, we have a lot of facilities,’ says Gutierrez Daneri.

British ex-pat Chris Burke has lived in Marinaleda for several years, and he explains that access to the public swimming pool only costs €3 ($4) for the entire summer. Burke recounts Mayor Sánchez Gordillo saying to him, ‘The whole idea of the place being somewhere good to live is that anyone can afford to enjoy themselves.’ Burke adds pragmatically, ‘You can’t have a utopia without some loss-making facilities.’

From occupation to cooperation

In 1979, Sánchez Gordillo was first elected as the town’s mayor. He led an extensive campaign to change Marinaleda’s course, which began with hunger strikes and occupying underutilized land. Manuel Martin Fernandez has been involved in la lucha (the fight) since the beginning. He explains how through the general assembly process the community decided something had to be done to stem the flow of migration from the town.

They began a weeks-long occupation of a nearby reservoir to convince the regional government to allocate them enough water to irrigate a tract of land. After this proved successful, they then went on to occupy 1,200 hectares of the newly irrigated land, which at that time was owned by an aristocratic family. In 1991, the plot of land was officially expropriated and turned over for local use. ‘It took 12 years to obtain the land,’ Martin Fernandez explains, calling their victory ‘a conquest.’

Today, extensive fields of olives, artichokes, beans and peppers form the backbone of the local cash economy. The land is collectively managed by the cooperative El Humoso and a canning facility has been set up on the edge of town.

‘Our aim was not to create profits, but jobs,’ Sánchez Gordillo told British author Dan Hancox, explaining why the town chose to prioritise labour-intensive crops to create more employment for local people.

Like most agricultural employment, whether in the fields or the factory, work in Marinaleda is both seasonal and varied from year to year. But unlike many small agricultural towns, Marinaleda shares the work amongst those who need it.

‘When there is no work they are unemployed, like anywhere else’ - Dolores Valderrama Martin

Dolores Valderrama Martin has lived in Marinaleda her entire life and she has worked at the Humoso canning factory for the past 14 years. From the upstairs office she explains that if 200 people are looking for work, but they only need 40 workers, they will bring everyone together.

‘We gather all of these people who are directly affected,’ she says. ‘We make groups of 30 to 40 people and each group works for two days.’

While the cooperative is formed of nine separate entities, Valderrama Martin says they collectively decide on important issues like the allocation of work. They may even take the issue to a general assembly for wider input from the town. But she cautions, ‘When there is no work they are unemployed, like anywhere else.’

Most of the town decries the relative lack of work, but the wider social security net built on the principles of direct action and mutual aid have meant that unlike other parts of the country, two months’ wages can go a long way to keeping you afloat for the year.

At the core of this is the town’s approach to housing, which offers one of the clearest examples of how collective effort can fill the void left by a stagnant cash economy.

The houses that community built

When many young people think about making their first foray into the housing market, money is inevitably the biggest obstacle. State of the economy aside, a down payment is always a sizeable sum, even in relatively tame markets, and is increasingly unattainable for what has been described as ‘the jilted generation.’

But high on the list of maverick decisions spearheaded by Mayor Sánchez Gordillo, using a combination of state housing subsidy for building materials, free labour for construction and land given by the town, housing has been partly removed from the free market in Marinaleda.

Instead, community members come together with architectural plans provided by the council to build a block of houses, with no sense in advance which home will belong to which family.

The houses – some 350 units in total, with twenty new builds underway at the time of our visit – become part of a housing cooperative. Needless to say, when citizens are only left paying €15 ($19) per month for mortgages, this has a massive knock-on impact on work requirements.

The direct action economy

While capitalism frames our relationships as a series of self-interested economic transactions, Marinaleda relies on a model of mutual aid, as locals work together to meet shared needs, with far less money circulating. While it can be easy to forget, money is simply a way of facilitating action, which creates an incentive for people to do tasks that they otherwise may not have any interest in doing.

Direct action, on the other hand, is rooted in common interests and explores the practicalities of what needs doing, based on who is there to do it.

Direct action eliminates the consumer-provider divide, making cash an unnecessary intermediary in getting things done, as those who want something done and those doing it become one-and-the-same.

While Marinaleda has its flaws, it reminds us that alternative economic models are not only possible, they already exist. A striking piece of graffiti on Marinaleda’s main road depicts a dream-catcher, super-imposed with a hammer and sickle.

The accompanying message implores us, ‘Catch your dreams – utopia is possible.’

This article first appeared on Contributoria. Liam Barrington-Bush tweets as @hackofalltrades and Jen Wilton as @guerillagrrl.

Cancellation of Mexican wind farm highlights flaw in green transition

Wind farm in Mexico

A wind farm in Mexico. Wonderlane under a Creative Commons Licence

Mexico has the fastest-growing wind power industry in the world, making it an important case study in the first steps of a global transition towards renewable energy. However, in the windy Isthmus region of Oaxaca, this rapid growth has been accompanied by ongoing conflict and social unrest that puts the future of these projects in jeopardy.

For the past two years, members of the small town San Dionisio del Mar, located on Mexico’s southern Pacific coast, have campaigned against the construction of a wind farm on more than 600 hectares of communally owned land. They have demanded the cancellation of land permits issued by the local council in 2004.

‘They didn’t inform the comuneros [communal land owners] of the scope or the meaning of having the wind farm in the territory of the Ikoots people,’ community members said in a public statement dating back to January 2012. ‘Therefore, they violated our rights as indigenous people to timely, comprehensive, adequate and appropriate information.’

The Ikoots, or Huave, are a fishing society. The proposed wind farm would include the installation of more than 100 wind turbines on a thin spit of land in San Dionisio del Mar, which locals fear would disrupt the aquatic life they rely on for their livelihoods. Heavy trucks used in the construction of the wind parks have already caused damage to local highways. There are also concerns that the turbines would disturb bird migration patterns.

The past year has been characterized by increasingly violent confrontations between supporters and opponents of the wind energy project. Opposition leaders have received death threats and several people have been injured in clashes with local police. Other communities in the Isthmus region have also experienced conflict over wind farms, including arson attacks on protest camps and an attempted kidnapping late last year.

The 396-megawatt project in San Dionisio del Mar, backed by a transnational consortium including Australian investment bank Macquarie, Japanese company Mitsubishi and Dutch pension fund PGGM, was paralysed during 2013 by ongoing protests and blockades. Then in January 2014, PGGM spokesperson Maurice Wilbrink announced the ‘death’ of the project in an interview with a Dutch publication.

However, while local wind farm opponents have celebrated this apparent victory, it seems the project is not being shelved entirely. Wilbrink indicated there are plans to move the wind farm to an area approximately 40 kilometres north-west of San Dionisio del Mar.

Information filed with the Mexican Stock Exchange in March 2014 also reveals that Macquarie still sees the project as a live venture. The bank attributes delays in the project to ‘minority opposition groups’, but has once again extended agreements with lenders and contractors, this time until the end of May 2014.

Making green energy sustainable

‘Is eco-capitalism, or green capitalism, possible?’ Mexican academic Victor Toledo asked in a recent article for periodical La Jornada. He continues, ‘Can a company be successful while maintaining rigorous practices that do not affect the environment?’ In Mexico, Toledo suggests that the answers to these questions are resoundingly negative.

Over the past 20 years in Oaxaca, as in other parts of Mexico, we have seen the rise of a development model that favours foreign companies over indigenous communities. At best, this results in gridlock; at worst it can lead to violent conflict and even death.

Many of the indigenous communities in the Isthmus are not against development per se. Rather, many of them have their own vision of sustainable development that fits with their cultural and spiritual world views. Increasingly, these communities are connecting and sharing their experiences with each other. This means that we can expect to see more frequent and better-organized resistance to large-scale industrial development projects.

The situation in the Isthmus of Oaxaca raises serious questions about whether the transition to renewable energy, when carried out at such an industrial scale and break-neck pace, can be reconciled with local rights. Smaller, community-led wind energy projects in Europe and the US have had promising results, and may offer a better chance of long-term success.

In Mexico, too, there is growing recognition that using the methods we have come to expect from the mining and extractive sectors is unlikely to pave the way to a greener future. The Mexican Federal Electricity Commission has cancelled tenders for new industrial wind parks in the Isthmus region, due to the ongoing conflict between foreign companies and local communities.

From 28 February to 1 March 2014, community members and organizations from the Isthmus region attended the Regional Forum in Defence of Our Land and Territory. Attendees were united in their stance against what they see as the theft of their ancestral land to line the pockets of distant corporations.

Until the voices from communities like these are genuinely heard, we will no doubt see the conflict continue. ‘We are putting out a fraternal call to unite in a broad front, to allow us to defend the land and the rights of our communities,’ the final declaration from the regional forum stated. ‘We will remain united to defend the rights of our people.’

Mining interests trump local democracy in Greece

Lazaros Toskas

Lazaros Toskas holds a photo of a demonstration in Thessaloniki in March 2013, where thousands gathered to protest against the Skouries mine. © Jen Wilton

‘In the land that gave birth to democracy, democracy has been abolished,’ asserts Lazaros Toskas, a leader in the campaign against mining on the Halkidiki Peninsula in north-east Greece. He is speaking in reference to several large mining projects near his hometown that have been given a green light by the government, despite fierce local opposition.

Toskas is a lifelong resident of Megali Panagia, a small village neighbouring Aristotle’s place of birth. It is located just three kilometres from the Skouries exploration site where Canadian-based Eldorado Gold plans to develop an open-pit gold and copper mine. Skouries is one of three projects on the peninsula that make up the Cassandra mine complex, alongside the Olympias mining exploration site and Stratoni, a silver, lead and zinc mine already in production.

In 2011, the cash-strapped government of Greece introduced a fast-track programme to facilitate the approval of large-scale economic projects, including goldmining. Amid the largest restructuring of debt in history, the Greek government threw open the doors to private investment and sold the Cassandra mines to a company part-funded by Leonidas Bobolas. Bobolas is the director of Ellaktor, Greece’s largest construction group, which jointly ran the mining projects with Canadian company European Goldfields. European Goldfields was bought out by Eldorado Gold in 2012, which today controls 95 per cent of the Cassandra mines.

‘In the land that gave birth to democracy, democracy has been abolished’

Some have questioned the rationale of a deal that saw the Greek government sell up to €15.5 billion ($21 billion) of mineral assets for €11 million ($15 million). The European Commission (EC) in Brussels investigated a complaint about the sale of the Cassandra mines and confirmed in 2011 that ‘the sale was carried out without an open tender or a valuation of the mines’ assets by an independent valuator. The sale contract also provided for the waiver of transaction taxes.’

The sale was therefore in breach of EU regulations, and the EC ruled that €15.3 million ($20.7 million) in illegal aid had been granted to the mining company. The Greek state was ordered to recover this amount plus interest, amounting to €21.7 million ($29.5 million) in total. In May 2012, the EC was forced to take legal action against the Greek government for failing to comply with the terms of the ruling. A final decision is still pending.

An ecosystem in peril

‘I am a simple, ordinary man,’ Toskas told me during an interview in London in late September, but he feels strongly that the mine is a threat to the future of those who live on the peninsula. Toskas has travelled across Europe to share the concerns that he and a growing number of Halkidiki residents have about the potential impacts of the Skouries mine.

Eldorado Gold plans to extract roughly 380 million tonnes of ore over the life of the mine, over 10 times as much as has been mined in the region in the past two millennia. The company estimates it will need to clear cut 180 hectares of ancient forest and farmland in order to put the mine into full production, a process that is already underway.

The majority of people on the Halkidiki Peninsula rely on the environment for their livelihood: whether through fishing, agricultural work, beekeeping or responsible forestry. Halkidiki is also the third most popular tourist destination in Greece. In 2013, tourism emerged as the only driver of growth in the Greek economy, but Toskas wonders how many people will still want to come if the forest is cut down and the waters are polluted.

Amid the largest restructuring of debt in history, the Greek government threw open the doors to private investment

Eldorado Gold estimate they will generate 5,000 direct and indirect jobs through three mine development projects currently underway in the north of Greece. These jobs will last for the life of the mines – a period of up to 27 years. Although the economy of Greece has shrunk by one-fifth in the past five years, many residents of Halkidiki feel that the economic arguments for this type of large-scale mining focus too much on short-term gain, while missing the wider arguments against damaging the environment and potentially interfering with alternative forms of employment.

Christina Laskaridis from Corporate Watch UK spoke at an event with Toskas in London about the media portrayal of mining in Halkidiki, where she says people are repeatedly told ‘your employment security is somehow tied to Eldorado’. She continued, ‘Both the company and the media systematically create a false dilemma and constantly frame the debate between employment with Eldorado or no money to buy food.’

Fanning the flames of discontent

Tensions around the proposed Halkidiki mines reached fever pitch earlier in 2013, following the torching of Eldorado’s offices and pieces of heavy machinery in February. Police responded by raiding nearby villages and questioning scores of people. Toskas explains with indignation that the day after the arson attack he was detained by police and held for two days. He is accused of ‘inspiring’ destructive actions (a crime particular to Greek law that is different from inciting criminal acts) and will eventually answer to these charges in court. ‘The community sees [the charges] as a way to penalize the resistance,’ Toskas asserts. He could face up to five years in jail if he is tried under common law, but a much longer maximum sentence can be expected if anti-terrorism legislation is used. Toskas remains uncowed by the prospect of jail time, adding defiantly: ‘We are resisting without fear the forces that are trying to sell off the wealth of our country.’

Heavy-handed police tactics, including night raids on family homes and allegations that police collected DNA samples illegally, used in the aftermath of the February arson attack sparked widespread backlash. Thousands of people took to the streets in waves of protest across the north of Greece, which also reached as far south as Athens. Toskas explains that state repression has served to radicalize many of the communities near the Skouries and Olympias mine development sites.

While many locals needed to make the most of the tourist trade during the summer months and work, dissent once again took an upswing in early September. Large anti-austerity protests were timed to coincide with the Thessaloniki International Fair (TIF), an important event in the Greek political calendar. This year TIF was attended by Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras, who delivered a speech heralding an upturn in the Greek economy in 2014. Police estimated 17,000 protesters attended three main demonstrations that day, one of which was a large faction of people opposed to Eldorado’s Halkidiki mining projects.

Searching for solidarity

Toskas visited London in late September in the hopes of generating support for his community’s ongoing battle, as Eldorado Gold receives financial backing through the London Stock Exchange (symbol E:ELD). Richard Solly from the London Mining Network also spoke at an event alongside Toskas, emphasizing ‘the key role of London in financing destructive mining projects around the world. The two key finance centres for the world mining industry are Toronto and London, but more money is raised on the London Stock Exchange.’

In 2013, tourism emerged as the only driver of growth in the Greek economy, but how many people will still want to come if the forest is cut down and the waters are polluted?

Greece, currently in its sixth year of recession and facing record unemployment at almost 28 per cent, has seen extraordinary levels of protest in 2013. The issue of large-scale mining on the Halkidiki Peninsula has become part and parcel of wider criticisms of the austerity agenda currently being pursued by the Greek government, under strict advice from the troika of lenders – the European Commission, the International Monetary Fund and the European Central Bank.

But many residents of Halkidiki see Greece’s economic woes in different terms than their political leaders. They favour a long-term view of what is good for the environment and the health and wellbeing of the people. ‘We can develop our land and our economy in a different way,’ Toskas maintains. ‘Gold is not below Halkidiki, it is above it – it’s the forest, the sea and the people.’

Jen Wilton is a freelance journalist and researcher who lives between London and Mexico. She recently completed an Investigative Journalism Fellowship with the Tyee looking at Canadian mining in Mexico. Jen tweets as @guerillagrrl.

Mexico resists Monsanto corn

corn
The movement is growing to protect Mexico’s native corn crops Jen Wilton and Liam Barrington-Bush

Saturday 25 May is a chance to say ‘no’ to genetically modified foods, with actions taking place all over the world against GM giant, Monsanto. The movement in Mexico is growing considerably, as local people are challenging the introduction of Monsanto corn in the crop’s historic birthplace, out of concern for what it could mean for traditional cultures, local diets and the biodiversity of the broader environment.

In late April, world renowned Indian ‘seed activist’ Vandana Shiva travelled to the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca to join a gathering of Mexican farmers, indigenous leaders and environmentalists, fighting to protect Mexico’s native corn crops against the imposition of genetically modified alternatives.

The group gathered for the ‘Pre-audiencia Nacional: Contaminación Transgénica del Maíz Nativo’ in the shadows of the Sierra Juárez mountain range, in response to the Mexican government’s proposal to allow the seeding of twelve million hectares of genetically modified corn. The proposal followed an initial pilot project in which Monsanto was allowed to plant GMO corn in test sites in 2009. While many local communities remain adamantly opposed to the move, extensive lobbying by Monsanto, with support from the world’s richest man, Mexican Carlos Slim, and considerable efforts by the Gates Foundation, have raised real fears that local concerns may be ignored.

While Slim, the Gates Foundation and Monsanto argue that GMO technology will feed the world’s poor, many locals deem the imposition of transgenic crops a serious threat to the native varieties of corn that have been at the core of rural Mexican cultures for millennia.

‘On every ground transgenics are wrong,’ Vandana Shiva told the Oaxaca audience of several hundred, “but they are hugely wrong in the centre of diversity of maize here in Mexico.’

The historic birthplace of corn, and home to several thousand varieties of the crop, corn is more than just a staple in the Mexican diet. Beyond its prevalence in local cooking, corn is a symbol at the heart of countless indigenous traditions and holds great spiritual significance. An indigenous Nahuatl man from the state of Hidalgo explained that his community hosts a festival to celebrate corn every year in which ‘we dance with the corn and we celebrate the Earth Mother.’

Vandana Siva
Vandana Shiva spoke at a gathering in Oaxaca Jen Wilton and Liam Barrington-Bush

Echoing this sentiment, a woman from an organization representing indigenous communities in the south-east of Mexico and Guatemala said, ‘When we care for and cultivate our cornfields, God is with us. He gives us the food that we need. He works with us and he rests with us… The corn that God gives us, lives with us, sings and dances with us, and in certain moments it also cries with us.’

A nationwide campaign was born in Mexico in 2007 called ‘Sin Maíz, no hay país’ (Without corn, there is no country). ‘Corn is the life of the towns,’ said event organizer Neftalí Reyes Mendez, of the Oaxacan Collective in Defence of Territories in an interview following the event. ‘Corn is the base of life, the base of resistance for the peoples of Oaxaca.’

Aware of the crop’s supreme importance in Mexico, Vandana Shiva travelled more than 30 hours to share her experiences of fighting GM-giant Monsanto in India. ‘We started the seed saving movement in India,’ she explained, ‘with the commitment to not obey laws that make it illegal for us to have our own seeds, because [seed] saving for biodiversity, continuing our heritage, receiving what we have received from nature and our ancestors, looking after it with love and care to pass it on to future generations is not a crime. It is our sacred duty.’

Shiva went on to explain the catastrophic effects that the widespread planting of BT cotton in India has had, relating how within one season only Monsanto seed was available to cotton farmers. Subsequent crop failures and the rise of indebtedness, following an 8,000-fold increase in seed prices, have devastated the fabric of community life. Shiva poignantly told the gathered crowd, ‘150,000 people have been killed in the criminal violence of organized crime in Mexico. In India, 270,000 Indian peasants have committed suicide because of the criminal violence of the organized crime of Monsanto. … Don’t allow Monsanto to make Mexico a suicide economy.’

With what critics have called ‘The Monsanto Protection Act’ having recently passed into law in the US, some Mexicans fear Peña Nieto’s government will follow suit and approve the widespread commercial planting of GM corn, making seed sharing illegal and making it far harder for farmers to maintain non-GMO-contaminated varieties of corn. Dr Alejandro Espinosa Calderón, a nationally recognized expert on GMO corn in Mexico, echoed this fear, stating emphatically, ‘The Mexican government does not defend Mexicans, they defend Monsanto.’

GM advocates argue that scientific tests show no harmful health or environmental results. But Shiva has heard these arguments before. ‘All the tests they do for safety are not tests, because they work with surrogate proteins. They don’t work with the transgene,’ Shiva explained. Her concern is backed up by a 2006 report by Friends of the Earth UK, on the allergenic qualities of GMO foods. The report argues ‘surrogate proteins may not reflect the toxicity or allergenicity of the plant-produced protein to which people are actually exposed… The use of surrogate proteins is not acceptable – protein produced by the GM plant that will actually be eaten must be used in allergenicity assessments.’

Similarly, a 2009 report from the Indian Academy of Sciences recommends ‘carrying out acute toxicity studies with native (not “surrogate”) protein.’

‘They say this is natural,’ Shiva explains incredulously. ‘It is substantially equivalent to your corn and therefore we don’t have to really test because it is equal. … They say it is just like nature, but when it comes to owning the seed they say, “We are the creators. We made it, we are the inventers. We own it, we have the patent. It is our intellectual property.” So the same thing is new, when it comes to owning, and it is natural when it comes to shedding responsibility for the environmental, health and socio-economic impacts. I call this ontological schizophrenia.’

Shiva concluded by reiterating the connection between Indian and Mexican seed activists, despite their geographical separation – ‘We are doing what you are doing and we are part of one movement that is planetary, while being deeply local. We have started a global citizen’s movement for seed freedom, to say no to transgenics, no to patents, no to Monsanto’s empire to destroy the planet, and our lives and our food systems.’

Find out more at the March Against Monsanto website.

This post was originally published on the Revolution is Eternal blog, crossposted with the author’s permission.