Liam is an activist, writer, author and facilitator
living in London. He works part-time with the London
Mining Network
, organising in solidarity with those who
are fighting British mining companies around the world. He was a
co-recipient, with Jen Wilton, of Canadian publication, The

Tyee’s 2013 investigative journalism fellowship,
researching the role of British Columbia-based mining firms in
Oaxaca, Mexico. He also works with a range of non-profit
organisations, community groups and trade unions to explore more
democratic, participatory and human forms of organisation, under
the banner of 'helping organisations to be more like people.' He
wrote, crowd-funded and self-published the book Anarchists in the
Boardroom
in 2013 and writes extensively about
self-organisation and autonomous resistance movements in Europe
and the Americas. He has also written and taken photos for the
Guardian, Huffington Post, Vice, ROAR Magazine and many other
publications. He Tweets as @hackofalltrades.

twitter: 
@hackofalltrades
Teaser: 

Liam is an activist, writer, author and facilitator
living in London. He works part-time with the London
Mining Network
, organising in solidarity with those who
are fighting British mining companies around the world. He was a
co-recipient, with Jen Wilton, of Canadian publication, The

Tyee’s 2013 investigative journalism fellowship,
researching the role of British Columbia-based mining firms in
Oaxaca, Mexico. He also works with a range of non-profit
organisations, community groups and trade unions to explore more
democratic, participatory and human forms of organisation, under
the banner of 'helping organisations to be more like people.' He
wrote, crowd-funded and self-published the book Anarchists in the
Boardroom
in 2013 and writes extensively about
self-organisation and autonomous resistance movements in Europe
and the Americas. He has also written and taken photos for the
Guardian, Huffington Post, Vice, ROAR Magazine and many other
publications. He Tweets as @hackofalltrades.

Contributor Image: 

Why are trade unions opposing worker self-management?

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Front gates of the VIOME factory.

Of course you should become unemployed, like everyone else. What makes you think you’re so different?

Who made the comment above to a group of Greek workers who had successfully fought off the closure of their factory, by occupying and assuming direct democratic control over production? Was it:

  1. The head of the local chamber of commerce?
  2. A former owner of the occupied factory?
  3. Donald Trump, on a rare visit to Greece for a spin-off of the Apprentice?
  4. A representative of the workers’ own trade union?

Somewhat inexplicably, the answer is 4). The comment was a reply from a representative of the Sectoral Union of Chemical Industry Workers of Northern Greece, during a public assembly at the VIOME factory in Thessaloniki. The workers of VIOME – who played host to the Second Euromediterranean Workers’ Economy meeting 28-30 October – had called the assembly to ensure their occupation of the former industrial adhesive factory was grounded in the needs of the neighbourhood.

A crowd shot from the opening panel of the Second Euromeditteranean Workers' Economy meeting.

Photo by Liam Barrington-Bush under Creative Commons license.

Public support for the occupation was strong. Yet the VIOME assemblies continued to feature dissenting voices – from the workers’ own union.

‘Its criticism – which coincides with that of other parts of the left,’ says Theodoros Karyotis of the VIOME solidarity network, ‘is that [worker recuperation] is not a real revolutionary process, because it is about becoming small bosses out of a small capitalist enterprise.’

A VIOME worker puts up a poster for the Second Euromeditteranean Workers' Economy.

Photo by Liam Barrington-Bush under Creative Commons license.

This may seem absurd to anyone who has followed the emergence of the ‘recuperated factory’ movement since its emergence during the Argentine debt crisis of 2001. At the time, thousands of workplaces were abandoned by their owners and hundreds were quickly and militantly recovered by their former staff, who started production again without bosses or managers.

The movement tells the stories of workers who have successfully resisted relegation to capitalism’s ever-growing scrapheap of redundant labour. They have done so through collective occupation and direct democratic control over the means of production. Yet, according to the Sectoral Union of Chemical Industry Workers (among others), these workers just wanted to play boss.

VIOME soap bars for sale at the Second Euromeditteranean Workers' Economy meeting.

Photo by Liam Barrington-Bush under Creative Commons license.

Not just a Greek problem

Karyotis believes the antagonism towards self-management permeating the big Greek trade unions comes from the sway held by Europe’s last remaining explicitly-Stalinist Communist Party. However, the experience at VIOME is not unique to the Greek chemical workers’ union, nor to Greece as a whole.

In Argentina today, only two or three unions will allow any of the 16,000 workers from the country’s 370 recuperated workplaces to join their ranks – even if they were members before they established worker control. In France, where the dynamic has been broadly less-antagonistic, the role of unions during worker occupations is still often limited to non-interference.

Benoit Borrits, of the Association of Self-Management in France, speaks at the Second Euromeditteranean Workers' Economy meeting.

Photo by Liam Barrington-Bush under Creative Commons license.

Sinisa Miličić represents RIS, the Regional Industrial Union, a small Croatian trade union that emerged alongside the worker occupation of an industrial tools factory called ITAS. RIS was created when the traditional Croatian unions pulled their support for the ITAS workers after telling them they should ‘come to terms’ with the factory shutting down and taking their jobs with it.

Miličić sees an inevitability to the fissure between the traditional unions in Croatia and worker self-management. ‘It’s not like [the other unions] don’t want to fight, but they aren’t interested in engaging in any riskier fights,’ he argues. ‘This is for the smaller, newer unions, because we have less bureaucracy.’

RELATED: Still standing or standing still? Jo Lateu considers the state of the unions, and argues that a revival has already begun, from the September edition of New Internationalist magazine taking a special look at trade unions.

Miličić’s diplomatic analysis has not spared RIS from criticism. Its association with the Croatian recovered workplaces has led the union old guard to extend its attacks on the movement to RIS, accusing them of ‘destroying union unity,’ a charge Miličić adamantly denies. ‘We are not affiliated with any umbrella union or any headquarters, but that doesn’t stop us from co-operating with any other unions if we have mutual interests, and we usually do.’

Dragutin Varga, one of the ITAS workers, is less-generous than Miličić in his take on the trade unions’ underwhelming response to self-management. ‘Not only are other unions not going to help, they are trying to destroy us,’ Varga told those gathered in the VIOME warehouse for the Second Euromediterranean Workers’ Economy meeting. After the panel, he added: ‘They are more interested in maintaining union bureaucracy, than in helping the workers.’

The old Filkram-Johnson sign on the roof of the VIOME factory.

Photo by Liam Barrington-Bush under Creative Commons license.

Corruption? Or something more fundamental?

In Bosnia, Emina Busuladzic, a greying militant with an unmistakable fighting spirit, describes the chemical workers union at the DITA detergent factory in Tuzla, as ‘working all this time against the interests of the workers.’

One might argue that this attitude was the result of old fashioned corruption, rather than any particular aversion to worker self-management. At DITA, the union reportedly began undermining workers’ interests, encouraging them to accept unfair deals from management, long before the start of the occupation.

Emina Busuladzic of the DITA recuperated detergent factory in Bosnia, outside the VIOME factory.

Photo by Liam Barrington-Bush under Creative Commons license.

However, the institutionalised nature of many negotiations between established trade unions and big employers often blur the lines between explicit corruption and an ever-reductive sense of ‘realism’ that leads to poorer and poorer deals for workers. This blinkered ‘realism’ may also play a part in the broader union antagonism towards worker self-management. Highly-institutionalised union bureaucrats may simply be unable to imagine any victory that transcends slightly-better redundancy packages.

However, motivations aside, when militant Busuladzic replaced the old president of the local union striking committee, even the pretext of support from the union head office quickly evaporated. As in each of the other factories, the workers were left to fend for themselves.

What is the role of a union if there is no boss?

Some of the stories of trade union antagonism that emerged during the Workers Economy gathering may be reduced to corruption, plain and simple. However, some have suggested a more profound split in labour politics exposed by the movement towards self-management.

‘Without bosses, without capital, what is the union’s meaning?’ asks Andres Ruggeri, a social anthropologist from the University of Buenos Aires, Argentina. ‘[The unions] can’t resolve this question and so have nothing to do with the [recuperated] co-operatives.’

Ruggeri has been studying the phenomenon of worker occupations and self-management since 2002 and sees these situations as indicative of a significant issue within the trade union movement. ‘The world is changing, capitalism is changing, and there is a global situation where most workers are without bosses. It’s not self-management, it’s informal, precarious, but in this shift, the unions are absent,’ Ruggeri asserts with visible dismay. To him, the lack of union support for worker recuperations is part of the lack of union support for various forms of precarious labour in the 21st century: It doesn’t fit their organizing model.

A VIOME worker asks a question of a panel at the Second Euromeditteranean Workers' Economy meeting.

Photo by Liam Barrington-Bush under Creative Commons license.

A new kind of union?

Yet there are still signs that this combination of absence and antagonism need not remain the defining traits of the trade union-occupied workplace relationship. At the gathering in Greece, Dragutin Varga from ITAS and Sinisa Miličić from RIS in Croatia, spoke together about a more constructive relationship that could support workers organizing beyond the realms of collective bargaining.

Miličić outlined several reasons why his union has been able to play a constructive role in supporting both ITAS and a worker-recovered bus company, Varaždin, in their respective struggles for self-management. For one, RIS is regional, rather than profession based, allowing it to transcend some of the cliques that have emerged around the other Croatian unions. Additionally, it has chosen not to affiliate with any of the larger unions, bucking the trend in most countries to ‘pick a national team’ and curb its own activities according to (often more conservative) dictates from on high.

'The role of the union is increasing participation of workers in decision making processes'

Though other unions are typically organized around a limited form of democratic centralism, RIS follows the examples of the self-managed workplaces it represents and makes decisions via regular assemblies with its seven affiliated companies, which represent 700 workers in the region. This hints at a simple, but radical reformulation of the role of the union, which goes some way to answering Andres Ruggeri’s open question about what a union might actually do in a situation where there are no bosses to fight.

‘The role of the union is increasing participation of workers in decision making processes,’ Miličić told participants at the VIOME warehouse. To do so, RIS supported the development of shop floor commissions at ITAS, among a series of collaborative projects that aim to ensure that power remains decentralised amongst the workforce and involves all members in a meaningful way.

Another encouraging development came from the Thessaloniki gathering itself. Members from at least eight occupied workplaces backed a proposal to create a pan-European self-management network. The network would provide a mix of financial and non-monetary support for workers attempting to establish democratic control of their workplaces, backed by the more established co-operatives.

Yves Baroni, of the SCOP-TI recuperated tea factory in Marseille, speaks at the Second Euromeditteranean Workers' Economy meeting.

Photo by Liam Barrington-Bush under Creative Commons license.

Are unions making themselves redundant?

At the Workers’ Economy gathering it became clear that trade unions in almost every country experiencing movements for self-management have actively mobilised against the workers pioneering this constructive and successful response to working class exploitation. ‘Not present and unsupportive, [rather than actively antagonistic,] is the best we can expect from the main trade unions in Greece,’ Karyotis says with a sigh, expressing a sentiment echoed by other countries’ delegates as well.

If the pan-European solidarity network can be realised and the RIS organizing model emerging in Croatia replicated locally in other countries, they may go some way to addressing the gaps in worker solidarity left by the absence of the unions. This may well enable the greater spread of self-managed workplaces in Europe and if it does, a serious question is raised: will it be the old unions – rather than the workers who’ve refused to accept unemployment – that will find themselves made redundant in the times ahead?

Correction: a previous version of this article referred to the RIS as a Serbian trade union and to its representative Sinisa Miličić as Serbian. In fact, both are Croatian. The article was corrected on 13 November 2016.

Life in the shadow of the world’s biggest mining company

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Brazilians come to London to hold UK mining giant BHP Billiton to account, one year after deadly Samarco dam disaster.

Is BHP Billiton worthy of a London Stock Exchange listing? Those who have experienced the company first hand say how they think the mining giant stacks up as a neighbour in Brazil, Colombia and Indonesia. Liam Barrington-Bush reports.

The London Stock Exchange presents itself as a financial home to responsible corporations, setting a high-bar for entry and expecting top form from those who land a listing in Paternoster Square. But the reality of making London your financial base doesn’t always seem to equate to the best-behaviour mark that the LSX claims.

The world’s biggest mining company – BHP Billiton – has found itself under scrutiny in country after country, being implicated in forced community displacements in Colombia, insufficient clean-up efforts in the aftermath of a tailings dam breach which killed 20 people in Brazil; and water contamination in Indonesia. Representatives from the local struggles against the company’s operations have come to London to protest the mining giant’s Annual General Meeting. This is what some of them had to say about life next door to the London-listed company’s various operations:

RELATED: ‘We are slowly being killed by this mine’

Rodrigo de Castro Amédée Péret is a Brazilian Franciscan brother working with communities affected by mining. For more than 30 years, he has been involved in the struggle for agrarian reform in Brazil. He is a member of the Churches and Mining Latin America Network board, coordinator of Franciscan Solidarity and Ecology Action and a member of Franciscans International, a NGO at the UN.

‘The Fundão dam breach in Minas Gerais in November 2015 led to the destruction of all forms of life and means of survival in the region. The mud covered everything, resulting in 20 deaths (including that of an unborn child after the mother miscarried after being injured by the flood) and unmeasurable destruction to the environment.

It also destroyed biodiversity, caused the sedimentation of the river and the destruction of many precious water sources, which now find themselves submerged in mud. Not only this, but the plants and vegetation along the river bed were also lost.

We have seen whole communities levelled, where the people have lost everything, without receiving sufficient compensation. Instead of reparations for the victims of the destruction, we have seen Samarco act in their own corporate interests and capture those of governments, who seem to exist to do the bidding of transnational corporations.

What all this has made clear, is the eminent risk of mining. We know BHP employs a high-risk type of tailings dam. We know that their methods cannot be sustainable. In Minas Gerais it is irrefutable today that mining kills.’

Luz Ángela Uriana Epiayú is a Colombian human rights defender, artisan and mother of six living in the Wayúu indigenous reservation of ‘Provincial’ in the La Guajira region. She lives with her family two kilometres from Cerrejón, the largest open-pit coal mine of Latin America and one of the biggest suppliers of UK-burnt coal. Cerrejón is co-owned by London trio BHP Billiton, Anglo American and Glencore.

‘Since I began to understand the difference between right and wrong I have not known a single positive memory about Cerrejón. I remember the company came to our community promising us the world, but they never actually sat down and spoke to us.

When I was a child, they gave us toys. Now I am thirty years old and those toys were the last benefits the company brought to my life.

At night, we don’t sleep, as the constant hum of the huge machines don’t let us. We cannot live in any sort of peace. But beyond the noise pollution, the mine contaminates the environment. The air we breathe is polluted.

This in turn generates health problems and illnesses in our communities. There are many sick children and adults, too, including my two-year-old son. Their illnesses are due to the pollution caused by the mine, which also contaminates the water. So between the water they contaminate and the water they take for their operations, there is hardly any drinking water available for us in the already drought-prone region.

And these realities are made much worse by the lack of basic healthcare in the area. These are the consequences we face with having Cerrejón – and BHP Billiton – as neighbours.’

Arie Rompas is an environmental activist and executive director of WALHI Central Kalimantan. WALHI is a grassroots organization that works on environmental and human rights issues and is a member of Friends of the Earth (FOE) International. He has been working since 2003, advocating and strengthening communities to fight for the rights deprived of them by transnational investment and government policy.

‘I came to London to tell people that BHP Billiton is leaving a terrible legacy at the IndoMet coal project which the company has been developing in Central Kalimantan, Indonesia. My family come from the precise area where the company is mining and I have seen the impacts with my own eyes.

They are destroying what is left of the forest where the indigenous Dayak Murung people live and upon which they rely for their livelihoods and cultural traditions. The company paid criminally-low levels of compensation for the lands they have taken away and now they are polluting our rivers. They must be held accountable for all this.’

At the Coalface

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Touring the UK: Danilo Urrea, of Friends of the Earth Colombia.

Following the UK government’s plans to phase out coal-burning power stations by 2025, Coal Action Network have released a new report tracing and examining the places coal burned in the UK is coming from. And while the government’s announcement hints at a step in the right direction, the prospect of 10 more years of demand will still prove deadly for many local communities.

In October, London Mining Network (LMN) hosted a visit from Samuel Arregoces, an African-Colombian community leader from the village of Tabaco, which was evicted in 2001 to make way for the expansion of the Cerrejón coal mine. Nearly 15 years on, the village is yet to be resettled.

Samuel’s visit focused on raising awareness of UK and European mine investment and ownership, as the Cerrejón mine is financed by a range of European investors, and is jointly-owned by three London-listed companies: BHP Billiton, AngloAmerican and Glencore. However, these aren’t the only UK links to the mine that drove Samuel from his home; Cerrejón coal was also being burned in UK power stations throughout his visit.

According to a new Coal Action Network report (supported by LMN and Stop Mad Mining), one-third of all coal imports to the UK are from Colombia. As one of the country’s largest coal mines, Cerrejón is one of the gaping holes in the ground that our coal supply has come from, imported (on paper, at least) via a Falkland Islands tax haven, before landing on UK shores.

Over the past 30 years in La Guajira, where the Cerrejón mine is located, Samuel and 20 thousand other African-Colombian and Wayuu Indigenous peoples have been forced from of their traditional homes to make way for the ever-growing mine. In fact, just weeks before Samuel’s UK visit, another village – Roche – was evicted by Cerrejón, with others facing imminent eviction.

Five Indigenous communities have ceased to exist entirely after the forced dispersal of their villages. As Danilo Urrea, of CENSAT AGUA VIVA (Friends of the Earth Colombia) told us during the same trip which brought Samuel to the UK, ‘more people have been displaced by the extractive industries in Colombia, than by the drug war.’

‘The expropriations and evictions,’ outlines the CAN report, ‘were carried out by Cerrejón using intimidation, forcing the communities to hand over their land for laughable prices, abusing their dominant position, and relying on the complicity of the state authorities.’

The stories from the UK’s other main international coal sources – Russia and the US (accounting for 43 per cent and 19 per cent of UK coal imports, respectively) – don’t paint a much better picture. In Russia, Indigenous Shor and Teleut villages have faced similar displacement in the Kemerovo Oblast region, with homes of villagers who have refused to sell or move on becoming victims of arson.

In fact, whole Shor communities have had land rights and governance powers transferred to neighbouring towns, cutting them out of decision making over their own lives. The UN enshrined principle of free, prior and informed consent is ignored completely in the Kemerovo Oblast, as coal companies and state forces have worked together to push Shor and Teleut communities off of their lands. They have done so to ensure the UK (and China – as Russia’s two largest coal buyers) can continue to burn the dirty fossil fuel for the coming decade.

Meanwhile, in the US, the Appalachian Mountains are being decapitated, through a mining process known appropriately as ‘mountaintop removal’. The consequences of such disruption on local ecosystems are immense and water has become undrinkable in some affected areas. Cancer rates are 5 per cent higher for those living in close proximity to mountaintop removal sites, while incidence of birth defects are 42 per cent above average.

What is clear, is that the companies burning coal in the UK have no accountability with regard to where they source their coal from. It’s all the same to them, as displaced Colombian villages, burned-down homes in hold-out Shor communities, and Appalachian mountaintop removals, are all ‘externalities’ for someone else to worry about. And a 10-year phase out is the UK government’s way of echoing this same attitude; ‘what has happened to the coal before we burned it is someone else’s problem; we’ll give it up when we’re damn-well ready!’ Even with the closure of Kellingley Colliery, the UK’s last deep pit coal mine, in December, no one is talking about the inevitable influx in coal imports that are already starting to fill the gap, nor the conditions under which that coal is being extracted abroad.

There is still considerable debate as to whether 10 more years of UK coal can keep our carbon emissions within acceptable limits, but we know now that 10 more years is deeply incompatible with any understanding of environmental justice. As for centuries before, we are outsourcing the costs and consequences of our hyper-development to those who see the least of its benefits. Our transition to a sustainable energy future must be a just one and account for those at all points in the supply chain. We must be actively co-creating energy alternatives with those whose lives have been damaged, but also those who’ve been forced into dependency on the very industries we are phasing out.

And 10 years isn’t good enough. We need to start now.

Liam Barrington-Bush (@hackofalltrades) is the Communications Worker at London Mining Network (@londonmining).

London mums evicted – but not beaten

Carpenters Estate

Liam Barrington-Bush under a Creative Commons Licence

On 7 October, under threat of physical eviction from Newham Council, I helped the last members involved in the occupation of four vacant flats on the Carpenters Estate to remove their belongings from the building. The Focus E15 mums, whose story has spread across the country like wildfire since they took over the flats just over two weeks ago, had known this day was coming. But there was still a feeling of sadness as this makeshift community left 80-86 Doran Walk and watched contracted security guards reoccupy the block and seal it up to prevent others in need from calling the flats their homes.

More conservative voices have decried the illegality of the occupation, pinning blame for their situation squarely on the mums, rather than an out-of-control free market which has priced out large swathes of its intended ‘customers.’ In practice, this has meant that untold numbers of people – like those kicked-out of Focus E15 last year – have been forced into the indignities of couch surfing, rodent-infested private rentals, and even rough sleeping.

This is unacceptable at the best of times, and is morally criminal at a time when community members estimate that the Carpenters Estate alone has at least 400 unoccupied flats within its boundaries, shuttered and rotting, just as 80-86 Doran Walk will be after this week’s eviction. While the mums – and a few others who had also been evicted from the Focus E15 hostel last year – are no longer living on the Carpenters Estate, they have offered lessons to others around the country who have found themselves living through the housing crisis. They have reminded us – among other important lessons – that unjust laws can’t stop us from coming together to meet our collective needs. When injustice becomes law, resistance becomes duty. Or simply necessity.

This is being shown in factory occupations in Argentina, Italy, Greece and France, where ex-employees are taking collective control over bankrupt factories and running them without bosses. It is being shown in resistance to mining and fossil fuel extraction by both indigenous peoples and settlers up and down the Americas, where communities are keeping their land and water from being poisoned by companies that have the ‘legal rights’ to do what they want to them. And it is being shown in East London, where being forced to live in inhumane conditions is not being accepted as an inevitability when perfectly good homes sit empty.

When we break laws like these, we often end up building the communities that help us weather the kinds of storms that invariably lie ahead. There’s very little that brings people together quite like constructively breaking a law that is obviously corrupt, ridiculous and/or morally bankrupt. In our disobedience, we remind ourselves what we are capable of achieving together, while gradually undermining the wider legitimacy of the law to govern ours or others’ lives... and we tend to make friends along the way!

A two-week squat is hardly the answer to the complex and multi-layered set of issues that have culminated in London’s current housing mess, but it does offer a set of tools that can be adapted and adopted in borough after borough, empty estate after empty estate. These tools can help us to address immediate needs, build local community, and make the case for new relationships to government, to the market, and to each other. This hint at a new kind of housing and a new kind of politics may have shown its early shoots in E15, but it is well within the reach of the rest of us to help it grow in our own post codes.

The Focus E15 mums will keep up pressure on Newham Council via community outreach on Stratford Broadway every Saturday, 12-2pm. There will be a public meeting where next steps will be discussed at 6:30pm on 20 October in E15. Watch the Focus E15 Facebook page for details.

Liam Barrington-Bush Tweets as @hackofalltrades.

Mexico resists Monsanto corn

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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.

Anarchists in the boardroom


‘The Left’ has a funny relationship with the world of management.

On the one hand, it can be a dirty word; something the ‘bad guys’ do, a tool of ‘the system.’ There’s good reason for such associations.

Since its birth, the management field has largely served to reinforce the social and political status quo, manipulating the vast majority of those who fall victim to it, to work ever-longer hours and give up any sense autonomy, as well as both literal and symbolic ownership over the fruits of their labour.

One doesn’t have to look far to find ‘management’ at the core of a range of problems, from labour disputes, to plain ol’ soul-sucking bureaucracy.

In traditional leftist working class politics, ‘management is the problem.’

But there’s another side to our relationship with the subject. It is exemplified in the fact that much of the organized left has long-embraced the same breed of top-down managerialism that most of us associate with industrial capitalism.

Trade unions – the protagonists in so many workers’ struggles throughout history – have long held onto many of the management traits used by the companies and organizations that they organize against. Last year I met an American who worked at the ‘trade union for trade unionists,’ lobbying other unions to treat their organizers with the same kind of respect they expected and demanded of other institutions!

And the world of NGOs is equally guilty, with several household name non-profits coming under fire for poor treatment of staff and cumbersome organizational structures that make it harder for public donations to reach those they are intended for.

This is a troubling sign. Amongst the broad web of progressive causes that is ‘The Left,’ few like to talk about management. Yet, in our silence we have adopted many of the structures we spend so much time criticizing the very real human costs of.

If we are clear about our core values, most of what we’ve long known about management doesn’t sit well, whoever is practicing it.

Why do countless organizations that advocate for transparency, equality and democracy, still operate internally (as well as in partnerships and with those they support) as their own elitist workplace dictatorships, with decisions made behind closed-doors and concentrated in the hands of a privileged few?

A friend recently leaked me an internal response from the leader of his youth organization, answering a staff concern about feeling the organization didn’t live its participation values strongly enough in the ways it operates. The response was unambiguous: ‘“participation values” refer to work with young people... when you run a business it has to be hierarchical – we are not a co-operative.’

Apparently, for this director, at least, ‘values’ only apply to the work outside of the organization’s walls. Inside, you’d better know your place, kid!

Management was the chosen 20th Century means of organising groups, though its assumptions of hierarchy, power and control don’t sit as well with a more networked 21st Century.

But what is the alternative to the rigidly bureaucratic management practices of industrial capitalism and Soviet communism?

I believe that ‘anarchism’ will be the next big thing in management.

Well, maybe not ‘big thing,’ but it does offer an alternative organizing lens that tends to fit with the values our organizations are meant to be built around.

If you believe in transparency, equality and democracy, how can you organize in ways that manifest these beliefs?

The worlds of social movements and social media are offering some strong hints.

Occupy camps have demonstrated that groups of hundreds, or even thousands, can reach consensus together on the vast majority of decisions affecting their ability to organize themselves.

Peoples’ rebellions in Mexico have modelled ways of getting the needs of a community met through shared and rotating roles and responsibilities.

Argentine workers have shown that they can run re-claimed factories themselves, leading their industries, without managers around.

The simple use of a hashtag on Twitter has shown that it can be all the infrastructure necessary to enable hundreds-of-thousands of people around the world to align their various efforts for a better world, with countless others, amplifying those individual efforts immeasurably.

These may seem like far-flung examples for most of our organizations to even consider, but it will require some pretty radical adaptation to keep slow, rigid, bureaucratic institutions relevant in a world where flexible, lightweight organizing alternatives are emerging each day.

The question now is whether we will continue our organizational attempts to impose control on the emergent complex social movements that surround us, or if we will begin to take the still largely unknown steps necessary, to help our organizations become integrated parts of those movements, living our values through the process?

Liam Barrington-Bush is currently crowd-funding his first book, Anarchists in the Boardroom: How social media and social movements can help your organization to be more like people on StartSomeGood.com. He Tweets as @hackofalltrades and you can like more like people on Facebook or join the email list.

This post was originally published on rabble.ca. Reproduced with permission of the author.