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Amigo, Can You Spare a BTU?

September 2009

Chances are, the average U.S. resident has no idea that their demand for electricity might require that a Mexican village be flooded for a hydroelectric dam. The question is: if the human cost were known, would we consume just a little bit less?

At Grassroots International, our bet is that a little bit of knowledge would go a long way.  For those who value human rights, that high social and environmental cost is not likely to sit right.

Our unabashedly biased perspective is based upon the way we’ve worked for more than a quarter century: offering financial support to communities around the world whose natural resources have been extracted and despoiled and sharing their stories in living rooms, community centers and across cyberspace.

The stories share a common thread: the peoples closest to the land and most affected by its treatment have the right to sustain their livelihood and future. Not the corporations. Not the transnational mega-projects.  Land, water and food are fundamental human rights guaranteed to everyone, rich or poor, no matter the color of his or her skin.

One way to express these values  is to strive for sovereignty. And when it comes to the ability to control how and what crops one grows, and where and how it is sold, it’s called Food Sovereignty. Grassroots International supports community and peasant organizations working towards food sovereignty, safeguarding their family farms from the dirty underbelly of globalization land. Our Mexican partners and their allies – aided with your generous support – recently gathered together in community forums to strategize how to effectively work together toward this end.

Food Sovereignty: Resistance and a Way Forward

One of those partners is Aldo Gonzalez from the Union of Organizations of the Sierra Juarez of Oaxaca (UNOSJO). He hikes through the Sierra Juarez mountains, lending a hand to Zapotec communities seeking food sovereignty. On the one hand, UNOSJO keeps an eye out for companies preying on community resources — whether timber, minerals or seed stock. On the other hand, UNOSJO promotes agroecological techniques so that families can grow adequate food for themselves and, in good years, sell surplus in local markets – core principles of food sovereignty. This work includes educating children and adults in simple terms about globalization’s threats, the policy environment that has eroded public support to small farmers and Zapotec techniques and traditions of caring for shared water and land.

Aldo was one of the first indigenous leaders in Mexico to detect genetically modified corn strains in Oaxacan fields and has seen firsthand that mining and maize don’t mix. “For the indigenous peoples of Mesoamerica, corn is our blood, our bones, our flesh,” Aldo told us. “Without corn, we’re nothing. For that reason, we’re not going to let anyone disfigure corn, rob it of its essence, kill it or kill us.” UNOSJO shares a vision of autonomy and sovereignty with other indigenous and peasant allies across Mesoamerica with which they work.

Increasing Pressures on Land and Territory

Judging by statistics of foreign direct investment, Mexico is “enjoying” a development boom. But who’s really benefiting from this boom? The country’s economic upsurge is powered largely by transnational industries scouring indigenous lands for mineral-rich veins, windy plains and floodable canyons.

At a recent water and energy strategy forum, Professor Octavio Rosas Landa from the Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) presented a global energy matrix to farmers seeking to learn about how worldwide energy consumption threatens their natural resources.

Among the 400 farmers in attendance was Carlos Beas, director of UCIZONI, a Grassroots International grantee working on food sovereignty in the Isthmus of Tehuantepec. “What do we get in exchange for our resources?” asked Beas, before he then answered his own question. “We get divisions in our community. Some people agree to rent their land. Other people are dead set against it. The government and the companies divide up our communities and where we used to live well together, now we fight.”

Raising questions about the costs of “green” energy, UCIZONI’s members are particularly concerned about the environmental impacts of a giant wind farm on Oaxaca’s isthmus that has ruined thousands of acres of agricultural land and provides meager revenue. As poor farmers that lead low-consumption lives, UCIZONI’s members have no need for increased energy supply.

Recent Mexican governments have chosen to put their increasingly imported eggs in the megaproject basket. Megaprojects are grand infrastructure works that tie Mexico into the global economy, offering a way for Mexico to sell its abundant natural resources and cheap labor around the world.

What broke Mexico’s farming economy and opened the floodgates to megaprojects?

Dammed if they Do…

Professor Landa described policies of the 80s and 90s, when Mexico was instructed by foreign creditors to abide by neo-liberalism and structural adjustment principles. The formula, replicated throughout the developing world, demanded that Mexico shrink its public spending by – among other budget cuts – removing public support for small farmers. Mexican farming families split apart when fathers and sisters had to leave for Mexican cities and the U.S. to seek work. In the 1990s, when constitutional reform broke up collective lands and the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) inundated Mexican markets with cheap U.S. corn, even more farmers went broke.

The water and energy forum was held outdoors in a rural schoolyard in Aguacaliente, Guerrero, a community slated to disappear under the rising waters of the proposed La Parota dam. In the eyes of the visitors that had come from afar to the forum to sleep on the hard ground under tarps in a schoolyard, Aguacaliente’s community organization, the Council of Communities Opposed to the Parota Dam (CECOP) is an inspiration that has thus far held back construction of the dam.

What’s behind the interest in Mexico’s land and minerals? You can probably imagine that it has a lot to do with Mexico’s insatiable neighbor to the north. In the U.S., economics and the environmental movement have prevailed to tear dams down rather than construct new ones. “In the U.S., if they propose a dam, there’s nearly a riot,” Professor Landa explained. “Energy companies look elsewhere to fulfill U.S. energy demand. Free Trade agreements like NAFTA make that a lot easier.” Poor and marginalized indigenous communities with little political power are easy targets for the world’s energy and mineral companies.

Participants at the forum learned that Mexico exports 40% of the energy that it produces. Through megaprojects like the Plan Puebla Panama, the U.S. seeks to fulfill its energy appetite through a regionalized electrical grid, stretching from Mexico to Colombia. Sarah Gonzales, a leader of a growing resistance to high electrical rates, traveled 25 hours from Campeche to participate in the form. She said, “I came here upset about my high energy rates. Now that I see that we’re giving up our lands and minerals to produce energy for the U.S., I’m more convinced than ever that our fight is right. We’re proposing a fair “social” price for electricity.” Increasingly, communities are withholding electrical payments to the Federal Electrical Commission and using the funds to maintain their local energy infrastructure.

Sarah’s grassroots organizing doesn’t come without high costs. For her activism work, she had to go into hiding shortly after the forum. Grassroots International recently conducted a human rights advocacy campaign on her behalf. Similarly, in the state of Oaxaca, Father Martin Octavio Garcia Ortiz, a priest whose parish sits close to the San Jose El Progreso mine has been slandered in the press of subversively applying liberation theology to his pastoral work. That is, he has encouraged parishioners to ask hard questions of a Canadian mining company, La Fortuna, whose mining operation threatens parishioners’ clean water. Dozens of farmers were recently beaten and arrested for peacefully blocking the entrance to the mine.

A Hopeful Alliance Emerges

Given the necessity to work together towards food sovereignty, a number of Grassroots International’s Oaxacan partners like UNOSJO and Ser Mixe, a powerful land rights organization serving Oaxaca’s Mixe peoples, have recently joined hands to form a “Collective for Defense of Territorial Rights.”  There was a hopeful tenor to their inaugural forum entitled, “Weaving Resistance.” People saw silver linings in the negative economic trends, which they feel acutely as family members working in the U.S. send home less help. What will happen to these megaprojects if worldwide consumer demand drops? People expressed interest in working closely with United States’ organizations like Grassroots International to pressure the Obama Administration to put international human rights ahead of “the American way of life,” i.e. unbridled consumerism.  

A participant in the “Weaving Resistance” forum shared, “When we take on a transnational mining company, they call us crazy. But what else are we going to do? It’s a big sacrifice; we have less time for our kids and work. So we can’t leave here without beginning to construct our own government, without proposing laws that protect us, without working together to grow food for our families.”

It’s a long process of resistance and proposal to create a global economic system in which a hot summer day in New York doesn’t mean that another nameless Mexican village is targeted for inundation. Grassroots International is proud to support resource rights struggles that place tortillas above air conditioners.

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