Traveling with The Vía Campesina’s Caravans for Life, Social, and Environmental Justice
“¡La Tierra No Se Vende – Se Ama y Se Defiende!” (English translation: “The Land is Not for Sale – It must be Loved and Defended!”)
– A change from woman fighting against a large dam in Alpuyeca, Mexico
The Caravans for Life, Social, and Environmental Justice welcomed organizers from around the world on our way to Cancun for the 16 “Conference of the Parties” (UN climate negotiations). Organized by the Vía Campesina, the caravans traveled across Mexico for nearly a week, making stops along the trip to see firsthand how different communities in Mexico are impacted by ecological injustices.
Different caravans started in different locations. One began in San Luis Potosí, and passed through Salamanca on its way to Mexico City. At different stops, the caravan learned about the impacts that an oil refinery, a mining site, and industrial agriculture have on local communities. For example, one caravan participant described how the large-scale dairy farms in the area require a great deal of water for such a large number of cows. Because it is an extremely dry part of the country, these farms end up exploiting the underground aquifers much faster than the rain can replenish them. In addition, the industrial farms contaminate nearby communities’ drinking water, further reducing communities’ access to safe drinking water.
A second caravan began in Guadalajara, and passed through El Salto, Morelia, and Magdalena Contreras on the way to Mexico City. In El Salto, caravan participants had an intense experience when they not only heard about, but also witnessed firsthand, a river in which all forms of life had been killed by a toxic concoction of chemicals that had been released upstream by 250 polluting industries upstream. High levels of pesticide use from industrial agriculture – which at times have been high enough to prevent mangoes and other produce from being exported – add to the contamination in the area. People in the area suffer from high rates of cancer, rare illnesses, and stillbirths. In Madgalena Contreras, community members described their struggle against the construction of a super-highway planned to cut right through its land, destroy local forests, displace families, and lead to increased congestion in cities.
A third caravan began in Acapulco, passing through Puerto Marques, Agua Caliente, and Alpuyeca on its way to Mexico City. In Puerto Marques, communities described the violent way that they were displaced from their land, with 1,200 police literally throwing out 750 families and burning their homes in order to make room for hotels and resorts. In Agua Caliente, people have been waging a serious struggle against a large dam. In Alpuyeca, community members described their struggle against agro-toxics, promoted by transnational corporations such as Monsanto.
I had the opportunity to join the caravans from Mexico City to Cancun over five days packed with memorable experiences: marches, visits to contaminated sites, educational events, and most important of all, opportunities to connect with local community members throughout the journey.
At the World Forum in Mexico City
Leading food sovereignty and climate justice activists from across the world gathered in Mexico City before the long journey to Cancun. Here is just a small sample of powerful leaders who spoke.
- The Vía’s Paul Nicholson (Basque country) described how industrial agriculture contributes 55% of global greenhouse gas emissions, and why therefore agrarian reform and small-scale agroecological farming are necessary to cool the planet;
- Ferdando Mesco of the SME (Mexican Electrical Workers Union) connected 44,000 workers’ struggle to be reinstated in their jobs after drastic government layoffs to the struggle for climate justice;
- Ana de Ita of the Study Center for Change in the Mexican Countryside (CECCAM – an organization which Grassroots International supported for its work on the the Vía caravans and alternative forum) gave a local context for why it’s important to take a stand against carbon markets like REDD: “58% of forests in Mexico belong to campesino and indigenous communities. We will not let the government take this land from us!”
- Ivonne Yanez of Acción Ecologica (Ecuador) and Oil Watch described two hopeful stories – one of the Yasuní forest, where indigenous peoples have so far been successful in pressuring the government to leave the oil in the ground, and another of Ecuador’s recognition of the rights of nature, which has led international environmental activists to file a lawsuit against BP in Ecuadorian courts!
After these inspiring stories and analysis, it was time for action. We joined the Vía, SME, the National Assembly of Environmentally-Affected Peoples, and the National Movement for Liberation, along with thousands of other people for the first large mobilization during the COP-16 negotiations! The energy was high as we took the streets of Mexico City, ending at the Zocolo, where a variety of speakers – including two children with a powerful message about the need to fight for their future – took the stage to speak out for climate justice.
The Journey to Cancun
The next morning, we filled up eight buses to continue the journey towards Cancun. While one part of the caravan stopped in Puebla, my half of the caravan went straight to Veracruz. Even though we arrived a few hours later than anticipated, the community gave us an incredibly warm welcome. Son Harocho musicians (the music for which Veracruz is famous) strummed and sang with contagious energy, and hundreds of community members formed a circle around us, clapping and chanting, “Que Viva La Caravana Internacional!” (Long Live the International Caravan!).
The enthusiasm was overwhelming. Throughout my years of organizing, the only other times when I can remember feeling this welcomed and appreciated were with others who knew me well, but the people of Veracruz had never met us before. Their outpouring of affection exemplified their depth of understanding of the importance of collective action and movement building. We were there to hear their stories and exchange our own towards a common vision of social justice, and that was enough for them to receive us as family.
While we were there, we heard a number of moving testimonies that made it clear how much our struggles are connected. One in particular that stood out to me was from Carmen Huerta Iacopris, a woman who is working with nearby farmers who are affected by the nearby Smithfield pork processing plant. One of the largest CAFOs (Containment Animal Feeding Operations) in the world, Carmen described this plant as a brutal example of the devastation that industrial agriculture causes to workers, animals, small farmers, ecosystems, and broader communities around the world. In fact, it is widely believed that the horrible conditions from this processing plant led to the outbreak of the “swine flu,” as the first incidents of death from that virus were traced back to the surrounding area. It was important for many of us from the U.S. to hear this story – as Smithfield is a transnational corporation based in the U.S., we have a special responsibility to bring this story home, and find ways to hold corporations like this accountable.
The next morning we arrived to Ixhuatlan, a town between Veracruz and Merida. We had the chance to hear a number of moving testimonies about the local conditions that people of Ixhuatlan and the surrounding communities are facing, and of many ways that they are fighting back.
One local fisherman testified about the ways that climate change, deforestation, contamination of rivers, and invasive species impact people’s livelihood, access to food and water. Specifically, he described how the coastal mangroves that have been so important to the ecology of the local community have been reduced through massive deforestation – while they covered five hectares of area several years ago, they only cover two hectares today.
As a result of the decreased mangroves, the community is more vulnerable to the floods which are becoming more common as a result of climate change. Just a few months ago, local communities were faced with a particularly severe flood – one which inundated their homes with water and thick mud. In addition, the deforestation led to a drastic reduction in shrimp and other fish that depend on mangroves for their habitat. This reduction has impacts on the overall ecosystem, including fishing communities that have depended on shrimp and fish for their livelihoods and food.
At the same time as the mangroves have been reduced through deforestation, there has been an increase in contamination and pollution from industries upstream. Fishermen report catching 100 kilos of garbage in their nets in just one catch, including bodies of dead animals discarded from large-scale meat industry. It was particularly poignant to hear this just one day after hearing a testimony about Smithfield in Veracruz.
Stories of Resistance
In addition to this testimony about damaging health impacts, we also heard inspiring stories of resistance. Two compañeros from the National Assembly of Environmentally Affected Peoples described ways that communities are fighting back to preserve their rights to clean water and land. Another local community member spoke of a growing movement of peasant farmers (campesinos) who are promoting small-scale, sustainable (also known as agro-ecological) farming as a way to meet communities’ own food needs, make sure communities control their food systems, and cool the planet at the same time.
I was glad we heard these stories of people’s solutions, because our next activity was a bus tour to visit one of the primary sites of contamination – a petroleum refinery. We had driven only about half an hour outside of the town on when we saw the monstrosity – starting with three large smokestacks with fumes pouring up. Behind the smokestacks spread out at least a half a mile of buildings, pipelines, and structures made to process oil into different products. When we got off the bus to get a better look, one of the local organizers, Gonzalo Rodriguez Carno from the group Apetac, gave us a clear and sobering explanation of how the nearby communities have been impacted by the petroleum industry – including production of PVCs and products that contain dioxin. All of this has led to incredibly high cancer rates and other rare sicknesses in the surrounding area. The good news is that people are fighting back. Gonzalo invited allies from around the world to take action against the petroleum and petrochemical industry in solidarity with their community, and other communities experiencing the brunt of the impacts.
Getting back on the bus, I found myself thinking not just about how that community was impacted, but also how the extraction and processing of that oil will affect people around the world, by making more fossil fuels available for us to burn and contribute to climate disruption.
Before it was time for the caravans to depart once again, the community invited us to participate in a mistica – a collective ceremony in which we could envision the future we are struggling to create, and build our energy towards that vision. At the end of the ceremony, the women of the community shared a chant which demonstrates women’s power in the movement:
“¡No, No, No!
No me da la gana
Ser una mujer sumissa y abnegada.
¡Si, Si, Si!
¡Si me da la gana
Ser una mujer consciente y liberada!”
| (English translation):
“No, No, No!
I have no interest
In being a woman who is
submissive and unacknowledged.
Yes, Yes, Yes!
I am interested
In being a woman who is
conscious and liberated!”
The following day, we arrived in Mérida, where we met up with several other caravans from Chiapas, Oaxaca, and Guatemala. The added energy of our compañeros was palpable as we gathered together for a rally in the main zocolo (city center), clarifying the unity of our struggles through speeches by leaders of several organizations, including UNORCA (National Union of Regional Autonomous Peasant Organizations, Mexico – a Grassroots International partner), CUC (Committee for Peasant Unity, Guatemala – a Grassroots International grantee), and Mountain Justice (fighting mountain-top removal coal mining in Appalachia, U.S.).
Our last stop on the caravan was Chichen-Itza, a town with an incredibly important history as a major center of Mayan civilization and culture. The local Mayan community had prepared a special indigenous ceremony for us, welcoming us to their land, and commemorating the day of the woman (in the Mayan calendar), and of Mother Earth. They shared information on the local communities’ struggles for land and resource rights, and extended a heartfelt invitation to members of the Indigenous Environmental Community (a GRI ally that works in the US and Canada) to offer their words and song in sisterhood.
It was the perfect way to end the caravan – it gave us the chance to reflect on all that we had seen throughout the week, and celebrate the beauty of Mother Earth, while nourishing our spirits for the struggle ahead in Cancun.