Wednesday, March 21, 2012

In the city, you only eat if you have money

This is a cross-posting from Arnie Z. Alpert's blog, InZaneTimes

From February 25 to March 4 I was in Oaxaca, Mexico as coordinator of a Witness for Peace delegation exploring links between migration and economic conditions, and also looking at steps Oaxacans are taking to make it possible for them to stay at home. The fifteen delegates included 11 New Hampshire residents, plus two from Massachusetts, one from Rhode Island, and one from Washington DC. Here’s my first report.

It was market day in the village of San Miguel Huautla, where Doña Anastasia Velasco Lopez greeted us when we got off the bus. She handed us bags of bananas and mangos to carry back to her house a few hundred yards away. Her friend, Doña Maria Lopez Espinosa, with three colorful sombreros stacked on her head, joined us for the walk.

Our 15-member delegation, accompanied by two members of the Witness for Peace Mexico staff, was glad to off the bus and out in the fresh air. San Miguel Huautla is a two-hour ride on bumpy dirt roads from Noxchixtlan, a small city on the southern side of the highland region of Oaxaca known as the Mixteca.

Oaxaca is Mexico’s second southernmost state, second most indigenous, and second poorest. According to the state government, a third of Oaxacans are now living in the United States. Many more have left for northern Mexico.

The Mixteca occupies much of the Oaxaca’s center. It is known for the deforested, eroded hillsides which have made farming a challenge for generations. Of the state’s eight regions, the Mixteca is the one which has sent the most émigrés out of Oaxaca.

Doña Anastasia and Doña Maria aren’t going anywhere. The two women are “promotoras,” grassroots educators, with CEDICAM, the Center for Integral Development of Campesinos of the Mixteca, an organization dedicated to restoration of food sovereignty for the region. Through a grassroots process that encourages reforestation, water conservation, and organic farming based on ancient indigenous practices, CEDICAM is helping communities produce food and livelihood for themselves. Phil Dahl-Bredine, a former Maryknoll Missioner who now lives in a small Mixtec village and volunteers with CEDICAM, says the methods practiced by indigenous Oaxacans represent a “foundation for an agriculture of the future.”

Speaking of resource depletion associated with the over-consuming North, Phil saidwe need “a whole change of mindset” based on indigenous knowledge. “We can’t feed the world with industrial agriculture,” he told our group at the organization’s headquarters on the outskirts of Nochixtlan.

Doña Anastasia and Doña Maria aren’t feeding the world, either, but they are immensely proud of the vegetables and livestock they grow to feed themselves and members of their community. Doña Anastasia showed us her new cistern, which will collect water during the rainy season and enable her to irrigate during the dry months. She showed us the peach trees she had planted, her worm farm, and the beds where she plants radishes, tomatoes, “everything.”

Like other CEDICAM members, Doña Anastasia is devoted to organic methods. “If I buy cilantro in the market, I don’t know how it was grown,” she said.

Doña Maria returned, by then wearing only one sombrero. Reminding me of anyone showing off her garden in New Hampshire, she showed us around the plots of land where she raises radishes, greens, amaranth, cilantro, squash, green beans, peas, garbanzos, fava beans, mint, chamomile, barley, wheat, and cajete, an ancient variety of corn well suited to dry climates. She also raises sheep, but said sometimes the price of wool drops as low as one peso (less than eight cents) a kilogram and it’s not worth the trouble. “The way of life here is very difficult,” she told us.

So that her kids could go to school, she washed clothes and left home to work in Nochixtlan. Later she was able to buy livestock, and started selling tomatoes and candies. But hard as it is, she told us “I always say you can make a life here.”

Doña Maria’s idea of “a life,” though, might not be enough to keep the kids at home. Sometimes she sells food to construction workers, like the men who rebuilt a bridge near her fields. She also weaves hats in her home and sells them in the market. Doña Anastasia explained that while they can grow enough to feed themselves, young people leave because they want more: clothes, shoes, school supplies, and cash to help their families.

The village has only a few phones and there’s no regular TV reception, but some homes do have satellite dishes. (Doña Anastasia says she only watches DVDs.) The outside world may be a couple hours or more away by bus, but its shoes, clothes, and other attractions can lure the youth away.

Tomasa Velasco Sanchez lives up the slope from Doña Anastasia. Her mama, Florencia Sanchez, said they only plant a little because they have so little water. But Tomasa told us they plan to plant beans, corn, and wheat. The CEDICAM promotoras invited them to join a study group and attend workshops. That’s when they started working their fields and raising their own food. They have to haul water from a ditch, and in the hot season the ditch is empty.

Tomasa tells us that if she ever has kids, she wants to raise them in San Miguel Huautla. “In the city, you only eat if you have money,” she explained.

Thanks to Martha Yager for the photos of Doña Maria and of Tomasa and Florencia.

“We do it knowing what can happen”, Interview with Gilda, Honduran Journalist Under Threat

by the Nicaragua International Team

Honduras is one of the most dangerous places in the world to be a journalist. On March 11th, Honduran Journalist Fausto Evelio Valle was murdered. Evelio Valle was a news anchor for a radio program in the Honduran municipality of Sabá. This is the 24th journalist to be killed in the last 3 years.

In our recent visit to Honduras the Nicaragua International Team spoke to Gilda Silvestrucci, a Honduran independent journalist, about being a journalist in Honduras and the role of United States policy in the current situation there. Gilda and her children have been subject to death threats and intimidation. In January of this year, over 1,000 Witness for Peace members wrote to the U.S. State Department demanding that the U.S. put pressure on the Honduran government to provide protection.

What is the situation like for journalists in Honduras?

It depends on what type of journalist we are talking about. There are two types of journalists: the journalists who work for the large media companies in this country who are obligated to work according to the instructions they are given by the owners of these media. The majority of these owners are business men, the majority of them are politicians, or peers of politicians in this country. For this reason, in these news companies there is a lot of censorship in covering certain issues…

And there is the other sector of journalists who don’t work in these large news firms but rather work in what one could call “alternative media.” I place myself in this camp. …I buy time on a radio station each month to be able to work and I do this, more than anything, to address those issues that are not represented by the interests of the owners of the large media companies. For example, they do not report on the case of the campesinos of the Bajo Aguan and all of their problems. They don’t have it on their agenda in comparison to us, independent media, independent journalists. We do it knowing what can happen to us.

When did you start receiving threats?

… In the month of December the “Journalists for Life” brought forth a demand against President Porfirio Lobo Sosa, president of this country; against the Commander of the Honduran Armed Forces; and the Chief of the Honorary Presidential Guard. We have this denouncement against them for their abuse of authority, for mistreatment, and for negation of the fundamental rights of citizens…

Later that month I was followed after I got in a taxi that came to take me home. After a little while the taxi driver tells me, “I don’t know if you’ve noticed but they’re following us.” I forgot about it; I thought that the incident was just a coincidence. Then, on the 20th of January, my mother received a call to the house from a guy who said that he wanted to know where I was to give me some documents and that he wanted to know my schedule, when I arrive, where he could find me throughout the day... Next, the following Monday, I left with my son from his school and that day on my radio program I addressed mining issues, the violations that mining companies are committing and all of the corruption that is linked to the national congress in order to pass the new mining law that favors the mining companies. When we left the program the people I had invited to speak crossed the street from the radio station and there was a police officer taking photos… I stayed inside because I wanted to eat breakfast with my son. I received a call from a guy who told me the ages of my children and that he knew I was with my son and that they were going to send someone to kill me.

They continued to call me through the middle of the night to my cell phone. I didn’t answer, I just reported the numbers to be investigated by the district attorneys of human rights who took protective measures but those measures don’t really do anything. They want the police to go with someone from their house to their work but that doesn’t represent security. Why would someone want to accept police protection when there are signs of corruption and links with so many murders? You can’t. So up until this moment that is where my case is.

Could you tell me more about Journalists for Life and Free Expression?

This is a group of journalists who came together because of the deaths that were happening, the assassination of fellow journalists that increased after the coup d’état in this country. Before the coup d’état they had reported only one murder of a journalist. After the coup d’état we have seen 18 murders of journalists.

We came together to protest, to go to the government and demand that they investigate these cases of assassinations of our colleagues. …They tried to attribute the deaths of these journalists to personal issues, saying that it was for personal reasons that they were victims of hitmen. But really, still today these cases haven’t been investigated, nor is there documented proof from the police that can affirm that these fellow journalists were assassinated for personal circumstances rather than because of their work.... So Journalists for Life protested last year outside of the president’s residence.

…We went to the president’s residence, they didn’t let us pass, they threw teargas at us. Some of us were beaten. The majority of us were women because we were protesting the death of the journalist Luz Marina Paz. We were a group of about 40 women and we went with our voice recorders, cameras, banners and we tried to read a statement outside of the president’s house. The response of the government was repression…

As a journalist what do you think about the aid that the United States gives to the police and military?

I think that historically this is one of the biggest things that supports the violations of human rights in this country. Even though the United States government says that it helps or asks for the respect of human rights on one hand, on the other hand…it promotes training and gives funds to the armed forces.

In our country the military isn’t necessary. Our country needs education. What we need is food, job opportunities, dignified health care centers for our people, dignified hospitals for our people. We don’t need a military, we don’t need warplanes, we don’t need weapons for war, we don’t need tear gas. I think that the United States is one of the accomplices in the violation of human rights in our country.

Gilda Silvesstruchi hosts the radio program “En La Plaza” daily on Radio Globo. She also has worked with Radio Progresso.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

WFP Colombia video blog on human rights verification mission

Watch Austin Robles of WFP Colombia report on a human rights verification mission to Uraba in this video blog. This is part of a series of video blogs on the verification mission. To get more background and see the first in the series, click here.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Defending Corn and Culture in Rural Oaxaca

By Carlin Christy, WfP Mexico Team

Corn is sacred in Mexico. Indigenous groups, of which there are 16 in Oaxaca, consider corn to be a gift from the gods. It forms the basis of the way they have structured their communities, marked the cycles of the year, and maintained their fundamental connection to the land for thousands of years.

Despite corn’s 8000+ year history of cultivation in Oaxaca, present-day threats could possibly wipe out the traditional, sustainable farming practices used by indigenous farmers in the region.

One of these threats is the massive out-migration that Oaxaca has experienced for several decades. Some rural communities are virtually abandoned, with half-constructed homes waiting in anticipation of their owners (unlikely) return from the north.

Other threats are environmental. Climate change has made weather patterns erratic. Heavy rains or extreme droughts can wipe out an entire harvest, leaving small scale farmers wondering what they are going to eat for the next year.

A very real threat to the native seeds which have been passed down over time is the introduction of genetically modified seeds in Mexico. GMO corn has already been found in Oaxaca, and the Mexican government has approved a pilot project of planting Monsanto’s GMO corn in the northern part of the country.

For over 18 years now, the North American Free Trade Agreement has lead to the devastation of the Mexican countryside, through removing price supports and credits to small farmers like the ones in Oaxaca. Through subsidies from the U.S. government, large scale agribusinesses can sell their corn below the cost of production, undermining Mexican farmers’ abilities to sell their own crops at a decent price.

Collectively, these threats have lead to an abandonment of the countryside. The present day reality is that much of the knowledge of traditional farming techniques is in the hands of a rapidly aging population. With so many factors pushing people off of the land and out of the countryside, there are few youth left behind to inherit the knowledge which has been passed down for thousands of years.

For this reason, the organization CEDICAM (Center for Integral Campesino Development of the Mixteca) has been working for over 25 years to preserve the land and traditional planting techniques of the Mixteca Region.

In order to share knowledge and provide a forum to discuss the threats to small scale farming, CEDICAM hosts an annual “Feria de la Milpa.” The “milpa” refers to the integral planting system which features corn, beans, squash, and wild edible plants all growing together in the same plot.

At this year’s third annual fair, 18 local Mixtecan communities proudly displayed their native seeds, crops, and traditional dishes made from these ingredients. CEDICAM staff also read a declaration which reinforced their commitment to preserve and protect the traditional sustainable farming practices that lead to greater food sovereignty for some of Oaxaca’s most vulnerable small farmers.

The slide show below includes pictures from the Feria de la Milpa. Click on each photo to see text that explains each photograph. Additionally, the captions can be found below.

Photo 1: Welcome to the 3rd Milpa Fair
The banner reads "The milpa is a legacy from our ancestors, to practice and promote it enriches our knowledge and the productive systems developed by indigenous men and women, small farmers, contributing to the food security of our families and communities, and the biodiversity of our region."

Photo 2: Local Crops

Photo 3: Local crops
Featured crops include radishes, carrots, corn, oregano, squash, wheat, peas, and chiles.

Photo 4: Small farmers
These women grow all of the food featured on their table here in small plots of land next to their homes in rural Oaxaca.

Photo 5: Native Corn Seeds

Photo 6: Small farmer or "campesino"
Joel is a small farmer in a community about 2 hours outside of Oaxaca city. He grows organic tomatoes, onions, garlic, cucumbers and cilantro. Many small farmers who continue to work the land are in their 50's, 60's and 70's like Joel. Getting youth to stay on the land --and not migrate-- is an ongoing struggle that seriously threatens the future of farming in Oaxaca and other Mexican states that have historically been based upon small scale agriculture.

Photo 7: Blue Corn Seeds
"Seasonal Blue Corn. Planting date-June. Production Date- September. Withstands drought." These seeds and many more were available for trading between the different communities present at the Feria de la Milpa.

Photo 8: Native Beans and Corn

Photo 9: Squash or "calabaza"
Squash or calabaza as it is known in Spanish. This crop is one of the three integral components that make up the milpa system. The other components are corn and beans which are grown together in the same plot along with the squash. This is an ancient technique used in Oaxaca for thousands of years and CEDICAM is working to revive and preserve this practice.

Photo 10: Native Corn

Photo 11: WfP signing the Cedicam Declaration
Witness for Peace Mexico Team Member Moravia de la O signs in support of CEDICAM's declaration to preserve and protect indigenous farming practices in the state of Oaxaca. The declaration called for a ban on GMO seeds entering Oaxaca and for resistance to neoliberal economic models based on market fundamentalism.

Photo 12: Music
Music to celebrate the hard work of CEDICAM and all of the farmers at the Fair.

For a direct link to view these photos in flickr, click here. To learn more about CEDICAM’s work, watch this video presentation by staff member and farmer, Eleazar Garcia.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Reflections on Rigores: Evictions in Honduras

By WFP Nicaragua Team

Last June, Honduran police forcibly evicted over 100 families from their homes in the community of Rigores. Not only were they evicted, but their homes, schools and churches were burned and bulldozed. Families did not have time to recover many of their belongings. Documentarian Jesse Freeston captured footage of the violent eviction and the aftermath.

This past February we met with families who had lost their homes several months ago in that incident. In front of the half-constructed school, I spoke with Maritza, pictured right. While progress is slow, Maritza showed me the reconstruction efforts of a school that was destroyed in the eviction. The home she had lived in with her family for 11 years had also been burned down last June.

Rigores remains in a precarious position. Residents still do not have a resolution regarding the titles of their land and have continued to face repression. Another resident of Rigores, Rosa Santa Maria, stated, “[The government] shouldn’t treat campesino groups like this. We need them to listen to us, not for them to see us like worthless objects.”

She went on to say, “The Honduran police are corrupt…They have treated us campesino groups very badly. We have been their victims. We have been psychologically and physically abused by them. We have been destroyed.”

In another reported event, a 16 year old boy was detained last September by Honduran military and tortured. Community members recounted that security forces covered the boy in gasoline as if they were going to burn him alive, but spared his life.

Reporting on these events has proved deadly to Honduran journalists. Nahum Palacios, originally from the community of Rigores, was assassinated in March 2010. When we heard testimony from his father, Eriberto Palacios, he reported that there has been almost no progress on the investigation into his son’s murder. Palacios stated, “In Honduras there is no justice for the poor.”

The U.S. funding of Honduran military and police is not the answer to quell the violence, rather human rights defenders in Honduras see it as fueling it. In a recent op-ed in the San Francisco Chronicle, Adrienne Pine, an anthropology professor at American University writes, “Hondurans do not need more militarization; they need justice.”

And as Rosa Santa Maria stated, “We don’t want more conflicts. We have suffered enough.”

Monday, March 5, 2012

Faces of Struggle and Resilience

By the WFP Nicaragua International Team

A couple weeks ago, we visited several communities in the Bajo Aguan. We heard stories of their struggles for dignified homes and food sovereignty. The slide show below includes pictures from these visits. Please click each photo to see text that provides background on the situation in the Bajo Aguan. For further reading, click here for a detailed report from an international fact finding mission published last year. Photo captions can be found below.


Photo 1: Memorial for Martyrs
A young boy sits in front of the memorial for martyrs at International Human Rights Conference in Solidarity with the Bajo Aguan. At least 45 campesinos have been killed in the Bajo Aguan since the coup détat in 2009. (Photo credit: Lucy Edwards)

Photo 2: International Human Rights Conference in Solidarity with the Bajo Aguan
From February 17-19, 2012 over 1,000 participants from around the world gathered to stand in solidarity with the people of the Aguan Valley and hear testimonies. The massive event was coordinated in part by OFRANEH (Organización Fraternal Negra Hondureña) and COPINH (The Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras).
(Left: Miriam Miranda, OFRANEH, Right: Berta Caceres, COPINH).

Photo 3: Garifuna Ceremony
Afro-indigenous Hondurans pay homage to the assassinated campesinos of the Bajo Aguan through a ceremony including song. Members of Garifuna communities gather to enter the auditorium. (Photo credit: Lucy Edwards)

Photo 4: Camille Chambers
Haitian grassroots leader, Camille Chambers, spoke about the ties between the struggles in Haiti and Honduras. He warned of the danger of the international community and media calling Honduras a "failed state." Chambers argued that like in Haiti, it gives international actors justification to swoop in to "stabilize" the country with military forces.

Photo 5: Aguan River
The Aguan river divides two parts of the valley. Campesinos on both sides are seeking legal titles of land that was illegally sold or sold under intimidation. Honduran agrarian laws changed in the early 1990s to comply with structural adjustment programs promoted by international financial institutions such as the IMF. The new laws fostered privatization and paved the way for large business owners to divide cooperatively owned lands.

Photo 6: African Palm
African palms take up large swaths of land in the Aguan Valley. There are 120,000 hectares of African Palm growing in Honduras. Much of this land is owned by a handful of large businesses. 70% of the palm oil produced is for export.
An estimated 200,000 campesino families in Honduras or 44% of the rural population. do not have access (or inadequate access) to land.

Photo 7: Military Checkpoint
After the 2009 the Bajo Aguan has become increasingly militarized. This soldier stands at one checkpoint between Tocoa and the community of Rigores. Community members reported that military presence diminished temporarily during the International Human Rights Conference.

Photo 8: Military Outpost in Guadalupe Carney
The community Guadalupe Carney sits on lands that used to serve as the Regional Center for Military Training (CREM). At the CREM, the United States military and the CIA trained Contras and other Latin American armed forces responsible for human rights abuses.
Today while the base no longer exists, U.S. trained troops are stationed there to monitor the campesinos.

Photo 9: Mother in Rigores
Maritza is a mother from the community of Rigores. Her home was destroyed in June 2011 when Honduran police forcibly evicted community members who had been living on the lands for 12 years. Police burned and bulldozed homes, churches and schools.

Photo 10: Home Destroyed in Rigores by Police
Remains of a home that was destroyed in June 2011 by Honduran police during the eviction. The family was unable to collect many of their belongings before their home was destroyed.

Photo 11: Newly Constructed Home in Rigores
The newly constructed home built on the same small plot of land where the family has lived for 11 years. Rigores still lives in fear of a new eviction.

Photo 12: School in Rigores
Children play in front of the school, which is being reconstructed after being damaged last June during the violent eviction.

Photo 13: Marañones
According to a community leader from Marañones, "Here it is a crime to be a campesino."

Photo 14: Justicia, Libertad, Tierra
A sign waving at the entrance of the community Marañones reads: "Justice, Liberty, Land."

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Learning from Social Movements in Honduras

by Riahl O’Malley

“Estos brazos que no me dan, que no me dan…” (“Oh my achin’ arms, my achin’ arms.”) The song was stuck in my head all weekend, accompanied by the indelible image of Salvador, a prominent member of The Civic Council of Popular Indigenous Organizations of Honduras, leading an auditorium full of people in some Honduran hokey-pokey. “Me muevo de ‘lla pa’ ‘ca, de ‘ca pa’ ‘lla…” (“I m move from there ta’ here ‘n’ from here ta’ there…”)

Speeches from national and international speakers filled the weekend-long International Human Rights Conference in Solidarity with the Aguan. Between speeches, people like Salvador would energize the audience through chants, inspiring orations, or even… a song and dance activity.

The event was organized to draw attention to the human rights crisis in Honduras, particularly in the Aguan region. The situation has been dire for campesinos living in the Aguan, especially since the coup détat in 2009. In November of last year the Lobo administration sent in the military to respond to violence in the region. And while the United States funnels money into the Honduran police and military, militarization has only exacerbated the problem.

What kind of a social movement does it take to confront such forces? This militarization promises to enforce the law of the rich at the cost of the safety and security of poor and working people, particularly in rural areas.

I had numerous conversations during my time at the conference, reflecting on the qualities of valuable leadership and the integrated nature of organizing in Honduras. I reflected on the power of the diverse coalition that has formed in resistance to ongoing oppression. Speeches would begin by speaking about militarization and imperialism and end speaking about violence against women and insisting that the role of care-taking and domestic work is the responsibility of men as well.

I recall making my way to the restroom one morning and noticing a “SLIPPERY WHEN WET” sign at the entrance. Walking through the doorway I was greeted by a smiling face. Salvador, the same inspiring voice I heard sing behind the microphone in front of the entire auditorium, greeted me with a big smile. Sporting rubber gloves and rainboots, a garden hose in-hand, he warmly pointed me in the direction of the other bathroom.

Shared by roughly half of 1,000 conference participants, cleaning that bathroom must not have been a pleasant task. Someone like Salvador likely could have passed it to someone else. But, as many hands helped prepare 3 free meals a day for each attendee, helped sweep floors and stack chairs, hands of people who likely did not get a turn at the microphone, Salvador showed his solidarity 3 hours that morning with a mop and toilet brush.

The situation in Honduras is unspeakably messy, and U.S. policy is responsible for its own filthy share. There is a wave of peaceful resistance that wears a smile of humility, carries a song of resistance, and isn’t afraid to get dirty cleaning up a mess it didn’t create. As I reflect on ways to confront U.S. support for militarization in Central America, I draw inspiration from the examples of strong leadership who are mobilizing in Honduras. “…Me muevo de ‘lla pa’ ‘ca, de ‘ca pa’ ‘lla…”

Photo credit: Giorgio Trucchi – Rel-UITA