Drawing Strength from our Ancestors

Volume 15, Issue 1  | 
Published 10/07/2018

Bertha Cáceres was only 25 years old when her mother, Berta, a world-renowned environmental activist who had led community struggles against the construction of the Agua Zarca dam, was assassinated in 2016. Bertha has taken up her mother’s mantle, to continue the struggle against extractivist projects on indigenous land and an end to corruption, greed, violence and impunity that has marked the Honduran regime, exemplified by the coup in 2010.

‘Well, my involvement started when I was a child’ she says. ‘My people – the Lenca people – taught me from a very young age that you can’t remain indifferent to the unjust situation in our communities and the country as a whole’. First, movements need to be anchored in grassroots organizations, and let the victims of injustice take the lead as protagonists of the struggle for the control and use of our natural resources, like land and water.

Second, you always have to think about the interconnectedness of these struggles: you can’t separate one issue – such as land – from the others, because it’s a struggle against the whole system. For example, when you’re campaigning for access to school, you’re also fighting for health and healthy food.

Third, we need to build movements that are consistent with our values, and what goes on inside our movements needs to reflect that. It means confronting violence against women in our own movements, because repression can also happen there.

Fourth, it’s important to be internationalist.

We’re also a rebellious people who have fought for our rights for centuries – against the Spanish colonial powers to begin with, and now today against other types of colonialism. We draw strength from our ancestors, who liberated the country and defended our identity as indigenous people. It’s part of our worldview: our ancestors are still walking with us, accompanying us. Our spirituality helps us to cope with these difficult situations.

We need to build movements on moral foundations. For example, we have established people’s courts where cases of violence against women in our movement can be denounced. We’re not afraid of naming the corporations that commit abuses and oppress us. And we maintain our autonomy as a movement, defending our territory and denouncing repressive practices, no matter what party is responsible for them.

Patriarchal power is maybe the system of domination most difficult to break, and that’s why it’s so important to build movements dedicated to the principles of gender equity. I think the assassination of Berta and other women from the movement reflects an inability to accept the leadership of women who dare to denounce the owners of dams, banks and corporations. It’s hard to know whether this situation is going to improve in Honduras, because we’re very far from building a system of justice and equality for women, but we must continue to be clear about our path and our conviction to defend life and put a stop to violence.

I think all of us are involved in struggles that seek to make our society – and ourselves – more human. There are no set formulas for counter-power because we are all different, but we share the unity of moving forward together, in a consistent and interconnected way, for humanity. We can pass on what we have learned to each other, knowing we stand together in a struggle for life, and that our struggles can bring us closer and make us stronger.

My mother always said we have the right to live in a country that respects our rights and a state that serves the people rather than a corrupt oligarchy.

We’re not alone in this struggle. Her strength and her energy came from knowing that she was supported, from the fact that this wasn’t a struggle by one individual, but part of a much longer and wider history.


Land is the Only Thing we Have

Nonhle Mbuthuma’s close friend was also killed for leading the struggle against a planned huge titanium mine on the beautiful Wild Coast of South Africa’s Eastern Cape, but rather than frightening her, it added ‘fuel to her fire’ of passion and determination to stop the destruction of her community.

‘Honestly, sometimes I don’t know how I got involved’ she states. ‘But I know I was influenced by my ancestors and elders. My grandfather was part of the MPondo revolt (the first major uprising against apartheid in 1960-1962) and he always told me stories about how they managed to protect the land before there was any democracy.

I think the key is to be honest and transparent and mobilized – believing that we are fighting not just for ourselves but also for future generations. It is also critical to put women at the forefront of the struggle. If you look at our struggle, it is mainly led by women – we don’t change our minds so easily. We also know the community cannot be dependent on anyone else, except itself. We know that the government is working hand in hand with companies to oppress our communities, so we have to make it impossible for them to work.

We are demanding the right to say no – what we need is Free Prior and Informed Consent and we are fighting for this. This year in April 2018, we will have a court case, the first in South Africa, to claim this right. If we win the case, it will help other communities. But even if we lose the case or the government proceeds, we will keep fighting regardless to defend our land.

It has also been important for our campaign to get the message out and build solidarity with others. It is difficult in a rural area for people to know what is happening so we need help to pass the message to the media, and build solidarity with other NGOs.

When I think back of those who fought for democracy, I have tears in my eyes, because those same people instead of protecting us are oppressing us and making our lives so difficult. Honestly, we just hope that what is happening with the ANC is a big lesson. It is not what our ancestors fought for. I hope one day the ANC will understand that as rural areas we fought for this democracy. Yet when we oppose destructive money they call us ‘anti-development’ and treat us as enemies. They should talk to us. The lessons are that we need to sustain our movements and keep them away from money. If movements become about making money, then it will end your struggle, you will lose your focus and forget what you fight for.

Women are also not afraid to stand up; they stick to their beliefs and are not easily bought off. In the anti-apartheid struggle, it was women who led the struggles against the ‘pass laws’ and they are now leading the struggle against this mine. It’s not easy having to think about children, cook, care for the family at the same time as struggling. But women can do that.’


We need Mass-Roots, not Grass-Roots, Campaigns

Medha Patkar’s life in India shows the impact of her dogged commitment and her deep belief in the power of people to change history despite the odds. She first toured the site of the proposed Narmada Dam in 1985. More than 30 years later, in July 2017, she started an indefinite fast as women across the valley stood in a Jal Satyagraha up to their necks in the rising waters of the sacred river to demand proper rehabilitation for all those affected by the dam.

‘My father was a freedom fighter, a trade union leader, so I was always accompanying him to meetings and becoming immersed in its politics’ she recollects. Later as I studied, I developed the same ideology of democratic socialism. In 1985 I was invited to visit Narmada valley and the many villages that would be affected by the proposed dam, the world’s second largest. The friend who had invited me wanted to take legal action to stop the dam, but I realized that it would also require mass resistance as laws were being broken by the government, so I became involved in building a mass campaign.

First and foremost, you need a broader ideological framework which you then operationalize into specific objectives, linking the micro with the macro.

Besides ideological clarity, activists also must have a deep understanding of people, what they need; the vision and tools that will inspire people and get them emotionally involved.

The goal is to move towards what I call a mass-roots organization (not a grassroots organization as grass can be plucked at any time). In other words, an organization that has many roots, where there is local leadership, where activists are motivating and mobilizing people and building a united force.

It is an ongoing struggle. The World Bank withdrew because it said the dam could only be completed by unacceptable means and with terrible social and environmental losses. And this has come to be true. The dam may be completed, but there are still 35,000 to 40,000 people – 44 villages and one township – in the submerged area. Yet we continue to struggle. In July 2017, there were 21 sites in the valley where women held fasts, stood barefoot in the water refusing to leave, and stood up to the police to demand promised compensation.

It’s this collective action and spirit that gives hope and keeps people mobilized and motivated. That’s why I am optimistic, because without it as well as courage and determination you cannot carry on.

Parties compromise because they want to win power, so movements must remain out of core power structures and play the role of the real opposition. Social movements must be a non-compromising force.

To remain true to their values, popular movements need to be rooted in their mass base and firm and committed to their goals. Being transparent is key; communicating, regularly evaluating the ways you work. Criticism is important because it is a way to clarify and rethink. It takes time, and many times we fall short, but we must try our best.

Women have faith in life, because they give life, because they share values and knowledge with the next generation, are closely connected to nature, and more conscious of our human connections.

In the 2017 protests against the dam, women showed massive strength against police.

A feminist vision is key to an alternative view of development. It emphasizes love and compassion, humanity rather than alienation. It has a different relationship to resources too as most of women’s caring actions (feeding children, supporting life) are not based on cash.

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