Opening a crack in history
by Katharine Ainger
New Internationalist magazine, September 2001
When Macbeth saw what seemed like a grey mist pouring over
the horizon, fear rose in his throat. As it came closer he could
make out the branches of the trees which the forces of opposition
carried aloft. The forest was coming to the centre of power to
confront the tyrant.
In March 2001 the forest marched on Mexico City.
The Zapatistas, the indigenous rebels hiding deep in the Lacandon
jungle, had done the unthinkable. The most wanted men and women
in Mexico had emerged to travel from Chiapas through 13 states,
arriving at the Zocalo - the central square of the capital - to
demand a place in the constitution.
Their voices echoed round the Zocalo: 'It is the hour of the
Indian peoples, we who are the colour of the earth... We are rebels
because the land rebels when someone sells and buys it, as if
the land did not exist, as if we who are the colour of the earth
did not exist.
'Mexico City: We are here. We are here as the rebellious colour
of the earth which shouts: Democracy! Liberty! Justice!'
' Y la selva se movio,' declared the poster advertising the
march. And the forest walked.
In 1998, a year before 50,000 protesters shut down the meeting
of the World Trade Organization in Seattle, Subcomandante Marcos,
spokesperson of the Zapatistas (EZLN), said: 'Don't give too much
weight to the EZLN; it's nothing more than a symptom of something
more. Years from now, whether or not the EZLN is still around,
there is going to be protest and social ferment in many places.
I know this because when we rose up against the Government we
began to receive displays of solidarity and sympathy not only
from Mexicans but from people in Chile, Argentina, Canada, the
United States and Central America. They told us that the uprising
represents something that they wanted to say, and now they have
found the words to say it, each in his or her respective country.
I believe the fallacious notion of the end of history has finally
In Mexico a jungle came to the city: in Thailand a village
came to the capital, Bangkok.
On 25 January 1997 some 20,000 rural poor gathered at the
gates of Government House. They were villagers affected by big
dam projects, small farmers, fisherfolk who had come together
to create a rural coalition - the Assembly of the Poor - of those
left out of Thailand's tiger economy.
The people erected a makeshift 'Village of the Poor' of plastic
shacks which stretched back down the Nakhon Pathom Road for more
than a kilometre. Amidst the cacophony of economic growth, they
camped here in the stink of the smog and the traffic for 99 days,
surviving by growing vegetables illegally along the banks of the
They declared: 'Rivers and forests on which the survival of
rural families depend have been plundered from the people... The
collapse of agricultural society forces people out of their communities
to cheaply sell their labour in the city... The people must set
up the country's development direction. The people must be the
real beneficiaries of development.'
In 1998 the village came again, this time to join the coalition
of protest movements against the International Monetary Fund's
(IMF) bailout programme in the wake of the Asian financial crisis;
and again when thousands converged on the Asian Development Bank
meetings in Chiang Mai in May 2000. On their backs the protesters
carried a tombstone on which were inscribed the words: 'There
is a price on the water, a meter in the rice paddies, dollars
in the soil, resorts in the forests.'
At the time, 30 per cent of Thai children believed that the
IMF was a UFO. For the indigenous people of Ecuador, the IMF-imposed
'dollarization' of the beleaguered Ecuadorian economy might as
well have come from outer space.
In response, the Confederation of Indigenous Nations of Ecuador
(CONAIE) turned into a storm that broke over the city of Quito
in February 2000:
'The indigenous and popular insurrection... has advanced from
the field to the city... The buses travelling between towns have
received orders to transfer "any thing, person, even animals,
except Indians". Buses in the military zones are stopped
and all those who are dressed in Indian clothes or appear Indian
are forced off... But the insurrection grows like a swelling waterfall...
'[The President] has decreed the dollarization of the Ecuadorian
economy. This means that while the pay is 40 dollars, the shopping
basket for a family of five is 250 dollars. In the agricultural
field, inputs are no longer within reach of indigenous people
and farmers. Will we have to leave the fields?
'We cannot walk about on our own earth. They prohibit us from
meeting. But we have defied with what little power we have left,
with civil disobedience.
'For that reason we have advanced to the taking of Quito.
The [indigenous people] have passed like rain, like fog, like
the wind, deceiving the military controls. Now we are more than
ten thousand indigenous people in Quito.'
A forest, a village, a rainstorm. The most marginal people
on earth gather their forces and enter the cities to march on
the centres of power. These are the excluded, the expendable,
the invisible people whom globalization ignores or eradicates
in what the Zapatistas call the 'fourth world war'.
As the cycle of destruction spins ever-faster - a forest felled,
a people uprooted, a village displaced by a dam - new coalitions
of the dispossessed are uniting not just within their countries,
but internationally. These are the social movements of the South
which form the invisible mass of resistance to economic globalization.
They want land, constitutional recognition, meaningful participation
in development planning.
Despite the current vogue for so-called 'anti-globalization'
critiques, the mass-based peasant and social movements on the
frontline of this Fourth world war have remained invisible for
a simple reason: those From below are not those who get to write
history, even though they are the ones making it.
They are a troublesome forest that walks, a stream that joins
other streams to become a river. This is a rebellion by those
who are the colour of earth.
Grown out of the grassroots, this movement is posing the biggest
challenge to neoliberalism in 20 years. From the countryside to
the city, from the South to the North, unrest against the global
economic order is spreading.
A global fabric of struggle
Seattle, Melbourne, Prague, Quebec, Genoa, Washington. The
cities of the North, where thousands of the uninvited have turned
up to blockade international summits, have taken on iconic status.
No institution of global governance - the World Trade Organization,
the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund - has been able
to meet in recent years without being accompanied by protest.
The writer and activist Susan George explains why: 'National
and international elites would happily and without hesitation
transport us all back to the 19th century if they could get away
with it. They constantly seek ways to employ fewer people, lower
wages, cut benefits, hand over public services to the market,
stop paying taxes, and so on.'
Filipino activist Walden Bello says that, despite the material
differences between North and South, people in industrialized
nations are being 'structurally adjusted' too. In Europe we are
in danger of losing our free healthcare systems, victims of an
identical ideology that imposes 'proper systems of charging' on
the poor of Zimbabwe or Ghana. Our resistances arise separately,
but we are beginning to recognize one another and the protests
on the streets of London, Seattle and Genoa have not been on behalf
of, but in solidarity with, the poor.
Medha Patkar of the Narmada Bachao Andolan (Save Narmada Struggle)
in India was with us on the streets of Prague in September 2000,
protesting against the World Bank and the IMF. She told me: 'It's
not about the First and Third World, North and South. There is
a section of the population that is just as present in the US
and in Britain - the homeless, unemployed people, on the streets
of London - which is also there in the indigenous communities,
villages and farms of India, Indonesia, the Philippines, Mexico,
Brazil. And all those who face the backlash of this kind of economics
are coming together - to create a new, people-centred world order.'
While this backlash against neoliberal globalization has been
picked up by the world's media - because those at the centre of
privilege, the youth in Northern cities, have now joined the struggle
- resistance at the grassroots has been going on for years.
Across the South, 'IMF riots'- over the price of staples such
as food and fuel - have been occurring since the 1970s. The Committee
for Academic Freedom in Africa traces the connections: '[The World
Bankers] used to think that the African students' struggle could
not touch them as they were safely ensconced on H Street in Washington.
They were happy to have their "front men" in Africa
get their hands dirty dealing with the opposition to their programmes.
But the antiglobalization movement, which had as one of its sources
the persistent antistructural adjustment student movement in Africa,
has finally leaped from the streets of Harare, Addis, and Algiers
into Washington DC and Prague... They have been hounded to the
"Meccas of their Murders" by a truly international youth
movement which has carried the African student dead to their front
Owens Wiwa, brother of murdered Nigerian activist Ken Saro
Wiwa, describes the civil disobedience of the Ogoni people of
Nigeria, who formed human shields to prevent Shell from drilling
for oil on their lands. He told me: 'I was in Seattle. It was
incredibly gratifying to see the disruption of these meetings.
But one thing the protesters in this movement need to know: if
we want to stop the big transnational corporations, we have got
to stop them at the point of production too.'
And dozens of' Seattles' have occurred across the South. In
1996 the Asian Pacific Economic Community (APEC) meeting in Manila,
the Philippines, was wreathed in the now-familiar scene of tear
gas and a ring of steel around the summit centre as thousands
of sweatshop workers converged on the city. In 1998 200,000 Indian
farmers erupted onto the streets of Hyderabad to protest the WTO;
when WTO head Mike Moore visited India in 2000, he joked rather
uncomfortably that in no other place on earth had so many effigies
of him been burned.
Three years ago Susan George was running workshops about an
elite, almost totally unknown business talking shop - the World
Economic Forum. Nowadays it cannot meet anywhere - anywhere -
on earth without protesters turning up; Davos, Switzerland; Melbourne,
Australia; Cancun, Mexico; Durban, South Africa - and, later this
year, Hong Kong.
These disparate threads are the early stages of a movement
that is reconstituting the global landscape, reshaping the way
politics is played out in the new century.
Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt, in their work Empire, call
this grassroots network 'the multitude'. It is the inversion,
the mirror opposite, of a stratum of concentrated power from above,
where decisions that affect billions of human lives get made at
a transnational level and the market is king.
The multitude embodies the real world below, the sphere of
all that is not reducible to a commodity to be bought and sold
on a global marketplace; human beings, nature, culture, diversity.
In fact, it is not an 'anti-globalization' movement at all. It
embodies 'globalization from below' - a multitude that, as Negri
and Hardt suggest, challenges the idea that 'the global surfaces
of the world market are interchangeable'.
As a result, in each locality, the moment when the people
cry 'Ya Basta!'- 'Enough!' - is different, but is usually when
something regarded as sacred, central to the culture, comes under
For the Zapatistas it was the signing of the NAFTA agreement
which outlawed the common ownership of land that Emiliano Zapata,
folk hero of the Mexican Revolution that began in 1910, had fought
for. For South Africa, it is seeing the former rebels against
apartheid making trade-offs with the global economic elite as
income inequality grows greater, not less, in their country. For
much of Southeast Asia it was the IMF austerity measures imposed
on their shattered economies after the financial crisis of 1997.
For France it was the WTO's attack on their food culture. In Britain
it may be the slow sell-off of the National Health Service to
private healthcare multinationals.
Against the single economic blueprint where the market rules,
the multitude represents diverse, people centred alternatives.
In the Zapatistas' words: 'One no, many yeses.' Against the monoculture
of economic globalization it demands a world where many worlds
Dollars in the soil Over the past decade a transformation
has been taking place as the threads of local movements are woven
into a new global fabric of struggle. They are beginning to understand
that unless they can organize transnationally, they're dead.
Via Campesina, the international peasant union uniting farmers,
rural women, indigenous groups and the landless is one of the
most extraordinary examples of this form of international networking.
Its members include the Landless of Brazil (MST) and the radical
Karnataka State Farmers' Association, who burned Monsanto's genetically
modified cotton crops. Jose Bove, from the French Confederation
Paysanne is Via Campesina's most visible member.
With a combined membership of millions, it represents probably
the largest single mass of people opposed to the World Trade Organization.
For the first points of resistance to global capitalism appear
not to have been Marx's constituency of workers, but those who
still depend directly on natural resources for their livelihoods.
Not just the farmers of Thailand, of India, of Bangladesh,
but the indigenous of Ecuador, Aotearoa/New Zealand, Mexico. The
U'wa of Colombia, the Ogoni of Nigeria, the dam protesters of
the Narmada Valley in India.
Corporate globalization requires the eradication of the peasantry,
small farmers, indigenous people the world over. Food is to be
produced in large industrial monocultures; the rural poor must
migrate to the cities to be cheap labourers or sleep under the
flyovers of Manila and New Delhi. In the eyes of the World Bank,
forest dwelling peoples are the ones destroying their natural
resources - as opposed to the large logging companies - and must
In response, movements of natural-resource-based communities
are creating coalitions of the dispossessed.
For example, members of a network of Indian adivasi (tribal)
activists invaded World Bank offices in New Delhi and plastered
its walls with cow dung. They declared: 'For the World Bank and
the WTO, our forests are a marketable commodity. But for us, the
forests are a home, our source of livelihood, the dwelling of
our gods, the burial ground of our ancestors, the inspiration
of our culture. We do not need you to save our forests. We will
not let you sell our forests. So go back from our forests and
The National Alliance of Peoples' Movements, galvanized by
the incredible energy of the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA), unites
over 100 mass organizations - from fisherfolk to farmers - in
India. Common to all their struggles is the fight for peoples'
control over their own lives and resources. Sanjay Sangavi of
the NBA describes this as 'the emergence of a new politics of
environmental socialism in India'. As NAPM leader Thomas Kocherry
explains: 'Two-thirds of our population depend directly on the
water, the forests and the land. 'For them, questions of ecology
and social justice are one and the same.
The potential political force as grassroots groups like these
begin to link up internationally can't be overstated.
Noam Chomsky, interviewed during the Zapatista march, said:
'Throughout what has essentially been the Neoliberal period have
arisen social movements that include the Zapatistas in Mexico,
the Landless Movement of Brazil, the farmers' movement in India,
and an increasingly popular opposition to globalization in the
North. The most important thing would be if these diverse, dispersed
movements everywhere manage to construct bonds of solidarity and
support. If it is possible that they establish ties, and if they
manage to support each other, together they will be able to change
the course of contemporary history.'
This is what democracy looks like 'Democracy used to be a
good thing, but now it has gotten into the hands of the wrong
people.' This was Fortune magazine's take on the chant that was
born on the streets of Seattle: 'This is what democracy looks
Each resistance movement, in its own way - usually operating
outside the structures of state power - has attempted to recreate
models of direct democracy. The dispersal of power back to the
people themselves is at the heart of this emerging movement with
no name, no leaders, and no manifesto. Perhaps, then, it is best
framed as a 'pro-democracy movement'.
Rather than conduct a guerrilla war that might destroy as
many communities as it saved, in July 1995 the Zapatistas called
for a consulta to determine conditions for an autonomous peace.
This was an attempt to replicate their village-level democracy
on a wider stage. Thousand of activists across Mexico mobilized
a million people to vote, radicalizing communities as they went.
An old man from Morelos told them: 'You came and found us sleeping,
but now we are awake.'
In a similar way, for the Ecuadorian indigenous people power
is a collective concept. Their word for it, ushay, means the capacity
to develop collectively. They echo the Zapatistas in their claim:
'Our struggle is not for power, itself. There are many more important
things than power for its own sake, such as society changing from
In India the idea of decentralized democracy is evident in
the way rural people have demanded control over their rivers and
forests. One adivasi village - Mendha in Maharastra - has adopted
the slogan 'hamaregaon mein hamara sarkar', 'in our village we
are the government'. They formed their own forest-protection committee
which has kept at bay the incursions of paper mills and dam projects.
This is so effective that, in an unprecedented development, government
forest officials have agreed to abide by their rules.
And the new networks of international resistance mean that
different movements are learning from each others' tactics.
One activist from the Narmada Valley in India had come to
Prague in September 2000 to join the protests against the IMF/World
Bank meeting. Wrapped in a brown-wool cardigan and shivering slightly,
he stood in the gigantic cavern of the convergence centre where
the direct action was being planned, watching the meeting - which
had gone on for hours - proceed.
'What do you make of this?' I asked him.
'These people!' he said fiercely, throwing out his hand to
encompass the entire draughty old factory, full of anarchists,
dogs, juggling punks, painters making mad puppets, unwieldy translations
into five languages, endless disagreements over obscure points
of principle. 'These people have no leaders." He paused,
waggling his head sternly. 'It's very, very, very good.'
Civil society across Latin America is now mobilizing for the
largest, most ambitious self-organized referendum, or consulta
popular, ever attempted. At the end of this year 14 countries
in the Americas will be asked to vote on the principles of the
Free Trade Area of the Americas. This will be the first time the
people have been consulted on the treaty, which was negotiated
in secret and only revealed after vigorous citizen action. Now,
groups in Canada are hoping to join the consulta.
But the biggest lesson the Northern protesters can learn from
the Southern movements is that summit blockading is not enough
- we must move into our communities and build broad-based social
movements at home. This will take time and patience. While we
must continue to delegitimize the institutions of global governance,
and develop our alternative economic models, we must also begin
the slow work of rebuilding democracy from the ground up.
Above all, we need to become the change we wish to see enacted.
On the outskirts of Mexico City we are breakfasting, under
a large canopy, on tortilla, beans and coffee before the big entrance
into the Zocalo. Everybody is busy getting things ready. I walk
out into the hot sun. A man with a ponytail is holding a brush
dripping with bright-blue paint. He walks over to me and takes
one of my hands. Then he grins and paints the entire surface of
my palm a thick blue colour. He gestures over to a banner spread
out on the dry earth, where his friend is mapping out some large
lettering. I lean over and press my palm hard against the sheet.
My palm-print joins hundreds of others in different shapes, sizes
and colours. The banner says: 'La historia se construye con estas.'
'History is made with these.'