Sunday, February 13, 2005

La Casa Rosada

Sarita at La Casa Rosada, the Argentine presdential palace. The grafitti reads "Justice to the assasinated youth.", referring to the two activists who were killed in 2001.

Monday, February 07, 2005

Permaculture Community Restores Hope After World Social Forum

IPEP, Bagé, Brazil

The day the World Social Forum ends, a heavy rain falls on Porto Alegre. It is as if the city is cleansing itself of all the dust, sweat, commerce, and human drama it has endured. We say good-bye to our host and his family and friends and head to the Forum to meet up with the folks from IPEP (Institute of Permaculture and Ecovillages of the Pampas) who have invited us to their site.

We find the folks from IPEP huddled under their bamboo shelter, eating mangoes and starting a fire in a tiny cob oven. We approach them and ask for Guillerme, the person with whom we’ve had most contact. Bira, a wiry guy with blackened, calloused hands shoves two papayas and a knife at us and explains between spastic hand gestures and fits of laughter that the van is broken, we won’t leave until six , and we’d better eat something because we have a lot to do. We spend the rest of the day breaking down bamboo structures and stacking hay bales then race to the station to catch the bus to Bagé.

Six hours later we stumble into the open arms of Andreu and Cristiano, the IPEP residents who stayed home to care for the land. They welcome us with a warmth I’ve never experienced anywhere, showering us with hugs and kisses and babbling excitedly about how happy they are to receive us. Andreu leads us up two ladders to drop our packs in our loft, then insists we join everyone for tea and a midnight snack. When we finally crawl under our mosquito nets, we sleep like rocks.

In the morning, we awake and wander outside into a permaculture paradise. Though it's only three years old, IPEP has two completed earth houses and two more under construction; a lushous veggie and flower garden; composting toilets; a biodigester; an organic rice paddy that produces 800 kilos annually; fields of yucca, black beans, and other staple crops; and huge areas of regenerating native forest.

I spend the morning mulching a field with Joanna, a young woman from São Paulo who has come to visit her friend Jessica, who lives at IPEP and teaches yoga in Bagé. We exchange histories as we work and discover many similarities in our personal journeys and world views. As Joanna describes her academic migration from Economics to Psychology to wondering if any university program can teach her what she wants to learn, I nod continuously. Her eyes light up when in response to her intellectual journey I tell her it makes sense to me that studying economics would make her wonder how our brains could come up with a system that assigns a higher value to gold than the clean water and fresh air our lives depend on. She tells me most people are confused by her transition.

At lunch we gather around one long table, our plates heaped with rice, black beans, deep-fried polenta, arugula, cucumbers, carrots, beets and tomatoes – all grown on site, except for the tomatoes. Over our meal we discuss what we need to do to prepare for the week long, 100 person natural building course that begins in a few days. Some disagreements arise over how to prioritize chores and how many scoops of saw-dust should be tossed in the composting toilet after each use. But the arguments are more entertaining than divisive: Those in disagreement imitate one another, they make histerical facial expressions and bring up funny stories from the past to prove their points. In the end the room explodes into laughter, with everyone hooting and hugging and walking away shaking their heads. I try to imagine our world leaders resolving their differences this way- Bush cupping Hugo Chavez’s face in his hands and kissing his forehead between fits of giggles...

We have tons of work in very little time but our hosts insist that we find a nice place to relax after lunch. Andreu explains, “Now we rest. One hour. In Brazil we call this sesta. Then we work until
dinner”. We crawl into a hammock and nap until Joanna appears with a armful of burlap sacks and says (in English), “Come, we’re going to catch beans.”

We follow our hosts through the rice paddies, up the hill overlooking the earth houses. Along the way we stop to look at an area where they’ve planted avocados, sweet potatoes, and leafy greens beneath the native climax species. “We are showing that you don’t have to clear the forest to grow food,” explains Cristiano. “Most people here are too impatient to wait for this tree to grow fully and die back so they burn it down. It is uneccessary. If you wait for it to die back all the matter that it drops adds nutrients to the soil, helping the next cycle of life.”

Just past the forest garden Cristiano points out a gulch with hand-woven dams at 15 ft. intervals. “For erosion,” he tells us. “The previous owners mistreated this land. They cut down all the trees and grazed too many cows. So the rain causes a flood and it cuts this trench. We’ve planted species with strong root systems on both sides to prevent the banks from receeding further...and the corn in the gulch itself. The dams catch the soil, water, organic matter. And we eat the food.” Cristiano flashes us a smile that reaches from ear to ear. We respond with a thumbs up, a sign Brazilians use all the time to express both delight and gratitude.

We follow the property line to the upper fields. Hardly anthing grows on the neighbor’s side. There is only stubby grass and a shrinking, algae covered pond. Some cows stop grazing and stare at us. “They wish their owner did Permaculture,” someone says and everyone nods and laughs.

We harvest black beans until sunset. I do not think of what we are doing as work. We are amongst friends, sharing dreams of a sustainable future, exchanging stories, joking about Mayan calendar signs. At one point we ask one another’s ages. Everyone turns out to be between 22 and 24 years old. Andreu (who is somewhat easily excitable) raises his hands over his head and begins cheering, “Nossa generacion! Nossa generacion!” (our generation) His shouts make me feel ecstatic. They erase the saddness that the chaos and commercialism of the World Social Forum had left me feeling. Whereas the Social Forum made me doubt that another world is possible, watching my generation growing food, building earth houses, sharing meals, and resolving conflicts restored my hope.

Sunday, February 06, 2005

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez at the World Social Forum

Porto Alegre, Brazil- On January 29th Hugo Chavez, president of Venezuela, held a press conference at the World Social Forum. Sarita and I attended as reporters from the CPJ, the student paper of The Evergreen State College.

Chavez has intrigued me since I heard reports on Democracy Now! on the 2002 USA backed attempted coup. During the coup the military seized the presidential palace and Chavez was flown out of the country. However, the loyal palace guards and 1 million people in the streets took the palace back and returned Chavez to power. The entire episode was captured in the documentary The Revolution will not be Televised.

Chavez supporters hail him as a president of the people, the most progressive in Latin America. His opposition considers him to be a communist dictator with too-close-for-comfort ties to Cuba. I jumped at the chance to hear him in person and decide for myself what kind of president he is.

The press conference was held at the hotel São Rafael in Porto Alegre. When we arrived the line for registering as press was already wrapped around the room three times. We waited in line for forty-five minutes until someone yelled, “That’s it, no more press”. The line of reporters exploded into chaos. Everyone ran for the room where Chavez would speak. The crowd pushed up against the door and demanded to be let in. They started chanting, “Somos jornalista, no somos terroistas.” We’re journalists, not terrorists. We could see through an open door that there was plenty of space in the pressroom.

Finally the organizers succumbed to the crowd and the mob of reporters flooded into the room. Sarita and I were surfed to the front of the room. We sat on the floor about ten feet from the podium.

I highly doubted that Chavez would speak at such an insecure event. No one went through any kind of security clearance and there were no armed guards in sight. Yet after fifteen minutes of chaos, Chavez walked into the room and the room exploded with blinding camera flashes.

Five names were of reporters who could ask one question each were picked from a hat. He was asked about the role of the military, how the Brazilian media covered the 2002 coup, Venezuela/Cuba relations, Venezuela’s international relations with the EU, US and Colombia and about the situation in Haiti.

Chavez was cheerful and witty as he answered the questions in true South American politician style, rambling into long speeches about topics he felt were more important than the questions asked. Here are some of the salient points that Chavez made:

  • The role of the military should be that of “liberators”, an anti-imperial force that protects the people. He stressed the need for the people to be more involved in the defense of the country. In addition the military should be more involved in society through civic and education projects.
  • The world is in the middle of a severe environmental crisis. He referred to the planet as a living body that has, “a pulse, temperature and equilibrium.” He said, “If we don’t transcend the capitalist, neoliberal model, the planet cannot resist anymore.” He stressed that is necessary to join with the people of the North the fight for a better world.
  • The people of the USA are victims of a “media dictatorship”. The media is controlled by a few large corporations like CNN, FOX, etc.
  • Chavez described his visit earlier that day to a settlement of the MST (Landless Workers Movement). He was pleased with their regard for the local ecology. He described their polyculture method of farming rice using organic fertilizer. Carp that swim in the rice paddies do the tilling by burrowing into the soil and eat parasitic insects. He was impressed with the MST seed saving program and signed a paper showing his intent to start a seed trade with Brazil. He spoke against genetically modified crops.
  • Chavez defined the free market neoliberal thesis as, “Privatize everything, wait twenty years and when everyone is dying of hunger…the economy will magically begin to flourish.” He is opposed to free trade agreements like the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA). He explained that his version of the FTAA would be neighboring countries trading resources they are rich in for resources they badly need. As an example he said Venezuela sells Cuba oil at a 20% discount. They pay the discount back by providing social services in Venezuela. Thousands of Cuban doctors are working in Venezuela and Cuba is helping them develop a sugar industry.
  • In regards to the recent coup in Haiti, Chavez said there is only one president of Haiti and it is Jean-Bertrand Aristide.
  • Chavez was very explicit when addressing US/Venezuela relations. He said, “We are anti-imperialist, they [the USA] are imperialists.” He responded to a recent comment that Condoleeza Rice made referring to Chavez as “a negative force in the region”. He said, “The biggest negative force in the world is the USA.” He also mentioned that Bush constantly talks about fighting for freedom and justice “but never speaks about equality.” He said Bush should take a lesson from some of the American heroes like Martin Luther King Jr.

After the press conference we rushed to the stadium where Chavez would speak to thousands of participants from the World Social Forum. However, that is a different story and Chavez didn’t cover anything new in his speech.