Wednesday, April 27, 2005

General Belgrano, Argentina- It is hard to imagine that in the Argentine province of Formosa, on the boarder of Paraguay, the chemical and genetic agriculture movement has arrived. Formosa is one of the poorest and most secluded regions in the country. It is about as far as one can get from the Monsanto laboratories that developed the genetically modified soybean that is planted here. Yet in this Argentine frontier a new revolution is building, and it is rejecting the conventional agriculture model.

On April 19 the Movement of Campesinos of Formosa (MOCAFOR) convened over 2000 people to fight for agrarian reform and land rights. Campesino is hard to translate into English. It means literally “country person” but connotes poverty and struggle. Some people consider it a derogatory word but many social movements use it with pride. MOCAFOR has built a coalition of over 5000 campesino families to struggle for a higher quality of life.

A wide variety of groups sent speakers to the conference including Nora Cortiñas of Madres de la Plaza de Mayo, Heinz Dietrich of Participatory Democracy of Latin America and indigenous leaders. MOCAFOR is one of the few movements that has forged a union between indigenous and campesinos.

The conference took place in the grange of a cotton processing plant. The space was decorated like a high school dance: bright swaths of fabric draped across the ceiling and block letters cut from silver paper spelled out “PARTICIPATORY DEMOCRACY” across the main stage. The brick walls and metal roof turned the room into a brick oven in the 90 degree weather.

Benigno Lopez, a leader within MOCAFOR, criticized the conventional agriculture model as “criminal and paramount to genocide” and denounced the sale of public lands to foreign companies. He declared MOCAFOR would fight for “food sovereignty” and search for ecological models of agriculture. He also announced a march for land rights on July 26th from Paraguay to the capital city of Formosa. Lopez, with his wavy black hair, goatee, and olive drab clothing, auspiciously resembled the portrait of Argentine born revolutionary Che Guevara that hangs in the MOCAFOR office.

Heinz Dietrich invoked the revolutionary spirit of Emiliano Zapato and Pancho Villa. “Do not mistake the principle enemy,” he declared, referring to the “imperialist” forces of the USA the EU and other developed nations. He even went as far as to exclaim the need for armed revolution- not by directly taking up arms, he explained, but as Hugo Chavez did in Venezuela, by winning over the support of the military.

Nora Cortiñas spoke about her experiences traveling to Haiti and other Latin American countries and lamented the dire situation was the same wherever she went. She encouraged Latin American unity in the fight against oppressive forces. She also rallied support from the activist movements “to prepare to reject the visit of the biggest terrorist in the world: George Bush,” who will visit Argentina in November.

The Campesino Reality

The harsh revolutionary tone of the speakers is understandable if you take into account the harsh conditions they are trying to transcend. “The campesino and indigenous reality is suffering”, explained Aldo Benitez, the regional MOCAFOR contact, in an interview during the conference.

Formosa is a province rich in resources such as petroleum, forests and production agriculture. “All the resources and riches of the province are controlled by the state and a few companies,” Benitez said, holding his baby daughter on his lap.

However, Benitez claims the resources are improperly managed and the wealth is not making it to the people. “For example, the companies that cut trees are required to replant but they don’t do it,” he explained.

As for the petroleum, the only national Argentine oil company, YPF, was sold off during the rampant privatization of the Menem administration. Now foreign companies do all the drilling.

The campesinos also suffer from the low price of cotton, a major commodity in the region. The price fell from US$480 last year to US$225 per metric ton this year, a 53% drop. In March MOCAFOR blocked the highway for eight days demanding a fair price for cotton.

“Another big problem is that the state sells our land to foreign companies,” continued Benitez. The majority of the campesinos do not have titles to their land. They have been farming for generations on land owned by the state. “The state won’t sell to the producers or indigenous but will sell to the private companies,” he said.

Most of the land purchased is planted with soy genetically modified to resist the Monsanto made herbicide Round Up “The companies that plant soy would fumigate with airplanes. They would fumigate over the houses, contaminating the water, animals, and agriculture. Women were having miscarriages, children were sick and the plants were dying,” said Benitez. Two years ago the campesinos took the matter into their own hands. 100 people from MOCAFOR took over the fumigation plane and slashed its tires. They later reached an agreement with the companies to use land-based sprayers and plant soy farther from the towns.

The victory was pivotal for MOCAFOR. It gave them confidence and won them widespread support from the people in the province. “It proved to them that we could do good things.” Now they are looking to broaden their coalition support. That is why they convened the April 19th meeting. “We can change the reality of campesino life if we join together. We can distribute the resources in an equitable manner to the people of the province,” concluded Benitez before he rushed away to his next meeting.

Monday, April 18, 2005

Formosa, Argentina

Sarita and I are at the bus station in Formosa, Argentina. Very close to the Paraguay border. We´re stuck here for the day until the next bus for General Belgrano leaves tonight. We´re on our way to a meeting of the campesino (peasant or low-income farm worker) movement organized by MOCAFOR (movements de Campesions de Formosa).

It has been awhile since I have posted anything on this forum. I wonder if anyone is reading it anymore. It has been really difficult to keep up with email let alone this blog on the road. We have been moving from one spot to the next with out much downtime. I have also been experiencing complete writers block. I find it very difficult to express an honest opinion in a public forum connected to Organic Volunteers. I´m learning so much about the environmental and social movement in South America. The entire trip is becoming a jumble of new friends, farms, activists groups, new climates and long bus rides. I haven´t been able to materialize a clear concise story to write about. Now I´ll just have to start rambling about what we´re doing.

After IPEP we went to Uruguay on our way to Buenos Aires. We stayed with a couple that had been trying to start an ecovillage that never took off for all the reasons most ecovillages don´t take off. They were wonderful people with a lot of insight into the ecovillage movement in South America.

We stopped in Buenos Aires for a few days. We visited a recuperated shoe factory called Cooperativa Unido por el Calzado. The workers have successfully taken over the factory and are now producing their own line of shoes, without the help of bosses. Eat your heart out Phil Knight.

I traveled to the outskirts of Buenos Aires to visit the Movimiento de Trabajadores Desocupados (MTD) de La Matanza, a hardcore group of activists from a very poor part of Buenos Aires, working together, horizontally and autogestionado (translation pls?) to solve their own problems. La Matanza looks like warzone on the frontlines of the battle to globalize the freemarket economy. It is where people who are forgotten by the capitalist system come to live. That is how my friend from the MTD defines the Desocupados.

The MTD has started a bakery, clothing design studio, neighborhood barter and artesian market, cultural center and free kindergarten. The day I arrived the MTD received a letter from the government declaring the school "clandestine" and ordered it to be closed. After many rounds of mate and jokes the MTD decided to keep the school open anyway.

I was at the MTD to offer one of their members a scholarship to a natural building course being put on by Kleiwerks. The accepted the scholarship and the next day we were on the bus to El Bolson in the northern edge of the Patagonia.

We spent almost a month in Bolson, a wonderful hippy town in the mountains with many organic producers.

Then we took the 24 hour bus back to Buenos Aires for a 10 day, silent vipassana meditation course.

We had meeting after meeting in Buenos Aires. We meet with MAPO and The Working World among others.

Then we went to Cordoba and stayed with family friends. I lived with them 10 years ago in Cordoba during my first trip to South America. This is number 4.

We traveled north 2 hours to Yacu Yura also known as Aguas Claras near Capilla del Monte. Aguas Claras was a community but broke up a few years ago. Now there are a few new people there trying to transform the project.

We visited farms around the area including the biodynamic farm Los Jardines de Yaya. There we were told about the 20th conference of Biodynamic producers in the Southern Cone.

We were at the conference the past 4 days. And if you look at the 9 new hosts in Argentina, very productive for Organic Volunteers.

Naturaleza Viva, the conference location, was an amazing example of production ecological agriculture. On 200 acres the produce excellent dairy products, four kinds of meat, vegetables, flaxseed, soybean oil, sunflower seed oil and much more. The also barter with growers all over the country to complement their products. Almost all the food for the conference was from the farm. They even have a bio gas digester that powers all the cooking and value added product processing.

The owners of the farm were persecuted under the dictorship for organizing the campesino movement. They abandoned their daughter with a campesino family, hid in the jungle for 4 years and then in Europe for 4 years.

We left their farm last night. Tomorrow we meet with MOCAFOR and other campesino organizations from around the region. We have been told that MOCAFOR is made up of 5,000 families or about 45,000 people. Big families. A major problem the campesinos face is that many of them have been farm on land for generations without official titles. The owners are mysteriously appearing and kicking them off the land to plant transgenic soy. China imports 2/3rds of its soy from Argentina.

There is a cute little street dog sleeping under my computer in the internet cafe. All is well.