Saturday, May 21, 2005

The Rape of the Rainforest and the Man Behind it

I just read this article on about the deforestation of the Amazon for soy production. The situation is similar in Argentina. I thought the article would give people a general idea of the agricultural crisis in Latin America. The article does a good job describing the environmental impact but doesn't really go into the social and economic impacts of the soy boom.

A stream winds through a strip of once virgin Amazon rainforest destroyed by loggers, in Mato Grosso State, one of the Brazilian states of greatest deforestation, May 18, 2005. The Brazilian government announced the latest data on deforestation of the Amazon Basin, with a total of 26,130 square km (10,089 square miles) of rainforest destroyed, equivalent to more than nine football fields every minute, during the 12-month period ending in August, 2004. The total is the highest recorded during the government of President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, in spite of his administration's announced efforts to contain the destruction. REUTERS/Rickey Rogers

Thursday, May 12, 2005

Grassroots Ecological Agriculture in Argentina

In the US the ecological agriculture movement, for the most part, is driven by the premiums people will pay for organic food. Conscious consumers base their consumption habits on ethical and moral standards. This form of capitalist activism has been very successful; organics is the fastest growing sector of US agriculture. The certified organic movement in Argentina is also driven by this demand. Argentina has the second largest amount of certified organic acres in the world. 95 % of the organic production is destined for export.

In Argentina there is not much of a conscious consumer movement and the organic label doesn't add much value. However there is a thriving movement of local, ecological agriculture motivated by necessity and survival. After the economic crash of 2001 many activists groups turned to organic farming methods to augment daily food needs. Here, the link between sustainability, fair economics and social justice is obvious.

The third world suffers the most from the globalized industrial model of agriculture. The farm workers and their families at the most effected by chemical use and free market economics. In Argentina there is a resurgence of farmer worker organizations such as MOCAFOR that reject the industrial agriculture model and support a return to ecological farming methods. Two years ago MOCAFOR successfully stopped corporations from arial spraying Round Up on genetically modified soy crops.

Probably the most developed ecological agriculture movement in Argentina is in Misiones, the province tucked between Paraguay and Brazil. Misiones has a network of 43 farmers markets where local producers can sell their products. Such an extensive network of both local economics and organic production is non-existent in the rest of Argentina.

The farmers market network was started by primarily women farmers in the Agrarian Movement of Misiones. They wanted to create a viable economic alternative to planting the major crops in the area: tobacco, tea and yerba mate. These crops require high pesticide use and fetch a low price because of corporate control of distribution. The farmers markets encourage families to first produce their own healthy food and then make money selling to their local communities. I visited one farm that was bursting with so much abundance the owner was able to donate all the food needed for a festival honoring the farmers markets. The owner even had a biogas digester built by her 15 year old son that converted cow manure into cooking gas.

This ecological revolution is not just limited to the country. In Rosario, the third largest city in Argentina, urban agriculture has become a life line for the city´s poorest inhabitants. The economic crisis of 2001 left 60% of the population in Rosario below the poverty line and 30% in extreme poverty. Local agrarian activists successfully lobbied municipal support to convert abandoned lots into community gardens. They saw self sufficient food production as a root solution to poverty. People in poverty spend 70% of their income on food. To date they have created 800 community gardens supporting 40,000 people.

In the US I have heard it said that organic food is a luxury of the wealthy. Amidst organic Cheetohs and TV dinners it is easy to lose sight of the purpose of organic farming. However, in the third world, in the most marginalized part of the world, the purpose couldn't be clearer. Ecological agriculture is a practical way of improving the quality of life and escaping from the slavery imposed by global industrial agriculture.

If you want to visit and work with ecological agriculture groups in Argentina or other parts of Latin America visit

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Argentina, Iraq and the Global Dictatorship

Misiones, Argentina-- My partner Sarita and I have been in Argentina for almost four months now, visiting farmworker movements, organic producers and countless activist groups. As I begin to understand the history of the activist movement here I am becoming increasingly concerned about my country's involvement in foreign affairs. More importantly I'm concerned about what my responsibility is as a US citizen. My experiences here have helped me start to understand the connection between the US, the Argentina dictatorship and the Iraq war. It seems like a far fetched connection but let me explain.

Last week we visited the Agrarian Movement of Misiones (MAM). They have been organizing small scale farmers in the Misiones province of Argentina since 1971. When we arrived at their office the first thing they did was point to the pictures on their wall and explain, "that is our founder, he was assassinated, the lady next to him was disappeared and never found, this other picture is of a friend who was exiled for 8 years," and so on.

I'm getting used to hearing these kinds of stories as we visit activist groups. From the mid 70s to 1983 Argentina was under an oppressive military dictatorship. During this time over 30,000 people were killed or disappeared. It has left a deep scar in everyone who lived through the period. As MAM co-director Enrique Peczack explained it set the activist movements back 50 years.

Enrique's brother was the MAM founder who was assassinated. Enrique was disappeared for a year and jailed for eight. He wanted us to understand MAM's history so he brought us to his brothers grave. As we were driving out to MAM's organic mate cooperative we asked what the difference was between being jailed and disappeared. He stopped the truck in the middle of the road and let us know all the details. When he was disappeared he was in the jungle somewhere in a Nazi style concentration camp and no one knew where he was. Most of the time he was chained up with a bag over his head. He would go without human contact for weeks. Sometimes he was fed, sometimes not. He was beaten and tortured repeatedly. When he was jailed he was not treated much better but at least he knew where he was.

When I hear these gruesome stories first hand I can only think how glad I am this kind of thing doesn't happen in the US. But I know the US is far from being disconnected to torture and massacre. It is widely known that the US supported the Argentine dictatorship.

I would like to think that the dictatorship is over. However, I know the military dictatorship cleared the way for the globalized economic dictatorship. Had the activist community not been set back so far there might have been a stronger force to fight the privitizacion of the Menem years. And what was the largest public company sold off to the free market? YPF, Argentina's national oil company. It was the largest initial stock sell off in the history of the New York Stock Exchange. YPF was bought up by the Spanish company Repsol to become the second largest oil company in the world. Where there is oil, there is oppression. Now Argentina is a slave to the global free market economy.

I would also like to think that this is an isolated experience precipitated by random events. But I know that every country in Latin America has a similar story of oppression. Nor is this story limited to Latin America. The same thing is happening in Iraq right now. However, in Iraq US involvement is even more direct and the massacre even greater. The website now says at least 21,000 civilians have been killed. I can only imagine the kind of scar that will leave in the people. And again this tactic of brutal destabilization will leave an oil rich country a slave to the free market economy.

Yet, what has been bothering me the most is that I am somehow implicated in all this. My friends in Argentina can't fight the US global empire. No matter how many times they blockade the highways, ransack the banks and oust presidents they still can't change their place in the global economy. Last week Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez announced that he will not visit the US again until its citizens liberate the country. I feel that challenge weighing heavily on my shoulders.

However, it seems unlikely that the US activist community will take the drastic actions necessary to overthrow a tyrannical government. We don't feel the direct effects of US domination even if we are opposed to it. We don't have bombs falling on our cities and our families aren't being disappeared. Even though we are opposed to global economic and military tyranny we are still the major beneficiaries. Since we aren't feeling the brunt of the suffering we aren't able to take the drastic actions that other oppressed people take.

In Argentina when YPF was privatized massive groups of unemployed people started using the tactic of blockading highways. When unemployment hit 40% the widespread direct action started having an effect. National strikes and protesters raiding banks effectively shut the country down. Then on December 19 and 20, 2001 massive protests in Buenos Aires succeeded in overthrowing the president...And the next four that followed.

How many people in the US are ready to shut down highways or organize national strikes? Who wants to risk their jobs, families and freedom? Who is ready to face down police with live ammunition? Organizing a national strike would require widespread cooperation between all the major activist organizations in the US. Yet major organizations fear public opinion too much to take such drastic actions. Bush's largest opponent, with 3 million members, won't even issue a statement against the Iraq war. TrueMajority is a little more radical, they distributed a pen that shows how much money is being spent on the war. They even make activism easy for you, click "reply send" and your representatives recieve a form letter. Is that what activism has come to in the US? "Reply send" activism?

I'm not angry at the activist community. I'm not ready to blockade the highways either. That takes unity and confidence that we just don't have right now. It's just starting to feel like we've been put into checkmate.

Monday, May 02, 2005

Unedited Letter Home

Enrique Peczac at the grave of his assasinated brother, Pedro.

Queridos Viejitos,

Long day and it's still not over. Woke up at 6:45 to meditate before meeting Eugenio Peczack, president of MAM (Movimiento Agrario de Misiones). We chatted in MAM's headquarters then he took us on a quick tour.

Our first stop was the cemetery where the Peczack's brother, one founder of MAM is burried. He was assasinated by the dictatorship in the 70's. His gravestone was decorated with plaques, some commemorating his contribution to the agrarian movements of the province others naming disappeared colleagues. "To give you some idea of the context of our work," the president told us. We hopped back in the truck and drove down the red road - the soil in Misiones contains so much iron oxide they call it tierra colorado (colored earth). It stained everything- your shoes, the bottoms of your pant legs, your hands, anything it touches- and formed an intense and beautiful contrast against the lush, dense, green bush/jungle that covers the hills of the province.

As we drove Peczack painted a rough history of the land we passed through. The annihilation of the native people; the sugar, tobacco and tea plantations owned by Portuguese and worked by African slaves; the arrival of the Jesuits; the Jesuit Army’s (?!) victory over the Portuguese; the arrival of the German, Nordic, Ukranian, Italian, and other immigrants who formed small colonies on the land the army gave them…the arrival of powerful agribusiness in the 1930’s that set in motion the struggle between small farmers and wealthy proprietors that continues to this day. He also shared a bit of his family’s history: his father leaving Ukrania (which was a landless nation at the time, occupied by Austria-Hungary??) meeting his mother in Argentina and beginning a new life with nothing to his name but a machete and the clothes on his back. Peczack was the youngest of nine children, born when his dad was 73 (he died 5 years later). (I’m guessing the mother was many years younger; he didn’t say). His whole family was involved in the Agrarian Movement from the outset, work which as I mentioned before, cost his brother and many friends their lives and landed him in jail. “They hunted me for many years, during which I moved around constantly, living in the jungle, in basements…when they found me they jailed me. For 8 years they transferred me from jail to jail – I know the jails of every part of this country. It was a tactic for severing your relationship with your family and friends. If you were in one jail very long your people could find you. If they moved you around, it was impossible. For 8 years, I lived in the jails, being beat, d, everything. Then after my incarceration I spent one year disappeared.” At this point I interrupted him for clarification.
“Disappeared? Meaning you were released but had to go underground to avoid ending up back in jail? Or disappeared is part of jail?” Peczack stops the truck in the middle of the road.
“Disappeared means they take you out of the jail, to do things that they cannot do in jails. When you are in jail there are records of your existence. And you know more or less where you are- or at the very least, you know you are in a jail. To be disappeared meant that they took you someplace- you had no idea where- in the middle of nowhere, in the jungle, some building…you were usually blindfolded and chained. They left you alone, sometimes days without human contact and often without food. They only came back to beat you senseless or move you to another place. Prison, as horrific as it was, was preferable to being disappeared because at least it was a recognizable place with human contact.”
The truck was silent. I turned to the back seat to look at Ethan. He mouthed “wow” at me and turned to stare out the side window. Our tour guide re-started the truck, drove another 50 yards and pulled over. “This is one of our yerba plantations.” We hopped out of the truck and walked over to the row of mate trees closest to the road.
“No pesticides, no herbicides, no chemicals. There are two ways to keep the weeds down: whack them down by hand, using machetes or graze sheep between them. We use both methods but prefer the latter. The sheep are easier and, once they’ve done their job, we can eat them.” Peczack explained that MAM has practiced and promoted organic production since the organization's inception. “El veneno (‘poison’ literally) is expensive, it makes the farmer dependent upon the businesses that produce it, and more importantly, it kills the farmers, their families, and the land itself.” So much for the myth that the organic movement is a luxury campaign supported only by yuppies and other members of the burgouise, I thought to myself as we hopped back in the truck.
Our next stop was the Centro de Servicios , the warehouse where members of the cooperative mill, package, and store their yerba and process other farm-raised products including jams, pickles, sausages, cheese, milk, breads, and pastries. A small cluster of men gathered around the yerba mill. Light green powder dusted the floor around the mill and the ground outside. Peczack led us throught the facility, pointing out where different activities took place, appologizing that there wasn’t more going on that day. “It’s the dust. When the yerba is being milled, we have to suspend all the other activities because it gets into everything.” He showed us a room with a dentists chair and some medical equiptment. “One member of the cooperative- a young doctor- is in Cuba studying natural medicine. We plan to provide health services for all of our associates. Not the kind of health care an obra social provides [obra social is the medical plan employer are required to provide}- real health care. Prevention. Education. Access to the land and skills families need to produce every part of a balanced diet. The tobacco growers in Misiones all have obra sociales. They also work in incredibly toxic environments every day, applying illegal plagicides, drinking contaminated water, eating vegetables grown in polluted soil. We´ve opened a space upstairs where we'll dry medicinal plants; the earth here has so much to offer in the form of natural medicines." Listening to Peczack I thought of something Ernesto "Ché" Guevara once said: "We don't need more hospitals. We need fewer sick people."

From the Centro de Servicios we sped over, a few kilometers, to the Escuela Familiar Agricola (Family Agricultural School) a new insitution whose first 20 students gathered for their morning class in a brand new brick building. The young teacher invited us to the front of the classroom where we introduced ourselves, gave a brief summary of what we're doing in Argentina, and drew a map of the U.S. on the chalkboard to show what part of the states we're from. The kids were silent, either too shy or too bored to ask questions. Students live at the EFA for 15 days then return to their communities for 15 days to apply their education and help on their family farms. (To give an idea of how they apply their education: in San Pedro, at one farm we visited, a son enrolled at the local EFA had built a biodigestor that provided all the gas his mom needed for preserving foods for the family's consumption and for sale at the local farmer's market.) The teacher showed us the kitchen where the kids and parents took turns cooking, gave us a big jar of local honey, and thanked us for coming by.

Back in the truck, I asked Peczack if he was familiar with Paulo Freire and Pedagogy of the Oppressed. "Of course. Since the beginning. You're wondering why the EFA looked so traditional? We have to work slowly back to the level Freire worked at- they way we were working in the 70's. Intellectually speaking the movement was more advanced back then. Many in the commision were highly educated: doctors, psychologists, sociologists. Extremely critical thinkers. But you have to understand that the dictatorship pushed Argentina back about 50 years. It's frustrating...working with many of the local producers here today and seeing how uncapable, how un-conscious many of them- particularly the younger ones- are today. We have to be cautious with the parents of the EFA students. If we try to change to much too fast- by jumping full force into Freire style pedagogy for instance- we could scare all of them off."

A torrent of images blazed through my mind as Peczack continued talking about the dictatorship's anihilation of critical thought and action: rough, cigarette smoking women at Enero Autonomo (see earlier posts) complaining about their machista husbands; miles of Chè t-shirts for sale at the World Social Forum; the little kid who played war video games the whole time I checked my email then asked me for change as I boarded the bus; the restaurant full of Argentine men of every age, each sitting at his own table with a litre of coca-cola (or beer), with a coca-cola napkin dispenser, with their unblinking eyes frozen on the soccer game; the professor couple we met, sitting in their expensive living room, on thier designer furniture, sipping wine, saying "yes, we've have Ph.Ds in sociology...we study the Landless movements of Misiones."...

While I daydreamed about what it means to destroy a society's capacity to think critically, Peczack drove us to the park where the Festival Nacional del Inmigrante (National Inmigrant's Festival) takes place every September. We rolled slowly past the park's huge houses, each designed in the traditional architecture of one of the countries that contributed inmigrants to Misiones: Germany, Switzerland, Russia, Ukrania, Spain, Italy, France, Eygpt, Poland, and more. As we drove past the Ukrania house I told him that the Jewish side of my family inmigrated from Ukrania to the U.S. to escape the war. Eugenio pointed to a plaque. "That's where the House of Israel will be built. I almost traveled to Israel. To travel and get to know their system of kibutz. I even secured a visa. But then the Israeli embassy here was ed and it ruined everything. You know the Jewish people had it very bad here during the dictatorship. The whole regime was so t, racist. In one jail I was d because they thought that I was Jewish. Because of my last name. It's not Jewish, but it was strange to them and they didn't know the difference. They forced me to strip to see if I was circumcised. When they saw that I wasn't they beat me anyway, probably just because they d being wrong."

I was finding it harder and harder to imagine how this human being, seated two feet away from me, could have been so mistreated by other people and yet be the smiling, cheerful, friendly person that he had been all day. Or how he could continue doing the same work that "earned" him everything that happened to him during the dictatorship. So I asked him. "How did you regain your trust in people after the dicatorship? I mean, to do the work you do with MAM, with all the small farmers from the whole region, to work together with people all the seems like hard enough interpersonal work for someone who never experienced what you have..." Eugenio thought for a while. "I have the good fortune of having a very strong character, and a strong mind. Partly I learned from my mother. Like I said, my dad died when I was 5 and we all had to make it, on nothing, with nothing. Even before the dictatorship, I knew hunger. I knew cold. And because of that I suppose I've always known that what I was fighting for what right and that it was worth it. After all, what I've fought for all along is for the people who work and live on this land to have good food to eat, to have a place to live, to see the fruits of their not be enslaved by someone who works them like animals and treats them worse - for money. There was never one second, not in jail, not when I was disappeared, not during any or starvation, in which I doubted that what I was doing to help organize and conscienciar the people, to help them have a better quality of life, was what I had to do. Even so, it made me hard. I had to be hard. If you weren't you crumbled. Hundreds of people committed rather than try to see it through to the end of the dictatorship." I asked Peczack how he reintegrated after jail and being disappeared, how he reconnected with his family. To the former he responded, "I went right back to work. Doing exactly what I was doing when they took me away. Trying to regain the ground we lost in those years. With joy- because I like my work. I love working on the land, working with people who work the land. I don't have any complex: so many people who suffered during the dictatorship have spent the rest of their lives seeking revenge, trying to find justice by hurting the peope who hurt them. I just went back to work putting MAM back together, trying to regain the confidence of the campesinos with whom we started the movement."

Back at MAM's office, I looked over their beautifully packaged yerba mate and read some literature they'd printed about fair trade and organic, small scale production for local consumption. MAM and Organic Volunteers could not have more different histories and yet they were working for the exact same objectives. Interesting isn't it?


Some interesting papers (en castellano) on MAM and the Ferias Francas