Power to the people (or: what’s it take to get active?)

Seems we need the very basis of our livelihoods to be threatened before we do something about the world outside. For most of us, our livelihood is represented by money, food in the shops, and transport to get us to the places that issue money or food. Which is why we only strike, protest or riot in numbers when one of those is under immediate threat (but not before).

But of course, the basis of our livelihoods is really the land (and air, and water) — and (for those who haven’t noticed), it is under immediate threat.

Although few in industrial civilisation seem to have a true sense of awareness of this, there are growing numbers trying their best to bang the urgency drum.

The failing climate talks at Copenhagen have been accompanied by large street protests by people calling for commitments from the power elite to meaningful change. Only the most switched-on of these protesters are aware that any attempts to stabilise the climate (if that can ever be achieved) will come to nought as long as the current economic system prevails; they are calling for ‘System change, not climate change’.  They are being met variously with derision from the media and violence from the police (excused by, but out of proportion with, a small group of brick-throwing protesters from another group). The ‘System change’ group have a ‘people’s declaration,’ available here.

Speaking up for the land

Back in the UK, Colin Tudge (who spoke lucidly at a recent Green Party meeting in Herefordshire) writes to promote intelligent land-use on his blog The Campaign for Real Farming, where he has lately emphasised the ‘absolute importance of peasant farming’. He says that we need a peoples’ movement to take over farming if we are to ensure food security.

The Soil Association also reminds us how we need to change our land-use methods with their report Strategies for Resilient Food and Farming, adding that “global food shortages will be an inevitable consequence of climate change and resource depletion unless we make fundamental changes to the way we farm, process, distribute and eat our food over the next 20 years”.

But is any of this activism? Will marching in the streets and producing reports and writing articles ever make the slightest difference (irony acknowledged)?

Contrast the approach with the actions of those who feel and live the connection with their land-base and who see it ripped apart in front of them. By comparison, our words, banners and recommendations look like little more than thumb-twiddling.

Take recent news from one Amazon tribe, reported on the Care2 website earlier in the year:

Your tribe has shrunk to 1,300 members, down from 5,000 four decades ago. Your tropical forest home is threatened by illegal logging … Your entire culture is in mortal danger. What do you do? If you’re Chief Almir Surui, you partner with a world-renowned, high-tech corporation to get your story out …. And you risk your life while speaking out.

Chief Almir Surui got clever and enlisted the help of the charity Amazon Conservation Watch and Google Earth Outreach (which “gives non-profits … the knowledge and resources they need to visualize their cause and tell their story”). Using Google’s mapping technology, his tribe created a 3D, multi-layered map that logs geographical information about their forest, including changes such as roads and incursions. The maps show clearly the destruction being wrought on the area and are providing powerful evidence in the legal battles the tribe is fighting to protect their forest and promote reforestation.

Leaving aside, for a moment, the dubious merits of turning to a global multinational IT company for help, let’s instead register the courage of this action in the face of large and dangerous opponents (the multinationals and the governments that support them). Such action is not without risks: eleven Amazon chiefs have been murdered for their activism in the last decade, and Chief Almir has a $100,000 bounty on his head.

Seems there comes a point where it’s worth risking your life to save your land-base — because without it you know your life is over anyway. When will we reach that point here?

(And, when we do, will Google Outreach help us to map the destructive march of development, the heartless, profit-driven decisions of planners, the loss of soil fertility caused by industrial agriculture, the pollution caused by industry to our rivers, soils and air, and so to argue for a moratorium on all these activities? (Don’t be silly – ed.))

Until we do, let’s at least stand in solidarity with those who are confronting the nightmare now.

A delegation of indigenous people suffered the stifling atmosphere at the Copenhagen climate summit to present their self-created video evidence and testimonials of the problems they are experiencing due to climate change in their communities. According to a report at Oneworld, the videos include scenes of cows and zebra dead or dying because of drought in Kenya; parched landscapes and stunted crop growth in Cameroon; destructive, unseasonal summer downpours in Peru and a dry, re-routed river in the Philippines among other images.

The testimonials also give examples of the value of traditional knowledge in responding to climate change (peasant farming comes up trumps again) alongside descriptions of the unintended consequences of imposed climate change mitigation efforts on local livelihoods. (Among them, biofuels, dam construction for hydroelectric power, eviction of hunter-gatherers from “conservation” areas and carbon offsetting where it is not in the control of the indigenous communities are causing great harm to tribal peoples, detailed in a report from Survival. Yes, even our culture’s attempts to stabilise the climate are violent and destructive.)

We can but hope that the indigenous delegation meet with a receptive audience (but may as well practice the forlorn look in advance).

Hoorays are in order for the Kayapó Indians, however who, alongside local and international organisations, have protested so hard against plans to build the Belo Monte hydroelectric dam on the Xingu river in the Brazilian Amazon that they have delayed the go-ahead, by putting forward evidence that it violates human rights and harms the environment (again from Survival).

If constructed, the dam will be the third largest in the world, costing over US$10 billion, bringing more than 200,000 workers into the area and forcing an estimated 20,000 people from their homes. A large proportion of those displaced will be indigenous peoples who have been living in the area for centuries. Nine million hectares of rainforest will be affected.

Penan of Long Ajeng show support for the Penan Peace Park (courtesy Bruno Manser Fund)And power to the Penan, who have proclaimed an area of rainforest on their native lands in the Malaysian state of Sarawak as a “peace park” in an attempt to protect it from logging activities. The move could become a focus of conflict: the Penan communities are challenging the Sarawak state government, which has given away the lands with full concessions for logging to timber company Samling.

Jawa Nyipa, headman of Long Ajeng, said, “The conservation of our forest is our highest priority. Without the forest, we cannot survive. We call this park Peace Park because peace is a very important concept in our culture.”

Five Penan communities are also suing the Sarawak government and three logging and plantation companies for previous operations. The Penan are demanding land titles for an area of 80,000 hectares, the nullification of the four unlawfully issued timber and planted-forest licences and compensation for damage done by the logging companies in the course of their past operations.

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