The Mesoamerican Caravan, documenting land
defense movements in Mexico and Central America
/ by Liz Pelly
At the beginning of 2017, I attended an event at Bushwick’s Starr Bar titled “Documentary Night: Land Defense in the Americas.” The evening included several short films telling stories of indigenous communities in Mexico and Central America fighting to defend their mountains and rivers from the building of pipelines, dams and mines; in every one of these farm communities, such construction would extract the land of natural resources they rely on to live. The documentaries (which can be viewed here) were made in 2015 and 2016 by the Mesoamerican Caravan, a Mexico-based project led by 12 autonomous collectives working with communities from Mexico to Costa Rica.
In one video, the Caravan documents the community living near Paso de la Reyna, Oaxaca, where people are struggling against the creation of a hydroelectric dam that would destroy the land and water. "All of this water will be contaminated, it will no longer serve for human or animal use,” explains Jaime Jimenez, president of the committee of COPUDEVER, the Council of Peoples United of the Defense of the Green River. "COPUDEVER does not bear the color of a political party, we simply defend what is ours," says Eva Catellanos, one of the group’s members.
Another video highlights the Guatemalan resistance effort known as Resistencia Pacífica La Puya, the Peaceful Resistance of La Puya, a long-running project in resistance to a gold mine that would drastically impact the water supply and life in general for the local community. "Starting in 2007, life in the communities changed, when they began the first investigations to build the gold and silver mine known as El Tambor," says the video’s narrator. The gold mine project is owned by Canadian company Radius Gold and US company Kappes, Cassidy and Associates, represented in Guatemala by the company Exmingua. The communities struggled for years to get any information about this gold mine, until 2010 when news reports began to surface, leading to informational meetings and protests, and eventually a robust, peaceful encampment--providing space for the community to gather, have meetings and assemblies, cook food, and support each other, with volunteers taking 6 hour shifts and protect the space 24/hours per day. The encampment has been the targeted by riot police, but the community continues to resist.
These are just a couple of the many stories gathered by the Caravan. Other videos in this series show communities in San Mateo del Mar, Oaxaca organizing grassroots resistance to the development of wind farms, and activists in El Salvador, fighting the environmental impacts made on the Paz river. Many of the Caravan's documentaries can be watched online here. The films are intimate and informative, providing direct glimpses into the frontlines of often mystified struggles against horrendous corporate power -- stories that should be getting much more media attention. Further, the videos put the struggles of activists at Standing Rock into greater context, and must be watched by those wanting to be in solidarity with water and land protectors everywhere.
Following the Mesoamerican Caravan’s screening in New York, I reached out to Samantha Thel, a member of Colectivos en Acción, former member of C.A.C.I.T.A, and a participant in the Caravana Mesoamericana, to learn more about their work and how to provide support. Currently, members of the Caravan are at work on a book: "Six months after concluding our caravan, we are transcribing the voices and compiling the great diversity of experience and knowledge of Mesoamerican communities in resistance in the form of a book,” explains their crowdfunding campaign, which can be supported here.
Can you tell me about the caravan project, how you got involved, and what you are currently working on?
The Mesoamerican Caravan is a collaboration between autonomous collectives from so-called Mexico, Europe, and the United States. In 2012, we came together as Collectives in Action to work in mutual aid with indigenous communities and barrios that are fighting extractive projects, and in their place sowing the seeds of dignified life: through cooperative health clinics and growers’ collectives; autonomous schools and radio stations; neighborhood water committees and small-scale energy alternatives.
In 2015-16, the caravan traveled to 17 communities in Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica, documenting resistance movements and sharing workshops on community media and alternative technology. Together, community members and caravaners produced a series of documentaries about land defense movements; streamed live radio shows using the caravan’s mobile transmitter; worked with elders to create a registry of medicinal plants; prepared organic repellents and fertilizers for crops; built pedal-powered machines and composting toilets; and made participatory maps to visualize the impacts of resource extraction from the bottom up.
I got involved in the caravan in 2014, when I started working with a Oaxacan collective called C.A.C.I.T.A., whose initials in English stand for the Autonomous Center for the Intercultural Creation of Appropriate Technology. Appropriate technology is a (in my opinion sort of dated) term for DIY tools that are decentralized, locally autonomous, value traditional ecological knowledge, and seek to make use of regional and recycled materials that don’t harm people or the natural world we’re a part of. For more than 10 years, CACITA built energy-efficient technologies in collaboration with urban and rural resistance movements.
Currently, Collectives in Action is working to transform the stories that land and water protectors shared with us, along with the manuals of the tools we built together, into a practical book, from and for peoples everywhere who are working to knock down the extractive industry and create something more just in its place. The book aims to amplify the voices of land defenders, sharing insight into the strategies corporations use to impose projects as well as the strategies communities use to defend their territories. Please check out and share our recently launched crowdfunding campaign!
Don Armando of Resistencia Pacífica La Puya: "We oppose the mine because our territory is sorely lacking in water. The mine is located within the dry part of our territory. And the mining companies, as is well known scientifically worldwide, use great amounts of water, thousands of liters a day. So how are we going to support this? There is no law that regulates the company's' use of water. They can use any amount of water that they want, while the communities don't even have sufficient water to live."
For those who are unfamiliar with the phrase, can you explain what a land defense movement is?
To understand what a land defense movement is, I find it helpful to look at the definition of a word like territory as I came to understand it through the teachings of Mesoamerican communities.
In mainstream American English, “territory” tends to have legalistic or darwinistic connotations. From the vantage point of the state, a tribe’s “territory” is delineated by borders and a set of laws establishing jurisdiction. In the city, a neighborhood may be contested turf or territory, and people who watch over their space are called out for being territorial. But in Latin American Spanish, and especially in the context of rural communities and social movements, territory is often a holistic concept with deeper implications. The physical site of struggle against dispossession and violence throughout the centuries and across the continent, territory is also a spiritual site encompassing a community, its ancestors, and its modes of coexistence with nature. Thus, land defense movements protect mountains and rivers from colonization and resource extraction, but they also defend culture, language, memory, communal forms of organization, and rooted ways of relating to the land and seeking to live well as a community. Some Latin American feminists also talk about the territory-body, drawing lines between the exploitation of their land, the exploitation of their labor, and the violation of their bodies. In this way, failure to protect the bodies of part of the community entails failure to protect the territory.
Eva Catellanos of Council of Peoples United of the Defense of the Green River in Oaxaca: “The dam would be 1-2 km upriver from the community of Paso de la Reina. It would be 195 metere tall and would inundate 3,100 hectares. Paso de la reina would disappear automatically. They say there would be no relocation because there will be no effects. And what do they want to say with that? That we'll automatically have to leave of our own accord when we see that we can no longer continue living here.”
How can folks in US support land defense movements?
There are plenty of ways to support. Redistributing wealth directly to resistance movements through long-term relationships of mutual aid shouldn’t be underestimated as a form of solidarity. One thing communities often mention is the importance of media. I think we can do a better job translating and publicizing community’s denouncements of corporate and state violence, as well as working across borders to respond meaningfully—not just with symbolic marches, but with campaigns to harm the profits and reputations of banks and companies that are funding the disappearance of indigenous people.
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