Struggle for the Land


[What follows is a transcript of a Press Conference on the International Conference of Resistance and of Solidarity of the indigenous peoples and peasants that took place in Venezuela, October 11 - 14, 2003, where leaders from all over Latin America, including Evo Morales of Bolivia, answered questions.  It was prepared by Thierry Deronne: Journalist, cofounder of the community television station Teletambores, Maracay, Venezuela, and translated from Spanish by Greg Wilpert and Nathan Converse.]

“I will return and will be million,” Tupaj Katari, 1781


Caracas, August 30, 2003. Ricaurte Leonett, the new president of the National Land Institute (INTI), opens his first press conference surrounded by special guests. They represent millions of Latin Americans, such as the natives and farmers of Bolivia, through Evo Morales, national Deputy of the Movement towards Socialism (MAS), the Bolivian journalist Alex Contreras Baspineiro, the natives of Ecuador through Blanca Chancoso, leader of the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE), the natives and farmers of Guatemala, through Juan Tiney, of the Latin American Coordinator of Peasant Organizations (CLOC) and the National Indigenous  and Peasant Coordinator (CONIC), the Brazilian farmers through Egidio Brunetto, International Relations Coordinator of the Rural Worker Movement without Land (MST). Via Campesina, the largest organization of peasant movements farmers in the world, has sent its International Secretary, the Honduran Rafael Alegria.

It is planned that each one of them speaks in turn, before taking questions. For the present private mass media, this is upsetting. Not missing is the journalist who interrupts Evo Morales, brandishing her cellular: “I have another press conference!”

Without losing their calm, the international spokespersons explain their desire to study what is happening here in Venezuela, something that is merely a dream in their own countries: an agrarian revolution of great breadth, supported by the State. They want to study it, to reinforce it. In the name of Via Campesina, Rafael Alegria announces the creation of a school for training peasants in Venezuela. Quoting Morazán, Central America’s Liberator, he says that new winds are blowing in America. The social movements dream again of constructing States. He suggests that Cancún is going to demonstrate that the ascending force of such social movements, beyond that of NGOs or of parties, can create in their alliance with States a true continental counterweight and defeat the WTO by means of the issue of alimentary sovereignty, for example. And if in Venezuela the transformation of a social movement begins in the State, why not celebrate a world-wide indigenous and peasant forum here, in October 2003? To embrace each other and to interchange important seeds: such as the cultural resistance of the million natives and of the recognition of their rights in the new Venezuela. So as to unify the growing axis of popular movements against the neo-liberal offensive (WTO, FTAA) and against imperialist maneuvers, to mobilize in favor of the Bolivarian Revolution and of the agrarian reform in Venezuela, and to seed the Forest of Solidarity in the memory of the peasants assassinated by landowners.

Already resigned, the “journalists” they ask for numbers, just as a doctor asking the patient vital statistics without seeing him. When it is the turn of the Ecuadorian native to speak, they look the other way and leaf through the INTI press folder, as if it were a fashionable magazine. With gloves it seems, as though they feared becoming contaminated. On the following day the hidden placement, the ridiculous size of their “articles,” and the manipulation of words demonstrate to the international delegates that in Venezuela the private mass media did not lose any of their extraordinary capacity of social autism.

But what do these leaders have to say to us, coming not from the countryside but from a continent in struggle? What do they have to say to us, from such profound and varied struggles, at a time in which the Venezuelan agrarian reform advances towards the transfer of a second million of hectares? Instead of cutting them off, the time has come to listen to them.

Thierry Deronne: You speak of “dressing” the land. In order to dress the land many hands are necessary, that is to say an organization. What is the message that CONAIE can bring to the peasants and natives of Venezuela?

Blanca Chancoso: When we recall that the land is our mother, who covers us just like when we were inside her belly, that is, once one has managed to return the land to the hands of the peasants, must look for a form of producing collectively. As we say: “our mother must never be for sale.” She is the one who guarantees the life of the people. Today of her children, tomorrow of her grandchildren. It is also important to recover the ways of agriculture. Today, more than ever, it is the opportunity of our brothers and sisters in Venezuela to once again demonstrate this wisdom. It is necessary to exchange knowledge, wisdom, from one country to another, from one people to another. In Ecuador it has cost many lives to recover the land once again. It costs us much to find the political will to recognize that right. Venezuela at the moment is the only government of South America that has recognized the legitimacy of the indigenous peoples and their right to life, giving them the land, making them owners again and allowing them to thus improve the quality of life for everyone in the country.

TD: What are the key points of an agrarian reform process?

Blanca Chancoso: From the perspective of our convictions, and the experiences that we have lived through in Ecuador, we believe that for a process of agrarian reform to be more lasting, more realistic, it must respond to the needs of the people. The land reform is basic, but it must also be integrated, that is to say with credits, technical support, market access. Land generates work, but it also generates something more basic: food. Large landowners just produce for export. I believe that in a process like the one here it is necessary to generate production so as to assure the basic food needs of the people and at a different cost, of course: this is most important thing of all. Now along with that it is necessary to develop important policies such as of democratization, of citizen participation, to deepen the process of change and to make it lasting. Also important is training, education, inspired by the history of the people, by their identity. Not only educating readers who know numbers and letters, but who know how to add and to multiply in a way that benefits the country.

TD: In Ecuador they have found some way to get out of the mediatic invisibility?

Blanca Chancoso: It is difficult. There can be journalists who try to present information, but the mass media owners are not interested in spreading the word about our processes. When it interests them to discredit, they take recourse in red baiting. We say to the media that they should present information, objectively. Nevertheless they have not been able to silence us, have not been able to shut us up, because we have escaped the limitations of the local news and often there have been repercussions from international news, which they have not been able to shut up and which they had to present.

TD: A question for the Honduran Rafael Alegria. You quoted Morazán, who, just as Bolivar here, represented the dream of a unified Latin America. Morazán has already fallen of his horse; how would he imagine that this unification can be constructed today?

Rafael Alegria: Central America was a single homeland, a single country during the unionist time, under the thought of Francisco Morazán our hero, and logically later the divisions came, in the interests of the oligarchies, and the countries separated. But the integrationist thought remained, which the people and the social movements now take up with much force. For example, in the Central American civil initiative, the peasants are organized on a Central American level now; we have grassroots organizations at the level of Central America. And of course after Morazán came Farabundo Martí and Sandino, who are then linked with Bolivar at a continental level. For that reason I said that Morazán broke with the oligarchical power of the time, of the church, which was the truly large landed estate. He gave the impulse for processes of agrarian reform and Bolivar too spoke much about access to the land, of the just distribution of land to the peasants. There is thinking now at a continental level. The proposal of president Chávez seems to us interesting, who instead of speaking of the FTAA speaks of the ALBA, the Bolivarian Alternative of the Americas. It seems to us that this is correct and that it is framed within the ideas of these great heroes.

TD We could say then, Evo Morales, that after the hour of leaders [such as Bolívar and Morazán] has arrived the hour of the people?

Evo Morales: Nowadays the struggles in America are developed fundamentally in the social movements, from the feeling of the majorities, especially of the indigenous movements, the peasants of Latin America, on the basis of our natural resources. Because it is not possible that the transnational corporations completely take these over. Some States manage their own resources, but in many countries they have already lost their property, for example, of oil. All Latin American unity that is on the margin of social struggles must be developed in the context of the recovery of nonrenewable and renewable natural resources. Of course, legal or legitimate mechanisms exist that can unite Latin America. The Latin American parliament should develop this unity. But before governments act, who are generally dependent on the empire, on a model, or on a system, there should be a kind of law, a consultation of the people, so that the people have the right to decide their destiny, their future. That there would be a participative democracy and not simply a representative one, as there is in some States, and that through popular consultations the people define themselves on the margin of the parties, let’s say, and of the governments that depend on the empire. These consultations would have to be respected by the governments; these decisions of the people would be the base from which Latin America would become united in the medium term. Taking into account the recovery natural resources, if it is Bolivian, it is for the Bolivians, if it is Latin American it is for the Latin Americans.

TD: All of these experiences and schools of popular and participative power, which have developed all over this continent, how do they influence the political projects of today?

Rafael Alegria: The experiences at the level of the communities and of the municipalities as far as organization, qualification and also the handling of natural resources are impressive: the communitarian thought and the handling of local power have been strengthened. Logically this must be closely related to organization processes, of training, of participative culture, of the collective power of the municipalities and the people. But a great problem which we have in our countries is indeed the exclusion of the educational system at the official level. Illiteracy in our countries is enormous. Also, health problems are enormous. The problem of access to the land is enormous. For that reason, we as social movements, at a continental and international level, consider the education of peasants fundamental, and for that reason we have two schools. One of them is in Mexico, for Central America and the Caribbean, and the other school for training is in Brazil, for the rest of Latin America. We are engaged in conversations to install a training school in Venezuela. We are here also for that. I believe that the participation processes are irreversible and that the governments that are opposed to these movements are going against the historical processes that we the people are living through. For this reason I believe that we are going to advance and, as we say in Via Campesina, “the future belongs to us,” definitively.

Evo Morales: Look, the indigenous people never have had private property, but only collective, communal property, where the Land was cultivated jointly. Unfortunately they brought this idea to us of privatization, of titling, of the parcelization of land. In fact, in Bolivia we lived within the framework of solidarity and of reciprocity in the distribution of our wealth. The consequence of the agrarian reform in Bolivia of 1952 was the individualization of land. This ended with the “minifundio” [small landed estate]. On the other hand, our model, the ayllu, is based on the collectivity, on reciprocity and solidarity. It is necessary to return to thinking about how to work the land together. These are basic topics that are not going to be understood easily. I am convinced that in the face of international problems, such as the heating of the planet, as a result of an industrial model, we all have a right to development. But within this development the people definitively must respect the planet. Otherwise we are the ones in responsible for the destruction of the planet.

TD: What is the lesson that we should learn from the struggle of the Bolivians? 

Alex Contreras:  In Bolivia, land reform was passed exactly 51 years ago.  Gradually, the landowners have acquired the land that was handed over to the peasants.  I believe that it is important at this moment that our comrades from the country, the indigenous comrades, be able to integrate and deepen this process of agrarian reform in order to prevent the businessmen, the landowners, and their henchman take back their land.  The example of Bolivia shows that the peasants and indigenous people have occupied an ever-larger political space, even to the point of being able to form a government, and that the struggles of social movements and trade unions should be joined with the struggle for land.   

TD: What about the struggle of the Guatemalan people?   

Juan Tiney: I would say [that the most important lesson has been] the unity of the people.  If the people’s organization, the people’s resistance, is clear, no one can subjugate it.  Let me tell you first our experience as indigenous people and peasants in Guatemala, and as Mayans.  The people of Guatemala have been subjected to the cruelest trials in history.  We have said that when the peace treaty was signed in 1986 it ended 30 years of conflict, but we indigenous people have not only suffered the consequences of that war, but also the consequences of 500 years of subjugation.  For us indigenous people, no such peace has existed. Our rights have not been recognized, nor has our existence as a people.  The Constitution does not include the rights of indigenous peoples.  It is an exclusionary constitution that imposes the lifestyle of a minority of the population, given that we indigenous people make up 68 percent of the population.  We have always spoken in terms of 500 years of subjugation.   

They tell you about the Mayan ruins of Tikal, of Chichen Itza. For us they are not ruins, but rather destroyed cities.  Catholic Churches were built over Mayan temples.  This occupation has meant the deaths of millions and millions of our indigenous brothers throughout Central America.  In 1871 when revolution began in Guatemala, Rufino Barrios took our lands and gave them to the coffee barons-Venezuelans, Spaniards, and North Americans.  The indigenous people were made the slaves of the coffee barons.  Laws were passed that forced us to donate three or four months of our lives to the coffee plantations.  We have not had spaces in which to express our own voices.   

It was not until 1944 that a small democratic space opened, for the first time in history, allowing the organization of different sectors of society. More importantly, for the first time the law recognized the right of indigenous people to be paid for their labor and to have access to social security.  However, this did not last long because the agrarian reform of 1952 to 1954 provoked an acceleration of North American intervention, which, through the CIA, deposed the government of Jacobo Arbenz.  We indigenous people benefited from land reform and from the provision of various social services, but it all ended in 1954 when counterinsurgency programs directed against indigenous peoples began.   

In the 1980s, a policy of extermination was unleashed against us.  440 villages were reduced to ashes and our people were forced to form paramilitary patrols.  A revolutionary struggle for the transformation of our country was getting under way.  While our indigenous brothers did participate in the guerrilla movement, forcibly recruited indigenous youths also formed the base of the army.  Then came the mental work of our people, based on the North American Bible.  A tactic from Taiwan, from South Africa, from Israel, our country became a laboratory.  

But we want to say with pride that we were never subjugated.  In 1986, in the middle of an incredible siege by the army, we were able to reconstruct an indigenous and peasant organization-I participated in that and I say it with pride-in order to demand our labor rights, our land rights, even if it cost us many lives.  

TD: Was the organization of the communities in resistance important? 

Juan Tiney: Yes: Resistance means that they had to travel in the mountains without clothing, without food, eating roots, leaves, animals.  To live a decade in resistance is not an easy thing.  I am not talking about a century ago, but rather a decade ago.   

The peace accord did not listen sufficiently to the people, their demands.  However, today we are enriching the content of those accords.  We do not have the support of the government, but there we are, and we are organizing.  Our relationship with the land is not like that of the landowners, who don’t care about the destruction of these lands, with their intensive production and their chemicals.  What we look for from mother earth, before we cut her face, we ask permission, we ask forgiveness, because we need food to stay alive, not to destroy her.  These are very important elements of the Maya vision.  Cutting trees-our communities don’t have electricity and use wood as fuel, but we collect only dead trees.  We have everything, we have doctors, therapists that have not attended big universities, yet there is the essence of our people, there we have our comadronas.  We have to leave space for them.  They are part of our struggle.  We think that the life of our people cannot be converted into commerce, but into the development of humanity.   

TD: For you, as organized indigenous communities, with all this experience of struggle, what does the “participatory and active democracy” that is being developed here in Venezuela mean?   

Juan Tiney: the word democracy has been prostituted.  It has been used for the benefit of the few.  The landowners talk about democracy.  Everyone talks about democracy.  But no one considers the majority of the people or the culture of indigenous people.  In our communities no one talks about democracy but everyone practices democracy.  The moment that a neighbor, a relative or a brother gets sick, if someone has an accident, if someone dies, he or she can count on help from everyone.  Electricity, clothing, food, whatever the problem, it is the community that resolves it.  This is participation. But we have not had participation in other levels of decision-making.  

If the government here in Venezuela talks about participatory democracy, it is an offer that is being made and that we see with the participation of this people.  We believe that it is important that we the people know how to use participatory democracy, not only through physical presence, but with the ability to make proposals.  You have to build the future.  You have to build a project.  Many times we want to show up and participate in activities, but if we don’t have proposals as a people, we don’t have a future as a people.  It should be worked on from all the different structures of the communities to say to the government: “Here is our proposal”. We support this proposal.  This is our responsibility.   

Venezuela is going through a historic time by opening those doors to the people.  This assumes that we must free ourselves from many constraints, lies of the past, and be clear as a people.  

TD: What are the principal lessons from Brazil? 

Egidio Brunetto: In January we are going to celebrate 20 years of work of the Landless Workers Movement.  In 20 years we have taken over more than 3,000 haciendas.  Already over 400,000 families have received land.  The principle lessons of this experience are, first, that the people must be the owners of their own history.  In addition, the principle of autonomy for the peasant organizations is very important from an organizational and political point of view. And of course, dealing with a state that supports the peasants, it is important to coordinate proposals.  It is also very important to have a movement of permanent struggle, so that people can learn through the process of struggle.    

It must be a highly collective movement.  We cannot permit that two or three leaders do everything, because that is how the organization will be destroyed.  At all times, decisions must be made collectively, so that everyone takes responsibility for their implementation.  For us, the organizational process is the important part.  To be organized in small groups allows discussion, proposals, and the power to control the organic policies of the organization.   

Another important aspect is the policy of capacity building.  There is no alternative without social and political conscience.  We cannot be merely an economic and demand-making movement.  This struggle is fundamental, but the struggle to change the political model is fundamental as well, and this can only be acquired through a process of political capacity building.  The struggle against neoliberalism, against imperialism, against the mechanisms of the WTO and the IMF are very important.   

Blanca Chancoso: Together with these policies a definition of national sovereignty is important and necessary.  It is fine that governments open the doors of solidarity between governments, but defending their own interests, with respect.   

Many governments begin by relating to each other, but end up following the policies of the International Monetary Fund, the multilateral policies that go against their own countries.  It is important to relate to each other, to look for allies in order to be able to act in multilateral institutions.  This solidarity is necessary.  

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