“Organizadas Somos Fortes” – Organised we are powerful. Reflections from the landless movement in Brazil.

“This dance is not mine alone, this dance is by us all” – they move as one circle, hand in hand. Then, still as one circle, they put their arms around each other – “when we are tired, we have each other’s shoulders to rest on.”

The women proudly show us the fruits of their labour: coconuts turned into oil, soap, flour and more; a cooperative factory that processes the goods so that they don’t need to rely on middlemen; a small farm with a vegetable patch, a fish pond and a chicken coop. And they talk of the victories won in the face of entrenched power.

“The richest man in this area claimed that all this land was his. He was also the area’s politician. He had the money power and the political power. The family have been powerful for hundreds of years. Police and gunmen kept harassing us. They told us to leave but we had nowhere else to go. I remember the sound of the six bullets.”

But they do not want to dwell on the pain. When a conversation turns to those who died, one woman interjects “but if we keep on telling all these sad stories we could go on for days. What do we need to do now?”

There has been real progress: those landless workers who collect coconuts from the forests and from the big estates successfully campaigned for a law that protects their right to do so; some communities have secured recognition for the small pieces of land on which they live and farm; the cooperatives have secured from the government a guaranteed minimum price for key products so that they can be assured of a minimum income; in several districts the groups have secured free, public, pre-school for small children and won access to water and sanitation.

All are clear how these victories were won. “Individually we coconut-breakers are small. But when we organised we became visible. We said ‘look at us, listen.’” “Everything we have achieved has been through the strength of our friendship.” “We got together in our community, then we linked with communities across the region. We went and got support from the trade unions, from the Catholic Church, and from the wider public. We started an association and kept pressing for our rights to earn a living and live in dignity.”

They are clear that they cannot rely on the good will of politicians. When the local establishment politician was replaced by his daughter, “it made no difference that she was a woman. She was her father’s daughter. He lived on through her.” There is a recognition that the national government of Lula, whose party emerged from the social movements and which brought several leaders of the social movement into power, introduced substantial reforms and was the best government they have known. Unemployment was reduced, the minimum wage increased, and inequality went down. But, they say, “we made a mistake of thinking when the good people got into power we didn’t need to keep pressuring them. It’s like we went to sleep. Whoever is in power we need to keep pushing.” “Yes,” says a coconut breaker, “things are better, but now, when we try to enter the coconut forests to which we have the right of access, the big landlords, who used to kill us with dogs and guns, kill us with electric fences instead.” “Yes,” agrees a peasant farmer, “we have managed to stay on our farm, but we are still denied water. We want more than to live, we want to live with dignity.” There is a worry that the Dilma government, which pledged to continue the progress of Lula has instead, under pressure from big corporations and landlords, started to roll back. “They have stopped listening to us. Government listens to the rich and big companies. Not to us, the poor, Indians, blacks, women. We have to struggle.”

They share, none the less, a profound sense that their struggle will ultimately win. Discussions regularly burst into song. “Even though it is dark, I sing, for the morning will come.” In one community facing eviction we meet in the one-room clay and straw building they built as their church, their school, the headquarters of their association, and their village meeting hall. They call the building “Our Lady of Good Hope.”

“We are strong. My grandfather escaped from slavery with his friends. And I have secured my piece of land with you, my friends. But we cannot just wait. We need to demand.”

At a special event of the landless movements, Deje, a coconut breaker, is seated next to a government official who apologises for having arrived late and for needing to leave early. Deje stands up and directly addresses him in front of the crowd. Brazilian Portuguese has such a sweet melody that to the English ear everything I’ve heard, whatever the content, has sounded gentle. Until now. She points her finger at his face. “Whenever we try to meet government they fail to see us. Whenever we write to government they fail to reply.” She pulls out a piece a paper. “We have a letter for you. I’m going to read it to you.” It begins: “We landless demand our right to fetch coconuts unharassed by landowners…” Then the coup de grace: “Now, you cannot leave until you to sign it. We need you to sign it right now.” And he does. Then he thanks her. “We know that all progress depends on the social movements. We need to work with you.”

We’ve just witnessed a lesson in courage, in democracy, and in power. It is the same lesson we learnt in the dance. And that we read on the T-shirt of one of the landless women workers: “Organizadas Somos Fortes” – Organised we are powerful.

The Post-2015 Agenda: 3 thoughts on Latin America, and 1 on the Caribbean

Late last week, New York University’s Center on International Cooperation published A Laboratory for Sustainable Development? Latin America, the Caribbean and the Post-2015 Development Agenda, a report that I co-authored with my CIC colleague, Alejandra Kubitschek-Bujones.

It was commissioned as an input to a retreat for Ambassadors from the Group of Latin American and Caribbean Countries in the United Nations, their negotiators from capitals, and representatives from the UN in the region, along with its companion piece What Happens Now? Taking the Post-2015 Agenda to the Next Stage

While Alejandra is an expert on the region, I am not. So here’s an outsider’s perspective, based on a series of interviews with people from the region who are immersed in the post-2015 agenda, and others who see it within a broader geopolitical context.

1. Latin America has exerted disproportionate influence in the early stages of the post-2015 debate and could play a decisive role over the next two years.

In the run up to Rio+20, Colombia and Guatemala published a joint proposal that put sustainable development goals on the international agenda.  This is a classic example of how countries can drive global policy by articulating ‘big picture’ concepts in a format that creates broad debate. As host of Rio+20, meanwhile, Brazil played an important role in shaping the SDGs, while the current President of the General Assembly is from the region.

Over the next two years, Latin American countries will be the swing vote on many key issues. Whether they drive progress, or hold it back, will have a significant impact on whether or not the UN agrees a worthy replacement to the MDGs.

2. Latin American countries will be most influential if they build on their experiences as ‘laboratories for sustainable development.’

We pretend it’s not – but, at its worst, the post-2015 debate, and sustainable development more generally, is mind-numbingly formulaic and abstract, a tedious litany of phrases intoned by negotiators and various hangers on.

What was striking, talking to Latin American governments, is that many of them have strongly held beliefs about how development should be done differently – in the real world, and at a scale that makes a difference to the lives of large numbers of people. Coming from Europe, where governments are fiddling around the edges and hoping things will get better in a decade’s time, it’s very refreshing to hear Latin America countries argue about which of the many models that coexist in the region has most to offer its people.

By drawing on this diverse and innovative track record, the region’s governments and leaders from civil society and business have a real chance to push the new agenda away from empty language and towards a debate about the concrete policies that are needed at a time when prevailing assumptions about how the global economy works are widely discredited.

3. But the region cannot continue trying to push critical issues to the side of the negotiations.

Most Latin American countries are engaged in a struggle to build the institutions and social structures they need if they are to meet the long-term needs of predominantly urban and increasingly prosperous populations.

But many of its citizens live in conditions of chronic insecurity. Mexico has fewer people than Japan, but while the latter has around 500 murders a year, over 27,000 Mexicans were killed in 2011. You’re ten times more likely to be murdered in Nigeria than the UK, but seventy-six times more likely to be murdered in Honduras! Human security and a broader set of questions of how to build institutions that offer citizens justice and fairness are fundamental to Latin America’s future. There is also an inescapable transboundary dimension, given the role played by organized crime in driving violence and, once again, a ‘laboratory’ of innovative responses, especially in some of the more forward thinking cities.

These issues make some of the region’s governments feel uncomfortable (though others are calling loudly for a post-2015 focus on security and governance challenges), but it’s surely better for the region as a whole to get ahead of this agenda, rather than get stuck in a defensive posture.

4. Caribbean countries could keep the world’s eyes focused on the environment.

The UN is so determined to show that sustainable development is about more than the environment that there’s a good chance the new goals will be heavily skewed away from core environmental challenges.

This is especially problematic for the island states of the Caribbean, which face existential threats from climate change. These countries, along with other small island states, have long been highly influential in the climate process, but are now gearing up to try and make sure the post-2015 framework makes a contribution to environmental sustainability that goes beyond the usual pieties. This is no easy task and will require visionary thinking about what kinds of global goal have the potential to drive change in a way that adds to what is already going on in the international system.

Many of the issues discussed in the paper, as well as the points made above, apply across the Latin American and Caribbean region. However, I believe that Caribbean countries have a unique opportunity to push for a strong – and tangible – regional position on the environment, and then to advocate for it globally. They can also help answer the question of how the post-2015 and current climate negotiations should interact, given that both these processes are intended to finally be agreed at summits for leaders at the end of the same year.

Read the whole paper here.

Not just about a 20 cent bus fare rise

From a protestor on the ground in Brazil:

Brazil is living through a special moment today, it’s true. Some well-applied political programs over the last decade have brought impressive results: economic inequality — a real cancer of which Brazil was practically world champion — has been reduced notably. The Bolsa Família program has had much success to reduce poverty and the investments in higher education for the poor as well as for ethnic minorities have shown encouraging results.

This is not about questioning the things that have worked well. These experiences of the last 10 years under the administration of the PT (Partido dos Trabalhadores, or Workers’ Party) must be protected and expanded if one wants to create a more just society, with less poverty and exploitation from the forces of the past, like the feudal lords from the Sarney family. This is not just about protesting against the government of the PT, against the President Dilma, or against Geraldo Alckmin, Fernando Haddad or Eduardo Paes. This is about freeing the country from its authoritarian, dictatorial, and cruel heritage.

If, at the end of these protests, the political class of Brazil — a class for itself more than any other — and its army of capitalist crétins who enrich themselves not through work but thanks to their personal connections, its journalists who prostitute themselves in the interest of an elite, its policemen who kill without hesitation, if all these oppressors are removed from power and forced to recognize that an era of real democracy has arrived, then I will be very happy to pay 20 cents more for my bus rides.

Brazil – can she be everybody’s friend?

Brazil’s diplomats must be quietly pleased with their week’s work.

Last weekend, the country’s President, Dilma Rousseff, fresh from being named the world’s second most powerful woman (after Chancellor Merkel of Germany) by Forbes magazine, was one of the guests of honour at the 50th anniversary summit of the African Union in Ethiopia. A few days later she was playing host to the American Vice-President, Joe Biden, who confirmed Ms Rousseff has been invited to Washington on a state visit in October.

This one week in President Rousseff’s diary demonstrates something significant that has changed without much coverage in the western media – the unique role Brazil has been carving out for itself in world affairs. Brasilia sees itself as the emerging power  that’s uniquely placed to be the intermediary between the established powers in the global North and the global South.

So far, Brazil has played this role with some success in international trade talks and climate change negotiations, but has had less success persuading other countries to support its bid for a permanent seat on a reformed UN Security Council or its ill-fated attempt – along with Turkey – in 2010 to broker a deal between Iran and the West over Tehran’s nuclear programme.

What lies behind this ambition? Continue reading

It’s the apocalypse! Bring your own lunch…

Here is a tempting invite from the UN Department of Public Information…

The Secretariat of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues

is pleased to invite you to


“The Mayan Cosmovision: Is 2012 the end of the world?”


Wednesday, 24 October


1:30 pm


Room S-2726, 27th floor, Secretariat Building, UN Headquarters


After offering their blessings for the new offices of the Secretariat of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, the Mayan Elders of the K’iche’ Mayoral of Santo Tomas de Chichicastenango, Guatemala (Maya-Quiche Empire), will share their message with the UN community.


According to the Maya, all aspects of life are governed by the movement of the heavens. Thousands of years ago, Mayan astronomers foresaw in 2012 a unique alignment of the cosmos which occurs only once every 64,000 years. The Maya identified this new cycle as a monumental transition and an opportunity to realign priorities based on the principles of love, gratitude, care and respect for both humanity and our environment.


Please bring your own lunch!

Great NGO moments, part 394

A particularly special moment in NGO campaigns strategy yesterday, for connoisseurs of the genre: Jubilee Debt Campaign arguing that Britain should forgive £45 million in loans to Argentina’s former military junta, despite the fact that the loans were used to buy weapons (including two type 42 destroyers and two Lynx helicopters) that were subsequently used to, er, invade the Falklands.

Yes, yes, Jubilee is attempting to make a serious point here (i.e. that debt lent to dictators should be regarded as illegitimate and odious, especially when tied to British arms sales), the point is not limited to Argentina (e.g. they mount a similar argument about loans to Hosni Mubarak’s fallen regime in Egypt), and Britain emerges looking pretty stupid on the question of whom to sell arms to (so what else is new).

But even so: to be out there arguing for debt forgiveness for Argentina, for weapons used to invade the Falklands, on the 30th anniversary of said invasion, when Argentina’s current government is rattling sabres about the Falklands all over again – that, my friends, is what is called “brave” in episodes of Yes, Minister.

The results of this courageous stand:

– Business Secretary Vince Cable, realising that Christmas has come early, has enthusiastically embraced the opportunity to say that no, he will not be forgiving Argentina’s debt;

– The story has gone massively viral (it’s currently 3rd most read on the Telegraph website) as the nation digests how satisfying it is to be able to jerk Argentina’s chain back for a change, after months of trouble-stirring by Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner;

– And Jubilee, meanwhile, have ended up looking like utterly bonkers lefties, with debt relief (and, by extension, aid and 0.7) now associated in the public mind not with Africa, but with Argentina - not merely a middle rather than low income country, but the one middle income country actually to have invaded us within living memory.

It’s not immediately clear how Jubilee could possibly top a public relations coup of this magnitude, short of arguing for debt forgiveness for, like, Greece or something. Oh, wait…