Environmentalists and rubber tappers

Tord Björk | CNS,Environmental movements,Latin American movements | Monday, January 19th, 2009

Ecological and folkore festival in Purranque in Southern Chile 1991

1989-1992 I visited the environmental movement in all of Cono Sur from Southern Chile to the innermost of Amazonia. It started in 1989. Walter Moreira and Waldemar Schettini were two political refugees from Uruguay that became active in Alternativ Stad – Alternative City, the local environmental group in Stockholm. With their interest in strengthening the social activities of the group and their broad political perspectives they contributed to the internationalisation of the activities of Alternativ Stad. By the end of the 1980s this resulted in that activists from Alternativ Stad started to travel to Uruguay to exchange experience and organising small scale solidarity efforts to support local envrionmental groups. In 1989 I travelled for the first time to visit DEMAVAL, Defensa de Meio Ambiente do Colonia Valdense and participate in the first Latin American ecological conference in Montevideo.

Ecological summer school in Santiago de Chile organised by Red Nacional de Ecologia, RENACE and Instituto de Ecologia Politica

In 1991 I together with Charlotte von Essen made a longer tour visiting all together 25 local environmental groups in Argentina, Brazil, Chile and Uruguay. With the exception of Rio Branco in the Brazilian state of Para bordering Bolivia and Peru there were local environmental groups everywhere to a large degree working very similar to the local environmental groups in Europe. They were fighting pollution from local industries, promoting schemes for collection of garbage, making plans for local envrionmental friendly development, struggling against acidification and organizing lectures on the ozone layer and how to protect oneself against the sun as we were close to the South pole.

At the head quarters of the rubber tappers in Rio Branco discussing cooperation projects with Julio Barbosa, leader of CNS after Chico Mendes

In Rio Branco it was instead the rubber tappers Consejo Nacional dos Seringerious that had the same function as the envrionmental groups in the rest of Cono Sur closely allied to the main trade union CUT that was dominated by rural workers. The rubber tappers defended the rain forest and opposed larger development schemes when the ecological effects went against the interests of people living in a unstainable way in the forest. The rubber tapper leader Chico Mendes that had done so much for building alliances with the Indians and other important but often oppressed groups in the Brazilian society as well as with the international environmental movement had been murdered two years earlier. But others carried on his work.

Visiting ecological project in Valparaiso at the Pacific

The core of the building of an international movement in Latin America had been the antinuclear struggle. For many days people travelled by bus all over the continent to international meetings to discuss and organise antinuclear activities. In Latin America the struggle was completly combined against both nuclear power and nuclear weapons and not as in Europe often kept separate. In Brasil, Argentina and other Latin American countries nuclear power was an entirely military project considered as a military secret with not very hidden nuclear weapon ambitions linked to it.

Founder of the environmental movement in Sao Paulo at APEDEMA-SP meeting in 1991. He alone demonstrated against air pollution in 1973, a protest that became an example to many more

Later more well funded activities on environmental issues brought people together but also separated them. It was on my first trip to Latin America were I for the first time were made conscious about a clear difference between popular movements and non-governmental organizations, NGOs. Ecoturistas was the concept used by activists in DEMAVAL for the NGO representatives from Montevideo. These NGOs were often funded by international grants for which they were accountable. The experience of DEMAVAL was that these NGOs competed in organizing national meetings for environmentally interested groups and persons. Regularly this meant that the local environmental groups had to pay out of their own pocket their costs for participation, when they arrived much was already set and when the meeting came to an end the NGO from the capital announced that they would be responsible for the follow-up. Thus it became impossible to build a democratic movement accountable to the members and local grousp all over the country. Instead a pattern developed of professional NGOs in the capital often built on professional dominance and self-selected steering committes that were dependent on the conjuntures on the funding market. The local environmental groups becames a decoration in the marginal with the role of being objects of different NGO projects without being able to democraticall influence these activities and even more probelmatioc not being able to democratically adress the issue of how to prioritise among the many different issues which a movement have to try to democratically adress in its overall aspects.

Meeting in Sao Paulo in 1991 preparing social movement and NGO participation at UNCED were the conflicts between movement activists and NGOs were evident

This became evident in the preparations for the UN Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in Rio de Janeiro 1992 which was in its preparations during the tours we made to Latin America. The strongest networks of local environmental groups were coalitions at the state level in Brazil called Assemblea Permantente de Meio Ambiente, APEDEMA. The strongest were in Sao Paulo with some 110 members and in Rio de Janeiro with some 80 members. APEDEMA-RJ and APEDEMA-SP became the core of the efforts to make the alternative activities at UNCED more democratic and without influence from local business. They both won and lost this battle which in the end became a way for Brazilian NGOs as IBASE to strengthen their professional dominance of the popular movements. According the information I had when I analysed and compared the popualr movement and NGO participation at the first UN conference on the environment in Stockholm 1972 and the second in Rio 1992 APEDEMA-RJ ceased to exist after the Rio conference. Among the APEDEMA activists there was great diappointment of the lack of interests among the 20 000 visitors coming from NGO and social movements to the alternative actvities at UNCED. They had hoped to meet thousands of interest environmental activists but noone seemed interested in their experience. But according to the information I get now APEDEMA-RJ is still alive and kicking but APEDEMA-SP has been passive for some time although discussions now in January is taking place to discuss restart the network again.

Travel gallery from 1991

Los Andes at Mendoza on the way to Chile

In a contaminated suburb of Santiago de Chile together with local activist and Thijs de la Cour

Tired travellers helping each other on their way back through thousands of miles of Pampas

Together with local environmental activists, you guess where – yes of course tango in Buenos Aires

Meeting with the local group in Sao Leopaldo UPAN in Rio Grande do Sul the state were Brazilian modern envrionmentalism was born and popualr movement cooperation have been so strong for decades producing such results as the birth of Moviemnto Sem Terra and World Social Forum

Carlos Avelline from UPAN

Friends of the Earth Brazilian headquarters in Porto Alegre with Ben Hur and other activists

Ecological seminar in Porto Alegre

The center of the political capital Brasilia with motor ways at three levels and huge shopping centers and nowhere for pedestrians or a lively city life

The trade union headquarters in Rio Branco

Trade union party in Rio Branco

Concert to support Amazonia in Sao Paulo with Gilberto Gill

Silvia in Sao Paulo were I was staying. In the 1960s she was raised in the working class quarters in the middle of the huge city and they did not look the door when they went out at night. In 1991 Sao Paulo was filled with gated communities for the rich and a lot of violence in the city center. By good luck and some precaution I did not loose my wallet when a picket pocketer searched my front pockets from the back. Violnece has with other words nothing to do with big cities, it is the social order that creates the problem which became endemic during the military dictatorship that started in 1964 and became worse in the 1970s.

View from the social movement and NGO preparatory meeting for UNCED in Sao Paulo

Capobianco from SOS Mata Atlantica

Rubens Born, environmental activist who opened his home for me in Sao Paulo

APEDEMA-SP meeting

APEDEMA-SP newspaper promoter

APEDEMA-SP activist

Visiting the local APEDMA-SP group i Piricicaba and one of the activists testing honey, a former railway worker and bee keeper

Finally going into the forest and the nature we want to protect

Finally going into the water we all want to enjoy