“Close to the fire are a retired 80 year-old watchmaker, a public worker, an engineer, a walnut producer, a teacher, a retired policeman, and a housewife. They are part of a big net of citizens’ assemblies, those strange horizontal organizations without bosses, without leaders, without political parties, which are open to any member of the community. They hold the blockade during the night…and the blockade will continue until the definitive removal of the company. How did it happen? How, in less than one year, did these assemblies seem to be close to changing history?”
In 2007 and again in 2012, members of the Union of Citizens Assemblies in La Rioja, in the north of Argentina, prevented the strip mining of a mountain called La Famatina by international mining corporations. People from neighboring towns and villages blockaded the roads in order to prevent the passage of the companies’ mining trucks.
The first company to withdraw was Barrick Gold, then Shandong Gold and finally the Osisko Mining Corporation. But these victories represent only a few of the many other struggles that are taking place in Argentina, from the far south in Patagonia, up and down the Andean Cordillera, and on to the border with Uruguay. In the province of Cordoba, for example, a similar movement prevented the establishment of what would have been the world’s largest Monsanto corn seed treatment plant by occupying the construction site.
People are occupying other sites like this one, refusing to allow their children to be contaminated by crop spray and other contaminants applied to the earth, organizing against the purchase of huge plots of land by corporations for future private exploitation and preventing the damming up of water sources. In the process, they are also transforming their relationships with one another, to themselves, and with their communities by creating different ways of being, living and surviving together.
In La Rioja, those involved in the movement say that “the struggle to defend La Famatina is forever.” What began as a defense of the mountain, earth and water has evolved into a new space of creation. On the road blockades, for example, people are organizing to bring food, cook together, arrange medical support, and entertain themselves through music, dance and storytelling.
These are battles in which time is of the essence. La Rioja, Cordoba and other movements in Argentina are showing, not only how to defend what they have, but also how to transform it together in order to create new ‘commons’ – new spaces that are held and used collectively.
At the heart of all this activity is the assembly. People in each town and village organize regular open assemblies in their squares and plazas where anyone can speak and be heard. They don’t organize by exerting power over one another, but in horizontal ways so that each person is valued equally for what they have to share. It is in these directly-participatory spaces that people make their decisions – in this case to blockade the mining companies and organize support structures to defend the blockades.
But the movements go much deeper than this. Personal transformation has become one of the most important aspects of the political changes that are taking place. The political is made personal, and the personal is made political in return. For example, people not only feel more confident in their newly-found role as political actors in their lives, but this newfound confidence also affects their relationships to their communities. People take more interest in, and care of, one another, and build more trust and affect. As a result, the community itself is changing.
In turn, these changes in individual feelings and relationships are reflected in the growth of concrete new projects: people want to recreate their communities – and society as a whole – collectively, based in this newfound sense of dignity, sharing and self-confidence. As people begin to place more trust in one another, and to really listen and hear each other’s voices, their desire to work together is strengthened. The process of transformation spirals upwards and outwards around these personal and political interactions.
Often lead by women and young people, this form of organizing lies at the heart of the movements that have taken off in Latin America over the last 15 years, and more recently in the global North with Occupy and the movements of the squares. The common denominator of these diverse movements is that they focus, not only the concrete actions that are planned like demonstrations and blockades, but on how those involved are feeling and developing as a result. Making sure everyone is able to participate, and supporting them to reflect on how they are changing as part of the struggle, are equally important goals.
In many of these struggles people have begun to create autonomous, self-organized projects that help to sustain their individual and collective survival. In the town of Malvinas, for example, where the blockade of the Monsanto plant took place, people organized an organic food garden only one month after the encampment was founded. They built a clay oven for baking bread, and constructed adobe walls to protect them from the elements. As Raul Zibechi describes it:
“It is in the small groups where ingenuity usually flourishes, and within their breasts that new forms of…political culture and protest methods are born. This is where community ties and strong ties between people can be born, which are so necessary for deepening the struggle.”
Corrientes, a region of Argentina approximately 1,000 kilometers from Buenos Aires, is an area that is still predominately indigenous, where Guarani is the co-official language with Spanish. Here, the assemblies decided not only to defend their land from mining and land grabs, but also to create a range of micro-projects to sustain themselves and their communities as a way of protecting the earth and surviving without corporations.
“What is common to the entire organization is the defense of the territory, confronting the advancement of extractive companies that want to plunder, and building autonomy with our own self-managed projects that we call sustainable alternatives, which are reflected in our new cooperatives.
For example, in the rural zone of Lavalle those families who suffered contamination from fumigation are producing organic food and flowers together and then selling them in the popular markets and fairs. Others are producing bricks from the Paraná River. In Yahaveré, an impoverished rural zone, the indigenous Guaraníes have organized an autonomous community and decided in their assembly to produce beef in harmony with the environment.
In other localities, such as Chavarría, San Miguel and Concepción, they are organizing tourism collectively, in a way that respects the dignity of the communities and serves to share what has been happening with the local struggles. These tourism groups also plan to show others how to help take care of nature. The economic form of organization is cooperative, and the decisions are all made horizontally in assemblies.”
Increasingly these new relationships are networking with one another, creating an ever greater potential for regional and national change under a “Union of Citizen Assemblies” or UAC. Emilio continues:
“The National UAC holds meetings twice a year in different parts of the country where they meet citizens’ assemblies, social movements, groups of artists, feminists, and environmentalists from all around the country to discuss the problems of the advance of multinationals, and our resistance.
The UAC is divided into regions, and we are in the coastal region so we also have several meetings during the year, and there we meet with social organizations and citizens’ assemblies to discuss specific issues in our region. That is a very important speaking space for us; it is not the only one, but it is the one we are ideologically and politically closer to, and feel more identified with – their history of struggle and [their insistence on] horizontalism and absolute independence from NGOs, political parties and states. The UAC is very sharp in the sense of being completely horizontal and independent.
“The tools we use are forged according to the necessity of the struggle. I think the assembly as a method – building consensus, constructing horizontally and maintaining the struggle’s autonomy – are things that cannot easily be erased.”
Photo credit: La Famantina no se toca facebook page.