Maria Fernanda Vallejo is on the Board of GRAIN. She is an anthropologist who has been working for more than ten years with peasants’ and indigenous peoples’ organisations in the Sierra Central in Ecuador.
One problem that we face today in the struggle for rights is that the conflict takes place within a political and legal structure controlled by the hegemonic neo-liberal state. So within the conflict it is never possible to question the legitimacy of this structure, because, even when the powerful are pushed on to the defensive and are forced to recognise rights, they still control the parameters within which the struggle occurs. I am not saying that it is wrong to struggle for rights within a determined power structure, because this can be a way of accumulating experience and strength, but this is not an arena where one will really win rights. Real rights have to be exercised; they have to be lived.
I see the demand for rights as a tool, or part of the road along which communities learn to exercise autonomy, to form alliances and to change the relations of force. Gaining awareness is of fundamental importance, because this makes it possible for you to identify the space where you can resist. It allows you to exercise certain minimum rights, even knowing that you will never be able to realise them fully. For example, you can refuse GM crops, or refuse to produce cash crops for the market, or to give up subsistence agriculture. And these small victories can become tools in the development of new demands and the exercise of new rights. For example, the International Labour Organisation convention delivers very little in terms of collective rights for indigenous groups but, by taking advantage of these limited rights, indigenous groups can conquer more space.
But the important point is that real rights cannot be exercised without a transformation in the structure of power. This is especially clear with respect to social and economic rights. The structures of power allow you to exercise certain cultural rights, which are not seen as a threat, but they do not allow you to exercise economic rights that could be used to challenge their power.
Transforming structures of power
The big question is how to accumulate rights so that they begin to transform the structures of power. Clearly this has to be achieved through popular struggle, which is built collectively by social movements. And to ensure that social movements are not co-opted by the powerful, one has to pay close attention to ethics and values. One has to take great care with the political training of leaders within social movements. Co-option isn’t new. There are thousands of forms of co-option. If one doesn’t build a very solid ethical foundation, it is very easy for an organisation to collapse. For example, here in Ecuador it is going to take a long time to rebuild our ethical foundation after part of our movement was co-opted. That we were co-opted should come as no surprise, because the powerful are always setting traps for social movements. If there is a dispute over institutional powers, it is very easy to get tied up in a debate over roles, whether or not one should participate in this or that, when in fact the participation doesn’t add up to very much at all. It seems to be important to people at the time but that is because they have lost their perspective.
For example, in the 1990s the indigenous groups won a very important demand – the creation of territorial districts. They saw it as a way of being able to exercise collective rights and to practise a kind of communitarian socialism. But after ten years it has become clear that the balance of power didn’t allow indigenous groups to achieve real autonomy in the administration of their territories and, as a result, they watered down their demands. They made so many concessions that today they are concerned only to win a plot of land, not to manage their own territory. Today we have a paradoxical situation: the Quechua people will have to go back to their original demand for a totally new way of administering territory, both at the national and indigenous level – a demand they thought they had won – if they are going to be in a position to achieve real agrarian reform and guarantee a future for their children. If they had not relinquished their original demand, this struggle could have been really powerful by now.
Using rights to think differently
But this is only one aspect of the problem. The other part is how you think. If in these ten years, instead of becoming bureaucrats or candidates in local elections, the indigenous leaders had trained cadres to develop processes in which people could think about how to construct their own territory and turn it into something that could have been used to realise a collective dream, then the struggle would have advanced much further. It is possible that by now they would have been much closer to administering their own territories.
Another example is the struggle for bilingual education. This is seen as a great victory, for indigenous people won the right to be taught in their own language (alongside Spanish). Today bilingual education has its own statutes and its own budget. This has led to real advances: young people are no longer suffering the discrimination and maltreatment they did in the past. But ten years on, many young indigenous men want to become military policemen! The powerful have used bilingual education to produce agents in the repressive apparatus that will be used against the social movements. In itself, bilingual education was a real advance, but we did not pay enough attention to the political content of the teaching, so the project became totally distorted.
Rights and the grassroots
At one time our movement here in Ecuador was strong enough to gain the initiative, but as we achieved this victory without developing a clear strategy beforehand, a significant part of the movement gave up the idea of transforming the structures of power and settled instead for gaining a voice among the powerful. So, instead of us overthrowing the powerful, the powerful used the situation to forge a sophisticated and perverse mechanism for controlling the movement. They reproduced an old tactic for maintaining control – putting in charge a man chosen from among the people. And today these new agents of the ruling class not only enjoy huge power, but they have also imposed the idea that they have to “defend the space they have won for the people” among the powerful. It is a difficult situation because, although people at the grassroots despise these agents, they are dominated by them. A new system of patronage has been created, which is supported by various development agencies.
However, I think that we have a great capacity to fight back. Many people who practise subsistence agriculture or have been evicted from their land or are fighting the takeover of their land by national or transnational companies are resisting. Once we manage to recreate our own perspective and reject the idea that the only way forward is through negotiation, then we can rebuild political awareness, and advance. We can talk then about new alliances, such as between the towns and the countryside, which was something that we almost achieved in the past, though it wasn’t consolidated.