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Gathering of Kindred Folk Re-imagining Higher Education!

Gathering of Kindred Folk Re-imagining Higher Education!

Posted by on Aug 12, 2015 in all posts, on the road | 0 comments

As you may be are aware, there is a knowledge movement slowly building all over the world, an emerging network of lets call them Eco-versities for now – of people and communities reclaiming their local knowledge systems and imaginations to restore and re-envision learning processes that are meaningful and relevant to the call of our times, that cultivate new stories and possibilities, that re-connect and regenerate diverse ecological and cultural ecosystems.

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From the start of our adventures in this landscape of these diverse ecologies of knowledges focusing on Higher Education emerging around the world we dreamt: – what if these places could share their experiences, knowledges, their learning approaches amongst and between themselves and strengthen the beautiful and important work they are all doing?! What even more wondrous and powerful transformations could occur! As we visited places across different countries, as well as writing and making films, we took on ourselves the role of traveling story-tellers – telling stories to people we met of the other places we had visited and what they had been doing. Some links between places started to emerge through this as people and places begun to hear more about each others’ work.

Now that our physical journey to many of these places has come to a rest, as well as carrying on writing and editing the films, we have put our energy into that original dream.

We are really excited to have co-created with Manish Jain from Swaraj University (Udaipur, India) a Gathering of Kindred Folk Re-imagining Higher Education! This ‘Re-Imagining Higher Education’ event will gather more than 50 other leading visionary-doers and thinkers from more than 20 countries at Tamera Peace and Research Centre, an eco-village in southern Portugal this August (from the 20th – 26th).

We are gathering this group from a variety of learning places around the world – to share experiences, wisdom, insights and challenges to learn about how transformative learning is being imagined and enacted in each place. Our primary focus is to bring together people who are hosting or who are deeply involved with ‘alternative’ or ‘post-traditional’ places of higher education, or who are somehow re-imagining higher education in their work. Many of these have emerged from different social movements, ecological movements and indigenous communities.

During the six days we will spend together in Portugal we will host an interactive process through a structured un-conference format where there will be a lot of time for sharing and co-creating with self-organizing sessions and open-spaces. Our intention is to co-create a gathering that can propel this movement forward, where stories are shared, creative sparks fly, and friendships and alliances are woven. We hope to be able to explore common emerging themes such as sustainability and social justice; unlearning and decolonizing; indigenous ways of knowing; healing; gift culture; re-engaging community, nature and the built environment; local media; literacies; the question of certification; mentoring; rites of passage; right livelihood and social/eco entrepreneurship, and many others. We will keep you posted on how the event goes on our Facebook and Twitter page. We will also let you know how you can participate in this emerging network.

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Museo da Maré

Museo da Maré

Posted by on Jun 5, 2013 in all posts, Brazil | 0 comments

As I have written about elsewhere (post on museums), museums have been an important site of learning for us on this journey. In these places different indigenous communities were reclaiming and representing their history and narratives through the form and institution of the museum. At the same time these various communities, including the people responsible for the Biblioteca da Floresta in Acre, where enlivening the museum by making it a place of learning and experience where the stories of those represented are felt in continuity with the present of these communities.

So I was particularly excited to go an visit a pioneering museum in Rio’s largest favela, or shanty town community, the Complexo da Maré. This large conglomeration of 16 different communities has a population of around 140,000 and a history that dates back to the 1940s. But the oldest favelas in the city emerged several decades earlier, see below.

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Rio de Janeiro, Museo da Maré, photo by Kelly

Before going to the Museo da Maré, Kelly, Marina, Patrick (my Brazilian cousin and sometime co-traveller) went to visit an exhibition in one of the city’s more traditional and oldest museums, the Museo da Repúplica, housed in the former presidential palace in Catete. This exhibition helped us understand more the historical origins of favela communities and the name favela itself. The exhibition was on the legendary spiritual and revolutionary leader, Antônio Conselheiro, now a national folk hero, who led a community of tens of thousands in the impoverished and draught-stricken northeast of the country at the end of the nineteenth century. I will not expand on this important episode of Brazilian history, the Canudos War, which pitted a flourishing religious cooperative community made up of the rural landless and a number of former slaves (slavery officially only ending in Brazil in 1888, one of the last countries in the Americas) against the newly proclaimed Republic. The War of Canudos was the military campaign which lasted between 1896-1897 and mobilised around five thousand government soldiers who ultimately prevailed over the Conselheristas (followers of Antônio Conselheiro) killing between ten and twenty thousand of them.

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Rio de Janeiro, Museo da República, photo by Udi

Favela is the name of a spiky shrub or small tree that grows in the Sertão or semi-arid lands of the Northeast Brazil in the region where Canudos is found, it is also the name of a hill there. When the battle was won the conscripted soldiers returned to Rio, then the capital, and waited for their promised reward of housing from the government, camping on the Morro da Providência by the port region of the city. The government never fulfilled its promise and the soldiers and their families set up home here, renaming their place Morro da Favela a kind of ironic reminder to the government of the place they had fought in. With this the first favela was born.

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Rio de Janeiro, Museo da República, Photo by Flávio Barros, 1897

So at the origins of favela we have a series of ingredients; the end of slavery and the entry of former slaves (without compensation, resources or adequate training) into the economy, the violent destruction of a self-sustaining and organising community that challenged the newly formed Republican state, the failed promise of housing in the city for returning soldiers and an influx of people from the impoverished countryside to the city.

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Rio de Janeiro, Museo da República, photo by Kelly

From one museums and origin story to another. Arriving in the Museo da Maré we are greeted by Luis one of its founders who generously and enthusiastically shows us around. The museum is situated in a large warehouse a couple of blocks down from the Avenida Brasil, the large highway that bisects Maré. The museum, the first of its kind, has been many years in the making, since 1989, initiating its life in the research of the TV Maré, a community station who was compiling oral histories for a programme about the history of Maré. Noting that the community was being transformed by government action and that many elderly residents were passing away and their stories forgotten the programme makers started compiling more systematically the oral histories, photographs and historical documents from residents. In 1997 some of these local researchers founded CEASM, Centro de Estudos e Ações Solidárias da Maré, the Center for Study and Solidarity Action of Maré, a local grass roots community development organisation, more formally institutionalising this memory archive. CEASM then founded the Museo da Maré in 2006 with support of the then ministry of culture’s progressive programme of supporting local cultural initiatives or Pontos de Cultura.

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Rio de Janeiro, Museo da Maré, photo by Kelly

In the Museum gathered stories, photos and documents of the residents from Maré have a ‘permanent’ display in the warehouse. I say ‘permanent’ both because the museum was undergoing a transformation when we visited and the layout was going to be updated, but also as Luis told us, because what is important here are the stories about this community and the memories people have rather than any of the objects themselves.

As the website description and aim of the museum states, and as Luis also narrated to us:

The intention of the Museo da Maré is to break with the tradition that the experiences to be remembered and historical places to be memorialised are those elected by the official, “winning”, version of history and because of that a version that limits the representations of history and memory of large portions of the population. Therefore, the Museo da Maré, as a pioneering initiative in the city, proposes to extend the concept of museum, so this is not restricted to the more intellectual social groups and the cultural spaces still inaccessible to the general population. The favela is a place of memory and therefore nothing is more meaningful than doing a museographic reading from such perception. [my translation from the website].

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Rio de Janeiro, Museo da Maré, photo by Kelly

The objects in the museum tell the story of the history of Maré through old photos, documents and a re-constructed wooden house on stilts which we walk through and see the various objects people would have made use of in the 1960s. Walking through the different sections of the museum we are taken through different significant historical moments of the community; the time of water when the houses were built on wooded stilts over the regularly flooded margins of the Guanabara Bay; the building and day to day life of family homes; the religious life of the community; the games children play(ed); and the contemporary problems of drug gangs and violence.

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Rio de Janeiro, Museo da Maré, photo by Kelly

The museum has been visited by many on outside Maré and the possibility of encounter that this space offers has been significant. With that said, as Luis put it and the Museo website reaffirms the key audience for the museum are residents themselves with numerous events, workshops, talks, guided visits and so on organised by the museum for the community.

The projects developed by the program [at the museum] are designed to encourage the creation of channels that strengthen community bonds among residents, driven mainly by historical and cultural identity. [my translation from museum website].

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Rio de Janeiro, Museo da Maré, photo by Kelly

We are taken into the wooden house on stilts that dominates the museum by our guides Luis and Lourenço and a flood of memories and emotions is unleashed with stories about living in this spaces, having to wade through water to get to work, of kids happily playing outside on the mud, of the religious life of the community, a syncretism of Christianity, Camdomble, Ubanda. A curious metal object sitting on the old gas stove also elicited memories. This was a metal comb that was heated on the stove, which most Afro-descendent women used in this period to straighten out their hair. The comb embodies and reminds us of dominant cultural norms and values of beauty and race at a time before Black Pride had emerged in Brazil.

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Rio de Janeiro, Museo da Maré, metal combe, photo by Kelly

These values and norms, and further forms of prejudice and discrimination continue to affect Afro-descendants in Brazil today. Further prejudice and discrimination is associated with the favela itself (see the next post on this) and those who live there. A space often referred to through all that it lacks (education, sanitation, work, culture) or through what it has in excess (violence, drugs), what gets left out are the living trajectories of these communities, their capacity to be creative in adverse urban environments and build communities with their own forms of organisation, social and cultural life. A place like Museo da Maré is a celebration of these qualities and one which countless other communities across Brazil have now replicated.
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Rio de Janeiro, Museo da Maré, photo by Kelly

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The forest at the gate of Brazil

The forest at the gate of Brazil

Posted by on May 19, 2013 in all posts, Brazil, on the road | 0 comments

Entering Brazil through the state of Acre in northwest Amazonia gives a different perspective on the country. In one way it shows how, like the US, Canada and Australia, this country is also a country of settlers and frontiers-people imposing an economy, government, and set of cultures on a place that had already been inhabited for thousands of years. Coming from this direction into the country, away from the larger metropoles of Rio and São Paulo also reminds me of how much environmental devastation the settler nations have imposed on this vast and beautiful territory through destructive and unsustainable models of development. Though forest regions preserved as national parks or more recently extractive reserves are plentiful in this state of Acre, on the road from the Peruvian border all we see are endless fields of cattle farms with the occasional solitary giant tree standing like an archeological memory. This stretch of our journey also reminded me of the deadly struggles over the forest and people’s livelihood being waged both here, in this corner of Brazil, as well as in so many parts of the world.

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On the road to Rio Branco from the Peruvian border, photo by Udi

Acre is the home state of rubber tapper, union leader and environmental activist Chico Mendes who was murdered in 1988 by a landowner from this region. Chico Mendes was opposed to the large agribusiness encroachment into the forest and the decimation of both indigenous lands and cultures as well as the lands and livelihood of those, like rubber tappers, who had been using the resources of the forest in a more sustainable way for many generations. Mendes was very much ahead of his time, envisioning a different economic model for this region by a sustainable management of the forest through extractive reserves in such a way that hundreds of its products could be used and commercialised without destroying the forest or the ways of life of its people.

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Chico Mendes panel at the Biblioteca da Floresta, photo by Kelly

Commemorating the 25th anniversary since his death, economic and environmental policy in the state of Acre seems to have now caught up with this way of thinking and the Chico Mendes Extractive Reserve covers 970.570 of hectares of land in the state providing a sustainable livelihood for its forest population. Around twenty other reserves have also been across the country where logging, and large agribusiness are forbidden.

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Biodiversity management within the state of Acre – panel at the Biblioteca da Floresta, photo by Kelly

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Conservation panel, representing the Amazonian region, at the Biblioteca da Floresta, photo by Kelly

Though large landed agribusiness interests are still a powerful force in the state and in the country, and dozens continue to be killed by landowners each year, significant moves for the protection of the forest have been made in Acre, which boasts amongst the most preserved forest regions in the country. You only need to look at aerial views on google maps to see how just across the border in the state of Rondônia the unabated growth of agribusiness, especially through the cultivation of soy for cattle feed and the raising of cattle, has clawed away at the remaining forest. Yet, the powerful landed lobby in congress continues to stifle efforts to pass strong enough legislation for a comprehensive protection of the forest. At the same time a culture of violence and impunity in the frontiers areas surrounding the forest means that the murders of activists and the expulsion of people from their land continues.

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Agrobusiness panel at the Biblioteca da Floresta, photo by Kelly

We had tried to connect up with local groups active with indigenous communities developing interesting projects in the field of education in this region but unfortunately this was a case where fragmented email and phone communication did not open doors for us. As such we were sorry to have spent only a very short time in what is a very exciting and innovative region developing important initiatives in this field. We are hopeful to return at some point in the future.

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The Biblioteca da Floresta, photo from http://blog.brasilturista.com.br/o-acre-existe/

One place we were lucky to have gained access to at all was the Biblioteca da Floresta, the Forest Library. I say lucky because the one day we had to wander about the state capital of Rio Branco before our flight onwards to Rio de Janeiro, the museum was closed. Dropped off in front of the quiet and tastefully designed modern building by the generous owner of the hotel we were staying at, we were feeling disheartened that the one thing we could have seen here was closed. We made our way to the shut building and looked through the glass. A security guard behind the desk inside came out to meet us. Without hoping for much I explained our situation and much to our surprise the guard proceeded to not only invite us in, turn on the lights and say we were free to look around anywhere, but to give us a wonderful tour of the place.

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Inside The Biblioteca da Floresta, photo from http://ascoisasdabiblio.blogspot.com/2011/05/biblioteca-da-floresta-rio-brancoac.html

Our guard turned to be quite an angel. He is a former teacher, who had worked in prisons and had also known Chico Mendes personally, he shared with us a number of interesting stories from Acre state. He was very proud of this Library and the people associated with it, such as Marina da Silva another important environmental activist, Acre native and political figure who was for a time Environmental Minister under Brazil’s Labour government but who resigned for the lack of support for her ministry.

Marina da Silva also ran for president in the last election under the Green Party and came third. We will definitely be following her progress, the last initiative she has been involved with is launching another platform Rede Sustentabilidade, Sustainability Network, an open movement that is reaching out across sectors of Brazilian society but which also intends to contest the next election while moving away from the organisational format of a traditional political party.

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Inside The Biblioteca da Floresta, photo from http://ascoisasdabiblio.blogspot.com/2011/05/biblioteca-da-floresta-rio-brancoac.html

The Forest Library is a beautiful and well-resourced library, museum, gallery, study and auditorium space open to the public and built by the local government. We were told by our guide the Library was going to be named after Marina but that there was some glitch on naming public buildings after people who are still living.

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Studying Inside The Biblioteca da Floresta, photo from http://ascoisasdabiblio.blogspot.com/2011/05/biblioteca-da-floresta-rio-brancoac.html

The Library is well worth the visit if you are in this part of the world, as is the city of Rio Branco. Opened in 2007 the library stretches over three floors with several exhibition spaces. The Library’s goal is to promote sustainability and teach about the region, the forest and the knowledge held about it by local populations. An important focus of the library, and seen in the highly informative museum, is to teach about the history of this region.

The history starts with the rubber boom of the 1800s and the forced labour of indigenous peoples and African slaves to the collapse of the rubber industry in Brazil. This is followed by the rise of different forms of indentured labour in the large farms of this region. The museum provides a map of the various attempts at colonising the forest and extracting wealth from the land through often cruel means. The exhibition also shows various moments and movements of resistance including the union struggle which was led by Chico Mendes. Upstairs the exhibition is about the various indigenous peoples in Acre, telling some of their stories and histories.

Our guard-guide explained to us how this space is used by local high school and university students who make use of the books, computers and study spaces. The Library also runs various events where people directly go and learn over a few days with different populations in the forest, indigenous communities, rubber tappers and others living off the forest.


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The book shelves with seeds and leaves, Inside The Biblioteca da Floresta, photo by Kelly and the indigenous panels

An interesting temporary exhibition we saw here also showed how the regional government and local businesses were promoting sustainable products from Acre’s forest to an international markets. Showing products such as Brazil nuts, latex, different fruits and oils which could be farmed without damaging the forest and a number of which have been used for their medicinal properties.

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Part of a temporary exhibition on local products Inside The Biblioteca da Floresta, photo by Kelly

We left the museum after thanking our guide profusely. Before leaving Rio Branco we walked through the local market. In one of the stalls selling local plant medicines we saw hundreds of species of plants, fruits, seeds, roots being used untold purposes. How strange that an economic system that champions one or two species, say soy or cattle, can prevail and cause such destruction over such an intricately woven and diverse ecosystem.

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A local medicinal plant shop, photo by Udi

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A local medicinal plant shop, photo by Kelly

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Visiting another Unitierra – in San Cristobal, Chiapas

Visiting another Unitierra – in San Cristobal, Chiapas

Posted by on Jan 16, 2013 in all posts, Mexico, Universidad de la Tierra | 2 comments

San Cristobal, CIDECI, generator, photo by Udi

Unitierra, as an autonomous learning movement and as an experiment of higher education, has helped to spark other Unitierras in the Americas – in Puebla (a city in Mexico), in San Cristobal de la Casas in Chiapas and most recently, in California, in the United States.  We decided to take the opportunity of arranging a short visit to CIDECI-Unitierra (Centro Indigena de Capacitacion Integral – roughly translated as ‘An Indigenous Centre for Integral Learning’) in San Cristobal de la Casas and learn more about what they were doing as connected and separate from the Unitierra in Oaxaca within which, we had just spent 12 inspiring days (see the previous 8 posts that are related to Unitierra-Oaxaca).

Buses from Oaxaca to Chiapas go only at night.  The journey lasts for an intense 11 hours of very windy roads.  Udi and I were both unable to do any reading or even much concentrating after only 30 minutes into the journey as all roads out of the valley of Oaxaca City become so immediately tortuous.

We had contacted Raymundo Sanchez Barraza, the primary organiser of CIDECI-Unitierra, in San Cristobal, Chiapas, with the help of Gustavo Esteva in Oaxaca.  Raymundo had invited us to visit with him the morning we arrived.

Map of Chiapas and Guatemala, discovered in San Cristobal outside of a shop, photo by Kelly

The locale of San Cristobal de la Casas is in the centre of the state of Chiapas (a few hours west of Guatemala), nestled between green hills and mountains.  Its small size (less than half the population of Oaxaca) was a refreshing greeting, especially after the re-circulated air on the crowded bus and the nausea that had permeated most of the waking hours in response to the continuous bends in the road.  The air was chilly, a layer of fog covering many of the surrounding mountains.  We went immediately to a hostel I had booked online to drop our luggage and go to explore the city for a couple of hours before making our way to CIDECI-Unitierra.

The city of San Cristobal de la Casas is beautiful, colourful colonial-style buildings and centred around the main plaza, or Zocalo.  This was the Zocalo that the Zapatistas occupied on January 1st, 1994, when they let their presence be known to the world.  At 7.30am many people, particularly indigenous Tzotzil women wearing traditional goat-hair skirts, were carrying handmade items such as blankets, scarves and shirts and settling themselves in different corners of the square to sell their crafts.  We located a restaurant that was open and serving breakfast which overlooked the zocalo.

Buildings of San Cristobal, Chiapas, from a shop. The bottom postcard is of Comandante Ramona, a revered female Zapatista leader who died from kidney disease 6 years ago. Photo taken by Udi

Tzotzil women in the San Cristobal Zócalo, photo by Udi

After an hour or so we hailed a taxi and gave the address that we had been given to us by Raymundo.  The taxi wove its way through the city, past more outdoor markets, churches and streets lined with houses and shops about to open.  We left the boundaries of the city and turned into a newer section within which the road became increasingly bumpy and only somewhat paved.  At the edge of the housing, there was a steep hill on our right that was fenced in with rows of food being cultivated – maize, beans and squash (as part of a milpa) were immediately recognisable alongside other fruit trees and leaves of lettuce.  Another couple of minutes and we came to an opening gate that painted bright colours of red, yellow and green.  Udi spoke with a young boy who seemed to be helping through the gate and we were ushered through.  A colourful mural painted on the side of a building greeted us with a message – Resistancia y Autonomia CIDECI Unitierra (Resistance and Autonomy CIDECI Unitierra) – see photo at the top of the page.

In front of us were many buildings, all painted in bright colours and many with murals decorating their sides.  I was immediately quite curious and wanted to explore on my own, but decided it was more appropriate to wait until we met with Raymundo.

Mural at CIDECI-Unitierra, Chiapas, photo by Kelly

After asking several people where we could find Raymundo, we walked on a small trail past several buildings, a small pond with ducks wandering about and into a forested area of evergreen trees.  A house on the left had a round table outside with stools that looked like tree stumps.  The entire scene was decorated with brightly coloured paintings of flowers, shells, snails… on the walls, the table, stools, fencing… We timidly entered the house calling for Raymundo who emerged a few minutes later and asked us to wait outside.

Painted table and chairs, CIDECI-Unitierra, Chiapas, photo by Kelly

Whilst waiting, I tried to take in the scene around me.  The colours and designs, the gently swaying evergreen trees in the light breeze, were a feast for the senses and I had to hold myself back from immediately capturing it all on film.

Painted tables and chairs at CIDECI-Unitierra, Chiapas, photo by Kelly

Raymundo called us in and we entered into another space filled with beauty – plants, objects, blankets, tables, books…  Udi and Raymundo talked in Spanish and I sat patiently trying to comprehend as much as I could.  There was little space for translation and I hoped that Udi could remember much of what was spoken about…

(Udi explained later…) Raymundo spoke about the trajectory of CIDECI, the influence of the local Bishop from Chiapas Samuel Ruiz and of liberation theology in the beginnings of a cultural and educational initiative with local communities back in the 1980s. He also narrated other influences in the development of CIDECI in its present form, Unitierra and Gustavo Esteva, ecologist and activist Vandana Shiva amongst many others (Ivan Illich, Immanuel Wallerstein, etc.). Later in our visit, as we were guided through the campus by a former student who now works there, we saw various rooms named after a number of these influences which have shaped the thinking and approach of CIDECI (see photos).

San Cristobal, CIDECI, photo by Kelly

San Cristobal, CIDECI, dining room, photo by Kelly

San Cristobal, CIDECI, Illich sign, photo by Kelly

In its current form CIDECI occupies an area of approximately 20 hectares of land sloping up from a developing neighborhood at the edge of the city of San Cristobal.

View from a high point of CIDECI-Unitierra, Chiapas, photo by Kelly

With our guide we walked through a number of large and amazingly resourced rooms: mechanics, sewing, architecture or shoemaking workshops, printing or weaving workshops, a music building with rooms divided according to types of instruments, a beautiful library and seminar rooms build out of adobe and decorated with paintings and plants and murals, everywhere murals. We also saw a large seminar room that could accommodate several hundred people and a chapel were students attend a daily service.

Adobe wall outside seminar room and painted chairs, CIDECI-Unitierra, Chiapas, photo by Kelly

San Cristobal, CIDECI, sewing room, photo by Kelly

San Cristobal, CIDECI, weaving room, photo by Kelly

We also visited the bakery, the farm where chickens and rabbits where raised kept and the milpa which made the whole learning community almost self-sufficient.  We noticed in particular a version of a bicycle used to grind corn as it is pedaled.

Rabbits at CIDECI-Unitierra, Chiapas, photo by Kelly

Bicycle corn grinder, CIDECI-Unitiera, Chiapas, photo by Kelly

The students come from indigenous communities throughout Chiapas, many of these communities caracoles controlled by the Zapatistas and many with first languages other than Spanish. They come here to stay for a few months or several years before going back to their villages and taking the responsibility to teach or practice the learning they experience here and the skills they acquire. Many ex-students have taken the role of teachers on the various courses they offer which range from the various technical skills mentioned above (mechanics, weaving, shoe-making, electronics, carpentry, hairdressing) to courses around health and nutrition, to those around cultivating food (within a milpa) or raising animals. Alongside these subjects there are also regular weekly and monthly seminars which also bring together others from outside CIDECI.

San Cristobal, CIDECI, courtyard, photo by Kelly

We were invited by Raymundo to join one of these seminars on Saturday discussing the work of John Holloway, an Irish academic who left the academic scene in the UK and moved to Mexico where his work How to Change the World Without Taking Power has become influential amongst activists, here and elsewhere.

The seminar was attended by a diverse group of about 25 or so local academics, students, activists and NGO workers. The seminar meets regularly and many here already knew each other and were familiar with each others’ perspectives. The book for discussion was Holloway’s Agrietar el Capitalismo, el hacer contra el trabajo (Crack Capitalism, Reflections on a Revolution).  During the seminar, we sat in the Immanuel Wallerstein room around a large decorately carved (and painted) wooden table.  After a couple of hours, there was a break and everyone went outside to share coffee and baked goods (from the bakery on site) along with at least 30 or so students, many of which were indigenous women.  There were children also playing which made the atmosphere that much more relaxed and warm.

San Cristobal, CIDECI, library, photo by Kelly

Some days later when we visited Oventic, the Zapatista village some hours drive from San Cristobal, we were told by a friendly shop-owner that most of the young people from the area went to CIDECI-Unitierra after they graduated from the local Zapatista-run secondary school. Here, as in CIDECI, those who teach there are not paid professional teachers but are people from the communities who want to share their learning with others and, in the case of CIDECI, receive a small sum for travel and keep.

We wished that we had had more time to spend at CIDECI, getting to know the people learning, living and/or working there. We found the place a beautiful and creative space to in which to learn and live in a community that is, like Unitierra in Oaxaca, engaging deeply with issues of self-sufficiency, autonomy, ecology and sustainability.

San Cristobal, CIDECI, bishop mural, photo by Kelly

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Reflections and learnings about Zapatismo…

Reflections and learnings about Zapatismo…

Posted by on Jan 1, 2013 in all posts, Mexico, Universidad de la Tierra | 0 comments

Las Mujeres con la Dignidad Rebelde (Women with dignity rebel), purse for sale in Zapatista cooperative, San Cristobal, Chiapas, photo by Udi

On the 21st of December (a couple of weeks after our departure), the start of the new Mayan era (Bakhtun), over 40,000 Tzotzil, Tzeltal, Tojobal, Chol, Mam and Zoques indigenous peoples – men, women and children, all of whom are representatives of a much larger Mayan community across Mexico and Central America – assembled and silently marched, without weapons and wearing black ski masks, into seven cities in Chiapas, the poorest state of Mexico.  These 40,000+ people are all Zapatistas – the white number stuck to each of their masks representing their particular Zapatista community.  It was the first public statement in over 18 months – the message, although silent, was loud and clear“Did you hear?  It is the sound of your world collapsing/ it is our world coming back…”

What are these different worlds that the Zapatistas are referring to?  How is their world coming back – and how is our world collapsing?  What place does Zapatismo have in the world today – how can we understand it, learn from it and apply it into our own lives?

Pig in scarf, imitating Zapatista balaclava, Unitierra seminar room, Oaxaca, Mexico, photo by Kelly

These were the exact questions being asked in the Zapatismo seminar we attended on our first day visiting Unitierra. This particular week’s seminar that had been advertised across Oaxaca, through email, Unitierra’s blog and through flyer, was focusing on the 19th anniversary of the Zapatista uprising, critically engaging with the question of, What does Zapatismo mean today? 

The answer to this question emerged over two and a half hours of critical discussion, debate and emotional statements – different historical narratives – coming from more than 40 people in the main room at Unitierra – Oaxacans – Mixtecs, Zapotecs, Mestizos… Europeans, Americans – from the age of 18 to nearly 80.  I was lucky enough to have simultaneous translations provided for me by a friend.

At the beginning of the Unitierra seminar, Gustavo helped to provide a stronger background of the Zapatistas.  The three people (2 men and a woman) who initially went to the Lacandon jungle (in northeast Chiapas) as guerilla activists in 1983 to begin organizing an indigenous uprising were not indigenous themselves.  They had each been politically active during the 1960s and the 1970s and had endured varying degrees of violence (torture and incarceration) at the hands of the state.  Clearly these years of violence did not encourage them to discontinue their involvement.  Rather, it stirred an even deeper commitment.  Living in the Lacandon jungle – especially as a shift from living in an urban center, is no easy task.  For more than 10 years, these three people slowly mobilized – without any knowledge to the outside world – thousands of indigenous peoples from different Mayan communities, within Chiapas.

Poster – Congreso Nacional Indigena, photo taken by Kelly in San Cristobal, Chiapas

Gustavo told us that aside from learning about survival in the jungle, the biggest learning for these non-indigenous activists was about listening and communication.  When they initially came to discuss current problems – and histories of oppression – with local indigenous Mayan peoples in villages, they were not understood.  They were still talking forcefully through their ideals as guerilla activists.  They had to become more humble, bring their thinking ‘down to Earth’ – and instead, to listen.  This required a complete shift in learning – toward dialogue (that prioritizes listening) and forms of encounter and assembly.

These two notions – encounter and assembly – are still the two key principles for the Zapatistas.  The third is to create.  Encounter.  Assembly.  Create.   To encounter, is to engage with the other, through an ethic of opening up oneself even, or especially at the risk of losing yourself.  It is to listen (radically).  As they see it, encounters cannot be exhausted – listening should never stop.  Assemblies are created through collective decision-making bodies through a perception and practice of power that is atypical to what is normally practiced in politics (our current forms of democracy).  The Zapatistas are re-creating (and re-claiming) indigenous forms of leadership that have otherwise been lost over the past several hundred years.   These assemblies are not about taking power, rather they are about sharing it.  It is about learning how each one of us can exercise power in ways that does not support the current ‘Empire of Money’ – but rather learning how to create other worlds outside.  This is where create comes into the picture – creating autonomous forms of education, health, justice, government, food cultivation that is through shared decision-making.  It is currently through the formation of caracoles (slow moving snails) that governing occurs within Zapatista communities (see Udi’s post on art of rebellion – part 2).

Mural in Oventic, Chiapas (Libertad, Paz, Democracia), photo by Kelly

There is much to consider from what the Zapatistas are advocating.  One of their main challenges is for us to change our perceptions of power.  The Zapatistas tell us that we need to equip ourselves with ‘inverted periscopes’.  This means that instead of trying to understand what is going on ‘above’ in the ‘halls of power’ we should be looking way down below, on the ground, in the spaces that tend to be ignored.  Power is not only with those ‘up there’ – those ‘in power’ – power that is exercised over people.  Another way of understanding this is that there is power everywhere, we all can exercise power in multiple ways –through people and with people – also with the Earth, alongside non-human species.   It is entirely possible to exercise power without taking it.  We may not believe it is so, but this is exactly what the Zapatistas are trying to do.

The shift in learning – towards listening and toward ‘becoming common’ – that occurred between 1983 and 1994, helped to organize thousands of people – Tzotzils, Tzeltals, Tojolabals, Chols, Mams and Zoques – all united for the first time in insurrection as Zapatistas.  To become united they learned new ways of communication and more critical understandings of historical experiences.  They also learned how to arm themselves and how to stand up for themselves following over 500 years of oppression at the hands of (primarily) the Spanish, the Church, the Mexican government and now, multi-national corporations.  The learning continues… from letting go of arms (fire) that were used more strongly in the early days and instead building dialogue through encounters that prioritize communication (the word).

The decision by the Zapatistas, the EZLN, to surprise the world and occupy buildings across Chiapas on the 1st of January, 1994 was no accident.  It was a war that begun out of desperation (and it was through the use of arms that the primary source of controversy is centered).  The Zapatista emergence into public visibility was carefully calculated. It was the same day that NAFTA was signed.  The Zapatistas knew well that such a law would affect themselves – as indigenous peoples – more than anyone else (see my previous post on Maize and Milpa for more discussion on NAFTA).  Their initial demands of housing, land, work, health, education, food freedom, independence, justice, democracy and peace have essentially turned into demands for autonomy, for self-sufficiency through which they are able to provide these demands for themselves.  They continually have to struggle for the recognition of these demands.  There is a long history of struggle and reactions between the Zapatistas and the Mexican Army and government that continues today.

Sign for Oventic outside of village gates, Chiapas, photo taken by Kelly

My first encounter with the Zapatistas – virtually – was in Pakistan when I became acquainted with Assim Sajjad Akhtar who was then dividing his time between leading the Peoples Rights Movement (PRM) in their support for landless peasants in Pakistan, teaching (post)colonial history at the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS) and writing as a journalist for Pakistani media – The Nation, Dawn, etc.  (Aasim is now a professor at Qaid-e-Azam University in Islamabad and continues to publish as a journalist and assist PRM).  In Pakistan, through Aasim’s knowledge, I learned about the Zapatista’s existence, what they were trying to do and how they were trying to do it (and how it related to what PRM was doing in Pakistan).  My learning was expanded further when I returned to London, participating in the European Social Forum (the regional World Social Forum event) in 2004, where there was an abundance of literature available about the Zapatistas and people speaking about them – people who had spent time with them in Chiapas and other parts of Mexico.  Although the work and struggle of the Zapatistas is located in Chiapas, they have been hugely successful in assembling international solidarity – inspiring imaginations, creating new visions and igniting controversy and debate through an intensity of dialogue that has emerged in various forms and in various places.

Between the WSF London and this trip to Mexico, I had been incorporating the Zapatistas into my teaching at the University of Bath – particularly in two units:  Researching Social Change and Education and International Development.  The insights about the Zapatista orientation and cosmovision as associated to social movements (what they are and can be) and the learning that goes on in them (expectedly and unexpectedly) are immensely engaging and controversial which adds more flavor to critical discussion and learning.

To help me incorporate the example of the Zapatista movement into my teaching, I used a particularly inspiring book that I had encountered in 2009, The Fire and the Word: A History of the Zapatistas (by Gloria Rumoz Martinez – 2008) at the Solidarity Economy conference in Hampshire, Massachusetts.  From the social research perspective, what I find most interesting about the book The Fire and the Word is the way that Gloria presents the ‘histories’ of the Zapatistas – as a series of narratives and images.  She prioritizes photography, sketches, diary entries, interviews and her own analyses.  These are all woven through the book equally – all modes of representation predominate.  I have always hoped that encountering such a diversity of representations helps to create further debates about the politics of representation – in research – and also what counts as research in the first place.  And, what stories are the ones that matter?  How can historical experience be represented?

My learning about the Zapatistas since 2004 has been in stops and starts, fragmented and intermittent.  The time we have just spent in Mexico enabled a tremendous surge of learning more about the Zapatistas through many events and encounters – the Unitierra Zapatismo seminar, reading more literature (from the shelves of Unitierra) and visiting Chiapas – watching historical documentaries about the Zapatistas (at the cultural centre such Cronica de una Rebelion and A Place Called Chiapas) and visiting Oventic, one of the Zapatista communities – or caracoles (which they are called – see Udi’s posting on Art of Rebellion 2).  There is more I could say (much of which engages with the controversies of the Zapatistas not explored in this post) and a substantial amount that has been written, documented and debated about the Zapatistas.  One particular insight I learned from the Zapatistas stands out for me.

This insight is the statement by the Zapatistas that there is currently a total war occurring – in every corner of the world.  The Zapatistas call this total war the ‘Fourth World War:  The Empire of Money” that is against all of humanity and the Earth (the idea of 4th as following from WWI, WWII and then the Cold War as WWIII).  This “Empire of Money” prioritizes extracting and pursuing profit at the expense of everything and anything blocking it.  In the Zapatista perspective, this is a war of no fronts – there is no nation against nation, group of nations against another group of nations… it is about imposing an ideology across the entire world – of profit and capital, into every corner of the world.  The enemy is everyone – any person or group can be, or is considered an enemy any time that the ‘Empire of Money’ is threatened (the recent media and state resistance to the ‘Occupy Movement’ comes to mind).  The Zapatistas explain that within this current war, states (government) are being reduced to puppets of privatization and the multi-national corporate world.  Armies are fighting to uphold the strength and spread of this empire – rather than protecting their own nations within their own boundaries.  Through globalized forms of exploitation and extortion of profit the ‘Empire of Money’ seeks to capture and control all territory (land) and labour to expand and construct new markets.  The ‘Empire of Money’ seeks to destroy any way of life that defies this orientation and organization – anything that allows individuals and communities to exist outside of capital must be destroyed or reduced to a quantifiable exchangeability – cultures, languages, histories, memories, ideas, dreams… The new world/s the Zapatistas are creating threaten the Empire of Money. It is through non-capitalistic (non-profit orientated or non-quantifiable) forms of self-sufficiency, autonomy, hospitality and comunalidad –  that is practiced, promoted and studied at Unitierra that this ‘Empire of Money’ is also directly challenged.

Map of military occupation in Chiapas, photo by Udi, taken in San Cristobal de la Casas

During the seminar at Unitierra, there were many fragments of discussion that directly engaged with the Zapatista insight of a Fourth World War.  For example, Gustavo commented toward the end of the seminar that ‘War is everywhere now’.  And engaging with the repeated questions of ‘What do we do – what should we do?’ Gustavo commented — ‘The Lacondon jungle is inside of us – we are already in it…’

Many of the young people in the Unitierra seminar room had spoken of their involvement in social and political change – profound frustration with the present challenges and a lack of coherent vision for the future.  I remember how several spoke of their lack of knowledge and understanding of political activities prior to the Zapatistas, how wonderful it was for people like Gustavo who were older and had such a rich history of experiences and knowledge.  Several also spoke of the importance of ‘searching for light’ — ‘looking for examples that inspire us to invoke the world through thinking of it, imagining it.  It is also about acting out of love, hospitality and friendship’.

Mural in Oventic, Chiapas – sharing maize cosmovision, photo by Kelly

I remember something very wise that Edgar (Edi) the young Zapotec learner at Uniterra we had met first earlier that day, said during the Zapatismo seminar.  He said that Zapatismo is about looking into the mirror at ourselves, seeing our own path, our own choices.  It is about looking at the responsibilities that we face and that we choose each and every day.

I left the seminar, my head and my heart full – yet also hungry for more of these encounters, these assemblies, to inspire my imagination to create….

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