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Defending Indigenous Lands And Waters In Honduras: The Case Of Rio Blanco

12:41 pm in Uncategorized by Other Worlds

By Beverly Bell and Tory Field

Part 29 of the Harvesting Justice series.

On September 12, Berta Caceres, Tomás Gomez, and Aureliano Molina, leaders of the indigenous Lenca organization Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH) must appear in court. Their charges? Usurpation of land, coercion, and causing more than $3 million in damages to DESA, a hydroelectric dam company. Berta, the general coordinator of COPINH and an internationally recognized social movement leader, is also facing separate charges of illegally carrying arms “to the danger of the internal security of Honduras.”

The Honduran-owned and foreign-financed company has been attempting to build a dam on the sacred Gualcarque River in the Lenca community of Rio Blanco. Community members have blockaded the road against the company, thwarting the dam’s construction, for over five months.

The charges brought against the three indigenous rights defenders are part of a strategy of physical, legal, and political suppression by the Honduran government and industries to break indigenous resistance to mining, damming, logging, and drilling. The exploitation of indigenous lands, and the riches upon them, are being imposed without the communities’ consent. This is in violation of the Honduran constitution and of Convention 169 of the International Labor Organization which requires free, prior, and informed consent by indigenous peoples before anything can be built on, or taken from, their lands.

Indigenous communities that are part of COPINH alone have well over a dozen extraction concessions upon them. Dozens more are advancing throughout the country. All were approved by laws passed by an unconstitutional congress that was voted in under an illegal government that took power in a 2009 coup d’etat. The US government was firmly behind the coup.

Everywhere in Honduras and the Americas, indigenous territories have a bull’s eye upon them. They are exploited for their agriculture, water, forests, oil, gas, genetic information, biodiversity, and so-called intellectual property rights, otherwise known as indigenous knowledge. The riches of nature that they have carefully guarded are now subject to theft, privatization, and sale on the stock market. As the Chilean political scientist Sandra Huenchuán Navarro said, “Though indigenous people don’t know it, the most powerful determining factor of their destiny is the New York Stock Exchange.”[i]

Beyond plunder of their territories, the physical, legal, and political attacks on COPINH members and other indigenous peoples in Honduras have been increasing rapidly. Assassinations, kidnapping, machete slashing, arrests, and threats are weekly events in the communities which are resisting. Just yesterday, September 5, at 3:00 in the morning, police stormed the home of Desiderio Méndez and his family. They threatened Desiderio with torture and then took him away.

Yet the communities are not ceding. If anything, they have become more committed to defending their territories. María Santos Domínguez, a member of the Indigenous Council of Rio Blanco, explained, “As Lenca people, these are our lands. Our ancestors fought to defend this land for us. We also have children and grandchildren and are going to defend this land for them.”

For several years, the community has repeatedly rejected the dam project in town hall meetings and community assemblies, protested against it, and filed complaints with government agencies.

As one community member explained, “They say this is development. This is not development. This is for the company’s benefit, for their profits.”

As the company moved forward with the project, it destroyed fields of corn, beans, coffee, and bananas, as well as a solar plant that generated electricity for the community. It brought in machinery and built installations, offices, and housing. Then it arrived with the Chinese-owned SINOHYDRO, the largest dam company in the world. At the end of March, community members suddenly found signs on their lands declaring “Do Not Enter,” “Swimming Prohibited,” and “Caution, Area Under Construction.”

So several days later, on April 1, the people of Rio Blanco began physically blocking construction of the dam, and they have been blocking it ever since. Like the dam, the access road is in their ancestral territory, surrounded by the fields and lush forests that the Lenca have carefully stewarded for hundreds of years. Community members show up, day in and day out, in the rain, in the heat, with or without food, to defend their territory.

On May 17, the zone was militarized and soldiers began intimidating and threatening community members. The US-funded soldiers eat, sleep, and live at the dam company’s installations. Berta Caceres of COPINH noted that they “have turned it into a military base” as they serve the interests of the dam companies.

As COPINH leaders face prison time for their defense of Rio Blanco, one might ask: who should really be on trial in Rio Blanco? Who has really usurped the land and caused damages?

The community’s resistance continues, despite having been evicted several times, despite the continual violence, and despite the men in ski masks who lurked outside the homes of community leaders. As the struggle over control of Rio Blanco continues, please add your voice to the Lenca’s request for international support.

* Join a protest outside a Honduran embassy or consulate near you on September 10, an international day of action to demand that 1) the charges against Berta, Tomás, Aureliano, and all others defending their lands be dropped, 2) the dam concession in Rio Blanco be cancelled and the project stopped, 3) ancestral territories be respected, and 4) the violence against indigenous communities stop. Click here to see if there is an action in your town, and if not, consider planning one.

* Send an e-mail to the Honduran government urging them to stop the judicial persecution of COPINH and to US officials urging them to end military aid to the Battalion stationed in Rio Blanco.

* Call the Honduran authorities on September 10 and urge them to stop the criminalization of COPINH.

* Have your organization co-sponsor an ad in a prominent Honduran newspaper, to run on September 10 before the trial against the three COPINH leaders, demanding that the charges be dropped. Write info.otherworlds@gmail.com by Monday, September 9 to add your organization’s name. (Click here for the ad text.)

 

  1. Huenchuán Navarro, Sandra. “Territorial Impacts of Economic Globalization in Latin American and Caribbean Indigenous Territories.” Statement presented in the XXII Latin American Congress of Sociology of the Latin American Sociology Association (ALAS). University of Concepción, Concepción, Chile, 1999.

 

You can order Harvesting Justice and find action items, resources, and a popular education curriculum on the Harvesting Justice website. Harvesting Justice was created for the US Food Sovereignty Alliance, check out their work here.

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Copyleft Other Worlds. You may reprint this article in whole or in part.  Please credit any text or original research you use to Tory Field and Beverly Bell, Other Worlds.

 

The Ancestral Values We Inherited: Protecting Indigenous Water, Land, and Culture in Mexico

10:25 am in Uncategorized by Other Worlds

The following is from an interview with Saúl Atanasio Roque Morales, a Xoxocotla indigenous man from the state of Morelos, Mexico. He is a member of the Council of Peoples and the Xoxocotla Drinking Water Association.

Moreles landscape

Indigenous people are fighting for their land in Mexico.

Within our indigenous community of Xoxocotla, we continue to hold the ancestral values we inherited. It never crosses our mind to leave them behind. Because in daily life we are always in contact with nature, with our lands, with our water, with our air. We live in harmony with nature because we don’t like the way that modernity is advancing, destroying our territory and our environment. We believe technological modernity is better named a death threat.

We still watch our children chase the butterflies and the birds. We see the harmony between the crops and the land. Above all, we respect our water and we continue to perform ceremonies that give thanks for the water.

There is a ceremony we do together with a group of neighboring peoples at a sacred place. In this ceremony, we predict what the coming season will be like in order to predict the harvest, to know if it will be good or if it’s going to be bad. After, the participants return to the community and share what they observed, joyfully dancing with music, to let the community know about the weather predictions and what the water will be like. It never crosses our mind to leave this tradition behind. On the contrary, we believe that we should keep instilling these values in our children.

And so we have potable water that comes from a spring 12 kilometers away. During the time of the government of Lázaro Cárdenas [1934-1940] the community participated, with pick and shovel, in a 12-kilometer excavation to bring water to the community. The water is very good and very clean. Since that time, we have been the ones that administer and control our water system, without having to be responsible to government authorities.

In more recent times since the 80’s, in the state of Morelos, they wanted to privatize the water. We were not in agreement with this. Together with other communities, we organized and went before the lower house of the state congress in order to protest these laws. We occupied the buildings and the politicians agreed to change the law. In the new law, they included our demand that indigenous peoples can control and administer their water.

But in the past few years, industrial and housing projects have been growing and multiplying, invading crop lands. Crop lands normally serve as a buffer for filtration during the rainy season.  They filter water and replenish aquifers that give life to our springs. We’re witnessing an increase in devastation and paving-over of lands and that inhibits normal water filtration. We attribute the lowering of water levels to these activities.

We learned that there were to be construction projects erected, including ones to build [more than 37,000] houses, close to our spring. There are also plans to build a golf course. Other companies are opening up [plant] nurseries. There’s another company that’s devastating a mountain called Montenegro to extract material to produce cement.

[In 2005] we started to speak out against the government’s actions, and they didn’t pay attention. We blockaded the roads, but the government didn’t respect the agreements that resulted from those blockades. For this reason we organized 13 communities to defend the springs. We didn’t get much attention, so we decided to block highways. We did it to communicate our problem, but we were met with repression and some people got wounded. The people also fought back: they made the police run, they destroyed a couple patrol cars, they took arms from the cops and because of this, some of our people were detained.

Read the rest of this entry →

“They Fear Us Because We’re Fearless”: Reclaiming Indigenous Lands and Strength in Honduras

10:37 am in Uncategorized by Other Worlds

“Honduras has been known for two things only: being a military base for the [contra] attacks on the Nicaraguan revolution, and Hurricane Mitch.” So said Berta Caceres, co-founder and general coordinator of the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH by its Spanish acronym). COPINH is an organization of hundreds of communities of Lenca indigenous peoples and small farmers.

A member of the Lenca people

Members of the Lenca people & small farmers fight for control of land in Honduras.

The rest of the story, of the resistance of land reform and indigenous movements, what is at stake, and the source of much of the violence, are largely unknown in the US.

Multinational corporations are moving into Central America to exploit gold and other minerals, rivers, forests, and agricultural lands. One area of high interest in the corporate feeding frenzy is the indigenous Lenca region in the southwest of Honduras. The government has given outside businesses concessions to dam, drill, and cut, in violation of national law and international treaties. More corporations have simply moved in on their own.

The most pressing issue now affecting Lenca lands is a series of large hydroelectric dams which are already under construction. They are part of 41 dam concessions which may soon come under active exploitation. The concessions came thanks to a mining law passed in January 2013 by a national congress that was voted in under an illegal government that took power in the 2009 coup d’etat. The law allows for open pit mining as well as mining in populated areas, which opens the door for large-scale displacement. It limits access to public information, and allows consultation with affected populations only after the concession has been granted.

COPINH is at the forefront of a life-or-death movement – literally – for respect for indigenous territories, meaning the right of the Lenca and others to control their ancestral lands, riches of nature, culture, and identity. COPINH is also fighting for the democracy and civil rights necessary for their members to protect what is theirs, and for greater justice overall.

COPINH is now in its fifth month of an occupation which has stalled construction of one hydroelectric dam on the Gualcarque River that runs through Lenca Territory in Rio Blanco.

With the backing of the oligarchy and other elite, the government has struck hard against the group. On July 15, soldiers assassinated Tomas García, one of COPINH’s leaders. Berta Caceres and two other members, Aureliano Molina and Tomas Gomez, are being brought to court under charges of being “intellectual authors” of the anti-dam movement. At a next hearing, set for September 12, a judge will decide if there is evidence to support the charges or if they should be dismissed. At their last hearing earlier in August, the three were given alternative measures to imprisonment while awaiting the next hearing. The measures including prohibiting them from going to the site of the supposed crime – the dam occupation – and requiring them to present themselves and sign in every two weeks.

For years, government forces and corporate-paid death squads have been imprisoning, threatening, terrorizing, following, and falsely accusing COPINH members and other social movement activists. The government has even used basic social services as a tool of expropriation, manipulating access to health care and education to pressure indigenous communities to allow extraction on their lands.

Read the rest of this entry →

Without Our Land, We Cease To Be a People: Defending Indigenous Territory and Resources in Honduras

7:45 am in Uncategorized by Other Worlds

By Tory Field and Beverly Bell

Flag of the Garifuna

Miriam Miranda is a leader of the Honduran Black Fraternal Organization (OFRANEH), which works with the 46 communities of the Afro-indigenous Garífuna of Honduras, to defend their territories, natural resources, identity, and rights. Miriam’s narrative below is from an interview with Beverly Bell in Washington, D.C.

We live on the Atlantic coast of Honduras. We are a mix of African descendants and indigenous peoples who came about more than 200 years ago in the island of San Vicente. Without our land, we cease to be a people. Our lands and identities are critical to our lives, our waters, our forests, our culture, our global commons, our territories. For us, the struggle for our territories and our commons and our natural resources is of primary importance to preserve ourselves as a people.

The people, for their way of being, were declared part of the Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO in 2004. We don’t know what that means exactly, but we suppose it implies that the state must take action to protect and preserve the Garífuna people’s identity.

What we Garífuna face is largely the same things faced by people all over Latin America, and in fact the world. Also, the problems of the South are not a problem just for us, but of all of us and the whole planet.

If you map out the conflicts that are threatening our country, you’ll see they reflect exactly where transnational capital is trying to take more resources from indigenous peoples. Maybe you believe that president Mel Zelaya was ousted in a coup d’état [in 2009] because he was a leftist. No. It was because [those with wealth] wanted to take land and resources, which they are now doing. Look at the search for so-called alternatives to oil – through mining, the mega-dams, the biofuels, the production of African palm oil. All these resources are being taken from indigenous areas. There is more pressure on us every day for our territories, our resources, and our global commons.

In Honduras, they’re taking land that we were using to grow beans and rice so they can grow African palm for bio-fuel. The intention is to stop the production of food that humans need so they can produce fuel that cars need. The more food scarcity that exists, the more expensive food will become. The mono-cultivation of some of these crops [for bio-fuel] requires thousands of millions of acres of land. Food sovereignty is being threatened everywhere.

Also we have a problem that is rarely spoken of: narco-trafficking. The Atlantic Coast of Honduras is the main trafficking route. A study showed that almost 90% of the drugs that are going to the North pass through Honduras. We’re exactly in the way of the trafficking and we’re so vulnerable. Honduras has one of the highest levels of crime and violence [per capita] of any country that is not actually at war. We have to fight not only for the permanence of our community, but also to not be kidnapped by traffickers.

Another of our main challenges is the tourism industry. We live almost on the sea, right on the beach. It’s a blessing but recently it’s also become a curse, because of course all those with power want to have a place on the beach. The Honduran government has started on some tourism mega-projects. The displacement of communities and the loss of cultures that come with the development of tourism [is increasing].

Read the rest of this entry →

We Don’t Have Life without Land: Holding Ground in Honduras

11:10 am in Uncategorized by Other Worlds

By Tory Field and Beverly Bell. Co-authored by Lauren Elliott

Part 25 of the Harvesting Justice series 

Honduras coffee plantation

Land reform is desperately needed in Honduras.

For the next three articles, we will pause to linger on Honduras. On vivid display there is the search for solutions to the problems addressed in this Harvesting Justice series: the piracy of land, indigenous territories, agriculture, food systems, and the global commons.

We also focus on Honduras because it is home to the highest homicide rate of any country in the world that is not at war. A lot of that violence is directed against communities trying to defend what is theirs. One of our colleagues there, Tomás Garcia, a leader of the Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH), was assassinated on July 15. Many more live under continual threat of death.

We at Other Worlds hold a great concern for Honduras for a third reason. We are based in New Orleans, a city with the one of the highest populations of Hondurans outside of Tegucigalpa. More than 80,000 Hondurans now reside in New Orleans in large part because of global policies, including those of the U.S. government, that have resulted in high levels of poverty, landlessness, and violence. Challenging the root causes of the migration, in the hopes that Hondurans may one day be able to live with peace and well-being in their homeland, is part of our definition of being good neighbors.

Bajo Aguán, a fertile agricultural region in the north of Honduras, might at first glance look like a bucolic paradise. In fact, it is part of a historic land struggle. It is also the site of a war – a strange war, undeclared and largely invisible, where only one side has arms.

Consuelo Castillo, a community organizer in Lempira, a land reform settlement in Bajo Aguán, said, “Our goal is for everyone who is part of the land occupations to have access to land. Land is our first mother. For us farmers, we don’t have life without land.”

“We’re fighting for our kids. We’ve started this movement for our children so they can have their basic needs met, live in dignity, and have access to education. The political assassinations have left some children without mothers, without brothers. The kids are the ones that are impacted the most.”

Consuelo and her neighbors live in homes made of blue tarps, surrounded by patches of corn and rows of African oil palms. The 3,000 residents of Lempira and five other settlements have been peacefully occupying land for three years. They insist the land has been taken from them, mainly by wealthy landowners and palm oil companies who are making money off the global craze for biofuel. In the Lempira settlement, the families have reclaimed the area from the country’s largest and most infamous landowner, Miguel Facussé.

In response to the occupation, Facussé and other land owners, together with palm oil companies and the backing of government forces and the World Bank, are waging their war. In Bajo Aguán alone, between January 2010 and February 2013, 89 small farmers – many of them also leaders in the land movement – have been murdered. Facussé and the others also use arrests and death threats among their arsenal of weapons to try to eject the settlers.

While the communities fight for legal right to the land, they also pursue their long-term vision. Lempira, for example, has created homes, turned the plantation into a working cooperative, laid the concrete foundation for a school, and created a collectively owned store. Residents are working towards food sovereignty, liberatory education systems, and collectively run media.

The History and the Stakes in Land Reform

Read the rest of this entry →

Inherit the Earth: Land Reform in Brazil

11:32 am in Uncategorized by Other Worlds

By Tory Field and Beverly Bell
Part 24 of the Harvesting Justice series

As a key determinant of who has power and who doesn’t, battles over land have been fought from time immemorial. One of the earliest may have been led by Adam and Eve as they attempted to reclaim their garden after having been evicted. Even before the Crusades, through centuries of colonization, to the oil- and water-motivated wars of the present day, land has long been the currency of religious, national, and imperial power.

In the 1950s and 1960s, struggles for land reform throughout the global South had some success. However, in the 1970s and 1980s, economic policies, development ideology, and military crackdowns quashed government-reform advances and the social movements that drove them.[1]

In recent years, the voice and visibility of movements opposing land grabs and displacement, and demanding land reform, are increasing. Though relatively little land has been redistributed, organized movements of small farmers, indigenous peoples, and landless people are developing in size, strength, and organization. They are uniting across borders to break the nexus between land, agriculture, power, and profit.

The Landless Workers Movement

Brazil is home to one of the most powerful land reform movements in the world. Its work has both changed the lives and fates of millions of people within the country, and inspired land and housing struggles everywhere, including here in the US.

Brazil’s land reform has roots in the 1800s, as a response to unequal land distribution that began with the arrival of European colonists more than 500 years ago. Brazil has one of the world’s highest levels of unequal land distribution. Vast properties over 1,000 hectares (2,472 acres) – many of them owned by multinational corporations – have taken over 46% of all farmland. Small and family farms are still producing much of the country’s food needs, only on less land and with more labor. Unable to compete with agribusiness, an estimated 90,000 of them disappear each year.[2]

The 1988 constitution gave Brazilians the right to challenge ownership of tracts over a certain size in two ways: by going after the title’s authenticity or by claiming that the land is not fulfilling its “social function.” Social function means that at least 80% of the land is used effectively, environmental and labor standards are respected, and both owners and workers benefit.

Many rural organizations form the land reform movement, with the Landless Rural Workers’ Movement (MST by its Portuguese acronym) leading the way. The MST’s solution to ending the country’s poverty and hunger is to put agriculturally rich land back into the hands of small farmers. Since the mid-1980s, the MST has won title to 7.5 million hectares of land, on which 370,000 families now live.  An additional 150,000 families live in approximately 900 squatter communities on land that is being contested.

João Pedro Stédile, MST co-founder and co-coordinator, said, “Before, the line had been: ‘No need to worry, you’ll have your land in heaven.’ Now it was: ‘Since you’ve already got your land in heaven, let’s struggle for it here as well.’”

Redistribution of land works this way: The organization researches large holdings that meet the legal criteria for redistribution. When they find one, word goes out and interested families – often totaling up to 100, both landless people and unemployed city-dwellers – take up residence there. They wait it out in tents, on average for two to five years. Meanwhile, MST lawyers battle with the courts to gain collective title to the property. If the MST loses, those in the camp move to another plot of land and, together with the lawyers, start over. If the court orders the tract redistributed, settlers begin creating their collectively owned communities.

In the communities, MST members engage in collective agro-ecological farming and other cooperative ventures, like a honey business or a tractor repair shop. They run their own education systems, resolve conflicts using restorative justice, and develop their own media and cultural empowerment programs. They also run experiments in participatory democracy, equitable social relations, and self-governance.

Brazil’s land reform movement is united with other social movements in challenging the root cause of the problem, which resides in unequal distribution of power and resources. Without deep structural change and the creation of a more just and equitable nation, land distribution will simply revert to the status quo, as struggling farmers lose their land again.

Of course, much work remains, yet the MST shows that solutions to landlessness, homelessness, and social exclusion are available, even without an overhaul of the Brazilian state or political economy. The MST has created living, breathing examples of these solutions thousands of times over.

Women and Land Reform in Brazil

“Back in the early days, most women on land reform settlements didn’t have a vote. It wasn’t until after you’d been part of the movement that you realized you’d had an invisible role.” said Neneide Eliane, an organizer with Deciding to Win, one of many organizations dedicated to obtaining rights, benefits, and power for rural and landless women. In those days, some women were handed the age-old line that their problems would be resolved when rural workers as a whole won justice. Women in the MST reported that for a long time, the group was so focused on unity among its members that it ploughed under the need to specifically address gender.

An organized women’s movement evolved in Brazil in the 1970s, aiming not only for women’s rights but also for an end to the dictatorship. A decade later, a rural women’s movement was born to address gender inequity. In the MST, women formed a national women’s collective in 1995. They have pushed the organization to prioritize gender equality. “Gender” is now an official department of the MST, with a range of programs and policies. Of the leaders that are elected to coordinate each local, regional, and national committee, at least half must be women. Other goals include an end to gender-based violence, access to free birth control, promotion of women’s micro-enterprises and cooperatives, the establishment of childcare centers, and help for women in getting the social benefits they deserve from the state. Gender analysis is a formal part of the MST’s training.

In addition to their ascending integration and leadership into landless organizations, rural women have won legal right to land and social protections – on paper, at least. The 1988 constitution enshrined women’s ability to gain land rights and benefit from land reform directly, not as dependents of their husbands. The constitution also accorded women new labor rights, including unemployment and disability insurance, retirement benefits, and maternity leave.

In practice, today women still account for only a small percentage of all beneficiaries of land redistribution, and overall receive far less revenue than their male counterparts. Many women farmers receive no salary at all, or only a symbolic income.[2]

Rural women still have a long row to hoe. Yet their intensive mobilizing is winning them, slowly but surely, more land titles and greater benefits. They are also advancing toward more just distribution of labor, reduced violence by men, the right to contraception, and the right to education.

Speaking from her land reform settlement in the state of São Paulo, MST organizer Ilda Martines de Souza said, “Without firing a shot, we’ve brought a revolution.” Read the rest of this entry →

A Tale of Two NGOs: In Haiti, Disaster Aid or Aid Disaster?

8:34 am in Uncategorized by Other Worlds

By Beverly Bell

March 5, 2013

 

Three years after the deadly earthquake in Haiti, what has become of the commitments made on Red Cross billboards, the promises from telethon hosts, the moving declarations of Presidents Obama and Clinton? What has happened to the nearly $10 billion that was pledged to assist survivors and to rebuild, most of which was entrusted to the large non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that Professor Mark Schuller terms “non-profiteers”?

 

Not much. Almost nothing has improved for the millions who survive on an even thinner razor’s edge than before the earthquake. As for the nearly 350,000 displaced people who continue to live under shredded plastic, the only plentiful resource is scarcity. Cholera stalks the land, still growing two and a half after the global community learned of its introduction to Haiti through UN occupation soldiers. (Last month, Secretary General Ban Ki Moon cited the UN’s diplomatic immunity in rejecting a legal claim for compensation filed on behalf of Haitian cholera victims.)

 

Anthropologist Mark Schuller’s new book Killing with Kindness: Haiti, International Aid, and NGOs (Rutgers University Press) examines why abundant foreign aid dollars and agencies have not improved the socio-economic status or security of Haiti’s people.

 

The Republic of Haiti has become the Republic of NGOs. Bill Clinton estimated that 10,000 were in Haiti even before the earthquake, but no one actually knows. “Nongovernmental” is actually a misnomer, since many of the agencies get at least half their funding from the U.S. government. Killing with Kindness is a match struck to light up this obscure and powerful sector. A Creole-speaker with a discerning eye, a decade-plus history in Haiti, and close relationships at ground-level, Schuller combines extensive research with first-person anecdotes and vivid description to show how NGOs have aggravated both a humanitarian and structural crisis.

 

Killing with Kindness delivers a tale of two foreign-launched and foreign-funded NGOs. His study is not about the aftermath of the earthquake but about another disaster-filled period, the year 2004. These were political disasters: the second ouster of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide; violence and repression from the right and the elite, backed by the U.S. government; and the fissuring of social movements. Schuller conducts ethnographies of the two agencies, and interviews and analyzes players along the NGO food chain: U.S. and European donors, the organization’s leaders, lower echelons of staff, and the intended beneficiaries.

 

Through the research, he exposes ways through which the groups exclude self-determination or even participation by those directly impacted. He looks at the subtle and not so subtle ways they impose foreign-driven priorities, ideologies, and programs.

 

Killing with Kindness takes the reader far beyond the typical rationales of why NGOs and the large percentage of foreign aid they manage have failed. When donors criticize themselves at all, they tend to rely on excuses like “poor coordination” and “failure of delivery.” When, much more commonly, they blame Haiti, they often speak quietly of a culture that encourages corruption and is change-resistant. Schuller, on the other hand, expertly unmasks the problem as a structural one. Juxtaposing theories of Foucault and Marx, he clearly and carefully lays out his facts and analysis to show NGOs as “semi-elites [who] are inheritors of past world systems and pillars of contemporary globalization.” He lays bare the systems of power which both marginalize the Haitian government and inhibit grassroots organizing for participatory democracy, transparent and accountable governance, and social and economic rights.

 

Throughout the book, the author poses the question: are NGOs contributors to development, or are they “trickle-down imperialism”? He demonstrates that, far from alleviating suffering or creating space for governmental or citizen agency in areas which impact them, the NGO industry instead serves as an intermediary in spreading and sustaining U.S. – and to a lesser degree U.N., Canadian, and European – power, ideology, and markets. (A few stunning exceptions, like American Jewish World Service and Partners in Health, promote Haitians’ own work and goals for their country.)

 

Schuller updated the text to include the aftermath of the quake. In real time, it serves as a second case study through which his thesis proves itself with tragic accuracy. Haiti since the earthquake has been a textbook case in international domination and disaster capitalism, shaking the country like a killer aftershock. The NGOs, together with foreign policy, aid, and Beltway bandits who won contracts, have inflicted even more wounds on the citizenry and on the country’s autonomy.

NGOs have largely replicated the practice of foreign governments, excluding the Haitian state from decisions about its own nation. Haiti’s future has been entrusted to foreign agencies, ones that have no structural accountability, little understanding of the nation or the people, fealty to their own organizations and funders far away, and interests that often contradict Haiti’s best.

 

In the three years since the earthquake, the pace of NGO takeover of public services has become dizzying. Foreign donors and lenders have forced the government to privatize services, and then given money to NGOs to fill the gaps that are left. As the NGOs’ reach and control expand, the Haitian government’s retracts, thereby justifying the redirection of the next round of international dollars to those NGOs. It is a process parallel to that which Schuller describes from eight years earlier: government is increasingly sidelined as an actor in shaping and implementing solutions for its own country.

 

Grassroots groups – representing the vast majority of citizens – are sidelined, too. Haiti’s rich patchwork of social movements of peasant farmers, women, students, youth, and workers is complemented by some small Haitian-run non-profits which focus on human rights, progressive media, and alternative development. The groups began meeting days after the earthquake, literally while cement dust still blew and cadavers still dotted the streets. Their collective hope has been to guarantee that a more just and equitable country arise from the rubble. And yet their agendas, power, decision-making, and leadership have been cast aside as NGO “experts” have stormed every field of the reconstruction with their own knowledge systems and control – not to mention products. Post-disaster services, from sanitation to women’s safety to agriculture, function through UN “clusters,” issue groups set up by the UN to coordinate NGOs and – theoretically, anyway – relevant government institutions. They operate without much or sometimes any engagement of those directly impacted by their work. Many of the movement’s trained and skilled leaders have been hired away, instead of supported in their own work, by high-paying NGOs. Delicate power balances and fragile alliances have been disrupted by the influx of aid disbursed to some and bypassing others.

 

Schuller’s conclusion from living and working with social movements since the earthquake is that they do not want more aid. They want the aid to be used in ways that strengthen their priorities for Haiti’s future, and they want to be part of its distribution and application.

 

Large international agencies could be useful in strengthening the government’s capacity to function and provide services, and in helping communities and social movements meet their own self-identified needs. Social movements, organized communities, and other groups representative of the majority have further ideas on how NGOs could help, not harm. They could work to break the cycle of which they are a part. They could work more closely with, and give more money to, Haitian-run non-profits. They could open their ears to criticisms and suggestions for alternate approaches. They could advocate with their host countries for budgetary support for ministries and dedicate more of their own resources to supporting state capacities. They could use their voices to push for better policies from their home government toward Haiti.

 

Schuller offers specific ways that U.S. government aid policies could be improved, specifically through USAID and the NGOs it finances. They include:

* Pulling USAID out from under the State Department, making it instead independent and able to develop policies not tied to foreign policy goals;

* Giving aid based on need instead of on security interests;

* Requiring NGOs to create space for local participation in their program planning and implementation;

* Shifting the reward structure so that NGOs must collaborate with elected government;

* Ceasing to impose how funds must be spent; and

* Ensuring that aid goes to the recipient country and does not return to the US, as currently 93% of USAID funds do.

 

Schuller cites a Haitian woman who relayed to him her belief that, if U.S. Americans only knew what our government was doing to Haiti and other small, vulnerable countries, we would insist on a new approach. Killing with Kindness ensures that we know.

 

Once having informed us, the activist-scholar calls for citizen pressure for more constructive and accountable aid policies and practices. Urging readers to “occupy government,” he writes, “The question is, what are we as a humanity going to do about [the problems]? What am I, what are you, doing to bring about this change?”

 

The author closes the book by quoting a street vendor who says: “Before you can talk about helping Haiti, the best way you can help us is to bring back democracy to Washington.”

 

Read more and purchase the book here.

 

Beverly Bell has worked for more than three decades as an advocate, organizer, and writer in collaboration with social movements in Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa, and the U.S. Her focus areas are just economies, democratic participation, and gender justice. Beverly currently serves as associate fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies and coordinator of Other Worlds. She is author of Walking on Fire: Haitian Women Stories of Survival and Resistance and of the forthcoming Fault Lines: Views Across Haiti’s Divide.