¡Adelante! The New Rural Activism in the Americas

September 25, 2007

In many parts of Latin America, rural social movements have taken center stage in their nations' politics. In Brazil, the Landless Rural Workers' Movement (MST) has—after 15 years of organizing and struggle—put the issue of agrarian reform squarely on the political agenda of the most unequal nation in the region. In Mexico, the 1994 Zapatista uprising forced the national government—and the international community—to realize that while globalization may be improving the lives of the country's hyper-internationalized elites, it was drowning the indigenous campesinos who eked out a living in the countryside. In Ecuador, recent developments have been indelibly shaped by the region's most powerful indigenous movement, the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE), which has successfully united indigenous, peasant and tribal organizations from the Andean highlands to the Amazonian Oriente.

The "peasant wars of the twentieth century" examined by anthropologist Eric Wolf—including Vietnam, Mexico, Russia, Cuba and Algeria—were characterized by peasant-based movements that struggled against and won state power. As we embark on a new century, how are we to understand the "new" rural activism throughout Latin America today? Is it simply the reaction of a dying class, the "last gasp" of a peasantry doomed to disappear? Or, as Mark Edelman suggests in this issue of NACLA Report, is it proof positive that despite the predictions of modernization theorists and orthodox Marxists alike that the peasantry would cease to exist, peasants—and their movements—"are very much still with us"? This issue of NACLA Report hopes to provide readers with the tools to answer these vital questions by examining the ins and outs of campesino and indigenous organizing in several Latin American countries.

As George Collier suggests, market-driven globalization is at least partially responsible for the revival of rural social movements in Latin America over the past decade. The maldistribution of money and capital, exacerbated by the forces of globalization, have forced the poorest sectors of Latin America to organize to defend their interests and press their cause. These movements have been impressively creative in adapting their struggles to the times. The EZLN, for example, has ingeniously used the Internet to mobilize supporters around the world and keep attention focused on their struggle. As Edelman suggests, the facile idea that an individual cannot be a peasant and modern at the same time is belied by the sophisticated adaptation of modern technology by rural activists. And as internationalized elites globalize their methods of domination, control and extraction via organizations like the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Trade Organization (WTO), so have Latin America's rural movements sought to globalize their methods of resistance. The MST, the Zapatistas and the Ecuadorian indigenous movement, for example, have all built crucial networks of international support linking human rights groups, environmentalists, and other progressive sectors on behalf of issues that matter to Latin America's rural poor—land, autonomy and human rights.

But let us not fall into the trap Edelman warns us against of romanticizing rural struggles. Rural social movements face daunting conditions. Aside from the difficulties of mobilizing and sustaining activism—which should not be underestimated—small-scale agriculture remains underdeveloped, largely sidestepped by productive investment and appropriate technology, and enmeshed, in many countries, in neofeudal types of social relations. In Colombia, for example, it is the traditional agrarian elite and the emerging narco-bourgeoisie, which has bought up increasing chunks of the Colombian countryside, that stands to lose most from the agrarian reform that is an essential step to building peace in that war-torn country. Similar relations are still common in countries as disparate as Brazil and El Salvador.

Even as Latin America is becoming increasingly urban, in many countries the total number of people living in rural areas has actually increased in the last decade. The challenge remains of how to build movements that address their needs and that can successfully influence the policies of governments increasingly enthralled to the interests of the transnational elite networks that govern our world in favor of broad structural change. The movements examined in this NACLA Report are powerful examples of how Latin America's rural and indigenous poor are trying to meet this crucial challenge.


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