Saturday, August 25, 2012

Campesinos Sin Tierra--My Neighbors, My Perspective

    There is a child sitting next to me, his head resting in his mothers lap. He is exhausted and his small body hangs like a collapsed tent on the bones of his tiny frame. His soccer jersey is a mine-field pocked with holes of vary size and geometry; the remaining fabric is occupied by stains of ash and dirt haphazardly scribbled in-between stripes of red and white, the colors of Paraguay's 'Selecion Nacional'. 
     Streaks of soot cross his face with the tragic effect of hollowing his already slender cheeks--each dash of powdered carbon, like some temporary scar, mumbling its own sad story. His eyes are unassuming and within them resides the calmness of defeat, the quietness of his obvious hunger. They echo with the shock of having unexpectedly glanced too far beyond the carefree frontiers of childhood bliss and into a reality that is as unnerving as it is inevitable. He hardly moves, says nothing. With one finger, he traces the veins across the back of his mother's hand.
    His mother's head remains balanced in the cradle of her opposing palm. She is looking away from the crowd of people gathered at her feet, away from the rest of her weary children, away from the man yelling defiantly some meters away. She is looking instead towards some nothing, somewhere over the horizon. There is a billowing plume of smoke and the haze of heat that rises over that distant, barren pasture. Those around her seem to be intentionally avoiding her same orientation. I, however, am not so disciplined--torn between all of these quietly persistence gazes, the small battles of will dancing across the wrinkles and lines in the faces all around me, and that point over the hill where something is still burning. There has been an attack today on something very profound and very dear to these people, that much is clear.  There is a war going on here, but it is a silent war.

    Let me start where things usually begin, somewhere in history. I won’t tell the whole history, for that would take too long, it would be too massive an undertaking, and these humble people seem to deserve something much more than an esoteric essay on historical causes and effects. This is not a justification anyways (as history is often construed to be); this is a real story with real people and real events. Lets not dilute that with any nonsense. What I am about to tell you has happened and is happening right now in my little corner of the world.
    Several months ago, a group of landless peasants who live near my home in the Cordillera district of Paraguay, South America made the collective decision to illegally occupy a small fraction of the massive swath of private property that borders one edge of my community. Almost thirty families moved from the shanty-town encampment--where they had been living in small tents for almost a year without running water or electricity--into this fertile area of fallow land. They began by clearing trees, planting crops, building more permanent structures for homes and creating actual lives for themselves, as opposed to the semi-mobile, barely-scraping-food-together type of existence they had previously been leading.
    Politics here in Paraguay, especially in regards to the landless peasant groups (Campesinos Sin Tierra--see my other blog South American Politics for more info), have been quite volatile over the past few months. Already this year, the clashing interests of large land owners and disenfranchised Paraguayans have spilt blood, impeached a President and solicited international economic sanctions. For many decades, this important and controversial issue has bubbled just below the tumultuous surface of the Paraguayan political current. As of this week, these tensions reached yet another flash point as an army of national police was used to forcefully remove these poor peasants of my community from the small patches of earth that they had only recently come to call their home.
    Not only did this fully armed, battle-ready police force of over a hundred officers arrive in the early morning hours to evict these people (families of men, women, children and babies), but they proceeded to slash their crops and burn their small houses to the ground as a means to discourage their return to the area. The peasants, who had finally staked claim and started a simple, poor, yet dignified life for themselves, were, in a matter of minutes, dispossessed of absolutely everything in the world but the clothes on their back and the half-sleeping children walking at their side. The message was clear: private property, market interests and deep-pockets trump human rights, even basic human dignity, every time. My neighbors were cast as the roll of 'collateral damage' in the great theater that is our global, capitalist drama. It is a minor character, one without any speaking parts, but poignant nonetheless and utterly essential for the show to go on.

    Politics, economics, laws aside, imagine this if you will: you are a hard working farmer who wakes up every morning before the sun to toil and sweat in the fields while your wife remains at home cooking and caring for your small children and your newly born baby. Work is hard, life is harder, you have few things, no health care, you lack water or electricity, you cook over an open fire, your diet is lacking in nutritional value, you are subsisting at a very fundamental level. But at least, you have a field to call your own, a home that is the product of your own work in the forests, felling trees and stitching thatch together for the roof, and a family to sit around the fire with at night.
    One morning you wake up to army helicopters and machine-gun wielding police at your door. They gather you along with your wife and children and force you from your home. In your wake, you see them cut the crops you have sown and raised for months in the hot South American sun, you watch them set fire to that small house, your home, and burn it to the ground. You are then told that you can never return to this place for fear of arrest or more brutal police treatment. You have no bed to sleep in, no roof over your head, no food to fill your belly or the bellies of your malnourished, fly-bitten children. Legally, literally, realistically, you can do nothing but wait and stare at that horizon where your home used to be.
    There is no acceptable ethical or rational justification for the treatment of human beings this way. It is undignified, dehumanizing, unjust. But this is the reality of our world--it is a very immediate reality of my world, as these families, these hungry children are my neighbors and friends--but this is still a very real part of our world. History will tell you why, modern politics will show you how, but the way in which such events have come to pass is not the exception, it is the heartbreaking norm and one that has been largely sheltered from our eyes as citizens of the All-Mighty American Empire. Yet, it is the very things that we do, the decisions we make on a daily basis, the foundational philosophies that govern the lives of those in the first-world that have contributed to the rise of this system of economically-stratified, monetarily-prioritized human beings.
     The Campesino Sin Tierra movement is just one of countless other organized activist groups across the globe reacting to the ubiquitous phenomenon of disenfranchisement by means of economic imperialism. The Zapatistas of the Chapas region in Mexico, tribal-rights groups from the Niger Delta, Brazil's MST (Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra), are just a few among the multitude. These organizations represent peoples that have played (in their own small way) by the rules of the globalized marketplace and yet, lost out completely every time. Now many struggle to feed themselves and their families.
     For us in the first-world, it's hard to contextualize or understand the ideas that drive people to knowingly break the law in search of even marginally better lives. The factors that motivate people to rise up so passionately remains a mystery to most because our perspective on such issues only includes half of the whole picture. Where others see their livelihoods compromised and their lives disrupted we simply see an economic system that allows us to sustain our gluttonous lifestyles, a system that grants certain countries (primarily the United States) disproportionate quantities of the global bounty.
     Most of us have never spent days on end with an empty stomach nor have we toiled for months in the hot sun to coax a small parcel of dirt into production. Most of us have never had to live in a shack without running water. In fact, most of us have never even witnessed, let along experienced first-hand, the cards dealt to those living in abject poverty, except for maybe occasionally and only from the safe distance made possible via TV infomercials. We have been too blinded by the unquestioned virtues of the free-market and globalization because those are the only sides of the equation to which we are ever exposed.
     But what is happening here to these families, this is neither freedom nor democracy nor liberty nor any of those wonderfully bastardized catch-phrases wielded in the name of modern capitalism and global neo-liberalism. This is the underbelly of the beast, the opposite end of the capitalist spectrum, the part that is all too often written-off as unavoidable fallout resulting from a system that is otherwise considered pure and infallible. The individual lives of each of these human beings constitute, piece by piece, the briefly acknowledged "human toll" that sits as a footnote on a page in the annals of political and economic policy.
     But to me, these people cannot just be categorized and simplified so easily; to me, these people have names, faces, each one of them has a different personality, different ways of speaking to me, variable senses of humor, even subtly different way to pour and share tererĂ©. Unfortunately, the ideal of the 'capitalist individual' is not contingent upon such nuances of a human being or their spirit, but instead, only upon one's ability to command finances and capital to achieve certain aims.
     What is happening here is just one part of an important chapter in the story that is the tragedy of our times. While Fukayama may have declared "the end of history" all those years ago, history has instead soldiered on. Surely, the communist tide has waned, but the capitalist ideology is still challenged every day by those very people it has bulldozed, ignored and forgotten. People yearn for a rhetoric of inclusion, a system that unites hopes and concerns from all tiers of life, a collective philosophy behind which we can all rally as we face the unprecedented challenges of our shared future. Instead, there continues to exist an inconceivably profound schism between the richest and the poorest among us, the winners and the losers of our world. We have allowed ourselves to construct artificial pedestals to compartmentalize our species and neatly delineate our world, enabling us to avoid the uncomfortable confrontation with the abject conditions of so many others. There is no greater lie on earth.
     The actions that have been carried out here in my community, the events that have ravaged the already difficult lives of my neighbors and friends, have taken place at the hands of a few. But it is through the passivity and complicity of the many through which they achieved legitimacy and have been allowed to perpetuate. It is my sincere hope that we never reach "the end of history", that people will unite for common goals instead of against common enemies, that each of us can personally participate in the construction of a better future. There is too much at stake to do otherwise.

from this world, from our world
-little hupo

Friday, August 17, 2012

My Letter to the Boy Scouts of America

BSA National Executive Board,

    My name is Mario Reinaldo Machado, Eagle Scout, Order of the Arrow member, and former Assistant Senior Patrol Leader from Troop 29 in Cetronia, Pennsylvania. I am currently serving as a Peace Corps volunteer in the country of Paraguay. My work involves agricultural extenstion as well as general development among a rural community of impoverished families in the second poorest country in all of South America.
    On a daily basis, I find myself using the skills I learned in scouting. Living next to families who are existing far below the poverty line, and with the means of only a paltry stipend from Peace Corps, my lifestyle here in Paraguay is sometimes comparable to a 2-year long camping trip: bathing in frigid buckets of water, using a latrine, walking many kilometers to accomplish simple tasks, constantly battling the elements, and sleeping each night in a sleeping bag with a mosquito net draped over my body. On a very tangible level, I have used my scouting experience in many ways: to lash together all the homemade bamboo furniture which now occupies my small brick hovel, to appreciate and understand the natural world around me (especially as it is so important to those poor farmers with whom I live and work), to grow food in my garden and to show others how to do the same, to take care of myself medically as I cut parasites out of my feet and treat any number of other tropical ailments that may arise, just to name a few.
    On a more personal level, I am here in the first place because of the amazing upbringing and influences that I had growing up, a large part of which was scouting. Over the 13 years that I was a continuous scout, I was not only imbued with the technical skills that have helped me to survive out here as a Peace Corps volunteer, but also with strong and dedicated moral principles which have guided both my life and the work that I have to undertaken to help people in spite of personal hardship.
    Scouting taught me to serve my country, which I am doing by spending 2 years away from family, friends and all comforts and familiarity to serve as a goodwill ambassador to another nation. Scouting taught me to be kind and cheerful, with which I have gained confidence and camaraderie in a community where only a few months ago I was a complete stranger; the same community in which I struggle to speak the indigenous language and yet, am now accepted as a neighbor and friend. Scouting taught me to be thrifty, which has helped me to endure the challenges of living below the poverty line and to be resourceful in any and every way possible. Scouting taught me to be brave, to be a leader, and even as I have found myself tested to greater limits than I could have ever imagined, I continue my work out of bravery and a dedication to make this world a better place.
    Surely, these are the kind of ethics we would hope to instill in all scouts--to serve their community, their country, and their fellow man. For those true Boy Scouts, the experience of scouting does not end with the presentation of the Eagle Scout award, but instead truly begins at that moment, that they may become greater members of our society and our world through their experiences in Scouting. This is the Boy Scouts I have grown to believe in, an idea that I hold as being one of the most guiding and influential in my life. Still, it pains me to say, but no son of mine will ever become a Boy Scout.
    Given the recent decisions of the Boy Scouts of America as it pertains to openly homosexual scouts and leaders, specifically in regards to the reiteration of such decisions on June 14th, I can no longer support such an organization. That bastion for personal growth which has provided me with so many tangible benefits no longer stands for what it may claim. By excluding homosexuals from Boy Scouting, the organization is committing an act so blatantly un-Scout-like that I find it utterly impossible to rationalize. The only thing less respectable and less dignified than bigotry is hypocritical bigotry, and the fact that these homophobic attitudes are in direct violation of the ethics of scouting places the BSA organization in the latter category.
    These actions are cowardly. They do not serve this organization, these communities, this country or this world. They simply perpetuate the hate and prejudices that cripple our society through fear and misunderstanding. I am saddened and personally hurt by these decisions as it causes me to question the lessons I have taken away from my scouting experience. I feel betrayed by the Boy Scouts of America; this is not only an attack on those homosexual members and prospective members, but also an attack on all those who have taken an ethic from scouting which screams in defiance of this injustice.
    Personally, I feel as though scouting helped me to become a better person. It helped guide me from the boy that I was to become the man that I am. As an organization, as a community of scouts, why would we ever choose to deny this experience, this benefit to anyone? Why would the BSA choose to limit the good that it can do in this world by actively discriminating against any group? The reason is fear, cloaked in a dialogue of ignorant logic and hypocrisy. This is not brave, this is wholly irreverent and unjust.
    Once again, we find ourselves in a world where those very people whom we might look to as leaders cave under the pressure of immorality and intolerance. The BSA has lost the opportunity to be a leader among men, a leader whom, while possibly ridiculed by those full of a prejudicial opposition, has in fact risen above the tide to actually become a model Scout within itself. What an amazing example this could have been? What a statement the BSA could have made by accepting all people regardless of sexual orientation?
    Until the day that the Boy Scouts of America chooses to change such bigoted policies and allows homosexual leaders and scouts to enter their ranks as equals, I will no longer count myself among that ‘proud’ group of Eagle Scouts. My experiences will stand for themselves and I will continue to be a good scout even as the organization of Boy Scouting itself fails to do so. I am returning my Eagle Scout medal in the sincere hope that it will one day be returned to me--on the day when ALL scouts are welcomed, accepted and nurtured under the principles for which scouting claims to stand. May you strive to find the courage, the decency and the love within yourselves to open your hearts and minds to all scouts and all people. May you seek to do the greatest good, to “help other people at all times”, and become better servants to our country and our world.

With hope from halfway across the globe,
Mario Reinaldo Machado

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Paraguay is Burning

    I am standing in a desert of ashes, on the surface of the sun. Better yet, I’ve stepped into Dante’s purgatory, poised unknowingly at the threshold of the inferno. Its hot as hell and repentance seems like an immediate necessity. I can smell myself--acrid sweat and dirt--mixed with scents of burning greenery and the hollowness that remains after things have withered and gone. The air itself is on fire, both heavy and empty like the hottest summer day minus the cool beverage and plus maybe a thousand degrees. The wind is so saturated with heat that it stings like ice on the skin. And the noise, at first like distant and muffled machine-guns pumping round-after-round, eventually heightens in pitch as it moves closer, now a hundred invisible hands breaking sticks an inch away from my ears.

    I might be overreacting--in reality, I am standing in a burning field. But for those who have never witnessed a wildfire up close, I must say, it feels an awful lot like the apocalypse. It is a truly awesome force, heightening that primal ‘flight’ response like a fever in your limbs. But force is absolutely the right word for it--it is a force used by people for centuries in place of manual labor. Instead of spending days clearing a field by hand, a farmer needs only a few matches and a favorable wind to be hoeing and planting by sundown. Still, what a tremendous ally and potentially terrifying foe. These Paraguayan farmers seem to know what they are doing though; I wish I could say the same for myself.

    The farmer and his boy fade in and out of view through the smoke hanging in an acidic fog over a dead land. Specters of blackened trees hover like shadows around me, pulsing and swaying like phantoms behind the hazy wall of a million of rising degrees. The air grows exponentially hotter by the second. My eyes feel like hot coals in their sockets. I realize that I am in the middle of three encroaching walls of fire, lapping toward the sun in viscous tongues, spires of pure energy. I realize I need to leave and fast, but I can’t see through the smoke. I am momentarily floating in a carbonous cloud like a moth made of soot and ash; I feel as if I might drift upward along one of these infinite vents of rising heat.

    The reality is that burning fields like this isn’t the best idea for the environment. All of that carbon is released as CO2 into the atmosphere, followed close in tow by all the nutrients, once contained within that organic matter, now in the form of various noxious gasses. Continually burning year-after-year drains soils by disrupting natural nutrient cycling and opens up the land towards other large scale issues such as erosion and acidification. Its hard to argue with the efficiency though--such an immense and powerful force takes the place of any number of days or workers, saving time and money. For a impoverished farmer whose perspective can’t always afford to take into consideration long term effects of such practices, it just makes economical sense. Environmentalism and poverty can go hand in hand, but at the end of the day, people are hungry and they are going to eat one way or another.

     I emerge from the midst of this sea of fire to a cool northern breeze. Its like diving into cold water. It might be in the lower 90’s, but compared to a burning field, its air conditioning. The ground smolders, burnt grass flakes and flutters off on the breeze, raining down in a snow of black dust. Once the main front of flame has moved past, smaller localized patches remain, picking at the leftovers. Every once in a while, the fire will catch dried corn stalk, lick up its heights and engulf the husks in small balls of flame. Its immense and awing, to see a patch of earth laid bare in only a few minutes. Some part of it, in the pit of my stomach, feels tragic and uneasy and I don’t know why.

    On a small scale, all practices are sustainable. The problem today is that environmental degradation happens on such a huge scale that even small-scale agriculturalists in the middle of nowhere in South America can be seen as part of the problem. In a practical sense they are not. Regardless, environmental regeneration can begin on a small-scale and have significant impact, at least on the immediate ecology and the lives of these very farmers and their families. It will still be a tough sell to try and convince these people not to burn, but no one ever said this job would be easy.

From Paraguay,
little hupo

South American Politics

*This blog has been delayed from June 30th due to media and political issues.

    For those of you with an ear to international news, you might have picked up on an interesting story this week that has quietly unraveled in one of the obscure corners of world events. The President of Paraguay and Catholic priest, Fernando Lugo, went from being the leader of this small country to ousted ex-President in less than 48 hours.
    Following a violent clash between police officers and landless peasants (Campesinos sin Tierra) in the town of Curuguaty in the central-eastern part of the country, Lugo was blamed with mismanagement of the situation which led to the deaths of 17 people, officers and peasants included. The incident occurred as a large police force of roughly 300 men were sent to evict families of peasants, roughly 150 people in total, from a parcel of private property that they were illegally occupying. Peasants then opened fire on the police. The land in question is owned by a well-connected Paraguayan with ties to the opposition Colorado political party and who may also have received this piece of real-estate through shady transactions which occurred (as so many others) during the Strossner dictatorship which fell in 1989 after ruling for nearly 4 decades. It should also be noted that this area of Curuguaty is approximately 1 hour from my house.
    This fighting was one of many reasons, including failure to live up to campaign promises (which largely focused on peasants rights and land redistribution) and the fathering of illegitimate children, that were cited as grounds for impeaching President Lugo. The charges were leveled by almost unanimous bi-partisan vote on Thursday night (June 21st) and by the late evening of Friday, the impeachment trial had been concluded, leaving Lugo as the newest of Paraguay’s impeached leaders (3 have been impeached in the country’s history) and Fredrico Franco (Lugo’s Vice President) as the newest South American leader.
    The situation is confusing to say the least. Franco, in his inaugural address reiterated Lugo’s ideas of peasant rights and land reform, although in reality, he faces the stiff opposition party majority which controls both the houses of the congress and staunchly opposes such measures. At the same time, there have been comments to the tune of Franco being merely a puppet of the Colorado party (despite the fact that he is, as Lugo, a Liberal). Then, there is always the fact to consider that the new president will only hold office for 8 months before the next national elections in 2013.
    Many South American countries have refused to officially recognize the new government. There are accusations of un-democratic practices, especially given the rapidity of the impeachment trial (Lugo’s defense team originally asked for 15 days, then 3 days, then 5 minutes to prepare their case and were denied all three by the high court), and some are calling this political move a “pseudo-coup”. It is interesting that many left-leaning South American countries (Ecuador, Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay, Bolivia, Venezuela etc.) are leading the call for fair democratic processes in Paraguay while countries such as the US have not made any official statements regarding the new presidency.
    So far, everything in the country has been peaceful. Protests and demonstrations have been ongoing in the capital of Asuncion as well as in other cities such as Coronel Oviedo and CaaguazĂș but there has fortunately been no further loss of life. The protesters, many of whom are landless peasants and Lugo supporters, can’t be too upset--technically, the new government still occupies a platform that represents their interests. How this plays out in the long run, though, is anybody’s guess. The situation in regards to the international community has also created a sort of Paraguayan patriotic revival as the country claims to have followed its own constitution and is merely exerting its own autonomy. This claim may be well founded, but given the curious conditions of the ouster, the reality remains to be seen.

    All of this has been happening over the past 2 weeks or so. I think that perhaps there may have been a few articles about all of this in the international news circuit, maybe a footnote on the scrolling-tape under the MSNBC news screen. The broader issue, particularly that of the landless peasants (Campesinos sin Tierra as they are known in Paraguay), addresses a much greater concern and has originated out of similar movements in Brazil and Uruguay. The reality in this country is that 2% of the population owns 80% of the land. There are thousands of disenfranchised peoples who lack almost everything, including the land upon which to derive a menial subsistence-producing existence. Most of these people live in destitute poverty without steady work and without the means to feed themselves or their families. This situation is a result of both political corruption and global neo-liberalist fervor famous for the rising number of international ‘land-grabs’.

From Paraguay,
little hupo