Joel Catchlove



From Scarcity To Abundance: stories from the streets of Oaxaca > by Joel Catchlove

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There´s something brewing on the streets of Oaxaca. The genteel colonial centre is vividly scrawled with graffiti and much of it is political. Spray paint depicts everything from giant, masked Lucha Libre wrestlers with the caption La lucha sigue (The struggle continues), to repeated references to the Zapatistas, the indigenous-based rebel movement in the neighbouring state of Chiapas. Small, scrawny figures in the trademark Zapatista ski-masks adorn street signs, the masked face of Zapatista spokesperson Subcomandante Marcos appears in bold black on freshly painted walls, while on another, stencils depict a masked indigenous woman harvesting corn beneath the line "corn is our life". Amid the Zapatistas, another line repeats itself, in stencil or running spraypaint: Oaxaca Libre, 14 de Junio, No se olvida (Free Oaxaca, June 14, Do not forget).
While it scarcely registered in the Australian media, and few media outlets anywhere fully grasped the depth of what was happening, for five months in 2006, the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca was, as Al Giordano describes "a government-free zone", "not governed from above, but rather self-governed by popular assembly.” What began as a teachers´ strike for better wages and conditions grew into a massive, non-violent, broad-based social movement that drove the corrupt and universally despised governor into hiding, and laid the foundations for a truly participatory democracy. As the people of Oaxaca realised that the corrupt government needed them more than they needed it, they began a shift (to use a phrase of Oaxaca´s Universidad de la Tierra) from the scarcity of dependence to the abundance of community self-reliance.
Oaxaca has a heritage of community self-government in its diverse indigenous population. Four out of five municipalities in the state still govern themselves through a process of communal assemblies, known as "practices and customs" or usos y costumbres, a system that doesn´t acknowledge political parties and functions by consensus. Furthermore, as Nancy Davies describes, "statewide, the greater part of public works in four hundred small communities are still carried out by citizen tequios [the traditional indigenous system of unpaid community service] that accomplish a variety of tasks like building roads; repairing churches, bringing in the harvest; and sharing the expenses of weddings, baptisms and deaths." With state and federal levels of Mexican government apparently riddled with corruption and with governments everywhere increasingly wedded to neoliberal economic policies that privilege the health of corporations over the health of communities, the critical importance of community self-reliance is becoming increasingly clear. It is this self-reliance that two Oaxaqueño organisations, Casa Chapulin and the Universidad de la Tierra, seek to cultivate.


The Casa Chapulin collective (named for Oaxaca´s famous snack of fried grasshoppers or chapulines) was born in the adrenalin rush of Oaxaca´s five months of community government. As Diana Denham, one of the initiators of the collective explains, Casa Chapulin formed after Oaxaca´s corrupt governor Ulises Ruiz Diaz ordered police to attack a teacher´s sit-in in the town´s main plaza with helicopters and teargas on 14 June 2006, unsuspectingly triggering an all-out revolt. Realising that much mainstream media was unable to comprehend what was happening in Oaxaca, Casa Chapulin initially adopted a role of independent journalists, documenting and broadcasting the uprising around the world. As the movement grew, and the retaliation of the government and its henchmen became more vicious, the collective also conducted informal human rights accompaniment with threatened participants in the social movement.
As Denham told us, the struggle for the media was a key battle of the Oaxaca uprising. One of Casa Chapulin´s most recent projects is the publishing of a book, entitled Teaching Rebellion: stories from the grassroots mobilisation in Oaxaca, that documents the astounding story of the uprising through the testimonials of the citizens involved. Through stories like the “March of Pots and Pans”, Denham highlights both the importance of community-controlled media, and how the uprising inspired the involvement of people from all backgrounds and sectors of society. In early August 2006, thousands of women from all over Oaxaca descended on the state television and radio studios, brandishing saucepans and cooking utensils. They entered, requested half an hour of airtime to air their grievances and when they were refused, they peacefully occupied the entire complex. The employees left, and the women ran the station for three weeks, broadcasting live news on the movement, together with documentaries and stories on local and global issues and social movements. When the government retook Channel 9 by force, the movement responded within hours, non-violently seizing all eleven of Oaxaca´s commercial radio stations in a demonstration of popular power. By noon the following day, the social movement had voluntarily returned all but two, which the movement retained for its own uses.
Such astonishing collective strength was possible through the formation of the Asamblea Popular de los Pueblos de Oaxaca (Popular Assembly of the Peoples of Oaxaca, or APPO). The APPO formed within days of the June 14 attack on the teachers, drawing together hundreds of people representing a broad array of unions, social, political, human rights and nongovernmental organisations, collectives, farmers, indigenous people, church figures and citizens from communities across the state. While the APPO provided a forum for action and governance across the community, Denham suggests that part of its strength was its simultaneously decentralised nature: that everyone who participates is a representative of the APPO. As the popular catch-cry went, “Todos somos APPO” (We are all APPO). Such decentralisation meant that the APPO was suddenly everywhere. Pirate radio stations (Mexican law only permits commercial or state radio, making all community radio stations illegal) were APPO, students organising in their universities were APPO, people taking action in their barrios were APPO, housewives storming radio stations were APPO.

Casa Chapulin now focuses on seven main areas: gender, popular education, immigration, urban agriculture, community based economies, community-controlled media, and human rights and political prisoners. While it runs weekly community workshops and hosts guest speakers on a wide array of topics, the main focus of Casa Chapulin (and its sister collective Casa de la Paz in San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas) is education for social change, through a program of hosting and educating activists in local issues. This "activist exchange" is intended to provide participants with a spark for community work in their own home communities, facilitating the building of broad political networks and increasing access to ideas.


The Universidad de la Tierra (University of the Earth) was born on the crest of another era of democratic promise for Mexico. The 2000 federal election carried with it the possibility of finally dislodging the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), a notoriously corrupt organisation that had rusted in power for the past 70 years (Incidentally, the PRI is the same party Oaxaca´s Governor Ruiz represents).
Meanwhile, in the northeastern highlands of Oaxaca, the Mixe indigenous group had begun expelling teachers from their communities. While acknowledging that education was essential for their children, the Mixe asserted that the schooling system as it stood was one of the most powerful tools of cultural destruction. Mixe children were forced to attend school for six or eight hours every day, rather than working in the fields or participating in community life and thus learning the necessary skills for contribution and participation in Mixe society. Furthermore, formal schooling emphasised a set of values that didn´t reflect the community´s needs: values that encouraged students to move away to city universities and pursue careers in urban centres far from their culture and communities.
From this context, founding member Sergio Beltrán tells us, the Universidad de la Tierra emerged. Placing community self-reliance and self-determination at the core of its educational principles, the Universidad is determined to reclaim the sense of the university as a public space for debating and sharing knowledge. The Universidad has no teachers, no curriculum and no grades. Rather, it views itself as a community of learners that facilitate the seeking of knowledge.
Potential students (or “learners” as Beltrán calls them) approach the Universidad with a proposal for what they would like to learn. According to the Universidad´s criteria, the proposal, which often takes the form of a concrete project for a community, must be socially balanced (it must be relevant and make a contribution to the person´s community), ecologically sensitive and economically feasible. Advisors will then work with the learner for up to three months to develop a ´path of learning´, helping them to find the resources they need, putting them in touch with people already working in their field of interest or who have initiated similar projects, or supporting them to become apprentices in their area, underscored by a belief in “learning by doing”. "Everyone will answer your questions", says Beltrán, "but no one will tell you what to do. You are in control of your learning process."
The Universidad´s focus on self-reliance extends well beyond its formal "academic" work - even as broad as that is. One of the Universidad´s long-standing projects is CACITA, (Centro Autónomo para la Creación Intercultural de Tecnologías Apropriadas) an appropriate technology workshop in the suburbs of Oaxaca. Beltrán emphasises that truly appropriate technology is technology that can be “appropriated”. That is, it is adaptable to a range of contexts and can be developed with a range of local materials by the community itself. Solar panels, he argues, are not appropriate technology. Instead, they only represent a shift in dependence from one industrially produced technology (for example, a fossil fuel power plant) to another.

In mid-2008, the Universidad initiated Guerreros Sin Armas (Warriors Without Weapons). Originating in Brazil, Guerreros Sin Armas is based on the principles of non-violent communication. Through collective work, the project supports a community in building a desired project using resources and skills from within the community.
With Guerreros Sin Armas, Colonia El Diamante, a neighbourhood with no public services, no municipal sewer, and only partly connected to electricity, took vacant land and using only their own resources converted it into a public park, no small thing in a city that has only 2 metres of green space per person. As Beltrán highlights, projects such as these are very much about transforming a sense of scarcity to a realisation of the abundance already present within a community´s knowledge, skills and resources.

While the Mexican government ultimately unleashed the full strength of its military and paramilitary forces to bring Oaxaca back under its rule, the seeds of self-determination continue to take root in Oaxaca and beyond. Oaxaca´s experiment in self-government, and the organisations like Casa Chapulin and the Universidad de la Tierra that continue to work to build resilient communities offer a model and inspiration for communities everywhere to begin a transition to the abundance of self-reliance.

- September 2008, San Cristóbal de las Casas, Mexico & Huehuetenango, Guatemala

References and further reading:

The People Decide: Oaxaca´s Popular Assembly, Nancy Davies, Narco News Books

Teaching Rebellion: Stories from the grassroots mobilisation in Oaxaca,Diana Denham & CASA Collective, PM Press

The Oaxaca Commune and Mexico’s Autonomous Movements, Gustavo Esteva, Ediciones Basta!

CASA Chapulin,

Universidad de la Tierra,

Guerreros Sin Armas,


Member for
12 years 23 weeks

Nyéléni - The World Forum for Food Sovereignty > by Joel Catchlove

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April 2007

On the dusty shores of Lake Sélingué, Mali, West Africa, amid mud brick huts and donkey carts, peasants, family farmers, fisherfolk, nomads, pastoralists, indigenous and forest peoples, rural workers, migrants and consumers from across the world laid down a challenge. From their many languages and regions emerged a global call for food sovereignty.

The World Forum for Food Sovereignty (named ‘Nyéléni’ after a legendary Malian woman farmer) is held here in rural Mali, because this is the reality of rural life for much of the world. As the sun slowly sinks, a shimmering disc suspended in the dusty sky, silhouetted fisherfolk punt their pirogues across Lake Sélingué, checking their nets. If you follow the road towards the lake, you’ll come to rice paddies, banana groves and vegetable gardens, stretching away down the river valley. While irrigated by a hulking dam that contains the lake, the fields and paddies are gravity-fed, the levels constantly readjusted with mattocks and shovels to regulate the flow. The plots are leased by families, ploughed by oxen and cultivated by hand. Water is scooped onto rows of pumpkins, lemongrass, amaranth and onions from gourd bowls.

Beyond, you cross the river, a tributary of the Niger, to where pirogues are moored and the fisherfolk unload their catch. There’s a village here of mud huts. No photos are permitted; the villagers have beliefs about the power of cameras and a fierce sense of privacy. After receiving permission to enter the village from the village elder you walk among the huts, thatched granaries raised on wooden legs, donkeys and cattle chewing contentedly in the shade of an open straw barn and groves of mango and papaya trees.

Even back in Mali’s capital, Bamako, vacant lots, roadsides and the banks of the Niger and its tributaries are given over to food production through meticulous grids of vegetables and herbs. Like rural Sélingué, it’s dominated by human scale technologies: hand tools, donkey carts, bicycles; the urban gardens are irrigated by water hoisted from wells. Mango trees grow along the streets and papayas flourish behind compound walls.

Nnimmo Bassey, from Environmental Rights Action (Friends of the Earth Nigeria) offered some context on the significance of talking about food sovereignty in Africa,
“Having a world food sovereignty meeting in Africa is very significant because in today’s world, when you talk about food, when you talk about hunger, the pictures that flash across people’s television screens across the world is of people starving in Africa,” he says.
“In fact, governments and the national agencies that work on food issues would not readily give a thought to food sovereignty. All they talk about is food security. People don’t want us to care about what we eat, they only want us to worry about having something on the table. This directly affects our dignity as human beings because you are forced to eat whatever you are given. You are not given the space to meet your own needs: to decide what you want to eat, to decide what you want to grow and to cultivate.”

“People can see that Africans may be hungry, but not because there is no food. Rather because the food is not in the right place at the right time, and because of issues like a lack of rural infrastructure, because of denied access to credit and because of twisted policies that want people to follow a failed pattern. For example, rather than pursuing organic agriculture, rather than using principles developed over centuries, our farmers are being encouraged to use genetically engineered seed, to rely on artificial fertilisers and to follow the failed patterns of the ‘green revolution’.”

“It’s very important that we’re here in Mali, because Mali is emblematic of the continent of Africa. It is a place of rich diversity, it’s a huge landmass and it has been a prominent trade centre over the centuries ... a country where you have a rich agricultural heritage, and although a vast part of the country is covered by the Sahara desert, the people are still able to meet their food needs. It shows a spirit of resilience and what Africa can achieve. It is a land of potentials, and of course, a land of very beautiful music and people.”

International peasants’ network La Via Campesina, together with Malian peasant network Coordination Nationale des Organisations Paysannes du Mali (CNOP) and other groups involved in the forum’s development, chose to build an entire village to host the forum. It lies on the outskirts of Sélingué town, the lone paved road to Bamako stretching past, buzzing with motor-scooters, bicycles and donkey carts.

With two days to go, the site is crowded with workers, some are digging trenches for plumbing, their picks and mattocks tethered with old inner-tubes to the backs of bicycles. The site is almost treeless but for a few persistent stumps and a jacaranda. The hot winds pick up clouds of the fine pale dust, sprinkling it over the thatched rooves, the gleaming white walls of newly built mud huts and the faces of the workers. There are clusters of women, luminous in swathes of wax-printed cloth sweeping out the huts, others are nonchalantly painting designs in black and ochre on hut walls, others are pouring concrete, and others sit chatting under the shade of new thatch.

The forum site embodies the emphasis on the local that permeates food sovereignty. Over the three months it’s taken to build, it has been constructed entirely by hand using local materials and local, traditional methods. The straw, the bricks, the bamboo are all from Sélingué. When the food is prepared in the following days, it is prepared exclusively from locally grown produce by a local women’s cooperative (GMO-free, we are enthusiastically reminded). The meat is slaughtered daily on a bed of leaves only a few metres from where we eat. No companies are contracted in the construction or running of the site; rather, local people are employed. “As we build this place, we also build the future,” announces one of the coordinators. And like the site, food sovereignty is a movement under construction.

As he rushes around the site advising on the progress of the work, I ask Paul Nicholson, from La Via Campesina and the Basque Farmers Union, to define ‘food sovereignty’,
“Food sovereignty is the right of peoples to determine what they eat, who produces it, and how it’s produced,” he tells me, before continuing, “And it is a very important right now, because we are losing that right. We don’t know what we are eating. We don’t know who produces our food and how it’s produced.”
“Food is the major problem in the world: there are 856 million people who go hungry every day, and the tendency is to increase this number, not decrease it. Today, for the first time in history, it is also basically the rural people, peasants, who go hungry.”

The main threat to food sovereignty, says Nicholson, is “the whole free trade logic”. This, he says, destroys local economies, cultures and knowledge of sustainable land use to expand industrialised, multinational agribusiness. He offers Mali as an example,
“Mali is basically an agricultural country. Historically it is self-sufficient. Today they’ve had to open up the markets … When the milk industry was privatised, suddenly the import of European milk was far cheaper than milk production in Mali. Now, the Malian industry only buys milk from Europe. It’s destroyed the whole fabric of milk production.”
“Rice is a staple food here. Mali is self-sufficient in food production, yet rice coming from Asia or from the United States has invaded the local market, making it impossible for local rice production [to compete].”
As concepts like ‘food security’ have been coopted by institutions like the World Trade Organisation into forms that support free trade and corporate globalism and ignore the social and environmental impacts of such a system, it has become necessary to develop alternative principles. In response, in 1996 La Via Campesina articulated the concept of ‘food sovereignty’, a concept that not only ensures communities have access to adequate food, but also emphasises self-determination, environmentally sustainable food cultivation, and trade that guarantees community well-being over corporate profit.

The forum’s days are full, beginning when the sun begins to warm the inside of the huts. There are queues of people lining up beside the taps outside, washing their faces and cleaning their teeth. After a breakfast of millet fritters, mangoes and goat stew, the day’s activities begin. There are layers of complexity: regional discussions deal with logistics; sectorial discussions representing peasants and farmers, fisherfolk, pastoralists, indigenous peoples, workers, migrants, urban movements and consumers ensure each group’s interests are represented; interest groups ensure that the voices of women, youth and the environment are heard; and combined thematic working groups draw together the perspectives to discuss food sovereignty in the context of everything from trade policy to conflict and disaster to forced migration to the preservation of traditional knowledge.
There’s a lull in the heat of the afternoon and delegates drift from dusty shadow to dusty shadow, returning to their huts for sweaty siestas. By 4.00pm, the silence is broken again by conversation and the chants of different regions. The sudden chant of “Down! Down! WTO!” explodes from a regional meeting of East and Southeast Asians. La Via Campesina’s chant, “Globalise struggle!” “Globalise hope!” is called and answered, first in Spanish, then English, then French.
Night is filled with music. Drums are beaten in trenches dug for mud bricks and here and there, transistor radios wheeze out Malian classics through the kazoo of their tiny speakers.

Throughout the five days of the forum, amid celebrations, plates of millet and peanut sauce and performances from the stars of West African music, discussions further defined the concept of food sovereignty and how it can be strengthened locally, regionally and globally. The final day was dedicated to working with politicians from across the world to integrate food sovereignty into government policy.
A journalist tells me how the World Forum for Food Sovereignty has very consciously tried to build on the lessons of the World Social Forum, while establishing itself as a major movement in its own right. This is evident in the careful selection of participants, ensuring the involvement of those whose daily lives are part of the struggle for food sovereignty. Farmers, peasants, fisherfolk, indigenous peoples and rural workers make up the overwhelming majority of delegates. Latin America, Africa, South Asia, Southeast Asia and East Asia were the regions best represented. There were a handful of Europeans and North Americans and more from Central Asia and the Middle East. As the only person from Oceania, I was temporarily adopted by Southeast Asia.

I quickly realise that food sovereignty is not just about food. Rather it acknowledges food as the common ground for all peoples and identifies it as a starting point and guiding theme for broader change. Food sovereignty suggests that it’s impossible to explore how food is produced, traded and consumed without questioning the whole fabric of global economics and society, from resource-intensive industrial production of crops and livestock, to the emergence of dangerous technologies like GMOs and nanotechnology, to the paradigm of global trade peddled by institutions like the World Trade Organisation and manifested in Free Trade Agreements, to food aid as an extension of the North dumping on the South, to the patenting of traditional knowledge, and through all these aspects, the increasing consolidation of corporate control of food production and trade.
The contexts of the struggle for food sovereignty vary across the world. In many places, like the case of Paul Nicholson’s Basque companions, like the peasants and indigenous peoples of Southeast Asia, Korea and Japan, or the traditional farmers throughout Latin America and Africa, it is a struggle to protect and maintain resilient local economies in the face of corporate incursions, Free Trade Agreements and food aid programs which act as another assault on local markets. In North America and Europe, the focus is not only on protecting the remaining small, traditional food producers but also on rebuilding links between consumers and producers. For countries like Australia, where broadscale corporate agribusiness already has a strong foothold, the challenge is to cultivate and rebuild local economies and environmentally sound modes of agricultural production. Australia has already established free trade agreements with the US, Thailand, Singapore and New Zealand and is determined to develop further agreements throughout the region with China, Japan and Korea and others. It’s urgent for Australians to understand the impacts of these agreements and to work in solidarity with farmers, peasants and food producers throughout the region to defend their local economies and cultures.

Beneath all of this, I realise, food sovereignty is intrinsically about connection to land and connection to place. Food sovereignty places those from food production traditions that have been maintained within the boundaries of specific environments over time at the centre of its discussions and action. By acknowledging the wisdom of those who have been feeding their communities for centuries, the peasants, indigenous peoples, fisherfolk and others, it recognises that those who still maintain living traditions of closeness to the earth are best placed to make decisions and advise on how land should be used and how food can continue to be cultivated, traded and consumed in their communities and beyond.

For more information visit:

Nyéléni 2007 – World Forum for Food Sovereignty:
Real World Radio:
La Via Campesina:

Joel Catchlove attended the World Forum for Food Sovereignty with the support of La Via Campesina and Friends of the Earth International. He would be delighted to further discuss the possibilities for food sovereignty in Australia.

Friends of the Earth Adelaide is currently developing a community food campaign, to be part of it, contact Joel at, on 0403 886 951 or 08 8227 1399.