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The Real Cancun
Green Bloc of Sonoma County takes on the WTO
By R. V. Scheide
For the members of Green Bloc of Sonoma County, merely protesting against corporate globalization is no longer enough. The time to act has come. "We're not waiting for the revolution," says Eileen Rose, one of eight Green Bloc members who recently returned from Cancun, where the fifth Word Trade Organization Ministerial Conference was held last month. "Were going forward with positive proposals now."
For Rose and her colleagues, the call to action dates back at least to the WTO's 1999 conference in Seattle. Activists had organized for the event months in advance, forging a coalition between labor unions, environmental groups, and human rights organizations. More than 50,000 protesters converged on the WTO meeting, and using tactics that called for direct, spontaneous action by small autonomous groups, the so-called Battle of Seattle put antiglobalization activists back on the political map, providing a handy target on which to focus their future efforts: the WTO.
According to the WTO's website (www.wto.org), "The World Trade Organization is the only global international organization dealing with the rules of trade between nations. At its heart are the WTO agreements, negotiated and signed by the bulk of the world's trading nations and ratified in their parliaments. The goal is to help producers of goods and services, exporters, and importers conduct their business."
That may be the goal, but antiglobalization activists claim the results far too often turn out negative. They say WTO policies strip indigenous farmers of their land, prevent unions from organizing, gut environmental protections, and force underdeveloped nations to privatize public services, all in the name of free trade. Such policies have been heavily influenced by the United States in what has become known as the Washington Consensus, the forced austerity program Third World countries must undergo in order to obtain loans from the World Bank.
To prepare for the WTO conference in Cancun, Green Bloc of Sonoma County borrowed the decentralized organizational tactics used in Seattle, forming a small, autonomous group with no hierarchical structure. Similar blocs or affinity groups have formed across the country since the Battle of Seattle.
Most of Green Bloc of Sonoma County's members are deeply involved in trying to establish sound, sustainable environmental polices here in the North Bay. They decided to use their knowledge to build an "eco-village" in Cancun that would not only provide food, water, and energy to the 10,000 demonstrators expected to attend, but would also serve as a model of sustainable techniques fellow activists could take home with them. To raise funding for air fare, they established a website, www.adoptanactivist.org. Enough money was raised to send eight members to Cancun: Eric Berg, Meddle Bolga, Cole Brennan, Tim Desmond, Stephen Deitrich, Erik Olsen, Abby Wing, Riverwind, and Rose.
Upon arrival, one of the first sights Rose recalls was "a huge barricade around a billboard that said 'Welcome to Cancun.'" The barricade effectively cut off the 10,000 protesters from the ritzy hotel district where the conference was being held. On Sept. 10, the first day of the conference, Lee Kyung-hae, a displaced South Korean farmer turned activist, climbed to the top of the barricade, stabbed himself in the heart and died. "The WTO Kills Farmers," his placard said. It was a somber beginning in sticky, tropical heat.
"It was hot and we were incredibly busy," Rose says. Sonoma County's group was joined by blocs from across the United States, England, France, Germany, and Latin America. Still, there was too much work to do. Because of time and site constraints, Green Bloc was forced to scale down the eco-village and focus on demonstrating sustainable water systems that can be easily constructed using common scrap materials.
"We need to create the world we want," says Erik Olsen, explaining how such makeshift models can help break globalization's grip by giving farmers and other rural residents an option to the expensive privatized systems forced on undeveloped countries by WTO trade policies. "We're taking back control of our sovereignty."
In addition, Green Bloc helped form a Cancun media collective, working the national and international press covering the WTO conference to put a more positive spin on the protest movement. Their efforts were surprisingly effective.
"The message that seemed to really hit home for everybody was that another world is possible," Rose said. The Latin American press initially gave the protesters a negative reception, calling them globaliphobicos, which, roughly translated, means "those who fear globalization."
As the media collective stepped up its PR campaign, that evolved into globalicriticos ("those who criticize globalization"). Finally, after reporters visited the eco-village and saw the alternatives Green Bloc was promoting, newspapers began referring to the activists as globalipropositivos--"those seeking a positive alternative to globalization."
Olsen appeared on a national Mexican television show one evening. The next day in the street, a Cancun native recognized him and thanked the activists for protesting the WTO. Three days after the conference began, it abruptly ended when 22 undeveloped nations refused to give up farm subsidies and walked out. Green Bloc couldn't take all the credit, of course, but the victory was heartening.
"We're thrilled with the success we had," Olsen says. "But the message is we need everyone to take action to create the world we want, and that is what we are trying to disseminate."
To that end, Green Bloc of Sonoma County is already preparing for its next direct action, at the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas in Miami this November.
Like Daughter, Like Father
When she was 12 years old, Severn Cullis-Suzuki spoke at the Rio Summit. The world was dutifully impressed, but for Cullis-Suzuki, the appearance was by then old hat. After all, she's been advocating for environmental and social causes since kindergarten and started the Environmental Children's Organization at age 11.
All that might be chalked up to the behavior of an overly precocious child if not for the fact that her father is world-renowned environmentalist David Suzuki. Cullis-Suzuki, now 23, and her father are two of the featured speakers at the annual Bioneers Conference, Oct. 1-19 at the Marin Center in San Rafael.
An educational nonprofit organization, the Bioneers' stated mission is "to disseminate environmental solutions and strategies to national and global audiences; to educate, inspire, and equip individuals, groups, companies, and institutions toward effective action; to restore the earth and her peoples."
The list of more than 120 guest speakers this year reads like a Who's Who from the world of environmental and human rights activism. Paul Stamets, whose lectures on the uses of mushrooms for food and medicinal uses are extremely popular, returns this year, along with speakers ranging from Foundation for Deep Ecology program director Jerry Mander, famed Native American historian John Mohawk, critically acclaimed author Terry Tempest Williams, to legendary singer/activist Holly Near.
As of this writing, there are only a few limited-access tickets left for this year's conference. For more information, call the Santa Fe-based Bioneers at 877.246.6337 or visit www.bioneers.org.
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From the October 9-15, 2003 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.