|Latin America Today|
Issue Date: November 26, 2004
Church groups seek new models of solidarity
Part Ten: Solidarity
By BARBARA FRASER and PAUL JEFFREY
Ellie Stocks first visit to this bleak mining town high in the Peruvian Andes is engraved on her memory.
It was like Id read about -- the smokestacks, the barren hills, the streams that were deep chocolate, the sense of your throat burning and your eyes watering, and a complete disregard for the people, she said.
Although Stock is the pastor of a Presbyterian Church (USA) from St. Louis, the problems she saw werent far from home. Doe Run, the U.S.-based company whose smelter was spewing lead and sulfur dioxide into the air of La Oroya, was facing sanctions in Herculaneum, a town not far from St. Louis, because of lead emissions from its smelter there. Activists from the two communities had been brought together through a church-based network called Joining Hands Against Hunger.
Its a new model for mission, Stock said. Its people on both sides of a partnership working on similar issues and working together to strategize and help each other address problems and create solutions. Were giving, receiving and working together, recognizing the gifts of both.
For residents of La Oroya, a trip to Herculaneum, sponsored by the Joining Hands Against Hunger Network, was an eye opener.
The company is using more appropriate technology to control the contamination there, said Dora Santana, an obstetrician in La Oroya who works with the network. Were asking them to use the same technology in La Oroya.
Joining Hands Against Hunger is just one example of the forms that the solidarity movement has taken since the 1970s and 80s, when faith-based groups in the United States joined forces with churches and base communities in countries from Guatemala to Chile, providing sanctuary to refugees and pressuring the United States to end support for repressive regimes.
Just as he has warned of the dangers of economic globalization, Pope John Paul II has called for the globalization of solidarity.
A culture of solidarity must be promoted that is capable of inspiring timely initiatives in support of the poor and the outcast, especially refugees forced to leave their villages and lands in order to flee violence, the pope wrote in Ecclesia in America, the papal exhortation issued after the 1997 Synod for America. The church in America must encourage an economic order dominated not only by the profit motive but also by the pursuit of the common good, the equitable distribution of goods and the integral development of peoples.
Throughout the hemisphere, people of faith are answering the call.
After the end of the Cold War and the peace processes [in Central America], there was a period of rethinking what solidarity would look like and what we needed to be paying attention to, said Marie Dennis, who heads the Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns. Very quickly, there was a move to focus on economic issues.
In many ways, that was a natural shift.
The wars ended, but the underlying issues, particularly the economic issues that gave rise to the wars in the first place, remained, said Scott Wright, co-coordinator of the Washington-based Ecumenical Program on Central America and the Caribbean (EPICA). Many of these issues go beyond national borders, so what weve seen in the past decade is a movement away from country-specific solidarity to a more regional-based solidarity with emerging grass-roots organizations, he told NCR.
As the movement of solidarity with Latin America has matured and expanded, it has taken on new forms and moved into new areas. Countries that were in the spotlight in the 1970s and 1980s -- such as Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua -- still receive a great deal of attention. But there is also a growing network of groups looking at broader issues that affect the entire region. And while human rights and U.S. policy are still significant issues, activists are addressing matters ranging from external debt to free trade to immigration.
Increasingly, groups in the United States link up with organizations based in Latin America that are working on those issues in their own countries. The U.S. groups help their Latin American partners get their message heard in a U.S. forum through both grass-roots education and policy advocacy.
Sister parishes date back several decades, and some U.S. dioceses have established relationships with dioceses in Latin American countries, especially in Mexico and Central America. The sister parish relationship encourages a closer bond between people, one hallmark of faith-based solidarity.
Churches and faith-based groups have been the backbone of the solidarity movement in Latin America, said Lisa Haugaard, executive director of the Washington-based Latin America Working Group, a coalition that includes religious groups of various denominations. The solidarity movement isnt exclusively the faith community, but thats a very strong part of it. And that makes it very deep, because it goes beyond the issue of the moment to a connection with people that persists.
Some groups have plugged into regional and intercontinental solidarity and activist movements. The World Social Forum, which was first held in 2001 in Porto Alegre, Brazil, as an alternative to the annual World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, draws tens of thousands of people to workshops and events. Opponents to the Free Trade Area of the Americas meet regularly, most recently in late January in Cuba.
Meetings of the World Bank, International Monetary Fund and World Trade Organization also draw activists. And while street protests and arrests tend to attract the most media attention, the lobbying by activists inside can be just as important as the action on the streets.
Kevin Danaher, cofounder of California-based Global Exchange, was in Cancún, Mexico, for the World Trade Organization meeting in November. He points to that as a key moment for activists because of the increased collaboration between nongovernmental groups and the governments of developing countries such as Brazil, India, China and South Africa, which strongly opposed trade policies, especially agriculture subsidies, that favor industrialized nations.
One trend that began in the 1970s and 80s among groups that opposed repression and U.S. involvement in Central America is the practice of helping the people affected by U.S. policy gain access to audiences in the United States where they can tell their stories.
That was effective in the sanctuary movement, Wright said. Its not only that the church becomes the voice of those who are voiceless, but even more that the church ultimately acts so that people who are voiceless can speak for themselves in a way that challenges us to further action.
Seeing the global impact close to home
The Joining Hands Against Hunger network has put that principle into practice on both sides of the equator. Missouri residents from Herculaneum joined Peruvian members of the network in testifying at a hearing in the Peruvian Congress, urging the lawmakers to declare La Oroya an emergency zone and pass legislation that would require Doe Run to reduce emissions.
The residents of La Oroya and Herculaneum felt that they were kindred souls, Stock said. They were going through the same thing. They had been given the same line by the company -- continual postponements, continual reneging on things [the company] said it was going to do. They felt encouraged by meeting each other.
The issues are as varied as the problems and needs of grass-roots groups and communities in Latin America and the interests of solidarity groups in the United States. For the St. Louis presbytery, through which Stock and her husband are co-pastors at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Dellwood, Mo., the environmental issue was a natural because of the Doe Run smelters and lead poisoning problems in the two communities.
Its a very practical way [for people] to be able to get involved and understand the complexity of global issues through a very specific focus, such as the environmental target, Stock said, although she acknowledged that the approach can be difficult. I think people are beginning to see the connections more, and yet there are others who are saying, This doesnt sound like traditional mission and I dont understand it yet.
Migration is another area in which people can see connections more easily because of their own experiences with immigrants in their communities and parishes.
During a recent visit to El Paso, Texas, EPICAs Wright ran into people who had been active in the sanctuary movement, which sheltered political refugees fleeing repressive Central American regimes.
Now there are economic refugees fleeing Central America and Mexico, and the same constellation of churches and interfaith [groups] are trying to respond, Wright said.
Because of crackdowns at urban border areas, more and more migrants are making the dangerous crossing in the desert, where an unknown number -- there are estimates of more than 2,000 over the past decade -- have died.
People are responding by setting up water stations in the desert and opening up churches, making them centers for refugees and migrants and calling attention to why people are crossing the border, whats driving the immigration and how we should respond, Wright said.
Economics underlies immigration and a host of other social problems that have drawn the attention of hemispheric solidarity groups. From the Jubilee campaign to cancel developing countries external debt, to the Free Trade Area of the Americas, activists are speaking out, lobbying governments and calling for fundamental changes in the economic system.
And while the issues are complex, that does not frighten off the parish groups that choose to tackle them.
The human face of economic injustice is just as visible as the human face of displacement from war, Dennis said. People are doing the homework that helps them dig deeper and get closer to root causes. Congregations, parishes, students and people across the United States made the most amazing effort to understand what the debt debate was all about -- and they got it. Very subtle issues became comfortable language for parish groups that had no expertise and really werent all that interested a few years ago.
Religious congregations are also targeting companies that do business in developing nations, sometimes buying small amounts of stock so that they can introduce shareholder resolutions to change corporate practices. The Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility has been promoting that kind of activity for three decades. Its 275 institutional members currently have 185 socially motivated shareholder resolutions filed with 130 U.S. and Canadian companies.
Changing the rules of trade
Across the United States, church groups have been at the forefront of a movement that is trying to change the way companies do business. The concept of fair trade -- paying farmers a just price for their products -- began with handcrafts and has since spread to food products, especially coffee.
Early efforts were sponsored by the Church of the Brethren and the Mennonites. Fair trade proponents say church involvement not only helps growers get a fair deal, but also spreads the word in the United States. From serving fair trade coffee at church meetings to touring cooperatives in Guatemala, more and more congregations are getting into the act.
Millions and millions of Americans are now learning about fair trade through their places of worship. I dont think the value of that can be overestimated, said Rodney North, who handles public relations for Equal Exchange, a for-profit cooperative in Massachusetts that has marketed fair trade products since 1986.
Equal Exchange claims a 25-percent share of the fair trade market and says that faith-based groups account for about one-quarter of that. The Lutheran church has set a goal of purchasing 90 tons of fair trade coffee this year, he said.
According to Haven Bourque, marketing director for Transfair USA, a fair trade certifying organization in California, over the past five years the fair trade movement has provided small coffee producers with $34 million more than they would have earned by selling their crop through conventional channels. Sales held up even when world coffee prices dropped two years ago because of a glut. She estimates that about 20,000 U.S. retail outlets, from specialty shops to convenience stores, now offer fair trade coffee.
During the coffee crisis, a lot of farmers used the revenue just to put food on their table or to be able to stay on their land, she said. Its literally been a difference between life and death.
While coffee and handcrafts are the best-known fair trade items, the U.S. market is expanding into chocolate and fruit, which has been a staple of the European fair trade market for years.
The challenge, both North and Bourque said, is to move fair trade products out of niche markets and into the mainstream. That puts companies like Equal Exchange in the unusual position of encouraging their producers to also sell coffee or cocoa to their competitors.
Were not big enough to buy all the coffee, North said. Three hundred other companies now offer at least one fair trade coffee. We dont want it to be a niche for them. We want them to really embrace fair trade. Farmers need that from them.
In order to qualify for fair trade certification, both producers and importers must meet criteria set by the Fair Trade Labeling Organization (FLO) in Bonn, Germany. Producer organizations, which usually are cooperatives, must be democratically organized. If the producer is not a co-op, its workers must be free to organize a union. They must meet minimum labor standards, including equal pay for equal work by men and women and a prohibition on child labor, and environmental criteria, including not using banned pesticides and taking steps to protect biological diversity.
While fair trade products are not necessarily organic, Bourque said, about 85 percent of fair trade coffee is.
Theres a nice parallel between the big boom in organic products in the U.S. and fair trade, she said. A product may be good for the earth and good for me, and [growers arent] suffering from pesticides, but are they paid enough to put food on the table and send their kids to school? More and more people make that connection.
FLO inspects farms around the world every year and audits their sales records. A partner organization in each country -- Transfair in the United States -- audits importers books, comparing their figures with FLOs. Only when all criteria are met can a product carry the fair trade label.
The process is labor-intensive, but the groups involved aim for financial independence. Transfairs clients pay a certification fee of about 10 cents per pound of coffee. Half of that goes to FLO and the rest is used for Transfairs marketing activities. Bourque said the organization, which also receives funding from foundations and church groups, including the Dominican sisters in Adrian, Mich., is aiming for financial independence in 2006.
Although its profits are modest, Equal Exchange has operated in the black for 14 of the last 15 years, according to North, with $13 million in sales last year.
Continued growth, he said, is a challenge that weve made harder because of the model that we use. Were paying two to three times more than our competitors. Were offering investors the worst possible terms for their investment. We have a flat pay structure. We encourage our competitors to copy us. It makes it hard -- but its obviously working.
Human rights still in spotlight
The expanded focus on economic solidarity in the region does not mean that traditional human rights issues have fallen by the wayside.
When a grass-roots community in a given country is confronting whatever form of violence or repression, they often call for international solidarity and get it very quickly, Dennis said.
Perhaps the best example of that today is Colombia, which has slipped out of headlines in the United States even though it is still one of the largest recipients of U.S. aid, particularly military funds. Although the war in Iraq has pushed Colombia virtually out of the public eye, it remains a primary concern for the Latin America Working Group.
That [importance] was really confirmed by the enormous aid packages that are going to Colombia, Haugaard said. Its a major foreign policy debate mainly because churches, unions and activists have made it so.
The United States has provided huge amounts of military aid to Colombian security forces, ostensibly for anti-drug efforts. But the battle raging among government forces, leftist rebels and right-wing paramilitaries invites comparison with Central America -- or Vietnam.
Since 2000, when the controversial Plan Colombia went into effect, the United States has allocated $2.44 billion to that country, of which most -- $1.97 billion -- has been military aid. Another $688 million is in the 2004 budget, including $553 million for the military and police.
Scores of labor union leaders and human rights activists have been killed in Colombia in the past decade, and Colombia has one of the largest populations of internally displaced people -- most of them women and children -- in the world, about 2.5 million.
Opponents of U.S. anti-drug support for Colombia point out that stepped-up efforts since 2000, including the spraying of the herbicide Roundup Ultra on crops of coca, the raw material used to make cocaine, have done nothing to stem the flow of drugs into the United States. While the Bush administration is claiming victory, experts in the Andean countries say the spraying appears to have simply pushed the coca crops back over the border into Peru.
That phenomenon also worries Haugaard, who sees the Andean region as a key area for solidarity and policy advocacy in coming years.
The Colombia-Andean region question is enormous and I dont see it ending, she said. I see the United States having to face ongoing instability. The question is whether well respond in the same old way.
Many other countries also receive military assistance, either in funds or in training. For years, the U.S Army School of the Americas has been the focus of protests because of the number of human rights violators from Latin American countries who took courses there. The school at Fort Benning, Ga. -- which has been renamed the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation -- continues to draw religious groups from around the country for a major protest every year, while School of the Americas Watch, headed by Maryknoll Fr. Roy Bourgeois, does year-round monitoring, advocacy and education.
But that is only one piece of the U.S. military training picture, Haugaard said.
Even in times of peace, U.S. military training to Latin America has gradually grown and grown, she said. Forty percent of the people the United States trained in the world in 2002 were from Latin America, which is astonishing.
Although the School of the Americas is spotlighted in the United States, most U.S. training of Latin American security forces occurs outside the United States, along with U.S. military goodwill missions that build roads and schools and provide medical care.
Its very unscrutinized, not thought about, not analyzed in terms of its impact, Haugaard said. Right now, [U.S.] military and police aid nearly equals economic and social aid in Latin America. At some point, were going to have to reckon with that.
So how do church groups get involved in these key issues?
For Danaher of Global Exchange, the key is simply to jump in.
If you think of Dantes quote that the hottest parts of hell are reserved for those who in times of moral crisis maintain their neutrality, the ground on which you can stand to maintain your neutrality is getting thinner all the time, because the empire is more blatant, the social inequities are more blatant and the environmental crisis gets more severe, he said. The first thing to do is find your passion. If your passion is coffee or dolphins or whales -- whatever it is, thats the best point of entry because thats where your energy will be sustained.
Groups have organized to address almost any conceivable issue, and many churches and faith-based groups have organizations, Web sites and resources available.
Despite the proliferation of secular groups working on various issues, the impact of faith-based solidarity is still great.
The reality that the solidarity movement continues to address has enormous moral consequences. Its about human rights and the integrity of creation. Those issues matter a lot to people of faith, Dennis said. And the action strategies that grow out of faith expressions, such as vigils and fasts and prayer services, are powerful in effecting change.
Networks and coalitions make it possible to link local actions with those that have an international impact. The growing concept of a global South -- that poverty and exclusion are not just characteristics of southern hemisphere countries, but also exist in industrialized countries -- helps people link local actions with the bigger picture.
People have to begin where they are, opening themselves to the immediate social and economic realities around them -- who is hurting, who is in need, who is excluded and why that is happening, said Wright, who joined EPICA in 1991 after spending eight years working in Honduras and El Salvador.
Despite the strength of the economic and political forces that solidarity groups aim to combat, activists find reasons to keep fighting.
I think the biggest challenge is to keep people feeling like theres some hope, because the issues were dealing with are so enormous that its hard to see what success will look like and whether well recognize it when it shows up, Dennis said. But I find hope at local levels all over the world. In every single place, people are actively engaged in trying to change things.
Danaher sees it as the human species exiting adolescence and entering adulthood. Were realizing that we cant keep going the way weve been going. Its all coming together in our favor. Im very confident that were going to win.
Wright finds hope in the local, regional, continental and global South movements against the dominant economic paradigm. They are trying to propose alternatives and saying that the world could be organized differently -- economically, socially, culturally -- in a way that would distribute resources more justly and respect the diversity of peoples and cultures. And that, I think, is laying the foundation for real peace in the world.
Barbara Fraser, who worked in Peru for 14 years as a Maryknoll missioner, now lives in Peru as a freelance writer. Paul Jeffrey is a United Methodist missionary who lived in Central America for two decades. He now lives in Eugene, Ore.
National Catholic Reporter, November 26, 2004
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