Social justice movements from around the world are pushing back against a shift toward nationalism, extraction and environmental destruction. Those who resist increasingly do so at risk of great personal harm, arrest and indefinite jailing as political prisoners, or the criminalisation of their movements as a whole. Even so, the resistance not only remains steadfast, but is also steadily gaining strength.
The rise of destructive and reactionary political power impacts people and ecosystems across many global settings. These shifts in control, characterised by a resurgence of racist and nationalistic rhetoric and policies, a redoubling of environmental exploitation and even climate change denial, and a renewed expansion into and pillaging of indigenous territory, represent urgent challenges for social movements and activists. Although these contemporary pressing issues have some distinctive new features, they are rooted in past forms of injustice, whether that be borrowing from the colonial playbook or amplifying the privatisation schemes of the more recent neoliberalism, such as free trade and deregulation.
At the same time, these are precisely the dynamics that cultivate resistance. Social justice movements from around the world are pushing back against this shift toward nationalism, extraction and environmental destruction. Those who resist increasingly do so at risk of great personal harm, arrest and indefinite jailing as political prisoners, or the criminalisation of their movements as a whole. Even so, the resistance not only remains steadfast, but is also gaining strength, in places as diverse as Brazil, Honduras, and Palestine—countries featuring violent, conservative, reactionary and acquisitive governments.
Power grabs in Brazil
Gaining political control starts with power grabbing—a concept to which the sprawling country of Brazil is no stranger. Power grabbing in the form of smashing intricate peasant leagues occurred during the military dictatorship, and it continues to this day. Most recently, the parliamentary coup that ousted a democratically elected president and relegated authority to an unelected and corrupt right wing was the ultimate seizure of power.
Under such corruption and disregard for democratic processes, social movements suffer even more intense criminalisation. This has often included the pre-emptive imprisonment and even assassination of peasant and indigenous leaders, most notably those connected to the Landless Workers Movement (MST) that is arguably the largest and most important state-level peoples’ movement in the Americas.
Nearly twenty-two years ago in April 1996, 19 activists from the MST were killed by the Brazilian military police in what would come to be known as the Eldorado dos Carajás massacre. Now, more than two decades after the massacre, the Brazilian government tends to treat activism—especially that which takes place in the countryside—as a criminal activity. Mining in Brazil, much like logging, is strongly opposed by peasant and indigenous movements as one of the greatest threats to the world’s largest rainforest while championed by the powerful nexus of state, business, and lobbies.
These massive power grabs contextualised within a definitive push for right-wing exclusionary populism have spelled trouble for seekers of social justice. The MST as a whole is increasingly criminalised and its members imprisoned. This is due in large part to the peasant movement’s relentless efforts towards agrarian reform, for which its activists can be arrested without evidence.
Resource grabs in Honduras
Power grabbing is indeed oftentimes connected to resource grabbing, yet another piece of the overall political dynamics of control. Although resource grabbing, in the form of taking away peoples’ rights to water and land, have been fixtures of injustice for centuries, this phenomenon has recently taken new shapes under globalisation. More specifically, powerful states and their militaries tend to prey on the weak points of former colonies for their own financial and political gains. As the case of Honduras warns us, when intertwined with power grabs, resource grabs become even more deadly—especially for those who resist.
Honduras, however, has vast alliances—peasant, environmental, feminist, LGBTQ, indigenous, Garífuna (Afro-indigenous), and labour struggles that engage in multiple forms of resistance, from land occupations to human rights documentation to interfacing with the state. The criminalisation of these movements and imprisonment of activists is routine.
In Garífuna communities along Central America’s Caribbean coast, the Black Fraternal Organization of Honduras (OFRANEH) has been at the forefront of resistance to what has become an attack on their ancestral resources and cultural identity from all sides: sea, water, land, and forest. OFRANEH uses organizing tactics from community radio broadcasts to land occupations, all of which the government has noted and responded to with violence. The group’s leaders face threats or instances of imprisonment on falsified charges on a daily basis. OFRANEH’s vice president Alfredo López spent six years in prison before finally being released for ‘lack of evidence’ and intense international pressure in 2015.
Control grabs in Palestine
In Palestine, power grabs and resource grabs have resulted in the ultimate manifestation of enclosure—control grabbing. First by British Empire, and then by Israeli occupation, Palestinians have been continually squeezed out of their homeland, and those who remain are subject to various forms of violence and discrimination.
The current hard-line political climate in Israel has increased the Israeli government’s stronghold on Palestinian lands. This amounts to territorial restructuring in the forms of illegal settlement expansion and transfer of Israeli citizens into occupied Palestinian territory, in the case of the West Bank, and increasing restricted access zones and militarised attacks, in the case of the Gaza Strip. These and other forms of control perpetrated by the Israeli occupation are likewise made possible and maintained through outside military and financial support.
Palestinian human rights defenders and social movements pose one of the biggest threats to maintaining and proliferating the occupation, a fact that has not been lost on the Israeli government. The result has been a trend of mass incarceration, including administrative detention, where people are held in prison for months or even years without charge or trial, supposedly because of ‘secret evidence.’ The Prisoner Support and Human Rights Association in Palestine, Addameer found that as of July 2017, 449 Palestinians were being held without trial or even charge.
One such political prisoner held without charge is Abdul-Razeq Farraj, a leader in the Union of Agricultural Works Committees (UAWC). Farraj has spent more than 16 combined years in Israeli prisons, most of them under administrative detention. Most recently, he was wrested from his home and family at midnight on May 24, 2017, and has been held without cause ever since. Abdul-Razeq’s work with UAWC has been focused on improving the lives of Palestinian farmers, whose suffering is in large part due to confiscation of land and water resources and repression under Israeli occupation.
The struggles in Brazil, Honduras, and Palestine are indicative of politics of control—and resistance—that are happening all over the world. In Brazil, the coup government has chosen corporate-driven economic growth, privatisation, and corrupt politics through power grabbing rather than respect for democratic processes and the well-being of its low-income populations, particularly peasants and indigenous peoples. Honduras, a fragile state in the wake of a coup, bears the scars of external influence, and these wounds are most pronounced in the form of unchecked natural resource grabbing.
And in occupied Palestine, one of the world’s few remaining colonial projects continues with no end in sight; in the absence of statehood or any meaningful form of political sovereignty, the Israeli occupation has become the extreme expression of control grabbing. In each of these cases, oppressive states and business interests use a variety of tools of repression, from criminalisation and the creation of political prisoners, to physical threats and assassinations.
Winning back sovereignty and achieving justice are the political tasks at hand in these and other cases around the world, and ones that movements and activists take seriously—no matter how high the stakes. From Brazilian mass movement building to pinpoint alternatives and retain the countryside, to Honduran reclamation of natural resources through food sovereignty, agroecology, and climate justice, to relentless Palestinian efforts of upholding international law and defending human rights, people are challenging destructive political orders. Doing so is a collective act of resilience and resistance, ‘grabbing back’ in order to move forward in uncertain times.
What you can do
Grassroots International, a U.S.-based non-profit, supports small farmers and producers, Indigenous Peoples and women working around the world to win resource rights: the human rights to land, water and food. Grassroots works through grant-making, education, and advocacy. The Landless Workers Movement (MST), Black Fraternal Organization of Honduras (OFRANEH), and Union of Agricultural Work Committees (UAWC) are among its global network of partners.
The unabridged article originally appeared in Huffington Post and can be read here
Salena Tramel is a PhD researcher at the ISS, where her work is centered on the intersections of resource grabs and climate change mitigation, and the intertwining of (trans)national agrarian/social justice movements. In addition to her research at ISS, Salena draws on her global experience with social movements and grassroots organisations to inform her work as a policy and communications consultant and freelance journalist. Prior to joining the academic community at ISS, Salena served as the program coordinator for the Middle East and Haiti at Grassroots International, where she oversaw two key geographical areas while developing pro-poor advocacy strategies at the US/UN levels.