THE Cerros del Sur project at the the poor, inaccessible southern end of Bogotá is more than a community schooling initiative, it is a dramatic experiment in organisation outside the realms of the state that really does demonstrate that, for imaginative and determined people, another world can be constructed.
It stands as a thriving and hopeful example of self-help in the shanty towns of Ciudad Bolívar, a suburb one hour from the centre of the Colombian city populated by migrants from the country’s interminable civil war.
Cerros del Sur began life in 1983 as a popular education project created by local residents and Salesian missionaries, but became the centre of a much larger community initiative that has extended into every aspect of life in the Jerusalén neighbourhood.
The school itself was founded by Evaristo Bernate with self-taught instructors who began teaching 300 local children, but developed from education to community organisation with each teacher taking charge of a specific sector to find solutions to local problems.
A kindergarten was formed without official help by local mothers, who employed direct action to win funds to develop and expand their premises. Neighbourhood leaders also used direct action to gain electricity and water supplies. They built a park, and rendered their own road, fighting violent conflicts with local strongmen to secure their own bus service. They established a community shop that provided essentials at affordable prices, and created a medical centre, community radio and dance and sports groups.
They did all this without state support, often in the face of persecution by the police – who accused them of being dangerous communists – and local business leaders and criminals. Sometimes, they paid a high price for their dreams: Evaristo Bernate was among those assassinated by local paramilitaries, irked at being excluded from the clear benefits of such popular organisation, and in the 1990s this poor area on the outskirts of Bogotá suffered a wave of killings.
But as Raúl Zibechi points out in this inspiring book, despite the many setbacks they faced this community has built a new way of life by themselves, without state support, by applying a philosophy of collaboration and cooperation to every aspect of their lives.
The Cerros del Sur initiative is only one example of the new, emancipatory social formations examined by Zibechi in Territories in Resistance, a remarkable reference point for the study of social movements in Latin America that takes as its focus their concrete achievements as opposed to the theoretical explanations used to understand them.
Blending case studies and history with social theory and analysis, Zibechi examines a range of initiatives across the region that all have one thing in common: they exist among us but are often out of view, and provide demonstrable evidence of what can be achieved outside the formal realms of politics.
There is, for example, the inspiring story of the Zanon Ceramics cooperative, whose trademark is to produce the poetry of the great Juan Gelman on tiles. Zanon is Argentina’s largest ceramics factory and a high-tech example of a successful business. In March 2002, after a long history of conflict between the company that owned it and its staff, the exasperated workers occupied it and declared the factory to be “under workers’ control”. It has since gone from strength to strength, and worker self-management has also been succeeding in other indsutries in Argentina. Zibechi also examines the Brazilian landless workers’ movement, the role played by social organisations in El Alto in Bolivia and among the Mapuche in Chile, and the new world being built by the Zapatistas in southern Mexico.
He provides a rich set of examples of the achievements and challenges of social organisations and projects in Latin America today but at the heart of his survey of the work they undertake and the possibilities they represent is dissatisfaction with how “social movements” have been defined and understood in political theory.
Zibechi has argued for an alternative, conceiving of these not as social movements but as distinct socieities in themselves, more akin to “societies in movement”, which implies focusing less on forms of organisation and codes of mobilisation, and more on social relations and territories in a constant movement for emancipation.
He suggests that they are distinguished by a number of common features: territorialisation – these movements are all rooted in specific spaces that have been regained or recuprerated through struggle; autonomy – from the state and formal politics – which in turn is founded upon their ability to provide their own subsistence, their material autonomy; the revalorisation of an identity, be it ethnic, gender or cultural; intellectual self-sufficiency – the formation of their own intellectuals who are no longer reliant on imported ideas, often through their own sophisticated education and training initiatives; a changing role for women within their organisations; a concern for the organisation of work and the relationship with nature; and, finally, self-affirming forms of action in which, for example, rural indigenous people “take” a city centre as an assertion of their presence and power.
These characteristics are leaving a profound imprint on social movement activism across Latin America that, in turn, is demonstrating what is possible to organisations outside the region who face lesser challenges. As Zibechi writes:
“The picture that appears, one that becomes increasingly intense, is that the long-awaited new world is being born in the movements’ spaces and territories, embedded in the gaps that are opening up in capitalism. It is ‘the’ real and possible new world, built by indigenous people, peasants, and urban poor on conquered lands, woven into the base of the new social relations between human beings, inspired by ancestral dreams, and recreated through the struggles of the past twenty years. This new world exists; it is no longer merely a project or program but rather a series of multiple trealities, nascent and fragile.” [p 20]