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Gari-News » Standing up to adversity
Aug 23, 2003

Like many non-governmental organisations worldwide, Latin American NGOs have encountered and overcome repressive measures from their governments in their struggle to benefit marginalised people



Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) in Thailand are not alone in suffering the government's antipathy. Brazil's MST (Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra), a movement of landless people aiming to reclaim their rights to land, had to endure government repression and bad publicity before it won public support.

MST member Adelar Cupsiniski said at least 84 percent of the Brazilian public are now supporting the movement. ``Most Brazilians own no land. They are enthusiastic about agrarian reform measures to give unused land to the landless. The people are with us on land rights and human rights,'' Adelar says.

The support continued through the government's fierce repression and extensive publicity against the MST.

``Leaders were arrested, imprisoned and killed. The killers remain free. The government said that NGOs are cheats, frauds, and take money from the people.''

The MST responded by making their work more public.

``We marched to schools and in the neighbourhoods and showed our good will by various acts, such as donating blood. We have a farmers market where we show and sell the products that we produce,'' he said in a recent interview with Perspective.

The MST's popularity increased when the government failed to prove its accusations against them. The government could not find any evidence to prove that those involved with the MST movement had done anything wrong. The MST has inspired people everywhere, including Thailand, for their successes in surmounting barriers.

In the northern Thai province of Lamphun, the landless have also been taking over unused land. But Thai landless farmers have much to learn from the 18-year-old MST.

The Brazilian NGO invites people to their settlement to establish a public interaction. When they march, they clean up city streets as they march along. ``We live up to our principle of being a good force,'' says Adelar.

``The previous government launched campaigns and measures against the MST, but we gained widespread sympathy from the general public,'' said Adelar.

``The new government is a new source of hope for the MST movement,'' he added.

President Lula da Silva, who was a labour movement leader before he became president of Brazil at the end of 2002, has made several visits to MST settlements. He early on supported the the MST, which in turn supported his party.

MST is very clear on the point that, while the alliance has given it some political power, the organisation remains economically powerless.

``Repression continues from some right-wing local governments,'' he said. ``The MST is pushing for agrarian reform. Brazil is one of the few countries where most of the land is held by a few hands.''

``Despite much support from the President, there has been no redistribution of land. He may have to work harder with his coalition government. Brazil needs MST,'' said Adelar.


The MST has been recognised by organisations worldwide, such as Belgium's prestigious King Boudouin Foundation and United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO).

Suzanne Shede said the MST is a model and inspiration for social movements and NGOs around the world. Suzanne was one of the 350 NGOs who participated in the Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ESRC) Conference held in Chiang Mai last month.

ESRC is a new collaborative initiated by groups from around the world who are working to secure economic and social justice, such as CEGAH (Garifuna Emergency Committee of Honduras) which works with the Garifuna, an indigenous group in Honduras that faces many challenges similar to those faced by the poor in Thailand and Brazil. The Garifunas way of life is under assault from ranchers, loggers, tourism developers, the military, politicians and huge plantation owners. Badly planned mega-projects continue to threaten their ancestral lands.

CEGAH has sometimes been confronted with violence and hostility, particularly when its members speak out. For instance, in 1999 police fired on a peaceful march and put 18 people in hospitals, charged the march leaders with criminal and civil charges, and the otherwise threatened the activists.

``Nevertheless,'' she said, ``in Honduras, social movements and NGOs in general have been recognised and accepted as a positive force in the country.''

One reason is that NGOs help when the government cannot cope with a crisis. For instance, CEGAH and other NGOs were involved in the extensive reconstruction after the devastating Hurricane Mitch in 1998.

Then too, NGOs and social movements advocate the sustainable development of marginalised communities, which benefits the whole country. For instance, CEGAH helps the poorest farmers with seeds, tools and training, with youth projects and cultural preservation. Such support helps poor communities to become self-sufficient and thriving. Without such help, these communities may fall into severe poverty, and their lands may be subject to non-sustainable development.

``People are forced to migrate to cities which are already overburdened by unemployment, homelessness and crime,'' she told Perspective.

CEGAH found that they cannot simply give tools and seeds to people and expect them to be self-sufficient if their rights to land are not secure. So in addition to sustainable development, there must be some assurance that in reality, the people are able to make use of their abilities, their willingness to work, as well as the help they receive.

``When they have fewer resources and power, their rights and their dignity as human beings are often abused,'' she added.

When social movements come to assist, defend human rights and give voice to the voiceless, they are only strengthening civil society and making real the promises of democracy.

``By encouraging the participation of people in decisions that affect them, NGOs and social movements make the country stronger. Brazil, Honduras and prosperous Thailand should not be marginalising their people,'' she said.

The role of NGOs and social movements is to allow groups with less access to power, publicity and resources to raise their concerns in a peaceful and productive way. Often, they are the only forces sufficiently well informed, engaged and impartial enough to evaluate mega-projects and stand up with the people when there is an injustice.

``In Honduras, for instance, Garifuna groups raised concerns about a poorly designed sewage project and an illegal road through the rainforest. They received a lot of criticism, but in both cases the Ministry of the Environment eventually found that the Garifuna groups were right,'' she said.


NGOs and social movements serve to protect the population from dire health and environmental consequences. In all parts of the world, social movements and NGOs benefit the nation by building a just, productive future for all members of a society, said Suzanne.

Mr William Charpantier Blanco of the MOSCHTA (Movimiento Soclocultural de Trabajadores Haitanos) in the Dominican Republic said that his organisation works for HIV patients, immigrant workers from Haiti, and sugarcane workers, most of whom are settlement people and very poor Dominicans.

``Haitian workers who cut sugarcane in the Dominican Republic have been denied their rights, even some who have been living there for 24 years,'' he said. ``Sometimes the government denies medical treatment to the Haitians who were born in the Dominican Republic. Their rights to citizenship are denied.''

The Dominican Constitution states that people can organise themselves in different ways. They may receive funding from anywhere in the world. ``We don't get money from the government but we work with the authorities. Many of our projects might be seen as against the state, such as helping migrants become citizens. When we do something that is somewhat against the government, we form networks and there are no direct clashes,'' he said.

The present government leader serves as a bridge between Blanco's movement and the middle-class.

NGOs have engaged people in discussions about why the government would not give equal rights to 400,000 people born without birth certificates. ``Children can't go to school because they don't have birth certificates. They don't have most basic rights. That's wrong,'' said Blanco.

MOSCHTA makes itself known to the public via a twice-weekly radio programme and other public relations activities.

``We always work with our alliances. We try to get people to understand our issues. We once got a congressman to discuss the problems that we handle. We contact the Supreme Court on legal matters involving the cases we handle,'' he added.


On another part of the continent, the indigenous people of Ecuador continue to struggle for rights from their own government.

Mr Tito Puanchir Payashna of the Conferederacion de Nacionalidades Indigenas Del Ecuador says that there are 14 indigenous groups that live in the Amazon, coastal and mountain regions. ``They represent 70 percent of the population of Ecuador. For a decade now, we have been using marches, protests, and other means to make the government give the indigenous people bilingual education, intercultural education, health care, collective rights, as well as recognition of a national body of indigenous people.

``Our movement demanded full participation and access to political and economic rights,'' he said.

``The movement protests against different state-imposed policies, such as an oil pipeline laid on indigenous lands. Locals oppose this project 100 percent,'' he said.

``Leaders have been arrested, but people are united. They were able to stop the project that the government wanted to implement in the Amazon.''

The organisation is made up of grassroots communities. They focus on the issue of land ownership. They can mobilise more than 70 percent of the population.

``Because we are clear and transparent, most agree with our policy of equal distribution of resources. We communicate and convince people through the National Assembly and the Congress,'' he said.

The movement has access to national figures, who have a positive policy on the rights of indigenous peoples.

Yet, Tito worries about the president of the country, who is a former military man. ``Although we fight for justice, the government calls us as a danger to the country,'' said Tito.


Meanwhile, government antipathy toward NGOs in the western hemisphere is not limited to Central and South America. Although it is more subtle, it is also present in the US.

``In the USA, NGOs are seen as a growing and largely unaccountable threat to the Bush administration's foreign-policy goals and free-market capitalism around the world,'' wrote Jim Lobe in ``NGOs in the US Firing Line'' on Asiatimes online.

The American Enterprise Institute (AEI) and the Federalist Society for Law and Public Policy Studies have created a new website (www.NGOWatch.org) which takes a critical view of NGOs. The website details the funding, operations and agendas of international NGOs, and particularly their alleged efforts to constrain US freedom of action in international affairs and to influence the behavior of corporations abroad.

Indeed former Irish president and United Nation High Commissioner Mrs Mary Robinson says that some states throughout the world may use repressive measures towards NGOs working to promote human rights, as a way to silence ``critical voices''.

``It's clear that those who are victims and those who are vulnerable cannot speak for themselves. They need the work of human rights NGOs,'' she says.

In order to continue working for those whose rights are being violated, Mrs Robinson suggests that ESCR ensure that human rights NGOs have very high standards for their own accountability and financial management, and be always ready for any scrutiny.


Mr.Prasittiporn Kan-onsri [Noi]
Assembly of the Poor. THAILAND.
99 , 3 Floor Nakorn Sawan Rd. Pomprab
Bangkok 10100. THAILAND.
Tel : 09-9273556 , Mail : thaipoor@ksc.th.com , CC : fopthai@asiaaccess.net.th
Web : http://www.thai.to/aop , http://www.thai.to/munriver , http://www.thai.to/yomriver

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