Indigenous Understanding of Salween River Key for Biodiversity

Indigenous Understanding of Salween River Key for Biodiversity

This story first appeared in The Third Pole.

By Saw John Bright.

This week, governments from around the world will convene online for the first part of the UN Biodiversity Summit COP15 (the second part will take place partially in-person in Kunming in spring), which will agree on the post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework. Framed as a ‘stepping stone’ to the 2050 Vision of ‘Living in harmony with nature’ as part of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), ratified by 196 countries, this framework is intended to deal with runaway biodiversity loss over the next decade.

Increased attention is being paid to how Indigenous peoples have for centuries realised this aspiration of harmony. Indigenous peoples manage or have rights to 22% of the world’s land, yet this land supports 80% of the world’s biodiversity, even as they struggle to regain ancestral lands that were taken from them in many places. What is less recognised is how Indigenous understanding and perception of reality upholds this harmony.

The CBD meeting three years ago promised greater inclusion of Indigenous peoples and traditional knowledge, and there is much discussion of these issues ahead of COP15. The CBD developed the Akwé: Kon Guidelines in 2004 and further deepened involvement with the launch of a Traditional Knowledge Information Portal. Despite this progress, when mainstreaming of biodiversity into the energy sector was discussed by CBD parties in 2017, the negative impacts of hydropower dams were discussed in biodiversity and ecosystem terms, paying mere lip service to Indigenous rights.

A narrowly technical understanding of hydropower – passed off as “scientific” – underestimates how culture supports economies, conservation and utility for Indigenous peoples living in river basins. When external experts interpret Indigenous knowledge without the context of Indigenous perception of reality (ontology), they fail to grasp its importance. What is needed is an incorporation of Indigenous understanding of reality when discussing biodiversity in Indigenous territories, in order to manage ecosystems better.

The Salween through Indigenous eyes

The Salween River is one of the few major rivers in Asia who still flows freely and uninterrupted by large-scale dams. Roughly 2,400 kilometres long, the Salween flows from the Tibetan Plateau through Yunnan into Myanmar, briefly touching Thailand. The river supports some of the most biodiverse areas in the world and is home to diverse Indigenous groups including the Akha, Blang, Derung, Hmong, Kachin, Karen, Karenni, Kokang, Lahu, Lisu, Mon, Nu, Palaung (T’arng), Pa’O, Shan, Tibetan, Yao, and Wa.

As custodians of the Salween River, community members maintain a spiritual relationship with the Salween, as our ancestors have done since they descended from the Tibetan Plateau many centuries ago. For us, the Salween is home to countless important spirits who are intermediaries between our human societies and the environment around us. She supports the sacred animal and plant species who populate our cosmos and carries the memories of our ancestors whose lives were intertwined with the river. Our relationship with the spirits is maintained and the memories of our ancestors kept alive by our continuous interaction with the Salween River. She is the backbone of our traditional knowledge and practices.

This is a wider understanding of the river than a mere provider of ‘ecosystem services’ that sustains our ‘livelihoods’. In our Indigenous understanding and perception of reality, developed over generations of living in the Salween basin, we don’t make a distinction between plants, animals, humans and more-than-humans such as spirits and ancestral spirits. This interconnectedness remains strong because the Salween is a free-flowing river.

These connections are reflected in Indigenous land, water and natural resource management across the Salween basin. As has been noted with reference to the Htee K’Sah guardian spirits of the water in S’gaw Karen ontology in the journal Pacific Conservation Biology,

“Karen environmental governance consists of social relations and ceremonial obligations with more-than-humans… It is through relations with the K‘Sah that Karen villagers relate to the water and land itself, and humans’ rights to use the land are contingent on maintaining these ritual obligations.”

Indigenous knowledge systems lead to better conservation

Our customary water governance traditions include stewardship practices, hunting and fishing restrictions, and ceremonial protocols that have fostered harmony with nature and safeguarded biodiversity. Our river is inhabited and protected by guardian spirits. In sanctuary areas, prayer ceremonies are performed to protect the fish and harm those who fish there. Our traditional watershed management systems designate ecologically sensitive areas such as ridges, watersheds and old growth forests, where the cutting back of forest is prohibited.

The benefits of traditional knowledge and practices for biodiversity thus come from the cultivation of a harmonious relationship between humans and more-than-humans, which is why sacred areas – an old tree or an entire mountain or river – must be protected. The ongoing relevance of such traditional knowledge and practices can be seen in the Salween Peace Park, an Indigenous initiative in Karen state that was awarded the 2020 UNDP Equator Prize. Around 75% of the forests, mountains and rivers that constitute the 1.4-million-acre area is managed according to traditional ‘kaw’ customary knowledge that combines spirituality, culture and conservation. This combination characterises Indigenous knowledge and is at the heart of Indigenous identity even when people have adopted ‘formal’ religions.

Indigenous knowledge and practices that are beneficial for biodiversity cannot be separated from Indigenous understanding and perception of reality. The inseparability of Indigenous ontology, Indigenous knowledge and Indigenous practices is hard to recognise for people living outside these ontologies. It is not possible to capture or preserve our Indigenous knowledge in a museum or a book. What meditation and prayer in a house of worship is for other religions, for us is the interaction with the Salween River. Our knowledge regenerates from our interaction with our environment, especially at the countless natural sacred sites and auspicious confluence points where the Salween meets its tributaries. We see her as a living entity.

Uninterrupted interconnectedness is key for the Salween

There are plans for seven Chinese-built dams along the Salween River, which has been a source of friction between Myanmar and China, as well as the current and previous governments and Indigenous groups. If the Salween River is dammed, it will strike at the heart of our cultures and beliefs. The severance of the river itself and the cascade of consequences will be the death knell for our traditional knowledge and practices for three reasons.

Firstly, the Salween responds to seasonal snowmelt and monsoon rains. Altering these variations in her flow affects the river’s ecology, severing people’s interdependency with the river by causing a decline in local river-linked livelihoods such as fisheries and agriculture. If these are disrupted, young people will have no choice but to take up professions disconnected from the river or move away. Less interaction and cohabitation with the river over time weakens Indigenous knowledge systems.

In the Karen context, Lu Htee Hta is one of the most important ceremonies performed as part of our relationship with the water, a ‘founders’ ritual’ which maintains a social contract with the more-than-human owners of the water and land. If the next generation is not able to conduct these rituals, the social contract will be broken. Without the continuous interactions between animals, humans and non-humans in the Salween basin, Indigenous knowledge will cease, and with it practices that have sustained the rich biodiversity we see today.

Secondly, dam-induced changes to the river’s rhythms, levels and nutrition will reduce the numbers and ranges of many sacred aquatic species that are strictly protected in the traditional management systems of the Salween, including the fish Nya Moo, Nya Ter Taw, and Nya Pla (Neolissochilus sp.). For instance, a reddish species of Nya P’tay is regarded as the king of all fish and killing them, we believe, will result in the extinction of fish species and water scarcity and drought. The Salween is home to a diversity of turtles greater than any other river in the world, and we regard a number of them as sacred.

Mainstream dams will also affect river-based sites considered sacred, such as the Thawthi Kho watershed area, threatening the effective protected status of waterbodies rich in biodiversity such as spring-fed pools, mud beds, waterfalls, rapids and islands. If these sacred natural sites run dry or flood in unusual ways, people will believe that the spirits may become angry and cause accidents and illness in nearby communities, or leave the river altogether, stripping these sites of protection.

Third, if our Salween is fragmented by dams, this will disrupt the flow, interconnection and relationship between all beings that depended on it. This upsets the balance in the river, which in turn upsets the balance between the river, humans and more-than-humans. It is the wholeness of the river – connecting beginning to end; past to present; humans to more-than-humans – that makes her the backbone of our belief systems. This gives her a sacred meaning as an indivisible living entity that supports our Indigenous cosmos.

Recognition and action for Indigenous ontologies

We draw hope from recent developments that have seen the central importance of free-flowing rivers in Indigenous ontologies being increasingly recognised, including by parties to the CBD. In 2017, New Zealand acknowledged the sacred status of the Whanganui River in Maori ontology by giving the river legal personhood. Through this act, New Zealand recognised the Whanganui as “an indivisible and living whole, comprising the Whanganui River from the mountains to the sea, incorporating its tributaries and all its physical and metaphysical elements”. New Zealand acknowledged “the enduring concept of Te Awa Tupua – the inseparability of the people and the River” thereby echoing the ancient Maori proverb: “The Great River flows from the mountains to the sea. I am the River and the River is me.”

According to the New Zealand attorney general in charge of the process, their most difficult challenge was getting the country’s European-descendant majority “to see the world through Maori eyes”. While rivers have since been recognised as living entities in CBD member countries such as EcuadorBangladesh and Canada, many other CBD members are still severing the flow of rivers sacred to Indigenous Peoples. In our own country, Myanmar, the military junta recently announced a fresh push to dam the Salween River.

Participants at the COP15 of the Convention on Biological Diversity should move beyond previous calls for ‘participation by’ and ‘consultation with’ Indigenous Peoples to recognise ontological diversity in order to safeguard biodiversity in Indigenous territories. To play an effective role in addressing the biodiversity crisis, we have to be able to sustain our own ‘Ecological Civilisation’.

Parties to the CBD should consider legislation that recognises legal personhood and rights of rivers considered sacred to Indigenous Peoples and incorporate Rights of Nature into the post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework. Parties should also translate the Akwé: Kon Guidelines into their national laws so that these guidelines become more relevant. Through enabling more research into Indigenous ontologies and their spiritual relationship with rivers, the CBD Secretariat should help to foster a better understanding of who a river is in the ontology of Indigenous Peoples.

Above all, parties to the CBD should, in their effort to mainstream biodiversity in the energy sector, commit to excluding large-scale hydropower as an energy option for rivers such as the Salween which are sacred and culturally significant to Indigenous Peoples.

Banner image: Christophe95 – Own work (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Revolutionary and anti-capitalist strategy

Revolutionary and anti-capitalist strategy

This article originally appeared in Building a Revolutionary Movement

By Adam H

This post looks at if it’s possible to have a coherent strategy for the emancipatory transformation of a complex social system, 5 anti-capitalist strategies and revolutionary strategy.

What does ‘emancipatory transformation of a complex social system’ mean? We currently live in a capitalist society or capitalist social system that is not equal, just, democratic or sustainable. Emancipatory means the struggle for political, economic or social rights or equality for disenfranchised groups or sections of society. So this post is focused on thinking about how we think about the route to ending the dominance of capitalism so we live in an alternative society that is equal, just, democratic and sustainable.

Revolutionary and anti-capitalist strategy is a huge topic that will take several posts to explore. This first post aims to start in the broadest way by considering if it’s possible to have a revolutionary and anti-capitalist strategy and reference a useful framework to help understand the different anti-capitalist strategic approaches.

Is it possible to have a coherent strategy for the emancipatory transformation of a complex social system?

In other words, is it possible to create a desirable social transformation (revolution) through deliberate, intentional action? Eric Olin Wright, sociologist and educator who specialised in egalitarian future alternatives to capitalism, explains that there are desirable objectives of social transformation that are not possible, either because they are not viable (won’t work) or because there is no way to get there. Wright describes how Frederick Hayek, the arch-conservative and key advocate of neoliberalism, believed that a social transformation strategy was a fantasy. This is due to the negative unintentional consequences of such a large social engineering project that would overwhelm the intended consequences. Concern for unintentional consequences is valid, and I agree with Wright when he says:

“It remains the case that capitalism is immensely destructive, obstructing the prospects for broad human flourishing. What we need is an understanding of anticapitalist strategies that avoids both the false optimism of wishful thinking and the disabling pessimism that emancipatory social transformation is beyond strategic reach.” [1]

Anti-capitalist strategies

Eric Olin Wright in “How to Be an Anti-capitalist in the 21st Century” describes five ‘strategic logics’: smashing capitalism, dismantling capitalism, taming capitalism, resisting capitalism, escaping capitalism. This framework is a useful starting point for thinking about anti-capitalist and revolutionary strategy. But it is simplistic and I explain where my thinking differs in the last section of this post.

Smashing capitalism

This is the classic revolutionary strategy of seizing state power by force. I call this the vanguard Marxism.

Wright describes its rationale: The system is unreformable and all attempts to make life bearable will fail. Small reforms improve people’s lives when popular movements are strong but these gains are vulnerable to attack and reversible. It is an illusion that capitalism can become a benign social system so ordinary people can live meaningful happy lives. Capitalism needs to be destroyed and an alternative built. The progress of an emancipatory alternative society may be gradual but it requires a decisive rupture with the existing systems of power to get there.

Critiquing this theory, Wright asks how it’s possible for anti-capitalist forces to build enough power to destroy capitalism and replace it with an alternative. He explains that the power of the ruling classes blocks both reformist gains and revolutionary ruptures. He describes how those in the ‘smashing capitalism tradition’ argue that capitalism is a highly contradictory system that is prone to disruptions and crises, and sometimes these crises make capitalism vulnerable to a serious challenge. There is a further argument that these crises increase over time so in the long term capitalism is unsustainable and ‘destroys its own conditions of existence.’ The role of the revolutionary party is therefore to be ready for this situation and lead a mass movement to seize state power. The revolutionary party then works to ‘rapidly refashion the state itself to make it a suitable weapon of ruptual transformation,’ and also to repress the ruling class opposition and destroy their power structures to allow the new revolutionary state to build an alternative economic system.

Wright describes how this strategy was applied several times in the 20th century with some success, but never created a ‘democratic, egalitarian, emancipatory alternative to capitalism.’ This strategy gave people the hope and motivation to make great sacrifices in the pursuit of achieving such as a society, and material conditions were improved for a lot of people. Examples include Russia, China and Cuba. But, “it is one thing to burn down old institutions and social structures; it is quite another to build emancipatory new institutions from the ashes.”

He describes some of the reasons given for the failures of these revolutions: (1) history-specific unfavourable circumstances; (2) revolutions happened in economically backward societies surrounded by enemies; (3) strategic leadership errors; (4) leaders motivated by power and status rather than the well-being of the masses; (5) failure of these revolutions as being inherent to any attempt to radically rupture a social system – too many moving parts, too much complexity and too many unintended consequences.

This is a key point for me: “attempts at system-rupture will inevitably tend to unravel into such chaos that revolutionary elites, regardless of their motives, will be compelled to resort to pervasive violence and repression to sustain social order. Such violence, in turn, destroys the possibility for a genuinely democratic, participatory process of building a new society.” [2]

Wright is clear that he does not believe that ‘system-level ruptures’ work as a strategy for social emancipation.

Dismantling capitalism

Wright describes this as a transition to democratic socialism through state-directed reforms that gradually introduce socialism from above. He sees this strategy as having ‘revolutionary aspirations,’ because it seeks to replace capitalism with a different economic system: socialism. He explains that in this tradition there is no simple point of rupture when one system replaces the other. Instead, “there would be a gradual dismantling of capitalism and the building up of the alternative through the sustained action of the state.” [3]

Wright describes how this approach sees a period when capitalist and socialist relations will coexist, such as both private and state-run banks; private and state enterprises in transportation, utilities, health care and some heavy industry; capitalist labour markets and state employment; state-directed planning for investment decisions and private profit-driven investment.

Wright describes the necessary preconditions for this strategy to be possible. “First, a stable electoral democracy, and second, a broad, mass-based socialist party capable of winning elections and staying in power for a sufficiently long time that these new state-run economic structures could be robustly institutionalized. Of course, there would be opposition and resistance, but the belief was that these state-organized socialist economic institutions would demonstrate their value and thus be able to sustain popular support.” [3]

This strategy had significant support in the 20th century and following World War II, when several governments looked to be implementing this “mixed economy” approach. An example is Sweden. It did not succeed and Wright put this down to the ‘dynamism of capitalism,’ and to the right-wing ideological offensive against socialist ideas in many countries, which, from the 1970s “pushed the expansion of nationalization in mixed economies off the agenda.” He describes the “military overthrow of the democratically elected socialist government in Chile in 1973, along with other setbacks to efforts at democratic socialism, further eroding any belief that democratic elections could offer a reformist path to dismantling capitalism.” By the end of the twentieth century, neoliberalism and privatisation dominated the mainstream political agenda instead of nationalisation, even by large political parties thought to be on the left, such as New Labour in the UK.

Taming capitalism

This tradition sees capitalism as a “source of systemic harms in society,” but does not look to replace it. It wants to reduce and remove those harms. This was the main strategic approach of social-democratic reformist parties since World War II.

Wright describes that although this tradition identities the harms of capitalism, its response is to work on “building counteracting institutions capable of significantly neutralizing these harms.” This tradition does understand that to achieve this, there will need to be political struggles to reduce the power and control of the capitalist class, and that the capitalists will claim that these redistributions will undermine capitalism’s dynamism and incentives. These arguments are self-serving justifications for the privilege and power of the capitalists.

Wright describes two types of reforms: (1)  those that stabilise capitalism (such as banking regulation to reduce system-disrupting, speculative risk-taking), and (2) anti-capitalist reforms that introduce egalitarian, democratic and solidaristic values and principles into how capitalism operates. He explains that these anti-capitalist reforms will also likely stabilise capitalism, and that is what makes them partially possible, but also result in the system working in a “less purely capitalist way.”

Wright describes three types of state policies which change the way capitalism operates to reduce the harms and increases  egalitarian, democratic and solidaristic values and principles. Mostly these policies benefit capitalists but some benefit ordinary people:

  1. Reduce individual vulnerability to risks through publicly run and funded social insurance or a welfare state.
  2. The provision of public goods – such as basic and higher education, vocational skills training, public transportation, cultural and recreational facilities, research and development – paid for by re-distributional taxation.
  3. Use the State to develop a regulatory framework to reduce the most serious negative externalities caused by capitalist investors and companies, including regulation of pollution, product and workplace hazards, predatory market behaviour, and property and stock market volatility.

Wright states that during the “golden age of capitalism” in the 30 years after World War II, these policies were used to tame capitalism. Since the 1980s these gains have been rolled back under neoliberalism, leading to reduction of social insurance benefits, reduction in taxes and therefore social goods, deregulation of capitalist production and markets, and privatisation of many state services.

He describes the forces that have resulted in a reduction of the state’s ability to limit capitalism’s harms: “The globalization of capitalism has made it much easier for capitalist firms to move investment to places in the world with less regulation and cheaper labor. The threat of such movement of capital, along with a variety of technological and demographic changes, has fragmented and weakened the labor movement, making it less capable of resistance and political mobilizations. Combined with globalization, the financialization of capital has led to massive increases in wealth and income inequality, which in turn has increased the political leverage of opponents of the social democratic state. Instead of being tamed, capitalism has been unleashed.” [4]

Wright raises the question of whether the three decades of the golden age were perhaps a historical anomaly; “a brief period in which favourable structural conditions and robust popular power opened up the possibility for the relative egalitarian, social democratic model.” Before this period capitalism was rapacious, and it has become rapacious again under neoliberalism. He suggests that capitalism is not tamable. I certainly don’t think it is.

Wright concludes the section on taming capitalism with a thoughtful paragraph on how the limits of a state’s ability to raise taxes, regulate capitalism and redistribute wealth are based on people’s belief that globalisation imposes powerful constraints. But, he argues, it’s the willingness of voters to be taxed more that is the main factor, not if the capitalists move their capital to avoid taxation. The willingness of the electorate to be taxed depends on the general level of collective solidarity. He maintains that the “limits of possibility are always in part created by beliefs in those limits.” He explains that neoliberalism is an ideology backed by powerful political and economic forces and it is possible to break through the limits set by neoliberalism if there is collective will to do so. He argues that social democratic politics have become less effective and need rethinking, and that the political obstacles to their success are significant, but that it is still possible for the harm of capitalism to be reduced by state action.

Resisting capitalism

Wright explains that ‘resisting capitalism’ could be a broad term for anti-capitalist struggles. Here, he is using it in a narrower sense to identify struggles to end capitalism from outside the state and parliamentary politics, and also that do not want to gain state power. This strategy is different from the previous three that were all aiming to gain and use state power.

This tradition aims to reduce the harms of capitalism by influencing the behaviour of capitalists and political elites through protest and campaigning: “We may not be able to transform capitalism, but we can defend ourselves from its harms by causing trouble, protesting and raising the cost to elites of their actions.” (p50) He lists some examples: “environmentalists protesting toxic dumps and environmentally destructive developments; consumer movements that organize boycotts of predatory corporations; activist lawyers who defend the rights of immigrants, the poor, and sexual minorities. It is also the basic strategic logic of unions that organize strikes for better pay and working conditions.” [5]

Wright sees resisting capitalism as the most common response to the harms caused by the capitalist system. It is based on civil society and the solidarities that exist in workplaces and the community. Different identities play a part in this approach including class, ethnicity, religion, race, gender, sexuality. Its most organised forms are social movements and trade unions. Even when unions are weak, workers can resist exploitation by withholding their maximum effort and diligence.

Escaping capitalism

Wright explains that this may not have been developed into a systematic anti-capitalist ideology, but it does have a ‘coherent logic’, which is: Capitalism is too powerful to end. It is unrealistic that collective mass movements will form to dismantle or tame capitalism. The ruling class are too strong to remove and they always co-opt opposition and defend their privileges. Also, social systems are too large and complex to control. The best we can do is insulate ourselves from the worst harms. We may not be able to change the world but can escape the circuits of domination and build a micro-alternative to live better lives.

Wright lists some examples of groups attempting to escape capitalism: migration of poor farmers to the western frontier in the 19th century; utopian self-sufficiency communities in the 19th century; worker cooperatives that are managed collectively based on principles of democracy, solidarity, equality, working to avoid alienation and exploitation of capitalist firms; the hippies of the 1960s; religious communities such as the Amish. He also cites the family unit as a “non-competitive social space of reciprocity and caring in which one can find refuge from the heartless, competitive world of capitalism.”[6]

Wright explains that escaping capitalism involves avoiding political engagement. For some, this is the ‘individualistic lifestyle strategy’, which can be contradictory if this lifestyle is funded by wealth that was gained from capitalist activities.

Intentional communities are a good example of a desire to escape capitalism, as well as being a model for more collective, egalitarian and democratic ways of living. In addition, worker cooperatives are an attempt to escape the oppressive nature of capitalist workplaces, and are a model of how an alternative economy to capitalism could operate so as to challenge the current capitalist economic system.

Revolutionary strategy

When I use the word ‘revolution’, I mean it in a broad way for the ending of capitalism and the creation of an alternative society – radical transformational system change. In the summary above of Wright’s description of the different anti-capitalist strategies, he labels ‘smashing capitalism’ and ‘dismantling capitalism’ as revolutionary. And I would agree.

The anti-capitalist strategy that Wright advocates is a combination of dismantling capitalism, taming capitalism, resisting capitalism and escaping capitalism. He calls it ‘eroding capitalism’ and I’ll describe this in more detail in a future post (reference). I agree with him on this and that we need both revolutionary and reformist approaches.

My understanding of Wright’s perspective is that he believed that we could end capitalism without a rupture. I don’t agree with this. I think we will need to fight for reforms to rebuild the power of the left but at some point, there will need to be a rupture, so that we would go from a mixed economy with socialist and capitalist institutions to one with only socialist/anarchist/communist ones and the end of private property. But at this dark point in history that we currently live, this is hard to imagine.

I don’t support the ‘smashing capitalism’ (vanguard Marxist) strategy for a few reasons. The main one is because although it has shown itself in history to be effective at ending capitalism, there are no examples of it creating egalitarian and democratic societies. In each case, it has involved a militant minority taking power and dominating the majority, and this can only result in repression. I have asked different people that advocate different versions of this strategy (Leninists, Trotskyists, Maoists, Stalinists), how to use this strategy and not end up with things turning repressive and sometimes totalitarian, but I have not got a clear answer. If you do have an answer, I’d love to hear from you.

There is a lot that needs to be unpacked for the ‘dismantling capitalism’ strategy. Wright states it would be a transition to democratic socialism through state-directed reforms that gradually introduce socialism from above and that it would require a broad, mass-based socialist party. Democratic socialism is a broad term which ranges in meaning between political parties led from the top like the Corbyn leadership, and those parties formed from grassroots movements such as Podemos in Spain. I’m not saying that Podemos is the exact model to follow but we can learn from this experiment and municipalist citizen platforms such as Barcelona en Comú. We have seen from the 20th century that big changes happen when the grassroots of labour unions become militant and make radical demands of union leaders and political parties. Social movements campaigning on specific issues have also made gains and reforms have been implemented.

This is an excellent constructive critique of Wrights ideas and then Wright’s response.

Two revolutionary strategies do not easily fit into Wright’s framework. The first is the council communism tradition of left communism. This Marxist strategy is based on the worker councils or soviets that formed in Russia during the 1917 Russian Revolution. It has elements of smashing capitalism, especially regarding the belief that there would need to be a clear rupture to end capitalism, but that this will be done from the bottom or grassroots, where different workplaces and community institutions are self-organised and working together in a federated governance structure. This worker control approach is anti-state and anti-parliamentary politics meaning that this tradition has elements of Wright’s ‘resisting capitalism’ strategy. Although this tradition does not seek state power, it does see ordinary people creating a federated system of self-government that would replace the state, so has elements of smashing capitalism and resisting capitalism.

The second revolutionary strategy that does not fit into Wright’s framework is anarcho-syndicalism, which has similarities to council communism. It aims to end capitalism, wage slavery and private property. A new society would be built without hierarchy, based on direct-democracy, workers’ self-management and an alternative co-operative economic system. This alternative society would replace the state with a federated structure of self-run workplaces and community institutions.

In future posts, I want to analyze how the left organises itself into social and political movements, by ideology and how groups operate in practice. Then look at the strategies these traditions follow. I also plan to summarise the different radical and revolutionary strategies that thinkers and writers on the left have proposed. After this I will start to explore the situation we find ourselves in and relate this to “Good Strategy Bad Strategy” by Richard Rumelt (read a summary here) and his three-part framework for developing a good strategy. There is:

  • diagnosis, what is going on here;
  • guiding policy – outlines an overall approach for overcoming the obstacles highlighted by the diagnosis;
  • coherent action – this needs to be consistent and coordinated, and also requires making painful choices about what can be achieved with limited resources.



  1. How to Be an Anti-capitalist in the 21st Century, Eric Olin Wright, page 37-8
  2. How to Be an Anti-capitalist in the 21st Century, page 41
  3. How to Be an Anti-capitalist in the 21st Century, page 43
  4. How to Be an Anti-capitalist in the 21st Century, page 48
  5. How to Be an Anti-capitalist in the 21st Century, page 50
  6. How to Be an Anti-capitalist in the 21st Century, page 52
‘A Choice Point for Humanity’: Women Demand Visionary Shift at UN Climate Talks

‘A Choice Point for Humanity’: Women Demand Visionary Shift at UN Climate Talks

This article originally appeared in Common Dreams.

“This is the time to unite together to build the healthy and just future we know is possible for each other and the Earth.”


As world leaders gathered in New York for the United Nations General Assembly Thursday and amid preparations for a global climate conference coming up in November, women leading more than 120 international organizations delivered a call to action demanding “a transformation of how we relate to the natural world and to one another”—one that will enable far-reaching action to save the planet.

“As the world prepares for one of the most important climate talks since the Paris Agreement, we know solutions exist to mitigate the worst impacts, and that women are leading the way.” —Osprey Orielle Lake, WECAN International

Led by Women’s Earth & Climate Action Network (WECAN) International, the organizations called on governments and financial institutions to commit to policies that prioritize “social, racial, and economic justice for all” as they work to keep the heating of the planet below 1.5C.

“We must rapidly halt the extraction of oil, gas, and coal and end all deforestation while building a new economy predicated on community-led solutions,” reads the call to action, which was signed by groups including MADRE, CodePink, and Women’s Earth Alliance.

“As we herald in sustainable, democratic, and equitable governance paradigms, we need to prioritize the leadership and well-being of women, gender non-conforming people, Black and Brown communities, and Indigenous peoples who are disproportionately impacted by climate change, but also lead the frontlines of systemic solutions,” the groups said.

The organizations also plan to present their demands at the 2021 U.N. Climate Change Conference (COP 26) in November, where leaders from nearly 200 countries will be under pressure to increase their ambitions to reduce emissions and uphold their existing obligations to frontline communities across the globe, particularly in the Global South.

“We are at a choice point for humanity,” said Osprey Orielle Lake, executive director of WECAN International. “Every day, we can see for ourselves forest fires burning all over the world, massive flooding, extreme droughts, people losing their livelihoods and lives—we are in a climate emergency. As the world prepares for one of the most important climate talks since the Paris Agreement, we know solutions exist to mitigate the worst impacts, and that women are leading the way.”

The call to action includes a number of steps recommended for governments as well as financial institutions, including:

  • End fossil fuel expansion and rapidly accelerate a just transition to 100% renewable and regenerative energy;
  • Promote women’s leadership and gender equity;
  • Protect the rights of Indigenous people by upholding all treaties, and follow Indigenous communities’ traditional ecological knowledge;
  • Protect forests and biodiversity with a global moratorium on logging and a phase-out of agricultural practices that cause soil erosion and depletion;
  • Preserve oceans and freshwater;
  • Promote food security and food sovereignty;
  • Protect the rights of nature; and
  • Halt the financing of all fossil fuel projects.

The call to action comes ahead of a six-day virtual forum organized by WECAN.

At the Global Women’s Assembly for Climate Justice, which begins Saturday, speakers will include scientist and conservationist Dr. Jane Goodall; Casey Camp-Horinek of the Ponca Nation, a WECAN board member and environmental ambassador; Ruth Nyambura of the African Ecofeminist Collective in Kenya; and Sônia Bone Guajajara of the Articulation of Indigenous Peoples of Brazil.

“As a Matriarch of the Ponca Nation, I am honored to have the responsibility of caring for the generations to come by ensuring the health and welfare of Mother Earth, Father Sky, and Relatives in every form,” said Camp-Horinek. “Life itself hangs in the balance, and we women are coming together to say that we must make the correct choices for our collective future now.”

Events at the six-day forum will include discussions about protecting the planet’s forests, rejecting “greenwashing” by corporations, and supporting feminist frameworks for climate justice.

“We can act now and we must act now, which is why WECAN is hosting the Global Women’s Assembly for Climate Justice to uplift women, gender-diverse and community-led solutions, strategies, policies, and frameworks to address the climate crisis,” said Lake. “It is code red and we are drawing a red line to say no more sacrifice people and no more sacrifice zones. This is the time to unite together to build the healthy and just future we know is possible for each other and the Earth.”

Types of Social Movements

Types of Social Movements

This article is from the blog buildingarevolutionarymovement.

Featured image: Members of Walk of the People, a 7,000-mile peace walk from California to Russia, reach New York City in 1984. Photo by Kevin James Shay.

This post describes different types of social movements. These are broad classifications and generally social movements are made up from a combination of types. Their type can change at different points in the social movements lifecycle.

Reform movements seek to change some parts of society without completely transforming it. They normally exist in democratic societies where criticism of existing institutions is acceptable. Examples include environmental protection campaigns and introducing a minimum wage.

Revolutionary movements seek to completely change every aspect of the existing social system and replace it with a greatly different one. These include Communist movements and the 1960s counterculture movement.

Redemptive movements are trying to find meaning and aim to create inner change or spiritual growth in people. Examples include Alcoholics Anonymous and the New Age movement.

Alternative movements are focused on self-improvement and changes to individual beliefs and behaviour. Examples include the local food movement and alternative health movement.

Resistance movements seek to block a planned change or undo a change already made to society. Examples include the Ku Klux Klan and pro-life movements.

Migratory movements are large numbers of people that leave a country and settle in another place. They are a migratory social movement when they have a shared focus of discontent, purpose, or goal to move to a new location. Examples of migratory social movements include the Zionist movement, Jews moved to Israel and the movement of people from East Germany to West Germany.

Utopian movements aim to create an ideal or perfect society which is in people’s imaginations but not in reality. It is based on the idea that people are basically good, cooperative and altruistic. Examples include the nineteenth-century Utopian socialist movements of Robert Owen and Charles Fourier. Also the Sarvodaya movement. [1]

Political movements are collective attempts by groups of individuals to change government policy or society. This can include: “to extend the criteria for inclusion within decision making; to reveal and fight against bias that privileges certain interests over others within the political system; to gain access to and influence within existing decision-making processes; to open up new channels for the expression of previously excluded demands.” [2]

Cultural movements are movements of ideas and performances rather than interests and politics. They do not have a clear political focus; are not a reaction to collective interests, injustices or demands made by movements on the streets; they are more focused on artefacts and performances of mobilisations such as music, dress and shared experiences rather than marches, demonstrations and protests; these movements have great influences through public opinion and attitudes than through legislation or policy change. Examples include Romanticism and the Hippie movement. [3]

Antagonistic movements challenge society and its politics in fundamental ways. It questions the allocation of resources between social groups and classes, and the ideological and organisation basis of production, distribution and exchange of key social and economic goods. Examples include radical environmentalists critique of economic growth that is incompatible with environmental protection and anti-capitalist movements use of direct action for ideological reasons against liberal democracy instead of instrumental changes to influence policy. [4]

Claimant movements aims to change the distribution of resources, roles and rewards within society and organisations. Examples include the mobilisation of low waged workers, disabled campaigns for equal access to public buildings and transport, and campaigns to reduce the age of consent for homosexual sexual relations. [5]

Countermovements or countercultures attempt to create forms of expression and association which are opposed to mainstream cultural norms of society. Examples include the youth movements of the late 1960s and early 1970s, and the North American Beat Generation. [6]

Defensive social movements attempt to defend established traditions, customs, practices, and forms of social interactions from changes due to modernisation. There are also known as Resistance movements. Examples include the German anti-nuclear movement, Ku Klux Klan and pro-life movements. [7]

Global social movements (Transnationalism) operate at the international level, coordinating activities and resources that is focused on a shared goal for social and political change. Globalisation has resulted in improved communications, international mobility and cultural exchange and global governance institutions and corporations. Examples include the anti-globalisation movement, global justice movement and fossil fuel divest movement. [8]

Offensive social movements have radical transformational agency and emancipatory potential. They are in contrast to resistance social movements, described above. An example is the feminist movement. [9]

Poor peoples’ movements are movements that focus on the interests of poor people that are separate from work and labour issues. These include segregation, housing, education provision, fuel poverty and broader community provisions in developed nations with no or limited welfare state services. Examples include the Poor People’s Campaign in the US in 1968 and 2018. Also the Poor People’s Alliance in South Africa from 2006-9. [10]

Urban social movements are grassroots movements that aim for system change in the urban environment or general political and economic situation. They attempt to gain control of urban processes such as housing provision, service provision, resisting unwanted development, participation and influence over planning decisions, tenants’ control over public housing. They are different from preservation societies and community associations. [11]


  1. and
  2., Social Movements: The Key Concepts, Graeme Chesters and Ian Welsh, 2010, p135
    Challenging Codes: Collective Action in the Information Age, Alberto Melucci, 2008 CH12
  3. What is a Social Movement (What is Sociology), Hank Johnston, 2014, page 80-82
  4. Social Movements: The Key Concepts, page 29
  5. Social Movements: The Key Concepts, page 44
  6. Social Movements: The Key Concepts, page 53
  7. Social Movements: The Key Concepts, page 60
  8. Social Movements: The Key Concepts, page 88
  9. Social Movements: The Key Concepts, page 125-6
  10. Social Movements: The Key Concepts, page 138-9
  11. Social Movements: The Key Concepts, page 161-2
Top brands failing to spot rights abuses on Indonesian oil palm plantations

Top brands failing to spot rights abuses on Indonesian oil palm plantations

Editor’s note: Since when do “Top brands” care about human (or anyone’s) rights?

This article originally appeared in Mongabay.

Featured image: Dayak Culture Parade to commemorate Youth Pledge Day in Anjungan village, West Kalimantan, Borneo. Image courtesy of Antonsurya12/Wikimedia Commons.

  • A new report highlights systemic social and environmental problems that continue to plague the Indonesian palm oil industry and ripple far up the global palm oil supply chain.
  • The report looked at local and Indigenous communities living within and around 10 plantations and found that their human rights continued to be violated by the operation of these plantations.
  • The documented violations included seizure of community lands without consent; involuntary displacement; denial of fundamental environmental rights; violence against displaced Indigenous peoples and communities; harassment; criminalization; and even killings of those trying to defend their lands and forests.
  • The problems have persisted for decades due to ineffective, and sometimes lack of, due diligence by buyers and financiers along the global supply chain, the report says.

By Hans Nicholas Jong

JAKARTA — Human rights abuses continue to fester in the Indonesian palm oil industry as global brands and financial institutions and investors turn a blind eye to the problem, a new report says.

The report by a coalition of NGOs documents the human rights and environmental impacts of 10 oil palm plantations in Indonesia that are currently supply to markets in the EU, U.K. and U.S., with consumer goods giants such as Nestlé and PepsiCo rounding out the supply chains.

The report found that local and Indigenous communities living within and around these 10 plantations continue to have their human rights violated by the operations of these plantations, which are the declared holdings of the Astra Agro Lestari, First Resources, Golden Agri-Resources/Sinar Mas, and Salim (Indofood) conglomerates.

The documented violations include seizure of community lands without consent; involuntary displacement; denial of fundamental environmental rights; violence against displaced Indigenous peoples and communities; harassment; criminalization; and even killings of those trying to defend their lands and forests.

“It is scandalous that Indigenous and rural communities endure years and sometimes decades without redress for harms inflicted by the palm oil industry, that continue to this day,” said Norman Jiwan, a Dayak Indigenous leader and co-author of the report.

Palm oil from these 10 plantations end up in the supply chains of numerous global brands, including Cargill, Nestlé, PepsiCo, Unilever, Wilmar International, Archer Daniels Midland and AAK.

And funding the operations of these plantations are prominent institutions and investors, including BlackRock, ABN-AMRO, Rabobank, Standard Chartered, Citigroup, Lloyds Banking Group, JP Morgan Chase, as well as various other banks and pension funds, according to the report.

“Our report is just the latest in a whole set of independent studies showing the Indonesian plantation sector and associated global palm oil trade are not complying with industry sustainability standards nor applicable laws,” Norman said.

New oil palm planting near a protected area in Indonesia. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.
New oil palm planting near a protected area in Indonesia. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

Selling off problem assets

One of the cases highlighted in the report is the ongoing conflict between the Indigenous Dayak Hibun communities in the western part of Indonesian Borneo and plantation firm PT Mitra Austral Sejahtera (MAS).

The conflict started in 1996, when MAS obtained a location permit for the lands of the Dayak Hibun without their free, prior and informed consent, or FPIC. Despite that, MAS went on to obtain, in 2000, a right-to-cultivate permit, or HGU — the last in a series of licenses that oil palm companies must obtain before being allowed to start planting.

The HGU permit, valid until 2030, covers 8,741 hectares (21,600 acres) of land, of which 1,400 hectares (3,460 acres) overlap with the ancestral lands of the Dayak Hibun.  As a result, the communities’ lives have been impacted by the plantation, with their sacred sites damaged and their environment degraded.

The land conflict has also led to injuries, threats, harassment and intimidation, and the criminal prosecution of four farmers seeking land justice.

Despite the conflict being well-documented over the years, MAS continues to be a supplier to Cargill, Nestlé, Unilever and Wilmar, and also supplies AAK via Cargill, according to the report.

Cargill had the case logged as “under investigation” in July 2019 without details and no updates in 2020.

Wilmar had also registered the case in its Grievance Dashboard.

Although MAS was named on Unilever’s 2018 mill list, Unilever said in May 2020 via its grievance tracker that MAS was now “outside” of its palm oil supply chain, though it precise status in 2021 is unclear.

Nestlé had not logged the conflict at the time the NGOs compiled their report.

In an attempt to seek remedy, the communities and the NGO Sawit Watch filed a formal complaint to the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) in 2012, as MAS at the time was owned by Sime Darby, an RSPO member.

This complaint remains unresolved and still “under investigation,” eight years after the original grievance was lodged.

In 2019, Sime Darby sold MAS to PT Inti Nusa Sejahtera (INS), despite strong objections and pleas from the communities for Sime Darby to remain engaged.

The report says this shows how powerful palm oil conglomerates like Sime Darby are still permitted to wash their hands of responsibility for remedying community grievances by divesting “problematic” subsidiaries, even as formal complaints remain unresolved.

At the end of 2020, INS allegedly sold its majority stake in MAS to PT CAPITOL, citing difficulties in getting bank funding to finance acquisition, consolidation and operational activities. The communities affected by MAS’s operations have still not received any official notification of changes in the company’s ownership, according to the report.

The communities are also insisting that Sime Darby honor its earlier commitments to assist in resolving the case, the report says.

They say this can be done by providing funds to the Indonesian land agency to compensate MAS for relinquishing the disputed land to the Dayak communities, or to cover their legal costs to seek land restitution through the courts, the report adds.

The communities are also demanding the RSPO investigate Sime Darby’s divestment of MAS, given that RSPO members are discouraged from selling any subsidiaries subject to ongoing complaints, according to the report.

“It’s regrettable that the RSPO, Unilever, Sime Darby, PT Inti Nusa Sejahtera, PT CAPITOL and PT Mitra Austral Sejahtera have failed to remedy the human rights of Dayak Hibun communities in Kerunang and Entapang,” said Redatus Musa, a member of the Dayak Hibun community and the head of Entapang hamlet in West Kalimantan province.

On the issue of Sime Darby’s divestment from MAS, the RSPO pointed Mongabay to the resolution passed in November 2018 “discouraging” members from divesting units with active complaints.

“However, it is pertinent to note that the above resolution looks into measures to discourage members from divesting, and not to prohibit or refrain members from doing so as the RSPO recognizes its members’ rights to divest as part of its ongoing business dealings,” the RSPO told Mongabay in an email.

The RSPO added that its complaints panel may investigate the divestment “based on the independent legal review and the final comments from the parties of the complaint.”

Sime Darby did not respond to Mongabay’s questions on the issue.

Oil palm fruit bunches in a truck for transport to market. Image by John C. Cannon/Mongabay.
Oil palm fruit bunches in a truck for transport to market. Image by John C. Cannon/Mongabay.

Weak due diligence

Most of the companies in the supply chains of the plantations linked to human rights abuses, and some of the investors, are prominent members of the RSPO and other sustainability initiatives.

“Yet, despite the fact that the violations uncovered are clearly contrary to RSPO standards, as well as the companies’ own ‘No Deforestation, No Peat and No Exploitation’ [NDPE] policies, the trade and investment continues unchecked,” the report says.

This is because existing industry accountability mechanisms, such as the RSPO complaints system, are typically slow and ineffective, according to the report.

It highlights this lack of effectiveness in the case of the Dayak Hibun communities, whose complaint against MAS has languished for more than eight years at the RSPO.

Most of the businesses were also found to have ineffective due diligence systems in place to uphold their human rights responsibilities and commitments.

In 2019, the Corporate Human Rights Benchmark (CHRB) initiative found that 49% of 195 large global companies surveyed scored between 0 and 10% against a set of human rights due diligence indicators, while only one scored above 80%.

Responding to the criticisms, the RSPO said some cases could take a long time to resolve since its complaints system “follows a rigorous process to ensure the highest standards of assurance and integrity are upheld.”

“At times, this may result in lengthy investigations, especially for complex cases,” the RSPO told Mongabay in an email, adding that it continues to address any inefficiencies in its system and expedite the resolution of complaints.

A woman collects oil palm fruit on an oil palm estate in southern Papua. Image by Albertus Vembrianto for Mongabay and The Gecko Project.

Opaque finances

The due diligence failings are even more prevalent among global and local financiers and investors of the palm oil industry. Many global financiers and the corporate agribusiness groups in Indonesia and elsewhere that they finance or control don’t have public grievance logs, according to the report.

Financiers should step up their game, said Linda Rosalina, a campaigner from TuK Indonesia, an NGO that advocates for social justice in the agribusiness sector.

“Banks and investors should have looked at these cases and taken an active role to ensure that their clients could improve [the situation on] the ground,” she said. “It’s important for banks and investors to improve their regulations to ensure the mitigation of impacts [of their clients’ activities] on the ground.”

The report also calls for greater transparency in the finances of the plantation sector, with many corporate groups failing to disclose their beneficial owners. This opacity has allowed the persistence of offshore financial jurisdictions and shadow companies to enable investments in the sector, according to the report.

This study and related investigations indicate that beneficial ownership of subsidiary companies associated with land conflicts and deforestation is not being disclosed by RSPO members like First Resources in potential violation of RSPO rules on transparency.

As a result, companies and their financiers are evading accountability for violations against the rights of local communities and the public.

“Our research in 2019 shows that less than 1%, or 0.7% to be exact, of companies have disclosed who their beneficial owners are,” Linda said. “This is a far cry from companies’ responsibilities to be transparent, and I think responsibilities are key.”

Interior of an oil palm plantation in Indonesia. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.
Interior of an oil palm plantation in Indonesia. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.

Falling through the cracks

While many conflicts are still awaiting resolution before the RSPO and other sustainability mechanisms, many others aren’t even picked up at all.

Tom Griffiths, responsible finance coordinator at the Forest Peoples Programme and co-author of the report, said those cases that come to the fore are only a sliver of the total conflicts brewing on the ground.

“The main finding [of the report] is that the impacts and grievances are not being picked up,” he said at the virtual launch of the report. “We know that companies increasingly have grievances logged or registered, but they only touch the tip of the iceberg of the grievances and harmful impacts.”

Most of the time, companies only respond to cases that are reported to the RSPO or documented in reports by major NGOs, Griffiths said.

“But other impacts that we have documented here are not being picked up or certainly not disclosed,” he said.

This is because companies further down the supply chain from these plantations appear to apply a flawed approach to the definition of community “grievances,” limited to formal complaints only, according to the report.

“This narrow focus is failing to identify numerous outstanding community concerns and grievances, which should be picked up and addressed through due diligence, thus overlooking unresolved human rights abuse cases in their operations and palm oil supply chains,” the report says.

These ongoing cases of human rights violations fall through the cracks despite companies and global food and beverage brands continuing to market their green credentials and claim to support due diligence and “environmental, social and governance” (ESG) principles.

The report calls for strengthening the due diligence process to identify the impacts that the whole supply chain has. Without it, affected communities will continue to be denied remedy, according to Griffiths.

“Many of these [communities], sometimes [they are] waiting for years or even decades, they have no remedy,” he said. “They’re still suffering from harmful impacts, and these are still ongoing.”