Challenging the globalisation of indifference: Pope Francis meets with popular movements

The author, Judith Marshall, meets Pope Francis.

By Judith Marshall

November 21, 2014 – Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal -- I have recently returned from three fascinating days in Rome where I participated in a World Meeting of Popular Movements. This event brought to the Vatican a throng of articulate delegates from among the poor and excluded of the 21st Century, people fighting for land, for housing, for work and for dignity. Pope Francis was a central force in creating this gathering in Rome. Our meeting with him in the Old Synod Hall of the Basilica was a high point.

The meeting brought together 150 delegates. Thirty of them were Bishops from various parts of the world whose ministries include strong accompaniment and support for movements of the poor. The other 120 came from various popular movements working on the thematic issues of the meeting – Terra, Labor, Domus. Men and women fighting for land, work and housing were present from every continent. In a statement from the organisers, the logic was clear.

In the main, these movements represent three increasingly excluded social sectors: (a) workers who are at risk or lack job security, in the informal sector or self-employed, migrants, day- labourers and all those unprotected by labour rights or trade unions; (b) landless farmers, family farmers, indigenous people and those at risk of being driven out of the countryside by agro-speculation and violence; (c) the marginalised and forgotten, including squatters and inhabitants of peripheral neighbourhoods or informal settlements, without adequate urban infrastructure.

Also taking part in the meeting will be trade unions and social and human rights organizations that are close to these movements and which they have nominated to participate. (Vatican:2014)

The organisations ranged from MST (Landless People’s Movement) in Brazil to organic farmers in Holland and the US affiliated with Via Campesina, from Ghanaians fighting land grabs by transnational mining companies to Indigenous leaders from Guatemala, from the Indignados fighting against the austerity mantra in Spain to slum dwellers in India. My own invitation – as the lone delegate from Canada -- came as a result of work done over the years through the Steelworkers Humanity Fund, one of several Canadian labour funds for global social justice. Through this fund, the Steelworkers have supported projects of indigenous communities in Chiapas, homeless people in South Africa and community food centres like The Stop at hom. The Fund has also served as a vehicle for engaging Steelworker members on global issues and involving them in global events and networks.

The Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace and the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences were actively involved in the organisation of the meeting. but it was the direct involvement of Pope Francis that drove the event. As the newly installed head of a major institution of the global establishment, Pope Francis has arguably made the Papacy the most radical and consistent voice in pointing to the profanity of global inequality and exclusion. He has also repeatedly named the inordinate power of multinational corporations and finance capital as key factors in reproducing global poverty and destruction of the planet.

The eagerness of Pope Francis to leave behind the scandals that have tainted the Vatican in recent years and lead the Catholic church into a new era marked by an unambiguous option for the poor seems to have taken the world by surprise. He is skillfully conveying his message not only by the power of his words but by symbolic actions as well. At his installation as Pope, one figure apparently stood out among the diplomats and church dignitaries. He was robustly built wearing a workers’ uniform with reflective security strips. His name was Sergio Sanchez, and he was a recycler who lived in a shantytown area of Buenos Aires. Sanchez was well known to Bishop Bergoglio of Buenos Aires before Bergoglio became Pope Francis. The Bishop had been involved with the paper recyclers since 2006, saying mass and baptizing their children, affirming the dignity of a group, many of whom were undocumented immigrants.

Sanchez and others like him had transformed a dog eat dog existence of urban turf wars and danger and filth in the world of cardboard recycling into a new popular movement, the Argentinean Confederation of Recyclers. This organisation of recyclers later became a key component of the Excluded Workers Movement of Argentina and a founding member of the Global Recyclers Alliance. Sanchez was also an active participant in our meetings, leading off the discussion on the first day about the structural causes of inequality and social exclusion from the point of view of excluded workers.

The meeting had clearly been carefully crafted well prior to our arrival in Rome on October 26. It was built on the strength of the Pope’s long-standing connections with these key popular movement leaders in Argentina. Already in December 2013, the Pontifical Academy of Sciences had organised a colloquium entitled “The Emergency of the Excluded”. Juan Grabois, a lawyer who teaches at the University of Buenos Aires had been invited to be a co-organiser. Grabois drew on his experiences as an activist in the Movement of Excluded Workers and as one of the national coordinators of the Confederation of Popular Economy Workers in Argentina. Bishop Bergoglio had developed a strong working relationship with Grabois over the years.. A recent article written by Grabois captures his very high regard for Bergoglio.

As a bishop, Bergoglio had already developed an incessant but discreet support for workers and their organizations. The anecdotes are without number: solidarity with persecuted militants, support for campesino organizations, protection for peddlers, promotion of “shanty town priests”, accompanying factor workers who had reopened closed factories and a forthright attitude of struggle against exploitation and exclusion, traffic in persons, drug-trafficking and the consumer culture. All of this, added to his legendary austerity and simple life style, his constant interpolation against the self-satisfied life style of the petty bourgeoisie, postmodern consumerist hedonism and “lite progressivism”, had made him an uncomfortable figure, not only for the reactionary right but also for the liberals of the centre.” (Grabois:2014)

For Grabois, then, an invitation to co-organise a colloquium at the Vatican flowed normally from the many years of active collaboration between the church and popular movements in Argentina. The objective of the colloquium was to listen to popular movement leaders and their analysis of exclusions and inequality, to bring the voices of the poor directly to the Vatican. Following the welcome to the colloquium by Cardinal Peter Turkson, the Ghanaian who is President of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, Grabois led off the opening panel with a presentation entitled “Capitalism of exclusion, social peripheries and people’s movements.” (Grabois:2013)

His themes included the primacy of speculative financial capital, the irresponsible quest for profits, consumer culture of waste, usurpation of nature and submission of national states to corporate power. Another participant in the event was Joao Pedro Stedile, a highly-respected leader from Brazil’s Landless Rural Workers Movement (MST) and Via Campesina.

Stedile also brought a long experience of collaboration between popular movements and the Brazilian Council of Bishops dating back to the liberation theology of the 1960s and 1970s and the fight to end the Brazilian military dictatorship. Stedile stressed the importance of focussing not on the consequences of social exclusion but on its causes. He pointed to the characteristics of contemporary capitalism such as the attempt to privatize the commons of humanity -- land, water, subsoil, air -- and the broad offensive of capital against nature. He also pointed to the insufficiency of formal democracy for genuine citizen participation and denounced media monopolies that try to control the press and world culture in subservience to consumerism.

Veerabhadran Ramanathan, one of the world’s leading experts on climate change was also a featured speaker. Ramanatham stressed the responsibility of big corporations and the developed countries whose adoption of a model of limitless growth and a consumer culture of waste now threaten catastrophic consequences for the planet, with the poor as the first to suffer.

The right-wing and even liberal critiques of social movements as merely “narrow interest groups”, easily dismissed as “one trick ponies” not worthy of a place in broader political debates about global issues was belied by the breadth and depth of the analysis during the Colloquium. This capacity for a profound analysis of the systemic roots of poverty, inequality and planetary destruction was further demonstrated by the testimonies of the many grass roots leaders who were gathered for the follow-up to the colloquium, a World Meeting of Popular Movements.

Structural roots of exclusion from land, work and housing

The delegates to the gathering of grass roots activists converged on Rome on October 26. We were housed in the Salesian Centre, a retreat and conference centre about 40 minutes from the centre of Rome. The three day programme was far too short to do justice to the richness of stories, strategies and popular alternatives brought by the participants.. The hope of the organisers was to spend day one together building up a picture of today’s reality and struggles, building a popular movement analysis of the structural roots of inequality and exclusion. After welcomes and introductions, there were three presentations under the themes of land, work and housing.

The session on land was opened by Pancha Rodriguez from the National Association of Rural and Indigenous Women in Chile and Via Campesina. She had strong words about the relentless pressures on rural producers from the transnationals -- and their own governments -- to plant genetically modified seeds. There were also increasing incidences of land grabs, dispossessing peasant producers to make way for investments in monocultures for export. She spoke of the urgent need for resistance, the more so because of the threats all of this poses to Mother Earth. She ended on a strong call to defend peasant practices. According to Pancha, in this era where the planet is under grave threat, “’smart farming’ is indigenous farming”.

Others involved in land questions jumped into a lively debate. Agostinho Bento from UNAC (National Union of Peasants) in Mozambique talked about land grabs for mega-projects such as Pro-Savana for agro-exports and major mining, oil and gas projects. He also called for more supportive action from the Catholic church. Colombians called for inclusion of Afro-descendents and for consultations based on free, prior and informed consent before any land can be taken. Ghanaians talked about mining devouring Africa. The woman representing US organic farmers warned about weasel words used to manipulate farmers, like the arguments about “sound science” from big agricultural companies and well-funded corporate think tanks denying global warming. An Indian delegate talked about farmers as “the first global citizens.”

The session on work led off by Sergio Sanchez, who had attended the Pope’s inauguration, was just as lively. Sanchez recounted more of the struggles for safer working conditions for recyclers with uniforms and proper recycling bins and defined work areas. He spoke of building up regular clients like the Danon yogurt company that now buys up plastic waste to transform into yogurt containers. He also spoke of private companies trying to squeeze out these popular economy initiatives. He urged the participants to “follow the powerful and the oppressors if you want to find the root causes of inequality”.

Rosa Carlos from ASSOTSI, an informal sector workers association in Mozambican spoke of practical problems like bank accounts and no old age security and whether the trade union movement is prepared to recognize informal sector workers. Martin Esparza Flores from Mexican electricity workers union, SME, talked about being up against the prevailing capitalist system and the international financial institutions, all in collusion with a corrupt government. The delegate from the South African Waste Pickers Association talked about the link between climate change and waste, and also about new initiatives around waste that threaten waste pickers’ jobs.

Housing was the final theme, led off by Jockin Arputham of the National Slum Dwellers Federation of India. Arputham stressed the need for self-organizing, up to and including teaching women to pick their husband’s pockets to get the few coins needed to set up credit circles and gain a modicum of independence. He also called on priests and bishops not to fear radical demands as too political. Instead of blocking popular initiatives, they needed to stand behind them.

A delegate from Argentina spoke of housing wars that included evictions and real bullets and called for alliances between slum dwellers and other housing activists. “All of us are excluded by powerful transnational companies. What we need is united fronts against them.” The Malian delegate came next with more stories of land grabs by transnational companies. The Nicaragua delegate reminded people that there were choices available, like buying local products instead of being seduced into consuming products of the big companies.

Arputham made reference to a visit he had made to South Africa in 1991 just as the apartheid system was drawing to a close. He found South African activists dreaming of a post-apartheid “land of milk and honey” and warned them that, while democracy in India may have brought milk and honey to the few, by far the majority were left, like him, to shit on the streets. Arputham’s words turn out to have been prescient and went a long way to explaining the absence of one of the South African invitees, the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA).

Twenty years after the first democratic elections in South Africa which put the liberation movement, the African National Congress (ANC), in power, NUMSA found itself faced with a situation in which senior leaders in the ruling alliance made up of ANC government, South African Communist Party and the labour central, the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), were busy colluding with corporations in adopting neoliberal policies. Many senior leaders were visibly enjoying a rich diet of milk and honey while workers and communities were on the streets, protesting for living wages and basic services. South Africa has become the protest capital of the world.

After a massacre of 34 platinum workers striking for a living wage in 2012, NUMSA held a Special Congress and opted to end its support for the ANC government and work towards building a united front against neoliberalism. It called in its regional leaders for a political school in January 2014 that culminated with a “Resistance Expo”. The Expo brought 100 members from the popular movements organizing around land, work and housing to meet with the trade union activists.

The counter attack against NUMSA has been fierce, including most recently, ousting NUMSA from the national trade union central, COSATU. While NUMSA had to be absent from Rome, it has never been more present in the struggles of the poor and excluded.

For the delegates who came from Catholic traditions, references to the words of Pope Francis himself were frequent. Most of us do not readily turn to an “Apostolic Exhortation” from the reigning Pope for pungent social criticism. Yet Pope Francis’ exhortation to the church in November 2013 on challenges in today’s world was about as trenchant as you could get. Under the heading of “No to an economy of exclusion”, for example, he says:

Just as the commandment “Thou shalt not kill” sets a clear limit in order to safeguard the value of human life, today we also have to say “thou shalt not’ to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills. How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points? This is a case of exclusion….Today everything comes under the laws of competitions and survival of the fittest, where the powerful feed on the powerless. As a consequence, masses of people find themselves excluded and marginalised, without work, without possibilities….Exclusion ultimately has to do with what it means to be a part of the society in which we live; those excluded are no longer society’s underside or its fringes or its disenfranchised – they are no longer even a part of it. The excluded are not the “exploited” but the outcast, the “leftovers.” (Francis 2013:45, 46)

Engaging with the Pope

Day 2 of our World Meeting of Popular Movements took the throng of grass-roots activists into the heart of the Vatican, some in aboriginal dress, some in their work overalls for collecting recyclables, some with t-shirts with political slogans, many carrying organisational banners. The day began with a mass in St. Peter’s Basilica celebrated by Cardinal Turkson. Participants from our meeting had been chosen to read the scriptures in different languages The symbolism was to be found not only in the very visible presence more than 100 grass-roots activists moving about in the Basilica but also in the presence of the tools and the products of our struggles which we had brought to Rome. The most prominent was the huge metal waste bin on wheels brought by the recyclers from Argentina. It was quickly filled, not with recyclables but with the contributions from other activists.. Those working on land questions had brought seeds and tools and even produce. Travel memos prior to arrival had included reminders about border regulations on such things. A replica of a slum dwelling was included to symbolise housing struggles.

I had been initially perplexed about what I could contribute and eventually decided on two items. As a symbol to capture the best of popular movements in Canada to debates and action around the current global system, I had decided to offer Naomi Klein’s new book, This Changes Everything Capitalism vs the Climate. As a popular educator, working with Steelworker members in a course called “Thinking North South” and promoting global exchanges over the years, I often thought of my work as planting seeds. The “Thinking North South” workshops with our union members tackled the themes of globalisation, corporate power, trade agreements, climate change and inequality. We usually had guests from the global South and poverty activists from closer to home to join us in exploring these issues. In the educational materials we created over the years, the words and the art were equally important. I chose a series of the graphics and framed them in a plastic cube as my “seeds” to carry to the Vatican.

Following the mass, we proceeded to our meeting with the Pope. Cardinal Turkson welcomed us and then Pope Francis quietly joined us. The simplicity and humbleness for which he has become legendary was established from his opening words. “I am content to be with you and want to tell you in confidence that this is the first time I have come down here. I have never been here before.” We were meeting in the Old Synod Hall. Later, Pope Francis mentioned that the precise meaning of Synod is ‘walking together’ and hoped that this would portend a closer walking together between church and popular movements as an outcome of our meeting.

Pope Francis address was direct and powerful. Some of his first words were addressed to peasant producers.

I see that there are dozens of campesinos and campesinas here and I want to congratulate you for stewarding the land, for cultivating it and for doing so in community. The wiping-out of so many brothers and sisters campesinos,’, the fact that you are being uprooted, worries me, This is not because of wars or natural disasters. It is land grabbing, deforestation, expropriations of water, inappropriate pesticides; these are some of the evils which uproot people from their native land.. This separation is not only physical, but existential and spiritual, because there is a relationship with the land.

The other dimension of this already global process is hunger. When financial speculation conditions the price of food, treating it as just another commodity, millions of people suffer and die from hunger. At the same time, tons of food are simply discarded. This constitutes a genuine scandal. …I know that some of you demand an agrarian reform to resolve some of these problems.…agrarian reform is, besides a political necessity, a moral obligation. (Francis 2014)

Pope Francis made reference to an Encyclical on Ecology which was in the preparatory stages and would take the concerns of our meeting into account. His words to the popular movements showed clearly the direction in which this was going:

An economic system centred on the God of money also needs to plunder nature, plunder it in order to sustain frenetic level of consumption intrinsic to it. Climate change, the loss of biodiversity deforestation are already showing their devastating effects in the great cataclysms which we are experiencing. Those who suffer most are you, the humble…(Francis 2014)

Pope Francis’ words on work were equally pungent. On the day of our arrival, more than a million Italian workers had flooded the streets of Rome to protest against the austerity budget and new labour laws that would weaken workers’ rights even further. Pope Francis started his discussion of work by saying there was no greater poverty for people than not being able to earn their own bread. He spoke of the current economic system as one that treats human beings as discards.

They discard the elderly because they are no longer useful, they do not produce. Neither children nor adults produce, so they are slowly abandoned through more or less sophisticated mechanisms, and now, given that we are in crisis and it is necessary to recover a certain equilibrium in the economy, we are witnessing an even more painful discarding, discarding of young people. In Europe, and these statistics are very clear, here in Italy, the unemployment rate among young people is more than forty per cent. Do you know what this means to have forty per cent of the youth population unemployed, an entire generation, and to cancel out a generation just to maintain the equilibrium of the economy. Another European country has more than fifty per cent youth unemployment and in the south of that country it reaches sixty per cent. The numbers are clear, meaning discards. Discarding children, discarding the elderly who no longer produce, and we have to sacrifice a generation of young people, discard the young, just to be able to maintain and rebalance a system centered not on the human person but on the god of money. (Francis:2014)

After his strong words about the folly of the prevailing economic system, prepared to create sacrifice zones of countries, regions and sectors of the population all in the name of the prevailing global system and the 1 per cent who benefit from it, the Pope lauded the popular movements for their creation of alternatives. He remarked that many of those present had been seen as superfluous but had gone ahead and invented their own jobs. He reminded the group that all have the right to work and to income that allows a person to live with dignity and retire with security.

Evo Morales visits the Vatican

The meeting of the Pope with the popular movements included a surprise participant, Evo Morales. We were told that he was there not as the Bolivian head of state but in his capacity as head of CONALCAM, a coalition of national social movements for change in Bolivia. He participated in our meetings and later met privately with the Pope. There was striking congruence between the themes he raised in his afternoon presentation to the group about the process in Bolivia and the themes of our discussions the previous day. He touched on empowering the poor, political systems that no longer represent, the concept of a pluri-national state, the domination of transnational companies, the anarchy of global capital markets, the need for new forms of state, the need for a politics of service and sacrifice for the people rather than a politics of business. He stressed how Mother Earth had become ill from capitalism with its insistence on commodifying everything. Morales suggested that, under the prevailing global economy, the planet would actually do better without humans -- but humans need the planet.

The day at the Vatican also included several briefer presentations on Pope Francis’ teachings on aboriginal people, on how to accompany popular movements and on contemporary society. The discussion on how the church and popular movement can journey together was led by Michael Czerny who many in Canada know from his innovative social justice work in Toronto at the Jesuit Centre and his connections with El Salvador before going to Rome to the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace.

Coming full circle

There was added excitement at the end of the day as participants discovered that our moment of greeting the Pope and shaking his hand had been captured by the Vatican photographer in beautiful individual photos available to all! On a personal note, I had pondered about what clothes to take to Rome, debating between a Steelworkers Humanity Fund t-shirt and a favourite political t-shirt from Brazil with Rosa Luxembourg’s face and the words “Only those who begin to move discover the chains that are holding them down”. I also wondered about a woven jacket from Guatemala, one of several items from what some of my union colleagues in Canada referred to as my “ethnic chic” wardrobe.

On a whim, I decided to take a piece of jewelry that was symbolic for me. Many hears ago, fresh from four years at Union Theological Seminary in New York, where a strong dose of liberation theology was peppered with new left political thought, I had gone to Ghana. I worked in the new towns housing people resettled as a result of construction of the Volta River dam and hydro-electric project. The Ghanaian government saw the project as Ghana’s triumphant embarkation on a path to industrialisation. In the end, Kaiser and Reynolds, two big US aluminum corporations were the big winners with very cheap power from the new dam for their smelter in the newly built port at Tema. Meanwhile 80,000 peasant farmers lost their land under the huge lake that had formed.

 When I was leaving, the chief in Nwakabuw, one of the 52 resettlement towns, told me the community wanted to give me a Ghanaian name before I departed. I had worked with them to set up a village development committee and the committee had raised money to get a local carpenter to build school furniture. At the naming ceremony, I was presented with a beautiful bead mounted on a gold chain, chosen from the treasures in the Chief’s regalia, The chief gave a moving speech recalling a Queen Mother in another era who had led the clan through a difficult time. They had chosen to name me after her as Nana Ohenewaa.

Years later, back in Canada, I visited Ste. Marie des Hurons, a replica of an early trade and Jesuit missionary settlement. I found myself in front of a showcase of porcelain beads, some identical to the one given to me in Ghana. During Canada’s colonisation, they were used as gifts and as coinage in the fur trade. Somehow the meeting in Rome felt like coming full circle – liberation theology, land grabs, colonisation, powerful corporations ever at the forefront, actions of solidarity for and with the dispossessed.

Collective actions towards human dignity and social justice

On day three, we were back at the Salesian Centre for a final day of plenaries and discussions and plans for future action. While the direct meeting with the Pope had been a high point for all, whether practicing Catholics or otherwise, the common bond that united all the participants from the outset was our active involvement in resistance to the injustices and inequalities of the current global system. The Pope himself seemed to have grasped this fact fully. At the beginning of his address he showed clearly how he saw the presence of the popular movements at the Vatican.

This meeting of Popular Movements gives a signal, a very significant signal. You came here to attest before God, before the church and before society a reality which many times is passed over in silence. The poor do not just suffer injustices. They also fight back against them! They are not content with illusory promises, excuses or alibis. They are not waiting with arms crossed for help from NGOs, for assistentialist plans or solutions that never arrive, or if they arrive, come in a manner that leads towards anesthetizing or domesticating the poor. You exemplify that the poor are waiting no more. They want to be the protagonists. They are organizing themselves, studying, working, demanding and above all practicing that very special solidarity that exists among those who suffer, among the poor. This is a reality that our civilisation appears to have forgotten, or at least has a strong wish to forget. (Francis:2014b)

The final day once again focussed on work, land and housing, in sessions subtitled “WORK: No Worker Without Rights. LAND: No Peasant Without Land. Housing: No Family Without a Home.” The impossibility of carrying out this dialogue in three days was very evident. Many of the delegates came from very grass roots experiences and when they had a chance to go to the microphone, they used it to tell their story. This was already evident on the first day in the slight tension between the organisers’ request for interventions to focus on the structural roots of social exclusion and the delegates’ predilection for using their moment at the microphone for telling the story of their organisation or community. It was even more evident on the final day when the request for inputs towards a final statement and collective action in future was again side-stepped because people felt the need to use the opportunity to tell stories about local actions and strategies.

From a language of critique to a language of alternatives

Another tension identified but not surpassed was the strong propensity towards a language of critique rather than a language of alternatives. Perhaps the very concept of social exclusion as the problem prompts a focus on critique. It has implicit in it the notion that if exclusion is the problem, then inclusion must be the answer. Yet reversing things so that the excluded can enjoy well-paid, secure, pensioned jobs, comfortable urban homes and the consumption levels, if not of the 1 per cent, at least of comfortable middle classes of Europe and North America, is clearly not the way forward. If we measure inclusion in consumption levels, even the most superficial reading of climate change shows clearly the inability of the planet to sustain a massive expansion of the production and consumption patterns of the “developed” world. In moral and spiritual terms, does the current model of rampant individualism and veneration of the dollar, of happiness defined by ever expanding consumer access to a world of the latest model smart phone or the world of Armani or Rolex or Mercedes define what it means to be realised as fully human? How do we capture a compelling vision of ways to live in harmony with each other and the planet that moves us to building alternatives rather than critiquing the prevailing culture?

Pope Francis seems himself to be struggling with finding an adequate language. Juan Grabois started his presentation to the colloquium with a 2008 quote from the then Bishop Bergoglio in a homily in Buenos Aires.

We talked of the oppressors and the oppressed, but that was not adequate. Then we added included and excluded, and that too did not suffice. Today we need to add a harsher and more graphic characterization, distinguishing between those for whom there is space and those who are left out. (Grabois 2013:1)

To be oppressed is still to be an integral part of the system, albeit negatively integrated. To be excluded seems to suggestion inclusion as a potential solution. To be left out, or to use a word used more by Pope Francis’ in recent speeches, to be discarded, deemed to be of no use to the powerful forces that dominate the global system truly, takes us to the heart of the crisis.

Another dimension mentioned but not examined sufficiently in the short time available is the absolute complicity of our national governments in playing a comprador role for the powerful corporations and banks that dominate the global system. Governments of all political stripes seem to have no trouble in entering into promiscuous relationships with big business, playing their role in allowing this corporate empire to discard and create sacrifice zones rather than defending the livelihoods, rights, resources and dignity of their own citizens.

International Network of People Affected by Vale

My own inputs to the discussion focused on the power of transnational corporations in driving the current global system, sharing some of our experiences in the International Network of People Affected by Vale which has existed since 2010. Neoliberalism is not just an abstract concept but a global system. Powerful corporations that have names and addresses have been working to construct that global system to further their interests. Mining giants like Canada’s Barrick or Brazil’s Vale are among them. Building broad networks of those affected who can monitor and share information and strategies through a global articulation creates a new tool for engaging with the power of these companies.

For public consumption the big extractive corporations wrap themselves in the fine principles of the UN Global Compact or the International Council on Mining and Metals with an impressive discourse about rights and responsibilities. They craft impressive annual “sustainability” reports –but with no third party verification process. Our network has begun to write counter reports that we call “unsustainability” reports. The reports capture the voices of workers and farming communities directly affected by Vale in Brazil itself, in Mozambique, in Indonesia, in Canada, in Peru or New Caledonia or Chile. The story about Vale from these workers and communities is a story about a company that carries out land grabs, that leaves people homeless, that kills and maims people in its mining operations and along its railway lines. Vale’s megaprojects with their massive mine sites, rail and port operations also destroy water sources and pollute.

In my visit to Mozambique in September I found yet another “hot spot” of community protest against Vale. Villagers from a community called Bagamoyo were protesting against Vale’s construction of a chain metal fence, dubbed the “Berlin Wall” by the locals. Vale claimed it was fencing off “unoccupied land” adjacent to its mine, sold to it by the Mozambique government. The mining company officials argued that if a community member had an accident on this land, the company could be held liable!

During several hour conversing with men and women and young people from the community, it became dramatically clear that this seemingly “unoccupied” land was, in fact, the village commons. People’s homes were concentrated in the village centre, but village residents – and their ancestors – had always lived off this land on the outskirts. Their farms and their mango trees were on this land. They raised their goats and cattle on it. The land provided a source of firewood and charcoal for cooking. The river running through it had banks of a special clay suitable for making building blocks for housing construction. Their kilns were located next to the clay deposits. The villagers depended on this land for grasses for thatched roofs and poles for drying racks for their produce. There was even a cemetery on it. As one of the community leaders commented, “Before the mine we lived a very humble existence but we had our independence and our dignity.”

Our Brazilian colleagues had warned us from the outset that Vale is a company that buys government leaders, community leaders and labour leaders. And as a long-time Vale employee who turned whistleblower in Brazil showed clearly, in 2012, Vale also spies and infiltrates popular movements, putting popular movement leaders, union activists, lawyers and priests advocating for rights or journalists that raise critical questions about its operation on its “enemy” list and encouraging state authorities to criminalize dissent.

I think all of us departed for home, strongly encouraged that our own convictions about how badly the current global system is functiong were shared by so many others working at the grass roots all over the world. All of us came away with renewed energies to maintain our struggles. We were further encouraged by the depth of analysis and the untiring efforts of Pope Francis. To have the head of one of the powerful bastions within the architecture of global power naming the world as we experienced it and speaking out not just against the injustices as such but against the structural roots behind the injustices was captivating. The event itself was designed to help persuade the Catholic Church to take up a radical option for the poor and an ever stronger role in accompanying and supporting popular movement struggles.

Some of the Bishops who participated talked of the church’s slowness to change but expressed the hope that the presence of grass roots activists in the Vatican would speed up the process and that, over time, the new directions promoted by Pope Francis would be capable of mobilizing huge popular support. Probably we all recognised this as a two-way process. Our presence at the Vatican could strengthen the hand of Pope Francis. His validation of our struggles and his efforts to move the church to support them could only help us back home.

Struggle on multiple fronts

Even leaving aside all the long-standing contentious issues such as abortion, divorce, gay marriage or female clergy, clearly Pope Francis has jumped into fierce battlegrounds by challenging the gate keepers of neoliberalism. His tough and insistent questioning of the directions of the global economy have not gone unnoticed. In the first months after his installation as Pope, right wing commentators like Rush Limbaugh from the Rupert Murdoch empire and Fox’s Bill O’Reilly and Marke Milke from the Fraser Institute, a right-wing think tank in Canada, have counter-attacked viciously, among other things, questioning his economic credentials.

The news headlines as I write point to more forces from the right lining up against Pope Francis, these from within the church itself. The Guardian Weekly of November 7 arrived with an arresting headline “Schism under Pope Francis isn’t out of the question.” It points to the fierceness of the counter-attack from Catholic conservatives. Cardinal George Pell, a leading voice from the right in Australia published a homily in September musing on papal authority, mentioning Francis as the 266th pope and going on to mention that 37 of them were false or antipopes. This apparently touches on a conservative fringe belief that liberalizing popes are not, in fact, real popes, but imposters sent by the devil rather than by God. The other warning of schism comes from a conservative American journalist who is quoted as suggesting “[Conservative Catholics] might want to consider the possibility that they have a role to play, and that this pope may be preserved from error only if the church itself resists him.”

US right-wingers are already outraged by Pope Francis’s teaching on poverty and his hostility to capitalism. If they can position themselves instead as defenders of sexual virtue, this will exacerbate the already bitter splits within the US Catholic church. (Brown 2014)

The expectations and pressures also come from the left. Pope Francis’ forthright statements on the social ministry of the church hearken back to the 1960s and 1970s when liberation theology was such a dynamic forces in promoting struggles for social justice, particularly in Latin America. The symbolism of a World Meeting of Popular Movements which brought a multitude of the poor right into heart of the Vatican has not been lost on those looking for a resurgence of liberation theology.

Latin American church leaders are pressuring not only for a reincarnation of liberation theology. They also see in Pope Francis an instrument to weaken or even end the hierarchical model of the Catholic church with its Euro-centrism and absolute power. The Catholic Church has played a fundamental role in the narratives of colonialism and imperialism, with the superiority of European civilisation at their core. Can these new winds blowing in the Vatican with a Latino as Pope create a Catholic church with full recognition and respect for the diversity of its parts and an end to European domination?

The prominent Brazilian theologian, Leonardo Boff speaks for this school in his article entitled “The Theological Possibility of Refounding the Church”.

The Pope comes from a different experience of the Church, on the periphery, more lively and colourful, more flexible, a church that has acquired its intonation and sounds from its incarnation in the different cultures that exist on the Latin American continent. He feels free to imagine a new project of the Church, akin to the Christianity of the early days, when it penetrated into the Greco-Roman culture and later, into Germany. Only in this way will the Church reach the level of the internal and external challenges, especially faced with the devastating crises of the life system and the planetary system. These are devastating all of humanity and not even the church can escape them. (Boff: 2013) My translation.

As the participants in the World Meeting of Popular Movements returned home to take up their often little publicised struggles at the grass roots. Pope Francis continued with his high profile offensives to place the church on the side of the poor and the discarded. He sent an extraordinary personal letter to the Australia’s Prime Minister Tony Abbott on the eve of the G20 Summit. Leading up to the Summit, the mantras of the mainstream media and their corporate backers were predictable. They framed the central problem as the possibility of global economic recession. The only possible antidote was “austerity”, still more “flexibility” and more free trade agreements to remove any remaining barriers to unregulated global trade. Pope Francis’ letter offered a totally different framing of the issues at stake, quietly inserting a multiplicity of dimensions from public spending to combating tax evasion, regulation of the financial sector to unbridled consumerism.

The G20 agenda in Brisbane is highly focused on efforts to relaunch a sustained and sustainable growth of the world economy, thereby banishing the spectre of global recession. One crucial point that has emerged from the preparatory work is the fundamental imperative of creating dignified and stable employment for all. This will call for improvement in the quality of public spending and investment, the promotion of private investment, a fair and adequate system of taxation, concerted efforts to combat tax evasion and a regulation of the financial sector which ensures honesty, security and transparency…. there are far too many women and men suffering from severe malnutrition, a rise in the number of the unemployed, an extremely high percentage of young people without work and an increase in social exclusion…. In addition, there are constant assaults on the natural environment, the result of unbridled consumerism, and this will have serious consequences for the world economy. (Francis;2014a)

After the three days in Rome with the popular movements, the Pope, then has continued to take the church into the centre of the ideological battle grounds of neoliberalism, firm in his determination to make the contemporary church walk with the poor and excluded and discarded. The popular movement participants have returned to their organisations and the day to day struggles for land, housing and work. The moments of dialogue in Rome have served to strengthen the convictions of both the church and the popular movements that these are the right battles to be fighting.

Our global collaboration through the Vale network has had moments when these battle lines are shown with startling clarity. One of these came in a letter from a Brazilian lay missionary who had participated in a network event in Brazil before going to teach at a mission school in Mozambique. He sent a message to the network several few months after his arrival in Nampula. He reported that peasant farmers had been arriving at the mission telling stories of strangers arriving on their farms, measuring land, asking about crops, wanting to know about earning from last year’s sales. The strangers asked the farmers for their identity documents. They later returned the IDs with a payment and a receipt for signature. The issuer of the receipt was Vale Mozambique. The farmers were excited that the strangers had given them more than they earned from their sales the previous year. They had not grasped that they had just signed away their land to a powerful mining company.

Many of us in the network replied to the lay missionary, expressing our indignation. Dirceu Travesso, a much-loved and recently deceased Brazilian union leader from Conlutas and a founding member of the Affected by Vale network replied almost in poetry:

They move about as if they own the earth…

With receipts and whatever else they need to demonstrate that they lord it over every level, above ground and sub-soil, from one end to the other of our lives.

They conjugate verbs like divide, profit, possess, command.

As for us?

We respond with verbs like unite, share, resist, dream.

[Judith Marshall is a Canadian labour educator, writer and global activist who has travelled extensively in Africa and Latin America. She worked in the Ministry of Education in Mozambique for eight years and on her return to Canada, wrote her doctoral thesis on a literacy campaign in a Mozambican factory. She has recently retired after working for 20 years in the Department of Global Affairs and Workplace Issues of the Canadian steelworkers union. Her work included workshops with steelworker members on global issues, coordination of the Steelworkers Humanity Fund projects in southern Africa and global exchange programs linking workers and community organisations affected by transnational mining companies.]


Boff, Leonardo. 2014. La posibilidad teológica de una refundación de la Iglesia -- Alai

Brown, Andrew. 2014. A Catholic Church Schism under Pope Francis Isn’t Out of the Questions.

Francis.2014a. Letter of the Holy Father to the Prime Minister of Australia on the occasion of the G20 Summit [Brisbane, 15-16 November 2014

Francis. 2014b. Speech of Pope Francis to the Participants of the World Meeting of Popular Movements. My translation.

(Accessed on November 1, 2014)

Grabois, Juan. 2014. The sword of Bolivar comes to the Vatican. (Accessed on November 1, 2014)

Grabois, Juan. 2013. Capitalism of Exclusión, Social Peripheries and Popular Movements. (Accessed on November 1, 2014)

VA. 2014. World Meeting of Popular Movements Holds Encounter.