Photo taken during the the World Summit of Community Philanthropy at Johannesburg. Francesc Badia. All rights reserved.
This interview is part of a series done in Johannesburg at the World Summit of Community Philanthropy (1-2 December 2016).
Francesc Badia I Dalmases: The community philanthropy movement is a global affair: sixty countries are represented here at the Johannesburg conference, people working to complement what is funded by traditional sources. Your organization has been pioneering community philanthropy in Mexico. Can you comment on its evolution?
Artemisa Castro: It has been a very interesting process. We began working on conservation, which is something we were already doing as part of one of the Global GreenGrants Fund councils. As far as Mexico is concerned, the area of work was very well defined: the northwest. When we created the Solidarity Action Fund (FASOL), I had already been in the field for a couple of years, and had already understood the effectiveness of giving money to small groups, so that they can do their work. I personally was never satisfied with working exclusively on conservation issues. It seemed to me that one should take into consideration the human side of conservation – that is, human activities towards nature. Prior to the founding of FASOL ten years ago, conservation activities were not taking into account human activity and its relationship to nature. I particularly favour seeing FASOL not as an environmental organization, not as a support group for conservation activities only, but as an institution focused on human beings. The perspective of conservation is, of course, a cross-cutting one, but what is important is to ask ourselves what we are doing as human beings. How do we behave as regards this planet? The answer, particularly in Mexico, leads us to talk about human rights.
As a society, our actions have violated human rights in a savagely violent way for the sake of development: the indiscriminate exploitation of resources, for the sake of development; the violation of rights, for the sake of development; whatever, for the sake of development. For us at FASOL it has been very important to understand our place in the world of development and conservation, and how we relate to other organizations. To date, we have supported more than seven hundred organizations. Some are very small indeed. As part of a pyramid, we deal with the groups at the basis of it, we support the groups at the bottom, which are not even formally constituted or even organized. FASOL is reproducing the model used by the Global Greengrants Fund, which is a model that has proved very successful - a model where you have a number of people in the field, in the territory, in different states. Practically all are activists, socio-environmental activists. Many of them have been working for more than thirty years advocating socio-environmental rights, in sustainable, locally-oriented community development. They are the ones supporting our activities. We call them mentors, or advisors, but to us they are really the actors who actively participate in proposing groups and projects to be supported. They lead us.
FBD: In Mexico there are several negative factors at play: violence, insecurity, the militarization of security, and the fact that often local communities and municipalities cannot work freely, because their hands are tied. And, then, there is the federal government... To what extent the groups that you support become real agents for change?
AC: We believe that it is the people who change things. It is they who are going to change the situation in Mexico - a country which is crumbling down, where there is no democracy. What we have now is a joke: a government dedicated to granting privileges to the private sector at the expense of everything and everyone, a government allied with organized crime, conspiring with big corporations to seize the country's wealth. Mexico is, after Brazil, one of the richest countries in the world in terms of biodiversity and culture. And, unfortunately, those who suffer the most are the owners of the resources. I say unfortunately not because of their being the owners, but because they are the most disadvantaged, the marginalized. This country’s resources are mostly the property of the owners of the land, the rural and indigenous communities. But they are snatched away, with total impunity. Even though the legal framework is very hard, it is quite useless because the people affected do not know how to use it, and they simply do not have the capacity to use it. The owners of the resources have to realize that they do have the tools to defend themselves. And this is where we come in, bringing in information, looking for ways to help them build those capacities... We have seen that, in many places, these small actions are just what is needed.
In Mexico there are many examples of communities, particularly indigenous communities, who have taken action and said: "This is ours. Do not enter here. You are not getting in and you are not going to take it”. This, of course, has generated brutal violence, adding to pre-existing violence related to drug trafficking, organized crime and its alliance with the government. Drug trafficking, government, big corporations end up being a monster: they are the ones who control resources, mining, water... they are not content with holding unlawfully natural resources, drugs, everything, they always want more. People are fed up. And we, at FASOL, firmly believe that organization is what is needed. The motto of the conference here in Johannesburg is "Shift the power": this grates on my ears a bit, and worries me, because we relate power to money. So, are we empowering money? If so, it does cause me some anxiety, for it is in the people where power is. Money is only a means to do something. People do not need money to change things, they need capacity to organize. When people organize, all the millions in the universe cannot alter their power.
FBD: People tend to be both fascinated by and fearful of the power of money…
AC: Yes, precisely. Money is being used to break organization. This is what they do! They come down to communities with their money, break community structures and prevent social power from organizing. So, our job is to make people realize that, even if the richest man in the world (like the one we have in Mexico) were to come down with all his millions, he could not step over everyone and override everything. And that we can decide what to do with our resources. This certainly means confronting violence... Two people, from two different groups which we support, have been murdered. We were supporting them, and thanks to our support people had the necessary resources to mobilize, but then they were killed...
FBD: The murder of socio-environmental activists is a tragedy in Mexico and elsewhere in Latin America. Journalists are also targeted….
AC: Indeed, journalists too! There is a group of journalists in Mexico which are very close to the socio-environmental movement, and one of its members, who was participating in that movement in Veracruz, was also assassinated a year ago. The way we see it is that, much as they get together, we must come together.
FBD: This is why the role of the international press is so important: to echo what is happening – and governments get nervous. The case of Mexico is clear enough: they have an impeccable diplomacy, they sit in large organizations to defend human rights and then, at home, the government provides cover to a gang of...
AC: Criminals! Bandits! I do not know how to call them.
FBD: Perhaps you could illustrate FASOL’s activities with some specific cases?
AC: With respect to violence? We have the case of that boy who was murdered, two years ago. Noah, he was called. They were defending indigenous land against the building of a dam in their community, and they won. The construction project was canceled. That was a success: the community was organized and they stopped the project. They were then preparing for a celebration with a national environmental network, and the boy, the group's representative, went out to buy herbs and flowers for the opening ceremony ... and he got killed right there! There were plenty of people who had come to attend the ceremony. And still... Is that a success story? Yes, it is. The dam was not built, the community achieved what it wanted. And the community realized that the power lies in their hands.
FBD: Was it clear who killed him?
AC: No, nobody knows. Two hitmen. But there is impunity. Humanity is experiencing a civilization crisis, but in Mexico we have also enormous corruption and impunity: this is something that runs over everything. Nobody wants to talk about it. Something that impresses me a lot is that almost no foundation wants to talk about such things.
AC: I don’t know - perhaps because it is so very comfortable to be silent about it. Nobody wants to talk. I was invited to a meeting of community foundations in Mexico, and I heard them talk about the projects they had, and the groups they supported, and how well they were doing... So, I got up and said: "Why don’t we stop putting band-aids? We have a country that is shattering, crumbling down, a government that is crushing us, a sickening political class, a mobster corporate class allied with it... and we are putting band-aids? And we say that we are supporting development? I think we should talk about other things”. Then someone got up and told me that it was very nice to hear me speak with all that passion, but that this is not the way the work gets done, this is not the goal. Then I said: "Woops! So, what are we talking about?" The most cynical thing of all was that, at the end of the meeting, with great hype, they announced the presence of two of their big new financial partners. They stood up - my head was spinning -: they were the Monex Foundation and the Soriana Foundation, two of the main plotters of the last electoral fraud. They stood up and said that they were their partners in community development! And I said to myself: well, I am either crazy, as they say, or I don’t know what is going on. Where is the coherence? We have no values. We are putting money above all else... And then one of them said: "we are experts in community development." Then, I left! The hard truth is that being quiet is very comfortable. Money tickles, money is the devil. Because all, or most of us in community philanthropy, are into raising money, which is hard to do, and the easy, comfortable thing is to abide by the saying "do not rock it, or you’ll stop receiving money."
FBC: This is clearly a point of conflict between money and principles.
AC: Particularly when it is a matter of life and death. I see in the news that there has been a suicide attack I don’t know where: four dead. I say: why don’t they announce the number of deaths that happen every day in this country? More than fifty every day, I can tell you. Are we not at war? Only in 2014, there were more than 35.000 killed, and thousands reported missing. In one year. What are we talking about?
FBD: But FASOL keeps on working, with significant success, despite everything...
AC: It is wonderful to see how, despite it all, communities, particularly indigenous communities, are beginning to do a lot of work, as do non-indigenous communities and people in the cities. We do not need bullets to achieve change. We are not going to beat them in a shootout. We have to be smarter. We have to find more creative ways, and the groups are working creatively. This is how power gets changed. And they do not need all those millions, or those weapons. This is our portrait, FASOL’s portrait. What do we do? What role do we play? That of the Teresian Mothers of Calcutta? Please, spare me! Charitable organizations are all very well, but that is not our role at all.
FBD: Perhaps the problem is that the vocation of charity is not transformative?
AC: Maybe. In any case, FASOL is here, looking for alliances with other funds and foundations, seeking to build a system of community support, with all our differences, with all our diversity, respecting and trusting each other... But, first of all, we have to acknowledge the reality: I cannot work with you if you see something different - for sure.