Fighting Everywhere over Drinking Water

6 de mayo Organizing CommitteeSan Pedro Sula It has rained three straight days virtually non-stop in San Pedro Sula. Water is standing on many streets in huge ponds in the colonias, as cars, bikes, and pedestrians try to navigate the deep ruts for a path home or to work. Unfortunately the situation is literally “water, water everywhere, but not a drop to drink!”

Meeting with an organizing committee during the rainstorm on Sunday in Colonia 6 de Mayo, the issue they repeated over and over was their frustration at having no potable water in their sector of the barrio. Early settlers had dug a few wells, but these were closed and for 15 years families that now added up to over 1000 people had been vainly pleading with the municipality to provide potable water. The river was not that far away, perhaps 10 kilometers, but unfiltered and therefore undrinkable. Within a few blocks were huge pipes fenced in behind a sign saying Agua San Pedro, but still no water for Col. 6 de Mayo, which meant buying water litre after liter at what residents said were escalating prices as well. If they could drink promises, they would be more than full, but that is all they had been served. After animated discussion around the table with ACORN Honduras – San Pedro Sula head organizer, Luis Martinez, an agreement was finally reached on a strategy and tactics. A grand reunion or meeting was planned for the 6th of March to mobilize all of the residents, circulate petitions of support, and force the officials to attend to finally commit to a plan. If that did not work, then in the next steps, people were committed to “go all Cairo” on the authorities.

In some ways this discussion was not a surprise. In the leadership meeting the day before in San Pedro Sula, delegates from the ACORN Honduras chapters in Cholomo had also talked constantly about water, and it had nothing to do with the pouring rain, but the efforts by the Mayor of Cholomo to privatize the water with an outside company and the rising rates people were already paying. There the details were not transparent yet on the exact name of the company, its scope, and its relationship to the powers that be in Cholomo. The only thing the leaders knew for certain was that the project was being pushed and financed by the Inter-American Development Bank, an arm of the United States based in Washington, D.C. Given ACORN Peru’s many years of fights against privatization with our companeros in FENTAP, the water workers’ union of Peru, this was a battle where we knew the field and many of the combatants. Unfortunately we did not know whether or not we were too late, and the endless rain might prevent another meeting to get the details on this trip.

Fortunately, Luis has recruited his own “intern army,” as I call it with four volunteers from the University helping him and another couple of his companeros committed to lending their hands, cars, and anything else to make the organizing work. The core capacity and leadership is coming together in San Pedro Sula for Honduras ACORN, and it will take more than a lot of rain to stop the members from organizing aggressively to win their basic needs. Water is at the top of the list for us in the colonias.


Annals of Organizing: Naked Protests

SHonduran ACORN Organizers and Wade an Pedro Sula Waiting for the meeting to begin ACORN Honduras leaders in the San Pedro Sula area were talking animately back and forth. In my sorry Spanish I could make out the fact that the subject was Cairo and the military, but not enough to be certain how each leader was coming down. I whispered to the volunteer helping translate and she confirmed that almost everyone but one leader believed that Mubarak should have stepped down, and all of them were worried about how the Egyptian people who handle the military from their own experiences in Honduras. When I asked if my companeros did not believe that the protests would go back to Tahrir Square if the military stepped out of line, another burst of talking began and one leader, cowboy hat on his head, held up a flash card to me, which read: “NO.”

We will see soon enough, but the creativity of social movements and their organizations had hit me hard reading earlier in the day about an effective protest and tactic in the frontier Northeast of India which has been under the equivalent of martial law for 50 years through the perverse Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) of 1958. Local and international human rights organizations have attempted consistently to make the AFSPA and the military abuses under the act an issue in India, but one government after another has sidestepped the matter despite frequent allegations of murder, torture, and rape by the armed forces.

A local victory came from the courage and creativity of a women’s organization in July and August 2004 to the terrible murder and likely rape of a 32-year old Manipuri woman, Thangjam Manorama, by soldiers. Here’s how an excellent new book called, The Politics of Collective Advocacy in India by Professors Nandini Deo and Duncan McDuie-Ra, tell the story:

“A group of soldiers from the Assam Rifles paramilitary division and several unidentified others entered Manorama’s house in Imphal and arrested her on the premise that she was an explosives expert with the People’s Liberation Army, the oldest insurgent group in Manipur. They beat her outside the house for three hours while the rest of the family was locked inside. The following afternoon her body was found naked and bullet-ridden by a roadside. It was difficult for doctors to determine whether she had been raped as she had been shot through the vagina. As the news became public the state capital erupted in protest led by the Meira Paibis, the vanguard organization in the women’s movement in Manipu. People poured into the streets demanding the immediate withdrawal of the AFSPA; the army fired tear gas and rubber bullets into the crowd and imposed a curfew. Still the people protested; government offices were set fire, five youths attempted self-immolation in the center of Imphal, while another young man cut off one of his fingers. Opposition political parties joined the protests and demanded that the AFSPA be removed in three days.

“At 10:30 on the morning of July 15, forty middle-aged Manipuri women from the Meira Paibis marched to the Kangla Fort, the headquarters of the local branch of the Assam Rifles paramilitary force. The Kangla Fort is a significant symbol of Manipuri identity and resistance narratives; it is believed to be the first place settled in the Imphal valley and where the Manipuri kingdom was established in AD 33, but it has been occupied by British and Indian armed forces since 1891. The women entered the fort and unfurled anti-AFSPA banners, shouting slogans calling for the removal of the AFSPA. Then a dozen of the women stripped completely naked and ran into the army compound and called out to the soldiers to come and rape them. They then held up a banner that read in red lettering “Indian Army Rape Us,” while those at the gate held up a banner that read “Indian Army Take Our Flesh.”

The protest was extraordinary. Editorials appeared in newspapers from Kolkata to Mumbai debating the AFSPA and publicizing Manipur’s anguish. Displays of solidarity took place in locations like Delhi and Bangalore. Manipur was now on the national agenda.” The AFSPA remains, but the women won a victory nonetheless: “…on November 20, 2004, the protests led to the Assam Rifles vacating the Kangla Fort, the first time in nine decades that the fort returned to Manipuri control. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh conducted the handover on the site where the nude protests had taken place. The colonizers were handing the fort back to the colonized, and the women’s movement had been the catalyst for this – something militant groups and transnational networks had been unable to achieve after decades of similar demands.” Meira Paibi in Hindi means “torch-bearing women.”

The military can be beaten!