Climate change activism collides with indigenous land movements in Mexico’s Zapatista heartland, where the interests of a green economy threaten to crowd out the voices of those for whom it matters.
Courtesy the Soto-Karlins
In late September 2012, brothers and documentary filmmakers Aaron Soto-Karlin and David Soto-Karlin concluded three years of filming the effects of deforestation on indigenous communities in Mexico with footage from the Annual Meeting of the Governors’ Climate and Forest Taskforce (GCF), hosted in Chiapas. Initiated by former California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, GCF promotes a political program called Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD). REDD aims to reduce the emissions driving climate change by providing financial incentives for developing countries to manage forests and protect biodiversity. In Chiapas, however, GCF is advocating a “forest carbon trading” approach, which would link Chiapas to California’s carbon market, preserving rainforests in Mexico to offset industrial emissions in the U.S. Groups like Greenpeace have criticized the program not only for its potential to exacerbate the climate crisis, but also for the social problems it creates.
Compensation under REDD is tied to land titles—legal owners of property are paid to care for its forests, which gets complicated in areas with unclear tenure rights. For an indigenous community dependent on forests for livelihood, recommended changes in land use patterns can have a devastating effect by binding agricultural practices to volatile market forces. While David saw the conference as an opportunity for community voices to be heard and participatory planning processes to be established, he also realized the disconnect between community-based strategies and policy programs.
Aaron first moved to Chiapas to study bioprospecting as a Fulbright Fellow. An animated anthropologist and networker, he is the founder of the Public Education Partnerships program at Johns Hopkins. David is a documentary filmmaker who has produced video shorts for organizations such as the Clinton Global Initiative and SeeChangeNow.org. A storyteller and spiritual student, he studied with the Vietnamese Buddhist Thich Nhat Hanh in Southern France. Over the phone from Chiapas and in my apartment in Mexico City, the brothers discussed the communities they work with, finding narrative in documentary film, and what’s missing from the climate change conversation.
—Danny Thiemann for Guernica.
Guernica: What brings you to the GCF Annual Meeting?
David Soto-Karlin: This conference is dealing with some of the most pressing issues of the twenty-first century: rural poverty, development, climate change, and irresponsible conservation. I see the conference as a microcosm of a larger problem happening all over the world. People are displaced for the biodiversity on their land, which can be sold in carbon-trading programs like REDD. This is a conflict zone, where the government and environmental organizations have encouraged–or forced–people to be urbanized, to leave their lands in the interest of a “green-economy.” But many believe that more urbanization in a country like Mexico only further stresses the food system and social infrastructure.
While REDD+ can bring benefits to poor farmers it can also stoke the flames of conflict where land ownership boundaries are not clear.
Guernica: Can you elaborate on this relationship between land conflict and the GCF’s focus on REDD and global carbon trading?
Aaron Soto-Karlin: REDD+ is a way to incentivize land owners to make forests worth more standing than they’re worth cleared for timber, grazing, or agriculture. In Chiapas, arguably the heart of the anti-globalization movement, local landowners see outside systems telling them how to use their land as a threat to their autonomy. While REDD+ can bring benefits to poor farmers, it can also stoke the flames of conflict where land ownership boundaries are not clear. After the Cancun Climate talks in 2010, the Governor of Chiapas began paying a small portion of jungle residents a subsidy to protect the jungle from illegal invaders. The Governor classifies the project as REDD+. This has provoked the ire both of local farmers, who want autonomy, and members of the conservation community, who say the project meets few of the REDD+ program’s quality control standards.
Guernica: How are Governor Schwarzenegger and California involved?
Aaron Soto-Karlin: In 2008, Schwarzenegger learned that deforestation accounted for about twenty percent of global emissions driving climate change, and as the Governator, he felt he had to do something about it. Not dissuaded by the fact that he was the governor of California and not a tropical forest state, he traveled to dozens of tropical forest states around the world and convinced their leaders to join him in combating emissions from deforestation. That’s how the GCF was born. In late 2010, the State of California passed a sub-national carbon trading Memorandum of Understanding with the State of Chiapas and another state in Brazil. There has been a lot of controversy and push-back against this move, both in California and Chiapas.
Guernica: How does California’s sub-national carbon trading memorandum with Chiapas allow polluting companies to keep on polluting?
Aaron Soto-Karlin: Essentially, it’s just a fine or a tax. Critics say that forest carbon offsets are a false solution to climate change because they allow polluting companies to keep on polluting by paying this tax. Vulnerable communities in the United States also get upset about forest carbon offsets, because they bear the burden of the petrochemical runoff in California that’s being offset by forests in Chiapas. The international human rights community gets upset because forest peoples can be evicted from ancestral lands. The environmental community finds them troublesome because it’s difficult to verify how much carbon we’re actually taking out of the atmosphere in politically volatile regions.
Guernica: Can you provide some context with regard to land disputes in Chiapas?
Aaron Soto-Karlin: It starts with land ownership. During Mexico’s great Agrarian Reform from 1917 through 1992, people formed ejidos–groups of twenty people that joined together to lay claim to a piece of land. At one point, fifty-five percent of national territory was owned by the “social sector,” or ejidos.
Two events are often cited as sparking and perpetuating conflict in the Lacandon Jungle. In 1972, the Federal Government granted over 2,300 square miles to sixty-six Lacandon Maya families, thereby denying property to some thirty thousand other indigenous people who petitioned for the same land. This giveaway, known as a dotación, transformed the thirty thousand other petitioners into illegal residents overnight, which set the stage for the Zapatista Revolution. The disenfranchised indigenous farmers formed cooperatives and received extensive training from liberation theologists and radical political groups, which provided fertile ground for Subcomandante Marcos and his band of militants to launched the Zapatista movement.
Guernica: What was the second event?
Aaron Soto-Karlin: In 1978, the protected-area-movement hit Mexico and the Federal Government declared 12,000 square miles of that same region a Biosphere Reserve. That doesn’t change who owns the land, but it does change how the land can be used, be it for farming, hunting, grazing, ecological research, or strict conservation. Through the present day, the government has taken a piecemeal approach to resolving the needs of those thirty thousand petitioner-squatters, their children, and their grandchildren. After a series of resettlement, indemnification, clustering, and forced eviction efforts dating back to the late 1970s, ten to twelve illegal communities still remain. Strangely, the greatest threat those communities face now is eviction by environmental groups who believe the land calls for strict “fortress” conservation. The global environment movement, conceived in the developed world, is being forced to deal with extreme rural poverty in the developing world.
Guernica: What is the link between the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) coming into force and the Zapatista guerrillas’ declaration of war against the Mexican government?
Aaron Soto-Karlin: When Mexico signed NAFTA, it was required to change its land tenure laws and agricultural subsidies. Until 1992, farmers could not sell collective ejido land. For NAFTA to go through, the U.S. and Canada insisted that social sector land must be on the market. The Mexican Government didn’t see this as a big deal because farmers were already renting their lands to agribusiness for twenty-five- to one hundred-year periods. The Zapatistas, however, saw NAFTA as part of the unfeeling arm of global commerce that homogenizes cultures and alienates people from human relationships. In some ways, REDD+ is trying to correct for some of these failures by incentivizing a community’s sustainable relationship to its forests.
Guernica: Can you describe the people you’re working with?
Aaron Soto-Karlin: The protagonist in our film is named Nicholas Moshan. He is a fifty-three-year-old Tzotizil Maya Indian born in the highlands, where they practice subsistence agriculture. They produce corn, beans, squash, chili, and some fruit, but there is no agricultural work available, and nothing in labor either. There was a shortage of electricity and potable water. Some time ago, he went to the coast of Chiapas—over 90 miles and through two mountain chains between him and the ocean. He worked as a peon on a giant coffee plantation, which doesn’t seem much different from post-civil war sharecropping. Moshan describes it as a dark, negative time; the foremen and employers would threaten him with guns or whips if he didn’t meet quotas.
Then the federal government sent out this invitation to get people to colonize the Lacandon jungle. Moshan heard it on the radio: land. He ended up in this unclaimed fertile valley, which he calls his Jerusalem, where he lives life on his own terms.
Moshan studied theology in San Cristobal, where he combined religious studies with an education on land tenure. He learned to read and write there in his late thirties and studied liberation theology. He is not married, doesn’t have any children, and is a serious goofball. He has a flair for performance and whenever we film he pretends to be a reporter or a news anchor. He’s also a gifted diplomat. He shapes his story depending on who is listening: his own union, the rural unions, the church, the lawyers. He is a popular politician, but it’s interesting because he becomes much more reserved whenever he ventures into the city. You see him become quieter as he travels from the country into the city.
REDD was designed to reduce emissions… What it was not designed to do is address long standing equity and exclusion issues.
Guernica: Discussing the relationship between cities and forests, Susan Sontag quoted from a turn-of-the-century book called A Berlin Childhood: “Not to find one’s way about in a city is of little interest. But to lose one’s way in a city, as one loses one’s way in a forest, requires practice… I learned this art late in life… the art of straying.” I see a similar fascination in your work that frames how people from cities get lost in forests and vice versa. What is the countryside like where you’ve been living and working in Chiapas?
Aaron Soto-Karlin: Red macaws, pigs, cattle, other tropical birds, dense tropical jungle growing over the walls and roofs. It’s hot enough that nobody does anything from 10:30 a.m through 3:30 p.m.
Guernica: Who else do you work with?
Aaron Soto-Karlin: Juan Aguilar Mendez, who was a refugee from Guatemala’s Civil War in the early ’80s when General Efraín Rios became president and applied a scorched earth policy. Over the past few years, Juan has been helping out a Midwife and Healers’ Union. He is a talented rhetorician and orator who gets a lot of heads nodding about the greatness of Mayan people. He has a vision, a sense of story, a perspective on the conflicts around him.
Guernica: What is the stance of the campesinos you talk to about global carbon trading?
David Soto-Karlin: There is a serious cultural and conceptual divide between remote subsistence farmers and urban bureaucrats negotiating policies. Many campesinos don’t understand the details of the policies that are taking away their land titles.
Aaron Soto-Karlin: The campesinos we work with are hyper-pragmatic. They respond to specific–not abstract–proposals. The question is, can we implement this or not? These communities speak using indigenous Mayan grammar, but Spanish vocabulary. I learned this vernacular, which makes a huge difference in the way people respond to proposals. There is a profound skepticism to outsiders.
As a documentary filmmaker, I think it’s best to start by thinking about artistic vision and the truth of your character. And then you start thinking about artistic vision in the way your character sees the world.
The view on REDD I sense is: somebody is paying me not to touch the trees, which leaves out the complex institutional structures or global perspectives that influence the motivations and restraints on the project. Whether people have a positive or negative view on REDD often falls along ideological lines. Those that work with the government see it as a plus because it’s another subsidy. The Zapatistas see it as a form of imperialism.
Guernica: Were indigenous voices heard in any meaningful way at the GCF Annual Meeting?
Aaron Soto-Karlin: The conference organizers were accommodating of indigenous voices, but the government was not. Indigenous voices were present but the degree to which they impacted the discourse during that week was minimal. REDD is switching its emphasis from emissions reductions that have ancillary benefits of development to an emphasis on development with ancillary benefits of emissions reduction. It’s a colossal task to familiarize environmental specialists with the lessons learned over the past forty years of development efforts. The community members in attendance reminded the specialists that they’re dealing with people, not just policy agenda.
Guernica: Is REDD well-designed?
Aaron Soto-Karlin: REDD was designed to reduce emissions and there are a lot of smart people trying to figure out how to make it do that. What it was not designed to do is address long standing equity and exclusion issues. Those sociopolitical components are add-ons or afterthoughts.
Guernica: As you are wrapping up filming of a three-year documentary, tell me a little bit about how you decide when your story is resolved–when you have to put your lens cap back on.
David Soto-Karlin: The idea is that this will be one of the last core narrative shoots. Events that are driving the narrative direction of the story, especially the macro-conflict our protagonists are confronting, come to a head at this conference.
The conference represents the meeting of two worlds, which are far apart. This is a great opportunity, locally, to see if indigenous voices will be heard. If not, it should provide insight into what is limiting each side from progress. I think it’s a good place to end, because whatever happens, it will be a good place for others to pick up the story. No matter what, combating climate change and deforestation will need to be inclusive and involve local communities.
Guernica: How does this big-picture policy relate to the story and heart of your film?
David Soto-Karlin: There is a coming to terms with urban economies. We follow our protagonist’s attempts to stand up to forces bigger than him and regain title to his land. Ideally, it would symbolize a paradigm shift in terms of a green economy and a fair evaluation of resources. We are at a breaking point of surviving on this planet that will require a shift towards a “green-economy.”
Guernica: With so much time and investment in this documentary, what happens if the story doesn’t pan out how you thought it would?
David Soto-Karlin: We have to end it at some point but it’s hard to do without a sense of resolution in the community we’ve followed. We might have to reframe it to express that this community, and many global indigenous communities, are hanging in the balance. These are local concerns but global problems, and we’re seeing that there won’t be a real solution without local buy in.
Guernica: What would local buy in look like for REDD?
Aaron Soto-Karlin: Identifying who is affected, identifying their interests, and then doing due diligence by going to their homes and answering questions. It would involve using popular education materials to explain what’s going on in a way that works for campesinos.
Guernica: Is there anything you wish you would have learned before starting out?
David Soto-Karlin: To be a documentary filmmaker dealing with global issues like this, you really have to love the issue. A long, investigative project like this is consuming and not lucrative in the short or medium term. I had to create a new understanding of what it meant to be devoted to something. You also must have a strong idea of the story, the dramatic arc, but must be prepared to throw it out if things change. To do it well and make an impact with your story, you need to cast a wide net.
Guernica: How have you seen successful documentaries grab people’s attention?
David Soto-Karlin: I would never tell anyone that our documentary is meant for everyone. Our audience is clearly those already invested in climate change issues. But if the movie is seen by a larger audience, I hope the audience will identify with the story and think they’ve had similar experiences, like having to make a big decision in life, betraying family in the interest of a significant other, or giving up on one dream and living with a smaller one. That is what makes people complex and more appealing than black and white portrayals or caricatures, and that is how you lead an audience through an intense human experience. I think once you can connect with people on that base human level, then they’ll be more receptive and hopefully eager to discuss pragmatic solutions to pressing, real-world problems.
Guernica: The voice you seem to be going for reminds me of Jamaica Kincaid: her stories of growing up in foreign locations were stories kept within a hallway, a bedroom room, or a familiar road down to the sea.
David Soto-Karlin: When we see these worlds close up, we find they’re much less foreign or exotic than our romantic expectations. So we point the camera at mundane issues as they’re changing, like relationships once defined by love turning into a couple who just cares about money, or how a wife starts to call her husband a bum, and so he starts to change his idealistic priorities to her real, pragmatic needs.
Guernica: Did you ever want the camera to lie, or to change your subjects into something they were not?
David Soto-Karlin: Truth in vision is important. As a documentary filmmaker, I think it’s best to start by thinking about artistic vision and the truth of your character. And then you start thinking about artistic vision in the way your character sees the world.
Guernica: Can you give me any examples?
David Soto-Karlin: One character was developing an herbalism and healing practice, so we followed the relationship between him and traditional medicine. As a character, he completely changed during our three years of filming. He was committed to traditional medicine and preserving Mayan identity–giving away his medicine as a form of Mayan solidarity, but ended up buying a computer and running his organization with a real profit motivation. I think before we opened to a very different portrayal, we really wanted to see him as an archetypal, infallible hero. This is where you can have a lot of threads going on in a story at once.
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