Vinoth Ramachandra

Archive for October 2011

I was visiting Portugal earlier this month, and my visit coincided with that of Marina Silva, the Brazilian environmental campaigner who served as Minister of the Environment in President Lula de Silva’s government.  This remarkable woman has been justly honoured all over the world for her tireless and courageous work. She is far more than an environmental activist on behalf of the world’s forests. She is a promoter of a different style of politics, one that puts the long-term future of the planet and its inhabitants before short-term financial gain. This is a politics of sustainability. It is the translation into all our political and economic activities of the Biblical mandate to “cultivate the earth and to serve/care for it” (Gen.2:15).

Marina Silva is a committed Christian. Her Assemblies of God church has commissioned her as “a missionary for the care of creation.” (Just imagine the transformation in the global Church if politicians, economists, business leaders, environmental activists, artists and others were also likewise commissioned and prayed for!). When she was Minister of the Environment, she brought together heads of fifteen other ministries, including transport, agriculture, education and energy, to formulate policies that would bring the notion of sustainability into the heart of government. This led her into collision, as it has done all her life, with powerful corporate interests and criminal networks that seek to control the Amazon the way that drug cartels in other Latin American countries control the narcotics trade.

Marina herself was born in poverty and grew up in the Amazon rainforest. She spent her childhood tapping latex from rubber trees and hunting with her father to support their large family. She was 16 years old when she finally learned how to read and write. That happened after she moved to the nearest city to work as a house servant. Until then, she had learned from the forest and her own people who inhabited the forest  – these stimulated in her the love for creation, as well as the senses to interpret it. Ten years later she earned a university degree in history and went on to found an independent trade union movement with rubber tapper leader Chico Mendes in the state of Acre. (Just imagine how many children there must be like Marina around the world, their human potential undeveloped simply because of the misfortune to have been born in the wrong place at the wrong time).

In the early 1980s Marina and Mendes organized peaceful demonstrations by forest-dwelling rubber tappers against wanton deforestation and the expulsion of forest communities from their traditional holdings. Acre became famous as an example of grassroots resistance to wholesale environmental destruction by logging companies hand-in-glove with local politicians. When Mendes was assassinated, their work became known on a global level. It catapulted Marina into federal politics and, in 1994, she became the first rubber-tapper to be elected to the Brazilian federal senate.

As a senator, and later as environmental Minister, she fought to reduce deforestation by a combination of actions: increasing forest patrols by making the official environmental agency Ibama work alongside the Federal Police and the Defence Ministry; breaking up over 1,500 illegal businesses in the Amazon region;  re-ordering land use by creating 24 million hectares of protected areas and introducing the Public Forest Management Law which provided for the sustainable production of timber, and financially enabling the local forest-dwellers to have a greater role in the management of the forests.

Marina is back in the Brazilian senate, and she embodies a politics that puts people and the planet before profits and power. But this is a lonely position to occupy anywhere in the world.

The rich elites of Brazil, India and China who are the focus of the global media (as in the recently held Indian Grand Prix) are the ones who define “development” for the rest of us. Their moral imaginations are, tragically, severely crippled. They can only imitate the wasteful, unsustainable  lifestyles of Western elites, and although we now know more of what those lifestyles cost the planet and the majority of its human and nonhuman inhabitants, there seems to be little creative thinking in these “newly emerging powers” as to what an alternative model of “development” would look like.

Finally, compare Marina Silva with some of the current presidential candidates in the USA who claim to be “Bible-believing” Christians. Michele Bachmann, for instance, has only one recipe for the present economic woes of her country: scrap the Environmental Protection Agency and all environmental restraints on Big Business! Such stupidity gets a bigger voice in the secular media than Marina’s evangelical economics. (One wonders which Bible Bachmann and others are reading). Can the Church worldwide look to women like Marina as role-models, instead of vociferous North American mega-church pastors and politicians, when it comes to Christian leadership in the public sphere?

Some readers have written to say that Camila Vallejo is a member of the Communist Party of Chile, as if this should make my admiration for her evaporate.

If we are to shun any involvement with communists, then we should also be boycotting all goods made in China and Vietnam, and persuading our governments and business leaders to stop all trade with these countries, let alone investing heavily in them. Joining communists to make money is okay. Joining them to protest against injustice is not. What hypocrisy! And how paradoxical that the United States, which projects itself as the defender of liberty and human rights around the world, is so dependent economically on the communists that the relationship can even be described as one of ownership.

It can, of course, be argued –as the Slovenian communist philosopher Slavoj Zizek does- that today’s China is the ideal capitalist country in which the main task of the ruling Communist Party is to control the workers and prevent their self-organization and mobilization. The Party’s power is legitimized by its undercover deal with the new capitalists, which takes the form: “You stay out of politics, and we will keep the workers under control.” Zizek claims that the ruling regime is so sensitive to any notion of workers’ self-organization that “even the official books dealing with the history of the Chinese Communist Party and workers’ movement in China silently pass over the subject of trade unions and other forms of workers’ resistance, even if they were supported or directly organized by the Communists, lest the evocation of this past give rise to dangerous association with the present” (Living in the End Times, 2011).

One of the myths about capitalism that was popular during the Cold War was that it was the handmaid of democracy. Economic freedom would usher in political freedom. But, even in the history of Western nations, the truth was the very opposite. It was the spread of adult suffrage and the maturing of democracy that curbed the excesses of capitalism and protected men, women, and children from the worst forms of exploitation.

God’s “upside-down kingdom”, which has dawned in Jesus Christ, will one day spell the “scattering of the proud…the bringing down of rulers from their thrones…the lifting up of the humble, the filling of the hungry with good things and the sending away of the rich empty-handed” (Lk.1:51-2).  The day of final transformation is when God’s redemptive presence will fill the earth (Is 11:1-9; 65:17-25; Rev.21:1-5). The victory that Christ secures through his death and resurrection is given to those who are willing to become like little children (Matt.18:2), that is, nobodies; these are also the “poor in spirit” (Matt.5:3), those who have relinquished the obsession with control and competitiveness.

The redemption that the Gospel announces is thus contradicted by a global economy that persuades persons and nations to live beyond their means. Responsible lending can help people escape from poverty, as in foreign direct investment and micro-credit schemes, provided the terms of the loan are fair and the interests of both debtor and creditor are safeguarded legally. But in a debt-based global economy, lending by rich nations and financial institutions is often irresponsible. Poor nations are pressurized by the rich into selling their rights to their “commons” as partial repayment of national debts. (Would this be a contemporary equivalent of the taking of a poor man’s millstone as security for a debt-cf. Deut. 24:6?). Moreover, many Two-Third World governments are run by incompetent and corrupt politicians who are willing to sell off their nation’s natural inheritance in exchange for massive armies and wasteful, grandiose “development projects”. Thereby whole generations live under the shadow of crippling debts which require extraordinary and sustained levels of economic growth to offset.

The IMF and the World Bank are the favourite targets of left-wing critics of globalization. But dependence on such institutions is more often the result of poor strategic planning and fiscal management, rather than a global conspiracy by the latter. States that run up large foreign debts lose control over their macro-economic policy. We are now so accustomed to governments running up billions of dollars in deficits every year that we take it as normal that governments owe hundreds of billions of dollars in debt to people outside the country. But if you put yourself in massive debt to other people, you lose some control over your life

On a personal level, we can stop using credit cards to buy things we cannot afford. Living beyond our means leads to enslavement and ecological disaster. In this regard, the “99%” whom the “Occupying” movements claim to represent are not blameless- they have encouraged a system whose short-term benefits they have reaped, while ignoring the real victims of globalization. But, on a political level, church leaders, economists, businessmen, journalists, artists, lawyers and social activists need to come together with the poor to claim the rights of the marginalized and the vulnerable.

The recovery of democratic politics is central to any Christian attempt to “redeem” the global economy and the processes of globalization. The lack of political will on the part of wealthy nations to reform global financial institutions and to reshape the global economy so that the benefits of globalization are more equitably distributed can only be countered by a transnational mobilisation of grassroots movements from below.

Let Christians in rich nations learn from Occupying Wall Street and other social movements what following Christ entails…


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