Sebastian Ordoñez Muñoz is a London based activist involved in Movimiento Jaguar Despierto, an organisation that has managed to bring together various activists from the Latin American community in the UK. The organisation is part of a wider network, called ‘Wretched of the Earth’. This collective unites over a dozen grassroots Indigenous, black, brown and diaspora groups, individuals and allies acting in solidarity with oppressed communities in the Global South and Indigenous North. We talked with Ordoñez Muñoz about the origins and practice of this collective that found its name in the book of Frantz Fanon that inspired anti-colonial movements worldwide. A thought-provoking and inspiring conversation followed, touching on subjects as climate justice, allyship and what decolonising is really about. Ordoñez Muñoz is also a spokesperson for War on Want.
“[T]he idea for the banner was ‘Still fighting c02lonialism: you climate profits kill’.”
“Our very first action was a march here in London. We were asked by some people who were in the organising committee around the environmental justice march in London, organisations as Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth. We were in touch with them and we were asked to form a front line community bloc. As time went by we saw there was some resistance to some of the things we were saying. There was a big discussion on the banner. And the idea for the banner was ‘Still fighting CO2lonialism: your climate profits kill’.
I guess that was a defining moment when we said we’re there to really say this to all of these people who want to centre on a positive message, who want to centre on the good things that are coming out of renewable energy, on creating thousands zero emission jobs. We wanted to say to them that there was a very clear injustice happening because of climate change and the people who are driving climate change are all primarily based in the Global North. These are the companies. And to acknowledge it is part of a historical process very tied to colonialism and extraction of wealth and resources, that these processes are completely racialised and it is gendered. And that’s what we did that day.
“They said the animals have to go first, the polar bears and penguins have to go first.”
They told us that we could be on the front of the march until we unveiled our banner and they said “no”. They said the animals have to go first, the polar bears and penguins have to go first. Literally, those were their words. It became a full on confrontation. They thought we were going to destroy the whole positive message about coming together to act on climate change. The more they pushed us to the back the more we understood this was exactly the dynamic that happens every day in the climate justice movement, right?
What you get to hear is this: “Your message is too negative or your message is too violent or your message condones violence.” And it is the same dynamic that happens in many others spaces with many other groups. That was another thing to take away: we understood that all of these struggles were somehow connected. It was a really eventful day, we came out of it with a lot of energy around the possibility to really begin to question some of the organising practice, some of the narrative, some of the understanding of how we understand climate change and climate justice.
“Some of the most affected of climate change are always going to be predominantly black and women of colour.”
At first there was never an idea to create a group called the ‘Wretched of the Earth’. Rather there was a number of organisations, collectives and grassroots groups that came together because they wanted to march in the climate march to say that the impacts of climate change are already devastating communities at this very moment. Some of the most affected of climate change are always going to be predominantly black and women of colour. Why? Because we know this, from the communities with which we work, we know this from the work we see them do.
One of the most important, beautiful things that happened was after the march, when we also went together to have food and spend a good three hours talking through all the things we learned from the march. And all the things we learned from the process in the two months leading to the march and that was the moment we said there is a potential to make this much more dynamic and to grow from it. From that moment on the collective really took off. We talked about some aims and principles and kind of the way in which we would organise ourselves and the ways we would try to structure our meetings and that’s really been an important process in the last year and a half.
“[I]t’s also been about establishing an organisation that seeks to primarily, fundamentally work from the perspective of the people who are most affected.”
Really, we’re talking about the construction of a collective that recognises privileges, whether those be based on your class, gender, race, on the things you know, on your education. But it’s also been about establishing an organisation that seeks to primarily, fundamentally work from the perspective of the people who are most affected. That’s everything from the very basic level of communicating with front line communities, to making sure that it is their message that is being centred, to making sure that we challenge those spaces where that message is not being centred, to making sure that we give full credit to people who are setting the narrative and message.
From the onset, we were working with all oppressed communities, whether they are based on race, gender, class, or migrant status. We understood this from the beginning. We never framed it as intersectionality from the start, that came later. It was actually responding to the need of self-identifying women in the group to say “we need a space to be able to discuss a number of issues and a number of struggles equally”. We didn’t build a hierarchy on who is more oppressed than another person or what type of action or what type of activities are more effective than another.
So Wretched of the Earth started as a coalition of groups: there were groups that worked on migration, the Latin American community, the Black Dissidents were around at times, more anti-racist or anti-oppressive group, some more LGBT and queer focused groups. So a really diverse set of groups who all understood the need to platform the voices of those who are most affected.
“Our message was always going to be one of exposing British colonialism, exposing the continual extraction of resources that is driving catastrophic climate change.”
Our message was always going to be one of exposing British colonialism, exposing the continual extraction of resources that is driving catastrophic climate change. So in the process we thought of what the group was to be called. Then the name Wretched of the Earth is quite simple: someone suggested it and everyone clicked. Frantz Fanon told us about that really impactful experience of the Algerians under French colonialism and how we can still take so much from what Fanon told back then for what the colonial experience means right now.
Actually, up to now we worked with different allies as well throughout the times. Wretched of the Earth established some practice of allyship and ways to work with allies as well. It’s been more through practice, even if we tried to have more substantive discussion. It happened organically. Rather it’s always been an understanding of what allyship means, establishing what that means from the beginning and then we had the good fortune of working with really good people who understood their role as allies actually.
That’s been quite interesting. We’re not that big at the moment. As you go through the motions of nailing down what it really means to be a decolonial collective, it is work, it is labour. And actually, most of the labour in the group has been done by self-identifying women of colour, which is often the case. When I say the work, I mean the work of educating white people of how it is that we could work as allies in a sense. It is quite tiring, though, and there is a lot of anxiety in practice created by the struggles in these places.
“Primarily self-healing and self-care is the collective care you have for the people you work with.”
In Wretched of the Earth there is a beautiful practice of self-healing and self-care. We encourage this all the time and everyone tries to practice it in one way or another. We invite people to share the ways in which they practice self-care. There is often the idea this is individual thing, but no, it is a collective process. It is creating spaces outside of the organising logic. It is going out dancing, it is going out and having food with your friends. But it is also going out and really listening to the people who are in that process and are having difficulty with an aspect or feeling anxious. Listening and really being there for them. Self-healing and self-care is fundamentally about asking that person you are organising with: how do you feel right now? Another thing that helps, which links back to the practice in organising, is we often ask self-identifying women or someone who is transgender or from the LGBTQ community in the group to brag about something they did, about an achievement or something bright they did. And for men it is about displaying emotions they want to talk about. Primarily self-healing and self-care is the collective care you have for the people you work with. It is fundamental, we wouldn’t exist if we didn’t do that. It is about the culture you create. And it’s about being open when there is a challenge. Any challenging moments or challenging times coming up. Sometimes it gets personal and you can only do that when there is a lot of trust and you can only build that trust through developing all these practices, and practising that safe space policy and giving a structure to your meeting and not talking too much.
“One of the things that is essential to the type of activities that we do is that beyond having a panel discussion, we always try to engage in a more participatory methodology an the best way we do that is through art and creativity and making things together.”
Concerning our activities, we’ve been trying to take leadership of the groups we’ve worked with. Berta Caceres’ murder has been instrumental in defining our journey. We’ve held symbolic actions through the relation we’ve developed with COPINH in Honduras. We’ve done many different types of actions, there’s been the symbolic walking of the canal at the Camden Lock, to some more direct actions.
We’ve also been supportive of other actions planned by other groups. Action around refugees, on police brutality on black people in the UK and the US. One of the things that is essential to the type of activities that we do is that beyond having a panel discussion, we always try to engage in a more participatory methodology and the best way that we do that is through art and creativity and making things together. Again, there are some fantastic, creative people in the group who detest the idea to have a panel to discuss these issues, rather they want to do it through making and in that making questioning and in that questioning build things together. And I guess the other thing is, we have developed quite a comprehensive safer spaces policy in order to make sure that when we are having meetings or events everyone is listened to, everyone is respected.
“I’m working on some research precisely on the shortcomings of human rights-based approaches (NGOs).”
Our activities mainly have to do with communities that are affected by extractivism. Being in the heart of empire, where so many mining companies, so many oil and gas companies, so many extractive companies are based. Where so many other companies that finance those companies, so many insurance companies that insure those companies all are based here in the UK. This means that we understand our position of relative privilege to challenge those companies here. But we want to do it in a way that doesn’t necessarily comes from a rights-based perspective or a human rights-based perspective like many NGOs do, rather it’s about deciding or designing the type of action depending on what community needs are. Community representatives come to London and often they are bombarded with questions about strategies, about messaging about a number of things and no one just asks that person that represents a community what do you need us to do right now. Or what do you need us to do in six months?
I’m working on some research precisely on the shortcomings of human rights-based approaches (NGOs). So the notion of corporate social responsibility gained traction in the mainstream in the nineties and it was in places as Colombia where there were mass human rights atrocities happening, and displacements and mass killings. There were targeted killings and all types of gender violence, and so NGOs felt the need to protect human rights. They said: “We need to defend human rights, we need to engage with these companies, to make sure that they also protect human rights.” And so companies found this is a very good idea and they were going to establish some principles to make sure we are going to respect human rights.
Companies set up the Corporate Social Responsibility structure to make sure they are respecting communities and human rights. Often what that does is you list human rights and then you have a company, again, violating those human rights, but that company supposedly is following the corporate social responsibility structure which is based on human rights because they signed up to it at the UN. And then that company says: “That community over there are not organising as civil society, they are not following the same structure.” So suddenly, the company starts to decide who is following the structure of human rights and who isn’t and again it serves as a way to legitimise their operations and vilify opposition.
We had a situation where companies were continuing to cause devastation and violate human rights which is why the whole framework of human rights is often problematic in the sense that we as NGOs advance a position on the need to assert human rights and yet at the same time by doing that we are legitimising all the human rights atrocities that companies reproduce within the same framework. And if you look more in the way in which human rights and legal concepts are developed. This process is again very eurocentric, very colonial. Slavery was legal, it was legal for women not to vote… There are problems with that, which is why other frameworks that don’t just focus on rights, but focus on liberation and decolonisation and grassroots building are often much more productive.
But at the same time if those human rights weren’t there, we couldn’t guarantee even that bare minimum, we couldn’t even guarantee those fundamental rights, economical, social, cultural and environmental rights as well. But again, the institutions that we have to protect human rights are not exactly the most able to do so.
“[Movimiento Jaguar Despierto] organise[s] primarily around the need to understand our migrant identity, through understanding the fact that we have roots tied to our ancestors and the best way to re-find and explore these roots is through music, is through art, is through theatre.”
Personally, I’m from a group called ‘Movimiento Jaguar Despierto’, which is based in the Latin American community. We organise primarily around the need to understand our migrant identity, through understanding the fact that we have roots tied to our ancestors and the best way to re-find and explore these roots is through music, is through art, is through theatre. We work with younger people in the community to basically explore those roots, and through those roots understand our identity as migrants, through the understanding of our identity and the problems we face as a community in London.
As Latin Americans we understand the type of organising that needs to happen. So it’s not just the kid that comes to the theatre class, it’s the mom that is also going to be outside and it is the youngest sibling that is going to be learning Spanish at the same time. It is fundamentally about building and creating communities. And every group that is part of Wretched of the Earth does it in a specific way. Some with more success than others, but being very sensitive to the diversity and to the needs of each space, I think.
One of the biggest things for the Latin American community is that often we come here because we are fleeing violence or austerity or we come here for love and we forget about our roots. And I think building that connection is really effective to mobilise within the Latin American community. Because it is not easy, we work with smaller trade unions and workers collectives which are primarily all Latin American cleaners and we do and host workshops about environmental justice and they host workshops for us about labour law in the UK and then we do actions together. I think that is the best way to do it. Again understanding the intersectionality of different types of oppression and the interconnectedness of our struggles. And if you look at migration and the reason why migration happens, then it’s obvious. Especially in issues around climate at the moment, which are quite prominent.
“Most of the biggest movements that I’ve known were able to organise effectively because they understood what it is that is valued by the communities they are working with.”
Something we often organise around is the idea of, or the symbolism that comes from being connected to our roots. Literally every movement I ever worked with, every time I visited a movement in Latin America, there was always this big start with a mistica hosted in any organising space. It can take shape in the form of an offering, or a collective prayer, or it may be a song or it may be a small ritual. You can do that without appropriating other cultures. Obviously, if you start to appropriate other cultures that’s a huge problem. Most of the biggest movements that I’ve known were able to organise effectively because they have understood what it is that is valued by the communities they are working with. Whether it is their water, whether it is their land, whether it is their tradition and their culture, you highlight it and understand this and that can guide you to interesting spaces. It’s difficult to do in capitalist societies of course, where we place so much value on different things.
And actually, if you look to a place as Brazil, where you also have a broad spectrum on the left, they managed in this way to create spaces of dialogue between those people, that’s something we should also be doing again. Wretched of the Earth works here, Friends of the Earth works there, Black Lives Matter there, I often don’t know where the crossover is. We might want to invest again in places where this becomes possible again.
“I think it’s fundamentally about inviting those [underprivileged] groups from the very beginning to shape the way in which these events are happening and having the patience, the openness to work through what it is that those groups want to see coming out of this decolonising process.”
But going back to decolonisation, I think it’s fundamentally about inviting those groups from the very beginning to shape the way in which these events are happening and having the patience, the openness to work through what it is that those groups want to see coming out of this decolonising process. That’s something that happens to Wretched of the Earth all the time. We are asked to be in a panel or speak at an event or run a workshop. The response is always, being a group that is not funded and is struggling for capacity, so you want to do this panel, you do the work of bringing us on board and share the stage and then we’ll do the work that we can.
One of the things that a lot of the people in the group say to white people willing to work together is that you need to understand that how it is that you as a white person are privileged in those spaces. You need to understand what that privilege means. You need to have some uncomfortable conversations with yourself and with other people.
If you are planning an action, if you are planning an event, if you are planning a meeting and you want to have a serious discussion about the intersection between race and climate change, or you want to talk about decolonising the environmental justice movement, or maybe about the experience of front line communities, then it’s not just good enough to invite a front line community to speak at an event in a last minute kind of thing. It isn’t just good enough to invite the grassroots collective that works on this to come and speak. It isn’t just good enough to say to people that you are speaking about those things, without fundamentally questioning your practice in developing these actions.
There are great mobilising institutions, such as People & Planet and 350, who have made some really bad mistakes and they have made them recently. And then we think your told us you want to have panels on decolonising the movement and you are happy to have us there to talk about them, but then you do this or that action. There is actually a good example from Belgium, where a direct action group compares the Zapatista movement to animals and uses this idea of ‘we are nature defending ourselves’. I knew some people involved in that video. I don’t question that many of them come from a very good place. I think the oversight comes from not understanding the type of movement the Zapatistas are and I think there are many steps to take before making such a reference. Are you in touch with the groups that are directly linked to the Zapatistas? Are you in touch about the type of action and the design? And then you check and check again. Obviously, there were issues of safety and it was a direct action, so it’s not possible to just publicise broadly before, but there was nevertheless some serious oversight there.
Working on decolonisation is fundamentally about a practice. It takes time. And also if you are coming from a position of privilege, how do you make sure when talking with one of your partners to be clear about what it is that you are gaining from that. Often you don’t really ask yourself that. And what are your key messages? Does it sound right? If you have people around you doing that, then you can really challenge those imperial colonial practices.
“One thing you often hear when talking with activists working on issues as climate change: […] they will stress the urgency and say there is no time to prioritise [intersectionality and decolonisiation] right now.”
One thing you often hear when talking with activists working on issues as climate change: they will tell you they agree with you on the connection to other struggles and the need to decolonise, but they will stress the urgency and say there is no time to prioritise this right now. Isn’t COP 21 the clearest example of that? You have all these NGOs, all these groups mobilising from around the world, building up their carbon foot print traveling to Paris, in order to try to get some kind of progressive agreement to reduce emissions and mitigate the impact of climate change. And what we get from the agreement isn’t even all that progressive.
And in the meantime we’ve spent all that energy into mobilising, into getting the policy papers right and into all the lobbying work. Meanwhile no company has been stopped their production or no supply chain is being questioned or there is no accountability for the impacts of a particular group. And the communities at the forefront of this are communities with the power and the drive to do this, because for them it is a question of survival. They could have really used all of those resources to do this work, and they are left without.
I think obviously there is a slightly different point in that. You are asking about the deep questions of our privilege in those spaces, but I think we’re not even doing that. We’re not even offering that to our communities. We have our agendas of divesting, we have our agendas about mobilising students and so on. A clear example: there’s a big coal mine in the north of Colombia and it is owned by three of the world’s largest mining companies. Many people are now pushing for divestment, and even if indigenous communities would agree in principle, yet if that mine closed down tomorrow, that whole region would completely break apart. Again this example points to the need to recognise that all of our struggles are somehow linked: the struggles for economic justice, the struggles for environmental justice, those for social justice. All are linked and we have to spend our time having bold proposals.
“The climate crisis is a crisis. […] So really what we have to do right now is understand this reality in a context of justice. Who are the people that will suffer first?”
I’m not saying the environmental justice movement has failed. What we did at the COP was incredible, what happened in Germany, Ende Gelände (a direct action group against coal mines), again incredible. I just think you can’t do one thing without the other. I think we’re not really doing the other very much at all.
The climate crisis is a crisis. We should have stopped CO2 ten years ago to stay within a 2 degree limit, let alone a 1.5. So really what we have to do right now is understand this reality in a context of justice. Who are the people that will suffer first? And as I said before it’s primarily women of colour. Why is it that we don’t think that’s fundamentally the crisis? Why do we think the crisis is somewhere else? The crisis is right there in front of us: who are the people that are going to suffer? So, then the real question is what can we do now, so when the time comes when we face the catastrophic effects of climate change, it isn’t the world’s damnés de la terre that face the injustices.
So much of the ways things are done in NGO spaces is really reflective of what doesn’t give me hope. I find hope in the work that we do with Wretched of the Earth. I find hope in the community organising what we do with the kids, even if only two or three turn up. I find hope in the spaces that are really challenging the ways in which they interact between themselves and with the world and that are constantly questioning of how that works. There is hope in the coalition between Afro-Colombian groups and indigenous groups fighting that coal mine in the North. There is hope when they want to effectively stop the mining, no matter how many actions we take here like sending e-mails and suing companies. When they go there and work together. We can only continue to create hope if we change the practice of how we organise, cause the hope will come from the way in which we learn to engage with each others as human beings and beyond.”
Interview by Labo vzw
Photo by Sebastian Ordoñez Muñoz (Facebook)