by Anne Petermann, 8 September 2015
Today was an emotional day here in Durban at CSAP, the alternative peoples’ conference planned in parallel to the timber industry-dominated World Forestry Congress.
Winnie Overbeek, Executive Director of World Rainforest Movement and I co-facilitated a workshop on tree plantations that was attended by 30 members of rural communities impacted in some way by industrial tree plantations.
After our brief overview introducing the issues of tree plantations and GE trees, we gave the floor over to the participants. They went around one by one and spoke, some in English, some in their native language, about the impacts they have experienced due to the plantations, the companies that own them, and the South African government that collaborates with the companies.
One young woman who has to walk through a plantation to get to her school spoke about the fear she and the other girls have about walking alone from school in the afternoon, about being chased by some of the men who work in the plantation, about the fear of being raped.
A common theme among many of the participants was the loss of fresh water access. The plantations have dried up the ground water in many places and some areas face historic drought.
Another common problem was loss of land. Many women described how they had no access to land because of the plantations and that they were unable to grow food for their families.
Other women spoke of being evicted from their lands after their husbands who worked in the plantations had passed away. Still others had been evicted to make room for expanding plantations and some had been offered money to abandon their lands.
But Winnie explained a comment from a community representative he knew who had also been offered money to leave his land. “If I take the money I have it today but it is soon gone. If I have my land, I have it always. I have it for my children and my grand children.”
The harrowing stories went on for two hours and at the end, the woman who had brought many of the community people to Durban for the event explained that these communities, who were desperate for help with their troubles, had 60% of their own solution just by standing united against the timber industry. By refusing to give in, refusing to leave their lands, refusing to sell out to the companies, by standing in solidarity with each other, they were very strong. But if they had sold out, allowed themselves to be isolated or divided, that they would have lost all of their power.
This was not the end for these community representatives, who expressed gratitude for the workshop and the opportunity to share their stories. They are now working together with the support of local South African organizations whose focus is timber plantations, food sovereignty and human rights.
Winnie closed the session with a slideshow of Indigenous and local communities in Brazil that have resisted tree plantations there, and who, through years of struggle and a refusal to back down, have won title to lands now covered by plantations, which are being gradually rehabilitated and ecologically restored.