Peasants Pay + Legendary Activist Joan Norman Passes On
Peasants Pay with Blood to Save Mexico Forest
By Lorraine Orlandi
Friday 22 July 2005
Petatlan, Mexico - Reyna Mojica saw her two boys shot to death just weeks ago, an attack she traces to a vendetta she says began in 1998 when her family helped block hundreds of logging trucks in Mexico's Sierra Madre.
They call themselves the Peasant Ecologists of the Petatlan Sierra and their fight to save a swath of forest near the Pacific coast is among the world's most important struggles against deforestation, Greenpeace says.
The peasants have largely won. But they have paid dearly.
After the month-long blockade, international lumber firm Boise Cascade canceled contracts for massive cutting operations in the Petatlan mountains, citing supply problems, and 15 logging permits were revoked.
Since then at least a dozen peasant leaders have been targeted. Some have been arrested and jailed on what are widely seen as bogus charges engineered by political and economic interests profiting from logging. Others have gone into hiding and some have been killed.
"This has cost so much; it has cost lives," said ecologist Eva Alarcon in the mountaintop hamlet Banco Nuevo. "People are on the lookout day and night. These men don't sleep at home."
While much of the logging has stopped, violence and acrimony still flare largely, locals say, because the activists represent a continuing challenge to the local power structure of landowners and the court, military and police officials allied to them. The results of that power clash are chilling.
One night in May, Mojica watched from her dirt-floor kitchen as her husband and four children arrived in their truck. Suddenly, gunshots exploded and she ran outside.
"I was yelling, 'Don't shoot, my children are out there, my children are out there,"' she said later.
Two sons died, aged 9 and 20, the elder leaving a pregnant widow. Mojica's younger boy died in her arms. Rights groups say her husband, ecologist Albertano Penaloza, who was injured, was targeted for his activism. No one has been arrested.
Nonetheless, Mojica and her neighbors keep defending the forest. Their fight is a textbook study of how grass-roots activism meets stone-hard repression in Mexico's countryside.
"The struggle is not just for us and our family, it is for everyone," Mojica said quietly. "I think it is worthwhile."
Favors, Blood Ties
In the Petatlan Sierra, a rugged range rising from the steamy Pacific coast into fresh pine forest, questions of justice and power can turn on personal favors and blood ties.
Environmental groups say wealthy landowners and power brokers profited from logging that between 1992 and 2000 destroyed 40 percent of 558,000 acres of woodland here, some of the worst deforestation on the planet.
As old-growth forest was clear-cut, peasants saw streams and rivers drying up and knew something was wrong. Stripping the land of trees depleted the watershed.
They set out to educate neighbors, armed with Catholic teachings about preserving nature, and came up against powerful interests including a party boss with family ties to the army.
"Unfortunately, this group from Petatlan ran into very powerful people who still have a lot to exploit," said Amador Campos, the leftist mayor of the nearby coastal resort Zihuatanejo. "This is a war over money."
For subsistence farmers the stakes were vital.
"Their struggle has been for survival, so as not to be left with denuded soil, no water, barren earth," said Alejandro Calvillo of Greenpeace in Mexico.
By 1998 as many as 800 logging trucks roared down the mountains daily. Hilltops were shaved to stubble. Community pleas to state and federal officials brought no response.
So the ecologists took drastic action.
"They went down and stopped the trucks in the middle of the road," Alarcon recalled. "They threw out some logs and burned them. That's when the persecution started hard, really hard."
Labeled "eco-guerrillas" by prosecutors, two ecologists were arrested and tortured into confessing to gun and drug crimes and another was killed in that raid, rights groups say.
The jailing of Rodolfo Montiel and Teodoro Cabrera became an international rights cause until President Vicente Fox pardoned them in 2001 under mounting pressure.
The ecologists had hoped such persecution would stop with Fox's 2000 election, which ended 71 years of one-party rule.
Instead, leader Felipe Arreaga has been jailed since November on what rights groups say are false murder charges, and in May three more ecologists were arrested on gun charges.
And Mojica's family was ambushed, prompting state lawmakers to form a special commission to investigate.
"For protecting the environment, they kill people, jail them," said Arreaga's wife, Celsa Valdovinos, herself a leading activist. "I'm scared. It looks like this won't stop."
Still, like Mojica she is wedded to the group's mission, which has turned largely from protest to reforestation. They have planted 177,000 trees and formed firefighting brigades.
Shiny green baby firs now huddle on once bare mountainsides. Spindly young cedars crowd the lower altitudes. Some farmers harvest the trees' seeds for sale, and as the watershed rises they dream of marketing river shrimp.
Legendary Activist Joan Norman Passes On
Monday 25 July 2005
On July 23, legendary activist 72 year old Joan Norman was killed in a head on car collision on Highway 199 near the California border. Joan is dearly loved and revered by many; the news of her passing sends shockwaves through Southern Oregon and far beyond. Forest activists, friends, and family are now planning a solidarity forest defense action in her honor on August 2, 2005.
The "Biscuit Fire Recovery Project" began logging old-growth reserves just above the nationally designated Wild & Scenic Illinois River in the Siskiyou Wild Rivers Area on March 7 of this year. The image of Joan Norman seated below the American Flag in her lawn chair just before her first arrest on the Green Bridge has reached news racks nationwide. Stories of her courageous acts of resistance and conviction have touched tens of thousands of people.
"I don't know what else to do to stop the log trucks, so I am sitting down again," Joan said during her second arrest on March 14. Refusing compromise or bail payment, Joan voluntarily spent several weeks in jail in protest of illegal logging. While inside, she worked tirelessly to empower other inmates by offering legal resources and personal support. Joan was arrested over 100 times in her life; standing up for civil, social and environmental causes, and never had a lawyer until the Biscuit campaign. She will be dearly missed, as will her ever-present enthusiasm and her no-nonsense, powerful style.
Recently, Joan was asked if she was ever afraid to go to jail. Her response to that question echoes loudly through our minds today: "NO! No...I would rather go out in a blaze, defending the world I love. I will be on the front lines someday and my soul will know the time to go, and I will just leave. I will make that decision. Knowing this, I am not afraid. I am more afraid that my grandchildren will think I did not try hard enough to leave them a legacy of peace, and world worth living in. I don't want them to know the beauty of trees by looking at a book. I want them to be able to walk among 800-year-old trees and know that is our destiny. That is where we have to get back to."
Joan had a contagious resolve and humble nobility that challenged those around her to take a stand for what they hold most dear, becoming a national icon of the forest defense movement. She personified the dignified heroism of those who act selflessly in defense of the fundamental values most American's share; but rarely act on.
Her daughter, Sue Norman Jones, said "Joan would like to be remembered actively, not passively".
Asked what her message to the world was last march regarding the effort to stop the Forest Service's largest logging project in modern history, the Biscuit, Joan said, "Tell them to get some fire in their bellies and come to this gate of paradise and help us defend it. Tell them to come. I will be here."
Joan is survived by four children: Susan, Timothy, Terry and Annie, her friend and companion Bob Youdan, four grandchildren, one great-grandchild, nieces, nephews and her extended environmental activist family.
Information about the upcoming action to honor Joan Norman will be available at www.o2collective.org
An interactive memorial is planned for Joan on Sunday, July 31st at 3:00 PM at the Forks State Park, south of Cave Junction, just off hwy 199. Friends can bring food, pictures, songs and writings, and are invited to participate in celebrating Joan's remarkable life and her legacy. Donations can be made to the Joan Norman Memorial Fund at Home Valley Bank in Cave Junction.
More about Joan:
"I have been arrested over 100 times standing against injustice. Why, I went with the freedom riders to the south. I went to Alabama to stop the lynchings and let the people be free. I went to Montgomery, Selma and Birmingham. I started out with members of a church. I met Martin Luther King, Jr. The thing we wanted to stand up to then was the destruction of the diversity of people in this nation. The slavery, racism, and violence toward people of color. The thing we are fighting today is much the same only we are trying to defend the diversity of the whole world, of life on earth. We need all of it to not just survive, but to thrive as a peaceful, loving people."
After that, Joan joined Vietnam War protests, she said, "I saw the genocide against the people of Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos and I jumped in, with both feet. I was at the Nevada test site protests. I stood beside the true hero's of this country. I stood by them at Fort Benning to protest the School of the America's, the place where international terrorists, death squads are trained."
"I was at the WTO protests in Seattle in 1999, I went to Washington DC to stop the G8 and the WTO takeover of the world. I have been in the streets with the best of them. I have lived for 30 years in a community of freedom riders. I lived in a motor home for 12 years and traveled to where I was needed. I had my own kitchen, my own first aid station, my few books and my passion for freedom and justice."
When asked how she got into environmental activism, Joan tells how her Grandson was responsible:
"He said "Grandma, it's so beautiful and amazing in the forest, you have to come with me so I can show you". So, I went with him. It was hard for my old bones and joints. He was so excited to be showing me this pure, beautiful world he had found. Excited that someone in his family would go with him. It was hard to go up the steep paths, but I did. And what he showed me was just so amazing. I saw it the first time through the eyes of a child. We should all go into the forest with young children. They see it like it is meant to be seen. With the innocence of a being still connected to the earth. They see it the way humans lived it for thousands of years. I cannot explain in words what my grandson taught me. I can only say that you cannot read about nature and wild places, you have to go there. And, once you do, no threat of jail will keep you from preserving it. The wild places are the last place on earth that we have to remember our heritage and show us our legacy. We need to stand up and protect these places. This is why, at this time of my life, after all I have tried to defend, I am a forest defender.
When arrested last March 7 trying to block the Silver Creek Logging company's access to what activists maintain is an illegal old growth logging sale on Fiddler Mountain, Joan said, "they came and removed me from the bridge I was blocking by carrying me in my chair to the edge of the sheriff's vehicle. They put me down there and thought I would stay put. Then the officers went off to arrest someone else. I got up and moved my chair back to my space. My sovereign space. An officer yelled, "Hey you're not supposed to do that! Get back over where I put you." I just laughed. People have been trying to get me to be where they put me all my life. I have a right to stand up against evil and I will."
• Most of Joan Norman's quotes have been taken from a June 2005 interview with Ellen O'Shea that appeared in "Z" magazine. You can see the whole interview and more about Joan on Portland Indymedia.com.
• To learn more about Joan Norman's last campaign, the ongoing effort to stop the Forest Service's largest logging project in modern history, the Biscuit, go to o2collective.org, kswild.org or siskiyou.org.