15000 grass roots women organize at the end of the world

15 000 women gathered in Bariloche for the 26th Encuentro nacional de mujeres de Bariloche, Argentina in October, 2011. Photographs: Marie Boti.

Bariloche, Patagonia October 2011. Open desert, tufts of prairie grass, flat landscape—it looks like the Alberta badlands. But we are at the fin del mundo, the “end of the world” in the south of Argentina. I’m on a 6-hour bus ride, following a 15-hour plane trip from Quito, Ecuador. My plane could not land in Bariloche because of ash fall from an active Chilean volcano upwind. The sun is shining but low clouds are gathering. It’s a typical spring day in October 2011.

It is evening when I finally arrive in the resort town of San Carlos de Bariloche, Patagonia. This picturesque town in the Nahuel Whapi National Park is the location of the 26th Encuentro Nacional de Mujeres de Argentina. Fifteen thousand grass roots women have travelled up to 40 hours by bus to attend. The Encuentro takes place in a different location each year, but on the same long weekend, a school holiday, making the schools available for the Encuentro’s workshops and lodging.

The official opening of the Encuentro takes place on Saturday morning October 8 at the Velodrome. The stadium, with a huge stage and loudspeakers, fills up as thousands of women converge from every side, pouring out of buses, marching and chanting with banners waving; the sound of progressive women’s songs peel from the loudspeakers. The atmosphere is festive and militant. It is cool and bright with no sign today of the blowing ashes from the volcano.

Tourism has plunged in Bariloche since the eruption of the Puyehue volcano in neighbouring Chile and I saw why when the wind came up. A layer of ash-like fine sand coats everything, blowing grit in your mouth and into every nook and crevice. The ash has been swept into huge sacks at street corners, and the town seems quite deserted except for the invasion of women.

Booths selling mostly Indigenous handicrafts surround the Velodrome. Inside the stadium, the women are jumping with enthusiasm, chanting the slogan:* Que momento, que momento, Apesar de todo, los hicemos El Encuentro!* (What a moment, what a moment, In spite of everything, we’ve done it, the Encuentro!). The event is an achievement in organizing and the cumulation of a year of effort.

We are six foreign delegates from Paraguay, Venezuela and Ecuador with me as the only Canadian. We line up to register in a huge tent, get our folders, ID cards, and workshop lists and maps. We then line up for the sandwich lunch and head off to the workshops.

Over 55 workshops are organized on different themes from Women and Health to Women and Prisons, Young Women and Teens, Women and Drug Addiction, Alternative Health Therapies, to Women Peasants and Rural workers, Women in Situations of Prostitution, Indigenous Women, and many more.

I decide to attend the workshop on Women and the World Crisis. The school where our workshop is held is opened by the principal and we follow the signs to the classroom for workshop 48.

Our workshop coordinator is an economist, but she explains that her role is to give speaking turns and keep the discussion flowing, not to intervene with her opinions. Indeed, there are no designated speakers. All participants are encouraged to express themselves, which the majority of the 30 or so women do. There are no votes and no formal resolutions. One woman is appointed to take notes.

There are women from the barrios fighting for homes, jobs and social security, teachers fighting against increased workloads and trying to hang on to their pensions, workers, farm women facing loss of land because of mining operations as well as students and retired women. Some are seasoned activists and had an ease with words, others were more shy; most spill out their stories of struggle and hardship.

Some tears are shed. Soledad, a young student concerned about the environment, is overcome with frustration that people could not see the destruction and the need for sustainable development.

Marcela from San Juan talks about the devastation caused by open-pit mining operations of Canada’s Barrick Gold company which, she explains, is using the water, taking away the resources, polluting the environment and robbing Indigenous people of their land. I am put on the hot seat as a Canadian; a couple of women said that companies like Barrick cannot get away with these practices in Canada so they go abroad to pollute.

I am able to share the struggles being waged by Indigenous people and local populations in Canada to stop similar mining practices. I speak about how Barrick, the largest gold mining company in the world, has tried to muzzle criticism of its activities abroad with a multi-million dollar lawsuit to stop the publication of a book about its wrongdoings in Africa, and had almost driven the small Canadian publisher to ruin.

Susan from Corrientes speaks about a huge forestation project in her area where they were planting eucalyptus and pine trees to make pulp for a new pulp mill in the area. Each tree would require 300 litres of water and was diminishing the water supply of the area. It was a joint Paraguay-Brazil operation subsidized by the Argentine government, and projected as environmentally positive because of the tree planting.

There is also a discussion on Argentina’s foreign debt. One of the first women to speak said she believed the debt should be paid. “Argentina should show the world it is an honourable country and pay its debts.” The others allow her to speak, and then it was time to break for lunch. In the afternoon, many women intervene to take an opposite position. Why should we pay debts we did not incur? When the US invaded Iraq and overthrew Saddam Hussein, the government they set up said it did not have to pay the foreign debt because it was incurred by a dictator and was illegitimate. Why should we pay this foreign debt, said the women, it is also illegitimate. Others said the debts should be examined to determine which were legitimate and which are not, and pay on that basis. But the overwhelming majority of the workshop are against blindly paying the foreign debt.

Several women who had participated in land occupations spoke up. Years of struggle for a piece of land to call home and to provide for their children had taken its toll on women like Adela. Courageous, work-worn, legs full of varicose veins, she speaks eloquently about the fight waged by women of the barriales (urban poor communities) for housing, decent jobs and social security. “The government provides ‘planes’(make-work projects) when the screaming for livelihood gets too loud, but these are not long-term solutions and it is too little to survive with dignity,” she said.

A tradition since the fall of the dictatorship

The yearly Encuentro was initiated after the fall of the dictatorship in 1986 as a multi-sectoral women’s gathering to celebrate their freedom to organize. For many, this is a highlight of their year, a time when they escape their daily routine of work, household tasks and child and elder care.

The event is horizontal, democratic, pluralist, sovereign, and self-sustaining; financial and other support is accepted only if there are no strings attached.

Each year, an organizing committee is formed in the host city to prepare the Encuentro, and women in the other regions get together several times during the year to discuss workshop themes and main issues. This year, the 26th Encuentro focused on the following demands:

  • National emergency to stop sexual and domestic violence against women;

  • No to trafficking and sexual exploitation of women and children;

  • Sex education to be able to choose, contraceptives to prevent abortion, legal abortions to prevent death.

This last theme was most prominent, as there was draft legislation before Congress on reproductive rights, and it was the subject of much debate among women and the population at large. The Catholic church holds a lot of sway over the majority of Argentinians. Most participants of the Encuentro support the bill, which would give access to contraception and would decriminalize abortion.

I am hosted by some of the organizers of the Encuentro who are with the Partido communista revolucionario, PCR. I was met on my arrival by Clelia Iscaro and we recognized each other immediately. Clelia had been in the Philippines a few months earlier at the First General Assembly of the International Women’s Alliance held in July 2011. I had helped to organize the event and Clelia was a special guest, one of the women we honoured with a Women of Valour award for her role in the modern feminist movement in Argentina.

Clelia Iscaro is a well- respected and widely-recognized elder of the Encuentro. She is a young 83.

The organizing committee of the Encuentro is made up of about 40 women from all political tendencies from communists to radical feminists. The PCR women play a key role, as they have been involved since the beginning and are known to create consensus and get things done.

Clelia said that the Argentine Congress will be having a special tribute to the founders of the Encuentro and will publish a book about the pioneers. Most political parties try to court the Encuentro, as do the cities, because of economic and social spin-offs.

Paying tribute to heroines

Many activities take place outside of the regular program, in the evenings and during the mid-day break.

One event I attend was a lunch-time gathering in memory of Graciela Benedetto. About 250 women fill the meeting room in a hospital closed for the weekend. Tears accompany the testimonials, slide show, poems, skits and songs. Graciela was a cherished organizer and long-time participant of the Encuentros, and a member of the PCR. The main message was the strength that Graciela had transmitted to her peers and the younger women and the need to carry on her work.

This was only one of many tributes paid to activists and pioneers of the women’s movement during the Encuentro. There were placards with their photos, and during the demonstrations, their names were called, and everyone would yell Presente! Hoy y siempre! (Present! Today and forever!)

Another extra-curricular event I attend was a solidarity evening with the land occupationists from Jujuy, the northern most province of Argentina on the border with Bolivia. People of this region are very poor including many Bolivians migrants who work on the plantations. Jujuy is one of the main sugar growing areas in Argentina and is notorious as a feudal region. A handful of large latifundistas control the province, including its basic services like electricity and gas. The cane-cutters and other workers are paid dirt-poor wages, and have no space to live. Meanwhile, huge tracts of land are unoccupied.

One large plantation and sugar mill has become a symbol of resistance, the Ledesma estate, where 500 families began a land occupation of 12 hectares in late July 2011. The occupants were attacked by police troops a week later, and three were killed and 30 injured. “We are shot down for a tiny piece of land,” we are told. But after being driven away, the peasants and workers came back in force. By then, a provincial election campaign was underway and the politicians and landowners were shamed into sitting down to negotiate. The occupiers scored a victory and obtained an allotment of 46 hectares of land. This victory has inspired other occupations since.

The occupationists who are present look to be mostly Indigenous women. They sit together on bleachers at the side of the auditorium. When they are introduced, they receive a standing ovation by the crowd of over 600 supporters present. Several of the occupiers take their turns at the microphone to speak to a hushed crowd about their experience. One young woman fights back her tears when she describes the heroic young Indigenous leader who had been shot down and the hardships they had all suffered.

A central place is made for women of the original peoples throughout the Encuentros. Besides the workshops devoted to Indigenous issues, they took centre stage at the opening ceremony in the Velodrome, speaking in Mapuche, and other native languages.

A huge demonstration is held on the second evening of the Encuentro—a colourful, seemingly endless march that snaked through the steep streets of town down to the Lakeside park by the civic centre. The statue in the square suffers the wrath of the women. It is of Julio Roca, a former President and General in the early 20th Century known as “the man who built up the south,” by declaring war on the Indigenous people and gauchos to open up Patagonia to business and foreign (mainly British) interests.

Monday morning, October 10 is the closing ceremony. We gather again in the Velodrome for the key task of choosing, by popular demand and manifestation, the location of next year’s Encuentro: The first at the mike are the women of Misiones. They are well-prepared, make a passionate pitch and have many supporters and banners among the crowd. Misiones is a town that borders three countries, Paraguay, Bolivia and Chile, and the pitch focuses on the urgent situation faced by the women in this region, a centre of trafficking, poverty, poor working conditions and land-grabbing.

Misones is clearly the favourite. Two other pitches, while interesting, are not as popular, and the Misiones chants become louder and louder.

When the result are announced from the stage, the cheering breaks out and everyone chants MI–SIO-NES! MI-SIO-NES! as scores of women with banners march around the stadium, hugging, taking pictures, to the sound of songs pealing out of the loud-speakers.

After some last-minute souvenir shopping at the stands, the crowd heads back to the buses, and eventually their everyday lives.

It was another fantastic Encuentro under their belt for the women of Argentina and a thoroughly enjoyable and educational experience for this participant.

Marie Boti is the Secretary-General of International Women’s Alliance

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