Mexican environmental grassroots protest: what does it mean to resist and defend the territory in a repressive context?
ALICE POMA and TOMMASO GRAVANTE 5 December 2016
Facing up to the fear of repression, powerlessness, loneliness, and hopelessness is the only way for people not to give up.
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Mexico is going through a violent and repressive period not only because of the well-known assassination of six people and the disappearance of forty-three students at the rural school of Ayotzinapa in the state of Guerrero in September 2014, but also due to regular attacks on activists, journalists, women and citizens.
A report by the Mexican Environmental Rights Centre (CEMDA) shows that 109 environmental activists suffered violence between May 2014 to June 2015 and 4 were killed in 2015. Moreover, from June 2014 to the end of May 2015, the following incidents have been recorded: 459 arbitrary arrests; 330 cases of attacks, threats, harassment; 224 people denied freedom for political reasons; 459 documented cases of torture; 47 extrajudicial executions (ACUDDEH, Comité Cerezo México and Campaña Nacional Contra la Desaparición Forzada, 2015).
Despite this repressive context where activism has become a high-risk activity, many experiences of resistance and struggles have flourished in Mexico.
Despite this repressive context where activism has become a high-risk activity, many experiences of resistance and struggles have flourished in Mexico. Among them, more than 420 environmental conflicts involve indigenous communities, rural villages and urban collectives that confront the state and companies to defend their territory and their right to live where they do.
When those who live in the threatened territories have to move to other places because of dams, airports, highways or wind farms, thousands are obliged to move and the environment can be degraded to a point which threatens the health and quality of life of the inhabitants of whole regions, such as in the El Salto and Juanacatlán municipalities in Jalisco. In this case, contamination of the Santiago River is killing inhabitants in the area, as exposed and denounced by the Un Salto de Vida collective (USV).
In this repressive context, environmental activism is growing. It is sustained by self-organised groups, which in many cases receive death threats, intimidation and other kinds of physical or psychological threats. What is it like to resist and defend the territory in such a repressive context? How can those involved avoid burnout? These questions can only be answered by analysing the all-important emotional dimension of protest.
Three collectives in the Guadalajara Metropolitan Area (ZMG)  provide some answers to these questions: the Un Salto de Vida (“A Leap of Life”) group (USV), the Salvabosque (“Save the Forest”) committee (CS) and the El Roble (“The Oak”) environmental group (GER).
Un Salto de Vida (“A Leap of Life”) was formed in 2005 to denounce pollution in the Santiago River, which has become one of the most polluted rivers in Mexico. Residents on the bank of the river live in fear because of the many cases of illness, particularly cancer and kidney diseases, which they attribute to water contamination. Although the river has been polluted since the 1970s when fish started dying and foam and smells emanated from the water, the inhabitants were not aware of the danger until ten years ago.
Un Salto de Vida (USV) was created in 2005 “because of a yearning for the river (...) because of the dream of seeing the river clean again”, but in 2008, after the death of a child who was poisoned because he fell into the river, people started sharing experiences of illness for the first time. This sharing of fear and pain caused by illness allowed the inhabitants to reframe the situation and become aware of the threat. In this case, together with the attachment to the river that people feel, the fear of getting sick moved the inhabitants to organise themselves and denounce the pollution of the river.
The Comité Salvabosque started in 2005 as well, this time to denounce the destruction of the Nixticuil forest, which is threatened by new urban developments. The collective was created to resist the chopping down of trees by occupying areas of the forest. At the beginning, what moved people to join the resistance was fear of losing the forest and the anger of the women who resisted the first time the municipality chopped down 400 trees. Anger and powerlessness, together with the attachment to the forest, were the first mobilizing emotions in this case.
The third experience, El Roble (“The Oak”) environmental group (GER) was set up earlier, in 1988. It aims at defending the forest in the Juanacatlán municipality from illegal hunting, improper use of the ground, and fires. Like the Comité Salvabosque, El Roble puts out fires in a self-managed way. It also aims to supervise the land by making regular visits to the forest to report on or work against any illegal activities that might threaten the life of the forest.
Looking at these three experiences where people’s lives are threatened, both by repression and by the exploitation and destruction of territory endangering the inhabitants’ health and lifestyles, all we might see were people who are facing fear, pain, frustration and powerlessness in attempting to defend their territories. However, they do not lose hope and this is because they create local alternatives.
However, they do not lose hope and this is because they create local alternatives.
As an example, we analysed self-organised projects, such as anti-fire patrols (CS and GER); building self-managed community nurseries where trees are grown and later planted (USV and CS); creating activities in which neighbours are invited to travel around the territory on foot or by bicycle to spread knowledge about the environment and attachment to the place (CS, USV and GER); workshops organised for adults and children on recycling rubbish (USV), music (CS) and reading (CS and USV), media and journalism (CS and USV), and diagnosing illnesses (GER and USV), among other topics.
All these activities are self-financed and self-managed. Just as they have to live with the fear of repression, they also have to live with economic restrictions. This is very important, because burnout can be caused by the “fear of starvation” that some young people feel, as a consequence to their inability to sustain a job of work simply because there have dedicated all their time to defending their territory as well as the stigmatisation they suffer for their political activity, which prevents them from finding work.
Despite repression and powerlessness, these people keep resisting and creating alternatives. For those whom we interviewed, resisting and defending the territory nowadays in Mexico means that you are at war with the state and with financial capital (Poma and Gravante, 2015). In this war, those who are politically engaged and economically interested in the use and exploitation of the land work together with their allies (which includes some NGOs) to make themselves powerful enemies that can use fear as a strategy to break resistance. They also routinely stigmatise and criminalise the political activities of the groups and their members. On the exploited side, it is a minority of inhabitants do not allow the destruction of their territories, like the members of USV, CS and GER and their allies.
In addition to the activities geared at denouncing and preventing the destruction of their territories, these groups also have to manage their fear and other powerful emotions such as powerlessness, frustration, and strain. They need to suppress anger and hate, which if expressed can only provoke repression and violence from their enemies, and finally, as if this were not enough, they cannot lose hope and must keep resisting and creating alternatives.
Emotional work is as important as political and organisational activities, since it allows groups to counteract the fear of repression, channel anger towards their enemies, transform exhausting emotions into joy, and attempt not to be overcome by despair. But how does it work?
Regarding managing the fear of repression, people learn how to live and fight with it, because fear “never goes away”, as one interviewee told us. Living with fear means that you know that your companions and relatives are constantly worried for your life. The members of the collectives are therefore always in touch, remaining alert to and looking after the others and taking safety measures in their daily life.
Moreover, it sometimes also helps not to think about the consequences of their actions and focus on the problem, instead. All those interviewed are in agreement that letting themselves be stopped by fear would be a victory for their enemies, and that is why they have to face their fears individually and collectively to be able to continue their struggle.
Fear is not the only problem for these people. Powerlessness, frustration, strain and despair, among others, can also lead to burnout. How can people learn to cope with such emotions? First, by not being alone and by strengthening relationships and bonds between people in the group.
First, by not being alone and by strengthening relationships and bonds between people in the group.
Reciprocal emotions are the glue for these collectives because they overcome helplessness and loneliness. Face-to-face relationships play an important role in maintaining commitment in informal organisations. Moreover, making the meetings more enjoyable, using funny episodes and celebrations, are central to overcoming the burden of the struggle. As one interviewee said, “making ourselves laugh” is a key activity in order to avoid burnout.
As we have also analysed (Poma and Gravante, 2016), the inhabitants of the threatened territories have overcome helplessness and powerlessness, fear and a sense of inevitability thanks to their intense attachment to the territories. For instance, when they are overwhelmed, they go for a walk into the forest or along the river because they feel happy there. Going alone to have a cry out of sadness or powerlessness in the forest or at the riverbank, or to vent your emotions by shouting out angrily, are strategies that people practice in order not to weigh down other members. If they retreat to the forest or the river they are defending it is because there they feel safe, happy, or free to express what they are feeling and be themselves.
The same people sometimes also vent their anger or frustration by working on vegetable gardens, forests or nurseries. Physical work is not only an activity for these collectives, but also an activity for channelling emotions into something else that could harm people and political activity. In addition to physical work, the members of the groups analysed also organise activities and workshops that help overcome exhausting emotions. For instance, the CS music group helps people feel better, less alone, more energetic and hopeful.
In the same way, activities with children in the neighbourhood at weekends and in summer give people hope, because they are spreading their values and sharing them with children, who are the future. Moreover, solidarity among groups is also central to avoid burnout. Recently, CS members have come under a spate of attacks and have been denounced for their resistance by the company that threatens the Nixticuil forest. The local, national and international solidarity that CS received played an important role in dealing with the situation, because they know they are not alone in this fight.
Solidarity and support, as well as making them feel not alone has also strengthened the sense of “us” among the groups that express solidarity.
Solidarity and support, as well as making them feel not alone has also strengthened the sense of “us” among the groups that express solidarity. That stresses the centrality of emotions to understanding not only how to avoid burnout but also the process of identity-building and the commitment to self-organise.
The war against state and capital that people who defend their territories in Mexico are fighting involves people reframing their relationship with the state and authorities.
In fact, groups in high-risk contexts differ from groups that operate in democratic contexts, which are the most studied groups in social movement studies, because, in addition to managing fear and anger, these groups also experience a change in their emotions toward the state and authorities – considered threatening and dangerous – which influences their strategy and organisation. The emotions felt toward their enemies, such as contempt, hatred, anger, etc. are those that Flam (2005) defines as “subversive counter-emotions”, which carry specific implications for collective action repertoires and for the process of identifying with the group.
For instance, at the start, some collectives such as USV and GER took the form of civil organisations (AC) with the hope of gaining visibility and power to defend the territories through dialogue with local institutions. Later, however, USV and GER members told us that the choice to become such a civil society organisation not only did not give them any advantages, but also limited their action and meant that they were used by people who had other interests. CS members felt the same disappointment and frustration when they tried to take the legal route. Once they managed to have the Nixticuil forest recognised as a Protected Natural Area (Área Natural Protegida), which took them a year of work to achieve, they finally realised that it is a mechanism for legalising dispossession.
Repression also influences the emotions felt toward the authorities: although it is often private police forces and criminal groups who carry out the violence, the interviewees identify their targets as the businesspeople and politicians who have economic interests in the territories defended by these groups. This produces feelings of hatred toward the political establishment and all those who work with “the powerful”.
These feelings have led groups to associate themselves with the experiences of the Zapatistas, who through communications entitled “Them and Us” (EZLN, 2013) and reflecting solidarity with Ayotzinapa (2015) , encourage these activists to identify with them based on emotions such as anger and pain, and the mistrust or contempt they share toward “the powerful”.
To conclude, self-organisation is the result of the experiences and emotions of the people involved, and it is a process because, as they themselves claim: “the actions we carry out, in themselves, are not as important as the process, even though the process involves carrying them out (...). Anticapitalism and autonomy do not lie in what is done but rather in the way we do what we do”.
The experiences of these three Mexican collectives show that emotions play an important role in avoiding burnout and providing the energy to fight, to keep developing environmental and social projects, and to participate in other struggles or continue demanding justice. Emotions can mobilise people but they need to be managed in order for them not to lead to burnout. For instance, facing up to the fear of repression, powerlessness, loneliness, and hopelessness is the only way for people not to give up, and to keep fighting and building new projects despite the repression.
Environmental grassroots resistances are important not only because they can prevent the environment from being destroyed, but also because they are autonomous empowering experiences in a context where defending the territory is part of a war against the neoliberal system that threatens life on the planet.
In this context, autonomy means that people have to find their own way to resist destruction and keep living in the territory. Self-organisation is one way to do that. As we have seen in this article, autonomy is a process that results from people’s experiences and the emotions they have felt. Collective identity and strategies are not only the result of cognitive processes, but also depend on the emotional dimension of the struggle experience. The desire for autonomy is driven by emotions toward their enemies – businesspeople, politicians and their agents – such as lack of trust, contempt and even hatred, together with emotions shared among members and with other compas, such as fear, anger and pain. Taken together, this is what has led the members of these collectives to start a process that they hope will “invent and create strategies that allow them not only to resist but also to start breaking away and opening up small spaces of freedom in the midst of an utterly asymmetrical war that has broken out against the state and against capital”.
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Poma, A. & Gravante, T. (2016), Environmental self-organized activism: emotion, organization and collective identity in Mexico. International Journal of Sociology and Social Policy, Special issue “Activism With(out) Organisation” 36(9/10), pp. 647-661.
Poma, A. & Gravante, T. (2015). Resistencias y autogestión en contra del despojo del agua y del territorio en la Zona Metropolitana de Guadalajara: logros y retos. WATERLAT-GOBACIT Network Working Papers 2(18), WATERLAT-GOBACIT, Newcastle upon Tyne, UK.
 The Guadalajara Metropolitan Area (ZMG) in northwestern Mexico is the main economic center of this region. The industrialisation of the ZMG has considerably increased in the last three decades. It causes major environmental damage and has led to various mobilisations of the local population to defend their territory. They focus notably on the contamination and destruction of green spaces and forests to build new urban developments and road infrastructure.
 The disappearance of 43 students and the assassination of 6 people on September 26, 2014, in the state of Guerrero (Mexico).
About the authors
Alice Poma is a researcher at the Laboratory for Analysis of Organizations and Social Movements (LAOMS) at CEIICH-UNAM, Mexico.
Tommaso Gravante is also a researcher at the Laboratory for Analysis of Organizations and Social Movements.
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